The simple and the obscure, and yoga's ethics

Messiness: #classnotes I scribble.  I scribble on the backs of envelopes and have half a dozen notebooks going at all times.  In a pinch, I will scribble on my own skin, a habit that my mother abhorred and punished when I was a kid but that still, to me, speaks of the innate artistic urge of the human body and the relatedness between flesh and literature...

But that’s not what I mean to write, right now.  I wanted to tell you of the ridiculousness of my to-do lists.

But first I should say that writing – like art, or gardening, or prayer – is a mysterious alchemy and archeology of the soul.  It is more than conscious, I mean: it slips in bits of dream and memory and complete novelty that aren’t really part of conscious thinking.  They come from somewhere else.  Writing – or any of those other arts – helps me because it allows me to discover what it is I am thinking and feeling.  It reveals me.

Today, my to-do list read:

Give poetry and healing to the world.

Make the bed.

It occurred to me, after I laughed, that most of my writing is like this.  The impossibly large and universal paired with the hopelessly mundane, private, and functional.

And then I laughed more because I realized this was exactly what I need to talk about in my yoga class, as I try to explain the concept of an ethical life.

The yamas are a vision of the possibilities of human existence.  But they are also guideposts for skillful moment to moment choices in our daily lives.

We all want to live well, to be happy.  Yet many of us are not.  We doubt ourselves.  We blame circumstances.  We numb out with television or junk food or a good enough existence.  Some of us purchase endless self help books and may or may not read them.  Some of us try pills or booze or seek our answers in a new relationship, a new church, a new city.

Yoga answers this in uncanny ways.

At the end of the day, says yoga, it’s not how much you have or how much you’ve accomplished that counts.  What matters is how we you have participated in your own life.  The practices are an antidote to misery and garden variety unhappiness.  It is less a leap of faith than a leap into life.

Yes, life is hard.  This being human is a complicated thing.  We live with myriad conflicts both internal and external.  As human beings among other life forms, we need to navigate our needs and desires with those of the community.  We struggle to understand what the ‘self’ is and is not, where our ‘truth’ is, and often hurt when that self is wearisome, judged, or lost.

In the midst of confusion, conflict, and pain, the yamas and niyamas are like helping hands that guide us into a more meaningful life, into the depths of the possible.  They do this by teaching us to live with more skill, and more awareness.

This sounds easy, and on the level of flossing it is.  On the level of ending world pain, or even my own pain, it is not.  How do we gain mastery over our choices and thoughts when life pummels us with its ups and downs, its unending demands, its many and conflicted voices telling us what we need and what is wrong with us?  How, when we find ourselves continuing to do what we promised ourselves we would never do again?  How when we just screamed at our child and now feel lousy?  How, when the least bit of indifference or criticism from a person makes us wither and cringe?  How exactly do we gain skill when we feel stuck in a dead end job that is sucking us dry?  How do we gain awareness when we just devoured the chocolate ice cream?

The yamas and niyamas will teach us, if we let them.

They result in presence, power, and joy.  Not the joy that comes when things are going our way, before they change again and our joy is snagged out from under us, but the joy that bubbles up from deep, deep within.  The kind of joy that comes from our own sense of mastery in life no matter what life happens to be, moment by moment.  There is nothing to figure out ahead of time…only a life to life well…or not.

The yamas and niyamas confront us with the question: which are you choosing?  How are you moving, thinking, being, right now?

For this week, a simple invitation.  Journal, or meditate (or discuss.  Or all three!) on the following:

Practice courage this week by doing one thing you wouldn’t normally do.  Daily, if you can.  Maybe it’s one thing, all week long.  Or different things each day.  Simply practice.  If you are feeling brave, make that one thing something that scares you.  If you are ridiculously courageous, get excited about the fact you are scared and are doing it anyway.  See if you can discern between fear and the unfamiliar.  Watch what happens to your sense of self, your relationships with others, because you burst forth boldly and claim your life.

Ultimately we have just one moral duty:

To reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves,

More and more peace,

And to reflect it towards others.

And the more peace there is in us,

The more peace there will also be in our troubled world. – Etty Hillesum