Bhagavad Gita: 13-18

The depiction of Krishna in this last section of the Gita, indeed in the entire work, is mesmerizing, powerful, beautiful, terrible, dangerous, and compassionate. When Arjuna sees the form of his immortal Self, he cries out: “The multitudes of gods, demigods, and demons are all overwhelmed by the sight of you. O mighty Lord, at the sight of your myriad eyes and mouths, arms and legs, stomachs and fearful teeth, I and the entire universe shake in terror. O Vishnu, I can see your eyes shining, with open mouth, you glitter in an array of colors, and your body touches the sky. I look at you and my heart trembles; I have lost all courage and all peace of mind.” (11:22-24)

Many of these descriptions reminded me of the way that I think of God; the Wise One, the Beautiful One, the Terrible One. Reading Arjuna’s reaction to beholding Vishnu in all of his glory reminds me of the Old Testament stories when man could not look at the full glory of God without perishing. He encompasses all experience, all knowledge, all power, and all love. One aspect of Krishna’s divinity particularly struck a cord with me; and that was his universal connection and embodiment of every living thing. He tells Arjuna: “They alone see truly who see the Lord the same in every creature, who see the deathless in the hearts of all that die. Seeing the same Lord everywhere, they do not harm themselves or others. Thus they attain the supreme goal.” (13: 27-28) On those personality StrengthsFinder surveys we had to take our freshman year, one of my five strengths was Connectedness. What Krishna describes as the spark of his divine Self in every living thing, I have imagined to be similar to the Image of God in Christian theology. As a Christian, I don’t believe that human beings are divine, but I do believe that our souls bear the unmistakable imprint of the Divine Creator. God has marked us as his own, and as the Gita tells us, this common ground of divine creation gives no one the right to denegrate or harm others, but rather calls us to respect and love one another in recognition of divine creaturehood.

 

Shaking Hands With My Feet

I’ve stolen the title of this post from Matthew Sanford’s memoir Waking, and although his experience with “shaking hands with his feet” is a little different than mine, I feel like it fits the experience I’ve had in my yoga practice the past week.

When I first started practicing yoga, one of my primary goals was to become more flexible, particularly in my hamstrings. Historically, I have had very tight hamstrings and struggled to even brush my toes with the tips of my fingers. When I was in high school I started getting excruciating spasms in my back. When I went to a chiropractor, he told me that my hamstrings were so tight that they were pulling my pelvis out of alignment and straining my lower back muscles, causing the spasms. As a student, I spend most of my time sitting in desks, which doesn’t stretch the hamstrings at all and made it more difficult to develop flexibility where I so desperately needed it.

Yet, although I started with this goal of hamstring flexibility in my mind, as I practiced throughout the semester I began to move away from striving for the results (flexibility) and started finding contentment in the poses and the practice itself. After at least three different yoga classes before this, I began to realize a connection with my body free of results that was very powerful and enjoyable. After a while I didn’t even think about measuring how much I had improved or how much closer to my goal I was getting. I took delight in the journey.

And then one day I reached down and put my whole hand on the sole of my foot without bending my leg. The exhilaration and surprise I felt was so much more meaningful to me because I had reached my goal through joyful work rather than frustrating tedium. I “shook hands with my feet” and greeted them as friends. It’s a strange way to learn the lesson of “A watched pot never boils,” but I’m glad my yoga practice has given me this wonderful lesson and experience.

Bhagavad Gita 7-12

In this section Krishna describes three paths of yoga: wisdom; realization, and loving devotion. While all of them were powerfully and poignantly described, the path that stood out the most to me was that of loving devotion.

The path of loving devotion, or “the way of love,” as the Gita describes it,  embodies everything Krishna describes as the path to a full and meaningful life. Love is the ultimate selfless act; it’s focus is entirely and utterly focused on its beloved. It does not care about its’ own gain, and while it is full of passion, joy, pain, and vitality, it remains immovable and unaffected by the tumultuous fluctuations of life. But what resonated the strongest with me was the fact that this path is accessible to everyone. It does not require intelligence, physical strength, wealth, or power. All it requires is steadfast devotion. Kings and beggars alike can travel this path, and they would be equally enriched by the endeavor.

The Gita is a beautiful, captivating story. I have never been as drawn to a book from a BIC class as I have to this one, which is saying a lot, since I have read many powerful and moving books during my time in the BIC. It resonates with me on so many levels, and has been an absolute delight to read.

The Legend of Bagger Vance

I am so glad that we got to watch The Legend of Bagger Vance in class for a couple days, and not just because Matt Damon is my celebrity crush (although that didn’t hurt). My dad was a golf pro for 25 years, and although neither my sister nor I have ever gotten into the game, I felt like I got a glimpse of the joy and contentment he finds in the game through watching this movie. I’d like to watch it with him when I go home.

The translation of the messages of Eastern philosophy and the Gita specifically, gave the movie and the philosophy a richness and an accessibility that was truly enjoyable. What I loved seeing was the joy that came as a result of Junah rediscovering his game and focusing on what truly mattered. I think as a Westerner my initial reaction to the term “detachment” conjures an image of an emotionless automaton, an empty shell of a human being. But what this movie revealed is that detachment from the fruits of work is actually a liberation which allows the spirit to find even greater joy in the work itself. Junah found a greater joy in playing the game than he would have ever found in winning it, and I think if more people understood and ingested that message then people might find more peace.

Bhagavad Gita: Ch. 1-6

I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed reading the Gita. Arjuna’s dilemna (although the word dilemna seems too light a word to describe the anguish of his inner turmoil) strikes me as so human and honest that it made the story come to life for me.

As Arjuna is going to war against members of his own family and friends, he despairs. He cannot understand the good of slaughtering those that he loves and cares about, and wonders if the kingdom he seeks to rightfully regain is worth the loss of so much life, and if his cause justifies killing his kinsmen. Krishna’s response to his dilemna was intriguing. He tells Arjuna that there is no difference between life and death, saying “Death is inevitable for the living; birth is inevitable for the dead.” (2:27) The dilemna, Krishna tells him, lies not in the death of his kinsmen but in the fulfillment of his dharma.

In my own life I have not experienced anything as extreme as Arjuna’s dilemna, but I have experienced the dilemna between doing what is right but is also painful and doing what makes me comfortable but is not right. I have always been a people pleaser and a peacemaker, and when the need for confrontation arises I dread it with every fiber of my being. I’m afraid I have failed to do what is necessary in favor of avoiding pain, and as a result I have allowed people to take advantage of me and ultimately diminished a little bit of my identity. These are difficult things to realize about myself, but I hope that in the future I can face this dilemna with a greater knowledge of myself, and with the strength to do what is right even if it is painful. As Krishna says to Arjuna, “Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.” (2:40b) I hope this can be true for me.

 

Memoir 2.3

The final section of Sanford’s Waking, was probably the most heart-wrenching to read. I expected him to discover healing through the practice of yoga (albeit with some major set-backs like a broken femur bone; I still don’t understand how that happened.) and for him to rediscover a connection between his mind and body, but I did not expect the experience he had with his sons. I guess part of me was like the doctors at the beginning of the novel. I wanted him to succeed, to overcome adversity, and to have a happily ever after ending. But the entire message of his story goes in a different direction, and as a result the way he was able to cope with such a tragic loss is admirable to me.

Before diving into that section though, I’d like to comment about something I found particularly interesting. In this part of the novel he experienced body memories of the accident and the trauma he lived through. I’ve never thought of my body as having memory, even though everyone experiences them in greater or lesser degrees. My body has remembered the strenuous activity of a cross country race or a particularly intense yoga session; and people in car accidents experience whiplash for years after the accident. It points to the complexity of the connection between the mind and the body; memory is multi-dimensional and records not only our thoughts and sights, but our smells and the aches and movements of our body. When I took piano and could play a song without looking at my fingers, my instructors told me it was because of “muscle memory.” There is a consciousness in our bodies that is every bit as active as our minds, and it is good to be reminded of that so we can treat our bodies with care.

The gut-wrenching part of the third part of Sanford’s memoir is not his discovery of yoga or his broken femur bone, but rather the births of his son’s William and Paul. I must admit, I felt as if I had been thrown a curve-ball when I read that William was first disabled. When he died in utero only a month before birth, I actually cried. I cannot even begin to imagine what I would do if I was carrying twins and had one of them die so late in the pregnancy. Of all of the traumas he experienced, this was most certainly the most devastating, because it is a trauma of the heart. What should have been a happily ever after became an ending mixed with sadness as much as happiness.

Sanford’s insights about this experience are staggeringly moving. This passage is particularly powerful: “We are living, loving creatures, traveling through both life and death. Our drive for light permeates even the dark. In this moment, I have never been so in love with life…and so unafraid of dying. Life and death are not opposites. They are partners in the same belly.” (238) It is an interesting quality of human nature to fear and vilify the unknown. Death, silence, and darkness are all things what human being struggle to make sense of, but they are also an integral part of our existence. Tragedy and joy, life and death, silence and sound, darkness and light; all are halves of a whole, and are intimately woven together in our lives. Recognizing this truth allows us to let go of our fear of the unknown and embrace life.

The is a powerful memoir, beautifully written, surprisingly relatable, and stunningly insightful. I really enjoyed reading this book, and learned many valuable lessons that I hope with help guide me from now on.

Memoir 2.2

The second part of Sandford’s Waking, which he calls “Initiation,” focuses on his transition from the hospital to rehab, and then from rehab to his life afterwards before he encounters yoga. This section is marked by a series of negative healing stories and difficult times that come in a myriad of different forms; physical, mental, emotional, and relational. Each situation, however, provides a nugget of insight that ultimately leads to his discovery of yoga and the possibility of a mind-body connection. The journey is a difficult one, however, full of pain, death, and silence that leave the heart aching.

Reading this section made me think of one of the major teachings of yoga and of Hinduism: detachment. Sanford’s experience in this book is an exaggerated illustration of the different forms of detachment one can experience, both for good and bad. His mind escapes from his body in order to insulate him from unendurable pain. His mind is literally detached from his lower body by a severed spinal cord. And most importantly, his doctors tell him that his injury prohibits any connection with his lower half and tell him that to succeed and overcome he must completely detach from his lower body and go “into his arms,” in order to live a relatively normal life.

The distinction between the doctor’s healing story of detachment and yogic detachment is multi-faceted, and springs from a difference in basic assumptions about the body, mind, and holistic person. In the medical profession, and indeed in much of Western philosophy and worldview, the body and mind are distinctly separated; at times even at war with each other. In the West many times we strive to overcome the flesh and limits of our bodies, and we praise and admire people who have overcome these kinds of limitations. In yoga, however, the mind, body and spirit are all interconnected. None of them are good or bad, but they all have the capacity to negatively or positively impact the other. From the yogic perspective then, detachment between the body and the mind is not a good thing, it is going against the true nature of our being. Yogic detachment is not one of detachment from the mind and body therefore, so much as a detachment from results. The doctor’s discouraged Sanford from believing or acknowledging his phantom feelings because they were afraid he would get unrealistic expectations about the results; the possibility of walking again. Sanford begins to discover that healing is possible aside from physical results. A powerful example of this is when he uses his neck and back muscles to twitch his foot:

“Was it healing when I was moving my foot even though I was “cheating’? Yes, yes, yes. Was it a beginning step in my process of mind-body reintegration? Yes, yes, yes. Anything I do to reconnect my presence to my paralyzed body is a form of healing. So what if I used my back and neck muscles to move my foot? I was making a connection to my body below the point of my injury. … This marked the beginning of perhaps my most important realization–that there is healing other than healing to walk again. … I mean that healing is still possible for my mind-body relationship, and it doesn’t mean that I will walk again.” (107-108)

The results are not what is important in the long run, it is the connection. This realization can vastly influence our yoga practice. When I first started doing yoga, I was doing it for a specific result: to become more flexible. But as I have continued to practice, that yearning for a result started to fade to the background as I realized that yoga was as much about understanding and connecting with my body as much as physical fitness. I experienced a paradigm shift similar to Sandford’s, granted on a much smaller scale. But the enhanced connection and understanding of my body has become infinitely more valuable to me than the flexibility I strove for. I am as flexible as I ever hoped to be going into yoga, but now I understand that detachment from results that lets me appreciate my progress without the primary goal of my practice. This is a valuable lesson, and Sanford expresses it with an eloquence and honesty that does justice to it’s importance.

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