Our upcoming retreat in Glastonbury will carry the theme of Impermanence. I chose this theme because, whether you dread the progression towards Winter or rejoice in it, we all approach the colder months with a very different feeling from the onset of Spring and Summer. This feels like a good time to look at how our practice can influence our ability to flow with the changes and to surrender to what is. If we can understand and experience what it is to be present, we can perceive that there is beauty in every moment of the cycle of life. When we can see the beauty, we can stop resisting the inevitable. In this acceptance of the inevitable lies the cessation of suffering.
Pooh and Piglet discuss Metaphysics
Last night I was watching a talk on DVD by Ekhart Tolle at Findhorn in Scotland. Tolle is a brilliant speaker and beautifully embodies what it is to be fully present and responsive to what is happening now. When he speaks, you can see all his thoughts and emotions flit across his face clearly as he expresses his impressions of the human condition. His authenticity as a speaker makes him hilariously funny as well as hugely insightful.
In his talk, he asks the audience to imagine the room that they are sitting in, as if it had been videoed for three thousand years (not long, he points out). Then to imagine what it would be like to speed this video up and watch three thousand years in a minute. We would see the room quickly crumble and turn to dust, eventually disappearing completely. When telling people of this powerful example of impermanence I have had different reactions from people – some think it’s a terribly depressing and morbid vision, others find it inspiring and awesome. I’d love to hear how this thought experiment makes you feel, so your comments are very welcome.
In yogic thought, the yogi recognises that all form is subject to change, and that all experience of that change can only be perceived through the senses. The room around you is slowly crumbling (!), your taste buds tell you in the evening that a curry would taste delicious but in the morning the same sense organs balk at the thought of a veg dansak – so where, the yogi asks, is the reality that we can all trust? Is there anything that is not subject to change?
The answer is yes – the formless.
So where is the formless?
For a moment just imagine a world without a deluge of information pouring from every screen, speaker, billboard and person. Nice and quiet isn’t it? Imagine even that there are no words – look around you and consciously remove the names from the familiar objects around you, including yourself. Become aware of the nature of these objects without their names. Do you still think you know the objects?
Now ask yourself the question: Who is becoming aware? Spend some time considering this.
Think of yourself as a child – are you the same person now as you were then? You are very much different now. Your body cells have replenished themselves several times over so there is nothing left physically of the original you. Your thinking has no doubt gone through several revolutionary changes. You have been through some happy times and you wished they would never end, you have been through some unhappy times and you wished they would end, and they did. So almost everything has changed – but there is something that connects you to that person who was once a child. Your own awareness which you recognise as you – something has stayed just the same.
Who is becoming aware? Your awareness is becoming aware of itself. This is the formless – we can also call it the spirit. It’s not the mind because the mind is always changing and reforming, and it’s not the body for the same reasons.
Hatha yogis strive to unite the opposing energies in the body – the Ha and the Tha (sun and moon) forces which keep us in the world of duality and change. Without practice and discipline the Ha and Tha constantly shift, with one of them always dominating over the other. Nadi Shodana, or alternate nostril breathing is a form of Swara Yoga, and is said to balance the Ida and Pingala nadis (moon and sun energy channels) to bring about an even air flow through both nostrils. When the air flows evenly in both nostrils, then Shushumna nadi (the central energy channel which runs from the root to the crown) is activated and we are able to experience perfect balance, bliss, oneness – pure awareness.
We do not do these practices to escape from the inexorable progression of time. We do them so that we can appreciate these changes with joy, knowing that neither our nature nor our happiness lie in the things we accumulate, the memories we have and the amount of information we hold in our poor overloaded brains. Knowing that we have just this very moment right now as we are, and that this moment is exactly as it is supposed to be, frees us from the burden of time and its threats and promises.
Ekhart Tolle points out that this is a very narrow window into reality. It’s only now – never in the past or in the future. So, don’t be surprised if you miss it more often than not. Try to sneak through there as often as possible though and take a good look around, and enjoy all the time you suddenly have.
I will leave you with a touching story I came across in the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” by Mitch Albom – an uplifting story about how to live, and die, skilfully:
There was a little wave, bobbing around in the ocean and enjoying the breeze, having a wonderful time. He looks ahead of him and sees with horror that the waves in front of him have crashed into the shore.
“This is terrible!”, the wave says. “Look what’s going to happen to me!”
Along comes another wave and sees the little wave looking grim. “Why do you look so sad?”, he asks.
The first wave says – you don’t understand – look what’s going to happen to us, we’re all going to crash and become nothing! Isn’t it terrible?”
The second wave smiles and says, “No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.”