Thursday, March 17, 2011

Practice, nuclear plants, and being an asshole

I sense that there is a lot of tension and anxiety in the blogosphere over what is going on with the nuclear plants in Japan. I know nothing about nuclear plants, nor am I in a good position to adjudicate between the different opinions of different experts about the real extent of the present danger.

And I suspect that many of us are in a similar position. We care, but we don't have a way of getting involved in the whole thing from a distance without adding to the maelstrom of anxiety, fear, panic and negativity.

So what is one to do? I am reminded of something that David Williams said a couple of years ago at a workshop in Florida. Somebody asked him what the purpose of the practice is. He said (I'm paraphrasing), "Everyday, you do your practice. After savasana, you get up from your mat and feel really good about yourself. The goal is to hold on to this feeling of goodness for as long as you can before you revert to being an asshole. Maybe today, you can only keep this feeling for 10 minutes. Maybe tomorrow, you do slightly better, and you keep the feeling for 11 minutes. Or maybe you do worse. But the idea is to keep trying."

What has this to do with the nuclear plant problems? Nothing much, and yet everything at the same time. Nuclear plants are created by human beings. Which means that the nuclear plant problems are also man-made problems. I'm speculating, but it is entirely possible that the "asshole nature" of human beings has something to do with the engineering or environmental issues that led to the present problem.

So in a sense, the problem with the nuclear plants is simply a larger-scale version of something that we're all familiar with: The asshole nature of human beings (including that of yours truly) leading to problems in relationships among human beings and with the environment. There probably isn't that much most of us can do directly about the nuclear problem, unless you happen to be a nuclear physicist or engineer. Or unless you possess the siddhi of being able to fly and lift radioactive things that are thousands of times your own body weight without suffering radiation damage, in which case you should fly to Japan right now, lift the offending reactors from the ground, fly them to the sun and then dump them there; in which case, come to think of it, you are also going to need the siddhi of being able to survive in a vacuum and being able to withstand millions of degrees of heat and radiation... hmm... how many lifetimes of yoga practice is this going to take?

But I digress. I guess what I'm trying to say is, there's not much we can do directly about this big nuclear problem; so we probably will do better to focus on the "small nuclear problems" that are around us (Am I doing my best and creating value in what I am doing in my own life and in my relationships with others around me? Or am I being an asshole? If I am, what can I do to stop being such an asshole?)

Hmm... I've gotten into sermonizing mode again, without realizing it. Well, I'll leave you with the Ashtanga closing chant. It's a lot shorter than the opening invocation, but I think it's really meaningful; it's especially meaningful that we chant it at the close of our practice. To me, it  is a reminder that in a sense, the real practice begins when we get off the mat, and we should try to use as much as possible of what we've learnt on the mat, and apply it to our off-mat lives:

May all be well with mankind.
May leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path.
May there be goodness for those who know the earth to be sacred.
May people everywhere be happy.


  1. Very nice sermon. It helped me. I'm glad we close like this after our daily practice. It can't hurt.

  2. Nobel, you are not, none of us are, we are all human, we feel compassion.... oops maybe I am now going into sermonizing...

    We all want Japan to be well, and I like that you included the closing chant there, good call :-)

  3. Thanks, s.f., I really love the closing chant too. It's really short and sweet.

    Thanks, Claudia. Yes, I'll think of Japan tomorrow morning when I do my closing chant :-)

  4. Great post, but I'm not sure that human nature = asshole nature. I like to think that happens with conditioning. Regardless, I loved the David Williams quote. So true!

  5. Hello Megan, thanks for your insightful point. I should have made this clearer, but I don't think that human nature = asshole nature either. And I also don't think that this is what David Williams has in mind. My personal view is that being the kind of beings that we are, we have the potential to both be really wonderful people and be assholes. Our yoga practice can be seen as a form of training that allows us to bring out our better natures rather than our asshole natures.

    As Aristotle says, "moral virtue comes about as a result of habit... [n]either by nature, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.”

    This being the case, he continues, "states of character arise out of like activities. This is why the activities we exhibit must be of a certain kind; it is because the states of character correspond to the differences between these. It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another... it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference."

    Thanks for giving me an excuse to quote Aristotle :-) And I apologize for being didactic. But seriously, I think Aristotle's on to something: We can see our yoga practice as a continual process of forming habits that are conducive to (rather than detract from) living well with our fellow beings in this world.

  6. I certainly feel like an asshole most of the time, and not every yoga practice makes me feel good either. I've been to yoga classes where I wish I could get my 90 minutes back. But I think a good yoga practice does provide us with temporary relief so we can better deal with all the negativities in life.

  7. Hello Yyogini, "I've been to yoga classes where I wish I could get my 90 minutes back." Well, fortunately for me, I've yet to be in such a class (although I have been in classes where certain students or the teacher do or say things that really bring out my asshole nature). But yes, I definitely agree with you that a good yoga practice gives us the tools we need to better deal with the negativities that we encounter in life.

  8. Well, I can certainly relate. I have been fighting my asshole nature ( which I agree is not our true nature at all ) a lot recently. Kristen

  9. Yes, Kristen, the fight against the asshole nature is ongoing for most of us (and no, it's not our true nature :-)). May the Force be with us in this endeavor.