Monday, May 30, 2011

A few thoughts about the practice and Memorial Day

'Life is a struggle with ourselves; it is a tug-of-war between moving forward and slipping backward, between happiness and misery. We are changing constantly, but the real issue is whether we change for the better or the worse, whether or not we succeed in enlarging our narrow, self-centered focus to take a broader view...

True individuality and character never come to full flower without hard work. I feel it is a mistake to think that who you are right now represents all you are capable of. If you passively decide, "I'm a quiet person, so I'll just go through life being quiet," you won't ever fully realize your unique potential. Without having to change your character completely, you can become a person who, while still basically quiet, will say the right thing at the right time with real conviction. In the same way, a negative tendency toward impatience could be developed into a useful knack for getting things done quickly and efficiently.

But nothing is more immediate, or more difficult, than to confront and transform ourselves. It is always tempting to decide "That's just the kind of person I am." Unless we challenge this tendency early in life, it will become stronger with age. But the effort is worthwhile in the end, as I believe that nothing produces deeper satisfaction than successfully challenging our own weaknesses. As the Russian author Tolstoy wrote, "Supreme happiness is to find that you are a better person at the end of the year than you were at the beginning."'

Daisaku Ikeda, Human Revolution

At 5 a.m. this morning, there was a great tug of war between the sleepy part of my self, who wanted to stay in bed, and the practice-oriented part of my self; I'm happy to say that after a brief struggle, the practice-oriented part somehow got the upper hand, and I got up to practice. This happened even though we (my fiancee and I) went to my friend D's place last night, had a big dinner of black bean burgers, and stayed up way past my bedtime.

It's always a bit of a struggle to keep up the practice during holidays weekends. I suppose I could have been a hard-ass last night about insisting that I needed to go home early to go to bed so that I can get up to do my practice in the morning, but I decided that that would make me a bit of a wet blanket; moreover, D's wife is in India visiting her parents, and I sensed that he really appreciated us spending time with him, so I decided to take a bit of suffering myself, and just make do with a bit less sleep.

Since I started doing yoga, I can't help noticing something. It seems that in this country, many people's lives are so tied up with their jobs that work is the only reason they have for getting up early in the morning. I get the sense that they seem to have a hard time understanding why anybody would be so sado-masochistic as to wake up super-early to do something called "the practice" when they can easily sleep in. Maybe I am sado-masochistic in this way, but I would rather lose an hour or two of sleep in order to get up early to do the practice (there are limits to this, of course). I don't know why, but when I wake up later, I always feel that some vital rhythm is lost; whereas if I get up early to practice, even if I lack an hour or two of sleep, I always feel that the energy that the practice gives me more than makes up for it.

So despite going to bed very late last night, I still got up early to practice. I did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana. It was a good practice, not least because I could literally feel the practice detoxing my body. Whenever I eat too much the night before, my practice the following morning tends to be very gassy. So it was this morning. In many postures, especially deep twists like Mari C and D, and Pasasana, there were a lot of spontaneous gas emissions, a.k.a. farting. It would have been very embarrassing if this had happened in a shala, but fortunately, I practice by myself :-) Is all this TMI? If it is, try to pretend you never read this paragraph. My apologies: I should have warned you beforehand.

Since today is Memorial Day, I feel the need to indulge here in some, ahem, moralizing. For me, I feel that the practice reiterates one basic truth: The most profound and meaningful war worth fighting-- and, in my opinion, the only war worth fighting--is the war with our own negativity. And I think those of us who commit ourselves to the practice everyday are fighting this war on a daily basis. The war between slough and sleepiness on the one hand, and commitment, on the other; between sheer force of habit, on the one hand, and a dedicated practice that leads to ever-deepening thought and action, on the other. I really feel that the world can really become a better place if more individuals can engage in some kind of practice (it doesn't have to be this practice) that fosters and encourages introspection; a practice that allows one to see that confronting and overcoming one's inner demons is a task more arduous than vanquishing any external enemy. I can't help feeling that unless this happens, no amount of celebrating Memorial Days would get humanity anywhere.

Before I sign off, I'll leave you with a couple more things. James has written a very thoughtful and penetrating post about war and Memorial Day. Whatever your political persuasions may be, I think his post is definitely worth a read. At the risk of sounding even more preachy than I already am, I'll also leave you with this poem from Wilfred Owen:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


  1. Thanks for posting that Wilfred Owen poem Nobel - hadn't read any of his for so long, and his is such a true voice on the subject of war ...

  2. Yes, susiegb. And "All Quiet on the Western Front" as well.