Contemplation & Social Action: Perfecting Posture

During President Obama's farewell speech last night, he talked about each of us needing to look inside ourselves. To be willing to acknowledge our own internal racism, misogyny and other biases. To be willing to walk in the “other” persons shoes. This is something that I have been deeply contemplating throughout the past year.

I went on a one week personal retreat at the end of 2016. With plans to spend all of my time practicing without my normal coping mechanisms (phone, computer, books, music) I arrived with only a couple of spiritual texts. My teacher Victoria Austin had recommended that I simply sit and be during the retreat. To follow the old Zen advice of “When you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep.” Excellent advice which I was able to settle into eventually....

But, the first couple of days, I was desperate to turn my mind to something other than myself and found a pile of old newsletters from an organization called the Buddhist Peace Fellowship from the 1990s. The question that these brave practioners were asking themselves was, “how to we merge contemplative practices with social action?” They looked (and are still looking!) at issues of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation but this exploration always began with themselves.

Social action is locating an edge on which I can work, which nudges me out of my particular slot and puts me into a closer connection with the suffering of the world.” -Maylie Scott

One of the ideas that came out through all of the articles I read was deeply looking at your own internal biases. You may think of yourself and being progressive, compassionate and accomodating but when you really look, you may be surprised to see that underneath, hidden the recesses that you still harbor discriminative attitudes.

One of the things I have been considering through the past year is that I may be called upon to use my “white privilege” to stand up for others in the near future. However, when I consider myself “white” that means that I still believe there is a “black” and that we are separate. When I consider myself “privileged” meaning I have money, power, status in life, that means that I see others without financial resources, power or opportunity as other. When I consider myself a normative heterosexual, that means that I still consider those with different sexual orientations to be other. When I consider myself a “woman” that means that I still consider myself separate from men and may even identify myself still as being oppressed and denied equal opportunity.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there are only three sutras on asana, the practice of yoga that my practice is mostly focused on, through the genius of Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar's teachings.

II. 46 Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit

II. 47 Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached

II. 48 From then on, the sadhaka (spiritual aspirant) is undisturbed by dualities

“When body, mind and soul unite in a perfect posture, the sadhaka is in a state of beatitude. In that exalted position, the mind, which is at the root of dualistic perception, loses its identity and ceases to disturb him. Unity is achieved between body and mind and mind and soul. There is no longer joy or sorrow, heat or cold, honor or dishonor, pain or pleasure. This is perfection in action and freedome in consciousness.” -B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

When our posture is perfected, then our perception of the world changes. Then, there is no “other”.

How then do we perfect our posture, our approach, our attitude, our behavior?

“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.

Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.

Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.

Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.

'He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me'

- those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.

'He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me'

-those who do not dwell on such thoughts will surely become free from hatred.

For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can.

This is an unalterable law.” -The Buddha, Dhammapada

Our body shapes our mind; our mind shapes our life. We can alter our life, our mind, our trajectory by perfecting the posture we take. I won't pretend to understand fully what this means, to perfect posture, but I will continue to hold the question, to contemplate and to be in the world, with faith, energy, mindfulness, absorption and wisdom.

My teacher Manouso just turned 65 this week. One of the stories he told was of his Guru, B.K.S. Iyengar. He said, he had a private conversation with Iyengar about his mortality before he died and that Iyengar said he had absolutely no reservations about dying because, "he had given much more to the world then he had taken." Manouso said, that this is his intention for the rest of his life; to leave knowing that he has given everything he has to the world. I too would like to make this intention for 2017 and beyond....