Dedicated to my all my Teachers, Family and Friends…most especially Jean L., Val S. and Stephanie C.
Earlier this month, while sitting at a desk, overlooking a frigid Columbus Circle in New York City, I couldn’t help but think about the life thresholds I’ve recently crossed. Years ago, I had a faint dream that I could teach yoga, a practice I admired, respected and loved with all my heart. I dreamt of a deeper connection to the spiritual practice and the daily practice of each of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. I suppose I dreamt of this because I saw so little of the practice actually taking place in daily life around me. Sure, I attended yoga classes and while most students scrambled to show off their best backbend or impress with the strongest and straightest handstand, my deepest wish was to know how to actually practice yoga in every move and breath taken in my daily living. I had often hoped to learn more but throughout my almost 17 years of practice, no class satisfied my appetite enough to appease my curiosity. At one point, I thought the best way to learn would be to actually learn to teach yoga – perhaps all those teachers out there teaching extraneous poses knewthe deep secrets and the only way to learn them was to actually go through the trainings. I remember asking a teacher of mine once, her opinion on whether this would be wise, and her words were less than encouraging. So I gave up on the notion, and therefore never crossed that threshold.
As I sat observing, I realized, within the grip of winter, it is almost impossible to imagine the spring. The gray perished landscape is shorn of color. Only bleakness meets the eye; everything seems severe and edged. Winter is the oldest season; it has some quality of the absolute. Yet beneath the surface of winter, the miracle of spring is already in preparation; the cold is relenting; seeds are wakening up. Colors are beginning to imagine how they will return. Then, imperceptibly, somewhere one bud opens and the symphony of renewal is no longer reversible. From the black heart of winter a miraculous, breathing plenitude of color emerges.
The beauty of nature insists on taking its time. Everything is prepared. Nothing is rushed. The rhythm of emergence is a gradual slow beat always inching its way forward; change remains faithful to itself until the new unfolds in the full confidence of true arrival. Because nothing is abrupt, the beginning of spring nearly always catches us unaware. It is there before we see it; and then we can look nowhere without seeing it.
Change arrives in nature when time has ripened. There are no jagged transitions or crude discontinuities. This accounts for the sureness with which one season succeeds another. It is as though they were moving forward in a rhythm set from within a continuum.
To change is one of the great dreams of every heart….it was a dream for me….to change the limitations, the sameness, the banality, or the pain. So often we look back on patterns of behavior, the kind of decisions we make repeatedly and that have failed to serve us well, and we aim for a new and more successful path or way of living. But change is difficult for us. So often we opt to continue the old pattern, rather than risking the danger of difference. (Or in my case, I opted to listen to the words of someone who did not have my best interest at heart.) We are also often surprised by change that seems to arrive out of nowhere. We find ourselves crossing some new threshold we had never anticipated. Like spring secretly at work within the heart of winter, below the surface of our lives huge changes are in fermentation. We never suspect a thing. Then when the grip of some long-enduring winter mentality beings to loosen, we find ourselves vulnerable to a flourish of possibility and we are suddenly negotiating the challenge of a threshold.
At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What is preventing me from crossing my next threshold? What gift would enable me to do it?
A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold a great complexity of emotions comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossing were always clothed in ritual. It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds; to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward. The time has come to cross.
To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging. This becomes essential when a threshold opens suddenly in front of you, one for which you had no preparation. This could be illness, suffering or loss. Because we are so engaged with the world, we usually forget how fragile life can be and how vulnerable we always are. It takes only a couple of seconds for a life to change irreversibly. Suddenly you stand on completely strange ground and a new course of life has to be embraced. Especially at such times we desperately need blessing and protection. You look back at the life you have lived up to a few hours before, and it suddenly seems so far away. Think for a moment how, across the world, someone’s life has just changed….irrevocably, permanently, and not necessarily for the better….and everything that was once so steady, so reliable, must now find a new way of unfolding.
Though we know one another’s names and recognize one another’s faces, we never know what destiny shapes each life. The script of individual destiny is secret; it is hidden behind and beneath the sequence of happenings that is continually unfolding for us. Each life is a mystery that is never finally available to the mind’s light or questions. That we are here is a huge affirmation; somehow life needed us and wanted us to be. To sense and trust this primeval acceptance can open a vast spring of trust within the heart. It can free us into a natural courage that casts out fear and opens up our lives to become voyages of discovery, creativity, and compassion.
So, what threshold had I crossed? I went and took a yoga teacher training. Then I took another. I traveled and taught. I put myself out there, but always carrying those negative words with me. So I continued to teach, and teach, and teach. And then I went to yet another teacher training, which would be my last (for now)….and I learned that I had indeed crossed a threshold….one that has changed my life dramatically because I have finally let go of the unnecessary noise in my life….those words from so long ago. The noise from the people who chose to not practice any part of what they teach and who choose to live ingenuous lives. And then, as the snow began to slowly fall over Columbus Circle, I realized, no threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise. Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust.
I am so thankful for Thanksgiving. The United States is the only country to observe the holiday and while I often wonder if gratitude should be a holiday, well, perhaps it should be.
In years past, the holidays (for me) have meant observing well-respected “Teachers” collecting monies from students who were living paycheck to paycheck (including myself)….friends willingly allowing others to pay holiday lunch tabs when they were the “host” or inviter, I’ve also witnessed Teachers accepting gifts that went well beyond students measure simply because of greed.While it was surprising to me at the time, I simply digested the behavior, was victim to it and was even willing to offer a large sum on the notion that I was “helping” someone in need.
But doesn’t our practice of Buddhism and Yoga teach us that the Universe will provide when the time is right?
Perhaps, if you truly practice and believe.
I could go on and on but I would rather focus on the words of my dear Yogacharya reminded me of yesterday, “It is better to die struggling than to abandon your efforts while there is still a possibility of accomplishing something more.… Analyze what you are, what you wish to become, and what shortcomings are impeding you. Decide the nature of your true task…..your mission in life. Endeavor to make yourself what you should be and what you want to be. That is the gift of a New Year or any holiday.”
What did this mean? It means that you change your future by changing yourself. The more you insist on improving who and what you are, the more you become master of your destiny. Yet even when you’ve done everything you can, there will be times when you’ll have little or nothing to show for your efforts….just like when I gave that sum of money….I should have known I would never see it again. No matter, says the Bhagavad Gita, “as long as you remember that fulfilling your dharma—the drive to become who and what you are meant to be—is the defining desire, the one that informs and gives shape to all others. On this path [committed to dharma],” the Gita tells us, “effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure.… Perform work in this world … as a person established within himself—without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.”
My Yogacharya’s words also serve as a reminder that there is no end to the process of fulfilling your destiny. You need only remain rightly committed to and focused on your true task…..your mission in life and what you want to be.
Your soul or essence quietly watches. It never changes. It is the same now as it was when you were born, when you sat at your desk in grade school, when you first felt moved to help another person, when you first fell in love, when you first began to wonder about your place in the universe and how you would fulfill it. All the while your soul has retained its intrinsic connection to Creation, fully aware that life is the grandest and most sacred of all journeys and worthy of every effort to celebrate it.
The soul’s timeless and luminous wisdom and compassion are always ready to lead you by means of the silent pull of desire. The more you are attuned to your soul, the more easily it can lead you to a fulfillment far beyond what most of us imagine is possible. That place is the fulfillment of dharma, the convergence of fate and destiny…..a destination that awaits us and which can only be reached through the sum of all of our efforts. Dharma is Nature’s grand plan, a tapestry with no beginning and no end. It is also the Intelligence that inspires and guides us to fulfill that plan. Responding to dharma is how you rise to become your most mighty self.
The Pratyabhijnahrdayam, a sacred tantric text, reminds us of this when it states, “On attaining strength, one makes the universe one’s own.” This teaching tells you everything you need to know: accept that the inherent nature of the world is sacred, know that you are a part of it, then live with the conviction always to challenge, to quest to become something more and better.
Be prepared to let each successive step in your life ennoble you with more capacity. Resolve to become stronger and to fulfill your highest calling. With this commitment to yourself—and with love and respect for the world and the rest of creation—you will inevitably fulfill the lasting promise of the Buddhadharma, of yoga and all other spiritual traditions.
Grow. Determine to let nothing stand in your way. Reap the greatest riches life has to offer. Resolve to share the gifts you receive, enriching more and more lives with all that you discover and achieve.
“A man must never be satisfied with what he possesses,” my dear Sudharma once instructed me. “Fortune abandons the man who is content with what he has.”
This is how I must abandon the fortunes I have offered “Teachers” in the past. This is how I accept my Thanksgiving…..allowing myself to see that my fortunes have not been in what I possess, but in what I offer.
My wish is that you will endeavor to brighten this world with the gifts of all that you have come to know as truly worthwhile and enduring. In the process, you will successfully embody the final teaching from the Rig Veda, the most ancient of all the Vedic texts, whose final lines tell us of this promise: “May we walk together, talk together, and understand each other.Like bright beings joined in right thinking, may we share our bounty with each other. Never asking more or taking more than we need.”
Recently while walking through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto, Japan, I was able to study the delicate balance among water, soil, plants, and animals. One of the lessons taught in the Bamboo Grove is that man can change this balance of nature for the good by stabilizing it at new levels and by adding new harmonious elements, as when he stores the water of ephemeral streams to create green oases. Or he can throw it out of balance by selfish or ignorant use of resources, so as to set in motion a vicious chain of destruction, as when he slashes a forest and launches a whole new cycle of soil erosion. I believe that each of us finds the greatest use and greatest satisfaction in a life which respects and kindles the spark of the divine that is found in the conscience of every other human being and which nourishes the harmonious growth of individual human beings.
The greatest art in spiritual life is finding balance. The entire teachings of the Buddha are summed up in his encouragement to find and travel the middle path…..to seek neither the extremes of mortification and aversion for life, nor the extreme of indulgence, losing ourselves in pleasure-seeking. The balance between these two is the path of awakening and freedom. The path of balance is to be with what is true in life and to love that, to be committed to the truth on every level of our being.
The deepest joy we can find in life comes from within our own being and not from the circumstances around us. To find deep joy, which is radically different from being busy, distracted, or entertained, always takes a balance of heart. As one meditation teacher put it, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”We cannot control or stop the changing circumstances in our lives, but we can learn to balance amid them and to bring balance to them. Learning that poise and balance is the greatest skill in spiritual life: knowing when energy and resolution is needed and when it is time to soften and surrender; knowing when we need greater faith or greater inquiry; listening to the rhythms of our own heart as it tells us it is time to seek greater solitude and simplicity or a time for service, to make our care and love visible. There is no formula for this responsiveness. We must simply learn to listen with and open heart to what is ever in this moment, this day, this life.
A great mystic once said, “Of what avail is the open eye if the heart is blind?” True wisdom never divorces us from the travails and sorrows of the world but teaches us to live with greater integrity and compassion in the midst of them. Wisdom reveals to us that serenity is not some lofty peak we inhabit after transcending the world but is in learning how to respond to the challenges of this very life with great love. Wisdom is not an attainment but a way of being, a way of responding in which we neither resist the challenges life brings to us nor are overwhelmed by them. It is a question of balance. The visible expression of wisdom lies in the skillful means through which we manifest it. Integrity, forgiveness, and honesty are the responses of a living wisdom. They are the qualities that enable us to walk in the spirit of freedom and to learn the lesson of life.
We are witness to an age of endless conflict and destruction. Our planet suffers, human relationships break down, and individuals live in alienation. The wealth of ideas and formulas that have been produced have yet to bring about any meaningful shift in this cycle of pain. The pain of our world will not be changed by yet more ideas. What is needed is a profound change in the human heart. Let us not respond to the pain that surrounds us with righteousness, pious formulas, or withdrawal; let us learn how to respond with love and integrity. Let us not allow our lives to become a record of all the things we wish we had done, might have done or should have done.
The good life, the middle path, like the balance of all the complex elements of a river valley, is founded upon friendly adjustment. It changes slowly, but it leads always towards a more fruitful development of individual beings in service of each other. It embraces confidence in fellowship, tolerance in outlook, humility in service, and a constant search for the truth. To seek it in our own lives means imperfection and disappointment but never defeat. It means, I believe, putting ourselves in harmony with the divine order of love, with the great stream of forces that slowly are shaping…..in spite of man’s ignorance and selfishness…..an enrichment of the human spirit.