Embracing our unique ways of contributing – our dharma!

You can also view this post on Elephant Journal at: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/12/woody-allen–dharma–chetana-panwar/


Lately I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about the concept of dharma: how we use our time, what activities and ways of contributing to our society are very intuitive for us, and the importance of embracing our strengths while honouring those of others.

This reminded me of a line from Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita that has always intrigued me.  Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda translated it as “it is better to do your own duty, however imperfectly, than to assume the duties of another person, however successfully”. Even if something comes up again and again in our lives as a way that we are particularly called to serve, even if it is very intuitive for us, that does not mean it is necessarily easy. Sometimes out of fear, and a feeling of inadequacy, we try to become meticulous at other duties, rather than embrace a potential calling. I would say this is the case for me with writing.

Recently I enrolled in a creative writing course, after many years of wanting to do so. I have published some poetry in the past, and other pieces of writing in many forms. And yet, in the first few weeks of the writing course, and while doing the homework, I struggled with overwhelming feelings of resistance. One of them was the feeling that I was wasting my time, and that I should be doing something more useful and productive with my time – serving the community. I even convinced myself that I should write a yoga fable, or an inspiring yoga-related story, a feel-good story with a particular message. Then I stopped. Wait a minute? Why was I trying to engineer my writing to a particular theme? Did I not believe in the value of stories of all kinds, and diverse explorations of human experience, suffering, search, conflict, epiphany etc.? I believe in writing, painting, music, dance, cooking and various other arts. I believe that they are worthwhile and add something very important to life. Further, I could feel the momentum of the story I was already working on  – that this is the writing I’m meant to be doing right now. It was very identifiably ‘my voice’, as we say.

Funnily, I just happened to see a clip of the 1980 Woody Allen film Stardust Memories in which Woody has a conversation with luminous beings. He asks, “Why am I bothering to make films?…The human condition is so discouraging… Shouldn’t I do something that counts like become a missionary or something?” The luminous being responds, “You’re not the missionary type. You’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” This is a quintessentially Woody Allen exploration of dharma. Do what you’re meant to do. Let go of the guilt, and explore!

Of course we are multi-facetted being, and of course we contribute to our families and communities in many ways. That said, sometimes we may over manage ourselves and neglect to make time for our richest gifts to flourish. In my previous post Yoga is like a Good Masala, I mentioned the liberation of seeing yoga as a process, and a way of being while doing any activity. And here, another twist: rather than find ways to consciously insert yoga into my creative writing, I can simply understand my writing as my dharma.

The Natural Pluralism in Yoga

You can also read this post on Elephant Journal: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/11/the-natural-pluralism-of-yoga–chetana-panwar/

I have been feeling concerned lately about some of the discourse surrounding yoga and social action, and yoga and its intersection with business, advertising and particular socio-economic philosophies. I am troubled by a presumed homogeneity of socio-political perspective that is being attributed to yogis and yoga philosophy.

It seems so innocent, and I am sure I have used the phrase before, to say “yoga philosophy says…”. Perhaps as teachers we might use this kind of short cut or generalization when exploring a very specific aspect of yoga thought, the context of which is understood, such as when explaining the yamas in fairly non-contentious, straight forward terms. But even here, if we stray into saying “Patanjali says…” and then give a more interpretive statement about the Yoga Sutras, it is misleading. We really should only say Patanjali says… when quoting the Sanskrit text, or a translation of an aphorism while at the same time making clear the interpretive decisions of the translator. Otherwise, the looseness of discourse implies that we can clearly outline what yoga is in a few simple, uncontested statements with which all yoga practitioners and teachers would agree. I doubt this could be done except in the most broad and generalized terms, because, in fact, yoga in its wider sense includes an incredible pluralism.

Stephen Cope mentions that we often teach a diverse jumble of yoga teachings without too much concern for the inconsistencies or different textual origins. We teach a bit of Vedanta, a bit of Tantra, a bit of Samkhya, and us the term yoga to include all of these in its broader sense. In fact, I don’t mind this approach and preserving the diversity of the various aspects of the yoga tradition. AND, I feel it would be wonderful if even more yoga teachers were aware of the complexities and could guide group explorations of different positions of different streams of yogic thought on some of the more contentious or divergent aspects of the tradition (i.e ideas that were not agreed upon, why, the distinctions and how they may affect our interpretations in the current context). This way, rather than people rejecting ‘yoga’ due to a particular perceived failing of a certain school of thought, they could simply discover and explore other equally authentic schools of yoga thought.

For example, yoga is often presented as a tradition of literal renunciation in which the focus on the body was viewed as an obstacle to enlightenment, and that this had to be overcome. In our modern context it is common for this to be interpreted as body-negative. There are layers of issues I’m alluding to, but suffice it to say, that this is not an accurate description of the whole of the yoga tradition, but is most common to a more extreme practice and expression of Vedanta that I understand to have flowered around 1500 BC along with Sannyas Yoga, and to have peaked again with Shankaracharya in the early Middle Ages. Although Tantra and Vedanta share one of the same basic tenets, and that is Monism, Tantra is typified by the recognition that if there is only one fundamental essence, it is here within all situations and within the body as well; as such the body and all of its actions can be ritualized as tools for realization. Tantra Yoga and early Shamanic Vedic tradition can be viewed as body positive, and not requiring literal renunciation. Krishna makes this case when he synthesizes action and renunciation in his presentation of Karma Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita. I use this as an example of how it is simply very limiting to ignore the plurality in the wider yoga tradition.

Having briefly presented the pluralism inhering in the broader yoga tradition, I would like to come back to the issue of yoga teachers currently using discourse which suggests that we can establish a common socio-political world view for yoga practitioners and yoga teachers to fall in line with. When we say, “All yoga teachers should support the Occupy Movement,” or imply that a philosopher like Ayn Rand has nothing to say to anyone in the yoga community, and that her novels and other writings are fundamentally un-yogic, we begin to walk down a road where there is no dialogue, and no diversity of opinion or social action is acceptable. If leaders in the community put out this type of message it ironically goes against the more post-modern, popular, democratic movements which in essence are in favour of decreased power disparity, increased circle dialogue and working through collaborative management. Inspiring guilt and subtly suggestion a ‘party line’ that yoga teachers must toe is a dangerous step and one I feel I must speak up about. I believe we can work together even more richly through navigating and celebrating our diversity of practices, philosophies, backgrounds and ideas of how to bring various aspects of yoga into our lives and into our society.

This week in various Facebook posts, blogs and newspaper blog comments, I have seen an incredible and categorical condemnation of Lululemon and Ayn Rand, which has come about due to the yoga wear company’s putting the controversial “Who is John Galt?” phrase from Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on their shopping bags. The comments were mostly aggressive, black and white and belittling. Yes, Lululemon is a corporation. Yes, their clothes are no longer made in Canada. Yes, their clothes are probably more expensive than necessary, AND they offer free yoga classes several times a week in their stores. There is inevitably light in the darkness and dark in the light. This is not an article in defense of a corporation. For me it is all about how we inquire, how we listen to all of the sides, and how we express ourselves even when there is emotion. What change might we most like to inspire in the company. Surely not simply the dropping of a bag slogan. What about a clear statement of intent to use some of the profits to better the working conditions of overseas workers?

The founder of Lululemon’s explanation of why he used the phrase on the bags has been summarily rejected. For me, it is one of the interesting aspects of this: Rand’s concept of rising out of automatism and mediocrity. Further, I have not seen anywhere any attempt to understand where Ayn Rand might have been coming from as a Russian emigrée in the earlier part of the last century, with her distaste for state controls and her belief that art, ideas and inventions flourish when they are not controlled by an oppressive state or the guilt of coerced altruism. In fact, yoga is often seen as a process of de-socialization, the process of getting at our authentic responses un-encombered by the layers of armour we develop over the years of self-protection and influence. We cannot say that there is nothing at all in Rand that can be understood through the yogic lens. Rand makes her case against totalitarianism and for free will, and she was a capitalist. Probably most yoga teachers are not in favour of totalitarianism either.

And so it seems that the vicious distaste for Ayn Rand expressed recently in the yoga community has to do with her promotion of capitalism and the pursuit of individual happiness.  On Facebook, I made a case for the concept that in order to facilitate yoga sessions where we hope to lead experiences that are designed to be integrative and help people embrace and discover wholeness, we have to have glimpsed contentment, integration and wholeness ourselves. And so, yoga is both an individual exploration in wholeness and transformation (of the way we see things), and a social one. But, individual processes are there alongside collective ones. The pursuit of individual happiness is not evil, it is simply a part of a larger process and a wider engagement. Further, at the moment economic recession is giving a large nudge in opening up discussion of modifications of our current capitalist and mixed social-capitalist systems. This is our current reality. But, I imagine that not all yoga philosophers and teachers have exactly the same ideas on economic reform or how to achieve social and economic equality. I personally am what I would describe as a social liberal interested in post-modern educational and dialogic methods. And yet, I am not willing to label those more fiscally conservative as un-yogic.

In my view, we do not need a separation between Ayn Rand or any philosopher and yoga, we need to be open enough to understand different views and to see and speak to our perception of their benefits and limitations in a respectful and undogmatic manner. Perhaps skill in action is the yoga here.

What I think perhaps we ought to collectively consider is what common ideals we hope for the yoga community and teaching community, such as accessibility, fairness, non-violence or abuse etc. For this we could look closely at:

a) how power shows up in yoga teaching, and how we can create more safety, fairness, equality in the teaching/learning experience.

b) how yoga teachers can effectively provide for themselves as well as make yoga accessible;

c) how we as a community can create arbitration in cases of ethical problems, breeches or concerns possibly through an ombudsperson; et cetera.

First, our community and communities of yoga teachers and practitioners needs to find ways of coming together as a community to address issues of immediate concern in yoga teaching, as well as to find ways of doing outreach in a more cooperative and effective manner, and increasing public awareness about yoga and concerns in teaching etc. If people are speaking to the public on behalf of yoga teachers, they should be elected spokespeople and there would need to be ways of having broad-based dialogue within our communities. These are desperately needed first orders of business which we have been speaking about in some forums lately, but which is difficult given that we are an unregulated profession with no clear ways of organizing collectively.

It’s all in the method, people! If we look at popular yoga teaching methods, we can find clues to why we have not been entirely successful in coming together as a community. Do we teach in a way that allows for diversity, or do we promote one way, and use methods of delivery that squash dialogue? Are yoga teachers strongly encouraged to follow rank and file? I have seen this very dynamic recently in classrooms where a teacher says a contentious statement at the very end of a talk, such as “and obviously this would not be appropriate, right,”  followed by automatic replies of “right”, suppressed “I’m not sure’s”, and the lecture is closed – time to go. I call this the slip-in-a-personal-philosopic-position-at-the-last-minute-so-no-dialogue-can-happen technique. Does that sound familiar? Suppressing dialogue and pluralism, or guilting groups into certain thoughts or behaviours is not new. It creates fear that our inner thoughts and ideas are unacceptable. This is not what the 99% is calling for, is it? Just the opposite, I think. In terms of teaching methodology, we can bring in more dialogue by recognizing that the group has a greater collective wisdom than as singular members, and that discussion and skillful disagreements in classes are rich and important and we do have time for them. We can make time for them, and learn how to skillfully facilitate such dialogue within focussed class sessions. Kripalu Centre really excels at this and has really taken seriously the importance of method. Increasingly, I experience myself and my colleagues bringing more inquiry and sharing into yoga education.  This is exciting – it is the demonstration of non-agression, fairness, equality and honouring.

When I first started teaching yoga, I feel that I was encouraged to teach in black and white maxims, and to present yoga as a monolithic entity. The more I teach and live, the more I recognized yoga as a paradoxical this…, and… I cannot say this is un-yogic, or that is un-yogic. An action or method of coming to a decision is skillful or unskillful, or a bit of both. And all this is part of our individual and collective evolution.  It’s all part of the process. I recognize yoga (in part) as a method of inquiry and a state of harmony which arises when one allows oneself to explore the multiple aspects of one’s identity, and opens to one’s best-suited role in society (dharma).

My intention in this post is not to criticize, but rather to promote the idea of pluralism in yoga, dialogue as an educational methodology, and to promote textured understandings of philosophies and lifestyles as very often multi-facetted.

The Enveloping Approach

Virginia Woolf’s narration is cyclical, looping between past and present, in and out of the minds of various characters. It is feminine in its enveloping nature.

Reject nothing. This Tantric maxim comes alive for me in this way. Perhaps in Tantra the worship of the goddess, the Divine Feminine, of the Mother, exists to honour that ability to channel everything and anything into the quest for wholeness. A masculine approach may be more focussed, direct and intense, but launches toward a perceived goal, and later falters when the trickiness of ‘no path, no goal’ dawns. The archetypal feminine is more at home in multiplicity, with perceived incoherence, and can get beyond the duality of light and dark that axes off so much of our lived experience.

The path is not progressive, a knight’s tale of triumph over evil. It is a soothing expansion in all directions, that claims everything as its very own.

Yoga is Like a Good Masala

You can also see this post on Elephant Journal at: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/12/yoga-is-like-a-good-masala–chetana-panwar/
I woke up this morning thinking of yoga as masala. Cinammon gives sweetness to masala, nutmeg and cloves an earthy savory, ginger a bit of spice. Together they are a nurturing, balancing blend of various tastes. When we reduce yoga to asana, it falls flat. The various aspects of yoga provide balance to one another, and also spice things up: mantra, visualization, relaxation, asana, pranayama, savouring through the senses, mindful nature walks, walking meditation, seated meditation et cetera. There is a veritable cornucopia of ways to practice yoga in the sense of active practice.

Then there is the aspect of yoga that is based in contemplation or mindfulness. Mindfulness is something that is ‘practiced’ throughout the regular day, as it is. In other words, we don’t have to stop our lives to practice yoga – rather, yogic mindfulness is a part of our lives as they are. It is a way of encouraging being-ness.

[a moment ago, I just typed mind-fun-ness by mistake. This is actually something I want to say – yoga and mindfulness is fun! Bearing witness to our lives and communities through being more mindful of each moment, each interaction, makes these interactions more meaningful, and therefore more pleasurable no matter what they are.]

In the past, I moved away of some of my other creative pursuits and hobbies to have more time to practice yoga and meditation. I think this is part of an organic process. As I surrendered to where the yogic process was taking me, I noticed over the years, that I had come back to many of my creative pursuits: creative writing, cooking, reading fiction, exploring dance, going to the theatre, et cetera. I realized that I did not need to reduce or suppress these parts of my life; now I experience creativity, nature appreciation, and relationship as yoga.

With the masala analogy in mind, we could say that even to look at yoga as something that we stop our lives to practice, is reductionist. When we bring all of the spices, all of the practices together, they create also a whole. That whole has another existence – not as the combination of parts, but as the blended whole. In yoga, I would call this blended, unselfconscious whole, simple being-ness.

We see this type of discussion in Tanta, which is non-dualist. We don’t need to escape the body to become the spirit. Spirit and body (purusha and prakriti) are one. The mundane is the sacred, and the sacred is the mundane. There is nothing to become, we simply drop into (surrender into) witnessing what is.

Preserving that wholeness of practice, life and self is the masala of yoga!

New York Times described Sri Vivekananda’s wide appeal

Today’s New York Times published a review of the influence of Sri Vivekananda on Western writers, philosophers and celebrities after his lecture at the Parliament of World Religions as part of the Chicago World Fair on Sept. 11, 1893. It is wonderful to have such meaningful reviews on yoga that remind us of the influence of Indian thought on late 19th and early 20th century thought. You can view the brief article here:


The article is entitled “How Yoga Won the West”. There is no doubt that Vivekananda’s influence was vast. And yet, for me this title seems to negate the very profound influence of ,for example, the translation of the Bhagavad Gita in about 1850 on beloved American writers like Thoreau and the Boston Transcendentalist. For this is when yogic thought began to percolate in the American consciousness in that century.  Of course, Indian philosophy has always been a part of Western thought since the Sermon on the Mount, since the time of Buddha.  But this is another post…

The writer draws a link between Vivekananda coming to America to teach Vedanta philosophy and contemplative practice with the now popular asana classes, as if it were a pre-cursor to the incredible popularity of Hatha Yoga in the West.  I disagree with this perspective, especially in that Vivekananda was not a practitioner or promoter of asana and certainly not as a primary aspect of yoga as a whole.  Vedantist tend to see excessive focus on the body and mental identity as a barrier to recognizing the Supreme oneness of all things.

Rather, I believe that pieces of yoga were brought over and popularized separately by different teachers from diverse lineages of practice.  This is fairly natural given the incredible diversity in the yoga tradition.  As such, yoga continues to be quite fragmented today.  There have been holistic or integral yoga traditions and schools, but it seems that the separated parts also took off as such. Just as Vivekananda spoke primarily about advaita vedanta, the Iyengar teachers in America taught asana, Sri Prabhupad inspired many followers in the 1960s to chant the Maha Mantra, and of course there have been many meditation teachers both Buddhist and Yogic. Holistic teachers (of a blend of asana, pranayama, mantra, meditation and philosophy) from the late 1950s/early 60s include Swami Sivananda Radha, Swami Satchitananda and Swami Vishnu Devananda of the Sivananda lineage; Yogi Bhajan; Swami Kripalu and Amrit Desai, Baba Hari Das, Ram Das, etc.

But most astounding to me has been the incredibly informative recent book, The Great Oom, about an American, Dr. Bernard, and his Indian guru, who taught very diverse aspects of yogic cleansing, meditation, asana and philosophy starting in the 1890s through the 1920s when they had yoga studios in Manhattan, through the 20s and 30s at a Yoga Country Club in Nayak, NY, that had long term residents in the Vanderbilt family, and visitors like teenage Pete Seeger. It is an amazing story of a teacher who captivated many, and whose students were the earliest teachers of Hatha Yoga across America. The book came out last year and was also reviewed in the New York Times, but I have not heard much comment about it in the yoga community. And yet, it is such an American tale of a young, un-formally-educated boy, meeting a mystical teacher and dedicating his life to learning from him and teaching, reinventing himself and his credentials for the high society of a number of cities from coast to coast. Why do we not seem as interested or nearly as informed about such very early 20th century home-grown teachers? Why do we not more often make the connection between Thoreau and the Boston Transcendentalists and the yoga tradition?

A photographic glimpse into family history

In my last post, I wrote about a 1905 photograph that moved me. Seeing a young girl sitting on a rock in the Thousand Islands, along a path I have often trod, I felt the continuity of the human experience, and the power of images to convey our cultural, spiritual and social heritage.

Interestingly, I recently happened to open a box containing a few photographic mementoes of one of my great aunts. There were pictures of family homes in Boston and Halifax, pictures of a cousin in Manchester in the 1920s wearing pleated pants and round glasses. Half way through the three dozen photos, I found a familiar image of an Indian man in long flowing robes standing next to an American woman; it is Rabindranath Tagore! Immediately I set about trying to discover why my great aunt held in her possession a personal photograph of the mystical poet and Nobel Laureate. So far, I have discovered that the woman in the photograph is Mary Woolley, long time President of Mount Holyoke College, the oldest women-only university in the United States. It turns out that Tagore gave a poetry reading there in 1930, when my great aunt would have been a student.

It is difficult to explain in few words why this discovery was both astonishing and yet not implausible; why it is a symbol for me of my family’s tortuous spiritual history.

I grew up as a third generation agnostic. Not only my parents, but both sets of their parents were so-called non-believers. It was not until my twenties that I discovered I had two great aunts on my father’s maternal side who were both extremely active ‘karma yogis’, one deeply involved in the Service wing of the Quakers for over sixty years. It was about then also that my intellectual agnosticism and my poetic sense of the mystical, which had co-existed in me untroubled for about ten years as parallel pieces of myself, collided. I embarked on the path of meditation, and it was as natural as taking a deep breath, reading an ecstatic poem, looking at a still lake at dusk.

Seeing this photograph brought together two worlds – those of spirituality and poetry.  I realized my parents and grandparents did not necessarily abandon their inner faith, only Christian theology. They had simply shifted their search for meaning away from the Church and towards literature, and the expression of mystical experience in literature. My father’s aunt on the paternal side having attended a poetry reading with an Indian mystic brought sides of the family together, and re-forged for me a very palpable connection between ecstatic poetry and explicit spiritual practice, whether it be faith-fueled service, the adoration of nature or the sublime.

Writing and Visual Art as Spiritual Practice

Twenty-one years ago, I left Canada to study and live in south-western France, where I turned twenty-one. Coincidentally, my younger sister was on a gap-year program in England.  We spent Thanksgiving together in Cambridge after which I took the TGV back to Montpellier.  At a bus stop outside the train station, I noticed a sandy-blond haired man, middle-aged I thought, clad only in a tattered sky blue blanket, the kind  you would use on a bed underneath a quilt.  After getting on the bus, I started to read Liberation – an ultra liberal newspaper of the sort we do not have in the format of a national newspaper in Canada.  I had vowed to myself that I would speak, read and write as much in French as I could during that year, even in my personal journal.  When I paused my reading to look around the bus, the man in the sky blue blanket spoke to me.

“Where are you coming from?”, he asked.  When I told him of my weekend with my sister, he smiled wryly.

“You have travelled so far to see your sister, when you have so many brothers and sisters right here”.

This was true; but, I spoke in defence of the long-standing relationship cultivated often between siblings which creates an easy, authenticity, and can really help us to notice when life’s circumstances are taking us away from ourselves.

The man in the sky blue blanket was unimpressed.  “And when you read with the paper up in front of your face, you put up a barrier between yourself and the others you might otherwise connect with on this bus”.

We spoke of this view of mindful beingness, I would call it now, for about half an hour, until I descended at my stop.  The man in the sky blue blanket was continuing on to the university to meet with some students.  An unassuming German follower was leading him there.

His words affected me deeply, and mirrored a growing sense that I had about writing and the interruption of lived experience.  I began to question the amount of time I spent writing in my journal, and the time behind the lens of my manual camera.  For me, these arts were a method of honing in on my experience, of paying even more attention to the angles of the buildings around me, to describing the way the waiter weaved amid the tables of the terrace cafe.  Writing and photography were my entryways into mindfulness.  But, did they somehow also create a barrier or decrease my time in un-mediated savouring of nature, city scapes, people?  This was the question posed by a man who had spent decades perhaps, wandering through Southern Europe, living in the moment as it was.

The Mindful Beingness Predicament

For years I kept a journal; it allowed me to reflect on, re-savour and share moment and perceptions of life. At one point, though, I sensed a schism, a disconnect.  Because few people were reading my writing, I felt I had no witness.  I felt my life split between the act of living and the act of reflecting on the act of living.  The result was, I decided to explore photography, which seemed to me to have the advantage of being more easily shared with others, being immediate, tangible and a visual art.  It was also a craft done in the same moment as the visual experience was going on.  Perfect, I thought.  But soon, I recognized the split between myself and my experience as I was constantly viewing it from behind the lens.  Photographs, though wonderful for exploring the lines and angles of a European building, cannot capture those most subtle, sacred landscapes – the mist rising off a lake in early morning, or the vast mountain chair rising through the haze.  The photographs also do not possess the energetic of the atmosphere, the fragrance or energy of nature.

No, I vowed, mindfulness alone was my art.  I hurdled into a decade of meditation, research and practical writing.

Exploring Mindful Writing

One night, many nights, I had a dream.  Words rolled out of the ethers and I found myself again writing down the night.  Surreptitiously, I re-entered the writing life.  Suddenly, writing was again for me the unpacking, profound symbol-cracking exploration of lived experience – not a distraction from it.  Unlike Facebook posts, or tweets posted in real time, which can, I think, distract a person from an experience which is going on at the same moment, writing is not usually an interuption to the experience being written about.  Of course there is a synergy with the environment of the writing event – the cafe life, perhaps.  But the writing event is an experience in its own right.  Inspired writing may come out of a dream or half-dream state.  Sometimes the act of writing, reflection takes one into “the zone”, an alpha/theta state which is at once healing and revealing – a state of quiet insight or invigorating bursts from the knowledge fields.  In this type of writing, we become the timeless witness.  It is a mystical experience.

For this type of writing to come forth, all that is required is an openness to the depth of one’s own experience as it is, nothing more.  And yet, it is full of magical synchronicity and symbolism.  I find travel can also be a key to heighten our awareness, our receptivity and sense of adventure.  When we move out of our unconscious, habitual patterns, our comfort with familiar contexts that allow for living on auto-pilot, we are called to pay attention in order to navigate our new setting.

Exploring Mindful Photography

Recently, I connected deeply with a photograph from 1905 of a young girl in a white frock and a teenage boy in short pants and long stockings on a piece of land I know well.  To see the curves of the rocks and the worn path where they sat, and to feel their energy as I again walked those same paths gave me a sense of the continuity with the past.  I recognized how much of a role photography now plays in holding and transmitting our recent history to us – as painting once did – holding cultural information that is passed down simply though the image of people at cultural landmarks, historic homes, or on personal plots of land like farms.  This reminded me of yoga in many ways, which was passed down through subtle energy, written or visual information and word of mouth.

I have been reflecting lately and over the course of the past 25 years, on the role of photography, literature, art and writing in our lives and as spiritual practice.  Earlier I wrote that photo-taking interrupts the unmediated experience of the moment.  And yet, taking a photograph may be a very mindful act.  To do it, first we engage with the subject, view the colours and lines, arrange the focus and depth of field, or at least the general composition within the viewfinder.  For a few moments, perhaps longer, we are focussed entirely on that subject.  We are enthralled by it, and we may even connect with its energy.  We are in a meditation with object.  But at which point do we need to come back and re-connect with our own embodied experience of now – be present to ourselves in order to continue mindfully?

For me, it seems that there is a strong correlation between the amount of time in sequence that I am engaged with such an art, and the loss of centre that leads to unmindfulness.  For example, I may be a very centred and focussed on taking pictures of a historic building, and feel an increase of mindfulness and wellbeing.  As I pay attention to composition, focus the art of image capture.  But after some time, if I don’t come back to plain witnessing of the now, the breath, my energy, I begin to bump into people, trip over equipment, lose awareness of what is going on around me.  The instrument – the camera – removes me every so slightly from the moment as it is, and disbalance arises.  This phenomenon is exacerbated by the number of clicks in short amounts of time.  In this sense, older photographic equipment, like the light box, or even manual cameras, had the advantage of being slow, requiring attention to mechanics.  Taking hundreds of snapshots haphazardly with no prolonged viewing of or connection to a subject does not really possess the same quality of art of of mindfulness.  That said, it may still result in capturing interesting moments in life and society, and therefore still has value socially and personally.  But, because of the automatic camera and the propensity towards taking rapid snapshots, photography may be viewed less commonly as an art, and even less as an act of mindfulness.

So, it seems that in fact, the mindful attention and engagement with the photographic subject is part of what makes some photographs art, and others simply souvenirs.  And yet, years from now, a viewer, deeply connecting with a snapshot, for whatever reason its subject holding symbolic meaning for that person, may become art, or create for that viewer an opportunity for unusual attention.  Is viewing art and the creating of art then inherently a mindfulness practice?

Balance: Drawing from the Ethers without Floating Away

I have heard many times the reflection by ascetics and rationalists that reading stories is a waste of time or that stories do not reflect reality and hence have no capacity to educate or transform us.  As a long time reader and write, my experience is that nothing is further from the truth.  To start, my view is that ‘fictional’ stories still do reflect reality.  They usually are an exposition of social dynamics, common psychological states, or a reflection on the lived experience of the author.  Charles Dickens, for example, wrote novels about the poverty and social disparity in England in the 1850s with a view to increasing awareness and initiating social reform.  He succeeded!  How many people have been affected by the stores of characters like Oliver Twist or Tiny Tim.  This is just one example of the interface between real life and novels.

Other types of stories from romantic to science fiction relate stores of love and loss, joy and disappointment, hope and the personal quest for meaning.  When we have a profound experience of reading or writing, we are engrossed in the reality portrayed.  I often have the experience of not hearing someone calling my name when I read or write and am deeply engaged in it.  Not hearing, or not registering the call as relevant to what I am doing.  I continue to connect intensely to the reality I’m engaged with.  Again the question – is this meditative or afflicted?  Certainly it is a trait of Vata to be so comfortable in etheric states and other realities for prolonged periods.

I notice that like in a formal seated meditation, after engaging single-mindedly with a book or writing session, I need time before coming back to a wider variety of stimulus and to come back to base with a fundamental, experiential, embodied connection to the now as it is, in the moment I am physically in.  Although allowing the mind and awareness to go to a place and time other than the physical now can be meditative and inspiring etc., if prolonged without respite, to reconnect deeply to the physical present, it can ultimately leave us foggy and disconnected.  As with formal meditation, we need to be aware of when we’ve simply drifted off.

Reading is meditative in the sense that the mind takes on the process of reading and the story as its present, its now.  We give our full attention to it, delve into it.  That is mindful reading for me.  When it goes super-mindful, this meditation on an object  allows for the experience of full oneness with the experience of reading, the situations read about, as well as full awareness of the body, breath and reality outside of the reading.  Everything becomes a total energizing synergy.  If this does not happen completely, or focus on the present of the body is lost, ultimately we feel disbalance begin and we know we need to stop reading and go to the bathroom, or rest, or answer the calls of our family or friends.  In other words, the enriching state ultimately comes to a close.

Having described both how art as meditation on the object is a deep experience of mindfulness, and also how it can become disbalancing, or how we know sessions must come to a close, I feel the need to reiterate that my experience and profound belief is that art is a powerful method and expression of mindfuness meditation and connection to energy of oneself, of the object and connection to the continuity of human history.  Art, like appreciation of nature, is one of the fundamentally worthwhile pursuits.  Unless we intend to spend our days only on formal meditation, as a recluse or in a retreat, all meditation leads to meditation in action; ‘being’ while doing things – reading, writing, thinking, gardening, office work, activism, etc.  The question is merely what activities inspire us most, for what length of time at a stretch and which activities allow us best to play our role in this life.

Osho often reflected that when we do what we enjoy, what is natural to us, we go into a natural meditation.  Being and doing become one.

Why Public Libraries Matter

A voracious reader since early childhood, and later an English language teacher for new immigrants, I am a huge proponent of the public library and public education systems.  I believe that they are among the few public, community spaces we have left where people can gather, do research, sit and read amid others in a large communal 'living room'.  

For those on a limited income, and people with young children, immigrants with limited access to English-language books at home, public libraries are like the life blood of our society.  Without access to books, we limit access to our national and community history, we limit our access to creative and research books no longer in print, we limit access to tactile books that give us a sense of connection to other readers.  Libraries also fill the function of positioning books and reading, of literacy,  as a valued skill and form of entertainment in our society.  

Above and beyond a community space and resource for books and encyclopaedias, libraries play host to children's programming and an open space for children, parents and caregivers especially necessary in a climate with so many days when children cannot spend much time outside.  Without this type of community space and programming, the elderly and young children would be literally house-bound and not have many free venues to participate in the wider community. 

As an English language teacher I found many of the colleges, schools and institutes I worked for had limited resources for teaching.  I regularly found inspiration and resources from different publishing times at the public library.  I also was able to compile lists of reading materials that were appropriate to the age and reading level of my students, confident that they would be able to get free access to these reading materials locally.  I am sure many teachers find general public libraries an invaluable resources for both their teaching and for their students.

Libraries also provide a quite space for high school students to gather and do homework, or read.  When many parents are at work until dinnertime, a library provides a community space where teens can safely work or read books more organically, in print, as opposed to incurring more screen time. 

This type of resource speaks to our level of democracy and our belief in access to community resources and spaces.  I live part of the year in India, and one of the most marked differences I find is the total lack of public spaces. There are not only no libraries in most small cities and towns, there are no park or community recreation centres.  Research is therefore pretty much solely done through the Internet, in universities or sites of private collections.  

Having such a wealth of resources in towns and cities across our country, why would we want to squander our public infrastructure now.  Our community resources are admired by many and are a testament to our belief in community access to knowledge, information, community spaces, and literary entertainment.

In Defense of Birthing Our Own Children

Several years ago after I had my first child, I was facilitation a discussion during a Yoga Teacher Training course.  One of the participants put forward the motion: “Yoga people should choose not to birth children; having children in an over-populated world is selfish”.  Lately there has been a lot of mention in the media of adoption from the Global South (aka the Third World).  Although I absolutely support educational and medical initiatives and grass-roots development project etc., I find the idea of adoption to reduce overpopulation a problematic one.

Firstly, only recently is the media actively covering the looming and very problematic phenomena of underpopulation in the Global North (aka Developed World).  Under population is such a critical issue in countries like Japan, Korea, Italy,  and Spain that in a few generations MOST people will have no brothers, no sisters, no aunts, no uncles, and no cousins.  So our concept of family as one of the cohesive threads of society will severely tested.  Of course, we are already seeing a move towards “chosen families”, and people who create family-like units and joint, creative families.  But under population will also severely cripple the social system that many of us so value – universal medical care, successful public education, a safety net etc.

The decreasing birthrate already shows that many of us are choosing not to parent children at all, birthed or adopted.  This makes it even less likely that mass adoption would equal out the population crisis.  So rather than depending on continued and vastly increased immigration and the challenges of displacement, and vastly increased Third World adoption, would not increasing education for women in the Third World (proven to decrease overpopulation), access to planned parenthood, and on our side of the globe, a more family-friendly society that would encourage new generations to take on the task of parenting again, be preferable, simpler and more viable long-term options?  How coy – this is not really a question.  If left un-addressed, over-population in Africa and India will not be solved by adoption or immigration.  If left un-addressed, under-population in Canada will not be solved by adoption or immigration alone.

Suffice it to say that I do not think it is selfish in our world to give birth to our own children in the West.  Rather, I believe that our society needs us to continue to re-invent what it means to us to be mothers (parents) in the modern world.  Many people having spent years in universities and/or in downtown corporations where there was little interactions with children and families, who did not grow up in a large family themselves,  are removed from the experience of life with children, breast feeding women, babies in slings.  It is simply a symptom of how removed we are from nature in general.  Can families again become more integrated into the fabric of our society?  Can we learn to better support families as they navigate childcare and work?  I do hope so.

The Yoga of Motherhood

I had the pleasure today of attending a discussion at the Yoga Festival Toronto about yoga in the modern world.  The dialogue turned for a moment to the idea that we do not have to liberate ourselves from worldly concerns like our jobs, our families and our lives in society in order to do yoga.  In fact, we can view everything we do as a part of our practice, contemplation and being of yoga.  This is the Karma Yoga that Shri Krishna speaks of in the Bhagavad Gita.  Karma Yoga is not just when we do volunteering (seva); it is the bringing of yogic wisdom and being-ness to our daily situation, our daily actions, “the inaction in action”, the quiet and evenness we bring to our interactions with others and the task at hand.

As a mother of two young children, I find that this is the main way that I find yoga in my daily life.  I am brought face to face with the need to accept/cherish/savour my situation, and my phase of life as it is, rather than harkening for the free-time and practice time I had before I became a mother.  For example, I notice that if I am in the sandbox with my children, thinking about a yoga class I was not able to go to for lack of a babysitter, I am not present, I suffer the feeling of regret and isolation, the children sense my distraction and act out.  On the other hand, I notice that if I freely let go of clinging to yoga classes or events I am not able to attend, I have fun in the sandbox, there is a rich feeling between me and the children, and we have more meaningful interactions with the people who are present with us in that moment.  Of course, this works better for me if I ensure that I regularly get some of the quiet time and yoga restoration I enjoy.  Having had truly present moments with the kids then allows me, when I do get to a yoga class or meditation meeting, or lecture, to let go of any recriminating thoughts about  having gone out.  Yes, savouring simple moments with my kids has proven to be a very powerful form of yoga.  I have found it a grounding, inspiring, slowing, loving relationship.

Being a mother who runs a yoga organization from home also constantly demands that I grow, stretch, move in-and-out of different roles, and that I have very clear boundaries about the ever creeping encroachment into family life that technology can bring about, especially for those who work from home.

Motherhood is the perfect parallel of the balancing act that we are engaged in as yogis actively involved in the world.  At some point in our engagement with this wisdom tradition (or any other for that matter), we are likely to feel a tension between active practice and contemplation, engagement with family and society and retreat, the desire to do only things that are overtly connected to yoga, and the recognition of the richness that comes when we live yoga through our other passions and with and in a wider society.  As modern yogis in particular, we often strive for regular retreat and periods of cloistered practice, as well as active engagement in family life, community, work, culture etc.  In a parallel way for mothers, there is often a palpable, if unexpressed, tension between the act of mothering, and the act of mothering ourselves, between the nuclear world of our neighbourhood of parks and schools and kid-friendly activities, and our world of pre-baby friends, adult conversations, quiet dinners out, yoga classes just for us…  While some moms delve head-long into a “kid-centred world” giving up all of their own activities, others (like me) may actively resist the separation of kid and adult worlds and set out to find a mythic half-way zone in which they can continue to do all the things they used to do, by simply bring their children.  While I have adored slinging or backpacking my children through art galleries, Paris cafes, kiirtans, to my lectures, and yes, even to meditation classes, there is just no getting around the fact that every once in a while it is more relaxing, sane and enriching for everyone if the kids go to the park and I go to a lecture on yoga history on my own.

When we are active in the world, there is always more to do, more to get involved in.  When I compare my involvement with that of my single friends or colleagues without children, and see their level of time commitment as superior, without recognizing the different phases of our lives we are in, I am in an internal conflict.  When I compare my yoga practice on the mat or cushion before kids and now, I question myself.  Measuring, quantifying, judging, analyzing, these are common ways to hear people speak about yoga nowadays.  The practice practice is seen a somehow superior to the attempt at moment-to-moment beingness, which cannot be so neatly quantified.  Even Karma Yoga seems to be neatly tied up in volunteer hours, external acts of activism, etc.  Being a mother of young children has given me another opportunity to step back and observe our addiction to accolades, concrete acts and identity.  Serving our own children, though a long-term and intense daily commitment, is often not valued as a social service.  And certainly I have been asked by fellow colleagues when I’m going to get back to a more “regular yoga practice”.  In the spirit of Karma Yoga, seeking skill in action, I surrender absolutely to my own daily balance of savouring my children, nurturing myself, working for a yoga organization, and engaging with art, literature, friends, family, and society.  It is enough.

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries

copyright Chetana Panwar 2010

%d bloggers like this: