Friday, December 17, 2010

Rabbit or Tiger?

The other day, Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests wrote about "Hard-ass Zen". He was poking fun at the macho side of Zen, a side of the practice that isn't too hard to miss: sitting in full lotus, not getting up for kinhin (walking meditation), being first in the zendo at 3 am, racing to be first in the dokusan line, and on and on. Zen offers many opportunities for aggressive, even competitive, behavior. And that's exactly what they are too - opportunities. Will you take them?

I would be lying if I said I have never snatched at those particular opportunities. You don't have to be a man to be macho, sometimes.

After all, Zen is a practice that demands a large dose of discipline and motivation. I dare say that being a wishy-washy fence sitter is near to impossible when one takes up Zen practice. Frankly, this is part of what is so appealing about it - it is really, really difficult and it requires a shit or get off the pot attitude. For me, as a confirmed Type-A personality, when I hear the word, "difficult", my ears perk up. Sign me up! This kind of determination is good and even necessary. Yet, strength and weakness go hand-in-hand, as what draws me to the practice becomes the snare that trips me up.

It reminds me of what happened right before we left to come here to Newfoundland. I went to the Temple for the morning sitting. It would be my "last chance" (the very words are mildly ridiculous) for dokusan (private face-to-face meeting with the teacher) until we return in the spring. It was feeling very important, dire even, that I get in there but I knew that the amount of time in the morning isn't always enough for everyone who is waiting on line to get in and see the teacher. When the line was called, I raced there and, literally, elbowed another person out of the way to get ahead of her. Well. This story is so riddled with delusion, it is quite embarrassing to recount it in this public forum. But I recount it because it really opened my eyes and perhaps you can recognize yourself in there too - as the person elbowing or being elbowed.

I have been thinking about this attitude in context of my yoga practice as well. My practice, ashtanga, is well-known as the practice for Type-A people. I remember David Williams criticizing ashtanga teachers who do extreme adjustments. Ashtanga teachers tend to have a reputation for being rough and causing injuries trying by to force people into asana-s they may not be ready to enter. Williams said, "these are people who have come to an ashtanga class - if they could do it, they would be doing it!" I think of that often as look around at the other ashtangis when I practice in a group context - I see a level of determination that isn't always present in other yoga classes. I think of it when I am pushing myself into an asana and it hurts. What exactly am I doing at that moment?

There is a delicate balance between feeling the love and feeling the burn, between working the edge and racing off the cliff, between aspiration and expectation. Can you find it?

Here is a wonderful dharma talk by Myotai Treace titled You Can't Leave Here. She takes up many things but I especially love this part near the end,

Bunny lives are lived by the "robot rabbits," creatures mindlessly fulfilling the expectations of their culture, hopping around in the patterns established by habit and history. We are capable of so much more than that. But in order for that capacity to be realized we have to take a chance. We have to put our body on the coals, and our heart on the line. Whenever someone complains about how Zen practice doesn’t do it for them, how it doesn’t reach some place in their life that is hurting or aches with incompleteness, I’m shot through with this determination to dwell more deeply in attention. We’ve only seen the fingernail clippings of this vast body of practice: who can know what possibilities are still undiscovered, waiting for us? No one has cut the path we need to follow; that’s the tiger’s poem, written step by step, breath by breath.
I have pulled that quote quite out of context, so please check out the whole talk.

I you want just fingernail clippings? Go on, be a tiger!


OfTroy said...

its like fractals.. the whole is the same as any small part.

and its true everywhere you look.

I am not a Buddist, and not zen, but i see in my self the same closedness, and the same opportunities for choice.

I can be aggressive, i can be passive, i almost always need more (self) discipline--but i am also so much more disciplined than i once was.

(of course as my undisciplined rate of improvement, i will need to live to 300 to get where i desire to be..

Nathan said...

This is an excellent post! You know, I remember the days when we had our old teacher at zen center, and would run across the room for dokusan. I joined the tussle a few times, and then would enter the room, blather about something for a few minutes and get stumped by whatever question he asked me. The whole thing seemed foolish, so I decided to stop running at every opportunity and just let things unfold until I actually had something burning to talk about.

I'm interested in your yoga comments as well, as I plan on doing a teacher training (finally) next year. It's going to be an eclectic program, so I'll probably learn some about Ashtanga, which I know little about. Most of my practice has been Iyengar based, with a little Kundalini yoga tossed in.

Anyway, I feel that yoga and zen compliment each other so well, and I've found that when one leg of practice gets flabby, I find that pushing the edge more on the other brings me back. (I.e. when zazen practice has gotten weak, pushing the edge on asanas brings me back to zazen.)

Robyn said...

Hey Nathan,

Thanks! And congrats on making the decision to take up yoga teacher training. I have heard many people describe how it really changed their lives, and I would say that was true for me as well. Plus, it is really fun to teach yoga!

I agree that Zen and yoga can compliment each other, although I am interested that you have done Kundalini. I have deliberately stayed away from that because it is all about sending energy up, while in zazen, I am all about sending energy down (to the hara). I thought it might make things even more difficult.

One thing I really like about ashtanga is the focus on the bandhas, esp the uddhiyana bandha, which is basically the same place as the hara. I really feel how each practice compliments each other when I am strong in my bandhas and my hara.

I look forward to hearing about your YTT! Is it 200 hrs? I have been thinking about doing 500 hrs, but decided to get some more teaching under my belt first. Does your program include academic study and other aspects of yoga training besides asana? I am always curious to hear about how individual studios/teachers develop their programs.

Nathan said...

It's a 200 hour training. And yes, it's more than asanas. Here's a list of topics covered.

Yoga Study Topics:
• Yamas and Niyamas
• Sanskrit
• Ayurveda
• Yoga Business and Ethics
• Yoga Sutras
• Chakras and the Energy Body
• Bandhas and Meridians
• Gross Anatomy
• Finding Your Teaching Voice
• Practice Teaching Labs
• Alignment
• Adjustments
• Meditation
• Pranayama
• Sequencing (for various levels and styles)
• Tantric Yoga
• Anusara
• Ashtanga
• Kundalini
• Kriya Yoga
• Creating Your Class

I'll start in February or March - still have to decide which session I'm going to take.

You know, I did Kundalini years ago, about the time I started practicing Zen. I wonder what it would be like now that I've been in Zen all this time.

I need more work with the bandhas, and it's good to hear that you've found that beneficial.

Robyn said...

It sounds very well-rounded, Nathan. And inspiring - just reading that list makes me want to get out some books and dig in again.

Yes, breath and bandhas - that's what it is all about, IMO. This is actually good because it means you don't necessarily have to be the most flexible and/or strong to experience yoga.