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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Important Fun

Years ago. Many years ago! I was a music critic living and working in New York City, covering mainly non-mainstream forms of music, from the avant-garde jazz of such musicians as The Revolutionary Arts Ensemble, Sun Ra and the Cosmic Space Arkestra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago to the then new music of composers such as Philip Glass, Glen Branca and Rhys Chatham, as well as the burgeoning punk scene and such bands as The Dead Boys, Richard Hell and the Voidoids and Television. One day I wrote an article that attempted to summarize something that I felt all these different forms of music had in common and we called the article “Important Fun.”

Not so long ago, at a family retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh, a young child asked him, “What do you do for fun?” Thay looked genuinely puzzled at first, and then said, “Everything I do is fun.” We all laughed of course, but as usual, the Zen Master was trying to point out an important lesson for those of us who could hear it. Is it possible that sitting and walking meditation could be “fun?” Could living mindfully be approached in a spirit of fun? Perhaps even more importantly, might Thay be telling us that practice should in some way be fun?

The article I wrote years ago was prompted by the release of the first album by The Clash, and what I had then attempted to say was that what all this non-mainstream “new music” had in common was that it had something important to say to those with the ears to hear. And, that as important as its message might be, it didn’t have to be taken somberly or overly seriously and intellectualized. We could enjoy the music and have fun listening and dancing to it, not in spite of its importance, but as an element of its importance. Like the old adage says, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”

A friend recently wrote me an e-mail, and at the bottom was written, “Angels take themselves lightly; that’s why they can fly.” It reminded me of something I heard Pema Chodron say once, that awakening is also known as “en-lighten-ment” and that means we should “lighten up.” After all, if yoga practice is meant to free us from the delusion of self: what Patanjali calls asmita, (the sense of “I-am-ness”) then taking ourselves seriously is a major cause of duhkha and perpetuates the false sense of separation and alienation.

I think that there is nothing more important than waking up from our delusion that we are separate beings, existing autonomously like little isolated monads living our lives apart from the totality. AND, taking ourselves seriously, and all that happens to us personally, are among the fundamental mistakes that keep us in the delusion of bondage! So I have found that the ability to laugh at our human foibles is a very important form of practice.

Whether I am sitting in formal meditation, or simply being mindful of the thoughts floating through this mind I call “mine,” I am amazed at how crazy the show can be. If I don’t resist and attempt to suppress it, AND if I don’t grasp and cling to it, it can all be fairly entertaining! I find myself sometimes wondering, “Where does all this stuff come from! I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!”

Some dictionary meanings of the word “fun,” seem more relevant to practice than others. For instance, “enjoyment; something that provides amusement; whimsical; playfully; play” all seem to point to an attitude we can find in practice if we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Meanings such as “diversion; violent and excited activity; tomfoolery; jest” and “nonsense” seem less relevant – unless of course one is speaking about the contents of one’s mind!

When practicing asana, for instance, I have found that maintaining a “lightness of mind” around asana – especially the more challenging, difficult postures, actually allows me to enjoy the process whether I “successfully” attain the desired goal or not. It’s also true that with that “lightness of mind” I often do in fact attain the full manifestation of the posture with the ease and stability Patanjali encourages whereas if I strain or have tension in my mind, I am almost guaranteed to “fail.”

Of course, there is a lot of muscular effort in the performance of much asana practice, but the release of effort and the sense of relaxation that Patanjali speaks about in Book Two, Sutra 47 can still be applied to our mind and our mental approach to even the most challenging and difficult postures. As far as I am concerned, this greater flexibility and ease of mind is much more valuable than any greater flexibility I may develop in my body.

It is with this understanding of practice, that I encourage my students to “play” in the posture, rather than “work” in it or through it. This sense of play can help free us from the attachment to the outcome, and invites us to pay attention to the process. In a challenging and deeply thought-provoking book called, Finite and Infinite Games, philosopher James P. Carse tells us that there are at least two kinds of games: “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

Finite games require that there be winners and losers. In a finite game, the game comes to an end when someone wins. Finite games require definite boundaries in time and space. Infinite games are open-ended. Infinite game players may also “win” and “lose” but this “winning” and “losing” are in the service of continuing the play, not in ending it. Infinite games are played for the enjoyment of the playing. They are about the process.

Living a yogic life, for me, is playing an infinite game (lila or “divine play”) and with mindfulness, the dynamic process is itself of value. While there may be a “goal,” even that goal is not grasped as a final “state” but as the continuing process of awakening. It’s like the concept of “balance.” If we think “balance” is some final state to achieve, we are caught in concept and lose the reality. Stand in Vrikshasana (Tree) and see for yourself. Your standing foot is continually making subtle (and sometimes not so subtle!) adjustments. There is in fact no such thing as “balance,” but there is the process of “balancing!” If we “lighten up” our approach, and let go of the notion of attaining some final state of “balance,” we can enjoy the playful process of “balancing.”

The twin concepts of abhyasa and vairagya are pertinent here. All yogic action involves the braided actions of continued applied effort and the letting go of attachment. In meditation, we observe the object of meditation, whether it is your breath or mantra or some other object. When the mind wanders, we notice the wandering and gently return to the object of meditation. And then we repeat these simple steps billions of times! If there is irritation and frustration, self-judgment and recrimination, this makes meditation terribly painful. This is all effort (abhyasa) and no letting-go (vairagya). This makes a chore of meditation – and a painful one at that! With vairagya, we cultivate “lightening up” and find we can enjoy the process. Freedom is not contingent on any conditions. It is here and now or nowhere and never!

Freedom and happiness are not found in some future time or other place. They are found here/now, and here/now is always changing. My hope is that you may find real pleasure and real fun in this most important matter of birth and death, the real field of yogic action (kriya-yoga).

.: posted by Poep Sa Frank Jude 9:56 AM

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