Ganesh: Remover of Obstacles

This past Friday I had the fortunate opportunity to hear visiting yogi James Boag entertain and enlighten a small group of us at our local Lulu Bandha’s yoga center with stories with about the birth of Ganesha, first child of Shiva and Parvati. And, as James is a cosmic guy, the stories fit right into our on-going theme of working with obstacles and discovering skillful means of transforming their energies. In the Indian tradition, Ganesh is the ultimate remover of obstacles.

ganeshaThere are several variations on the story of Ganesha’s birth. Click here for a short one. James’ version was much more detailed and nuanced, and included Shiva’s ace warrior, Vira Bhadra, well celebrated by the asana crowd. In James’ version, Vira Bhadra is the one who lops of Ganesha’s head, not Shiva.  Ganesha had easily defeated all the other warriors Shiva sent to bring back Parvati. But Vira Bhadra, no ordinary warrior, has the power of 360 vision, symbolizing the wisdom of experience and maturity. Ganesh, being youthful, never sees him coming, as he has locked into a single idea (his mother must not be disturbed), and gets stuck there. This is the immaturity of youth, which costs him his head! When Ganesh gains a new head, that of an elephant, it symbolizes a new maturity, and Ganesh has become one of the most popular of all the Indian deities

As in all Indian mythology, the Ganesha story and his imagery is loaded with layers of meaning. Here are some of the aspects of Ganesha relevant to us and represented in his iconography.

1. His broad crown is an invitation to think big. (Do not settle for less than ‘Moksha’ or Enlightenment. Go ‘all in’ on the awakening process.)

2.The tiny eyes speak of the importance of concentration and attention to detail for success in any foray. Clarity, alertness and discrimination are key skills in the world of form. The Universe sometimes speaks in subtleties, and every layer of reality is alive with hints and clues to deepening the awakening process. And remember, the hints may not necessarily be pleasant or easy to accept either.

3. The huge elephant ears and small mouth suggest listening more and talking less. Listening at all levels, gaining sensitivity in all sensory modalities, and the extra-sensory ones as well, takes practice (sadhana). Continually dropping our own beliefs and thoughts to rest in emptiness, and not believing the inner dialogue of the small self are forms of vairagya.

4. Ganesha has only one tusk, with the other broken off. This symbolizes the importance of holding on only to the good and discarding the bad. Abhyasa and vairgyam appear again.

5. The trunk of Ganesha symbolizes the importance of being efficient and adaptable in order to be successful in one’s ventures. The curvature is also said to represent the rising of the kundalini powers. We have a limited amount of energy available to us in this life. Use it efficiently, wisely, carefully. The kundalini will take care of itself. It is natural and spontaneous with cosmic alignment.

6. His large belly points to the necessity of digesting all that life has to offer—the good, the Ganesh2bad, and the ugly. To conquer all obstacles we must accept all obstacles. If we see them as teachers, or as spiritual nourishment (eat your spinach!), we can live fully and freely. It is all ‘us’ anyway. Purnamadah, purnamidam!

7. The abhaya mudra (gesture of fearlessness) of his lower right hand symbolizes Ganesh’s blessings and protection on a person’s journey through life, especially the spiritual one. There is always help available if you ask. Ganesh is an aspect of your own higher self, as are all the deitiies, devas and demons, so don’t be shy about asking.

8. In His upper right hand, Ganesh usually holds an axe, with which He is said to cut off all attachments. Anything that prevents you from recognizing your own innate freedom is an attachment. We do not need them. And once you cut them off, they do not necessarily go away immediately. They may hang around, but at least they are no longer stuck to you.

9. He pulls the devotee nearer to the spiritual path by the rope that He carries in His upper left hand. In the beginning we need to be led along, as it is easy to get lost in the world of greed and self-delusion. Teachings, teachers, and the sangha all help herd us along the path.

10. In his lower left hand he holds the rewards he offers for practices (sadhana) done, a 220px-Ellora-caves-1sweet confection known as modak, usually made from rice flour and a stuffing of jaggery, coconut and more. The world of form is divine. Pravati, mother of Ganesh, is the goddess of mothering and nurturing, and mothers want their children to eat well. Parvati, along with Saraswati, goddess of knowledge and learning, and Lakhshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, make up the trinity of Indian goddesses. This carving from the Ellora Caves near Aurangabad, India, depicts the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.

11. The bowls and baskets of offerings at Ganesh’s feet are there to symbolize that the entire world, and all its choicest pleasures, are out there for the taking. Practice is not self-abnegation. It is celebration of wholeness and fullness, with, discrimination, wisdom and compassion.

kroncha12. Ganesh’s tiny pet and vehicle, Mushika, his mouse,  is usually bowing down close by,  indicating that though a little desire is good, it is essential for one to master it. You have to ride your desires and not vice versa. How can a huge elephant ride on a tiny mouse? Or be pulled in a chariot by him? Ganesh is very light, in spite of his size and strength. And mushika is pretty strong as well. And Mushika, Photo on 6-29-15 at 6.01 PMbecause he is tiny, can carry Ganesha’s grace into every nook and cranny of creation.

This week you can invoke your own inner “Ganesh” and see what happens.

The Yin and Yang of Spiritual Practice

Last week we looked at the obstacles that crop up for the more experienced students Patanjali addresses in the Samaadhi Paada, the first of the four chapters that cover the study of yoga. For those of us here, the awakening is proceeding along, but as we quickly realize, awakening Unknownis the beginning of yoga, not the end goal. Years of karma and negative psychological and emotional habits do not just disappear, but, with proper understanding and continued practice, they can become food for spiritual growth. Add in the societal and planetary karmic challenges we also face and there is nourishment for all of us for many incarnations to come.

So, how do we develop proper understanding and practice? Patanjali jumps in with both feet to help us right at the beginning of the Samadhi Pada. In sutra I-12, abhyaasa-vairaagyaabhyaam tan-niroddhah ,he introduces the ‘yin and yang of spiritual practice, abhyaasa and vairagyam, as the primary upayas (skillful means) to attenuate these habits and stabilize the samadhi state.  “The negative vrittis (described in the previous sutras) are resolved through practice and dispassion.”

Abhyaasa describes how to invest your your embodied energy, be it physical, psychological, emotional, relational, or spiritual (which essentially covers all of these.) Patanjali’s advice; invest your energy in stabilizing your spiritual health. I-13: tatra sthitau yatno’bhyaasah. The Sanskrit root ‘stha’ shows up every where in the spiritual teaching of India and indicates stability, steadiness and stillness. Sthira sukham asanam, II-46, is well known to hatha yogis. In chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes ‘sthita prajna, stable wisdom, as the goal of life to Arjuna.  (See also PYS: I-35, II-18, II-39, III-31).

Modern neuroscience also has a deep appreciation for the need to stabilize emotionally healthy mind states, and how growth and development requires the capacity to stabilize new learning in the process of integration. (See all writings by Dan Siegel, Rick Hanson etc). From Hebb’s Axiom we know that continuous attention brings stability. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In sutras I-33 – I-39, Patanjali gives us our meditation practice many possible neuronal pathways to ‘attend to’ and stabilize the healthy states. An ‘awakened’, i.e., ‘heart centered’ hatha yoga practice is another powerful way to build a healthy form of spiritual stability. As we will see a bit later, our choices off the mat also offer the opportunity to practice ‘abhyaasa’.

Because what we pay attention to over and over ‘sticks’ in the mind field, for better or worse, Patanjali also includes vairagyam, dispassion, with abhyaasa. Here, dispassion Unknown-1means the recognizing of the unhealthy psychological, emotional and spiritual patterns that we are habituated to, and consciously choosing, through mindful awareness, to stop ‘feeding’ those patterns with energy. If we use a river as a metaphor for the flow of energy through the mind field, vairagyam is the intelligence, the buddhi,  building dams, barriers or gates to direct the flow of mental energy away from the fields of suffering, while abhyasa creates new channels to send that energy to places that are healing, nurturing and stimulating to Unknown-2growth and further awakening. This takes a lot of ‘self study’ as we have to learn to discriminate between healthy (flowing through our heart) and unhealthy (flowing through our egoic or self centered beliefs) habits and actions. Sometimes, especially on the subtle levels and when it comes to our relationships with family and friends, this is not at all clear .

Therefore, in addition to our personal practice, our relational, cultural and societal choices are also included cultivating stability and dispassion. After a long day at work, we could choose to go to a bar, or a yoga class. We can work to find a collection of friends and mentors that support and nurture our spiritual aspirations. Every time we meet and are relating another human being, a social group, or any living being, we have the chance to practice mindful awareness and choose, as best possible, to channel our energies through the heart field and not our whiny, self defensive egoic structures. Moment to moment, say yes to this, no to that. In this way habits change through conscious choice and the awakening stabilizes creatively and dynamically.

Boston Students Blog: 6/16/15

Open your heart center, ground the energy into Mother Earth, expand the energy to meet Father Sky, light up all the chakras, and be a radiant presence as you live your life’s purpose. Sure, no problem. Sounds easy, but, as we all know, NOT!

imagesSo what gets in the way? What are the obstacles that prevent us from ‘being our ‘Selves”. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he describes five ‘kleshas’ or afflictions (sutra II-3), which we will cover next week, and nine distractions, the citta-vikshepas  (sutra I-30) we will look at today. The root of all of these challenges is unconscious or habituated patterns of behavior.

Humans are creatures of habit. Our nervous systems are organized to allow habituation so we do not have to ‘re-invent the wheel’ in the many aspects of our lives that are repetitive. Theoretically, this frees up the mind to ‘pay attention to’ the creative impulse of the moment, in every moment. In Sanskrit, the ‘manas’ handles the pre-learned patterns so the ‘buddhi’ can be spontaneously alive. But the buddhi has to be ‘awake’, or ‘mindful’, to use a popular modern word. When we are totally on auto-pilot, we are, of sorts, ‘mindless’. And it is amazing how much can get done in this state! Habits are not a totally negative phenomenon, if we can integrate the buddhi/intelligence into manas and create ‘healthy’ habits. But we can also be hi-jacked by unconscious emotional patterns, often of traumatic origin, and these are even more insidious than mindlessness. Can we make our ‘default state’ the ‘open heart’?, moment to moment, whatever arises, or at least have this as a goal, something to aspire to. This is why we practice.

Our yoga practice is a fun place to watch to unfolding of habit in all of its glory and how quickly it sneaks in. We are trying to be more and more centered in the heart, in the light body, but as this realm is not so ‘tangible’, the mind quickly wants to grab onto something familiar, (tight groin, lower back ache, etc,) and then engage in a ‘familiar pattern’ of action, struggling with the discomfort, trying to make it go away. Or perhaps we fall back upon our well rehearsed set of instructions we have learned about the pose and, without even realizing it, become mechanical. This does allow us to plan the rest of our day in the middle of practice! Staying present requires discipline. Because our work is somatic, the emotional patterns are continually being brought to the surface, unless we have developed the habit of repressing them. This ‘spiritual by-pass is not uncommon, so we have to stay present to this as a possibility moment to moment.

In your practice today, in any and every pose, as best possible, sustain the heart center as the root of structure and energy. When your attention is centered on the structural level, feel how the heart energy and fields, as best possible, support the structure. When working with energy, feel the effects of structure and fields on the energy flow. When you are able to ‘rest in the fields’, the infinite stillness will begin to stabilize in the structures and energy flow. This will change from pose to pose. Some are easier than others. Some are much more habituated in struggle.

Next take this into your unfolding life experiences. See which of the following ‘distractions is most appropriate to you in the moment. Some will be very familiar, other less so. Find a way to transform the ‘habit’ of being ‘out of tune’, with the ‘habit’ of staying present.

The nine ‘distractions’ of Patanjali:

1. Illness, (vyaadhi) this is obvious. Not feeling well is exhausting. Staying present to the unpleasant state, and the whining that usually accompanies this, with some humor and compassion, is a great ‘habit’ to practice.

2. Mental idleness/procrastination, (styaana): Great idea. Let’s start working on this this tomorrow. (But it’s never tomorrow! Only Now. Oh!) Plant the seed thought “now , now, now. Patanjali calls these seed thoughts ‘nirodha vrttis in the Vibhuti Pada.

3.Doubt, (samshaya): I can’t feel any of this. What’s the point? This is too subtle for me. All of this ‘spiritual stuff is just projection and fantasy. (Is it? Really? Where is your awakened imagination? How much time have you actually invested in open minded, open hearted practice?)

Now, doubt can be healthy, when applied by a mature mind. Naivete can be a problem in spiritual practice as it is easy to ‘surrender’ to the guru before your buddhi has matured. Being able to discriminate spiritual bullshit from spiritual truth is a skill to be cultivated and some doubt is helpful. There is no shortage of spiritual charlatans around. But, doubt has to be used wisely.

Doubt can also be used wisely as an antidote to bhraanti-darshana (see below). The egoic mind will draw all kinds of wild conclusions around spiritual ‘experiences’. Be sceptical of all of your ‘thoughts’.

4.Negligence, (pramaada): ignoring the practice, even though you know it helps. But it is too frustrating trying to be still, says the mind. You are stillness! Not to worry. To quote Jon Kabatt-Zinn speaking to a captivated audience in Boston several years ago:
” Just fucking do it!!!” Discipline again is required. In the Sadhana Pada, Patanjali gives

5. Physical and mental heaviness or laziness, (aalasya): The preponderance of tamas or inertia. I do not have the energy to initiate a practice. Dull complacency. How do I find a spark, a kick in the ass, to get me moving? A taste of reality should do the trick.

6. Over-attachment to pleasure, (aavirati): Practice is most effective when life is not going so well. Spirituality is not about always feeling good, or always being good. It is about being real. What human in the history of the planet has not wanted some form of pleasure; as much as possible actually. But reality has other ideas. Even practice can be frustrating and unpleasant at times, especially when it takes us into our unexamined shadows. Your whole life is your practice. Do not run from discomfort, but meet it with an open heart and mind, and your intelligence. There may be a simple solution. Or not.

7. Philosophical confusion, (bhraanti-darshana): Wrong conclusions about practice and the spiritual journey are insidious in that we get very attached to them. They are like weeds; very difficult to uproot. We often draw conclusions early on, before we have much experience, and these ‘beliefs’ about what life and spirituality is supposed to be create lots of suffering. Meditation is about ‘stopping the mind’ is a classic mistake made by novices. Ego masquerading as buddhi is another more general confusion.

8. Failure to stabilize the mind, (a-labdha bhuumikatva): Literally, failure to attain samadhi, the first step in reining in the tamasic and rajasic tendencies of the mind. Also, failure to discover mindfulness as a practice. Many do not even realize that there are practices to stabilize the mind to allow self reflection and contemplation. Somatic practices are very powerful because they go right after the sense of feeling ground and safe in the body. The mind loves this.

9. Instatbility of sattva, (an-avasthitatvaani) Failure to sustain the stability of the sattvic state over a longer period of time. This is the only way to resolve the more challenging habits of mind and emotions. Notice the Sanskrit root ‘sthita’. Stability also has levels. Spiritual evolution keeps getting deeper and more coherent through stages of ‘transcend and include’. First I find stability in the gross body. Then the subtle body. Thirdly the causal body, or what we are calling the ‘Field” level. Ultimately, I am stable in the luminous emptiness of the infinite. In reality, these overlap, so one can be working on all  simulataneously. The Fields are faster and more inclusive than the energies. The energy body is faster and more inclusive than the gross. And that is more inclusive than the realm of disembodied thought, where many beginners live. The infinte light includes all.