Emptying the Sea: A Story of Tenacity, Community, and Compassion

I was in college studying philosophy and comparative religion when I had this revelation about myths and folklore and stories of all sorts.

We are always every character.

I don’t remember which brilliant professor planted this seed for me but I think about it all the time.

I mean this idea sort of changes how I see Goldilocks, you know? This particular story isn’t about Goldilocks but it is one of my favorites.*

Do I say that about every story? I think I might.

One day, two birds laid their eggs on the beach and then needed to get some food. After a short debate about whether or not they could trust the ocean, they decided to ask the ocean to watch over their eggs until they returned.

When the birds got back from their dinner, the eggs were gone. “Why oh why did we trust that guy? The ocean is so unpredictable. We should have known better!”

When they confronted the ocean about the missing eggs, he was devastated. “I’m so sorry! I meant to be reliable. I really did. I took the eggs to keep them safe and now I just don’t know where they are. I know I’m an unpredictable guy when it comes to stuff like this. I should have just been honest about who I am.”

The birds were distraught. The only solution was to empty the ocean to find their eggs. So they began, one beak full of water at a time.

Soon some other birds came by. When they heard what happened, they agreed to help empty the ocean to find the missing eggs, even though they had a bit of doubt about whether the task was even possible.

After awhile, an entire flock of birds had joined the effort, all of them taking one beak of water out of the ocean at a time.

Soon Garuda flew by with Vishnu on his back. When he saw what the birds were doing, he scoffed. “Look, Vishnu! What idiots! Those birds think they can empty the sea. They clearly don’t know the ocean is endless and can never be emptied. Fools!”

Vishnu chided Garuda, “Now, don’t be a jerk. Let’s land and see what they are doing. We might be able to help.”

When they landed, Garuda told the birds he thought they were fools. “It’s impossible to empty the ocean. You guys are really stupid. Give up on your lost eggs. You’ll never get the back.”

The birds were a tad crestfallen but still had a shred of hope. “We know it was a mistake to ask the sea to watch the eggs but we have all of these friends to help us. We’ve been at this for hours but maybe with all of us working together, we can empty just enough of the ocean to see our eggs and get them back?”

Vishnu had been listening to the exchange. “Birds,” he said, “I admire your perseverance and dedication and your hope. You’ve got a lovely community of friends here to help you.”

Then he turned to Garuda and said, “These birds deserve our compassion and kindness. They are working hard and trying their best. Bit by bit is the way to accomplish any task, even the ones that seem the most impossible. The challenging situations are the places that give us all the best opportunities for compassion.”

Vishnu then used his Divine vision to find and return the lost eggs to the birds, who were immensely grateful.

The birds who’d lost their eggs promised they would never leave their eggs unattended on shore again.

The ocean admitted that his true nature was unpredictability and that he wasn’t ever going to be reliable when it came to keep things safe and in one place.

The whole community of birds were bolstered by Vishnu’s commendations and felt good to be of help.

Vishnu felt confident is his assertions that bit by bit, even the seemingly impossible tasks can be manageable.

And Garuda learned his own lesson about his critical and judgmental ways and vowed to be more compassionate king of the birds.

Do you see what I mean when I say that we are every character?

We’ve all had those moments where we make a bad decision like the birds who left the eggs.

We’ve all denied our true nature like the ocean, took on more than we could handle, and let someone down.

We’ve all been in the community of helpers, who work at something that seems impossible.

We’ve all been the judgmental and critical Garuda who fails to find compassion.

We’ve even been Vishnu, with his kindness, wisdom, and Divine vision.

So. Who are you in this moment?

 

 


*Lately there has been a lot of provocative conversation in the yoga world about cultural appropriation, particularly around how white America has been inappropriately taking from Hinduism for profit, secularizing sacred stories, and making light of deeply important cultural references for Indians.

I am a white American woman. I have never visited India and I did not grow up in a Hindu home. I never wish to steal or claim any sacred stories as my own.

It is my intention to offer this version of this story with honor and care. I offer the stories of many traditions as a way to share their wisdom and insight with new audiences with the hope that we can all learn from them.

I’m sincerely open to any and all discussion around the topic of cultural appropriation and my role in it, positive and critical alike.

Time Is On Our Side

I’ve just returned from a retreat at one of my favorite places on the planet: Blue Mountain Retreat Center. There’s a funny thing that happens when I’m there. I totally lose track of time. It’s a bit inconvenient, especially when I’m running the retreat and responsible for keeping on the schedule. But it feels like retreats there are set in an unusual kind of timelessness.

clock with no handsThe super wise and brilliant teacher Machelle Lee once told me that when our nervous system switches into rest and digest (the parasympathetic side) instead of fight or flight (sympathetic), we lose track of time.

Or maybe more specifically, we lose track of our urgency around time.

While this isn’t exactly the kind of timelessness that the Mandukya Upanishad is talking about, it certainly reminds me of it. The Mandukya Upanishad proposes that Consciousness is beyond time.

Our mind’s state is divided as follows:

  • Outwardly focused
    We are only connecting to the external world – solving problems, getting things done, responding to information we receive from our senses.
  • Inwardly focused
    This is sometimes calls the dreaming state where we are replaying our past actions and desires.
  • Deep sleep
    This is described as a state when there are no actions and no desires.

It goes on to describe what happens when we become more fully aware in each of these three states:

The superconscious state is neither inward or outward, beyond the senses and the intellect…without parts, beyond birth and death…Those who know Consciousness become Consciousness itself.

One of my teachers, Judith Hanson Laster, talks about how difficult it is to get access to this kind of connection. She explains it like this: the body is always stuck in the past. It is a cumulative experience of all our past movements and lack of movements, injuries, bodily experiences.

Our mind is often concerned with the future. It’s pushing ahead to solve problems and be prepared for whatever we might be expecting to encounter or experience.

But our breath is our best place to get access to the present.

If we can connect mind, body, and breath together, we can stay steady and aware in the present.

supported savasanaStaying present is absolutely not possible when we are in a rush to do something or to get somewhere. When we can slow down and be in each step of the practice as we encounter it, we are cultivating a more purposeful kind of awareness in action and this is the launching point for access to this Consciousness described in the Mandukya Upanishad.

If you want to experience a kind of timelessness that happens on a restorative yoga retreat, registration for my winter retreat is now open!

From Fullness, Fullness Comes

pumpkins and mums

This weekend I pulled out the sweatshirts and flannels with great delight that the cooler weather has finally arrived. I put some pumpkins and mums (my favorite flowers!) on my porch and I considered how fall always feels like a time for organization, order, preparations, settling in.

Fall also always gets me thinking about abundance, specifically the invocation from the Isha Upanishad: 

 

“All this is full. All that is full.
From fullness, fullness comes.
When fullness is taken from fullness,
Fullness still remains.”

I have lots of favorite parts of the Upanishads but as a whole, the Isha Upanishad is my favorite. Purportedly It was Ghandi’s favorite, too. Ghandi did reference the Isha Upanishad in his writings, specifically about the implications for our social and economic structures if we were to take the Isha Upanishad’s message of abundance seriously.

Ghandi is famously quoted as saying “There is enough for everyone’s need, just not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Sometimes our yoga practice serves us best, perhaps after a particularly stressful week in the world, as a place for us to regroup and turn inward, as a place to recharge and practice self-care. It becomes a place that moves us in rhythm the energy of the fall, where we organize our bodies, our attention and it’s where we can gather in to what serves us as individuals.

But in Ghandi’s view our yoga practices should ultimately rest on the foundation of what is good for the collective, no matter what the season.

The Isha Upanishad’s point is that there is one consciousness that connects us all. We have equal access to it and equal right to experience it.

Even more than that, it is not a limited resource. This one consciousness is abundantly and constantly available to us. What kinds of implications does that have for the way we move through the world?

There is so much division and conflict right now, perhaps even in own families and even within ourselves, that I find a particular inspiration in words from Greek philosopher Plotinus’ Enneads, which sounds quite a bit like the Isha Upanishad’s message:

“Think of this One original source as a spring, self-generating, feeding all of itself to the rivers and not yet used up by them…When you pours over us, we are not dashed down but you raise us up. You are not spilled out, but collect us together.”

Diana's Bath, Bartlett, NH

On the matter of being in and out of a body

Not too long ago, one of my students had what she described as an “out-of-body experience” in a restorative yoga practice. It reminded me a bit of the experiences described by some of transcendental meditators that I used to hang around.

Those amazing yogis had the most intense meditation practices of anyone I’d ever known.

They were super far out, yearned to be in that space all the time, and specifically cultivated a meditation practice that would take them there at will. (On the flip side, most of them had a hard time paying the rent or being in committed relationships. But that came from never putting their energy or focus back down and into their daily lives.)

The yogi from my class who had the “out-of-body experience” said she firmly prefers the kind of yoga that puts her *into* body.

She jokingly said she was about to jump up out of savasana and into a triangle pose.

I told her a story from the Mundaka Upanishad about Shaunaka, a householder yogi. Shaunaka goes to his teacher and wants to know why he isn’t making more progress in his study of yoga. His teacher explains that while Shaunaka’s practice is steady and correct, he is succeeding in becoming master of only lower knowledge.

The Mundaka Upanishad goes on to explain in a very beautiful and poetic style, more beautiful than my retelling could do justice, the true purpose of yoga.

The benefits of yoga practice come when the student works toward mastering the Self.

My teachers have given me a similar chat about my own yoga practice. I’ve been stuck in asana-land these days and I recognized this experience in my student, too. We joked about it.

If just practice down dog long enough and in exactly the right way, we are sure to attain Self-realization eventually.

Ha! Neither of us believes for a second that yoga asana can take anyone to this place. That doesn’t mean yoga postures are a waste of time. Asana is a fantastic way to improve the health of body, and to get us more fully connected to the body. Asana has definitely helped me to recognize ways that my body and my perceptions of it are the causes of suffering.

But let me tell you first hand, it’s so much harder to face all of the stuff that comes bubbling up when the moving and posing stops.

Even the most complicated yoga posture feels like a breeze compared to those crazy demons that can come popping up in the quiet stillness.

I definitely can’t claim to have experienced any of the transcendent “out-of-body” experiences that my student or those meditators I used to know have had.

But it’s in the quiet times when I really start to dig into understanding the interworkings of Self.

And that’s when the practice of yoga really starts.