Suddenly today, it feels like spring. There’s a warm breeze through the back door, and the sky is bright clear blue. Lots of pleasant sense contact, mindfulness might note. Yum. Often nowadays, especially in busy periods where I have less time for formal meditation practice (on the cushion, on the mat), my practice gets really simple. (Maybe it should be this simple all the time…) I’ll just notice, while biking between things, or in a pause between conversations, or looking up from the screen or a book, something. Looking up just now, sitting outside the Emeryville Amtrak station waiting for a train, I see the sky, people, reflections of sky on windows, trees and flags fluttering in the breeze. I hear a couple guys with strong accents talking, I hear the station announcement voice, and the traffic from the freeway to the west as a constant soft roar. And often, as now, I’ll think, “Yeah, right. Things are happening. It’s like this.”
It’s a really simple, but real, practice. And though the Buddha taught techniques of liberation for 45 years, he always came back to this seemingly simple instruction. That if we actually take the information coming in our senses at face value — if we just let the eyes see, and the ears hear, and the mind think, and the body sense — without getting caught up in interpreting, judging, preferring, and of course the kickers: grasping and pushing away, that we’ll not only be happier, but will begin to understand where all our unhappiness comes from. And that understanding naturally blossoms as freedom. This liberation through seeing clearly and not getting in the way is the heart of what the Buddha, and later Patañjali — the author of the Yoga Sutra — taught.
So this month I want to encourage us to uncomplicate. If yoga asana is your primary practice, what’s it like to let go of some of the stuff you may have built up around your practice: intentions, community, devotion, acrobatics, fabulous music… and just do the poses? All that other stuff is important and wonderful, so it’s not about discarding anything, but what’s the heart of what you do on the mat? You bring the body into the pose, the heart and mind into the body, and be fully present. Beautiful. Do it. If sitting meditation is your thing, what’s the heart of that? Some mornings I’ll ignore the incense, the candle, the bowing, the perfect cushion and shawl arrangement, all the stuff I love to do and which works to settle my mind for the sitting. Forget it. I just walk into our practice space and sit down. No big deal. Now I’m sitting. Breathing. Here.
Sometimes even the practice room, with its Buddhas and cushions and sweet calm energy feels like extra. Why go anywhere? It’s all here. People. Breath. Body. Sky. When the Buddha found himself completely free from unhappiness, after long practice and struggle, and after finally finding the practice of deep easeful observation that led to his realization, his instinct was to not tell anyone. “This is too subtle”, he thought, “too simple”. “Nobody will get it.” Upon further reflection (or a visit from Sakka, the king of the Gods, if you want to go there), he changed his mind. If he could see it, others also could. He was right.
“It’s like this” is a brilliant sum-it-all-up phrase taught by the Buddhist elder Ajahn Sumedho that enacts this recognition. No matter what’s happening, whether I like it or not, whether it’s simple or many layered, there’s always the possibility to just acknowledge the situation As It Is. “It’s like this.” Simple. And in times of distress and intensity (as we’re promised this Dragon year will bring), this response is just as useful. “OK! This is not what I wanted! Wow! Now this is happening! It’s like this!”
Notice that this sense-based, body-based response to your situation is not solution-focused. While skillful action in relation to challenging situations is necessary, a deep freedom can come from not trying to fix our situation. “It’s like this” feels great when it’s all sky and nice breezes, but what about when it’s heartbreak and betrayal, injury and harm? How can we be present with that which is not right (when someone is harming someone else, in the presence of injustice)? It’s difficult to do, but we must. First, know what’s happening. “It hurts.” Then, do the right thing. Usually, “it’s like this” will provide the moment of space and clarity to be able to assess the situation more wisely than we might if we skip that step and go right into action.
It’s been an intense month in the yoga world, not to mention the larger world outside our sweet Bay Area. Looking at the news, inner and outer, and all the sorrow in the world, I take a breath, look up, and for a moment, just see what’s happening. Yes, Virginia, it’s like this.