Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Life, happiness, and the pursuit of liberty...

One of the interesting paradoxes of ashtanga practice is that the more regimented and disciplined I am, the freer I become.  Somehow, keeping a strict schedule around the times I eat, practice, sleep, etc, frees up a lot of energy.  Maybe it's the virgo in me, or maybe it's a promise, a gift of making the commitment.  As the legend goes, many great philosophers, artists, scientists, inventors, athletes, etc. throughout history kept very regimented schedules and thereby eliminated as many mundane choices as possible for themselves in order to free up their energy to focus on the more substantial work at hand.  Having spent many years of my life sleeping and eating at irregular times, exercising irregularly, working at odd times, I can look back and see how enslaved I was by this 'freedom' to do what I wanted whenever I wanted.  Now that I'm disciplined and consistent in how I conduct and apply my focus throughout the day and where I spend my energy and mindspace, I feel legitimately at ease and joyful and approaching something resembling freedom.  I think part of this freedom is the result of making an internal shift in my intention for the practice from being a physical exercise to a devotional one.  I also think this freedom is in the quality of experience itself, allowing for much greater depth and opening a whole wide range of possibilities within the consistency of the framework I have created for my life. 

There is a saying, "Chance favors the prepared mind."  It is through consistently applied effort that we become open to chance, or grace, or any of the infinite possibilities to touch the awesomeness of the world.  And this reminds me of the Tibetan Buddhist and Bön view of Dzogchen, where a person is capable of achieving spontaneous realization, or enlightenment.  Some may make a cursory interpretation of that and reply that they'll just keep living any way they damn well please because if enlightenment comes spontaneously, what's the point of putting forth effort.  But dig a little deeper into the Dzogchen literature, and there's a huge emphasis on ripening ourselves through consistent practice, so that spontaneous realization is even possible.  This ripening and spontaneity are both deeply rooted and grow from our consistently applied effort.

The concept of ripening really resonates with me and is something I've thought a lot about in terms of my artistic/creative process and in terms of my experiences in life in general.  John Dewey's philosophical work on aesthetic experience is particularly relevant in this context (every context, really).  While Dewey talks in terms of art, he is really painting a picture of the possibilities for human beings in every area of our lives.  He argues that art is not some thing separate from us, that we put in special places like museums or galleries, but that it can be found in every moment of our lives, in the sunset and rainstorm and even in the act of cleaning our house.  For Dewey, we are capable of engaging our world in such a way as to cultivate very rich, some would say even mystical or transcendent, experiences.  There is a continual doing and undergoing which characterizes our interaction with our environment.  The more consciously we engage that process, the more those moments build up to a consummatory moment, or an experience.  According to Dewey, an exerperience is the sign, the result, and the reward of our active and alert commerce with the world.  He goes on to explain that what artists do when they make a work of art is express this consummatory moment onto canvas or page or whatever the medium.  He uses the term express as in squeezing forth the juice of a grape in order to make wine.  Think about that in terms of our experiences.  We gather up experiences over time in a continual process of doing and undergoing until those moments reach a crescendo and are expressed - squeezed forth - by us into some new form.  There is very much an emphasis on conscious cultivation of our way of being in the world so as to ripen ourselves and our experiences.  The process of ripening naturally entails a distillation of our experiences down to the most relevant and essential parts.  While art is a convenient and clear way to talk about this process, Dewey's view, I think, is ultimately a deeply spiritual task and one that, when applied consistently, can free us from many of the burdens and sorrows of the human condition.

So what do Dzogchen and Dewey have to do with keeping a disciplined, consistent schedule?  Consistency in our daily routines allows all those ten thousand little mundane things to fall away into the background static.  We don't have to concern ourselves with making those choices anew every single day, freeing an immense amount of energy and mindspace to focus on more substantial endeavors.  This sort of cconsistency paradoxically allows for greater spontaneity, because we become more tuned into the ever-increasing subtleties and nuance of our experiences where infinitely greater possibilities present themselves.  We see this benefit in the ashtanga practice itself because as we do the same sequence of asanas every day over a period of time, we become very tuned into the subtle shifts from day to day.  As our awareness of increasing levels of nuance is heightened, our experiences become even richer and more substantial, distilled down to the most essential parts.  The continuity of our sustained efforts, over time, nurtures the sort of ripening of experience that is central to both Dzogchen and Dewey.  Every moment becomes replete with a fullness that alternately emerges and falls away, like the breath's inhale and exhale.  Our engagement with this process is able to be sustained indefinitely over time, allowing the consummation of our efforts to bear even greater fruit and varied forms of expression.  And these experiences have a quality of freedom which was previously inaccessible to us.  Like experience itself is the sign, the result, and the reward for our active engagement with the world, this freedom is the promise and the gift of our commitment.

Sunset over the canyonlands near Moab. photo by Laura Lea Nalle
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, 
the chance to draw back-- 
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), 
there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which 
kills countless ideas and splendid plans: 
that the moment one definitely commits oneself, 
then Providence moves too. 
All sorts of things occur to help one 
that would never otherwise have occurred. 
A whole stream of events issues from the decision, 
raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents 
and meetings and material assistance, 
which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. 
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. 
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.  

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