With the avalanche of presents unwrapped and packed away, the tokens we exchanged this year will vanish into daily life. Shelved, stacked, stored, scarfed, spent, and stuffed: the gifts we got and gave fade into the montage of memories from seasons past.
The quietude of the week before New Year's Eve offers a chance to breathe and reflect before we flip the calendar forward. Using this time to refocus our priorities and distill our intentions, we have a chance to prepare a truly precious gift that will last the whole year long.
As the Buddha taught, that precious gift is our presence. Presence, in this sense, is more than showing up or sticking around. It isn’t dependent on getting stuff done, seeing things through, or packing life in. It doesn't pass judgment on our hours, distinguishing quality time from regular time and regular time from wasted time. It embraces every single moment and engages us fully in the practice of being.
Presence is mindful attention, complete engagement with the experience of living. It is the energetic embrace of where we find ourselves right now. To be present is to dwell in the sensation of being in the world and to openly encounter the momentary what, where, who that surrounds us in every discernible dimension.
As the greatest gift we can give ourselves, presence centers us and balances our perception. Evolutionarily hardwired to focus on red flags—problems that run the spectrum from inconveniences to mortal threats—our attention often wakes to confront unpleasantness. Left unchecked, this reflex can dim our view of ourselves and everything around us. In yoga, we don't notice all the poses we glide through, but we beat ourselves up over the asanas that make us struggle. In life, we discount what works out for us, but we fixate on whatever goes the least bit wrong.
This selective engagement warps our experience of the world. How can we feel great about life when we don't notice the bus unless it's late, the soup unless it's cold, the work unless it's wrong, the news unless it's grim, the interaction unless it hurts? Unconsciously aware of this negative preoccupation, we fill our lives with diversions that we hope will hold our attention in a much more pleasing way. We seek focus and engagement in everything from dates to movies to yoga to sky diving. We sign on for anything that promises to make us feel alive, a phrase that stands in for how we feel when present. Unfortunately, as much as we enjoy these vivid bursts, unless we maintain our mindful attention these fleeting moments are just snapshots of our passing lives.
Even if we perversely prefer slipping in and out of consciousness because we’re resistant to being fully present in our daily lives, (it's not unusual to feel this way and the impulse behind it may be worth exploring), mindful presence is a gift we should cultivate to share with others. When we tune in briefly just to deal with problems, the people on the receiving end of our abrupt attention experience the negativity that has forced us to focus. In the case of children and those who crave connection, this negative flood of attention may seem better than getting none at all. Unfortunately, this channels the natural instinct to seek love into the destructive impulse to transgress. Imagine the energy that would be freed to build, explore, share, and cherish if this negative cycle were replaced with a supportive, steady stream of presence.
Moreover, imagine the nurturing energy and reaffirming solace you could offer the lonely, the numb, the discouraged, the bitter, and the lost just by being conscious in our common space. Think of the sleepwalkers who might wake and all the lives that just might bloom.
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May the new year dawn to find you present.
May you rise to greet it, wide awake.
As we approach the winter solstice, we find ourselves moving through the darkest days of the calendar year. Responding to the absence of the sun, we gravitate towards anything that makes the darkness brighter. We light candles, gather by the fire, decorate with strands of bulbs. This instinctive attraction to light not only reveals our natural need for illumination, it betrays our belief that the light we seek is out there.
We are like the king in the Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad, who once asked a sage, "What serves as the light for man?" and who bristled when the sage replied, "The light of the sun, Your Majesty."
"But what about when the sun sets?" the king asked, still feeling anxious. The sage invoked the moon to reassure the sovereign. The king listened, but he shook his head. "No, no, the moon also sets, and what light does man have when it's gone?" The sage shrugged and pointed to the fire, but it also failed to satisfy the king, who lamented that no flame burns forever.
"Speech, then," said the sage.
"But what about when speech stops?" The king quibbled.
The sage smiled, for at last they had arrived at the heart of the matter: When the sun and moon have set, the fire is gone, and speech is silenced, what light does a person have then?
"The self, indeed, is his light," said the sage. "With the self as the light, one sits, moves about, does one's work and returns."
As the sage in the story revealed, the light to cultivate and live by shines within. Powered by the network of energy flowing through us, it is our constant comfort in the darkness—the light that never goes out. The more we can learn to trust our light and identify with the energy behind it, the less we will fret about the shadows cast by fear, pain, lack, and death.
Psychology, self-help books, and spiritual guides have made much of the distinctions between the body, the mind, the ego, the consciousness, the spirit, and the soul. Definitions abound for each concept and semantics spur endless confusion and debate. To make it simple, I focus on the light that shines in all of us, which is a byproduct of the common network of energy that flows through all creation. I think of our lights as being bulbs on a strand—each of us glowing individually but together, like a series of Christmas lights on an infinite string.
In my metaphor, the bulb is the body and consciousness is the power that flows through it. This power is infinite, impersonal, eternal, and shared. The light in the bulb comes from the power of consciousness energizing our ego, which channels the energy but radiates some of it in the process of acting out our will in the world.
The current would exist without the bulbs. The light would move through the universe in a different form. But our lives give us the chance to engage the energy that flows through us. Our physicality, our agency, and our individuality enable us to give that energy expression. No matter how trivial or transient, our thoughts and actions radiate. In effect, they glow.
The resulting light show is enlightening. Next time you find yourself in a crowd of people, pick out the string of lights and feel the current flowing through it. When the darkness closes in at dusk, feel your own light shining steady and look around to trace the energetic strand. The shadows recede when we see ourselves connected to this illuminated web.
The Upanishads use the metaphor of the string that runs through all creation to explain the interdependence of our being and its timeless connection to the universe. The writers assert that “Man is a bead strung on the thread of the conscious self, and just as puppets are worked by strings, so the world is operated by the thread spirit.” Imagine that the thread is spun from energy and the bead is a bulb strung on its infinite strand.
The Upanishads describe the thread spirit as the undifferentiated, abstract energy that powers everything and runs through all of us. It is the unconditioned, undifferentiated self—a self so pure and abstract that it is more easily described by enumerating what it’s not. This unconditioned self, the energy, the thread spirit, the current of consciousness that we all share is beyond speech and mind. It channels eternal knowledge and power. In the Upanishads, it is called the inner controller, the Imperishable Supreme Self, that which is free to flow everywhere and appear in different forms.
Identifying with this energy and fully inhabiting this dimension of our self frees us from fear, pain, lack, and death. Urging us to identify with the strand instead of the bulb, the Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad remarks that this supreme self “is indestructible for it cannot be destroyed. It is unattached for it does not attach itself. It is unfettered. It does not suffer. It is not injured. It has reached the state of fearlessness." The bulb may break or burn out, but the strand of energy is fluid and eternal.
It does not know darkness; it is the origin of universal light.
Through these darker days, may we all remember to connect to our consciousness, to draw on its boundless energy, and to take comfort in its constant illumination.
Rushing around, decorating, visiting, entertaining, shopping, wrapping, traveling—it's hard not to feel swept away as the energy around us builds to a frenzied climax in this last month of the year. With so much vying for our time and attention, we can start to feel exhausted and overwhelmed before the holidays are even here. Every December I watch my students speed into class and dart out again, leaping out of savasana to dash off to the next obligation. And those are the ones I see, as opposed to the yogis who vanish until the new year.
Whatever our inner emotional state going into December, the commotion around us hits a fever pitch in the city. Crowds swell. Quiet fades. Advertising encroaches. Needs, desires, hopes, and wishes charge the air with an emotional electricity. It's a frenetic energy fed by the alternating current of social conditioning and commercial marketing. If we don't take care of ourselves, holiday expectations can exhort us and extort us until eventually we're spent.
Masquerading as a pleasant distraction, this holiday programming can cause spiritual static and emotional distortion. The emphasis on outward fulfillment, happiness, perfection, and excess can raise specters of anxiety, disappointment, guilt, and want. This irony isn't lost on brain scientists, who annually serve up a feast of research suggesting that the happiest time of the year often isn't.
Luckily our practice can help. Giving ourselves time to breathe and stretch every day can help us break through the commercial messaging, turn our focus inward, check in with our feelings, embrace our circumstances, find our balance, and manage our stress and expectations. The end of another year naturally brings mixed feelings and anxious energy. There's so much to do and so much that will inevitably be left undone. There's so much to share and celebrate. And sometimes there are matters to release and mourn. It's a lot to process, but with yoga we need not sort it out alone. When we practice, we find union with ourselves and with each other. Reaffirmed by this togetherness, we can channel our year-end energy without giving into seasonal madness. Rebalanced, we can find calm within the churning crowd. Relieved, we can shrug off suffocating expectations. Reminded, we can love ourselves and each other as we are right now.
The pose of the month for December is camatkarasana, which translates literally as "the ecstatic unfolding of the enraptured heart." I call it starfish and chose it because it reminds me of the sacred star shape that appears across traditions at this time of year, the symbol of a light that comes from the heavens yet shines from within. Like ustrasana, camel pose, which we celebrated in November, starfish is a heart-opener and a heart-offering. It challenges us to move from our center, to balance outward from our core, to express ourselves freely, and to share our heart-light with the world.
My wish for the holidays is that camatkarasana offers everyone in the TogetherYoga community nothing less than its namesake, that it brings forth in all of us an ecstatic unfolding of our enraptured hearts--and that we find our hearts enraptured not because of sales and gifts and trips and parties, but because we exist, individually and together.
We will practice starfish in class this month, but here's how to find your way into the pose on your own. First, move into a downward dog after a good warm-up sequence. It's important that your muscles have built up some heat and that your back is ready to arch. From downward dog, bring your right knee to your left elbow. Shift your weight onto your right arm as you slide your right leg under your left. Release your left hand from the ground and raise it into the air, lifting your chest and hips as your weight moves onto your left leg. Keep lifting your hips and arching your back as you open your chest to the sky. Imagine your heart beaming its light up at the ceiling. Allow your chin to lift as you lengthen your spine from your shoulders to your hips. Keep reaching out with your left arm to open the muscles that envelop your ribs. Hang there for a few moments and let your heart just shine.