A poem by Hafiz of Shiraz, a 14th century Persian poet. The poetry of Hafiz was first translated into English in 1771. It spread through out the Western world, influencing American and European intellectuals from Henry David Thoreau to Friedrich Engles.
The sun will set in New York at 8:31 pm on the summer solstice. Weather permitting, it will shine down on us for 15 hours, 5 minutes, and 40 seconds before then. Not only is this solstice the longest day of the year, it brings us the closest we get to the star that sustains us, the mysterious nuclear reaction that is the source of all potential here on Earth.
In an impersonal universe, the sun is just the remnant of the massive collapse of a molecular cloud that gave birth to galaxies of other stars, many bigger and brighter than our own. It means the world to us, yet it's barely a speck on the Milky Way map. Miraculously, despite its relative insignificance in the universe, our celestial friend still anchors our solar system and lights up our lives. It shapes everything from our cells to our biorhythms to our imagination. It is at once a question and an answer and a question again to the how and why and where of our cosmic journey.
In the Vedic philosophy that forms the foundation of yoga, the sun is the source of all past and future creation on Earth. Drawing on this idea, Hatha yoga emphasizes the relationship between the sun and moon, creating a duality in which the sun represents strength, reason, order, and universality, while the moon symbolizes creativity, emotion, flexibility, and differentiation. In this special time around the solstice, the proximity of the sun to the Earth invites us to explore these images and to make our practice a moving metaphor for our connection to this life-giving star.
Hanging in space, we are utterly dependent on our nuclear neighbor. Born from destruction, creating order from chaos, burning to exhaustion, the sun is the ultimate symbol for the paradoxes of life and death, cycle and chance, eternity and finality. Its constant shine reminds us that energy is forever flowing and changing form, sparking creation from destruction, conception from collapse.
Celebrating the solstice through our practice, let us remember that our flow is an expression of the movement of energy through the universe. Our yoga is a union with that energy and all that springs from it. As the sun moves through the sky today, let's rejoice in the serendipity of our cosmic adventure and take comfort in the connection our practice cultivates with the energy of life.
Now that the new year is rolling and life is back to business as usual, it's easy for old thoughts and habits to drift back into our lives. If you find yourself settling back into negative patterns that you had wished to break, now is the perfect time to reawaken. Whether you made a resolution to be more conscious or had committed to seeing things in a positive light, there's no time like the present to reconsider any thoughts that may be standing in your way.
Twenty years ago, when I found myself moving through a dark time, my medicine teacher told me a story that has stuck with me ever since. It had such a profound effect on my outlook that I always keep it in mind, and I share it with my students a few times each year. Using a simple parable, the story reminds us that how we see the world is always up to us.
In the story, which has been passed down from generation to generation, a grandfather and grandson sat in silence, staring into the fire. Reflecting on the nature of life, the grandfather looked at the child and said, "There are two wolves that live inside each heart, and they fight each other all our lives. One is full of turmoil and anger and jealousy and hatred because it feeds on fear. The other is full of peace and hope and compassion and joy because it lives on love."
The evening passed, and the fire burned down. "So, which one wins?" the boy whispered.
The grandfather's eyebrows rose as he replied:
"The one you feed."
And so it is that the wolves of love and fear are always tussling deep inside us. While we must embrace them both, we should remember that we can choose how our thinking feeds them. In the end, that choice decides which wins.
It takes practice to control which wolf we strengthen. The fear wolf begs for nasty little tasty thoughts about the world around us, and when we try to lean him down, he digs up fresh regrets and rotten old reminders. He roots around for negativity and sniffs out fattening bits of fear. The love wolf, on the other hand, noses gently for attention. Trusting us to nourish her, she waits to get her share.
In the end, it's up to us to be conscious and to examine what we're thinking. We must realize that we have a choice and ask ourselves which wolf we feed.
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.