Monday, November 3, 2014

Yin, Yang, and breath as harmony between the two

The Way gave birth to the One;
The One gave birth to two;
Two gave birth to three [these three are yin, yang, and chi or life energy];
The three gave birth to the myriad creatures.
These myriad creatures, in turning away from the yin, embrace the yang;
Infusing themselves with breath (chi), they achieve harmony between yin and yang.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 42, trans. Nobel Ang (the letters in the square brackets are my own annotations)

Earlier today, I sat in on my colleague's Asian Philosophy class. He is covering Taoism this week. During class today, we were reading Arthur Waley's translation of the Tao Te Ching (TTC), and I couldn't help feeling that Waley's particular translation was too... verbose, and too... English.

This is just me, of course. Waley is a remarkable person who taught himself classical Chinese and classical Japanese while working at the British Museum in the early part of the last century. Using his self-taught knowledge of these languages, he then went on to translate a large number of Chinese and Japanese classics, including the Tao Te Ching.

But Waley never visited either China or Japan, and never learned modern Chinese or Japanese. Which may be why I couldn't help feeling that his translation had a certain detached scholarly tone to it; a tone which somehow failed to convey the vibrancy and flowing immediacy of the Chinese language, as it would be felt and understood by somebody who has a more immediate immersion in the culture.

Which is what prompted me to do my own translation of the above passage from the TTC. I actually know quite little about Chinese philosophy, and certainly have less scholarly depth in this area than Waley. But I feel that maybe, in my own small way, I can make up for the lack of scholarly background with a more immediate and intuitive love of the language and how it speaks to me. Hence my translation above.


But I didn't write this post just to talk about translation. The above passage is one of my favorite passages from the TTC, and I feel it to be very relevant to what I was talking about in my previous post. The light and dark sides of ourselves (yin and yang) exist in a symbiotic and mutually dependent relationship. We cannot fully experience one without experiencing the other. In turning away from the dark (yin), we embrace the light (yang). But in order to turn away from the dark, one has to first be in the dark. In order to embrace the light, one has to first embrace, and then turn away from the dark. There cannot be one without the other.

What's also interesting is that we harmonize the two by infusing ourselves with chi or breath or life energy. Chi, as many of us know, is pretty much the same thing as prana. And since the yoga practice is a process of infusing our lives with prana, this also means that the yoga practice is ultimately a practice of harmonizing the yin and the yang, a practice of getting in touch with and harmonizing our dark and light sides.

Isn't this interesting? But as I said, I'm no expert on these things. I'm just musing aloud here, because this is what a blog is for. If you have any thoughts, I'll love to hear them.      

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Going beyond good and evil, getting one's heart cracked open

"The great epochs of life come when we gain the courage to re-christen our evil as what is best in us."

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

We all dislike and are uncomfortable around self-righteous people. Well, at least I am. And I know many people who also dislike and are uncomfortable around such people. But before I go on to say anything else, let me just add that I myself have also been guilty of being self-righteous at many points in my life; some of those times have, incidentally, occurred in my writings on this blog.

But why do we dislike self-righteous people? It can't just be that they are annoying, although they are. It can't just be that they make us uncomfortable, although they do this too. Nor is it that they often happen to be right about the things they are self-righteous about, although, unfortunately, this is also often the case. I believe that, on a deeper level, we dislike and are uncomfortable around them because we feel that they are trying too hard to show the world (and themselves) that they are right. We suspect that underneath all this trying too hard, there lurks a certain disingenuousness (there is probably no such word, but I can't find a more appropriate one here). It feels like on some deep level, they probably don't believe enough in what they are proclaiming, and all this trying too hard is an attempt at overcompensating for this deep lack of conviction. Maybe they are hoping that if they can convince others around them of the truth of what they proclaim, they would also be able to convince themselves by proxy.

But this also means that self-righteous people are ultimately uncomfortable with themselves, with their own potential for evil--with their dark side, if you will. This may be why many young people who are passionately devoted to a particular cause or religious belief tend to be self-righteous about it. It may be that even in the arrogance of youth, they are able, on some deep level, to sense that their conviction in the lofty ideal that they so passionately try to believe in is, in the words of Elizabeth Lesser, "a brittle and untested ideal." And so they overcompensate for this brittleness by putting more fire and brimstone into their affirmations of this ideal to others.

But being self-righteous and judgmental is really not something that happens only to young people; after all, we do find that many older people can also be self-righteous and dogmatic about their ideals and beliefs. Being self-righteous is not something that happens only to a particular age group or race or sexual orientation; it does not discriminate, it is an equal-opportunity employer. It is a state of being that arises whenever one knows deep down that one does not believe deeply enough in the moral or religious ideals one professes, and tries to cover up this lack and overcompensate for it by judging others for being lacking in this ideal. In her book, Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser talks about this in the context of an extra-marital affair that she had:

"Some will call my dance with the Shaman Lover just a clever name for an extramarital affair. Before I took the plunge with him, I would have had the same reaction. I would have been unsparing in my judgment of those who could be so deceitful, so morally lazy. I would have wondered if they knew the difference between right and wrong. Now I know that "right" without "wrong" is a brittle and untested ideal. Now I know that when we show only our light side to the world, our shadow grows restless, sucking into itself much of our energy and passion. In order to release my trapped energy and awaken my best qualities, I had to engage with my shadow. I had to see how everything that I judged and feared in others was also in me. I had to be broken open so fully that my whole self was laid out before me to own and to forgive and to love." 

If we try to affirm only the good in ourselves without also acknowledging, embracing and ultimately forgiving the evil, we would never really know ourselves fully and deeply, and "good" and "evil" would just be labels that we slap on particular actions or attitudes that we have at different times. Unless we acknowledge and embrace the evil within us and bring it into the light of consciousness, it will only fester in some dark corner of the soul. Alienated, it will either cause us to "act out" at some unforeseen point in the future--in which case we would have to confront and acknowledge it anyway--or it will stay hidden in the darkness for the rest of our lives, and cloud the soul as resentment, bitterness, and a certain sense of malaise towards all life.

It is only by acknowledging, embracing and forgiving this evil that we can ultimately become a wholer (again, there's probably no such word, but what the heck) version of ourselves, one who has gone beyond good and evil, and from whom love, creativity and joy flow ceaselessly like a mountain spring.


But all these are ultimately just big words if we don't actually do the work of allowing ourselves to be broken open and to face what comes out of this brokenness. And this is also where the Ashtanga practice comes in. If you have been practicing for a while, you will know that the Ashtanga practice isn't just about getting onto the mat six days a week and working up a big sweat while putting your body into some funny positions. You will no doubt have heard--and probably also experienced for yourself--that the practice on the mat is ultimately about giving ourselves an opportunity to confront our fears, our dark sides, in a relatively safe and controlled environment.      

I recently had the opportunity to experience this for myself firsthand. As you will know if you have been reading this blog for some time, I recently made a trip back to Singapore, where I'm from, after not having been back there for thirteen years. In order to convince myself to make the trip back there, I had to confront a whole bunch of fears and emotional baggage within myself (see this post for more details). The trip itself was a lot less terrible than I expected it to be (which shows that a lot of the fear was actually more in my head than anywhere else), and I'm glad that I made the trip and was able to reconnect with many friends that I have not seen for so many years. After I came back to the U.S., I also went through a bunch of emotional issues in my personal life; due to the rather sensitive nature of what I went through, I'm not ready to share them publicly on this blog yet. But suffice to say that going through and trying to work with these issues brought me to a place of vulnerability that I have not been in a while. Some days, I felt that I was going to lose my mind.

At the same time that I was going through all this, I felt a certain emotional textural shift in my second series practice. For my regular daily practice, I do half primary followed by second up to Karandavasana. Looking from the outside, my practice hasn't changed much over the last two or three years. I still haven't mastered Karandavasana; I can land the duck, but still can't quite come back up (a.k.a. Karandavasana Impotence). And second series as a whole is still very physically challenging and effortful for me. But over the last few months, I have found that the texture of this effort has undergone a subtle shift. While I still have to put in a lot of physical effort to get through my second series practice, this effort somehow feels more heartfelt, like it comes from someplace deeper inside of me. Less ego, more heart.

I emailed Kino and shared with her the above experiences in my practice and my life. She responded with the following:

"If you mean to say that Second Series is cracking your heart wide open then that is exactly what it should be doing... love is so big that it sometimes needs to break our limited notions of self before it has the space to move in. Second Series does just that—it breaks our hearts so that the new expanded terrain is big enough for love to embrace all the aspects of our life."

I don't think it is a coincidence that Kino uses the same words--breaking/cracking the heart open--that Elizabeth Lesser uses to describe the process of embracing the dark side within herself. Ultimately, any spiritual journey worth the name is a warrior's journey; we are warriors of the spirit , warriors who, allowing our hearts to be broken open, bravely venture within to confront, embrace and ultimately forgive our inner demons.

This is also why any genuine lasting change in the world must begin from the inside, from within the hearts of ordinary human beings who are at the same time spiritual warriors. Warriors who patiently trust in the fire of their own practice to burn through all impurities, using these impurities as the fuel, the force to power deep inner change.    

May the Force be with you.