Focus of the Month: December 2021
written by Carrie Hood
Guru Brahmā Guru Viṣṇur Guru devo Maheśvaraḥ
Guru sākṣāt paraṁ Brahma tasmai śrī gurave namaḥ
Our creation is that highest teacher; the duration of our lives is that highest teacher; our trials, illnesses, calamities and the death of the body is that highest teacher. There is a teacher nearby and a teacher that is beyond the beyond. I dedicate my efforts to that teacher, the remover of darkness, my ignorance. From: The Bhakti Book, Translation by Sharon Gannon
This chant to the guru – or the teacher – is the hook on which I hang my many imperfections. I hope that we have all had the great fortune (some would say karma) of finding one or more amazing and memorable teachers in our lifetimes. I love and appreciate all of my human teachers. To be my teacher, they must have the patience of a saint. How many times do they have to repeat the dharma before it gets into my head….into my heart? I have to hear it over and over again and just when I think I understand something, I realize I don’t know a thing! And I have to start from the beginning.
In my decades of trying and failing on the path, I have found that the most powerful teachings of all come from real life experiences. The best teacher of the perfection of patience is that difficult work colleague who pushes all of my buttons, but around whom I must navigate daily. Each time I fall off the horse of patience, I have to pick myself up, dust myself off and find another way to get back on. I always think that maybe, just maybe, the next time it won’t happen again or at least I will do a better job of catching myself in the act and recover my right mind more quickly. These real life hurdles and challenges (kleshas, or mental afflictions) that stop me and toss me about like a rag doll can be so effective as a teacher, if I am a willing student.
The most effective teacher of all, if we embrace it, can be – – failure. There is a website called, “Nailed it!” where people celebrate their craft and baking failures by posting pictures of the Pinterest-ready ideal of their goal – a lamb or Spiderman cake, cake-pops that look like little penguins – next to a picture of the mess they actually made.
My go-to mindless TV binge to relax at the end of the day, is a seemingly benign baking competition called The Great British Bake Off. 12 of THE nicest, most courteous people you can imagine go into a tent in the British countryside and just bake. There is no cash prize, no new car, not even a new oven at stake. It is just for the love of baking that they do it and it often goes awry. IF they get to stay on for another week to try again, they invariably learn a lot from their mistakes. One baker accidentally dusted a cake with salt rather than sugar – – you only do that once!
I can so relate to this form of learning, which is mostly not about baking. The real life mistakes that we make daily, or hourly, can teach us so much! When we let the mental afflictions have their way with our thoughts, emotions, speech and/or actions, we get a chance to try again.
We blow a project deadline at work or forget to follow-up on a request. Most awful can be when we have hurt someone’s feelings or let them down. And yet, there is always an opportunity for redemption, especially if we learn the ancient art of apology.
Master Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra verse 1.33 offers us the 4 Infinite Thoughts as a code of kindness that promises us a peaceful mind. The 4 Thoughts are loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. I have always practiced the Infinite Thoughts in application toward other people. Recovering from and learning from our own failure asks us to apply these kind thoughts to ourselves. Why is it so much harder to offer kind thoughts and words to ourselves when we screw up than it is to apply them to others?
Making mistakes is a lost art in America. We are so consumed with the need to be perfect, to be successful, to know all the answers and most important of all: To look good. So sometimes we try to hide our mistakes and that can bring on shame. As Sharon Saltzberg, great meditation scholar and teacher, says, “The brain filled with shame cannot learn.”
With the holidays upon us, it is easy to get a little frantic. In all our busy-ness, we might even let our practice slip. Trying to get the right gift, bake the most beautiful cookies, have the most gorgeous decorations and cook the perfect meal for friends and family can become all-consuming. This is a great opportunity to lighten our grip on the need for perfection. As Leonard Cohen says in his brilliant and beautiful song, Anthem: forget your perfect offering. Just make the offering with love and attention and then let go of the results, which we cannot control anyway. Chapter 2, verse 47 of the Bhagavad Gita says: “Do your duty but do not concern yourself with the results.”
As everyone in our dharma sangha knows, I have a hard time with meditation. I was at a meditation workshop sometime pre-Covid and the leader Bhante Sudhaso, asked if any of us struggles with meditation. Of course, every single one of us raised his hand and Bhante said about failing at meditation: “Trying and failing plants the seeds for trying and succeeding.”
Sharon Saltzberg, says about our wandering minds in meditation: “the healing is in the return, NOT in not getting lost in the beginning.” I find great comfort in these two messages, both on and off the meditation cushion.
Like the meditation cushion, the yoga mat is a great place to practice failing and learning from our failure – so called, because there is no real failure in yoga. It is always just learning. What does it take to hold this pose? How does your body feel in that pose? What feels good for me might feel wretched to someone else. We are on the mat to explore and get feedback. Things will feel different today than they did yesterday and falling out of a pose might be the best way to learn how to hold it. There can be so much more to learn from failure than so called success – and more fun! Everything doesn’t have to be so serious.
Let’s be vulnerable on the mat with heart openers and balancing poses – or both at once! Vrkshasana, tree pose, if standing straight gets too easy, can be stretched and bent to the side for an extra balance challenge. A teacher once told me if I didn’t fall out of side-bending tree, I wasn’t trying hard enough! Dancer (Natarajasana) is a beautiful, simple-looking pose, but once we start to move away from our center, it is difficult to maintain our balance. It requires keen drishti or focus and not thinking about how it looks. If I think too hard about it, over I go! Similarly, Ardha Chandra Chapasana or Sugar Cane (also sometimes casually known as Candy Cane, which might be a nice way to lighten the spirit for the season!) is like dancer pose only sideways, requiring even more of a heart opener, fierce drishti and a sense of humor when we fall out!
This holiday season, it is my hope for each of us that we can bring a sense of humor to our planning and our busy-ness. If we can manage our expectations, then maybe we can hold disappointment at bay. When things don’t go according to plan, when the cake is dry and the family gathering goes off the rails, we say or do the wrong thing – let’s look at ourselves in the mirror with equanimity, smile and say, “Nailed it!”
“So let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. Let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. Let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. Let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. Let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug. Let’s lick the earth from our fingers. Let us look up and out and around. The world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning…..” Pádraig Ó Tuama
“Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen
“Expectations are disappointments in training.” Lama Marut
“It’s like this now.” Lama Marut
“I do the best I can,
I try to learn from my mistakes,
and the world is the world
of constant change
and pleasure and pain
and being thanked and not being thanked —
all of those things.
And so that’s where equanimity comes in
as a kind of comprehension
of, this is the way things are.”
Sharon Salzberg on the podcast On Being
“And it’s true that I don’t work near as hard
As you tell me that I’m supposed to
I don’t run as fast as I could
But I live just the way I want to
And that’s the way I should”
“And the best thing you ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously.”