Focus of the Month: May 2021

Pushti: Ripening to Release

written by Meghan CW

My grandmother hadn’t spoken a word for quite a while when I was called into her bedroom on my 18th birthday. Grandma’s caretaker was a dear friend of the family, an energetic elderly woman named Darlene. When I entered the bedroom, Darlene stood next to Grandma’s bed, holding one of those Tickle-Me-Elmo knockoffs from Walgreens: A plush happy face on a fuzzy body that sang and laughed when you squeezed its hand. This one had a birthday hat on. “Oh God.” I said, not bothering to hide my teenage irritation at Darlene’s bubbliness, nor my dread for what was about to happen. “What’s the matter?” asked Darlene, “Don’t you want us to sing happy birthday to you?”.

“No. Please don’t.”

Darlene looked to my silent Grandma, who gazed into space, expressionless and still in her hospital bed. “What kind of girl doesn’t want us to sing happy birthday to her?” she asked as though she believed my grandma could answer.

Amazingly, Grandma stirred and emerged from the depths of her introversion with a couple of blinks. We watched in astonishment when she turned her head towards me. Eyes suddenly clear, she looked me in the face, and crackly muttered the only word she’d speak in those last weeks of her life: “Underdeveloped.”

It happened to be a great birthday gift that Grandma had reserved her final worldly insult for me and that she’d mustered the strength and coherence to spit it out with the precision and clarity of a single, stinging word. As Darlene and I stood there, wide-eyed, wondering what on Earth had just happened, Grandma erupted in an uproar of hysterical laughter.

In my family, insults were part of our love language. We brought knives to the dinner table, even when soup was on the menu. While part of me found great amusement in a well-timed and accurate jab, at my expense or another’s, part of me identified deeply with the shortcomings spotlighted in our familial dialogue. Grandma’s final word to me was a humorous confirmation of her spikey affection, and simultaneously, an affirmation of my natural insufficiency.

By the time of my 18th birthday, my sense of not-enough-ness, though inaccurate, was well-ingrained, and already wreaking havoc. Notably, I experienced anger with quick intensity and responded with the type of behaviors that perpetuated problems.

I share this as an example of the way our thoughts can influence our actions, and our actions, in turn, can elicit a response that confirms our thinking. In this case, “I am no good,” leads to behaviors that inspire defensiveness or retreat from others, and ultimately confirms the message, “I am no good.” The cycle continues endlessly, or until we’re gifted with the insight (perhaps with assistance from our yoga practices) about how our own thoughts nourish our hardships. With the understanding that our thinking sets in motion a feedback process that’s self-confirming, we are empowered to bring positive influence to the trajectory of our lives. How? We begin, little by little, to work with our thoughts, and to release ourselves from the compulsion to respond to them unfavorably.

It took a long time, and many adverse incidents, for me to begin to see how my thoughts were kindling for the rage that brought me to ashes time and again. After many loves and friendships were lost to fall-out, countless shameful apologies, several write ups and reprimands at work, and a handful of incidents that resulted in time and money spent in court, my willingness to work with my angry behavior was finally motivated by the desire to model, for my sweet child, more optimal ways of dealing with strong emotions. Unsurprisingly, it was the same sweet child who showed me change was possible. Almost three and well-accustomed to solid foods for nourishment, she clung to her bottle for regular pacification. One evening, I suggested on a whim that she throw it in the trash, and explained that in doing so, she’d be letting it go forever. With steadiness, she walked to the garbage can, looked at me, pitched the bottle in, and never asked for it again. This is Pushti.

Pushti, from the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra (Tryambakam Mantra) of the Rigveda, describes a state of being so nourished that one is released from afflictions, the way a ripened fruit is released without effort, from the “bondage of the stem.” In the context of this mantra, the subject is freed from the fear of death. Taken in broader terms, personal nourishment, wholesomeness, or sufficiency are generally developed when we cultivate ourselves like precious garden fruit. In prioritizing the process of care (focus on activities that nourish body and mind) over the outcome (release from our suffering), we are naturally liberated from the thoughts and actions that propel our unhappiness, when the time is right.

Pushti requests from us a degree of trust, both in our capacity to ripen, or heal, and in our current state of sufficiency. When we believe in our innate ability to either generate or source that which we need each moment, our compulsion to grasp at what we think we lack is tamed. Our need to control, by repeating our favorite troublesome behaviors, is diminished. By acknowledging that ripeness is a process, every step of the way dependent on the ones that preceded it, the present becomes an opportunity to work towards a more desirable future, and a chance to either let go of, or advance, whatever came before. We can work with this idea in any moment, regardless of the external circumstances we find ourselves in. In an interview, Oprah Winfrey asked Thich Naht Hahn about cultivating a good life. His response was, “If the present moment has peace, and joy, and happiness, the future WILL have it, too.”

The tendency to repetitively engage in thoughts and behaviors that ultimately complicate our lives, arises from utility: At some point in our personal history, this thought/behavior pattern was adaptive. Chances are, it helped us to survive. In the present moment, where it’s no longer needed, it serves as an artifact of past resilience, and is deserving of honor as we tenderly disentangle from it. Rilke poetically encourages us to “…Patiently trust our heaviness/ Even a bird has to do that/ before he can fly.” We have the option to accept the historical role of our habits, have gratitude for what they’ve helped us overcome, and grant them soil space to fertilize us as we grow beyond them.

Compassionate is the acknowledgement that growing, from anger, from addiction, from guilt, pain, loss, hatred, jealousy, whatever the affliction, is a process. For their role in our preservation, our tendencies may be so strongly ingrained that we will face them repeatedly as we ripen towards release from them. Pema Chodron makes tools of these tendencies in a passage from Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears:

“That which can cause our destruction becomes a blessing in disguise when we let the energies arise and pass through us over and over again, without acting out.”

With practice, we begin to discover the space that exists between thought and action. Intensity in emotion no longer mandates automatic response, and we find ourselves capable (we find ourselves: capable) of emancipation from thinking and responding in ways that inhibit our ripening. When it is right, if it is right, whatever needs to be released, will. Pushti.

In the years since age 18, I’ve thought a lot about my fiery grandma and her choice to expend fleeting energy on taunting. Looking back, I see her parting message as a lesson for my healing journey: A demonstration that sadness, insult, and levity can coexist. It turns out that few moments in life are completely joyful, but in each moment exists joy to be discovered. Ripened past the sting of her insult, I’m grateful now that Grandma chose to say goodbye to me with humor. She showed me then that even at the end of life, with the preciousness of each second amplified, there’s something extra-sweet about a good burn. Family dynamics aside, what my grandma meant by her comment, if she meant anything at all, is irrelevant. It’s been my task, all along, to derive meaning from this event that’s been so vividly long-lived in my recollection. In selecting for its significance, I choose to believe Grandma’s gesture was a reminder to lighten up and be a little less resistant. “Underdeveloped,” no longer an insult, has come to represent the remarkable capacity, innate in each of us, for ongoing ripening and release.

Teacher Tools

Poem: Rainer Maria Rilke, How Sure Gravity’s Law:

Video: Oprah and Thich Naht Hahn, Super Soul Sunday Episode:

Chant Audio: Maha Mritjunjaya Mantra:

Mantra: OM tryambakam yajamahe, sugandhim Pushti-vardhanam uvarukam iva bandhanam mrityor muksiya mamrtat
We worship the Supreme light, the Absolute Siva, who has 3 eyes, who is fragrant and nourishes all beings. This light is the communication of our life, and it is our physical, mental, and spiritual radiation and prosperity. Kindly release us from all calamities, bondage, and suffering, just like a cucumber is released from its stalk, without injury. May our minds be absorbed in Siva, amrtam (nectar), the ocean of tranquility. (Translation Sharon Gannon. From SRY Chant Book.)

Ideas and poses:

Third eye: Insight into how we perpetuate our own challenges. (Also, three eyes of Siva mentioned in Mahamritunjaya Mantra.)

Binds: Represent mental afflictions- emphasis on sensation of release from bondage

Forward folds: Release, surrender, relinquishment.

Savasana: Emphasis on letting go.

May 2021