FOM May/June 2023
written by Keith Porteous
“The best thing about your life is that it is constantly in a state of design. This means you have, at all times, the power to redesign it. Make moves, allow shifts, smile, do more, do less, say no, say yes—just remember, when it comes to your life, you are not only the artist but the masterpiece as well.” – Heart Talk, Cleo Wade
Spring appears early in the Gulf South. Flowers nicknamed “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” bloom in white, lavender, and purple near my home. These yearly blooms announce the sudden burst of spring and hint at the quick passage of time. New Orleans has moved past Carnival season. For some, the quiet interlude after the mirth of Mardi Gras allows time and space to clean the home, adjust habits and simplify diet. The practice of letting go inevitably touches on memory, as whatever is maintained in the present from the past must bear some continued meaning, or why keep it around? According to scientific study, every time we retrieve a mental memory, a slight cellular adjustment is made in the encoding of that memory. If memory can shift, how about our relationships with the items we keep and the memories they surface? What implications does this have as we try to streamline our busy lives, living with more meaning, peace and purpose? The simple practice of spring cleaning might help ‘tidy up’ some of our attachments in ways that honor yesterday, improve today, and create the conditions to liberate tomorrow.
Book 1 of the Yoga Sutras, written approximately 2,000 years ago, has some thematic guidance for the yogi who commits to spring cleaning in 2023. The practice of saucha, or cleanliness, is important not only on a material level, but because it prepares the practitioner for the deeper 3-step practice called Kriya Yoga (YS 2.1). Put simply, it is difficult to commit to rigorous, disciplined practice (tapas), deep study (svadhyaya), and prayer and offering (Isvara Pranidhanani) if we are too busy with laundry, dishes, work, and traffic. At times, our participation in the material world can be so time- consuming, our spiritual practices become minimized and eventually fall off the to-do list in the hurry of keeping up with today and tomorrow. How to find balance?
Through the practice of renunciation (vairagya), we are asked to let go of thing(s) to which we are attached. These objects of attachment could be habits, opinions, or structures of identity. As Hatha Yoga often starts from the outside in, renunciation might most easily be approached through working with tangible objects in the home. The timely practice of spring cleaning can become dharma in action.
Recently, I stumbled upon a teaching on this topic in an unexpected way. Having just finished a streak of books by a favorite author, I walked to the local bookstore to find something new. The bookstore’s “Book Club Pick” featured a book called The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. These terms are fundamental to Mahayana Buddhism. This had to be it.
Form is the structure of all things; an embrace of the tangible, material and mutable world. Emptiness is the potential of all things to appear and function differently according to the state of mind of the observer. The pencil is a pencil, but how it functions for you, whether you use it to draw a rainbow or a grocery list, nudge your pizza baking in the oven, or throw as a stick for your dog to fetch, depends upon your state of mind (and your dog’s).
Like most things, the novel was not what I expected. A small family goes through a tragic loss. The mother responds to grief with hoarding. At first, she holds on to objects associated with a lost family member. Later, thanks to our internet-enabled shopping culture, a workaholic attitude, and a credit card, she fills the home with trinkets, crafts, and old work files. Simultaneously, garbage and laundry piles grow like weeds in the sun. Floors and countertops become invisible and hallways difficult to traverse. Meanwhile, the son develops supernatural powers in which he can speak to objects, animals, plants, stars, and more. Without spoiling the ending, amongst other acts of liberation, the son uses his special abilities to communicate with objects cluttering the home. He learns that many of these “treasured” items are quite alive and would much rather move along to new purposes. These objects think it’s pretty boring to be stuck on the shelf slowly collecting dust. Eventually, a deceased family member’s items are liberated through an honest reckoning. Because of the the material shift, the family begins a new chapter of life. Their love continues but they are now free to move, expand, learn, and grow. As the mother eventually says “it’s time to move on”.
Are there any objects in your home which might be a bit bored where they are, or need a new location or function? Do you have any feeling of “stuck-ness”, which might be addressed through something material? After finishing this novel, I decided to face my family’s shed, a storehouse where items decay at an express rate thanks to Louisiana’s climate. Among many relics of multi-generational family life, I found a copy of a) my father’s undergraduate thesis from 1959 and b) a textbook my father wrote collecting dust, with cobweb bridges extending to an old bicycle, a baby’s high chair, and a filing cabinet. If these items could talk, they would have a lot to say. The books needed a new home, but they were in a web of stacked items that needed a complete overhaul, like an emotionally freighted game of Jenga. I embarked on a “one hour” clean-up which became a five-hour kriya, or purification. Later, our five year old walked in and said “it looks sooooo much better in here!”. Out of the mouth of babes. She could feel the shift in the space.
In Master Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he describes Form and Emptiness as Prakriti (matter) and Purusha (spirit). These two dance in a duet throughout our lives, each relying on the other. As in dance, if we only pay attention to one partner, we might miss the bigger picture. As illustrated in the novel above, it is common in our culture to focus only on the material and to ascribe to it powers of permanence which, in truth, nothing material can provide. When we mistakenly believe objects have a power which we lack, we enmesh ourselves in cycles in which we are bound. Especially in times of emotional turmoil, we may be inclined to compensate materially by filling the void within with objects, food, drink, entertainment, clicks, or anything to avoid what is innermost.
The more ‘quiet’ partner in this duo, emptiness, is the vibrant potential in all things. This potential can be a great friend when we are brave enough to face painful emotions and memories. Holding potential, impermanence and feeling simultaneously we may become empowered to be with rather than escape. The power to liberate the energy behind old attachments lies in our own hands. We may find, as the dharma teaches, that the qualities we perceive in outer objects are coming from us rather than at us. We imbue items with qualities which we then perceive. This shift in perception has profound alleviating affects on fear and grasping. As we shift, we are allowed to let the world ‘outside’ shift as we see anew. This does not mean we don’t have profound appreciation for the world around us, but we understand our interdependence, Through the practice of honoring, forgiving, and releasing attachments from the past, our true potential shines into today and tomorrow.
Strap work with either arms and/or legs in symmetrical poses:
adho mukha svanasana, dandasana, urdhva mukha svanasana, uttanasana, urdhva
hastasana, prasarita padotanasana, adho mukha vrksasana, pincha mayurasana
YOGA SUTRAS, translations and commentaries:
1.12. Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyām tannirodhaḥ
Abi – very much
As – to Sit
Abhyasa – to sit with something very much, or PRACTICE
Vairagya – renunciation, giving up pleasures of the senses, all sources of short-lived
Vairagyabhyam – by non-attachment.
Raga = attachment, the attractions, the passions. Raga is “the power that limits the
universal condition of completeness” – Grimes
Vai – to cut oneself off from attachment to all those things
Tat – they
Nirodhah – are restrained
-These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment – Swami
-Cessation of the turnings of thought comes through practice and dispassion –
Barbara Stoler Miller
4.15 Vastu Samye Chitta Bhedat Tayor Vibhaktah Panthah
Vastu – The Object
Samye – Being the same
Chitta – (but) the mindstuff
Bhedat – (being) different
Tayor – of the two, subject and object
Panthah – the path
Vibhaktah – is different
“Different persons react differently to the same object..because of the difference
of their mind-stuff” – Shri Brahmananda Saraswati
“Everyone looks at things from his own viewpoint. Persons do not look at things
from the viewpoint of things but from the viewpoint of their own minds. Though the
object is the same, the ways in which minds are affected by the object differ.
Though..there is one object, different minds see it in a different light
according to the projection of each mind. This shows not only distinction of
the object from the mind but also distinction of one mind from others.” –
Shri Brahmananda Saraswati
“The man who has begun to live more seriously within begins to live more simply
without.” – Ernest Hemingway
“Practice and renunciation do not stand separately. They are interdependent. On the
increasment of one, the other is increased, and vice versa, on the decreasement of one,
the other is decreased.” – Shri Brahmananda Saraswati
On inter being:
Our beautiful blue planet is so intricately alive. Astronauts know this because they have traveled far enough away to see the whole of Earth as a single living organism, floating in the darkness of space. But here on the ground, we do not have such a perspective. Immersed in the miniscule details of daily living, we believe our lives to be separate, ourselves to be separate, too. But this is a grave delusion. The truth is that everything depends on everything else. A flower depends on the sun and the soil and the rain and the bee that pollinates it. It cannot survive apart from these things, and without them, the flower would die. Humans are the same. We need the sun and the soil and the rain and the plants we eat. We need our mother and our father and all our ancestors stretching back into the past. We are a continuation of them and we would not be alive without them. And all of us – flower and bee, you and me – are tiny parts of the living body of the planet.
In Zen, we call this interconnectedness, or interbeing, or dependent co-arising. Sometimes we call it “emptiness,” which is written with the Chinese character for “sky”.
One of the astronauts who walked on the moon, Mr. Edgar Mitchell, had a deep realization of emptiness when he was floating in the sky. He looked back at the Earth and suddenly understood that the molecules of his body, and the bodies of his partners, and even the spacecraft itself all came from some ancient generation of stars, and that at that moment, he experienced a feeling of oneness with the universe. He said, “It wasn’t them and us, it was – that’s me, that’s all of it, it’s one thing.” In Zen, we call this enlightenment. – Ruth Ozeki, The Book of Form and Emptiness
On cleaning as a spiritual practice:
A short story from the “Lam Rim”, or “stages of the path”, as taught by Pabongka Rinpoche in Tibet in 1937. Transcribed by then eighteen-year-old Trijang Rinpoche, later the teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Background: This story concerns ‘Pantaka’ a student who had spiritual aspirations but great difficulties learning by conventional means. The Buddha (The ‘Blessed One’) finds a way to teach him which creates an inner transformation. Pantaka later becomes one of The Buddha’s finest teachers.
He gave Pantaka two simple phrases to learn: “I am removing dust,” and “I am removing dirt,” but Pantaka could not remember them. Then the Blessed One decided to purify him of his bad karma and said, “Pantaka, can you wipe the shoes of the bhikshus?”
“Venerable One, I can do that.”
“Go then, and wipe the shoes and sandals of the bhikshus.”
The Blessed One also told the bhikshus to allow Pantaka to do this, informing them that its purpose was to remove his bad karma. He further directed that they teach Pantaka to recite the above two phrases. These instructions were carried out and after some time Pantaka did learn the two phrases.
Then the Master declared, “You need not wipe shoes any longer. Now sweep the temple while reciting the same two phrases.” Although Pantaka swept with great vigor, each time he finished cleaning the right side The Buddha would miraculously cause the left side to become filled with dust. Likewise, each time he finished cleaning the left side, the Buddha would cause the right side to become filled with dust.
Nonetheless, Pantaka perservered in his efforts until finally his karmic obscurations were cleared away. Then the following thought occurred to him: “When the Master taught me the phrases ‘I am removing dust, I am removing dirt,’ did he mean inner dust or outer dust?”
…Afterwards, Pantaka returned to Jetavana where the Master declared that, of all
the disciples, he was the most skilled at producing a beneficial change in beings’ minds.
So we should never think that only meditation is important, and not the activities
of cleaning and the like. (pp. 122-123)
Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy. Albany, State of New York Press, 1996.
Mishra, Ramamurti S. (Shri Brahmananda Saraswati). The Textbook of Yoga
Psychology. New York, Baba Bhagavandas Publication Trust, 1987.
Tharchin, Khensur Lobsang and Artemus B. Engel, translators. Liberation in Our
Hands: Part One: The Preliminaries. By Pabongka Rinpoche Jampa Tenzin Trinley
Gyatso as transcribed and edited by Yongzin Trijang Rinpoche Yeshe Tenszin Gyatso.
Howell, NJ, Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press, 1990.
Ozeki, Ruth. The Book of Form and Emptiness. New York, Penguin Books, 2021.
Satchidananda, Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yogaville, Virginia, Integral Yoga Publications, 1990.
Stoler Miller, Barbara. Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. New York, Bantam, 1995.