This weekend I had the pleasure of partaking in a three-day advanced sadhana intensive with my teacher Annie Carpenter. During a dharma talk about what characterizes "advanced" practice, Annie explained that the spiritual path becomes more narrow, more razor-like, as the walker gets more skilled. The narrowing represents the increasing subtlety of the practitioner's work as she sharpens her discernment.
As I've been experiencing for myself lately, the work required by the numerically higher limbs of Patanjali's yoga certainly is more subtle than that required by asana. Meditation (dhyana) is the 7th limb, the one right before samadhi (liberation). I've been working on developing a meditation practice for about six months now, and -- let me tell you -- though the humble pie I've been served is not so subtle, the practice is.
When I sit, one-by-one, old, unhelpful ideas and thought patterns I've been repressing or ignoring or believed I'd killed come to whisper in my ear, like, "Hi. You thought your work was complete? I'm still here." I'm beginning to realize the inner work I've done to date hasn't addressed the roots of my problems so much as their symptoms. Because when it's just me and my mind for an hour at a time, the unbroken roots that still remain reveal themselves in all their tangled glory.
For example, meditating has made clear I haven't conquered my self-directed severity to the extent I thought I had. When I'm sitting and realize I forgot my breath for the past few minutes, I always get an overwhelming urge to reset my alarm to make up for the "wasted time." Then I get angry at myself for being so uptight (and, as a result, lose my breath again). At this rate, it seems it'll take decades just to get the hang of being nice to myself, let alone liberation.
But though the remaining work is daunting, it's exciting to begin again. And, as a fun consequence of taking the next step in honing my yoga practice, I've been inspired to look back on my first year practicing yoga asana with nostalgia and a certain fondness. There's a pleasant recognition. I've been through this struggle before.
Sometimes I get frustrated when students in my class are rude, impatient, or uncooperative, but I usually remember to check myself. Because that used to be me. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I was actually quite the problem student myself. I'd regularly show up late to class, stare at the mirror and compare myself to others throughout practice, and push myself into poses I had no business even attempting. Thanks goodness I never got myself injured. I should have. And I probably deserved to be yelled at as well. My ego was too big for the studio.
But once things started clicking, I could barely hold on to my idea of myself. The doors to infinity were suddenly thrown open before me and the light of truth streamed in to blind me. Every day a new revelation came.
Today part of me wishes I could go back and relive Chapter 1 of my journey, but pay more attention to my not-so-subtle metamorphosis as it unfolded. Because it was during those early days that I turned on the most street lamps, that I had the most moving lucid dreams, that I met the love of my life. Now the universe speaks to me in whispers, which are beautiful, but harder to pick out.
So if you're still just beginning your yoga practice, I urge you to savor the process and really pay attention to it. You may never grow in such big leaps again. This is the time when you get to chop down the gnarly trees of your self-created suffering. Enjoy the thuds they make when they fall. Before you know it, you'll move on to the silent and invisible but truly transformational undertaking of root extermination as you walk the razor's edge.