Pearls of Wisdom

I came across this reading in Rachel Naomi Remen’s beautiful book My Grandfather’s Blessings and it felt so apt for this time. Can we treat coronavirus as a grain of sand? This experience will inevitably have a lasting effect on every one of us. Perhaps it will teach us about what we choose to value in life.

Some of the oldest and most delightful written words in the English language are the collective nouns dating from medieval times used to describe groups of birds and beasts.  Many of these go back five hundred years or more, and lists of them appeared as early as 1440 in some of the first books printed in English. 

These words frequently offer an insight into the nature of the animals or birds they describe.  Sometimes this is factual and sometimes poetic.  Occasionally it is profound:  a pride of lions, a party of jays, an ostentation of peacocks, an exaltation of larks, a gaggle of geese, a charm of finches, a bed of clams, a school of fish, a cloud of gnats, and a parliament of owls are some examples.  Over time, these sorts of words have been extended to other things as well.  One of my favorites is pearls of wisdom.

An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable.  Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive.  But oysters must open their shells in order to ‘breathe’ water.  Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on.

Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this.  It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel.  It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live.  But it does respond.

Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain.  A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering.  Not every oyster can do this.  Oysters that do are far more valuable to people than oysters that do not.

Sand is a way of life for an oyster.  If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

Disappointment and loss are a part of every life. Many times we can put such things behind us and get on with the rest of our lives. But not everything is amenable to this approach. Some things are too big or too deep to do this, and we will have to leave important parts of ourselves behind if we treat them in this way. These are the places where wisdom begins to grow in us. It begins with suffering that we do not avoid or rationalize or put behind us. It starts with the realization that our loss, whatever it is, has become a part of us and has altered our lives so profoundly that we cannot go back to the way it was before.

Something in us can transform such suffering into wisdom. The process of turning pain into wisdom often looks like a sorting process. First we experience everything.  Then one by one we let things go, the anger, the blame, the sense of injustice, and finally even the pain itself, until all we have left is a deeper sense of the value of life and a greater capacity to live it.

On yoga, on life: a review

Have you got Netflix? If you have, I highly recommend a film on there called ‘On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace’. It’s about a bloke called Michael O’Neill who used to photograph Hollywood stars. In a nutshell: he got injured, was told he’d never use his arm again, found yoga and meditation, his arm recovered.

As a result, he decided to devote his time photographing yogis. The film features interviews with teachers talking about yoga philosophy. They are wonderful. The kundalini teacher Gurmukh talking about fear of death, Eddie Stern on community and peace. Swamis explaining how we are not our body and how yoga is every minute of the day. I particularly remember one teacher saying that we’ll only be happy when we let go of desire. It’s the wanting that makes us unhappy.

Not so great are the clips of him taking photos of young yogis doing extreme poses in front of beautiful scenery – silhouetted against a sunset, a grafitti’d wall, the New York skyline. Skimpy clothes. Why do it? Why conform to a yoga stereotype? If these teachers are saying yoga is so much more than the physical body, why bring it back to that?

Kumbh Mela, 2010

Anyway, it was good to watch. He visited the Kumbh Mela – the massive Hindu pilgrimage that takes place at different locations along sacred rivers. I had the honour of being part of the Kumbh on Ma Ganga in Haridwar, India, in 2010 – something I’ll never forget.

I finished the film and took a moment to consider my current life with a one-year old baby and how my life has changed since I took my dip in the Ganga eight years ago. I felt that I had drifted away from yoga somewhat. I’m struggling to get on my mat and there are a lot of pooey nappies.

But then I thought a little more: this is my yoga at the moment. It’s not the beautiful asanas but it’s the day-to-day grittiness of life. One Swami in the film explained Bhakti yoga – the yoga of devotion. I’d also say it’s Karma yoga – giving without any expectation of reward. I am devoting myself to my son and my family.

Can I care for him in a way that is kind and caring? We do our gratitude practice while he has his bedtime milk. We chant along to Swami Vishnudevananda in the car on the way to the local soft play centre.

And while I haven’t managed an unaided headstand for over a year now, it’ll come back at some point. I’m happy if I manage a few sun salutations and standing poses.

So if you have Netflix, watch it. But please pay more attention to the words of wisdom than the cliched contortions…

Have you seen it? What are you thoughts?

(Thank you to my Berkhamsted buddy Laura for suggesting I look it up.)

Gain and loss

Monty Wener
Monty Wener

My family cat is ill. He’s 15 and a Burmese blue. Like a lot of family pets, my family think he’s pretty special and at times, a little monster.

My mum and dad went away last weekend and asked if I’d pop by to give him a tablet. Monty and I spent time sitting on a bench in the garden: me feeling the warm glow of the March sun on my face, him sprawled out over the wooden slats basking.

As I stroked him, his fur wasn’t as sleek as it used to be and my palm felt each and every one of his more noticeable vertebrae. He’s lost weight. I cradled him in my arms and he felt limp and lifeless.

He’s not going to get any better and it’s now just a case of us deciding when we’re ready to let him go.

‘Let him go’

I know we’re clinging onto him. I’ve been listening to Martin Aylward’s dharma talks recently and he says about this ‘clinging’. We hold onto things, views and experiences and because of this, we never really taste freedom. We’re tied.

It’s only when we let go of our stuff that we can be more open and more fluid in the way that we approach life. Perhaps we need to think less about ‘letting go’ and more about ‘letting be’ and cultivating acceptance.

The worldy winds

Martin also talks about opposites and this resonates particularly.  These opposites are called the ‘worldly winds’ and they buffet us and all our experiences:

Success and failure

Pleasure and pain

Praise and blame

Gain and loss.

We all fear loss. I don’t want to lose Monty. He’s a little member of the Wener family. I’d much rather have only ‘gain’ in my life but it doesn’t work like that.

Martin says that we live our lives thinking that we should only have the positives but we have to know both. We have to experience the negatives in order to know how great the positive feels. Life really is about balance.

I’ve met someone recently and I think he’s pretty special. In this sense, I’ve gained a lot. It’s Bliss.

Find out more about Martin Aylward.

Your royal ‘I’ness…

There’s this Sivananda chant that one thing and another has led me to think about this last week or so. It’s called Song of Will and contains these lines:

I am that I am, I am that I am

I am neither body nor mind, Immortal Self I am

I am not this body, this body is not mine

I am not this mind, this mind is not mine

I am not this prana, this prana is not mine

I am not these senses, these senses are not mine

I am not this intellect…

I am not these emotions… and so on.

But what on earth is it all about? Surely I am this body. Surely I am my senses. It’s all me, right? Wrong!

I was at one of Norman Blair’s yin workshops last weekend and he was talking about ‘WMB Syndrome’ where WMB stands for ‘Want Madonna’s Body’. I’m pretty sure he’d made it up. Some people may practice yoga asana with this as their goal but it’s not just about that.

It’s about learning to relax, to let go and actually detach from the body, the mind and the senses i.e. all these aspects of ourselves that are actually just our ego. This concept of ‘I’ and ‘my’ is totally false. It’s our ego talking.

When I was in Goa recently at the Indian Shanti Yoga Festival, I listened to a talk about yoga ‘vedanta’ or philosophy. The teacher said how we wrongly identify with the ego but actually we can detach to discover the ‘Self’.

By practicing yoga – in any of its forms: bhakti, jnana and so on – we’re working to reduce the ego and uncover our true nature.

We say, “I am this” or “I am that” but how do you know that you’re sad/happy/tired etc? How do you know that food is hot? Because your mind is telling you. But you’re not your mind.

Our mind naturally always looks outward and it’s always searching for fulfilment, happiness, whatever you choose to call it. But real spiritual life and happiness is within. Clichéd I know. We mistake our thoughts and emotions for being ‘us’. But we are actually unchanging and this is the ‘Self’ or ‘atman’ of Vedanta.

I’ve always found this quite a hard concept to get my head around and I most definitely don’t have all the answers. I’m still learning all this stuff.

However, I watched this TED talk with Jill Bolte Taylor the other day (another gem of Norman’s) and she helps to explain it. She’s not a yogi or a guru by any means. She’s a neuroanatomist (I think that means she’s a brain scientist) who suffered a stroke and witnessed this divide of Self and ego. It’s amazing and well worth watching. Enjoy…

Stroke of Insight: Jill Bolte Taylor on TED