Yoga and the Power of Gratitude

 Sunset in Hawaii, I am feeling so grateful for this experience.

Sunset in Hawaii, I am feeling so grateful for this experience.

As I write this, I am in Hawaii soaking up the warm climate and amazing beauty, and reveling in all the experiences out in nature that the islands have to offer. I am feeling so grateful at the moment.

The trick in life, of course, is to carry this feeling of gratitude with us in each moment. This being the month we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, it is a good time to stop and reflect on all that we have, especially this human birth. Why? Well, here is one of the Buddha’s lessons:

The Buddha taught that every human birth is precious and worthy of gratitude. In one of his well-known analogies, he said that receiving a human birth is rarer than the chance that a blind turtle floating in the ocean would stick its head through a small hoop. He would often instruct a monk to take his ground cloth into the forest, sit at the base of a tree, and begin "gladdening the heart" by reflecting on the series of fortunate circumstances that had given the monk the motivation and ability to seek freedom through understanding the dharma.

Whether or not you believe the Buddha’s assertion that each of us have basically won the lottery 10 times over in arriving here, if you stop to look back and think about it, each of us are here because of many fortunate events took place. Especially those of us who are born here in the U.S. can reflect on just how lucky we are. And we arrive at practicing yoga and meditation because we want to experience and know more freedom from within. We’re so lucky to have these contemplative practices which can ultimately bring more ease into our lives. The very fact that we can sit upright is a condition for becoming enlightened, for when the head can rest over the spine, like ours can, the mind can move towards stillness. In this stillness, our true nature can reveal itself.

Another influential teacher of mine, Beryl Bender Birch, said this:

Keeping Your Heart Open

Rain or shine, stormy or sunny, our work in yoga is to stay open, to walk the path of nonresistance. The minute we resist what “is,” we miss out on whatever life is offering at that moment. If we know how to live daily life, which is the point of practicing yoga, then life becomes a very liberating experience. Every moment is a choice—so do we want to be happy, or miserable? Learn the secret to accepting life’s journey with gratitude and joy no matter what is going on in your life or swirling around you. 

Life flows all the time, and we can either stay with the currents or try to swim against them. Often, I pray to God that S/He guide me to being content with the path that is being presented to me. Often life doesn’t turn out the way I had planned, and I seek the awareness to know that God has a better plan for me than the one I prepared. 

For example, coming here to Hawaii, my partner and I had created a list of things we wanted to do, and a daily plan of action for each day we’re to be here. Well, the weather didn’t quite cooperate according to our schedule – the north shore of Oahu got pounded by high waves – so we had to shift things around. And naturally we overscheduled our days – there was so much we wanted to do! – and had to scale back and do the things we really wanted to do. As I reflect back now on our trip, things turned out so wonderfully – and much better than I could have planned. Each day has felt so magical.

Today of all days in my life, I am feeling particularly grateful. Ed, my partner of 7 years, and I are getting married. As I reflect back, I know that I am so very fortunate to be able to marry the man I love. My parents and family loved me unconditionally no matter who I decided to love, and so many have fought equality battles so that two men could be joined in union like this. Gratitude is flowing strongly through me in this moment.

May you realize how lucky you are to be able to have this human experience, …
May you experience gratitude often as life flows in and around you, …
May your heart be gladdened, …
for the benefit of All beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 Hawaiian Shark Encounter off the coast of Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore.

Hawaiian Shark Encounter off the coast of Haleiwa on Oahu’s North Shore.

 

Yoga and the Power of Devotion

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 My senior chair yoga students practicing seated Hanumanasana - forward splits posture. Yay, a little victory over the self, and our limited beliefs about our possibilities!

My senior chair yoga students practicing seated Hanumanasana - forward splits posture. Yay, a little victory over the self, and our limited beliefs about our possibilities!

I love my senior students. Surely, I am as much a student to them as they are to me. They teach me so much. They have been so devoted to their chair yoga practice over the last 2 years with me, even when I give them hard poses to do, like Hanumanasana - the forward splits.

And I love returning to the Hanuman theme, which I have done so every year for at least the last ten. The heroic feats of Lord Hanuman, the Monkey God from the Hindu myth, the Ramayana, serve as a reminder that, in whatever mission we are serving in our own life, if we are truly devoted to it without ego and if the mission serves a purpose that will help all beings — not just the little self — that we are capable of persevering in the face of difficulty, challenges and self-doubt and complete the mission. In short, there are times in our life when the greater need is so big that we somehow find a way to do the impossible.

In the story, Hanuman basically does the impossible. He is charged with rescuing Sita, the wife of his master, Rama. Sita was taken to an island in the middle of the ocean - Lanka - and held captive there. Hanuman comes to the edge of the ocean, sees the island out in the distance, gathers up all his powers and resolve and does a giant split leap over the ocean, lands on the island, rescues Sita, and returns her to Rama. According to Religious Studies Professor Joshua Greene, “the myth of the Ramayana is basically a story of the reuniting of Yin and Yang, represented by Sita and Lord Rama. … Hanumanasana is the forward-splits position. The arms are raised overhead in victory. The body is stretched out in all 6 directions. Practicing the pose, we gain victory over our own selves, our ego and our tendencies towards evil.”

One detail of the story that I find helpful to contemplate is that before he made that giant leap, Hanuman basically was filled with self-doubt and didn’t remember that he was capable of doing such an impossible feat. As a child he had a lot of natural physical gifts, but was mischievous — as most children are — and was made to forget his powers. But just before his leap, he was reminded by the wise bear, Jambavantha, of his powers and once he remembered again, he gathered up his resolve and set out to complete the mission. Remembering spurred him on to making that giant leap.

We all have people in our lives who know us well, and are constantly reminding us in our moments of self-doubt that we are indeed powerful. For me last week, it was Richard, the bookkeeper for my nonprofit organization, Keoni Movement Arts, who reminded me in a moment when I was doubting a decision I made to not to dwell on it too much and not to second-guess myself. I remember appreciating hearing that in that moment. Perhaps had it not been for Jambavantha, Hanuman would not have done the impossible thing he did. Similarly, in our own lives, much praise must be given to those people who encourage us, and remind us during our moments of doubt just how powerful and capable we are. Especially for a child, those people can make the difference between the child having an amazing future life of productivity or having one where her/his potential is not realized.

We all have special gifts and we all have a mission to fulfill that serves the greater good in our time on this Earth. I hope that you can tap into that feeling of your life as having a calling — a greater purpose — and that you can have enough people around you encouraging you to complete your mission and along the way reminding you of your powers and ability during times when you falter. Like Hanuman, may you be 100% devoted to completing the mission, and because of that devotion have your powers be uncovered and unleashed for the benefit of all. As the yoga scripture, the Baghavad Gita, says:

At the beginning, mankind and obligation of selfless service were created together. Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires. This is the promise of the Creator. - Verse 3.10

This is the power of devotion — the uncovering within us of our capacity for tireless service and our ability to do the impossible.

May you know your life’s calling, …
May you remember your unlimited powers, …
May you do the impossible, …
for the benefit of all beings.

Aloha, with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 Anything is possible when you can remember the unlimited power that lies deep within yourself!

Anything is possible when you can remember the unlimited power that lies deep within yourself!

 

Yoga and the Art of Remembering

 Art work on the Palestinian side of a border wall that separates Palestinian and Israeli controlled territories in Bethlehem.

Art work on the Palestinian side of a border wall that separates Palestinian and Israeli controlled territories in Bethlehem.

From the Dhammapda, a collection of the Buddha's important teachings, Chapter 1, verse 6 reads (Gil Fronsdal translation):

Many do not realize that 
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.


While visiting Israel over the summer, my partner, Ed, and I stopped at the border wall above. What a truly difficult and tenuous situation it is in this part of our One world, where awareness of death is so palpable on a daily basis. As this recent NY Times article about the meaning of Yom Kippur suggests, the recently passed observance of Yom Kippur is a “dress rehearsal for our deaths.” It quotes a 19th-century rabbi, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, who said, “remembering death in the proper way can bring a person to the ultimate joy” and a contemporary rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, who says, it “compels us to squeeze out every bit of life out of every day that we have.” Indeed, one thing that Ed and can say we observed in Israel is that people there do squeeze out a lot of joy in their daily lives . In some ways, they practice one of the Buddha’s core teachings: “Practice living joyfully amidst all the sorrows of the world.”

I would say that as practitioners of yoga, we are compelled as well to realize, on a daily basis at least, that one day we won’t be here on this earth. As our yoga practice grows over the year, it moves from glorification of the physical to a deeper awareness of the spiritual. It can lead to a greater and deeper experience of Joy.

The verse just prior to the one above from the Dhammapada reads:

‎Hatred is never ended by hatred - but by love.
This is an eternal rule.

Of course it is quite easy to mouth these words, but in fact so difficult to actually meet hatred with love. But as yoga practitioners it is our duty to try to get better and better at practicing this — if not outwardly then at least internally — so that we never have to experience the horrific events of 9/11 again. Hard to believe they happened just seventeen years ago. Hopefully by this time some of the hatred has been replaced by love. It is possible to meet our own feelings of self-hatred — yes everyone has those feelings from time to time — with love and compassion. For example, when we’re practicing savasana or seated meditation and putting our attention on the gentle rise and fall of our bellies over and over again, we’re actually physicalizing this concept of meeting hatred with love.

So much of practicing yoga is actually about unearthing, removing, and remembering. One of my favorite poems is this comforting one by Derek Walcott (Nobel Laureate in Literature from St. Lucia) called Love After Love:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

As I near the start of my 7th decade here on this earth — in just 7 months from now! — I look back now at my youthful days and remember the desperate notes to former would-be lovers and casting directors (during my former acting days) wishing for their love and affirmation of my worth. I can understand why Sally Field said what she said in her Oscar acceptance speech in 1984! I can definitely say that yoga and meditation have helped bring me closer to seeing more fully my little self and the bigger Self. I have more of an understanding and awareness of my Dharma — my duty to serve — and where I fit into the bigger picture of Life. And as I contemplate now returning to acting professionally, I have a deeper desire to be seen for who I am. As I said to a headshot photographer I interviewed recently, I want to be shot as I am today, and not as some glorified image of myself. Yoga as well as life’s natural progression have gently brought me to this point, thankfully.

At this moment in our US politics, we are being rocked with sexual abuse allegations against a Supreme Court nominee. So many minds at the moment are conflicted, and what is needed most right now are quiet minds that can see through the false colorings of the truth and come to quiet decisions on the best course of action going forward. As this passage from A Course in Miracles says:

The memory of God comes to the quiet mind.  It cannot come where there is conflict.  A mind at war with itself remembers not Eternal Gentleness.

So many minds are at war with themselves at the moment, perhaps including your own. As you practice yoga and meditation more and more — as your inner conflicts are assuaged a bit more each moment you put your attention on your breath — please know that you are helping the bigger picture by coming closer to remembering more often — and at a deeper level — who you really are. Remembering God means remembering how inextricable and interconnected we all are.

May you be better able to meet hatred with love, …
May you feast on your life, …
May you remember who you really are, …
… for the benefit of all beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Yoga and the Art of Gentleness

 Delicate Hawaiian flower (name unknown) on display at the  New York Botanical Garden  now through October.

Delicate Hawaiian flower (name unknown) on display at the New York Botanical Garden now through October.

Last week, while enjoying the beautiful plants and flowers on display up at the New York Botanical Garden with my partner, we came across this delicate flower above. I don't know its name, but it resembles the ʻōhiʻa lehua or Lehua Blossom, a delicate flower endemic to Hawaii. In Hawaii, where I was born, we have what are called "Ōlelo No‘eau" which means "Proverbs" or "Wise Sayings." Here is one:

I mohala no ka lehua i ke ke’ekehi ‘ia e ka ua

Translation:

The lehua blossom unfolds when the rains tread on it.

Explanation: People respond better to gentle words than to scoldings.

And so too, when we practice yoga and meditation, we will be more successful if we can be gentle with ourselves. Do you think the flower above could possibly open up and be as beautiful as it is if it were forced to blossom by hard and heavy rains? Likewise, can our bodies, minds, and hearts ever be able to display its delicate beauties if we treated them too harshly, forcing them to open up? The path towards Enlightenment is a delicate one.

Many years ago, I took a workshop with Cindi Lee, a widely regarded yoga teacher who founded Om Yoga in New York City. She was describing the qualities of a Warrior from the Buddhist perspective and I recall she said something like:

The warrior acts with gentleness, precision, and by letting go through surrender.

We don't usually associate being warriors with being gentle. Yet if you stop to think about it, the Art of Gentleness is a very refined way of being, and perhaps one that can be known only by people with a warrior-like mentality. Warriors are willing to explore the limits of their awareness for the benefit of all beings. As we practice yoga and meditate more and more, in a sense we are becoming spiritual warriors. And as we test those outer limits of our possibilities, we can come to know that we can reach more of our desired outcomes through a gentle approach, and fewer of those outcomes though forcibly trying to get ourselves and others to bend towards our ego's will. As we become more in tune with our higher chakras, the Art of Gentleness naturally unfolds within us and gives us more ways of solving intractable challenges.

The Buddha taught this lesson:

With gentleness overcome anger.
With generosity overcome meanness.
With truth overcome deceit.

He knew that gentleness, generosity, and truth are greater powers than anger, meanness, and deceit and that they could overcome them. Of course, we can certainly meet anger with more anger, but if you stop to think about it, really how far will it get you? In the end, both sides will suffer.

The American Spiritual Author, Kent Nerburn, wrote a series of essays which became compiled into the book Letters to My Son. In it, he shares wisdom he had gained though much life experience with his son in order to help guide him more gently into adulthood. One passage, entitled "The Art of Giving" begins with:

Remember to be gentle with yourself and others. We are all children of chance, and none can say why some fields will blossom and others lay brown beneath the August sun. ...

Here it is the end of August, and already some fields are starting to turn brown, and some are still lush and green. Who knows why? Some seeds were perhaps lucky to be in a place that received more rain and sunshine, while others happened to land in more barren environs. Most, if not all, Americans are extremely lucky to have been born in the USA -- as Springsteen would say! Anyone who has traveled much to third world countries know that many people are barely surviving due to the circumstances of where they were born. We don't really know what karma is playing out in this lifetime for ourselves and for others. All we can do is to help ourselves -- and thus the world -- by being gentle and treading as lightly as possible on this Earth, as we do our good works in our current lifetimes.

We all know that there is a lot of anger, meanness, and deceit out in the larger at the moment. And yet, we can all help the outer situation by truly being gentle, generous, and truthful with our own selves first. That is, I believe, our individual calling for the collective good.

May you be gentle with yourself, ...
May you be a Spiritual Warrior, ...
... for the benefit of All Beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Yoga and the Art of Peace Making

 Sea of Galilee, Israel. Where Jesus preached and walked on water. So peaceful, so tranquil.

Sea of Galilee, Israel. Where Jesus preached and walked on water. So peaceful, so tranquil.

This month, my partner, Ed, and I visited the Holy Land. What started out as a pilgrimage for him to visit the Christian sites became one for me too, as we visited places that both of us had heard about growing up as Catholics. I was able to connect the biblical stories I learned as a child to the actual places where these events took place, and walk amidst some of the paths that Jesus walked. It was a transformative experience.

I remembering hearing the Dalai Lama say something like: “start with what you know.” My roots are in Christianity, and that is what I knew first, before I began learning about other belief systems like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Yoga. So, it was nice to revisit what I am familiar with already and to discover that at the core of Christianity, Buddhism and yoga is a fundamental call to cultivate peace in one’s own heart and minds.

In the Bible, it is written:

For unto us a child is born, … and his name shall be called … The Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Matthew 5:9

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, taught us to try to have peace in our own hearts and minds, even though the outer world might be anything but peaceful. Though I don’t go to church on a regular basis anymore, I recall from the Christian services the part where we are asked to turn to those nearest around us and offer a sign of peace with the words “Peace be with you.” And I recall at the end of mass the call to action: Go forth in Peace to love and serve the Lord. Now this is all making more sense to me.

While visiting Israel – and particularly Jerusalem – the one thing I heard repeatedly about the situation there was “It’s complicated.” Israelis and Palestinians living side by side, trying to work out their differences. Three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – have some of their holiest of sites in close proximity to each other in the Old City. In the case of Judaism and Islam, some believe they are existing one on top of the other.  Yet, with all their differences in beliefs, they somehow seem able to co-exist, however tenuous it may seem at times. 

While Ed and I enjoyed doing various tours and seeing some amazing places – Masada, Jericho, the Dead Sea – what was most stimulating to us was the conversations we had with local people. One in particular stood out to me. It was with a Palestinian Israeli who shared that that while the situation at the moment may seem dire, he is hopeful for the future. He works 6 days a week to be able to provide an education for his children that he hopes will help them to see the larger perspective, from many points of view. He said that in his smaller circle, he has many Israeli and Palestinian friends and that they all get along. In a sense, his basic message to us was “all peace is local.” Perhaps many in Israel – like in the U.S. – live in their own silos, but at least the silos are very close to each other. In the U.S., they seem geographically so far apart.

Here are four quotes that I shared in my yoga classes this past month that perhaps can illuminate for us that we are not powerless when it comes to helping to create more peace in the world, and that we can do something in our own daily lives to help the larger cause:

If there is to be Peace in the world,
There must be Peace in the nations.

If there is to be Peace in the nations,
There must be Peace in the cities.

If there is to be Peace in the cities,
There must be Peace between neighbors.

If there is to be Peace between neighbors,
There must be Peace in the home.
If there is to be Peace in the home,
There must be Peace in the Heart.

—Lao Tzu, 6th Century Chinese Philosopher

The only true guardian of peace lies within: a sense of concern and responsibility for your own future and an altruistic concern for the well-being of others.
– His Holiness, The Dalai Lama

Peace is a daily, weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. 
– John F. Kennedy

Peace can be made only by those who are peaceful, and love can be shown only by those who love. No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
– Alan Watts, Alan Wilson Watts was a British philosopher who interpreted and popularized Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.

So, as you continue to practice yoga and meditation, do so knowing that whatever peace you are able to cultivate within – amidst the chaos that is undoubtedly brewing within your very own heart and mind – that it is having a ripple effect for the better out in the larger world.  Have faith in the slow, long, and gradual process of making peace both within you and outside of you. Take responsibility for your own future as you take time to care for others too. Create silos of hope and peace in your own little part of this big world.

May your heart and mind know Peace, …
May you go forth and be a Peacemaker, …
May you cultivate world peace, locally, … 
… for the benefit of all Beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

For more photos of my trip to Israel, please visit my Facebook page.

 

Yoga and The Art of No End Point

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I love this picture I took at the beach out in the Rockaways this month of these birds flying close together, but in different directions, as It reminded me of my own inner chaos this month. I was being pulled in so many different directions that at times I didn’t know where to focus my attention. It also reminded me of the chaos in the world these days – we’re all on the same planet, yet we seem to all be going in different directions. 

At such times, I think about the 6th Century Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, who had such great suggestions on how to live a life filled with both ease and accomplishments. Following are some things he advised:

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.

This bit of wisdom was particularly helpful to me as I had a few important deadlines on big projects to meet this month. Some mornings I would wake up and experience that fear that comes with needing to get something done but not knowing where to start and feeling afraid I wouldn’t finish the projects by the deadlines. 

Lao Tzu’s words of wisdom resonated with me, as they helped settle my mind enough to springboard me into simply taking action – some action, any action! – even though I wasn’t exactly sure where it would all lead and how I would arrive at the end-point. 

As yoga and meditation practitioners, the end-point we are striving for is a mind that is calm and still. Though we know that is the goal, we also know that it is a difficult one to achieve. However, if we can practice without an intention to arrive anywhere in particular, likely the immediate effect will be that our minds will begin to become stiller and we/it will be heading in the right direction.

Lao Tzu also said:

Let things happen naturally and do not try to force a certain outcome. That which is not natural will not be right. 

Both in yoga practice and in life, it is easy to try to force outcomes, particularly the ones our ego desires. But in forcing, our body and mind can lose its balance, and that will definitely not feel right. 

I love this one:

The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things, yet many more are left to be done.

As someone who has long to-do lists and is often feeling like I’ve got to get things done by yesterday – know the feeling?! –  this really helped. This reminded me to try to just stay in the present moment, and not think too far ahead. It guided me to monitor how I was feeling as I undertook each task and to take breaks if it felt like I was overworking. Truly, the best outcomes are ones that happen when we are flowing with life, not fighting against it.

And finally, this one feels oh so relevant in light of what is happening in our country today:

Intelligent people know others. 
Enlightened people know themselves.  
You can conquer others with power. 
But it takes true strength to conquer yourself.  

I believe the kind of power that Lao Tzu is referring to is a soft power rather than a hard, aggressive power. Truly, if we are to become the enlightened beings we aspire to be through practicing yoga and meditation, we need to figure out ways to open up our own hearts and minds more. And to do that will require us using our soft powers, like acts of love and kindness and balancing our own minds so that we can engage in reasonable discourse with others, especially those who see things differently than we do.

People may think soft powers may be less effective at bringing about desired outcomes than hard powers, such as physically or verbally beating up on another or forcing others to do our will, but I think that’s not true. I believe people who use hard power do it because that’s all they know to use, and they haven’t worked on themselves enough to be able to wield soft power. In the end, they will suffer more than those who they’ve supposedly conquered.

Sadly, around the world right now we see the rise of hard powers being used to dominate others. We see bullying of those who are physically or socioeconomically weaker by those who have more resources to draw on. And we see a lot of “fear of the other” happening. Truly, these days the world is feeling like it's a scary place to those who are trying to lead with an open heart and mind, given all the domination taking place over those who have little.

But I believe that as more and more people practice yoga and meditation, that one day there will be a tipping point where there will be enough enlightened people to help those who are still living in too much darkness. Love, kindness, and reason may not seem to be winning at the moment, but with enough collective practice eventually it will.

May you conquer your own heart and mind.
May you allow natural outcomes to unfold.
May you get everything you need to do done.
May you be a good traveler.
And may wherever you arrive at somehow benefit all beings everywhere.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Balanced Mind: The Art of Letting Go of the Fruits of Action

 Sand formation on the beach at Arverne in the Rockaways, May 28, 2018

Sand formation on the beach at Arverne in the Rockaways, May 28, 2018

Over the Memorial Day weekend holiday, my partner and I were out on the beach in the Rockaways, and I came across this sand structure. I was attracted to it for several reasons, one of which is for the little rock balancing atop the center mound of sand. It reminded me of how when we sit in meditation, we try to sit in such a way that our head is balanced over our body in the most effortless way.

This also reminds me of the sand Mandalas that Buddhist monks build and destroy to represent the ephemeral and passing nature of all material phenomenon.  Surely, the creators of this structure knew going in that nature -- or perhaps even man -- would eventually destroy it. Yet build it they did anyway. And in a certain way, they practiced the way of yoga -- they practiced the Art of Letting Go of the Fruits of Action.

Isn't it blissful when we can feel our minds experiencing balance? One way that we can experience this is to try simply to take the best actions we know we can execute, and then to try not to worry about how it's all going to turn out.

For example, when I started this post, I had a general idea of what the main points I wanted to make were, but I had no idea how they would be expressed in an engaging way for the reader. Here is where the yoga philosophy from the Bhagavad Gita really helped me out:

You have control over your actions alone, never over its fruits. 
Live not for the fruits of action, nor attach yourself to inaction.  Established in Yoga, O Arjuna, perform actions having abandoned attachment and having become balanced in success and failure, for balance of mind is called Yoga.

Krishna speaking Arjuna in Bhagavad-Gita (Chapter 2)

Similarly Buddhist Teachings say that:

Equanimity [a balanced mind] is letting go of the fruits our actions.

It's important to remember that the goal of practicing yoga is to bring more peace and stillness to the mind, and to help the mind to experience balance. Being able to stand on one's head or touching one's toes in yoga asana practice are merely the means toward this end. Being able to do either is part of yoga, but it is not the goal of yoga. It's important for those who primarily practice the physical aspects of yoga to remember this. 

For me, these yoga and Buddhist philosophies help me in two distinct ways: 1) they make my experiences of failing more palatable, and 2) they give me the boost to take some action, especially during those times when I don't really know what the best actions are to take.

As the Founder and President of a nonprofit, Keoni Movement Arts, I experience much uncertainty at times, often not knowing what actions to take, and whether my actions are going to amount to anything. It's been a lot of trial and error, and a lot of acting on faith and from caring to those callings emanating from deep within my heart. I am heartened by the words of other leaders of much larger organizations than mine, such as these two:

It is impossible to generate a few good ideas without a lot of bad ideas.  Failure should be forgiven and forgotten quickly.
Azim Premji, chairman of the Indian outsourcing giant Wipro Technologies

In order to double your success rate, you must double your failure rate.
Thomas Watson, founder of IBM

Does anyone really like to fail, especially in a public way? Probably not. but both these leaders are suggesting that we can't perfect and make anything we are trying to create better, by not having failed a lot. And Azim's statement that "failure should be forgiven and forgotten quickly" has such a yogic ring to it. That is the a true goal of yoga, the so called "3 F's" -- to fall, forgive, and forget, and thus maintain a balanced mind. 

For sure, this is all easier said than done. But one thing I have learned from these last ten years of nurturing my nonprofit is not only that failure was and is necessary, but also that it becomes more palatable the longer one stays in the game. I face a lot of uncertainty in my creative work, and yet if anything has changed it is that I relate to this uncertainty better than when I first started. For one, I know and accept better that there is always going to be uncertainty in my chosen life's work, but I don't get flustered or thrown off-balance by it as much as I used to when I started out. Similarly, I recall hearing the Buddhist Meditation Teacher Pema Chödrön say that even after many years of practicing meditation, her mind still goes off like an untethered child. But the one thing that has changed is that it doesn't bother her much anymore as it did when she first started out practicing. Like-wise, I can say that the day-to-day not-knowings of my work don't bother me as much as they used to. I am better able to handle my failings, better able to handle those times when things didn't quite work out as I thought I wanted them to, and better able to handle not knowing how things are going to turn out, but acting in good faith anyway.

One thing I can say that I am increasingly aware of is that when I listen to what moves my heart, my creative juices start to churn, and things usually work out quite well. This past month, my organization held its annual performance. When I began planning it several months ago, I had a bare inkling of what I wanted to present. Particularly, I knew I wanted to do a movement piece for our special needs students to You Will Be Found, from Dear Evan Hansen, my favorite show from the last Broadway season. And I knew it had to be simple enough for them to grasp and for my teachers to help execute. Through trial and error, it came together, and the audience's reaction was stupendous. Several shared it moved them to tears. Goal accomplished yes, but even more importantly my mind was able to remain balanced through the successes and failures, knowing that ultimately things were going to work out if I operated from the place of Joy.

So whether you're trying to create and grow a nonprofit organization, or are trying to help out the world in other ways that are dearest to your heart, just try to take the best actions you know how to take and try not to worry too much about how it’s all going to turn out. In some ways what the world needs most from you is a balanced mind, a mind that can remain calm both during times when you are succeeding and during times when you are failing. And try to remember this thought that came to me many years ago:

Don’t be afraid to fail.  NOBLE FAILURE can be one of your best tools for learning.

May you try and fail, and try again, ...
May you fail nobly, ...
May your mind remain balanced through it all, ...
May your life's work benefit all beings everywhere.

Aloha with Metta
Paul Keoni

 

Ahimsa and the Art of non-violence

 The Freedom Tower and the Oculus (Lower Manhattan, April 19, 2018)

The Freedom Tower and the Oculus (Lower Manhattan, April 19, 2018)

As I was passing through lower Manhattan earlier this month, this magnificent view appeared before my eyes. I thought, truly, what better symbols of Triumph over violence could there be? (I do allow for the fact that some of you may not like these buildings and what they stand for, and thus will disagree.)

In Yoga, Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, non-harming, non-injury. I consider it an Art form in and of itself to try, in each moment, not to be harming toward my own self and others.

So why should we and how do we practice this in our lives? Can we attract more happy people into our lives through the practice of Ahimsa?

Classically speaking, Ahimsa is the first of the Yamas in yoga. According to Swami Jnaneshvara, the yamas are the "codes of restraint ... and involve our relationship with the external world and other people." Ahimsa, is the practice of existing in and relating to the outer world in a non-harming way. It is said that one should step onto the yoga mat having first practiced ahimsa out in the world. Then, with that as a starting point, it becomes easier to experience the higher realizations that yoga can offer through adding the other steps of the practice, the various physical and mental purification processes.

Specifically, from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Sutra 2.35 reads:

ahimsa pratishthayam tat vaira-tyagah

Swami Jnaneshvara's translation is:

As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in non-injury (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility.

I think we all have experienced a natural gravitation of people towards us when we are acting in a peaceful and loving way. Conversely, I am sure we've all experienced not wanting to be around people who are hurtful, pushy, and harmful to us and others. So why would anyone want to be around us when are hurting, pushy, and harming others, whether it be physically or mentally?

This article on Gaia.com entitled What is Ahimsa and How to Practice it in Everyday Life helped me to understand Ahimsa in more practical terms better. Particularly, this passage resonated with me:

... move with intention. Consciously put non-violence into action. ... 

Yes, slowing down, putting down my iPhone, and moving through the world -- on the way to the subway, during eating -- with more awareness is an act of Ahimsa.

These passages also caught my attention:

... Instead of letting the limits of your body create stress, make the decision to intentionally respect and even love the limitations your own body has. Perform yoga poses gracefully, but do them without force. ... In the physical sense, non-violence means not pushing yourself over the edge. You can, of course, still challenge yourself so that you can grow; in fact, you must. But embracing ahimsa means not pushing yourself to harm. ...

Indeed, how often do we allow the limits of our bodies to make us feel more stressed out? The idea of loving my own limitations -- not just my physical ones, but my mental and emotional ones as well -- surprisingly seemed almost revolutionary to me. I ask myself now, do you really think you're superman and can do everything? By trying to do more than I reasonably can, isn't that bordering on being an act of violence towards my own self? So, at moments in this past month, I gave myself the liberty to do less. In so many words, I said to my little self at times:

  • It's OK to slow down and do less
  • It's OK not to be perfect
  • It's OK that I have flaws, all humans do
  • It's OK that I have limitations as to what I can reasonably accomplish
  • It's OK that I want to have a work-life balance, and allow myself to indulge in watching one of my favorite shows at the end of a long workday
  • It's OK that I need to hit the snooze button a few more times
  • it's OK that I can't respond to people's emails in a timely manner
  • It's OK that I need to miss some deadlines
  • It's OK that I am not Superman!

Can you relate?

Practicing Yoga asanas (postures) is a great way to practice perfecting the Art of Ahimsa. When doing a challenging yoga pose, it is such a balancing act between considering "can I do more?" and asking one's self "should I do more?" Experienced Yogis and Yoginis know the better questions at times are "can I do less?" and "should I do less?"

The Gaia article also points out these potential positive effects of cultivating non-violent thoughts in our own minds:

... When we think lovingly, these thoughts trigger dopamine's release into the body. Dopamine is that chemical that makes you feel good and relax. Unlike cortisol, dopamine brings strength to the immune system. It can even cure illness. Those who think of themselves as optimists tend to have stronger immune systems and recover faster from illnesses and injuries. Optimists may even live longer than those who think of themselves as pessimists.

So whether you think you might want to live longer or just have a better quality to your life, consider practicing the Art of Ahimsa daily. A benefit is that you just might begin attracting more happy people to you. And that happiness will keep growing and growing!

And finally -- and most importantly -- as we finish celebrating Earth Day month, please remember to try practicing being non-violent toward the Earth. As President Emmanuel Macron of France said in his speech to the U.S. Congress this month, "there is no Planet B."

May you be happy,
May you love the limitations of your own body,
May you push yourself to grow, but not to harm,
May you attract more peaceful and happy people, 
May you practice the Art of Ahimsa, ... for the benefit of all beings everywhere.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni Chun

 

Needs vs Wants - The Eternal Human Struggle!

 My apartment on 3/28/18

My apartment on 3/28/18

Liberation Day arrived for me this past Wednesday, 3/28! The exterminator came and did another inspection and said I should be fine now. Yay, I can finally start to take my personals belongings out of the 50 or so plastic bags strewn around my apartment!

For those of you who don't know what I am talking about, please see my blog from last month.

While the last 12 weeks have been a huge challenge, now comes an even bigger challenge. As I start to undertake my biggest spring cleaning to-date, now is the time for me to truly engage in practicing Aparigraha. It's time to let go of stuff I've been holding on to. Now is the time for me to determine what is a need and what is a want. I have a feeling the process ain't going to be easy for me. Does my unease sound familiar to you?

For those of you unfamiliar with Yoga philosophy, Aparigraha is one of the Yamas. The Yamas and the Niyamas are the ethical guidelines for practicing yoga -- the Ten Commandments of Yoga, so to speak. The Yamas are the things we should try not to do, for e.g., don't harm, don't steal. In the case of aparigraha, we should try not to be overly possessive, not to hoard, not to grasp or hold on too tightly, not to be greedy.

Yoga teacher Molly Lannon Kenny offers us some key insights on what we might experience in the absence of practicing aparigraha. She writes:

Our tendency to hold on tightly is something intrinsically human, and provides us with a false sense of control. … [which] leads us to feelings of constriction and scarcity.  We end up having less space, less spaciousness, and we cling to superficial beliefs that cloud our ability to reach for something much deeper to believe in. 

Does this sound familiar to you? I know that when I try to fit too much on my plate, and add too many to-dos into my day, I end up feeling less spacious in my mind and body. I ask myself at times, why am I accumulating so much? Does it come from a place of scarcity within, a feeling that I never have enough and that there's always something more I should be doing? Does it come from a feeling that I need to control everything around me or else my life won't make sense, and I'll experience that uneasy feeling of groundlessness, where things are spinning out of control in and around my life and I feel like there's nothing I can do about it? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think they are important questions for me to ask myself. (Something of an aside --  I also think that practicing meditation is a great way to find the answers to these questions.)

Many years ago, in the late 90's, there was a wonderful yoga teacher at the YMCA whose class I used to enjoy taking. I learned a lot from her, and one thing I'll never forget she said as we were practicing yoga is this:

"Let go of what is stale, old, and no longer useful."

The beauty of yoga asanas is that when done correctly and regularly, they can help us to let go of some of the old hurts that have lodged themselves in our bodies, minds, and hearts that are no longer serving us well. And this statement is also a reminder to me that one day even this body will no longer be useful for my spirit to hold on to. Yoga and meditation are preparing me for that moment. So is this "spring-cleaning" project I'm about to undertake.

Paul Dalligan writes that "Aparigraha is the art of what is needed. Truly applied it is a great freedom for the practitioner and distills all our material and psychological possessions down to what we need." So as I undertake putting my apartment back in order, it will be a great opportunity for me to assess what do I really need to hold on to and what can I let go of now at this stage in my life. What things are no longer useful and are creating a burden not only in my physical space but also my mental spaces. It will be about balancing my needs versus my wants, and again I know it won't be easy because my mind likes to cling on to things. Maybe yours too?

When we practice generosity and give our possessions away it is not only the receiver that is blessed, but also the giver. In my case, I don't yet know what things I will be trashing and what things are still useful for someone else to use, but I do know that whatever I give or throw away, I will truly be blessed by a sense of lightness. On this point, Paul Dallaghan says: 

The essence of it is a lack of, or at least a reduction in, selfish behavior. The mental attitude is not one of "what am I going to get, what can I get or I really want that", but rather no interest to acquire and keep. There is a stronger urge to give and share, use things as needed and be willing to let them go when done.

As translated by SwamiJ, Sutra 2.39 of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says:

Aparigraha brings the past and future: When one is steadfast in non-possessiveness or non-grasping with the senses (aparigraha), there arises knowledge of the why and wherefore of past and future incarnations.

Upon first reading it seemed odd to me that Patanjali was tying in not being greedy with awareness of incarnations. To this point, Paul Dallaghan also writes: 

The lack of material bondage allows the spirit to reveal itself.

Aaaahhh, so now I see how it works. When I can be less burdened by physical and mental possessions, I will have more space in my mind and heart for my true essence -- the Who-Am-I-Anyway or That-Who-I-really-Am -- to reveal itself. 

While on one hand I know i have lot to let go of, if I've learned anything from the last three months it is that I now realize I am actually quite capable of surviving with very little. I've spent the last 3 months wearing pretty much the same set of clothes day-in-and-day-out, week-by-week. so I now know that I can at least practically exist with very little to cover my body with. 

I hope this little lesson in Aparigraha can be useful to you.

Happy Spring Cleaning to me ... to you ... to us!

May you ...
not be greedy, ... 
not grasp too hard, ... 
let go of what is stale, old, and no longer useful, ...
practice the Art of What is Needed, ...
... for the benefit of all beings everywhere.

Aloha, with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Returning to Loving - the self

 Charlie Chun giving me some love.

Charlie Chun giving me some love.

There's nothing like receiving love from a dog. I got to visit with my brother in Hawaii last month, and his dog Charlie, gave me unconditional love and affection. Right about now, I wish that I could give myself that same kind of unconditional love and affection. Loving one's self is hard at times!

What a momentous month it's been. Whew.

At the moment, I am feeling extreme frustration. My apartment has been a complete mess for the last two months due to an infestation of bed bugs that I only became aware of at the start of the new year, though unbeknownst to me the problem actually started 4 months prior. I've been living amidst piles of plastic bags -- at least 40 of them -- and working at a messy desk that has stacks of things to do strewn here and there. At times, it feels like there is no room to breath in here, and I am not one for being able to work easily when there are seemingly endless to-do's right in my line of visibility. Trying to run my small nonprofit business under these conditions has, at moments, felt impossible. Just about now, I am really taking comfort in something the Buddhist meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg wrote: 

The Buddha taught that the forces in the mind that bring suffering are able to temporarily hold down the positive forces such as love or wisdom, but they can never destroy them. The negative forces can never uproot the positive, whereas the positive forces can actually uproot the negative forces. Love can uproot fear or anger or guilt because it is a greater power.

While at times it has felt like the negative forces in my mind are winning out and dominating, I also have just enough space in my mind to see that this situation will not last. From a yoga perspective the above statement seems to make sense. Our need for food, clothing, and shelter are said to rest down in our lower chakras and our capacity for loving resides in our higher ones. Love is the higher and greater power, and as yoga practitioners we need to keep our hearts open and return to love over and over again.

According to Sharon, the Buddha taught that "you can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection."

So the flip side of my current condition is that I have had many opportunities to be compassionate toward myself, cut myself some slack, and seek ways to be affectionate and loving toward myself. For me, it's meant not trying to be so perfect and disciplined all the time. It's meant treating myself to 'junk' food every so often, such as the other night when I had a tremendous craving for a Big Mac, fries, and coke. It's meant acknowledging when I am afraid, such as when I am working to grow my business and feeling like I don't know what I am doing yet trying anything I can think of to keep moving the momentum forward. It's meant acknowledging that I am afraid to ask for help, yet leaping forward and asking anyway. It's meant being OK with shutting down the computer when my mind is mush and just can't think straight any more, even though it feels like I have a thousand and one tasks with imminent deadlines to accomplish. It's meant indulging in lack of time-management and taking longer showers so that my mind can go to that place where the answers to my current questions can arise. It's meant being OK with wearing the same set of clothes day-in and day-out for the last two months, and remembering that many people in the world have to do the same with even less. It's meant giving myself extra doses of metta, or loving-kindness.

Sharon writes: The practice of metta, uncovering the force of love that can uproot fear, anger, and guilt, begins with befriending ourselves. The foundation of metta practice is to know how to be our own friend. ... With metta practice, we uncover the possibility of truly respecting ourselves.

So with all that I have been through this month, I have also retuned to loving my little self. In yoga, we are always striving to connect with the bigger Self, and I think a necessary pre-condition is to start by being kind and loving towards -- and once again befriending -- the little self, the all-too-human little me that does get afraid, that does lose hope, and is only trying  to do good for both my little self and others around me. 

Sharon alludes to this poem by Walt Whitman -- which I absolutely love -- to illustrate the practice of metta and the results that are possible:

I am larger, better than I thought; I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me.
Whoever denies me, it shall not trouble me;
Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed, and shall bless me.

― Walt WhitmanLeaves of Grass

It's all too easy for most of us -- myself definitely included -- to forget the goodness that already resides within and to not acknowledge the good that we do for others around us. It's been all too easy for me -- perhaps you too -- to slip into thinking I am not good enough. So in writing my Artist's Way morning pages this morning I used it as an opportunity to remember all the ways I have held so much goodness for myself and others over the last few days, to remember all the joy I have brought to others in my teaching, and the joy that I received in return. I am now recalling the happiness I experienced teaching my little children gymnastics, dance, and yoga this past Monday and seeing the smiles on their faces and their feelings of pride in their accomplishments. I love teaching little children, and I love seeing them laugh and be excited to learn, and I am so grateful that I can help mold their young and still malleable minds to learn the values that yoga teaches at such a young age. I recall the joy on the faces of the special needs individuals I was invited to teach yesterday at a workshop for a disabilities organization. Seeing the possibilities for movement and awakening within each of them, even with their limited abilities, brought me great joy and feelings of goodness for myself. Seeing the goodness within me has meant allowing myself to be OK with being lazy and indulgent at times, and to accept my current progress as good-enough. 

Most fortunately, I have a loving partner who has supported me through thick and thin, and who reminds me that I am loved and let's me complain and kvetch occasionally for no other reason than so that I can get things off my chest. 

And speaking of my partner Ed, this being the month that we celebrate Valentine's Day and seeing the possibilities for romantic love as a force for helping to do good in the world, after 7 years of being together and deepening our friendship and love for each other, I presented him with a ring and asked him if he would marry me. He said "yes!" We plan to be married back in my home state of Hawaii later this year, and have a wedding ceremony there in 2019, the year of my 60th birthday. I am so fortunate to have a good man in my life, and am looking forward to being partners for life!

And to think that this could only have been possible as of six years ago, when NY State passed same sex marriage and then in 2014 when it became the law of the land here in the U.S. It's because countless LGBTQ individuals loved their little selves just as they were just enough over the last half century that eventually a tipping point was reached in our country.

Whew, what a month it's been.

May you hold much love and affection for yourself, and see all the goodness within you,
May you return to loving the self,
... for your benefit and for the benefit of all.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 Teaching Chair Yoga at the Center for Family Support, Feb 27, 2018.

Teaching Chair Yoga at the Center for Family Support, Feb 27, 2018.

 

Are You Ready to "Yoga?"

 Sunrise at Makapuʻu, Hawai`i, Jan 16, 2018

Sunrise at Makapuʻu, Hawai`i, Jan 16, 2018

 Sunset at Lanikuhonua, Oʻahu, Hawai`i, Jan 16, 2018 It's not every day that one gets to see the sun rise and set over water all in one day!

Sunset at Lanikuhonua, Oʻahu, Hawai`i, Jan 16, 2018
It's not every day that one gets to see the sun rise and set over water all in one day!

The first sutraatha yoga anushasanam—of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali has been resonating with me a lot this past month. It’s often an overlooked one, but when you dive deeper into its meaning, it can guide you in the right direction in your life. Swami Jnaneshvara translates these Sanskrit words to mean: Now, after having done prior preparation through life and other practices, the study and practice of Yoga begins.

The important word here is “now.”

It’s the beginning of a new calendar year, and many people are ready to jump into new routines which they hope will improve their lives. We all like to try new things around now, and yoga is something that is often added to the mix. Yet, are you truly ready for yoga?

According to Yoga Sutras, one should come to yoga because one is ready to do it, and not perhaps because it’s the trendy thing to do. In other words, ideally one comes to yoga because for whatever reasons, one is drawn to it because one is need its benefits and are ready to receive them. Perhaps one begins yoga practice because they’ve heard that yoga can help to release stress, alleviate worry, and lead to more peace and calm. Sometimes one is drawn to yoga because of some traumatic experience they’ve had, and they need healing and recovery.  

Yoga means Union.

And so to benefit optimally from yoga, one has to be ready to “yoga” or ready to be in union with one’s highest Self, highest Nature.

With the proliferation of so many offshoots of yoga here in the west—buff yoga, broga, nude yoga, yo-dan-nastics—it might be easy to think that yoga is just a physical practice meant for physical self-improvement only. While one may experience physical benefits from doing yoga, it is always good to remember that the real, enduring, and important benefits of it are internal, such as more peace of mind, less stress, more joy and equanimity. Though these are unseen qualities, they are definitely qualities that we can feel. And when we are in union, we can exude a “yoga glow” that can be felt by and benefit others around us.

The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Sutras are:
yogash chitta vritti nirodhah
tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam
vritti sarupyam itaratra

Essentially, these words mean that the goal of yoga is to quiet down the mind enough so that we can know at a deeper level our Highest Self and to be able to see the ever-changing nature of the outward world’s many passing phenomena as an illusion.

The external world leads our minds here and there, modifying and shaping it. It is easy to identify with those images – really illusions – such as “I am rich”, or “I am a Poly-Eurasian male”, or “I am powerless”, and so on. But to be ready to “yoga” means being ready to want to break free from those labels that we and the outer world have placed upon ourselves.

Really, the goal of Yoga is to identify with the Seer within that witnesses the ever-changing ephemeral world around and within us.

And to truly benefit from yoga, one has to be ready to make the right changes in one’s life. At the start of a new year, many people are ready to make resolutions. Hopefully these changes one makes in one’s life will lead her/him to the outcomes they seek in the year ahead.

For me personally, I started my year with an idea in mind of some large goals I wish to manifest in 2018. Then rather than focus on the goals, I started to focus on the inner changes I could realistically make, the inner intentions I could set, and the things I could let go of.

The external situations of my life led me to have a bit of a rocky start to my year. Most significantly, my apartment has been turned upside down for all of January due to an infestation of bed bugs. Yep, living in a Manhattan high-rise apartment building with 1700 other units around mine certainly has its perks!

In the beginning, it caused me to feel much stress and many moments over the last 4 weeks have felt like quite an ordeal. But the flip side of all of this is that I also have come to see all the changes that will result from me going through this this as blessings. For one thing, when this is all said and done, I plan to purge my apartment of all the things I no longer need. I also came to see just how resilient and inventive I can be with my living arrangements. Even if I had to sleep on my hard floor on quite a number of nights, at least I had an apartment with heat. It came to my mind during those nights that many people in the world don’t even have this basic comfort. And probably most importantly, I came to see that even though the outer circumstances of my life are chaotic, my inner faith in my abilities to overcome these obstacles is now even stronger.

Another significant stressor in my life happened back on Saturday, Jan 13 at approximately 8am Hawaii Standard Time. I was in Honolulu at the time driving home from enjoying an 'ono (delicious) Hawaiian breakfast when my cell phone started buzzing with the alert of an incoming missile. Suddenly the peaceful morning I was experiencing in blue-skied, warm and tranquil Hawaii was upended by fears of my impending death. For 45 minutes or so, I prepared myself for the end. Panic was mixed with thoughts of “can this really be truly happening?” Fortunately, at around 8:45am we receive the notification that all was clear. Whew.

 Got the "all clear" on my cell phone.

Got the "all clear" on my cell phone.

So that was my brief brush with my mortality. That was a wakeup call, in a sense, to continue to see this life of mine and all my possessions as a brief blink of the Universe’s eye, yet also as an opportunity to see that I am part of something much bigger and much more eternal.

This the why we practice yoga – to know these realizations.

The fundamental realization that came to me this month is that it is less important what the outer circumstances of one’s life are but rather what inner circumstances are being modified, changed.

Externally, I am not where I want to be, but internally I know I will get there because of the inner changes I’ve made. Truly it is not where one starts, but rather where one finishes. So, I’ve learned not to judge what I see happening in my life at any one time as defining me, but rather have been keeping my eye on the prize and imagining what can happen when I make internal changes that move my inner being towards greater Union with my Highest Nature.

So, the fundamental question I have been asking myself each day this past month is: “am I ready to make important inner changes in my life that will lead me to greater realizations and bring me closer to my human potential?” Really, I have been asking myself: “am I truly ready to ‘yoga’, to bond closer to my Highest Self?"

For me this month, so far so good

I leave with a question for you: “are you ready to ‘Yoga’?”

May you be happy, health, and ready to ‘yoga’ … for the benefit of all beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Presence as a Present

 View of the brilliant sunset outside of Roosevelt Field Mall on Dec 24 as shoppers wound down their gift-buying.

View of the brilliant sunset outside of Roosevelt Field Mall on Dec 24 as shoppers wound down their gift-buying.

The day before Christmas, my partner and I went to see Star Wars out at Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island. As to be expected, the mall was filled with shoppers, scrambling to find gifts at the last minute. My partner lamented that he wished we could get back to the true meaning of Christmas, one of experiencing and offering simple Joys. I totally understood his sentiment. We all know the holidays have become so commercial and much focus is on the material.

Still as I looked around, I also imagined that all these people at the mall rushing here and there were likely looking for a gift for someone in their life who was important enough to them that they wanted to give them something meaningful and special. So in addition to the swirl of commercialism, I also felt the generosity that was abundant in people's hearts and minds that day. People were thinking about others' best interests.

Beyond the materialism that dominates this time of the year, there is another gift that we can offer our loved ones that can be deeply felt and appreciated. This gift is our simple presence. Here are a few of my favorite Thich That Hanh quotes, which illustrate this and how we can be in touch with it:

When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?

Everything we are LOOKING for is right HERE
in the PRESENT moment.

Walk SLOWLY.  Don’t rush.
Each STEP brings you
to the best MOMENT
of your life,
the PRESENT moment.

If yoga can help us in any way, it can help us to slow down, encourage us to put down our cell phones and help us to see how much we miss by not being present with the things around us. More often than usual, I found myself this past month simply walking on the city sidewalks and standing on the subway without my cellphone in hand. I just wanted to be more present to what was happening around me, and I had some hope that my simply being more fully present in each moment might somehow help the people around me.

Surely, moments like these are truly acts of giving. Pema Chodron interpreted "Dana" -- the Buddhist practice of Generosity -- this way:

 Giving is an act of letting go of holding on to yourself.

As we close out the year, we not only practice generosity but also letting go. The two are intertwined. With each passing year, we are able to see more clearly what we don't need, and we let go of these things. For me, this month has been around looking for ways to make my life simpler and less cluttered, looking for ways that I hope can truly help me to be more present for others. I reduced my teaching schedule, in part to free up more time to attend to other things that are more important to me at this point in my life, and also to give other yoga teachers opportunities to practice and experience the joys of teaching yoga.

Lastly, as this year winds down, one of Marianne Williamson's more famous quotes is resonating deeply with me right now. In A Return to Love, written in 1992, she writes:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not in just some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

If we truly want to help the world, and be more present and generous with others, one of the best things we can do is to be more authentically ourselves. As yoga and meditation practitioners, it is incumbent on us that we become more deeply in touch with our God-given gifts and let them shine -- for both our benefit and the benefit of all around us. 

As you let go of the old, and embrace the new, may you be more present, authentic, and free.

with much aloha,
paul keoni 

 

 

Balance

 Moravian Cemetery, Staten Island

Moravian Cemetery, Staten Island

Nature has a way of balancing itself out. As we fade into the fall, nature's brilliance is on display. It doesn't go away unnoticed, as the brilliant colors of this tree call our attention to it! And soon, these very trees will be barren, then soon thereafter full of green leaves again. Aaah, it's a perennial balancing act that nature has been conducting for a long time. It's an enduring dance, a reminder of the true nature of all things -- nothing lasts.

For me, the idea of staying in balance hits home closely. For a while recently, I've felt that my life wasn't entirely in balance. Too much work, and not enough time to just have fun. Last month, I read a blog by Ramit Sethi that struck home. In it I recall him saying that one should stop all work by a certain hour of the day (i.e., no late nights), and go on to prioritizing things like eating well, being in touch with family and friends, and getting a good night's sleep. That is a definition of a rich life. I took it heart, and have been trying this approach. Occasionally I am successful, occasionally I am not, but more and more my life is moving in this direction.

In class this month, I shared this quote from the Buddhist meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg:

The 7 factors of Awakening: The path of liberation laid out by the Buddha is not one of self-judgment, grasping, or acquisitiveness, but rather, one of balance. If we can bring our system into balance, it is believed, freedom, love and compassion will emerge. One essential way this balance is described is through the 7 factors of enlightenment: mindfulness, investigation, effort, raptness, calm, concentration and equanimity.

From it I took that if I am to expect to be able to be more enlightened than I am now, I have to first be in balance. When my life is not in balance, it is hard for me to stay calm, concentrate, be mindful and maintain equanimity. In those moments when we are not overly stressed or worried, we've all experienced feeling an intense Universal Love for all beings, and have let go of old grudges This is a good reason to try to maintain balance.

Maintaining balance requires both attaining and letting go. The 13th Century Persian Poet Rumi wrote:

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as bird wings.

In other words, we can't keep going and going. Especially as things get busy for us during the holidays -- it's important to make time to bring our life to a standstill. In yoga asana practice we do this by coming to chid's pose. We have to take time to stop, pause, and contract inward to balance out all our active doing.

Sarah at Charleston Yoga shared this sage advice:

Can you remain calm in the midst of your everyday life?  Consider for a moment the importance of balance in the natural order of human life.  Every human body yearns for and thrives in a state of inner balance, inner peace.  This feeling of serenity provides a reference point: it will increase your awareness of, and decrease your tolerance for, the imbalances you normally experience. Think of the first experience you had in Shavasana (Corpse pose), a state of deep relaxation.  Once you've had that experience of relaxation you have a reference point; you can more easily notice tension as it arises and take steps to release it.  Once you know what true balance feels like, you'll begin to notice what's out of balance in any area of your life.  As simple as that??  No, not really ... you must practice daily.  See you on your mat.

One reason we practice yoga is so that we can get in touch with this reference point of serenity again and again, to the point where we don't want to let it go so easily. I've heard some retirees I know say that they don't want to go back to working full time again now that they have the freedom to come and go as they please, with fewer external demands on their time.  And one said that looking back she has no idea how she juggled a full-time job with her personal life. In his former job, my partner found himself so overworked and not able to enjoy life that he said to me several times he was ready to say to his boss "I quit." Fortunately, he's found himself in a new job now, and all indications so far are that his work-life balance will improve.

In the practice of yoga asanas, it is important to remember that there has to be a balance of effort -- a balance of intention. as it were -- in each yoga posture. According to this translation by SwamiJ of Sutra 2.46 from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: 

The posture (asana) for Yoga meditation should be steady, stable, and motionless (sthira), as well as comfortable and ease-filled (sukha), and this is the third of the eight rungs of Yoga.
(sthira sukham asanam)

It is said that unless one is steady and comfortable that one will not be able to experience a higher Awareness of the Infinite. So when you are practicing yoga postures, you must check in with yourself from time to time, honestly asking yourself if you are working so hard that you're losing sight of the larger picture.

During this holiday season, I hope that the hustle and bustle don't throw you off balance too much. And I hope you will have extra time to reflect quietly back on your year, celebrating your triumphs and also making note of things you want to change in 2018. Spending time reflecting back at this time of the year will be a nice way to balance out your 2017.

May you be happy, healthy, balanced, and free ... for the benefit of both yourself and all beings.

Aloha with Metta,
Paul Keoni

 

 

 

"Learning to Stay"

IMG_5717.JPG

Earlier this month, my partner and I were enjoying an unseasonably warm and quite beautiful weekend on the boardwalk out in Arverne and this bird stayed hovering above me just long enough for me to snap it's photo with my iPhone. So sweet! Certainly, it is not easy to capture a bird in flight, as their movement patterns are similar to something we're all familiar with -- our own minds! Yes, like birds in flight, our own minds have a hard time staying in one place. Yet, Pema Chödrön suggests in her dharma talk on "Learning to Stay" on her CD Getting Unstuck (Disc 1) that doing so may lead to greater liberation.

Her talk was enormously helpful for me this month, as I experienced some difficult emotions and on several occasions woke up in the middle of the night frozen by panic. Know the feeling?! A few times, I forced myself to sit in meditation in the middle of my room surrounded by the darkness of the night and eventually my mind and body was able to settle enough for me to fall asleep again. At the very least, I had learned to stay. And now as I settle down to write this, I am also practicing learning to stay while my mind is experiencing the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to appear on this page. I am experiencing an inkling of why, as Pema suggests, learning to stay can be so useful.

Life is always going to be filled with ups and downs, knowings and not knowings. The secret to remaining balanced and still functional through it all is, Pema suggests, simply learning to stay. It goes beyond needing to prove "my rightness" and "your wrongness." Rather it's more fundamental than that and has to do more with just being quiet, and staying, breathing, and listening.

And yet it's not so simple. When things are difficult, we either want to run away and hide, and not come out until the coast is clear. Which is why, Pema says, "learning to stay takes courage." She shared one of the lines of her morning Buddhist prayers is: "Whatever arises is fresh, the essence of Realization ... [and] even our judgments about what arises is the essence of Realization." By this she is encouraging us to stay with whatever arises in each moment, as the experience could lead us to greater Self-Realization. If we can treat each moment, each arising, as precious then theoretically we never have to fear anything that arises. 

And she reminds us that "the process is the fruition." We don't have to become completely realized human beings in one sitting. Rather just the fact that we sit and take each arising in our mind as it comes is enough of a victory.

Pema anecdotally shared that after many years of practicing meditation that one of her greatest realizations is that even when her mind goes off on a tangent her attitude about it is "no big deal." Like a bird in flight, we can't always expect our mind to be able to stay still and hover in one spot. But what we can change is how we view our minds. For, e.g., if we can see it as "no big deal" that our mind is experiencing panic--it's just what minds do every so often--then we'll likely see the panic begin to subside sooner rather than later. During such moments, she suggests: "learn to accept the present moment, as if you had invited it, and work with it rather than against it, making it your ally rather than your enemy." She suggests that one way of uncovering our Buddha nature is to "open to the unknown future, as if it were thrilling rather than threat."

Pema shared: "What I've noticed about the few people in my life who I consider to be completely awake is they learned to stay, ... and you feel this sense of eternal presence [when you are in their presence]; they don't go off anywhere." So we may not be as fully awake as these people are, but if we wish to somehow help those around us, perhaps one of the most profound ways we can do that is to learn to stay a little longer each time things get uncomfortable and show a little more courage by not going off anywhere.. 

Practicing yoga postures takes courage during those times when uncomfortable emotions are loosened and rise to the surface. Sometimes we can stay in the posture and keep breathing through the experience, while at other times the only solution is soften into child's pose and experience our breath there. 

On a personal note, it's been 9 years since I founded Keoni Movement Arts and as I look back I'm really grateful that I stayed with it for so long. Certainly, things didn't always unfold in the manner or as quickly as I thought they would and I've surely made a lot of mistakes along the way. I'm just grateful that I stayed long enough for me to be able to learn from my mistakes, and as a result I feel the organization is in a stronger position than it's ever been. In these fast moving times, when people are changing jobs -- and companies are changing people -- every few years, I've found that sometimes staying put can have long term benefits. 

May you learn to stay, ... for the benefit of all beings everywhere.

With aloha and metta,
Paul Keoni

 

Surrender

 Endless summer at Rockaway Beach, 9/23/17

Endless summer at Rockaway Beach, 9/23/17

Summer is officially over, but it seems to be surrendering slowly. With 80 degree weather in NYC lasting till late September, I had one last chance to go swimming last weekend. Aaah, the water was so refreshing and the waves so delightful to bodysurf along in. And practicing savasana on the warm sand after swimming was so heavenly. I truly felt a deep sense of surrender, one of the most important aspects of practicing yoga.

Of course, September is the time when we once again commemorate the events of 9/11. It's hard to believe that happened 16 years ago this month. Memories fade, but of course for many the wounds have not entirely healed and were reopened again at this time. The Buddha's teachings on love and hate are so important to remember again and again, especially at this time. He taught: 

"Hatred is never ended by hatred - but by love alone is hatred healed. This is an ancient truth. Many do not realize that we here must day. For those who remember, quarrels end."
-Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha)

The events of 9/11 are a reminder to us that no matter how inexplicable some things that happen in life can be, we must always try to surrender to the way things are. Yes it's natural to want devastating occurrences to go away and disappear, but rather than run from them, we must have the courage to try to sit with the difficult energies and move on with best actions possible. Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama said: “The hard shell of the ego cannot be cracked without surrendering to something bigger than itself.” In a sense we have to admit that our egos are large, and our egos want things to be different. But unless we can surrender our egos to something larger, we will suffer more.

This past month, I was faced with a particularly huge workload, and found myself overwhelmed in a few moments. My salvation was my meditation and yoga nidra practices. I found Beth Johnson's comments about meditation particularly comforting. She wrote: In the silence of meditation you can sense the part or parts of yourself that you may be trying to push away or disown. When you surrender and welcome the excluded parts back into the fold, there is a release of energy and your inner strength returns. My meditation practice helped me to sit with all parts of myself, particularly welcoming in the parts that are difficult--my fears, my worries, my doubts, my wishes for things to be different than they are. And in my meditation practice, I also returned to being in touch with my deepest knowings about my highest possibilities and most heart-felt desires. And in practicing yoga nidra, one-by-one each part of my physical body surrendered to the way things are, just as they are. Despite the challenges I faced, and the fears I experience in facing them, over and over again strength returned.

Pema Chodron's words also helped. She said: 

"It's helpful to remind yourself that meditation is about opening and relaxing
with whatever arises, without picking and choosing."

Pema Chodron (b. 1936)
American Buddhist teacher

Really when you think about it, life is about opening and relaxing to the way things are, without picking and choosing. In every yoga asana you practice there has to be an opening and relaxing to the way things are. Yes there is effort in practicing yoga postures, but if you can't also relax and surrender too, you will not experience balance. And yes, too, we make intentional efforts in life as we pursue our highest dreams, but there also has to be a surrender and a letting go in order for them to be realized. And I might add something I practiced more often this month--there has to be a putting down of our cell phones and surrendering to the richness of more of the moments in our lives that we miss when we are distracted.

May you continue to strive to extend love to yourself and others more, ...
May you welcome back more parts of yourself that have been heretofore excluded, ...
May you open and relax more, ...
May you surrender to the way things are more, ...
May your ego be cracked more, ...
May you put down your cell phone more, ...
... for the benefit of All Beings everywhere.

Metta with Aloha,
Paul Keoni