Fully human, fully awake, fully alive.

Every Tuesday morning I take the 25 bus to Heaton Moor where I visit a large Victorian house that is the home of the charity Supportability. For many years I have been teaching a weekly one-hour yoga class to a group of about 13 men and women, of various ages, who have Cerebral Palsy, or other forms of disability. We form a small circle, with most students sitting in their wheelchairs. I light some incense, play some relaxing music and over the next hour we explore gentle movement in our bodies, trying to find a sense of space and relaxation in our experience. One of the effects of Cerebral Palsy is that muscles can become tight and constricted, so any opportunity to help relax tense muscles, strengthen muscles and keep joints flexible can be a huge help.

We explore a number of modified postures including seated sun salutes, where we make the opening movement of Surya Namaskar with our arms while we sing “Sun” together, imagining the warm rays of the sun entering our hearts. Chanting and voice work is also a important part of our time together – with fists banging on our chest we let out our Tarzan call followed by a journey into the depths of the jungle where we meet the King of the animals, the Lion. We then practise Simhasana (Lion pose) sticking out our tongues and letting out our lion’s roar which can leave staff and students smiling and laughing.

Brian, who is a very committed student and has been coming to the class for many years now, has a tendency to fall asleep. So Brian and myself have this playful exchange where he falls asleep (when he thinks nobody is looking) and I call out saying “Brian are you still with us?”. Having been caught out he often opens his eyes and looks at me with a wry smile on his face. Brian will never practise downward-facing dog, or a lot of the traditional postures we may be familiar with, but in modified forms he and the other students explore movement that is available to them in their body.

As I ring my cymbals to mark the end of the class and the students come out of Savasana (Corse pose), a strong sense of relaxation often fills the room. My weekly visits to Supportability remind me again and again that yoga is adaptable, and can be modified to suit every person’s body type, health or age.

“It’s also helpful to realize that this very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now… with its aches and it pleasures… is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.”
Pema Chodron

Everything Flows

Once again as we move into another year we may find ourselves reflecting on the events of our lives, and the world around us. A of lot things can happen in a year; when I began reflecting on my own life over the past year I discovered: there have been some friends getting married; others falling in love; others experiencing broken hearts; babies have been born; friends have died; other friends have started new jobs; some have lost their job; some friends have become sick; others continue to have good health; several people I know have moved home including myself.

What do all these events have in common? They share the fact that all things are impermanent and subject to change and flux. I recently watched again the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home on Bob Dylan. There is a wonderful moment that really moved me when Bob Dylan comments on the view that his music changed and evolved and did not stay fixed. He says

“An artist has got to be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s ‘at’ somewhere. You always have to realize that you’re constantly in a state of becoming, you know? And as long as you can stay in that realm you’ll sort of be all right.”

This view of life and the nature of self that Dylan states is, I believe, a very helpful one to hold and is found at the heart of the teachings of Buddhism. Simply stated, nothing in the world around us or ourselves is fixed or solid; there are no things, just process and flux. So as we begin a new year, we may find it helpful to reflect on our ability to change. We don’t have to be Bob Dylan or a famous celebrity to live a creative life and make changes that we can imagine possible. So maybe in this coming year we could try holding lightly to any fixed ideas we may have about ourselves and those around us? We could embrace change and new ways of being, no matter how large or small, and maybe we will experience ourselves in a new way.

‘Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed… Cool things become warm, the warm grows cool; the moist dries, the parched becomes moist… It is in changing that things find repose.’ — Heraclitus

The sensory world

In 1948 a small boy was accompanying his mother as she went shopping in London. His mother took him into Selfridges as she wanted to try on a beautiful new-look coat from Dior. The boy’s mother could not afford the coat but wanted to experience herself wearing it, even if only for a few minutes. The young boy watched his mother swirling around in the coat, which, as she moved, was lit from behind. The young boy thought she looked so beautiful and felt that this vision of his mother was like seeing the beauty of women for the first time.

This event had a dramatic effect on the boy’s life. Years later he trained to become a photographer and became one of the most famous fashion photographers in the world. His name was David Bailey. What I love about this story, is that it illustrates the qualities of someone who is alive to the sensory world around them. This has sometimes been called, in archetypal terms, the ‘lover’ archetype. These people have a appetite for life, they are sensually aware and sensitive to the realm of their senses, noticing colours, forms, sounds, tactile sensations and smells. If you have ever eaten a meal cooked by someone with a passion for food and cooking you will have been touched by someone with these qualities. Poets, painters, musicians and connoisseurs are often drawn to these vocations because they have these qualities and they subsequently flourish in these fields. In my own life I have found that when I open more deeply to the realm of my senses and relax into a spacious awareness I find that I can really enjoy and appreciate a piece of music or a moment in nature; the world around me takes on a vividness and aliveness, becoming a thing of beauty.

“Our senses are indeed our doors and windows on this world, in a very real sense the key to the unlocking of meaning and the wellspring of creativity.”
Jean Houston, Teacher.

It’s A Wonderful Life

Many years ago I found myself in a cinema in Manchester during the festive season. As the lights went up at the end of the film, I looked around to see people wiping tears from their eyes, and likewise during the course of the film I had been moved to tears myself on several occasions. I had gone to watch a film that you can guarantee will be showing on TV or at your local cinema as part of the Christmas celebrations. It is Frank Capra’s classic ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. Made in 1947 and starring a great cast including James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, Capra’s film has a Dickensian quality to it. James Stewart plays the role of a selfless man George Bailey who is much loved in the small town of Bedford Falls; it’s a story of redemption that follows his suicidal despair one Christmas night. Clarence the angel appears and shows George how much of a dark and sad place the world would have been without him.

I believe that the reason the film is so loved by so many people is (not only due to Capra’s masterful direction and story-telling) because it illustrates a deeper, fundamental truth about the nature of reality. The truth is: that every life is of value and is important. We can often feel powerless in our lives and insignificant, even isolated and alone. But we are all interconnected to each other and to all of life – the threads that connect us to others and the world are not always easy to see. Even after many years of practising Buddhist meditation and yoga I still find myself at times struggling to see and accept that my actions touch other people’s lives.

A small act of kindness or a harsh word or action can have a profound effect, beyond what we can imagine. We have a responsibility for the world we live in; we are not separate from it but embedded in a network of complex patterns of connection. It can be helpful to stop and reflect on our lives and all we have done through our actions – great and small. The small acts of kindness shown to others bring us into deeper relationship with the world. Think of all the different people in your life and how their lives would be without you, and then you will begin to see the profound ordinary beauty that is your life.

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’
Clarence The Angel from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

There is a Mountain

In October of 1967 the British singer/songwriter Donovan released a new single, ‘There is a Mountain’ which climbed to No.8 in the UK charts. The song was something of a departure for Donovan with its sunny Calypso-style and irresistible melody. Accompanying him on the track were Tony Carr on percussion, Harold McNair on flute and Danny Thompson on bass. The song was later adapted to form the basis of the Allman Brothers’ lengthy live ‘Mountain Jam’ on the album ‘Eat a Peach’.

The song’s lyrics refer to a Buddhist text originally formulated by the 9th century Zen Buddhist teacher Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D.T. Suzuki in his ‘Essays in Zen Buddhism’, one of the first books to popularize Buddhism in Europe and the US. Qingyuan wrote:

“Before I had studied Chan / Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers when I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains and rivers once again as rivers.”

In 1965, Donovan was introduced to the Qingyuan Zen text by the US banjo player Derroll Adams, a popular figure on the British 60’s folk scene. Donovan took the text and adapted it to create lyrics that would become the song, ‘There is a Mountain’.

…First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
The caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within.
Caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is….

At the heart of Buddhist teachings we are told that all things are impermanent and subject to change and flux. Simply stated, nothing in the world around us or our self is fixed or solid. There are no things, just process and flux. There is no fixed unchanging centre in any object in our experience. Unfortunately, we suffer and experience difficulties in life because we perceive the world around us as solid, looking for stability where there is none.

When we look at a mountain, we may initially perceive it to be a solid and fixed thing in the world. This level of conceptualisation and labelling gives us the false impression that we know what something is e.g. a mountain. Upon meditative reflection we come to realise that the idea of the mountain as being a solid fixed object in our experience is a limited and false misconception. We begin to see more clearly that it is something arising moment by moment in time, dependent on many conditions. It is alive, vibrant, constantly changing and moving. It is not a static, solid fixed object. In the final stage, with a deepening insight, we no longer perceive the mountain as a solid thing but as a flowing process and we then use language to describe the idea or concept of what a mountain is, but from a new awareness where we hold any concepts of things in the world very lightly.

What I love about Donovan’s simple song is that within the medium of a disposable pop song that thousands of people have heard over the years, we find a deeply profound Buddhist teaching that within two and half minutes manages to offer more insights than a large volume of books could ever hope to.


Allen Ginsberg’s Howl

On the evening of October 7th 1955, Gallery Six took place in a low-ceilinged former auto-body repair shop in San Francisco.  Gallery Six was an event where local artists within the bohemian community could meet and share their work. That evening, various poets including Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Michael McClure performed their work.  Also that evening, a relatively unknown poet named Allen Ginsberg got up on the makeshift orange-crate podium and read a new poem he had been working on called, ‘Howl’. The poem, with its hallucinatory style was seen as a response to Cold War America and drew on themes from Ginsberg’s personal experience with references to illicit drugs, sex and homosexuality. This epic poem sent ripples out into the world and even that evening for those who had heard and witnessed its birth, felt that something special had just happened. The poem now considered to be one of the great works of American Literature and the birth of the Beat Generation.

The morning after the debut reading of ‘Howl’ Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founder of the City Lights Bookshop & Press sent Ginsberg a telegram. In it he wrote, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Ferlinghetti then published, ‘Howl and Other Poems’ in 1956.

In 1957, 520 copies of the book were seized by U.S. Customs Officials, and Ferlinghetti was charged with “…willfully and lewdly printing, publishing and selling obscene writings.” A famous censorship trail ensued and Ginsberg, along with his friends were thrust into the international headlines. Ferlinghetti won the case as the Judge decided that the poem had, “redeeming social importance.” This judgement sealed Ginsberg’s role as one of the most famous poets of the modern age.

The definition of the word censorship is, “The name for the process or idea of keeping things like obscene words or graphic images from an audience.”  If we take the idea that certain images and words are deemed offensive to our morality or decency as true, then we can become bound by the conditioned beliefs of the culture we live in and we are not free.

If we look at our own lives and take a deeper inquiry within, we may find that we have our own censorship trials taking place. What we do on an external level as a society or culture is a mirrored reflection of how we might view ourselves on an inner level. We may have certain thoughts, feelings and images that arise in our experience that we deem unacceptable and this may leave us feeling uncomfortable. As a response to this we may try and censor these aspects of self and label them as, bad or wrong.  If we look at this from a Buddhist perspective, this can be seen in a new light. When we observe our thoughts, feelings and perceptions, they cannot be said to be solid or permanent. Everything that arises in our experience is like a play of energy in the mind or a rainbow in the sky. It has no fixed essence, appearing one moment then dissolving the next.

Whatever momentarily arises
in the body-mind
Has no real importance at all,
has little reality whatsoever.
Why identify with,
And become attached to it,
Passing Judgement upon it and ourselves?
Far better to simply
let the entire game happen on its own,
springing up and falling back like waves
without changing or manipulating anything
and notice how everything
vanishes and reappears, magically,
Again and again, time without end.
Free and Easy,
A Spontaneous Vajra Song: Venerable Lama Gendun Rinpoche