A chilling thought came over me under a waning sliver of moon, as I sat in the silence before dawn. The autumn wind blew down from the ridge above my house, lifting curled leaves from their branches, and spinning them down into the creek. As the wind shook my windows, I shuddered and drew my wool around me. That wind had come for me, I thought, to blow through me, and send my dead parts to the ground.
My daughter cried later that day, as the same wind blew over the field through which we were walking. My eyes were drawn to the leaves whirling to the ground, and with her soft, widening gaze, she watched those leaves fall too. She told me through teary eyes that she didn’t want them to die. I took her into my arms and held her close. I felt her trembling body against mine, and between arose a calm, simple warmth. I felt that warmth spread through her, and she was comforted. And so was I.
“Those leaves already sang their song,” I said, “They already held the summer sun, made sugar for that tree, and gave us shade in the afternoon. And now they are ready to fall, ready to crumble, ready to return back to the soil. They will nourish the roots that supported them, when they were reaching toward the light. And with all that richness, the tree will leaf and blossom again, when the spring comes, and new leaves will wave in the wind.”
The field rippled again, and we watched more leaves spin off the trees, and whirl down through the air toward the frozen ground. But after that warming embrace, and that simple shift of mind, we both saw those leaves in another light. We saw them fall elegantly, graciously, with absolutely no resistance, back toward the soil from which they sprang. And they seemed now to embody a quiet appreciation, that they are part of something extraordinary, an expression of creativity both exultant and extravagant, luxuriating season after season in its own abundance, allowing itself to diminish and reduce, knowing that it can spring forward again in something even more profuse.
We watched in silence, wondering at how easily those leaves release from the trees as the wind calls them home.
And I remembered that chilling feeling from the morning before, when the wind blow down the mountain toward me, and I had shuddered, as if the wind were ominous and threatening, when it was only asking me to release my own dead leaves. And I wondered at myself, at my own resistance, my own impulse to brace myself again the winds, to harden, like the wood of an old gnarled oak. What do I need to embody that same elegance and grace in letting go?
The yoga traditions tell us about an ancient delusion that we feel in our bones, one that leads us to push and pull on things, both inside and out. This is the delusion that we are impoverished, isolated and in desperate need of something that would make us whole. Within this delusion, pushing and pulling is how we seem to give our shape ourselves, define our place in the world, make ourselves recognizable, so we can look out upon the world with open eyes and raised hands, and say with some assurance “Here I am!”
In times of loss, we feel even more intensely how we cling to the world. Things we love, things we depend upon, things that are certain, familiar and sure, are suddenly and naturally cast into the wind. Our leaves are blown away, exposing what feels like an emptiness in our hearts, a hollowness that we can hardly endure. And we come to experience so palpably what the tradition tells us about ourselves, that beneath all the pushing and pulling, all the hope and the excitement, is a sense of impoverishment, of isolation, of need—a sense that our minds are anxious to obscure.
And this much seems plain. We are crippled by a profound lack of trust in our own unfoldment, a lack of trust in the natural movement of things, a lack of trust that our blossoming can take care of itself. Because we implicitly believe that our abundance is something we have to go out and manifest, and we feel so inadequate to the task. So we push and pull against the forces that move through us, against the thoughts, emotions, memories and feelings that we hold in our bodies, anguishing to realize some fantastical idea of ourselves, to make ourselves live and breathe.
Our minds organize themselves into structures of thought, feeling and emotion that externalize our sense of need, our sense of longing, and we feel it as an implacable desire for something that we cannot obtain but through some tremendous exertion, and so we go about exerting ourselves, expending ourselves, deferring ourselves unrelentingly, not believing about ourselves what is so obvious to plain reflection—that something tremendous could exert itself through us, if only we would open our hearts to receive it. And so we turn our delusion of impoverishment out onto the world, reaching for what is more tangible, for what promises to raise us up, out of that sense of isolation, while leaving no space within ourselves for anything tremendous to pour forth.
The practice of yoga is to open to grace, not the grace of something outside of us, but the grace of our own hearts, of the deep love that gives force to our desires, to our inner longings, to the whole spectrum of our emotions, including even despair and our grief. To turn away from those emotions, or from the situations in which they appear, is to turn away from grace itself, and to remain in the delusion of being divided, diminished, reduced.
The movement of desire, however anguishing it might sometimes seem, shows itself, to a loving consciousness, to be impossibly sweet. My daughter’s wish for those summer leaves to live and thrive. This is the externalization of something that our softened hearts can recognize immediately as their own—a deep love for the tender expression of life, and a simple wish for all living beings flourish.
That is the same love that makes our hearts throb when we see tears in the eyes of our sons and daughters, when we anguish over the misfortunes of our friends abroad. And it is the same love that makes us long for summer days of love and laughter, of abundance and possibility, and of the exhilaration of being surrounded by people we adore. What makes the one seem so painful, and the other so sweet, is only the frame of consciousness in which that love is experienced.
As my daughter’s tears remind us, we are so often wounded by desire. Wounded by this sweet and ever broken wish to see everything around us thrive. But we learn so early that everything we love is moving toward death. And because we are unable to integrate that truth into our consciousness, we harden against the world, withholding our love, but for those rare people and places whose attention and existence we somehow learn to trust. And we cover over the darkness, the soreness, the wound that never seems to heal, by pushing and pulling on the rest of the world, to make the world conform to our wishes, and to keep ourselves protected, however imperfectly, from harm.
Many of us turn to yoga in hope of relieving those deeper aches and pains. Those tensions that we feel in our lower backs and hips, in our sacrum and our inner thigh, in the seat of our structural support, they remind us of the sense of impoverishment that lies in the depths of our delusional minds, and we would rather do without them. We long for what makes us feel light and agile, bright and uplifted. And so we stretch our bodies, breathe into them, delight in the movement of desire through our tissues—until something obstructs the flow of those forces again, and reminds of the darkness, and we recoil, turn our attention back out again, and look for distractions in external things.
Or sometimes we push harder, and turn our yoga into a discipline, a way of holding ourselves with more force, more rigidity, more resistance. We bend while refusing to feel, refusing to remember, starving our sensual impulses, scraping our nerves, wrenching our organs, and making ourselves numb, all in the hope of escaping our mental situation, breaking our attachments to the body, and overcoming those deeper sources of suffering. All of this anguished exertion comes from that same implacable sense of impoverishment, of isolation, of need.
However confused it might be, even that anguished exertion will show itself, from a loving consciousness, to be a distorted reflection of something profoundly sweet. For a loving consciousness will recognize the anguish as a contracted form of the desire to be free.
The confusion in this kind of exertion is plain—though we have moved our anguish into the ritual of yoga, we are still pushing and pulling against ourselves, sustaining our antagonistic stance against reality, our delusion that we can, through some tremendous exertion, lift ourselves above the condition of pain. But as long as we remain in that antagonistic stance, we remain brittle and hard, impervious to the warmth and grace of a deeper love. We cling to our branches, refusing to fall into the hollowness at the center of our hearts.
In times of anguish, we might look upon ourselves as we would look upon a confused child, crying at the falling of autumn leaves. Our tears may fall in reverence for what we have lost, in reverence for the departed, in reverence for the sadness that we feel in our hearts. And we may taste the sweetness of those tears, as we watch the leaves crumble and fall. But when the anguish holds us there, so that we cannot move on, cannot live and love in this new world, we have to rile ourselves to see deep into the confusion that holds our anguish in place.
Because our confusion is really the same, and just as empty. However heavy and hampering our anguish may be, it has no more substance than a thought, and that is the thing about the obscurations. They can feel as real as the hardness in our tissues and bones, but they are not actually substantial realities. Instead, they are visceral reflections of an innocent confusion, an innocent contraction of our consciousness into a narrow stall of concerns. And it needs no more to be cursed and reviled than does the confusion of a child, who cries at the falling of the autumn leaves, simply because she does not see them as they are.
And we can absolve ourselves of the weight of those obscurations by an etheric shift of perspective, a shift from wanting to escape our circumstances, to allowing them to be, while also holding ourselves, and our broken heart, with a deep and abiding love for the process of life itself. Only then can we see the emptiness of our obscurations, and allow ourselves that huge relief.
The emptiness of our obscurations means that there is nothing to work on, nothing to wear away, but only something to touch into, something to hold, something to soothe with an open heart, and something to see, to appreciate from a wider, more generous and more lucid consciousness.
Our practice is to ritualize that same loving consciousness, the one that holds the trembling body of the child who cries at the autumn wind, and does so with a gentle but unwavering strength, the one that picks us up and soothes us when we convulse, and gives us the courage to carry on. Because we too shudder at the wind, and we too need that warm embrace, in those chilling moments, that shifts our sense of what is happening, and allows us to see ourselves as part of something sublime, something excessive and intricate and lush, something that shows its extravagance in how it releases and expends absolutely everything that it brings to expression.
We need to feel that warm embrace of our own deeper consciousness so that we can relax into the process, and begin to feel, as surely as we feel our suffering, that there is something elegant and graceful, natural and abundant, liberating and relieving, in letting go of our leaves.
This is our practice—to let go of resistance, and allow the currents of life to take us onward, with an ever deepening trust in where they lead. Trust comes from feeling into those currents directly, and seeing how they are always supporting us, through every moment of our lives, and waiting compassionately for us to wake up. The forces of awakening are not outside of us, waiting to be called in, but they move through the subtle channels of our bodies and minds, through our desires and emotions, our aches and pains, expressing something tremendous, even now, the meaning and purpose of which we cannot see when we our eyes are focused too narrowly on ourselves.
These forces express themselves in an endless profusion of forms, and they invite us to move through these, through the cycles of life and death, with elegance and grace. As we practice yoga, we practice breathing through our own profusion of forms, and we ritualize the grace of life as it moves through the microcosm of our bodies. In those rare moments when we allow the breath to pour through us with no resistance, our hearts open wide. We feel a profound tenderness toward all living beings, and we suddenly care as much for them as we care for ourselves. For what we feel in those moments is the same nourishing force that gives life to us all, running through the subtle channels of our etheric bodies.
That nourishing force asks for nothing in return, but it graces us with the miracle of sentience, the miracle of being consciously embodied and alive. And as we feel that force pouring down into our bones and tissues, we feel the tenderness of a love that is wide open to the world, wide open to the rising and the falling, to the sorrow and the bliss, to the creation and dissolution of the each passing moment.
Sometimes, as the breath rises and swells, that same tenderness overwhelms us. The body feels empty, like a rent in the earth, opening graciously to the sky, and catching its light without reflection, warming itself in quiet bliss. These are the moments when the obscurations are revealed as nothing at all, or rather, nothing but the shadows of a contracted consciousness, peering out through the innocent eyes of a child, who is held in a warm and loving embrace.