Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Yoga for a Messy World: Creating Calm in the Chaos

ESR MDiv graduate Steve Cleaver delivered the following message during Joint Seminary Worship in Bethany Theological Seminary's Nicarry Chapel on Friday, March 10, 2017:


Welcome. My name is Steve Cleaver. This is “Yoga for a Messy World, Finding the Calm in the Chaos.” If you are look for the “Eschatological Humor of Martin Luther and John Calvin”, then this is not it. Bathrooms are out in the hallway. Note your exits. (points). There are no oxygen masks under your seats.

Silence, turn off, discard or destroy any technological devices that are going to distract or deter you from living in the present moment. If asking the question, What Would Jesus Do, he didn’t have a cell phone. At least it is never mentioned in the bible. None of this talk will come to you by text or phone. That I promise.

Any time you find yourself not in the present, you find your mind wandering into other places and times, wondering why you are here, wondering how soon is lunch or if you unplugged the iron, just tap your finger, and say quietly to yourself, this is my finger. Try it now. (pause) This is my finger. Your body is your portal into the present moment. Let’s meet there.

Let’s start by coming into the same time frame. Each of us has arrived from different places, experiences and speeds of time.

Cross your left ankle over your right ankle. (pause) Now cross your right hand over your left like this (pause) and bring them up and under your chin. (pause) Now, bring the tip of your tongue to the top of the upper teeth. This connects the microcosmic orbit. Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth with a gentle “ha”. Picture balance internally or in your life.
(Do this for at least a minute)

There is no program-1
Great. As we start, remember what I said about tapping the finger. The only place we can truly connect is in the present.

Okay to start, there is no program. No written guide to what might happen this moment or the next. Even if I had one, none of us can actually say what will happen. This talk, this life is a mystery. There is no map, only tales from the past, to guide us. Nothing you can refer to when you feel bored or wondering how much longer I'm going to talk for. If that brings discomfort or uncertainty, fine, examine that. You brought that in here.

Nothing I will say today is new. You know it already. I am just reminding you.

We need to start with a common understanding of yoga
Yoga is at least 2500 years old and so there are many definitions for it, but for today’s experience let’s say that it is connection and a practice that allows us to integrate mind, body and soul so that we can go beyond the disconnection which brings us suffering. It can bring us moksha or liberation.

Yoga is not simply the asanas or physical postures. As a matter of fact certain yogic paths may be through mantra or service and not specifically require asanas. It is hatha yoga that includes physical practice and breathwork. The thought that asana IS yoga is inaccurate and based on Western interpretation.

Some yoga classes only teach asana. They should more accurately be called asana classes. Or maybe not.

The eight fold yogic path starts with yamas and niyamas.

The yamas and niyamas are yoga's ethical guidelines laid out in the first two limbs of Patanjali's eightfold path. They're like a map written to guide you on your life's journey. Simply put, the yamas are things not to do, or restraints, while the niyamas are things to do, or observances. Then we have asana, paranyama, pratyhara (turning inward), Dharana(concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi. One is not just on one part at any point in life, it requires continual practice in all.

Tap your finger. I am in the present moment.

I am a yoga teacher. It is my responsibility to set a safe space and offer a practice. I am not enlightened. If I am awakening, then I am still groggy. I have struggled with depression and anxiety. I am constantly learning and evolving. Wrestling with my own resistance to trust and love. My responsibility in this life is to honor my path. My calling. My mantra is “I know nothing”. It is oddly reassuring.

The mat is the place for asana practice and that is where we meet. I am not truly responsible for your experience. I am there to help guide you, to challenge perhaps and to share. But you don’t have to listen. And I am not interested in trying to awaken someone who is resistant.

If you experience anger, joy, love, or bitterness on the mat or here, I did not bring that in, you did. You decide whether you bring it back out or transform it through awareness. You are responsible for experience.
In my deepest practice, I am apolitical. I am connected to something beyond that. But I remind you, I am unenlightened.

As far as God goes, yogis believe in prana or life force. You may say God, or Inner Light, or Chi or Spirit. You might consider it that still small voice within.

Starting where you are: We are living in a messy and chaotic world-2
First tenet. Start where you are.

We live in a messy and chaotic world. We are out of balance, unaligned and disconnected. We are perhaps in a wilderness, bombarded with communications and yet disconnected and unable to clearly communicate. We live in chaotic times.

My electric car window doesn’t go up and down correctly. The Oscars gave the Best Picture Oscar to the wrong picture. We live in a world of
Facts. Lies. Alternative facts. Maybe alternative lies. Alternative realities.
Pluto is no longer a planet

We have continually betrayed the native peoples of this country by taking land, their spiritual practices and their children. Now their water.

Our Secretary of Education can’t spell, our Secretary of State wants fracking but not in his backyard, and the EPA Chief thinks CO2 doesn’t effect global warming. As someone commented, an IKEA cabinet has more integrity. But some people don’t see it this way. Maybe they are also right.
The book that has often been offered up for this time is George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. Ironically, in the Gregorian calendar year 1984, if one lived in the Star Wars world, we were at peace. The force had triumphed, Darth Vader was resurrected and Han Solo and Princess Leia were finally together. Recently we learned that this wasn’t the end. Now Kylo Ren has assumed Vader’s mantle, Han Solo was murdered and the real Princess Leia has died. Too young.

It is indeed a messy time.

The world was always messy
This didn’t start now. The world has always been messy and chaotic. The last administration had bombings, regime change and a Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs. Though you may or may not have been struggling many people did. We have always had messy times.

We had the Milli Vanilli lip sync scandal.
There have been times when school children climbed under desks for practice of a nuclear attack. People built bomb shelters
There were lynchings
The Holocaust
The Teapot Dome Scandal
The San Francisco Earthquake
The Plague

The bible would inform us that even when two were first gathered, they misbehaved, and were thrown out of the garden. When four gathered there was murder.

Truth is we live in a story that tells us we are held on a planet by an invisible force, that planet spins on it’s axis while it rotates a large fiery object filled with an unknown amount of gas.
The only real promise we get upon birth is that we will die.

Tap a finger.

I say this all just to remind us that people did make it through and indeed so we don’t get stuck in some self indulgent suffering. As Gandalf said to Frodo when Frodo stated, “ I wish it need not have happened in my time,".
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Back to where we are-1
So let’s decide what to do with the time we are given. To start where we are. To get on the mat.

I get it. The urgency seems intense. We are in a challenging time. A wilderness. A dark night. I am not here to give you the Good News, though I believe there is some. I am here to give you some advice from what I have learned from yoga.

Starting with yourself
We start within. We start by examining our own demons. The yamas and niyamas are personal practices. The asanas give us structure and discipline. They build flexibility, balance and core strength. They allow us to explore our edges. We practice on a mat and then live into it.

The Bhagdava Gita is a key story about the inner war. This inner work is consistent with Christianity.

In Luke, Jesus states “How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.

Quakers talk about experiencing the Inner Light or connecting with that still small voice within.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk who started Plum Village said in a recent post (referring to the time after 9/11):
 “We knew we needed to balance the collective energy of anger, fear, and discrimination with a collective energy of mindfulness and compassion. It is very important to counterbalance fear with calm and peace. I reminded everyone that responding to hatred with hatred will only cause hatred to multiply a thousandfold, and that only with compassion can we transform hatred and anger. I invited them to go home to themselves and practice mindful breathing and mindful walking, to calm down their strong emotions and to allow lucidity to prevail. Only when we understand, can compassion arise. When the drop of compassion begins to form in our hearts and minds, we can begin to develop concrete responses to a situation."

We need to build a strong foundation of compassion and understanding.
If we are in a wilderness, we must realize that the Promised Land is within.
It is crucial to our survival.

The Gospel of Thomas warns us: "If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Many years ago, I was the Program Director at a non-profit that served children. I was idealistic and though not naïve, I wanted the world to be a certain way, all black and white and certain.

I found out that my boss was taking money, buying things for himself, stealing from children, many whose family’s had little money. I took the information to our board. For several months, I experienced some staff turning their backs, people questioning, threats and sitting in an office next to my boss while he passed out due to drugs or alcohol. Eventually he was let go. That’s not the end of it though.

I tell you this because it was not as easy as it seems. I questioned my intentions. This experience aroused my inner demons. Demons I didn’t realize were there. I spent many years after wrestling with them.
I am not saying I wasn’t right, but that there is a responsibility in claiming your own power. He made choices, but my decision had an impact. My demons almost killed me. I have had to practice loving my demons. When we embrace them, rather than resist, then they can be transformed.
Many activists self destruct. We need a practice that sustains us. Yoga is such a practice. It does not have to be asana.

As I have looked around at what people advise, certain aspects are common.
1)    Exercise
2)    Meditate
3)    Start a gratitude journal or connect with positive feelings. I used to think that this was just to let the universe know I was grateful and keep on giving me. But it’s more than that. Its neuroscience. When we feel grateful it creates pathways in our brain. Our brain has elasticity, a neuroplasticity. And according to the work of Candace Pert (and I simplify) says we create ports for emotions. If those ports can welcome compassion they do, if its anger we create, we will welcome more anger. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, we plant what we want to grow. If we plant seeds of love, we will gain a crop of love.
4)    Accomplish one simple task. Tim Ferriss suggests making your bed. There is more behind this that comes from my research on PTSD. In 1976, 26 children were kidnapped in Chowchilla, California and held in a bus underground. According to Peter Levine only one child did not have PTSD. That child was using a spoon to try to dig himself out. Small actions can bring us hope and a feeling we can do something, even in the most challenging times. Did you make your bed this morning?

Setting intention-2
We must also set an intention. I advocate for a vision for, not an intention that is against. We must set a directions towards, not just away.
I am reminded of the film, Bringing Down a Dictator, which documents the spectacular defeat of Slobodan Milosevic in October, 2000, not by force of arms, as many had predicted, but by an ingenious nonviolent strategy of honest elections and massive civil disobedience.
While not perfect, for much the protests, it was about a vision of what they saw possible in Yugoslavia.

Yoga Nidra-5
Start with intention.
Follow practice
End with tapping finger.

Connecting with others-5
As you awaken, look around you. Do you see the people in this room with your mind, your eyes, or with your heart. Can you place your hand to your heart and look around. Take a few breath and then greet the person next to you as if it was the first time. As it is.

We must connect with ourselves and then with others. Find the people like you and form groups. Support your soul with these people.

We must also seek those that differ. We must build bridges. This may be the difficult work but it is also where yogis would say, our edges are. In yoga, we breath into our edges. 

Connecting with God/Silence. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo -7
What is Nam Myoho Renge Kyo?

The essence of Buddhism is the conviction that we have within us at each moment the ability to overcome any problem or difficulty that we may encounter in life; a capacity to transform any suffering. Our lives possess this power because they are inseparable from the fundamental law that underlies the workings of all life and the universe.

Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is thus a vow, an expression of determination, to embrace and manifest our Buddha nature. It is a pledge to oneself to never yield to difficulties and to win over one’s suffering. At the same time, it is a vow to help others reveal this law in their own lives and achieve happiness.

So to sum up.
There is no program. No written guide. We always have and always will be living into the unknown.
Embrace the mystery.
Hug your demons
Use a Gratitude Journal.
Connect with one person like you. Reach out to someone you isn’t like you.
Every morning when you get up, make your bed.

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