Ease, like happiness, resembles Nathaniel Hawthorne’s butterfly, which, “when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Over the course of a weekend, we explored different ways of sitting quietly, and waiting for ease to emerge from the mind’s tangle of striving, grasping and aversion. We invited participants to sit in meditation; to sit in yoga poses; and even to sit on the rocks, looking out across the valley, and wait for ease to fly up gently from behind and rest upon their shoulders.
Taking a weekend away is a commitment to finding ease. The Buddhist Retreat Centre near Ixopo is a place of softness, with one season floating into the next, during the course of a single afternoon. We are well nourished here, in the dining hall and the meditation hall, and without the distraction of daily life, the mind can settle, like silt sinking to the bottom of a lake. Yet sitting in meditation requires courage and practice, ease does not come immediately. Although we are learning to ‘do nothing’, we usually need a variety of practices to reduce our mind’s activity gradually.
Jason Hallman and I had planned a weekend of mindfulness, of returning to the softness and ease within the body, heart and mind that is our human birthright. We offered asana practices both to enliven and relax the body through yang yoga (active and rhythmic movement) and yin yoga (inner and held poses). We shared inner methods of energy balancing and sitting meditation, to cultivate an increased capacity to attend to all of our experience, with unconditional acceptance.
One of the foundational poses within the yoga lexicon is sukhasana, often translated as easy pose, but maybe better understood as a pose of ease; a pose to experience how a stable, balanced body can support the settling of the mind. We suggested that participants could ‘invite your body to the earth, your mind to your body, and ease to your mind’. The body, in its natural resting state, allows breath to flow in slowly and deeply, down to the deepest part of the lungs. However, this is not the experience of many of us, living in fast-moving urban centres, under the constant shadow of anxiety and stress. Our breath tightens, shortens, and only reaches the top of the chest. We drag in each breath, rather than allowing the body to breathe for us. Animals and babies naturally use their diaphragms to breathe, and draw breath deep down towards their bellies. This is a skill we can re-learn by bringing awareness to this act that we so often forget, or take for granted. One participant talked of remembering that we do not need to regulate our breath, but rather let the Universe breathe through us. We can relax and be breathed, bypassing the ego-centric sense of self, the ‘I’ that feels it must control the breath, in the same way it wants to control so many aspects of our lives. We lie upon the earth and let the pranayamapractices reconnect us with the joy of the body breathing ‘like a beast in the field, warming the winter’ (Peter Adams).
In the yin yoga practices, we took ourselves to our physical edge, in poses such as seal and saddle, and within the stillness, explored how it feels to abide with intense sensations, noticing the difference between the physical experience and the mental proliferation. “30 seconds more”, says Jason, while my mind counts down, and then doubts his clock, assumes he is stretching time on purpose to trigger us. 30 seconds can feel like a month, when we are compressing the vertebrae in the spine. Yet, with his guidance, we could note the tight spot and also expand our awareness out beyond it, taking in the rest of the body, which was relaxed and at ease. Suddenly the intense physical sensation was just part of the overall experience, and 30 seconds was gone in a moment. I softened back to the earth and felt energy flowing through the spine, around the kidneys, revitalising the parts of the body that can take strain in sitting meditation.
During the yang practice, we moved slowly but rhythmically, building warmth in the body and allowing the muscles to strengthen, lengthen and release tension. We moved energy through places of achiness and then, when it was time for savasana, we rested deeply on the earth, with nothing to do, nowhere to go, and nothing to fix or change or analyse. There is a sense of having ‘earned’ the rest, and within that space we could find tranquillity, contentment and connectedness. Yet vulnerability also arose in this space, and with the courage to stay with it, we were able to reveal the inner strength that is always there, though often hidden beneath the fog of self-doubt. Compassion has been called ‘the sunlight of the mind’, and its unconditional acceptance can evaporate the fog that hides our inner potential.
When we do find ease, the world itself seems less chaotic, less complex. The muddy water clears and we see more easily. We realise that the outside world is simply a projection of the mind. Finding ease in ourselves can transform our relationship with the world, and the people around us.
I’d like to extend my thanks to all the retreat participants who courageously explored their inner worlds over the weekend. By the closing session, I was deeply touched by the connections that we had made and the gratitude for the place, the space and the Buddha’s teachings. To you all, I offer once again the poem by Peter Adams, “Breath.”
My body is breathing
Like a beast in a field
Warming the winter.
My body breathes for me,
Steady like a moving mountain,
Strong like a river.
I rest on the rhythm
Riding the rising and falling like a bird.
My emptiness draws fullness in
And fullness falls again into nothing,
In the stillnesses between,
Between life and death, hope and despair
I am free
As urges stir within me
And I breathe life in and out into the world.
Through snake and ant and elephant lungs,
Through beast and bird
We meet all living things in the air we share.
Air is made by breathing
This thin blanket of breath
Over all breathing things
Which trees repair.