There's a great hike not far from Auburn. You pass through Cool, California (what a great name, but there's not much of a town there) and then through Georgetown.
For directions, check out the University Falls event posting for August 29th, 2010 on the Sacramento Trail Mix site.
The trail is all down hill to the falls. You follow a fire road and then head down a dusty, fairly steep trail for the last quarter mile.
There are several levels to the falls and you can hike down to the lower level for a great area to relax, have lunch or even do a bit of yoga. The area is so conducive to practicing yoga, my son spontaneously decided to practice his table pose and help a yoga-buddy into a posture.
An old college buddy asked, "If the present is so charming, why does my mind wander away from the present?"
I guess the assumption here is that experiencing the present moment is more charming that reminiscing about that perfect day at the beach near Puerto Vallarta last year or day dreaming about scuba diving in Aruba next year. This reminiscing and day dreaming can also be quite charming! But, I think what my friend is getting at is very interesting and a great question. It depends on the depth to which we experience the present.
The practice of Chan emphasizes living fully in the present moment as does mindfulness practice of the Theravada tradition. If we are to become fully awakened to life just as it really is, it necessarily is in the present that this awakening will occur. During meditation, as the mind becomes more focused or unified it becomes less bound by thoughts. As fewer and fewer thoughts arise, the mind naturally becomes clearer, brighter, lighter and more expansive. This experience can be blissful or simply deeply contenting. During activity, this cultivation or habituation of a more unified mind naturally is more content to experience what is at hand. If the mind is clear, focused and content, there is less likelihood that it will be distracted by mundane thoughts that might arise. The practice of mindfulness actively builds on the clarity gained through meditation and consciously cultivates moment-to-moment clarity of whatever is arising and passing away from conscious experience. This can also lead to a mind that is clear, luminous, settled, and deeply satisfied to just be in the present, moment after moment. It is from this settled state that perception can refine and things can be seen just as they actually are. It is from this perception that insight into the fundamental truths of life occurs, which we know from Buddhist suttras and the writings of past masters can be a very liberating experience. Chan practice can lead to experiencing such charm in the present moment that there is no arising of craving or aversion. The need to reminisce or day dream evaporates when one can simply experiencing the present moment with sufficient clarity.
In that case, the answer to the question is until the mind is sufficiently cultivated and refined, the contentment experienced in the present is not charming enough to keep the mind focused, expanded, and aware in the present.
On the other hand, even advanced practitioners think of the past or future as the need arises. And even when the need doesn't arise, it's the nature of the mind to think thoughts. What is qualitatively different is that thoughts that arise are simply thoughts and the mind doesn't attach to them. They arise like a bubble as a child blows through the hoop. The thought expands from nothing but some slight impulse, takes shape, and floats away. A settled mind is aware of this arising and passing away of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. The more awake and settled the mind, the finer the awareness of not only mental phenomena but also all phenomena rising and passing away in the environment. This awareness of the arising and passing away of mental and physical phenomena leads to the direct experience of a most fundamental nature, the insight into impermanence. The entire universe is seen as a massive flux of interrelated or conditioned arising of phenomena, and the dissolution of the same when conditions no longer support continuity. It may appear that the entire world is undergoing massive oxidization, as if everything is undergoing a catastrophic chemical reaction, burning, and be an awesome experience. Or, it can be like a symphony of such perfectly interrelated harmonies that the mind is arrested by the absolute perfection of it. However the realization of impermanence occurs, it is not an intellectual reasoning, but a direct and complete perception that leads to life changing insight. This insight can lead to further insight into the nature of the self.
Until or mind is sufficiently cultivated, the mind is like a monkey that is always chasing desires and averting fears. Once the mind is cultivated, it response to the environment, situations, and people with wisdom and compassion. A satisfied mind naturally has compassion for others that are suffering and a clear mind has the wisdom to know how to help them. The satisfied mind is a product of silence and a clear mind is the product of illumination. The Chan practice of Silent Illumination is extremely beneficial in cultivating a content, clear mind. The mind still reacts to things in the environment. When a bus is coming one gets out of the way. And one still makes plans for the future and reflects on what went wrong to do better next time. But, the predominant mode is to be aware of things as they occur and react in a way that is appropriate to the need of the time.
An undisciplined mind will not stop with an initial thought. It won't be aware of the thought arising and passing away. The mind attaches to the thought and becomes lost in a succession of subsequent thoughts. We long for something in the past or fear its reoccurrence, or regret what was done or said. Or we hope for something in the future or worry that it may happen. We are conditioned from beginningless time to crave for more and dread what we don't want. But, when the mind is settled enough, there is greater and greater contentment and though a thought may arise, it is acknowledged and just passes away if nothing more is required. The mind returns to a state of contentment that is simply aware with a clear, bright awareness. But, it's our habitual outward oriented craving and aversion that obscures what would otherwise be quite a contented state.
It is interesting to note that a person can experience unified mind, pure, unobstructed awareness, impermanence, or self-nature and then regress back to being overshadowed by mundane thoughts and day-to-day situations. What we are up against is a very powerfully ingrained habit cultured from beginningless time. That's why we need a practice like Zen to lift the veil and open our eyes. Then we need to refine the practice and cultivate seeing things just as they are without the imaginary ego or self getting in the way to distort the picture. If we get the self out of the picture, the whole thing opens up and everything converses with every other thing, infinitely correlated and perfectly functioning. It's all perfect when we get out of the way.
Today was my seventh day of a 30 day trial period at the local Elk Grove Bikram Yoga studio. At first, I was pretty put off by the steady cadence of shouted commands, comparatively speaking -- I've gotten used to Srivatsa Ramaswami's gentle, encouraging manner. Ramaswami's "Bandhas please" is forever engrained in my memory.
But I have to say, the heat and the more forceful style of the Bikram teachers has made a difference. I had hurt my neck, left shoulder and arm several weeks ago and although the pain gradually subsided, it felt as though a muscle in my upper arm was missing. I could barely lift my arm with downward-facing palms. Then, a few weeks ago, my right knee was giving me a sharp pain when I walked unless I kept it partly bent. It was getting progressively worse until last Sunday when I started at the Bikram studio. After the very first 90 minute session, my knee felt better and after a week of sweating and a hot, stinky room for 90 minutes each day, my left arm is slowly getting stronger without a reoccurrence of pain. Better yet, both knees are getting stronger in balancing postures with the knees locked and the pain has almost entirely subsided. Of course, it is much easier to stretch in a room that is that hot and finally I feel my hips are starting to open up more after a seeming impasse.
I have to thank my Yoga teacher training classmate, Wyatt, for his suggestion to give Bikram a try. It definitely has helped though Vinyasa Krama is more where my heart is. Thanks, Wyatt! And special thanks to Ramaswami for his excellent teaching, incredible patience, and warm manner, even if the dance studio room at LMU was too cold for my old bones.
For Buddhists, the practice of yoga asanas as a method of mindfulness practice is especially meaningful. Although some traditional yoga teachers emphasize mindfulness of breathing in synchronization with the breath, the Buddhist context of using bare attention to penetrate the moment as a means to realization is not as emphasized or is missing. During Chan and Vipassana practice, especially on retreats, slowing down all activity to the point that you can peer into its very nature is essential and can lead to a very direct experience of impermanence and self-nature. This understanding and emphasis coupled with the practice of yoga asanas is particularly useful.
In the Yoga Sutras, there is the concept of uninterrupted, moment-to-moment one pointedness or focus. But the goal there is not realization of self-nature in the Buddhist sense, but realization of individual self (atman) as distinct from the citta vrittis. Of course, this is where Buddhism departs, with an emphasis on there not being an independently existing person, self, or soul.
Practicing yoga has been a kind of experiment for me. Can a practicing Buddhist practice yoga in such a way that the fundamental truths of Buddhism, suffering, impermanence, and no self (anatma), are not distorted or lost? I think the answer is definitely yes, but it requires a clear understanding of the differences in addition to the similarities of the two traditions. Otherwise, it becomes a confusing melting pot that doesn't do justice to either tradition. For me, the goal is not Patanjali's dualistic realization of individual self as distinct from phenomena and Universal Self (Purusha of Isvara). It's also not Shankara's non-dualistic realization that self is Brahman. Rather, it's the complete liberation from attachment to any notion of self. Once self is removed from the picture, perception is pure and everything is seen just as it is. This is true, unimpeded and boundless liberation. When the experience of self is lost, perception pivots on itself and myriad things sing in harmony with all other things, infinitely correlated, perfect and complete. Any clinging to "self" collapses this perfect harmony, the natural state of things, to self and other, internal and external, interesting and uninteresting, good and bad, mine and not mine.
One might say that one who experiences "aham Brahmasmi" (I am Brahman) also experiences this same non-dualistic reality and is not impeded by attachment or aversion to anything since everything is experienced as Self. Yet Buddha's awakening specifically had the characteristic of going beyond an eternal notion of self, even Universal Self, as the highest enlightenment. According to Buddhist sutras, as long as there is any identification with self, one is still trapped in the cycle of birth and death and not completely liberated. The wisdom of knowing the truths of suffering, impermanence, and no self engenders compassion for all sentient beings and frees one to act completely for the benefit of others, without regard to self. I've seen this selflessness in my Shifu, Chan Master Sheng Yen and in my Vipassana master, Ven. Chanmyay Sayadaw. They both have the quality of being completely present and available, fully there for you with no distraction, when you talk with them. Your ego could even get puffed up with the feeling that you were the most important person in the world to them at that particular moment. But, they also had the compassionate ability to deflate the ego when the time was right. I've noticed the same quality in the Dharma heirs of Master Sheng Yen and some of Chanmyay Sayadaw's disciples and lay students -- fully present, awake and clear, penetrating, insightful, patient, and compassionate. I noticed the same qualities in the Dalai Lama. The world needs more saints like these!
For Buddhists and non-Buddhists, practicing yogasanas with mindfulness can be very beneficial in developing a very direct perception, a bare awareness of space, time, motion and sensation. Deepening this experiences enables the silence of meditation to stabilize in daily activity and bring about moment-to-moment penetrating focus along with awareness unbound by the environment. The union of Buddhist understanding with mindful practice of yogasanas is particularly beneficial. I'm very glad to hear of courses being taught, such as those at Spirit Rock, that have this focus. This is bound to improve the overall landscape of Yoga as it is taught in the West.