Waking Up with a Koan

I wish I meant “waking up” in the “getting enlightened” sense, but I mean it in the “woke up when The Cop got home from work at 2AM and couldn’t fall back to sleep and got to thinking about a koan” sense.

The fatal flaw was to wake and think about work. It must have been playing in my mind while I slept. We had a long meeting today, and one of the people in my department, though not on my immediate team, was just pretty darned disrespectful throughout the meeting. And pointedly disrespectful to someone on my team. I walked away quite conscious of the fact that this person is angry about the evolution of the organization, and I keep trying to feel compassion for that, but I also feel like I am supposed to do something to help the situation.


Okay, so this person is suffering, and creating that suffering, and attached to that suffering. And I don’t know the right thing to do. Leave it alone? Call her on it? Oh boy. A simple shift of perception would alleviate her suffering, but I know if I were to suggest that, it would be taken as an insult or an oversimplification. So I wake at 2AM and suddenly think of the last koan I was given by my Korean teacher (they’re called kong-ans in the Korean schools, BTW). This sucker has been dogging me for years:

Somebody comes to the Zen center smoking a cigarette. He blows smoke and drops ashes on the Buddha.

If you are standing there at that time, what can you do?

LOL! So I wake up and have this little drama of the day playing in my mind and all of a sudden, I think: Hey, it’s the dropping ashes on the Buddha koan! When you sit with koans, you kind of put them in the back of your mind. Sure, the text messes with your conscious mind and makes you try to figure out logical answers; but the koan eludes logic–it eludes you, and your ideas–over and over. Until one day something happens in life and you realize, “Hey, it’s that koan!”

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t realized the koan. I just finally had an example of what it’s trying to teach me. I still don’t know my correct function in this situation. I’m a step closer, though–I can feel that there is a shift of consciousness that is possible, that will make this come clear–and I just have to keep the question and keep “not knowing” as much as I can.

The beauty part of this whole thing is that I set aside koan practice a couple of years ago because I was getting so attached to it. But then, a couple of days ago, I thought, I ought to go back to some koan practice, when I saw a new book by one of my favorite zen writers, John Daido Loori. And after all this time of thinking I wasn’t thinking about koans, up from my subconscious bubbles the last one I was working on, and the small insight that it relates to this current situation.

I know, this is a lengthy bit of chatter about something that isn’t Ashtanga. But it is kind of like getting a new pose. I can almost feel my fingertips in the bind of this koan. I also know that if I focus on it too much, if I try to figure it out too much instead of just doing it, I’ll lose ground. But if I just practice practice practice…well, we all know how that will work out 🙂


Ready, set, go…home!

Zen means meditation, and meditation means keeping a not-moving mind from moment to moment. It is very simple. When we meditate, we are only using certain techniques to control our body, breathing, and mind so that we can cut off all thinking and realize true nature. Many people think that in order to do this, we must be sitting rigidly on the floor with both legs tightly crossed in a half- or full-lotus position, completely unmoving…

True meditation is not just dependent on how you keep your body: from moment to moment, how do you keep your mind? How do you keep a not-moving mind in every situation? Thus, true meditation means mind-sitting. Keeping a not-moving mind in any situation or condition is the true meaning of meditation.

–Zen Master Seung Sahn, Compass of Zen

This morning I got up and happily prepared for the first day of Mysore practice at the Starbucks Studio. As I pulled into the parking lot, I thought, “Is today the right day?”

I was reassured to see Returning Guy waiting there in his car. As I got out of my car, he opened his door and said, “Is today the right day?”

“April 3,” I said. “Is today April 3?” We both stared at each other blankly.

“We’re not very good readers,” I said.

“Well, we read right,” he said, “But we heard what we wanted to hear.”

“Okay, then, see you Saturday at led class.” And off we drove.

It’s a little hard shifting focus from one plan to the next. I was tempted to bag practice because of the change in…well, in reality. But I managed to drive home and practice in the yoga room. I felt vaguely discombobulated, but practice was good enough. It was one of those days where I felt kind of self-critical. Not my favorite, but at least they don’t happen too often. Not unlike the occasions where the cat finds and consumes food I leave out by mistake. It doesn’t happen often (last time was about 2 years ago when I left vanilla cupcakes on the counter to cool and went shopping for a few hours) but it’s always unpleasant when it does. Last night he found a container of flour tortilla chips and made a (very messy) feast of them. When you run flour and oil through a feline system, the result is quite nasty. Nastier, even, than vanilla cupcakes. Just FYI.

And thus begins a new week.

Karma of a Dog

The dog is out rolling in the grass and the sunshine. Oh, and hacking up balls of grass she’s eaten. She is so happy. I went out to take a picture of her and to look at the buds on the rose bushes, and the air smells strongly of orange and tangerine blossoms. Gorgeous. Well, not so much for The Cop. He got home from work late this morning, at 9AM, and headed off to sleep. As I drove off to led class, I noticed contractors pulling in at the next door neighbors’ house. They’re putting in double-paned windows.

So practice is done, I’ve come home and am eating my lunch, and the contractors are hammering. As far as I can tell, the installation of double-paned windows involves about seven hundred thousand hammer hits per half inch of window frame. And much loud discussion. The Cop appears in the livingroom, looking very tired and very annoyed. I tell him he should sleep in the guest room, which is a little quieter, and get him a blanket. He opens the front door and looks out threateningly (well, as threateningly as one can look while clutching a pillow), then thinks better of his homicidal plans and just sacks out in the guest room.

So now the dog is out rolling the grass, seemingly oblivious to the merry endless hammering. And The Cop sleeps. I hope.

Led class was good for all the usual reasons: a chance to see some friends (Chanting Man and his daughter, The Cat, were there, and The Other Dave, and Returning Guy), and a chance to practice in unbelievable heat.

Perhaps it is the return of summer, perhaps the ambient temperature is higher to begin with, perhaps there were more people than usual–but dang! it was hot. Hot as in having to bend over after poses to keep from blacking out. Or maybe that was just me. Nah, I saw The Other Dave “taking a moment” a few times. I could feel my heart beating really fast. It was weird, too, because I was keeping my breathing slow and even, and underneath that, there was my heart, racing.

There were two new people to my left. New as in new to Ashtanga. I find this very distracting, because I feel responsible to be a good role model. Dorky, I know. But I do much better practicing with people with more experience than I. Then everyone just keeps their driste and goes about their business. Today I felt like I was being watched. LOL! Good luck to them, if they’re taking their cues from me! I guess that’s just their karma.

Speaking of which, it seems that many people around me are wrestling with personal life karma. Yoga folks, work folks–lots of questioning and emotion and upheaval. If I prayed, I’d pray for them, but I don’t. Of course, everyone will get exactly where they need to be, and even if things are awful now, there will come a day when life seems terrific again. At least the yoga folks know that there are days when practice stinks and days when it is transcendent–you just have to keep going along and accept that things will always change. Eventually the hammering will stop, eventually things will sort themselves out–and in the meantime, you just breathe. Unless you are a dog, of course, because if you are a dog, you just roll around in the grass and enjoy some sun. There is a famous koan: “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”


What a great title. For one thing, it’s five syllables–though the readability test Lauren provided only counts two-, three- and four-syllable words. I wonder if that engine breaks down the Sanskrit words we all use in our posts, or if it throws them away. I suspect the latter. Or it breaks them down using the rules of the English language–

Generosity is also the current life situation. This morning I practiced with Sanskrit Scholar at her work’s health center. Volleyball Guy is moving Mysore practice to the Starbuck’s of Yoga Studio here in Scottsdale, starting Monday. No practice this morning at his current place, so Sanskrit Scholar and I met up at her place.

Let me say this about Sanskrit Scholar: she is very generous. We waited a bit in the parking lot for The British Director (who did not show), and Sanskrit Scholar taught me the correct pronunciation of the next to last line, the penultimate line (look, four syllables!) of vande gurunam: sahasra sirasam svetam. And she was generous about allowing me my rather shocking inability to accurately (or aesthetically) repeat words in other languages. So I butchered that for a while and then we went in to practice.

During practice, she helped me out with an adjustment in down dog during the suryas, chatted with me about handstands and bandhas, and adjusted me in upavishta konasana and supta kurmasana. In theory, she was doing her own practice, but she was generous enough to keep mine in mind as well. Sign of a true teacher. Thank you, Sanskrit Scholar!

Generosity was also the name of the game last night and early this morning. My Gift has a cold, with a nasty cough that wakes her up at night. I got up a couple of times to bring her kleenex and water and cough medicine, and then I checked her temperature this morning as I was getting ready to go over to Sanskrit Scholar’s. I told her to make sure she always helps people who are sick, always offers them something, because I hope those around her (I was thinking specifically of her going off to live in a dorm next summer) will also be generous when she needs it.

There’s a commercial I saw on TV that is of people going about their daily business, but stopping to help out the people around them (opening a door, picking up something someone’s dropped, etc.) and I keep thinking, “The world could be like that!” Of course, it’s not, for the most part–but I want My Gift to give it a go, as I do. We can behave as if everyone is generous, and maybe it’ll catch on. Nothing better to do in this lifetime, I figure.


I know I’ve written before about disliking finishing poses. I’m not quite sure why I dislike them so much, but there’s a good chance that it’s in part because shoulderstand is my least favorite pose of all time. Why? Who knows. I love sirsasana, which is considered “the king” of asanas, but I hate sarvangasana, which is supposedly “the queen.” Oh well. I am a well-behaved Ashtangi (for the most part 😉 so I dutifully perform my sarvangasana.

And somehow, despite my aversion, today’s practice had some nice moments in finishing. For one thing, in headstand, Volleyball Guy has been having me keep my legs straight and lower my feet to touch my toes to the mat, then go back up. Five times. Sometimes it feels difficult, and sometimes it feels easy. Depending on whether I am thinking about it, whether I am expecting it to be difficult. Today I was totally in the zone: sirsana is the easiest place in the whole practice for me to meditate, and I watched my feet drop down and touch the mat and float back up, and it was all kind of amazing and yet totally normal.

A long time ago, someone asked a great Zen master, “Is attaining our true self very difficult?”

The Zen master replied, “Yah, very difficult!”

Later someone asked the same Zen master, “Is attaining our true self very easy?”

“Yah, it’s very easy!”

Some other people asked him, “Is attaining our true self very easy or very difficult?”

The Zen master replied, “Yah, it’s very difficult, and also very easy.”

The Compass of Zen, by Zen Master Seung Sahn

This isn’t about “fooling” your mind. It isn’t about auto-hypnosis or suggestibility. This is about the nature of reality. Like most Zen, it’s more profound than it sounds, and also silly to even talk about.

The other fun thing was urdhva padmasana. Usually I just do what I like to think of as “the footie prayer thing,” instead of attempting the padmasana. Why? I dunno. Habit, I guess. I can do padmasana right side up, no problem–but I’ve made some lame attempts to fold my legs in shoulderstand, and just kind of figured I’d have to wait for that to be possible (okay, yeah, I’m a total finishing pose slacker). Today I looked in John Scott’s book, to check on a detail of another pose, and I saw him in urdhva padmasana, using one hand to fold the right leg, then the other hand to fold the left–all the while supporting himself in the shoulderstand. I gave it a shot, and it was so simple I felt like a dork for never thinking to use my hands. Duh.

I try to both pick my battles and not get overly attached to poses or details of poses (a contradictory and yet delightful process 😉 so I guess it’s bound to happen that I am trying too hard on some things and missing the boat entirely on others that I could do, if only I even tried. Do I feel bad about that? No. It makes practice seem like a scavenger hunt of sorts–there’s stuff in there that’s going to be very hard to find, and other things that I’ll just stumble across and be happy about. It cracks me up. I can grind away at practice day after day, and there are moments of great joy and moments of “Duh! Why didn’t I ever think of that!”

It’s very difficult and it’s very easy.


Saturday led class is all about community. I see the same folks week after week, and there is a lovely sense of community. Some folks I know well from Mysore practice, some just come to Saturday led. They are faces I see each week, people I am pleased to spend practice time with. I know they struggle with the same things I do, and that we all share the same practice.

Then there is the selfish side of Saturday led. The heat. It gets mighty hot and steamy, and I can see how my practice is progressing. So hot that my hamstring doesn’t nag (full hanumanasana on the hurt left side today, and no pain at all!), so hot that I can get my arms through on garbha pindasana without using a spray bottle (not enough to fully crook my arms yet, but enough to get up into kukkutasana for a few moments). So hot that I believe baddha konasana with my chin on the floor is possible in this lifetime.

Speaking of baddha konasana: I had my first serious baddha konasana adjustment yesterday at Volleyball Guy’s. I saw him coming over and was terrified. Breathe, breathe, I kept telling myself. The adjustment turned out to be way cool–a pop in my sacrum which felt really good, and not nearly the amount of pain I would have expected. That last phrase probably makes Ashtanga sound like masochism to non-yogic readers…

My Gift is working at The Juicy Yoga Studio ’til 1PM today (“My manager sent me my schedule, and he ends his emails ‘Hugs’!” she told me this morning) and The Cop is sleeping after working all night. I imagined St Patrick’s Day would be all about drunk driving arrests, but he said it was quite slow. They get more DUIs on a regular night. I guess everyone is on board with the not drinking and driving for holidays, but less motivated on non-holiday nights.

So I’ve practiced and eaten a soyburger. What next? Reading and a bath, I believe. Maybe combined–and with a cup of mint tea thrown in for good measure. Yup, this is paradise.

Are you in my way?

Gosh, it seems like days since I practiced and blogged yesterday. A more than full day at work, even though I left the office at noon. A long, heartwrenching session trying to comfort and counsel a co-worker who is feeling frustration and despair at her work situation. I want so much to help, but I can’t quite seem to find the key. There’s a saying my zen teacher used to quote: “Perhaps more suffering is necessary.” That may indeed be the case for her, but just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean it isn’t hella painful. It’s weird, because I can see her creating her perception of the situation (karma, again!), but I can’t seem to help her shift her perception to a place where it wouldn’t be quite so agonizing.

Anyhow, left the office at noon to pick up My Gift for her annual celebration of Lobsterfest at Red Lobster. She has attended Lobsterfest religiously since she was a kid. She picked up on the commercials when she was about 8, and has just always been totally excited about it. Her New England heritage, I guess. Then we went for annual eye exams and the ordering of new glasses and contact lenses. I am a hopeless wreck when it comes to fashion stuff, so I let her pick my glasses. What will I do when she goes off to college? Who will help me pick my clothes? Okay, I’m overstating my ineptness, but not by much.

To continue just a bit with my previous post about left and right: I have also been aware of front and back. Volleyball Guy has been helping me sort out my absurdly tight shoulders, and the other morning, he touched my upper back in down dog and said, “Try to keep an awareness here.” I thought, “Oh for goodness sake, I always am trying to press through my upper back and shoulders–how much more awareness can I possibly bring to bear?” But, duh, this morning I finally understood.

I’ve been cranking at my back and shoulders, totally working my back body, when in fact, I’m going to have to open up my front body if I really want to make this work. I am always rooting around in what is considered “back body” stuff in yoga mythology: the subconscious, intuition, dreams, poetry, memory–that’s my comfort zone. It’s the front body stuff that throws me–appearance stuff, the everyday stuff, the extravert, social side. So yeah, I have to stretch my front. I’m actually a three-dimensional being, and not just a back and shoulders. Sigh. You’da thought I’d know that.

Enough of that. Let’s end with a story My Gift told me at lunch: She was walking through a public doorway with The Frenchman, who is endlessly polite and dear. And fluent with English, though sometimes a little off. They encountered a woman going through the doorway in the opposite direction, and there was some jostling. The Frenchman, trying to be polite (though his attempt was misperceived by the highly insulted woman) said, “Oh, I’m sorry. Are you in my way?”