The week’s teachings and discussions were centered around an essay by Great Master Sying An (from the time of the Ching Dynasty, early 18th Century) entitled “Exhortation to Resolve Upon Bodhi.” Essentially, a bodhi mind is intent upon following the path of the Buddha, awakening ourselves and others to the divine, interconnected nature of all living beings, putting an end to the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. Much of what Master Sying An wrote applies directly to the practice of yoga, which has at its core the same goal of awakening and liberation from suffering. Here’s a pertinent excerpt:
Do not fear difficulty and make a cowardly retreat. Do not consider this matter easy and frivolously waste time. Do not wish for quick results and fail to persevere. Do not become lax and fail in your courage. Do not become dispirited and fail to rouse yourself. Do not let procrastination cause you to delay... Do not assume that you have shallow roots and are, therefore, unworthy of taking part.
I’ve heard many times from people that they would love to do yoga, but they’re “not flexible enough.” My answer every time is that yoga has nothing to do with physical flexibility, but has everything to do with mental flexibility. It is all about developing the capacity to step back from the unexamined chatter of the mind, and see the present moment for what it is in its entirety, without judgement. In doing so, we develop an awareness that transcends the habituated thoughts that shape our minds and bodies.
We were blessed to hear from many skilful teachers at the retreat, but perhaps the most unlikely teacher was a little swallow that, during one of our silent lunches, inadvertently flew into the large barn that served as our meal hall for the week. It flew in through one of the two large overhead doors at either end of the barn, and started circling and climbing higher towards some skylights in the ceiling. It must have been a little shocked to find that those skylights did not provide a way out. For the swallow, the habituated pattern is, when trapped, fly higher and towards the light to find liberation. That pattern was no doubt reinforced numerous times in the great outdoors. But this new context provided a much more challenging test of the swallow’s ability to find liberation. It would circle around, try to find its way through the skylight, then come to rest on a rope near the ceiling. And every time, you could feel the hundred people in the room willing it to just try something a little different by flying a little lower and out one of the large doors at floor level. In the bird’s world we were acting much like Bodhisattvas committed to liberating fellow living beings, but largely powerless to communicate the answers directly. The swallow continued its search for liberation for at least 15 minutes until it finally found the courage to break free from its habituated pattern and, floating on the collective encouragement of all of us watching, it finally flew a little lower and saw the light through one of the large doors. That may be as close as I’ll ever get to witnessing enlightenment, and it was exquisite.