This excerpt has been adapted from Mary’s writings for her Moving Forward – For the Love of the Earth program, a program to practice yoga in an ecological context.
Satya – the second Yama or ethical precept in Yoga, usually translated as truth, honesty, clarity.
Vipassana — also commonly referred to as “Insight Meditation,” can be translated as special, super, or clear seeing.
As I bring my thoughts (and confusions!) into some kind of a whole regarding Satya for our Moving Forward Program, there are a couple of images running through my mind.
The first is the webpage of a popular Vipassana teacher where short videos take you into exquisite natural beauty, permed for the camera and the themes regarding authenticity and divinity. It is perfectly created, and the teacher wanders among Redwoods and water, speaking truths that have resonated over the decades but somehow fall flat right now. There is a hard-to-admit creeping sense of distrust regarding this extraordinary (Covid-enhanced desirable) setting, and the marketing and technical skills that have produced words that float on butterflies and lush grass.
The second image is the opening screen of an online climate change book launch: the young, super-intelligent, and equally expressive presenter sitting in front of her screen. Behind her a relatively unmade bed in an ordinary bedroom. No cosmic music, no Buddhas or flowers, no long exhales or appropriate poetry, but an immediate and engaging introduction to a diverse, relatively youthful international group of climate experts who have come together to bring information to others and collaborate.
I feel immediately drawn in to the second image, and also relieved. Some of the worlds that I have trusted for many years, portals to other realms and truths of which I was previously unaware, appear Disney-fied, tainted with what the New Age claims as worthy of our attention. Not necessarily yielding to the pull of urgency that I and others sense in facing the massive challenges on our planet right now.
For many long-term climate activists, the Vipassana webpage might be soothing and restoring as they yearn for a break from book launches, virtual meetings, dealing with governments, and cultivating creative resistance! What was for me the refreshing practicality and collaborative nature of the climate change book launch could be met with weariness and a wish to transcend and disappear into the cosmos on retreat. Folks like myself are seeking a practical, honest perspective that weaves practice right into the mud, the imperfections of life as it is now. Transcendence, idealized views of nature appear almost violent, corrupt. The struggle itself has its own beauty in an inclusive path that does not need cosmetics.
As I listen to this climate book Intro, there are times when I drift off, when the harsh realities are not presented in a form that I can absorb – better imagery, more upbeat anecdotes, cosmic music Vipassana-style might help! However, in each of the presenters, there is a rawness and passion that I remember from my early days of yoga and meditation practice.
I have absolutely no doubt that if the Buddha or any relatively awakened being from the past were alive right now, at this time, their attention would be drawn to the sacredness of these issues and the path that supports life on the planet. Transformative practical practices would serve to support a clear and compassionate engagement in the here and now, in how we transform “the earth belonging to us” to “us belonging to the earth.”
“I have absolutely no doubt….” I say that, but what do I feel?! What is the Satya of the heart? I find myself making statements like this when I am at my most “uncertain,” holding onto notions of past and present because the groundlessness and precariousness of our existence cannot be dismissed; our sense of normalcy is deeply questionable. (I still feel that the Buddha and Greta T would be great friends if he were around now!)
As we start moving out of relative social isolation, how can we have conversations that support a movement forward and that don’t end in self-righteous epithets or reveal a desperate clinging to any truth but instead will give us some sense of groundedness, belonging? Ajahn Chah, the Thai forest master, would often say “Not a sure thing.” This was not a dismissal of responsibility or coming from a place of confusion but an acknowledgement that nothing is very certain—nothing ever has been or will be. Remembering this doesn’t always balance the nervous system, but acknowledging the essential fragility and uncertainty of life can help reduce the next step into anxiety, overwhelm, or outright denial.
“Not-knowing” is a common refrain encouraged in meditation practitioners to stay with the continual flow of life without grasping or identifying, to help see more clearly what is going on in the moment. This is very different from the pandemic of doubt that has been seeded by current political and news factions to undermine the reality of climate issues, creating the ground to question entire elections. What a challenging time to know anything, trust anyone!
Perhaps, in the breakdown of some sense of previously recognized forms and hierarchies, we feel more entitled to cherry pick our truths about practice and life. We cling to the buzz words of “authentic,” “natural,” “true” that are now part of everyday green advertising and the rise of social media influencers, taking over from the discredited masters of yore.
Kindness – or Ahimsa, the first ethical guide — toward our other selves, to our previous explorations in practice, to our adherence to truths that now no longer seem relevant, to the voices that we suppressed because we wanted to belong, is essential right now. In some ways, this is a verdant time for yoga, meditation and community. A time to celebrate!
Many have found the evolution of online yoga has actually created much deeper regular practice and more connection over the airways, now that the walls of studios have disappeared, literally and figuratively. It is a time to celebrate that which still intrigues and supports us in yoga. Despite all the indoctrination and education to see ourselves as separate and finite, voices are arising everywhere — from indigenous elders to youthful climate activists to woke artists and engaged scientists and community leaders — that remind us that we do belong, that we are fluid, collective, and caring. This is where the climate community and the environmental community have such potential spiritual gravitas and where yogis have the possibility to support embodiment and engagement in the most healthy and broad of contexts.
As we attempt to navigate the ‘bumbledom’ of Covid life and avoid slipping into dogmatic/deluded explanations for the struggles we find ourselves in, the yoga texts (going back to Patanjali) talk about the sources for true knowledge. Sutra 7 in Book 1 of Patanjali’s Sutras says, – “Truth/correct knowledge comes from direct experience, by deduction/inference, and by the word of those who know.”
Finally, a story from wise Sharon Salzburg. Sharon describes colleague and friend Kamala Masters falling into the ocean from a boat and beginning to panic. Her well-meaning friends all around her kept reminding her of her Vipassana practice and teacher status as the boat she was in was blown away with stormy winds. Could she open to her possible last moments with grace? What did her heart want right now? “Kamala has dedicated her life to the Buddha’s teaching, and in this dire moment, she had an excellent opportunity to display the depth of her devotion. In her persona as a teacher, she might have answered that it was, of course, love and compassion that she wanted right then in her last moments of life. But, fundamentally dedicated to the truth, Kamala thought for a second and, from the bottom of her heart, said, “What I want right now is the boat!”
In the bigger climate picture, we would all want the actual boat, the lifeboat out of our current mess.
May you sail with ease, clarity, and practicality of vision! May those who truly know and care about our planet communicate in clear voices to the rest of us to dissolve disinformation and delusion, and to help us live, as many indigenous cultures do, without needing a separate word for “spirituality.” May those of us who know about embodiment and connection support those at the front lines and those most affected by climate denial and chaos, dissolving the lines between activist and practitioner.
The truth is…We all care!
Mary Paffard is a co-founder of Yoga Mendocino. She is based in Boonville, CA, but she teaches and trains teachers nationally and internationally. Her unique style of yoga incorporates ecology, poetry, and art and reflects her deep respect and love for the Earth.
“This wealth of creativity and investigation married with the extraordinary developments in 21st century yoga and the increasing interest in a bodhisattvic, meditative approach to the pressing questions of our day supports and sustains me. I go to environmentally oriented conferences, cultivate community and exchange in Cuba and with my Latino friends, look to the wisdom and sangha in our local community, my apple farm collective and family to support a living, breathing sustainable yoga.”
Climate Book Launch – This book is available freely
Arinna Weisman – Dharma Talk The Truth of the Teachings 11/4/2020 https://dharmaseed.org/teacher/26/talk/63226/
Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body is on the academic side but is essential reading for anyone involved in teaching or deep yoga practice. His own efforts to find the truth of the poses that he was being taught in regular yoga classes lead him to uncover the fact that European gymnastics, Indian nationalism along with British colonialism and individual creative (and lying as to the sources of their inspirations!) yoga teachers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, helped perpetuate a lie that dog pose and trikonasana and other iconic poses originated in deep meditation many thousands of years ago.
Sharon Salzburg’s story is from Truth-Telling and the Middle Way where she introduces this story with this paragraph:
“SOMETIMES on the spiritual journey we adopt a self-conscious persona, trying to be someone we are not or to feel things that we don’t actually feel. If we like the idea of ourselves as being loving and compassionate, it might be very difficult for us to acknowledge all of those moments when we are not really loving or compassionate. Our aspiration to be “someone spiritual” can often get in the way of our telling the truth to ourselves about what we’re feeling. Thinking that we are only supposed to have loving and compassionate feelings can be a terrible obstacle to spiritual practice. In this vein, I used to say that since the title of my first book was Lovingkindness, the title of my next book, the companion “shadow” volume, should be The Tyranny of Lovingkindness.”