sa eṣa prakṛtiḿ sūkṣmāḿ
daivīḿ guṇamayīḿ vibhuḥ
"As His pastimes, that Supreme Personality of Godhead, the greatest of the great, accepted the subtle material energy, which is invested with three material modes of nature." ~Wikipedia definition of Lila
In the pursuit of the level four this season I have become very cerebral about my skiing. That is to say, I am doing an awful lot of thinking about skiing and not a lot of experiencing skiing. My trainer recently brought this to my attention and it shook me rather abruptly awake. It reminding me of the bigger picture and why I fell in love with this sport in the first place.
When I think back to the process that has been most effective for me in advancing my skiing ability it has not included work. When it becomes work I tend to fixate on the goal. This becomes very black and white. Did I hit the target yes or no? This brings into the process of learning a measure of judgement and frustration that locks my mind in a vortex of thinking rather than doing. When I am working towards a specific outcome and something else really interesting happens in the pursuit of the target is often equally good information if I pay attention to it. Failure is just as good a teacher as success. When I listen to top CSIA trainers describing their training process they often use the word play instead of work.
It's easy to fall into the work mindset as in our western culture, we view all things in the universe as separate. We see ourselves as separate from everything around us and imagine that we have free will, and with it, the agency to act according to our own volition. For example, the weather is bad, therefore I choose to layer up and deal with that environmental situation. I feel quite pleased with myself that I made that choice and acted accordingly. I am winning agains nature! Likewise, if I want to attain a specific goal, I just work hard and I get there. But... what if all of that, the read of the situation, the idea that I had a choice and acted on it thus winning against nature, was all an elaborate illusion?
You may choose to quit reading at this point. I won't be offended. Full disclosure, what I am about to elucidate on can be extremely distressing initially. Alternatively you may choose to take the red pill, and see how far the rabbit hole goes. (Matrix reference ;-)
Enter, Lila and Maya. Lila and Maya are important concepts in Hindu Philosophy. (To understand the yoga connection here it is helpful to understand that yoga is rooted in the tenets of Hinduism.) Lila means divine play and Maya means illusion or magic. Lila is the idea that the whole of the universe, referred to as Brahman, is playing at being the universe that we see. Why would it do that? To come to understand itself by viewing itself as separate parts linked together in a web of complex relationships. Basically... the universe is playing a big game of hide and seek with itself for the fun of it. This is a pretty awesome idea.
Throughout Hinduism's history there have been dualistic philosophies and non-dualistic philosophies. The later emerging from the former as a evolving thought experiment. Reflect for a moment on how a seed gives rise to a flower and a flower grows, dies and ultimately decays, becoming food for worms, that in turn make soil and soil gives rise to fertile ground for a seed to germinate and so on. Things come into being and go out of being dependent on these causal relationships like a chain made up of many individual links. When reflecting on the world in this way it is natural to eventually start thinking that something must have built that chain and set the whole process in motion.
Here's where it get's interesting. That thing that built the chain must have been outside the chain to be able to build it in the first place. After all, it's hard to imagine a chain building itself. This is a dualistic world view. There are two things making up the universe, a creator, and it's creation. The creation is separate from the creator. and everything that happens to a link in this chain of creation of is influenced by the links preceding it and this in turn will give rise to the links following it. The links are separate things with a beginning and end. Presumably the entire chain also has a beginning and an end. But the creator of the chain exists outside it. The creator neither has a defined beginning or end nor does it's actions depend on actions of anything besides itself. This creator is infinite and limitless.
But wait a minute... If you are really paying attention you will have noticed in the above example that seed to flower to worm to soil to seed comes full circle. None of the things in that circle could have existed without the thing that came before it. If a flower can not exist without a seed then logically seed and flower are the same thing. This is where it get's messy.
If flower, seed, soil and worm are all the same thing rather than separate events in series there is no way to consider it's beginning or end. The chain, it turns out, was Maya, an elaborate illusion brought about by the perception of the observer, Brahman. Move up from this tiny example to everything in the universe, yourself included, as indivisible from the whole existing simultaneously, (timeless) and complete within itself (limitless). What the heck! The creation is starting to sound a lot like the creator. Then it is natural to start thinking that they are not separate but one and the same. This is a non-dualistic world view. Recite this phrase, I am Brahman. Actually just chant the syllable Om and let that sound represent this idea as you allow your sense of individual self dissolve into the vibration.
In this thought experiment, could we have come to the conclusion that the universe is non dualistic without first breaking it down into a whole bunch of separate events and observing how they are related? Probably not. To observe anything there needs to be something to observe separate from the observer. Something that is infinite and limitless arising independently can not observe itself without playing this crazy game. It needs to trick itself into seeing itself as a lot of little pieces in order to understand those pieces by observing the relationships between them. If light and dark are one and the same there is nothing to perceive. If light exists and dark exists separately one can be known by comparison with the other.
This might be a fun game for the universe to play if it was getting bored of being infinite and limitless. But it's a dangerous game. The creator could forget itself and start to believe in the illusion it has created much like how we occasionally get caught up in a good movie and forget, it's just a movie. The universe could mistake itself for a tiny flower dependent on a seed for it's brief existence before it inevitably get's eaten by worms. This flower resigns itself to it's fate, almost...
There is some level on which the flower feels as if it is something more. It believes, if it bends towards the sunlight it may be able to grow that much taller, that little bit stronger and possibly stave off it's demise a little longer. The flower starts thinking that it may be able to influence it's fate, and in so doing, it may actually be more powerful than it seams. This pervasive felt sense of being more than one appears to be gives rise a lingering question. Great scholars and seekers throughout human history have dealt with this question in different ways. For one believing in the idea that he or she is the universe pretending to be a human there is a measure of comfort. If your the universe it makes no sense to get worked up about anything. After all, it's just play. Relax, enjoy the show.
While it may not be possible to intellectually conceive of the notion that one is the whole of the divine cosmos without moving through the steps of this thought experiment, is it possible to feel oneself in this way? Absolutely yes! Direct experience of the self as the whole of the universe is totally possible through perception altering. This can be done in a few ways. Yoga is a system, a technology some say, for changing one's perception to eliminate the ego (referred to as Atman) and feel Atman and Brahman merge. My favourite means by which to change my perception to have this sudden realization is skiing. And that brings me back to the business of training for the level four.
Recently I hit a tree while skiing. No, I did not hit my head as you might be thinking after reading all of the above. I was moving through a tight tree trail when I got going too fast. I was thinking too much. Trying to make specific movements for a specific outcome and I failed to do so fast enough. Realizing my alarming acceleration and the risk that posed to my safety I tried to abruptly shut it down by chucking my skies sideways. This was not the safe option. The deep trough I was in at the time made this impossible. My tails hooked against the outside berm and shot me up the inside berm right into the path of a grove of trees that were too tight to slip in-between.
In my recollection of the events that followed next there is a great deal of detail. I saw the tree I was going to hit. That was when my perception shifted and time paused. I said to myself with a strange level of calm, "Christine you are going to hit this tree, there is nothing you can do about it." I looked at the tree and simultaneously heard it say, "Tree, you are going to hit Christine, there is nothing you can do about it." Then I panicked. I shifted to seeing myself as separate from the tree and the situation seamed dire. Should I stick my arms out to catch the tree? No, my arms are to short, I will totally impale myself on those branches that are sticking out. This forced me to come out of pause mode and there was no more time to consider my options. Fortunately something kicked into action allowing both me and the tree to perform a complex series of movements neither of us had ever made before in a situation neither of us had ever been in before faster than either of us could process.
I threw my torso backwards and brought my left leg up while turning it outwards so it and my ski shot forwards towards my trunk. I moved my branches out of the way and repositioned my trunk just enough to catch my left foot specifically under the arch. With my ski splaying across multiple trunks I stretched out to distribute the force over a greater area. My leg bent proportionately with all joints beautifully aligned. My trunk resisted just enough so I was able to absorb the impact without any strain whatsoever to myself. Just a slight dishevelment of my hair, equipment, twigs and moss strewn about the snowy ground. Not a scratch on me... either of me.
I am not kidding. It was like I was in telepathic communication with the trees and witnessing the event unfold from both perspectives at the same time as if from the outside. At least that is how I remember it. In the moment I can't be sure. Everything happened incredibly fast. To fast to think. I was all pure experience and automatic reaction. The only reliable memory was the moment of realization before it all went down. My senses were shockingly acute and I was calm, very calm. One could even say blissfully calm. From the yoga sutras: yogas chita vritti nirodha - yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind to a state of profound tranquility. The superhuman feat of hitting that tree without injury was yoga execution brought about by a life threatening event. It was only possible because I practice yoga and skiing every day. Rather, I play at these things every day. What it allowed me to glimpse was my self as the universe. In that moment there was no boundary between me and the tree or the physics that governed our fated encounter. I experienced, for a fraction of a second, being infinite and timeless.
When we see this ultimate reality it changes us forever. You can't un-take the red pill. (Matrix reference again ;-) You can't accept a lot of the bullshit you have been telling yourself up to that point. Your, I give a fucks, will from that point forward, be in very limited supply. You will start to use them in the service of this bigger picture of existence as divine play. Who gives a fuck about fashion for example when we can give a fuck about poverty. Poverty is born out of the ignorance that there is a limited supply of resources therefore we should hoard as much as we can. This is maya, the illusion. I am just forgetting that I am everything and therefore want for nothing. It would be great if we could hold onto this reality. Unfortunately we can't escape maya for long. There will be sparks of sudden remembering and then they will burn out and we will again be faced with having to do the laundry. That's just the way it is.
Long story short, when it comes to training for the level four I just need to remember it is all play and enjoy the unfolding of the process. I look forward to this. If I forget again, my practice will remind me.
Christine Davidson is a Ski Instructor, Yoga Teacher and Peak Performance Coach on a mission to make humans awesome!