A Centered Arrow
I have some ever-lingering, ignorant desires. Rather than aiming just to “do right” by my intuition in the moment some part of me secretly wants to “be right.” This desire for outcomes (rajas) or a mythical escape into a dark “nothing” (tamas) continually rears its ugly head, defeats me, and I miss an opportunity for openness and for yoga. I try to tame it, but only in small, palpable daily doses. For two hours a day I roll out my mat, enter the unknown, and submerge into proving myself wrong. And somehow, mysteriously, that is what I return for day after day.
During the climax of the Ramayana, Rama (representing the Supreme Self) finally makes his way to Lanka to slay Ravana (the ego) and take back Sita (the mind). The fearsome Ravana, with ten heads and twenty arms and deep knowledge of the Shastras, seems indomitable. Rama, undeterred, despite being unable to even reach the height of this towering ego/demon god, fires one arrow after another, severing Ravana’s heads. But after each shot, a new head grows back in its place. Rama is awestruck and dumbfounded. He launches another volley of arrows at Ravana, but the giant tyrant with many heads and arms, upon seeing the arrows, merely laughs.
©British Library UK http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/ramayana/accessible/introduction.html
Finally, at his wits’ end, broken, and “not knowing” what else to do, Rama chants a prayer to Aditya, the Sun God, takes aim, and finally strikes Ravana in his weak spot. You can guess where that is, or perhaps it is best left up to you to find your own.
After our initial romantic phase with a yoga practice, a dirty truth starts to bubble to the surface: Yoga involves crushing the “‘I am’ vehicle” (ahamkara) on a regular basis. This may initially manifest as a shock to the system. But if we’re diligent, eventually, through regular austerity, we recognize the twisted patterning in us and become aware of the herculean efforts it takes to stomp out our untended ways of reacting. A “good” yoga practice doesn’t mean you physically achieved something. On the contrary, it means, perhaps, that you recognize you consistently didn’t achieve anything physical at all. What’s worse, you will lose it all one day, and your only hope is that you might do so gracefully and somewhat centered. Through this process, we start to realize we may desperately need some inner support, a form of divine seeing (chaksur divyam), a Mount Meru to churn the ocean, with “heroes and villains” (Samudra manthan, Puranas).
An “inner support” or divinity emerges to help us cultivate a yoga practice, often by helping us better understand our self-defeating nature. Although these conquering deities and the historical iconography surrounding them appear throughout the world in various and sundry forms (a topic for a whole other word-mala), I reckon Indo-Tibetan art has become a bit more obsessed with the lower-self-conquering deity than other cultures, and eloquently depicts what I will call the “zHero” archetype, which usually runs something like this:
- Someone makes a mistaken judgment, often involving thinking, “I know.”
- It gets ugly: usually involving, at best, some sort of embarrassment, but often ending in a beheading.
- This individual calls on a divine wrathful aspect to rise against the bad habit, or “I-knower.”
- This “Hero,” the wrathful aspect that kills the ego, conquers the “Villain,” or the personified “bad habit.”
- Importantly, this repeats without end.
Yoga, it seems, facilitates an endless struggle, where the “Zhero” archetype conquers the “Demons,” which continually rear their ugly heads. All of this dissolves into the illusory world (maya), which is separable from the divine only as a means by which to color the story. Some places even go so far as to name these asuras (demons) after their fair cities (i.e. Mahsurasura/Mysore). Yoga practice inspires us to notice that instead of rising to find we have “finally conquered” these demons, we rise to recognize that they have infinite heads, emerging through infinite lives.
On a good day, when an ugly head pops up (much like Ravana’s), I’m able to breathe, “do the opposite” (YS 1. 34), and give myself an opportunity for internal “catching.” More often, though, I think, Who am I to write about the multitudes of splendor yet uncovered, when all I have experienced is what seems to be an unending parade of internal demons? This piece has been several drafts in the making and still feels undone. I have felt for some time that I am not in a place where I can write it because I have not taken proper aim and done what I know I can and should do. With 20-20 hindsight, it seems perhaps I have never given my fullest, and like Rama, I too fire volleys of arrows only to see another ugly, ego-cherishing head emerge, day after day, with seemingly endless refinement.
So I stop.
I sit. Still.
How fast am I moving though?
I move at the speed of continents – but also the speed of our earth’s rotation and revolution. Yet I am also moving as fast as our solar system, and as fast as our galaxy streaks towards a star in the constellation Leo. I move even almost at the speed of light. Do I appear as a smear – or at even all? And which “me” would be smeared across this infinite continuum?
Yet with all that moving, it’s possible to find a peaceful “0” position in every moment (shunya/samastithi, where we periodically return when we veer off course). From a relative center, there is stillness. And here, framed within a 26x72” rectangle, we use new ground to uncover a malleable, infinitely shifting center. Importantly this centering often not only prevents us from falling over, it also shifts and bends a “Really Real” fixed self out there. In the quiet cacophony of our own breathing mind, it’s the “unknowing” we should perhaps tether ourselves to. This does not mean giving up or aiming at some nonexistent nothing – but instead, really taking stock of our weak spots, then drawing back an arrow at yet another of our emerging ugly heads.
The Center could be everywhere. And somehow, it is still.
Can you feel it?
Breathe. Take aim. Let go.