Monday, September 12, 2011


"One branch from an old plum tree extends splendidly;
thorns become attached to it in time." -Keizan Jokin

Sometimes when I think of my yoga and meditation practices I see them as beautiful, fragrant roses.  Delicate, sweet smelling, sometimes full and blossoming with layer after layer of petals opening, opening, opening.  Sometimes once those petals have blossomed, they drop away one-by-one as parts that were once useful but are now no longer needed. Or, sometimes those petals are wrapped up tightly like tiny buds full of possibilities, but they're not quite ready to emerge into the world of being.  But these roses are never without thorns.  When the rose of our practice blossoms so sweet and beautiful, our practice is easy, buoyant and peaceful, but there are inevitably times when we encounter the dark and prickly stickiness of thorns. Lately, my practice has been rife with prickly thorns.  When this occurs, my instinct - like so many of us - is to avoid the thorns or to wait until the rose becomes beautiful and fragrant again... to ride it out until things are prettier. But the practice isn't just about the beautiful, peaceful parts of life, sometimes it's purpose is to make things prickly in order to wake us up more fully.

Keizan Jokin, a revered zen teacher who lived in the 14th century who's two-line poem sits at the top of this page, illustrated with his simple words that we all encounter times where our practice resembles a branch from a wizened old plum tree; extending splendidly from the trunk of the tree, but not without spiny thorn-like twigs pushing out of its bark. Sometimes we feel that our practice is splendid. It flows and extends out of every part of us.  But like the old plum tree, in time we discover thorns growing on our practice (resistance, lethargy, doubt, judgement-you name it!).  One of my favorite teachers, Michael Stone, says that "sometimes we get a little too comfortable. So in the process of practicing asana and stilling the mind, we start to find that the thorns become the practice and how we meet the thorns is basically right when they start popping up."

Part of our spiritual maturation involves deeply feeling and working with the thorns that grow.  A really big part of our practice is leaving nothing out.  Flowing along with the easeful parts of ourselves and our experience, but also witnessing the thorns that grow upon the graceful limbs of our existence. Our task as human beings is simply to stay the course, to be the branch, the blossom and the thorn.  To not deny the stickiness or the presence of those thorns, but to watch and work with our reaction to them with equanimity. When we do this we begin to see that the beautiful blossoms of our practice are a result of navigating through and allowing the thorns to be part of us. 

"One branch from an old plum tree extends splendidly;
 thorns become attached to it in time."

And so I continue to get on my yoga mat and practice even though the thorns I encounter make it uncomfortable to do so.  I sit in silence and witness what's there with compassion. I arrive to what is, knowing that eventually I will be able to feel the soft petals of peace and drink in the beautiful fragrance of clarity.

When we come together as a group in class, the basic practice that we're doing first is to arrive, to calm down, to connect with the part of ourselves that is still and peaceful: our blossom.  We sit and we follow our breathing to the source of peace. We remind ourselves that the larger purpose of yoga and meditation is to connect with this calm, real, unsoiled part of ourselves.  Take a moment right now to close your eyes, connect with the slow, organic flowing of your breath.  Follow the breath into silence. Arrive.

Today, practice becoming settled and take care of the thorny parts that present themselves by offering them the space to be seen and felt.  When we follow the breath and begin to find mental and spiritual stillness, we begin to clearly see our own mind and allow it to rest in its natural state which is free from the thorniness and chatter that grows on us as a result of living in the world.  We allow our experience to blossom freely and we take care of the thorns with the same attentiveness that we regard the blossom.

Until next time...

Thorn and Rose
by Henry Van Dyke

Far richer than a thornless rose
Whose branch with beauty never glows,
Is that which every June adorns
With perfect bloom among its thorns.
Merely to live without a pain
Is little gladness, little gain,
Ah, welcome joy tho' mixt with grief,--
The thorn-set flower that crowns the leaf.