INTERVIEW: November 2007, Downdog Yoga Washington, DC
"Meditation is the recognition of our true pace"
Guest teacher Jonathan Reynolds is an author and skilled instructor and the founder of Learning To Listen, a community dedicated to spreading tools for conscious living. We talked to him about how even the busiest person can find time to bring meditation into their lives.
DOWN DOG: Can you tell us a little about how you started doing yoga and meditating?
JONATHAN: When I was a young boy there were several experiences that revealed my natural curiosity with regard to turning my awareness inward. I can remember as early as first or second grade needing a bit of ‘quiet time’ before leaving for school. After I was all ready to go, I would close my bedroom door and sit on my bed in silence with my eyes closed for a minute or two to allow my mind to rest – it seemed very natural. When I was about twelve or thirteen I remember having my first direct experience of what I now refer to as the ‘impersonal’ quality of awareness. During this time, I noticed that when I would tell someone my name, I always felt like my answer was untrue in some way – my name remained the same while I was always changing, and thus my name didn’t seem to ‘fit’ the truth quite right. In my final year of college I began to look closely at who I thought I was, and in response to this I began asking my closest friends who they were as well; and I asked them to answer without using any of the familiar responses – things like where they were born, their age, interests, etc.
My formal yoga practice began as a result of a friend’s invitation. We lived together in Madison, Wisconsin – he had never done yoga and wanted to try it. I was somewhat interested, but we never ended up going to a class. I then moved to San Jose, California to live with another friend. There was a yoga studio (Willow Glen Yoga) on my daily jogging route. One day I decided to run in and see what was being offered. It was a Bikram-based series, and in my first class I lasted about 15 minutes. I often describe the experience as laying on my back exhausted, and for the first time in my life being truly happy. I knew then that I had found the blend of mind, body, health, nature, and integrity that I had tried so hard to balance in various ways throughout my life. For myself the practice was meditation immediately – soon after that first yoga class I purchased Joko Beck’s book ‘Everyday Zen’ and Thich Nhat Hanh’s audio tape ‘Plum Village Meditations’.
My meditation practice began by falling in love with the breath while holding postures for long periods of time – the first posture this happened in was probably shavasana. About two months after I began practicing asana, I began sitting zazen, or Zen meditation. During my first two years of meditation I focused on Zen, but dabbled in various other forms, tratak (candle gazing) and mantra (sound repetition) to mention a couple. After Zen I focused for six years on yogic concentration/absorption meditation – using the breath as my primary object of focus. Once my concentration was strong I then shifted back to Buddhist-based practice, and for the last two years have been focusing on vipassana or insight meditation in the Theravadin (Way of the Elders) tradition. Metta, or loving-kindness meditation is also a primary focus of my practice. I find these two practices complementary, as each acts as a wing necessary for the experience and flight of freedom.
DOWN DOG: What are some of the most important ways that the two practices compliment each other?
JONATHAN: Yoga is meditation in various shapes or forms. Meditation is yoga, but you only do one posture. The more I meditate, the more the experience is revealed as physical; the more I practice asana, the more the practice is revealed as awareness-based.
In asana practice it is easy to think that the postures are what opens up the body, but this is not entirely correct. The postures are tools for showing us where we are not aware, and once we notice this fact, we wake up to awareness – and it is awareness that opens the body, the mind, and the heart. When we are present, the moment is naturally and spontaneously self-liberating. Nothing other than our presence is needed. This is easier said than done, and is why in the beginning we work ‘hard’ rather than working ‘skillfully’. This is a process and takes time; and is why yoga and meditation are called ‘practices’. I like to say that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice is perfect; it is the nature of practice.
Our asana practice makes it easier to sit in seated meditation, both physically and mentally. Physically our body gets pliable. Mentally we burn off the gross holdings so we can refine our awareness to notice the subtle ones. In asana we learn ‘wise effort’ physically, and this is then applied energetically in our sitting practice. There are countless other examples that only practice can reveal.
Talking about practice is a lot like talking about food. You can talk about food all you want, but you wont get nourished until you actually eat some. Practice is the same; words and teachings are at best ‘pointers’ to the truth, but without practice the student cannot know the fruits of freedom that are their true nature.
Knowing that awareness is the womb of all experience shows us that yoga, meditation, or anything else for that matter is ripe with the possibility of awakening. For many of us, yoga is our first taste of this possibility, but truly it is everywhere and in everything; pause long enough to look and to listen – you’ll know this freedom as something both fresh and familiar, and as your true home. Instead of looking for experience, look from experience.
DOWN DOG: While meditation is an ancient practice, how is it relevant to our fast-paced lives today? Along this same vein, what advice could you offer to someone who would like to start a meditation practice but has little time?
JONATHAN: Meditation is timeless, without time. Things like patience, integrity, effort, kindness, peace and wisdom; these are the fruits of meditation – they will never be impractical things to cultivate. This in short is why meditation is as relevant today as it was 5000 years ago, and in some ways more so. Meditation is the recognition of our true pace, a pace more closely linked to things like our heartbeat or the rate of our breath. Meditation is a coming home to our nature. Many of us have unconsciously been ‘tuned’ to technology – automobiles, computers, cellular phones, etc. These things are effective as tools, but not as metronomes for pacing ourselves and our lives.
When the Buddha was asked what was the best practice he replied, “The one you do.” So that is my advice to new and experienced students. Find a practice of yoga and meditation that works for you; let your curiosity guide you – not what you think you should be studying, but what is it that you are truly drawn to.
What does a practice ‘working’ mean? You enjoy it and it serves you in some capacity. People new to seated meditation – start out slow; perhaps 5 minutes or less a day. Consistency is more important than amount of time per sit – sit at the same time of day, place, etc. – perhaps create a space in your home that is dedicated to your sitting practice. Allow the practice of meditation to be your teacher, it will let you know when to increase the time or change something else about your practice. Also, find a group to sit with, as truly community supports each of us when we need it. Lastly, each moment is an opportunity to awaken – seeing a little awareness everywhere adds up over time.
DOWN DOG: "If you are not mediating are you really doing yoga?" Could you give us your views?
JONATHAN: I think that practicing asana without some focus on cultivating awareness is sort of like taking a shower without water. A shower by definition needs water. Yoga by definition needs awareness. That said, the best practice is the one you do; and whatever motivates you to commit to a regular practice is great. There is nothing wrong with being physically focused, as the body and its awareness is no different from the heart’s; and often the body can be more reliable, as it is always in the present moment, it has no choice.
Classically, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali focuses almost exclusively on seated meditation. In Patanjali’s text asana is only mentioned I believe three times, and in these three times only the word ‘asana’ is mentioned; postures are not discussed. Furthermore, one translation of ‘asana’ is ‘to sit’, so yoga practice originally was very likely solely seated meditation. Not until around 1200 CE was the Hatha Yoga Pradipika written, and in it the seeds of a physical practice were planted. I say this not to bring up debate, but rather to point to the element of practice that is timeless. All wise cultures have cultivated awareness practices, and yoga is one such practice. Yoga is not a separate practice from meditation, nor are meditation techniques separate from other awareness-based focuses. Again, both yoga and seated meditation are the forms, but the forms exist only so that we can awaken to the ‘substance’ or substrate of all experience – awareness.
DOWN DOG: Finally, as someone who has visited and taught at many different yoga communities around the country (and abroad?) how does Down Dog's community compare to others you have visited?
JONATHAN: How does one flower compare to another? Is the bigger one more beautiful than the smaller one? Is the purple one more magnificent than the white? The younger lovelier than the mature?
Down Dog is a gift to those who seek freedom. All things that have come into being will pass away – cherish what you have without being overly attached to it.