Taoism states that we can only know a thing by knowing and understanding its opposite. For example, how can we know light if we’ve never been engulfed in darkness? How can we know happiness if we’ve never plumbed the depths of sadness? Each is just one side of a coin, with oneness being the reality and dualism the illusion.
Another way we can know a thing is by its absence. As Nataraja dances the world into existence, feet rise and fall, hips undulate, and we come in and out of being as we watch. Each time a toe rises, happiness is there or it isn’t. A hand waves down dancing to the universal rhythm, and a wish is granted.
The nature of our universe is change. In this change, we come to a greater understanding of ourselves and our world. This is the beauty and wisdom of life. Understanding this change and detaching from expectations of permanence is the secret to happiness.
Easier said than done! I’ve found on this path that a step forward is often accompanied by a step or two back. As The Bhagavad Gita states,
“Learn the path of Yoga, which leads from limitation to freedom. It is the eternal path. No step along this path can be lost. No effort is wasted. Even a small amount of progress brings freedom from fear.” (Bhagavad Gita, 2:39)
This buoyed me when I was a beginner to the practice and each step backward was a jarring reminder that I was not making any progress at all. I’ve matured in that I am now able to recognize this natural rhythm of progression. It’s as if the road forward is less a road and more a ribbon. It folds in on itself, kissing past paths we’ve walked and waving slowly forward. Ever changing but ever itself.
My Spanish language learning has given me a microcosm in which to study this effect. In my first months in Nicaragua, I would have days or weeks where it seemed all the Spanish I had learned had flown right out of my head. There was no room in my brain to learn new vocabulary or verb tenses, nor was there the plethora of words I’d already learned. I found this frustrating to go through, and again thought it a sign that my brain was just not cut out for Spanish. But then, miraculously, I would experience a jump forward in my skills, and progress happily until the next plateau.
I’ve hence come to interpret these plateaus, these folding-in moments, as signs of progress to come. They are the natural opposite of growth. They are the savasana of our yoga practice, when the body and mind still themselves to integrate what we’ve ingested so far.
I find myself at this moment folding inward – both in my Spanish language learning and in my practice of staying present. I am grateful for each of these contractions because they highlight how far I’ve come.
My mind has been worrying itself lately. Creating scenarios in the future, having conversations with the inhabitants of said scenarios, and feeling the emotions that arise as these scenes play out. I’ll find myself walking down the street and suddenly realize I’ve passed two blocks completely wrapped up in my mind and missing the life right in front of me. I am grateful for this regression because it reminds me that my mind used to always function like this. Moments of awareness were few and far between, and I thought this kind of mental chatter was normal. My practice has given me the consciousness to not allow the monkey mind free range over my life. When I notice the chatter and worry taking over, I’m able to give the dog a bone to chew on in the form of a mantra.
Even though I’m in a moment where my path has folded back in on itself, I’m able to use this as an opportunity to continue my dedication to my practice, to see the powerful effects as I come to my mat for asana and meditation, and the simple beauty of using mantra in the times when I’m not sitting on my yoga mat to draw my awareness back to Spirit. In this way, I can see both where I’ve been and get a glimpse of where I’m going.
Just as my practice of staying clearly present is folding in on itself, so is my Spanish language learning. Weeks of being immersed in the language of business and communicating with so many new people in challenging situations – when I am on the phone, or the person in front of my is impatient and simply wants to be on their way – has forced my language skills back. I wrote last week that I feel as though I’ve entered Spanish Level Two as I learn synonyms and new vocabulary words. I found myself stuttering and grasping for words as the week ended and my poor mind protested from a Spanish overload.
You see, even though I use Spanish every day and most of the people I interact with are only Spanish speaking, I had fallen into a pattern of using the same handful of 1500 or 2000 words to communicate. While my vocabulary isn’t small, it certainly isn’t complete. I would pick up five or ten new words every day as I stumbled across them in conversation, but I had the basics that I needed to communicate with the people in my life. Being thrust into a Spanish speaking business environment has caused my vocabulary expansion and comprehension to rapidly expand. I now recognize that the contraction I find myself in is simply an assimilation of what I’ve learned in the weeks I’ve been at the Hotel. I look forward to the increased comprehension that is coming on the other side of this plateau.
So I return to gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to immerse myself in this culture. Gratitude for the opportunity to walk this path of yoga and meditation as a practitioner and a teacher. And gratitude for the ability to recognize life’s patterns . Far from the frustration I felt in my early days of practice and learning, I now take a quiet joy in the pauses, knowing that they indicate a deepening of wisdom and understanding.