How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Karma, Freedom and the Emptiness of Time

By Jeff Martens

The Heart of the River

I want to jump into the Colorado River’s 50 degree silt-brown water and lay my cheek against Vishnu’s skin!

Visible only in certain stretches at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, this rock is blacker than black, so black that it shines blue as midnight in the midday sun.  I honest-to-God love this rock.  Every time I see it I want to touch and feel its polished armor.   An impossibly hard surface time-scoured to a glossy silk, this is Vishnu Schist.  Incomprehensibly ancient, this granite seems to glow with an oily life as if a pulse were trembling just beneath its soap-smooth surface.  Here 4700 feet beneath the canyon’s unseen upper rim and at an age of over 1,600,000,000 (1.6 BILLION) years, it feels like I am looking at the living black skin of God.  Caressing this rock fills me to overflowing with gratitude for the events that have brought me to the bottom of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.  And as much as I had enjoyed the river trip with Vishnu so far, this black granite was about to touch me in a way I could never have imagined, a way that would take me a full month to understand.  It happened near river mile 120 in a place called Blacktail Canyon.
“I’ve always wanted to do that…”
“If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, #70

Summer was beginning to wind down, though the temperatures were actually climbing again.  Whenever I would catch a news sound-bite or hear talk about the weather, inevitably the topic would move toward how this was becoming the hottest year on record.  Phoenix is a good place to be from in the summertime.

It was time for a vacation.

But where to go?  Really, I could go anywhere that I wanted, but where did I really want to go?  When I considered allowing myself to go any place, to take any trip on the planet, rafting down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon suggested itself.  It was a familiar refrain in my life for as long as I could remember: “I’ve always wanted to raft the Colorado River.”   Instead though, for whatever reason (comfort? habit? fear?) my thoughts turned towards possibly driving up the coast of California again and seeing my sister and her family, maybe staying with some friends along the way.  I had taken this exact trip one year earlier to really face my life and any fears or regrets that I had about the prospect of living alone after being married for five years.  Last year’s drive up the Pacific Coast Highway had turned into a lone celebration, another journey of a lifetime revealing the terrible inner beauty that remains after everything that’s familiar in life seems to be untangling at the seams.

But as my chosen date of departure moved closer my chosen trip felt more and more uninspired.  All in all, there was this nagging feeling that I was… how shall I put this?  Wimping out.  When I thought of taking this same trip again I barely registered a pulse, even though the year before it had been absolutely imperative on every level that I face myself and go.  My current feeling of non-intrigue was so powerful that I became quiet and still enough to listen.  Once again, I asked myself where on earth I really wanted to go.

“I’ve always wanted to raft the Colorado River.”

The answer was an opera baritone in a sea of static.  This voice was not to be denied.  Not to say that my mind didn’t try.  You’ll never get on-board, these trips are reserved years in advance.  Where will you park your car?  It costs way too much – how will you afford it?  What will you eat?  You won’t know anybody, you’ll be going alone with a bunch of strangers…

The more yoga I practice, the more I firmly come to understand that two things are imperative for my spiritual “evolution”: 1) to become ever more deeply human, and 2) to overcome the small petty doubting self and all of its negative crap in order to live the life that I want.  With so much resistance I knew that I was on the right track.  I started investigating websites and felt drawn to a particular company.  From a place of deep feeling, tears came to my eyes as everything fell into place.  Three days later I am stepping into a dory at the bottom of the Grand canyon far, far away from the details of my daily life, surrounded by the mighty Colorado River of my dreams.
That will never happen to me…
Divorce is a funny thing.  Not funny ‘ha ha’, though it can be that.  (When it came time to decide who would become the “complainant” and “respondent” we flipped a coin.  “Best two out of three,” we said, still able to share a smile.)  But divorce is more of a funny thing along the lines of “My stomach feels funny.”  Or: “There’s something funny about that dark alley I’m moving toward.”  And divorce is funniest of all because you don’t ever think it will happen to you.  By the time it does though and you fully realize it, everything is already over with a finality that’s strangely silent.  It’s like an avalanche sliding to rest at the foot of a steep mountain.  Or a sheer silk wrap slipping from naked shoulders to the floor.  I don’t know what divorce is truly like for people who can’t stand each other.  As for us, well we still deeply cared about each other in many ways.  I’m not sure if this made an impossible situation any easier… For even though we both knew that this was the right path for us, at times it felt like I was losing part of my soul.

Vishnu’s Glory

Floating down the Colorado in a wooden dory, I was delighted to find that John Wesly Powel’s 19th century explorers decided to name the most beautiful rock I had ever seen Vishnu Schist.  Vishnu is an auspicious name in my study of yoga.  Perhaps He is best known to me as Krishna, but it is said that he also incarnated as Rama or Jesus or Buddha.  As Krishna his shining moment is with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, India’s ‘Bible’.  But when the war of the Mahabharata is all but over, the sublime pages of the Bhagavad Gita have long since been turned to get down to the messy business of killing.  Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu (the divine force that balances and preserves all existence in the Hindu Trinity) has fulfilled his promise to take on a body and appear in creation when evil appears to have gotten the upper hand.  As the Supreme Preserver, Vishnu can be seen as both creator and destroyer, utilizing whatever means necessary in order to win the good fight of preserving the wheel of life.  And in the war of the virtuous Pandavas vs the evil Kurus, Krishna does whatever is necessary to assure that the right side – the side of dharma, of that which upholds all of creation – will win.  I think about Krishna a lot as we anchor and get ready to enter Blacktail, a slot canyon guarded by Vishnu Schist pillars gleaming brightly over the water.


The staggered rock walls of Blacktail undulate like the winding inner ribs of some giant snake, shading us from the high August sun.  Though most slot canyons at the bottom of the Grand Canyon inspire a sense of awe, there was something different about this one named Blacktail.  The air felt heavier and yet somehow charged with a sacred, vibrant lightness as gravel and sand crunched beneath the rubber soles of my water sandals.  We stop as a group and take in a canyon wall rising up from the sandy floor.  At first I don’t see it.  None of us really do.  Clouds drift overhead against a clear blue sky.  Shelves of red and blond rock called Tapeats Sandstone jut in terraced stacks rising hundreds of feet tall, wrapping us in a 500 million year-old eroded womb.

When I do see it, the reason we stopped, I am almost ashamed to say that I didn’t notice its true impact right away.  When I bring my hand to touch it, at first my attention doesn’t really linger.  The feel of it is largely absent as a result, as if my hand were slightly numb.  Already I am looking for the spring water that is supposed to fall in a soft curtain a little further up Blacktail Canyon, and as my eyes look to the future and my mind starts moving forward I almost miss truly seeing one of the most amazing things that I will ever experience.

The Root of Things

te pratiprasava-heyh skshmh   Yoga Sutra 2.10
The causes of all suffering (kleshas) are vaporized by resolving them back to their source.

When I was five years old I started first grade at Villa Montessori.  For the next decade, through three different schools private, catholic and into public, I was made fun of.  It seems that some kids thought my nose was a bit too large for my body and these fine kids being the public servants that they were, made it their personal responsibility to remind me of this fact.  Several times a week.  The first time it happened, the first time I was made fun of, I was so shocked that it didn’t fully register.  It was an experience so alien to me that it took several repetitions over the course of many days for the birth of a very muddy idea to start to sink in.  This was my dawning of delusion, the false idea that something could be “wrong” with me.  (A wonderful little idea cemented in place three grades later with the catholic school song and dance on “original sin”.  Even now, the idea that something can be “wrong” with you or with me or with anyone feels like an error on a certain level, a mutant trojan horse that was snuck in with some innocent childhood developmental code.

This of course is my “growing up story”.  I am not special, we all have a childhood story in one form or another.  But what continues to be a source of amazement to me is how I can be thrown back into the survival reflexes I learned in childhood, no matter how much I have raged against and accepted and forgiven and made peace to the point of boredom with the whole experience.  Somehow my mind has bookmarked certain stimuli and external situations in association with these childhood events and sometimes, not often, but sometimes if the wind and the moon is just right, I can still feel the tug of being a five year-old ostracized child even though I am now very much an adult.  (Most of the time anyway.  Voluntarily becoming a child again is a whole different joy-filled matter.)

As a child I developed a survival reflex that included an uncanny ability to read other people’s demeanor.  I became very adept at figuring out if some other kid was meaning to do me harm and would then choose from the mind’s limited menu of solutions: fight, run or numb.  The thing about habitual responses is that what we think of as the source or the cause of the issue in our current life, well that’s usually just the iceberg’s tip of the iceberg.  Even more unsettling in a “my stomach feel funny” sort of way is that we actually cling to our habits and fight to hold on to them because these habits and the pain they create are oh so familiar and become close as family.  Few people realize this on a cellular level.  Love becomes a bartering tool.  To feel ‘broken’ becomes an addiction, the glue that holds this family together.  And just like the mafia, without drastic measures you are destined to be in this “family” forever.

It is in this family that we seek out and climb mountainous relationships that actually support our familiar and comfortable pain.  Instead of moving closer to love we climb hard to get away from it.  Relationships become things of protection or manipulation, pulling closer and then running away.  We change a meaning here, put words in people’s mouths there, and read things into a gesture or body language that supports our negative habit and broken view of ourselves in the world.   And in this way we end up looking for love or intimacy from someone who’s inability to provide such qualities to us specifically are matched only by our incapacity to receive from them in particular.  Finally, guided by the mind’s runaway habitual responses, we keep racing up the mountain of blame alone until we break a leg at 20,000 feet and use up the last of our oxygen.  Here, in the rarified air of self-imposed isolation our hearts run the risk of freezing solid and becoming one with the summit of our own false beliefs.

The Great Unconformity

Roger our guide and trip leader tells us that we are looking at something called the Great Unconformity.  It is a rare place in the canyon that doesn’t follow the usual pattern of time layered rock piled one massive formation upon the other in the progressive upward march of time.  No, here at the bottom of a world grounded in Zoroaster Granite, and Schists named after Brahma, Rama and of course Vishnu, something quite different happened.  When  what I am looking at is first explained I have that feeling of utter shock and bewilderment not unlike the first time I was made fun of but in reverse.  If I was a cartoon there would have been those little dazed bubbles of surprise popping off around my head.

I could hear Roger’s words describing what I was seeing, but they seemed far away like I was at the bottom of a well.  I looked at the Great Unconformity with uncomprehending eyes and felt a strong realization start to surface.  The veil had been lifted.  Somehow even without the words now I knew that I was looking at a great timeless secret carved in the most ancient stone.  I hadn’t recognized it before but there in Blacktail Canyon under a layer of dust masking its deep blue grandeur was the skin of Vishnu Schist, 1.6 billion years old, sitting directly under a mountainous stack of 500 million year-old Tapeats Sandstone.  And like waves of current rushing into the shore, all that kept coming into my consciousness over and over again was:  Here.  is.  the.  absence.  of.  karma.

The Beginning of the End…

sopakramam nirupakramam ca karma tat-samyamd aparnta-jnnam aristebhyo    Yoga Sutra 3.23
By studying with full awareness the resistance of past habitual actions and their corresponding fruits,  we find deep insight into the death of all things (how things truly end).

Stuck there with no oxygen and a broken leg on top of that cold mountain of habit and blame we may take stock of our life.  This is a dangerous time.  Things can get so familiar on that summit that we could start feeling right at home.  After a while though, if we’re lucky, we break down completely on that mountaintop.  The pain of living so far removed from everything without the oxygen of authentic love becomes more than we can bear.  So we start by giving ourselves what we need and pull the ability to love ourselves out of some forgotten corner of our being.  Our leg heals, maybe crooked, but its just enough to limp down off the mountain in order to seek out the mind (which left as soon as your leg cracked) for some well-deserved answers.  As you descend you realize you’ve been down this way before.

Following the trail of nonstop churning thought, you finally discover the mind digging through a dumpster in a dark alley.  It’s wearing a blue pinstripe suit and when you clear your throat to get its attention, it actually snarls at you.  It takes its sweet time climbing out of the dumpster, buttoning its overcoat and brushing garbage off its sleeves.  Pardon me, you say, I didn’t mean to disturb your ruminations there but this really isn’t working out for me.  I don’t wish to keep going through life facing certain situations with the false assumptions and reflexive actions of a five-year-old boy.

“So what do you want from me?” the mind says, snarling once again while lighting a cigarette.  Ha!  You always suspected the mind smoked.  You step back so the smoke doesn’t get in your lungs.  The mind should know that you do yoga, after all.

“What I want,” you say, “is a way to be my true self, a way to stop believing the lie that something is wrong with me.  A way to recognize my own Grace and let others recognize it as well.”

“Yeah, well, forget about it,” the mind says.  “You’re part of the family now and we love ya.”  A smoke heart emerges from the mind’s lips and even though you can’t stand the habit you have to admire the magician’s sheer skill.

The mind turns back to its dumpster (the words “concepts and beliefs” are tagged on the side in black spray paint) and for a moment you feel relieved. Just let it go, you say to yourself.  But instead of turning away to go back up the mountain, you surprise yourself and speak out in an even louder voice, a tone that scares the hell out of you.  And this time is different.  Not like the other times.  Just who IS this speaking from your lips?

“I’m not finished talking,” you exclaim.

The mind turns back, snarl bigger than ever.  But underneath that snarl there’s something that looks a lot like fear.

“Oh, you’re finished,” the mind says.  “Because the only way out of this family is the traditional way.  And you don’t have the guts to follow through with that.  So do yourself a favor and leave us alone.”

But you don’t leave and the mind doesn’t turn back to its garbage.  You are exercising focus and attention now, and the mind has nowhere else to go.

“Listen,” you say, moving closer.  Close enough to see that the shininess has worn off of the mind’s pinstripes a long time ago.  Close enough to smell the cigarette smoke.  Close enough to look inside the dumpster and gaze upon the heaped-up piles of sacred books and religious icons and plastic trophies and those blown-up high definition digital pictures of you at your very very VERY worst.  “Listen,” you say again.  “I want you to tell me now.  Just who do I have to murder to get out of this so-called family?”

The mind’s sneer turns into a cunning smile.  Without a word, it sucks a deep drag from its cigarette, a sort of mental pranayama, and then blows a perfectly-formed smoke dagger (how does it do that, anyway?) straight into your heart.
h3>The Emptiness of Time

klesha-mlah karmshayah drstadrsta-janma-vedanyah   Yoga Sutra 2.12
Root causes of suffering (klesha) are the motivating force for all action, depositing layered impressions seen and unseen until pain is no longer experienced as life’s motivation.

One Billion six-hundred million years ago there wassn’t so much free oxygen on this planet.  Life as we know it now did not really exist.  In this early cauldron of poisonous gasses and molten seismic activity known as the proterozoic era, a vast inland lake had formed in the region of Blacktail Canyon.  For tens or hundreds of millions of years the waters rose and silt piled up to be compressed into slate and shale.  But then a great event – a cataclysmic shifting of tectonic plates, a volcanic eruption, an upheaval of mountainous terrain — and the lake was obliterated.  Torrential rains came.  A massive flood churned at the base of new mountains even as tall peaks were melted into sand.  After a hundred million more years the land parted to reveal granite, the bedrock schists that would be named after Eastern gods in some impossibly distant future.  The land was low enough now to once again accumulate water and a great inland lake was formed.  Life blossomed on its shores as free oxygen began to permeate the atmosphere.  Untold millions of years passed as the waters began rising once again.  Perhaps the first flower bloomed its colors beneath a shallow burning sun.  And then a dam formation would break or a deep fissure would gape open and the lake would be slowly drained.  Soil accumulated over a hundred million more years pressing down into massive slab formations of sandstone and silt that would soon be swept away or churned to dust by a massive volcanic event vaporizing new rock in a torrential flow of lava.  New barriers to drainage cooled and once again water began to accumulate until the inexorable pressure of its immense volume burst through even the strongest restraints, draining land and rock once again down to bedrock.  Only to start the whole long process yet another time.

It is impossible to know how many times this dance of eruption and erosion took place in the span of over a billion years.  We do know that the rest of the canyon kept accumulating layer after layer of rock: Tapeats Sandstone, Bright Angel Shale, Muav Limestone, supergroups and Supai Groups and Coconino sandstone, all of it climbing and rising almost a mile over those deepest foundations of divinely anointed granite.

But here at Blacktail there were no layers.  No accumulations of sediment, no compressed silt or lime.  The water and land had engaged in some mysterious and secret agreement leaving not a trace of time.  And now here I was touching Vishnu Schist.  Here, looking like arteries of light, Marbled veins of quartz that had melted in some impossible pressurized cauldron had seeped perfectly into any cracks in the solidly immune black granite.  The end result of the lack of deposits was this:  There sitting on top of the Vishnu Schist, the black-oiled skin of God that was 1.6 billion years old, rested an impertinent towering layer of fleshy Tapeats Sandstone that was ‘only’ 550 million years old.  And if you placed your hand just right, you could bridge the gap between them with your fingers.  A billion years of perpetual activity without accumulation spanned between thumb and little finger.  Here in this place it was as if time had never happened.  Not a trace of all that action remained, a breaking of all rules of geographic depositing and the relentless accumulation of time.

You as Pain

klesha-karma-vipksayair aparmristah purusha-visesha shvarah    Yoga Sutra 1.24
God in you is free of Karma, untouched by painful motivations, resulting actions or its fruits.

The experiences that we accumulate in this body and life build up layer upon layer.  Strong thoughts linked to feeling solidify into concepts.  Concepts lived become experience.  Experience becomes another layer hardening into the cells and tissues of our body.  Repeated thoughts become hard as bone and just as solid.  The years that we call aging mark the passage of time and we point to these layers, saying that they are ‘mine’.

At rare moments, when the pain gets to be too much, we may think we are ready to let go of everything.  A huge flood sweeps our legs out from under us, turning everything in life upside down.  We cling to our layers and scream for deliverance, never realizing that the secret lies in letting go of even more.  When we do surrender it is rarely deep enough.  Just down to the tapeats sandstone.  Very rarely do we ever go back far enough to find the granite origin of our suffering.  Rarely do we go back to the bedrock of our affliction and use whatever means necessary to get to the root of our false identification that keeps us perpetually recreating habitual form.

Whatever Means Necessary

At the end of the war that surrounds the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata, the evil Kuru leader Duryodhana, representing the anger that rises from unfulfilled desire, lies dying on the battlefield.  He accuses Lord Krishna of helping the righteous Pandavas by counseling them to tell lies, commit treachery and act with dishonor.  And Duryodhana is correct!  The evil leader has his facts right.  Krishna indeed advises the Pandavas (sometimes to their own horror) to break just and honored codes and customs practiced through time immemorial so that the massively outnumbered Pandavas could triumph over the marauding Kuru forces.  The dying Duryodhana rails on, exclaiming that he has fought honorably and marshaled his forces in the best traditions of war only to be met with deceit and lies.

Duryodhana’s accusations to Krishna’s face seem to be powerful words, but Krishna’s response to Duryodhana’s judgment is even more profound…
“All that you shout,” Krishna says, “Is untrue…  No righteous man is entirely good.  No evil man is entirely bad.  I do not find pleasure in your suffering here today, but know that your defeat is a great joy.”

Here is a pointer to the freedom revealed by the Bhagavad Gita, revealed in the yoga sutra and displayed for all to see in the Great Unconformity resting on a bed of Vishnu granite so neatly  tucked away in Blacktail Canyon.

And there is one additional thing that Krishna says to Duryodhana.  It is a great clue, a hidden key to unlocking the mystery of time without a trace: As Duryodhana laments his mortal injuries and the trickery that was its cause, Krishna replies “Your only assassin is yourself.”

What did Krishna mean when he said Duryodhana’s accusations held no truth?
His answer is reflected within the Great Unconformity which ultimately holds no time.  For in Krishna, who is Vishnu, who is God Immortal, there is no one acting and no fruits to accumulate…

I have no work to do in all the worlds… for these worlds are already mine.  I have nothing to obtain, because I have all.  And yet I work…  Bhagavad Gita, 3.22

That one possesses a righteous spirit who discerns that there is no karma in action.  The wise call that one a sage whose works are pure from unfulfilled desire and whose attachments have been burned off by the insight of this truth: if one engages in an act while forgetting about its fruit, being already fully satisfied and in need of nothing, that one has become as I am and does not incur any karma at all. BG 4.18-22

Is Krishna lying when he tells Duryodhana his facts are not true?  No, he is telling the truth.  For he, Krishna in his physical form as a King in ancient India may have taken these actions, but the Spirit in him is not Krishna the King.  He is that Spirit beyond all actions, beyond opposites and beyond doing, untouched by the wheel of time and all creation…

All this visible universe comes from my invisible Being.  All beings have their rest in me, but I have not my rest in them.  And in truth they rest not in me: consider my sacred mystery.  I am the source of all beings.  I support them all but I rest not in them…
Thus through my nature I bring forth all creation, and this rolls around in the circles of time.  But I am not bound by this vast work of creation.  I am and I watch the drama of all works.>BG 9.4-9.5, 9.8-9.9.

Krishna’s Lie

The smoke dagger evaporates into the air.  The mind takes a final drag on its cigarette and throws it into the dumpster.  I watch the mind closely and notice its features are starting to change, subtly at first and then more prominently.  The face becoming younger and less shifty until I am taking in the expression of a five-year-old.  The boy stands utterly dazed before me, his head spinning at the prospect that there is something wrong with the way he looks.  The pinstripe suit hangs from his child’s frame in sagging torrents. Already the dumpster contents are smoldering, the first tongues of flame beginning to rise.   I don’t have the stomach for this, I say.  As if in answer, the child holds out his arms for me and I pick him up.  His skin feels like smooth black granite warmed by a midday sun.  His eyes so clear, as yet uncorrupted by the certainty that he is flawed, address me with such open questioning that I have to turn away.

His nose is perfect.  His face is divine.

I hold him to my heart and rock him from side to side as the flames burn brighter and higher.  I have held him like this before, squeezing so hard I was afraid I’d crush his bones.  Holding on so tightly that it became impossible to let him go.

I move with him toward the dumpster.

Dark smoke billows from the light of a thousand hungry flames.  Book-jackets crackle and sacred bindings singe as the rising inferno chars dumpster walls. Sheet metal pops and expands as I hold him up in the light.  He nods.  I kiss him one last time before I lay him in the fire.  The flames claim him at once.  There is a long and restful sigh.  A palpable wave of a death co,es over me.  Standing there beside the flames I have come to see the end of all things.  And I pray to know Krishna’s lie.

Be Still and Know

dhyna-heys tad-vrttayaha   Yoga Sutra 2.11
The outward influence of all suffering (kleshas) is resolved through meditative experience.

The moment is over.  The skin of God is just stone now.  But oh do I love this rock.

I move away from the Great Unconformity having really touched it now.  A knot of untruth seems to be unravelling within my lungs.  I am no longer that child, of course, but I am also no longer the adult clinging to accumulated pain.  Yes, sometimes it can seem hard to sacrifice pain for we’ve used it to know who we are… I know this but now I also know something else.  I know that I can bridge the gap between the present moment  and the time before I felt flawless in the span of a single breath.  I know there may be tremors still that echo up through time but I also know that their root is no longer viable.

We stay in Blacktail Canyon for another half hour.  I go to the water curtain trickling further up the slot and find a quiet place to sit.  Sandstone cliffs tower all around me framing a liquid sky far overhead, a calm mirror reflecting river’s flow.  White clouds adrift in a smooth blue current of time.

I close my eyes and let my breathing deepen.  It is very quiet here.  I enjoy the quiet alone.

Want to see more pictures of Jeff’s Grand Canyon River trip?  Click here.
Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga.  This story is inspired by an ancient parable.  All suggestions are voluntary.  Consult a qualified teacher, your heart  or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.
For more inspiring yoga essays click here…