No-Thing to be Thankful For

by Jeff Martens

The water was loud enough to drown out shouted conversation.  Rain poured from the night sky and flooded through the ceiling of the large studio in a waterfall larger than any monsoon had a right to deposit.  A half hour later we found that, in addition to the torrential storm, one of the main fire sprinkler lines had broken.  In those first moments after the roof collapsed, little islands of insulation, ceiling tiles and foam blocks drifted into makeshift dams forming a shallow pond ankle deep and rising, building up at the studio doors.  I stood in the back doorway looking at what remained of our largest yoga room and was stunned by the force of the change that had just occurred.

Stepping into the room I was instantly drenched as I shifted debris away from the open doors to clear an escape path for the continuous downpour of water.  My partners were in the front of the yoga studio doing the same until water rushed out all four doors in a constant river.  I looked at the destruction and felt like weeping.  Wires and speakers and truss beams hung from the ceiling.  Jagged ribbons of lightning arced over the pond behind our yoga studio.  The lights began to flash and I felt a little tingle of warning: Get Out.  And then in the dim and pulse of the failing lights, my eyes were drawn to the front of the studio at the statue of Shiva Nataraj.  I had brought that statue in for a Tantra class a few weeks earlier, and now here Shiva was, in the midst of all the accumulating destruction, dancing.  Water and trashed ceiling welled around his base, lights flashed and Shiva danced in his ring of fire.  It was a defining moment so strange in its power and calmness.  I didn’t realize until later that night what that dancing statue was saying to me.  And how that message still has the raw power to snap some perspective into my life, if and when I let it.

***
vitarka-badhane pratipaksha-bhavanam   YS 2.33

vitarka = negative analysis/negative thought/negative emotion; opposing belief
badhane = repelling, in suspending
pratipaksha = opposites/contrary
bhavanam = realizing/becoming/feeling/cultivating

“Disturbing thought forms are suspended by realizing their opposites.”
“Suspending resistance brings the realization of peace.”

Rengetsu-nNi was a Buddhist nun in the 1800s.  Her name means “Lotus-Moon.”  One crisp evening in early spring she entered a village traveling alone.  A festival was going on and there were no extra rooms available for her to find rest.  As she enquired house to house in the village, doors were closed.  Because she was a Buddhist nun, an untraditional path for a woman in this part of Japan, no one would offer her a place to stay.  Finally, shivering from the cold, Rengetsu-ni walked to an open field outside the village and took shelter under a lone cherry tree.  There she looked up at the full moon through the branches and saw a most beautiful site – the cherry blossoms were opening early.  She sat still and looked, breathing in the scent of fresh blossoms.  Her clouded breath must have risen up to the moon.  And then Rengetsu-ni felt such a stirring of deep appreciation that she stood and bowed in the direction of the village and offered a blessing.  If she had been offered a place to stay in the village, she would have missed this most wondrous of sights.

***

I walked around to the front of the studio.  The fire department was called.  We set about the long task of moving things out of the water and trying to salvage whatever had not been made wet by rain or city water.  And the message, the whisper of Shiva’s dance began to settle deeply into my awareness.  It was as if I could hear the eternal cosmic music He was dancing to, and with this music there came a joy and lightness, a peaceful acceptance and even a playfulness that rose into my being.  I was able to smile and even joke a little as we worked together in those moments that are magical when action is required and not much thought is necessary.  And the virtual form of Shiva’s dance, the visual echo of Shiva Nataraj which is the true and highest embodiment of Tantra seemed to be with me wherever I looked the same way a lightning flash is frozen in time long after the eyelids are closed.  I could feel a part of myself dancing and even rejoicing, and as the whisper of Shiva’s dance became clearer and the silent melody became more sweet and beautiful, I actually began to laugh.

“A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return.”  — Bhagavad Gita 17.20

Perhaps God or the universe or “No-Thing” or whatever you want to call THAT is the only “One” that can give perfectly.  And this giving is going on forever and ever beyond the petty analysis and judgments of our minds that lump life into piles of good moments and bad.  And in those magical hours when the rain fell indoors in a place that had been beautiful and sacred and perfectly imperfect to me, I felt as if the water were flowing through me as well.  Cleansing me of all attachments not only to the physical aspects of our yoga studio, but also (and perhaps more significantly) to my mental attachments as well.  And I could see the truth then and hear it so clearly, freed from the weight of my clinging judgments of events that were taking place so powerfully and, yes, so beautifully around me.  And the drumbeat of Shiva’s dance went something like this:
Yoga studio goes up, yoga studio comes down…  Yoga studio goes back up, yoga studio comes back down…
And I could feel it, I could feel the stomp and rhythm of that dance not only with our yoga studio but also within the lives of the people that I loved and cared about that were moving all around me.  It was as if I could feel it from the sky and see it in distant mountains that rise and fall over eons.  And throughout that evening when the rain was falling indoors I stole quiet moments to be by myself in the midst of that glorious messy chaos, to be alone with the pulse of that Divine eternal dance beating deep inside my very temporary chest.

I have forgotten that feeling many times since the yoga studio roof collapsed, more often than I care to admit.  And the feeling of sadness at forgetting such a thing, such a tremendous gift that is truly beyond words, is so painful that it brings me to tears as I write these words.  I forgot this gift as we talked to lawyers about our studio and I forget it sometimes as we plan our return to full capacity.  As I become lost in my own selfish frustrations or judgments of the process or of others, I forget the rhythm of Shiva’s dance.  At times dealing with the landlord or insurance companies I still forget it.  But even with this forgetting Shiva is dancing and smiling as emotions rise and fall, and all that is necessary is a remembering and then there is a being that takes place, a presence where things just happen and then I am free as actions rise and fall, like waves on a boundless ocean.  And then the forgetting becomes temporary, just like everything else.

***

vitarka-badhane pratipaksha-bhavanam   YS 2.33
“Suspending resistance brings the realization of peace.”
Since that flood, in the times alone when I have remembered Shiva’s dancing rhythm, I have come to know that thankfulness isn’t something you “do”.  It’s not something you force or cultivate.  It’s something that happens to you fully when your heart is present and your eyes are open and your feet are on the ground.  And like all sacred experiences, true gratitude makes you simpler and chooses you rather than the other way around.  And this glorious realization of simplicity within our apparent experiences of chaos is Creation’s way of making it possible for us to dream and dance and taste a world that is far too gracious for us to experience fully for even a single fleeting moment with the force of mind alone.

Each second all kinds of memories and perceptions of what was, what could have been, and what might have become, come charging into our heads.  These waves can carry the debris of pain, regret and loneliness.  If we are not thankful, meaning if we are not present, this is our past and it is also our future, one not arrived yet but still perceptible like the sound of an approaching wave before it swallows us whole and collapses in on itself.  And the trick, Shiva Nataraj whispers, is to not resist that crashing wave.  In that moment when the wave is falling, to just notice it, to feel it and fully observe.

If we indulge in the wave by running away, or if we attack the wave without letting it run its course, suddenly the lights are flashing, the sky is falling and everything looks like its over.  We become lost in the time-based current of a sorrow and loss swirling quickly around our ankles and rising swiftly towards our knees.  But if we stay present enough to cut off that motion towards the past and just remain in the wave’s path without resistance, that’s when the full moon comes out and the cherry blossoms begin to open.  There is a feeling and an experience of wonder that quivers and reveals itself like a secret Lover in this temporary eternal world that is forever dancing all around us.  And as we remain present the current event is no longer a trap door to the past but a direct link to the Now.  It is truly a staggering and mighty thing how quickly our perception of reality and life itself can flip from an experience of the past to an experience of freedom.

And with this choice to stay present — for it is a choice, perhaps the only one we can truly make — we discover a ground-breaking and simple truth: the opposite of the past is not the future, it is freedom.  And thankfulness is the raft that carries us Here by the Grace of the Divine One that dances inside all of us.  This is the One who is dancing here and dancing there and dancing deep inside each heart as “No-Thing” the perfect giver, dancing everywhere at once and nowhere at all.

Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga.  All suggestions are voluntary.  Consult a qualified teacher, your heart  or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar, including dancing with Shiva.