Jake had an urgent need to stop the world. And he discovered, as all strivers do, that when the mind is still, our true nature begins to reveal itself. Out of stillness, like the early morning mist on the lake, emerges a thinking that is not thinking – a wisdom beyond thought. Out of stillness emerges, effortlessly, a subtle world of experience for which we had only longed until now. It is real. It rolls itself out in waves as we get still, quiet, concentrated, and settled.
~Stephen Cope, The Wisdom of Yoga (New York: Bantam Dell, 2007) at p.17.
I trust this email finds everyone well and enjoying the blessings of the holiday season.
I wanted to share with you a recent book that I have finished reading. It is Stephen Cope’s illuminating work, The Wisdom of Yoga. The quoted passage above introduces the reader to Jake (one of five main characters), a successful attorney who experiences a remarkable fall from grace and must begin the path of renewal in mind, body and spirit. The similarities between Jake’s trajectory and my own real-life past as a busy lawyer in private practice-turned-public government lawyer while not identical – are fascinating (speaking only for myself!).
Based on a true story, Cope provides the reader with a brief synopsis of Jake’s trajectory in the opening pages of his book. Jake finds himself at a pivotal point in his esteemed career when his managing partners blame him for suffering a serious financial loss due to an error that Jake made on a case the firm loses. Jake explains being in this meeting with his managing partners like this: “Sitting through that meeting was like being in a dream” and “Like being in an automobile accident. Everything happened in slow motion.” (p.11). Then, he says something quite epiphanous: “Something had to give. It was like I was an animal caught in a trap, and I knew I had to gnaw my own paw off in order to escape. What it happened, I felt strangely exhilarated.” (p.11)
I must profess, I too, felt much like Jake – the animal that is, gnawing incessantly at his paw to escape from the confines of the work life routine I had constructed for myself (and not which was imposed on me by edict, for example). Indeed, it was a desire to escape in the metaphorical sense from the prison that I had built with my mind and body. It was only when I realized what I done to my mind and body to arrive at a diagnosis of arrhythmia before the age of 30 that I knew something had to give; I felt compelled to turn my life around or I would have likely suffered a stroke or heart attack in my mid-30s.
For Jake, this moment of revelation motivates him to take a six-month leave of absence from his law firm to travel to the Kripalu Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he immerses himself in the woods during the summer months and emerges a fundamentally changed man. In this place of total synchronicity with his natural surroundings, Jake begins anew. He begins to walk the path of samvega.
In a similar way to Jake, the yoga retreat I attended this past November in Spain – where I found myself completely immersed in the stillness and natural beauty of nature – represents the beginning of my path of samvega.
What is samvega?
Cope very poetically captures how Jake’s revelation represented the beginning of his unravelling (some might even say his own self-deception); the beginning of his coming into samvega:
Samvega is a developmental state not mentioned in Western psychological texts. It brings with it a realization that objects of grasping (money, fine things, titles, fame, even people – when see as objects) cannot supply any true satisfaction. It involves a radical realization that all objects are intrinsically empty of the capacity to feed us in the way we really want – or need – to be fed. (p.14)
Samvega, as Cope writes, brings with it a hunger for “internal quiet.” He invokes the Sanskrit word nirodha translated as “stilling, cessation, restriction” or, in a phrase, “to stop the world”. As expressed in the opening quote at the top of this post, Jake is desirous to embrace the concept of nirodha. In his “new skin”, as it were, Jake begins his quest for authenticity – for healing, restoration, and personal enlightenment.
A commitment to stillness, to samvega
In my last post, I stated that I felt ready. Ready in body, mind and spirit for all that life has in store for me.
After reading Cope’s text, I could not help but connect this feeling of readiness to the essence of samvega. Indeed, as Cope points out, in some yogic texts, the word samvega is often translated as “vehemence” because it brings with it an unshakeable resolve to develop into a fully alive human being (p. 15).
As I embark on my first Teacher Training class in January, I think back to the image of a caged animal and realize the door has always been open for me to walk through to taste the vibrancy of authenticity, to experience the power of individual choice and freedom. I continue to reside in a spirit of thankfulness and gratitude to all those who have served as my mentors and guides in my journey to the present. I am told that Teacher Training will have a transformative effect on those who are open to receive the information that is transmitted to them. The key is to maintain an open mind, open heart, and above all, an attitude of non-judgment in the stillness of the present moment. I am committed more than ever to all of these things unconditionally.
I am drawn tonight in closing to the following poem by David Wagoner, quoted in Cope’s work as a beautiful expression of the yogic view that what we are searching for is also searching for us; and the way is to stop and let ourselves be found through stillness:
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
~ David Wagoner, Traveling Light (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999) at p. 10.
During this holiday season and beyond, may each of you find that which you seek in the wonder of stillness. May you be found by that which seeks you in stillness.
I wish you love, happiness and hope, always.
As a firm believer in the notion that what we seek also seeks us and as a fellow itchy-footed litigator I loved this post Alex. I am confident your Teacher Training will embrace you as you it on your journey to enlightenment.