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A Song or 2 For You (the “missing” post) December 2, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Buddhism, Hope, Love, Meditation, Music, Philosophy, Suffering, Vipassana, Yoga.
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“The timing of the electrical failure seemed dramatic and perfectly correct, as if the lights had said, “You have no need for sight. Listen.”

– quoted from Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

There was a time, not too long ago really, when I felt like I had a certain amount of control over how I began a practice and, therefore, how I told the story that was the class. Sometimes, in part because of my history in technical theatre, I relished days like today when I could combine my thirst for the practice with my love of literature and of the performing arts. I relished creating a dramatic moment when some of my favorite things converged and collapsed into one moment. But, alas, things change and in rolling with the punches I am reminded of the original intention of the story. No matter the drama, it was always about love and the practice (and love of the practice).

In Yoga and in Buddhism, there are techniques that became so popular they are now seen as styles or traditions. There are people, in both cases, who practice the technique as if it is the whole practice. The classic example in Yoga is vinyasā – which literally means “to place in a special way” and involves sequencing poses that exaggerate the body’s natural tendencies (to expand on the inhale and flex on the exhale). In Buddhism, the classic example is vipassanā – which literally means “to see in a special way” and involves paying attention to the way the body responds to the breath (see above). Notice the common root in the Sanskrit words? Notice also the connection to the breath and the body?

There is more these two things have in common, but the most common thing may be people’s habit of translating them into English words that (sometimes) barely hint at their original meaning. So, vinyasā becomes “flow” and vipassanā becomes “insight.” The English words are true, but also make it easy to miss the point and also to miss two key elements of both practices: breath and sense withdrawal.

“She sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.”

– quoted from Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Imagine singing as if you were saving lives; imagine the breath awareness and control that would take. When they hear the words bel canto, many people outside of classical music think of the novel written by Ann Patchett, who was born today in 1963. The novel is based on the 1996 – 1997 hostage crisis that took place at the Japanese Embassy in Lima Peru (Dec 17th – April 22nd). It details the interactions of the terrorists and their hostages – including a world renowned opera singer. Opera and music are central themes throughout the novel, which is named for the Italian term for “beautiful singing” or “beautiful song.” The thing is; bel canto, like vinyasā and vipassanā, is a technique that became known as a style – and it requires control (and awareness) of the breath.

At one time, “bel canto” was just a term applied to beautiful singing – much like some of the music on today’s playlist – but specifically beautiful Italian singing. During the later 18th and early 19th century, however, people started using it in reference to a very specific type of Italian singing, which emphasized even tone; legato (“tied together” or long) phrasing deliberately juxtaposed to staccato (“detached” or short) phrasing – which sometimes also involved dramatic tempo changes; and vibrato (“vibrating” or pulsating). There was also an emphasis on emphasis (or accent) and how emotion was being conveyed. The technique was sometimes applied (and understood) outside of Italian music, but often with less drama attached to it.

“Love was action. It came to you. It was not a choice.”

– quoted from Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

By the end of the 19th century, people were using the term “bel canto” to specifically distinguish a certain style of opera and classical music (mostly associated with Italian and French composers) from operatic and classical music that was described as “weightier, more powerful… speech-inflicted” (and mostly associated with German composers). Similarly, as we moved into the middle and late 20th century, people started using the term “vinyasā” – and even “vipassanā” – to distinguish one type of practice from other traditional styles of practice.

In the parallels I am drawing, one of the things to note is what gets lost in translation. Sometimes, without awareness of why we move the way we move in vinyasā, people just think it’s about putting poses together and moving as swiftly as one can. In fact, there are people who are drawn to that type of practice for the very same reason it turns some people off. Similarly, some people say that they “only practice vipassanā” as a way to distance themselves from Buddhism (or their understanding of cultural Buddhism). The things is, as I see it, the point of these techniques was to go deeper into the overall practice – and the minute you distance yourself from the intention of the practice is the minute you start spiraling into the “hear be dragons” part of the experience. Sure, it is cool to explore what is considered unchartered territory, but it must always be done (to paraphrase J. R. R. Tolkien) with awareness of the dragons / dangers.

“‘Most of the time, we’re loved for what we can do rather than for who we are. It’s not such a bad thing, being loved for what you can do.’
‘But the other is better,’ Gen said.
Roxane pulled her feet into the chair and hugged her knees to her chest. ‘Better. I hate to say better, but it is. If someone loves you for what you can do then it’s flattering, but why do you love them? If someone loves you for who you are then they have to know you, which means you have to know them.’”

– Roxanne Cross (the soprano) and Gen Watanabe (the translator) in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

One of the “dangers” of being in close quarters for long periods of time, as people were during the hostage crisis and in the novel (and as we are now), is that people’s best and worst qualities get exaggerated. It becomes harder, sometimes impossible, to avoid conflict and other times it becomes harder (sometimes impossible) to ignore someone’s bad behavior. Similarly, however, we are confronted with people’s good behavior and the heart of people – if we’re paying attention and if we are open to that possibility. Certain situations are opportunities for more trauma and drama – as we have seen during the pandemic. These same situations are opportunities for forgiveness and healing. But because the lines get blurred with such close proximity, it can all happen at the same time and with the same people. And, I find, that these are the times when we need to withdraw a bit.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “But where would I go? Where can I go when everything is closed and winter is upon us?” Well, I’m glad you asked.

Some people escape inside of books, some inside of music or movies, and some inside of themselves (through practices like meditation, prayer, yoga, Tai Chi, or Qigong). The idea here is not to escape as if you are running away from home. The idea is to take a moment to turn inward, reflect, and remind yourself of what is in your heart. It’s also a way to remind yourself of what you value and of your guiding principles. Sure, it is harder to do these things during the pandemic. However, it’s harder to do these things if you are in prison or in the middle of a hostage situation – and yet, people do!

I mentioned earlier that sense withdrawal is one of the key elements shared by vinyasā and vipassanā. In the Yoga Philosophy, pratyāhāra (“withdrawing the senses”) is the fifth limb of the practice. Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati, of the Himalayan tradition, explains that placement in the philosophy by writing that “The willingness or unwillingness to withdraw attention from sensory experience is a significant dividing line between those who experience true meditation and those who experience only physical relaxation.” In other words, in order to focus, concentrate, and meditate in a single point – to the point that we are completely absorbed into (and merged with) the object our focus – we must let go of everything else.

Pratyāhāra is not, as some people believe, forcefully ignoring something or someone. Instead, this is a gentle releasing of awareness. It is something we already do unconsciously or subconsciously when we are really invested in a project or a person. In those times, we may really enjoy the experience. On the flip side, sometimes, the letting go is neither gentle nor peaceful. Sometimes, it is unexpected and jarring and creates a great deal of stress and strain. On a certain level, over the last few months, we’ve all experienced both kinds of letting go. The question becomes, how have you perceived it (the letting go) and what have you received in turn?

“It was too much work to remember things you might not have again, and so one by one they opened up their hands and let them go.”

– quoted from Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Please join me today (Wednesday, December 2nd) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below or by emailing myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.)

“But together they moved through the world quite easily, two small halves of courage making a brave whole.”

– quoted from Bel Canto by Ann Patchett



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