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FTWMI: How Do You Respond? September 14, 2022

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Changing Perspectives, Japa-Ajapa, Life, Philosophy, Science, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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For Those Who Missed It: The following was originally posted in 2020. This slight revision includes updated class details and music links,  plus a link to my “9 Days” series.

“According to Yoga philosophy, the causes of our thought patterns have a much deeper source than we normally realize. Our inner world is propelled by our habits, which in turn govern and determine the nature of our emotions, thoughts, speech, and actions. Our habits form our personality. They have a powerful influence on our unconscious behavior, as well as on our conscious decisions.”

– commentary on Yoga Sūtra 1.12 from The Secret of the Yoga Sutra: Samadhi Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Habits: The things we do repeatedly, routinely, sometimes without thought or consideration. There are habits we label as “good” and others we label as “bad” – and then there are the ones that just are. There are habits we cultivate and others we may attempt to break. Even as people talk about all the different external factors to cultivating or breaking a habit – like how many days it takes (20, 30, or 40) and what life hacks enable them (like leaving your running shoes by the door, pre-packing your gym bag, or setting your phone to shut down media after a certain time) – habits, like all muscle memory, are ultimately mental exercises.

Even though we may not think very much about certain habits, they are happening because of what’s going on inside of our brains. We do something for the first time and a neural pathway is formed. We repeat the behavior enough times and the pathway is hardwired. Suddenly we feel compelled to do something or we think “it’s just what I/we do.” Even sometimes when the behavior is detrimental, harmful, to ourselves and others; we may not give it a second thought. In the Yoga Philosophy, such deeply ingrained or embedded habits (regardless of if we consider them “good” or “bad”) are considered vāsanās (“dwelling places”), which are based on samskaras (“mental impressions”). While such habits can feel instinctual, they are in fact conditioned.

“It is not accidental that all phenomena of human life are dominated by the search for daily bread – the oldest link connecting all living things, man included, with the surrounding nature.”

 – quoted from the Dec. 12, 1904 Nobel Lecture “Physiology of Digestion” by Dr. Ivan Pavlov, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

For most of his life, Dr. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov celebrated his birthday today, September 14th. It was his habit. Born in Ryazan in 1849, he would be 68 when the Russian Empire switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar (at which point his date of birth would be recognized as September 26th). Imagine if you had lived 68 years, doing things with a certain reference point in mind and then, suddenly, that reference point changed. Now, I can’t say for sure that it phased the Nobel laureate one way or the other – I don’t even know how (or if) he celebrated his birthday. What I do know is that Dr. Pavlov knew a thing or two about habits.

The oldest of 11, and known as a curious and active child, Ivan Pavlov started school late because of an accident. He went to theological seminary for a bit, but his curiosity ultimately led him to the university at St. Petersburg and the field of medical research. He won several awards throughout his career, including the 1904 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine “in recognition of his work on the physiology of digestion, through which knowledge on vital aspects of the subject has been transformed and enlarged.” The Nobel Committee’s description of why Dr. Pavlov won was in part a nod to the fact that he had been nominated four years in a row (starting in 1901). His ultimate win, however, was the direct result of experiments exploring the gastric function of dogs (and children).

Dr. Pavlov first noted that dogs started salivating before their food was actually delivered. He initially called the physiological anticipation, “psychic secretion,” but eventually his reflex system work would be viewed within the paradigm of classical conditioning, respondent conditioning, or Pavlovian conditioning. He was one of the first scientists to associate behavioral responses to environmental stimuli, and his research has been extended into various aspects of psychology, behavior modification therapy, and learning theory. Literally right up until his death, he hosted “Wednesday meetings,” where he discussed everything from physiology and psychology to his views on the treatment of animals by research scientists. While other scientists routinely cited him and his work, Dr. Pavlov has also been immortalized by fiction writers like Aldus Huxley, Anthony Burgess, and Thomas Pynchon. In fact, his work was so instrumental in our understanding of the mind-body connection that people who have never studied medical physiology are aware of “the Pavlovian response.

“When the dog is repeatedly teased with the sight of objects inducing salivary secretion from a distance, the reaction of the salivary glands grows weaker and weaker and finally drops to zero. The shorter the intervals between repeated stimulations the quicker the reaction reaches zero, and vice versa. These rules apply fully only when the conditions of the experiment are kept unchanged…. These relations also explain the real meaning of the above-mentioned identity of experimental conditions; every detail of the surrounding objects appears to be a new stimulus. If a certain stimulus has lost its influence, it can recover the latter only after a long resting that has to last several hours.

The lost action, however, can also be restored with certainty at any time by special measures.”

– quoted from the Dec. 12, 1904 Nobel Lecture “Physiology of Digestion” by Dr. Ivan Pavlov, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

While Ivan Pavlov and the Pavlovian response are often associated with the ringing of a bell, his written records indicate a plethora of external stimuli, including visual stimuli. Ultimately, he explains that what is most important is that the conditions are controlled and that the test subjects had control of their faculties. In fact, he used the global platform of his Nobel lecture to state, categorically, “Our success was mainly due to the fact that we stimulated the nerves of animals that easily stood on their own feet and were not subjected to any painful stimulus either during or immediately before stimulation of their nerves.” On another occasion, Dr. Pavlov encouraged scientists to be curious and not “a mere recorder of facts.” His lessons and research run parallel to the elements of practice which Patanjali described thousands of years before as being a method of controlling the activities of the mind, including the mental impressions known as samskaras and those deeply embedded habits known as vāsanās.

Take a moment to consider what habits you’ve have been developing that you we may or may not have intended to cultivate

“abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tat nirodhaḥ” (YS 1.12)

abhyāsa                  Practice over a long period/without interruption

vairāgyābhyāṁ  Non-attachment, without attraction or aversion

tat                             Those (referring to the “fluctuations of the mind” as described in previous sutras)

nirodhaḥ                Ceases, controls, quiets, stills, regulates, masters

Please join me today (Wednesday, September 14th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom, where we will consider the process of forming (and changing) habits. 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. 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. [Look for “09042021 Experiencing the Mind”]

Check out my “9 Days” series for an ongoing exploration of intentionally cultivating habits.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, playlists, 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 to Common Ground are tax deductible; class purchases and donations directly to me are not necessarily deductible.)

### “NEVER GIVE UP / ALWAYS LET GO” (Swami J) ###

Revisiting “The Other Plan B” (the “missing” Tuesday post) September 14, 2022

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Art, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Life, Movies, Philosophy, Science, Wisdom, Women, Yoga.
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The following “missing” post for Tuesday, September 13th contains some information previously posted in two 2020 posts. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

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.

Check out the “Class Schedules” calendar for upcoming classes.]

“David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart….”

 

– quoted from 1 Samuel – The Old Testament (17:32 NIV)

Today, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s not the story I used to tell on September 13th, back when we were doing all of this in person. This is a story I started telling in 2020. It’s the story about what you do when things don’t go according to plan – or, you find out things will work just as you planned, but that that’s not the way you want things to work out. Have you had days like that?

Every once in a while it happens. I start off the day, working on a plan, and something in me says, “No, not that today.” So, I go to Plan B – and sometimes I get really into it, get really excited about it, and then something in me will say, “Naw, I don’t think so.” So, I either go back to the drawing board or… I fight it. Yes, it’s true; sometimes I don’t listen to that “still quiet voice.” Sometimes I think the big capital “I” (which is my ego) knows better than whatever is moving around in my heart. Sometimes, I get halfway through the day, or all the way to the end of the day, and think, “Oh, maybe that’s why I should have paid more attention and been more present.”

There are, however, times when I absolutely am open to the Spirit and open to the moment. There are times when I let go of my frustration at things not going the way I planned and I breathe…. That’s it. I take a breath and open to the moment. I still have a plan. In fact, it’s the best of all plans, That Other Plan B: Breathe – keep breathing; be open to the present; believe and be aware of “what it is you have to offer.” 

Today, I offer you a story about David. It’s actually two stories… about the same David – even though it is simultaneously the same story about two different Davids… with a little side note about two additional Davids. (You might especially appreciate that “confusing” statement if you were around for this past Saturday’s practice, but that’s a whole other story.) To clarify today’s offering(s), the first story and the first David is the one from the Bible, specifically the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. You remember that David?

People love the story of that David, because it is the story of the underdog. When faced with the towering figure of Goliath, David used his inner resources. He drew from the experience he had as a shepherd (rather than being preoccupied by the experience he didn’t have as a soldier). He focused on what he could do (not on what he was “trying” to do). His inner strength, courage, and wisdom were what he took into his reign as king. Yes, King David made mistakes – he was human; but his legacy is firmly established by the story of his victory against Goliath, his son Solomon (who is considered the ruler with the wisest heart in the history of the world), and the statue by Michelangelo.

This brings me to the “second” David and the second story: the story of Michelangelo’s David.

You may already be familiar with the basic premise of the story: On September 13, 1501, a 26-year old artist named Michelangelo was commissioned to create a statue of the legendary David. That marble statue, unveiled in Florence, Italy on September 8, 1504, continues to captivate people to this very day. At various times throughout history, it has represented the epitome of the male form. It established Michelangelo as an artistic powerhouse, a giant in the art world. People started calling him “Il Divino” (“the divine one”). They praised, and even envied, his terribilitá – his ability to provoke intense emotion through his work. 

But, Michelangelo was not the original sculptor. In fact, when the piece was first commissioned by the Overseers of the Office of Works of the Florence Cathedral (the Operai), it was part of a series of large Old Testament statues intended for the Florence Cathedral. And, at that time, in the early 1400s, Michelangelo wasn’t even on the short list of those being considered. Granted, the main reason he wasn’t on the list was because he hadn’t been born yet, but that’s beside the point. The point being that Michelangelo, like David, wasn’t Plan A or Plan B.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

 

– Michelangelo

In 1408, at the same time that Nanni di Banco was commissioned to carve a marble statue of the prophet Isaiah, Donatello was commissioned to sculpt a marble statue of David. Both statues ended up abandoned in the workshop for about seven years. In 1410, Donatello made a statue of Joshua (an assistant to Moses) and may have been Agostino di Duccio’s mentor when the latter was commissioned, in 1463, to create Hercules. (Hercules is an odd choice for the series, yes, but there he is.) Donatello’s Joshua and Agostino’s Hercules were terracotta – and Donatello would create a statue of Saint John the Evangelist shortly after those terracotta pieces were finished. 

In between all that, around 1416, Donatello was asked to make some changes to his David – perhaps to make it more “generic” – and that altered David was placed at the Palazzo della Signoria, on top of an engraved pedestal. This clothed version of David is not, however, the primary David (statue) of today’s story. (Neither is it Donatello’s most famous depiction of David; the mostly-nude bronze he created in the 1440s, which was initially placed in the Palazzo Medici). 

“Pro patria fortiter dimicantibus etiam adversus terribilissimos hostes Deus praestant victoria”

[Latin for “God provides victory for the country fighting strongly even against the most terrible enemy.”]

 

– Possibly the original (1416) engraving on the pedestal of Donatello’s marble statue of David (which currently reads “Pro patria fortiter dimicantibus etiam adversus terribilissimos hostes dii praestant auxilium”*)

 

In 1464, Agostino accepted the commission for the second marble statue of David. The idea was to create the statue from several blocks of marble. However, in 1465, Agostino found a large block of marble in the Fantiscritti quarry in northern Tuscany and had that transported – by sea and river – to Florence. He didn’t get much done – just blocked out the shape of the legs, feet, torso, and some drapery – before Donatello’s death in December of 1466. At that point, Agostino lost the commission and yet another artist (possibly Antonio Gamberelli, a. k. a. Antonio Rossellino) was commissioned to finish the statue in 1476. However, it doesn’t seem like this second artist got very far. The marble, that may or may not have even had a gap to distinguish the two legs, was left abandoned, exposed to the elements for 26 years.

So much for Plans A and B.

Of course, that hunk of “badly blocked out” marble was expensive (and represented the additional expense and effort of its acquisition). So, in 1501, the Operai started looking for a master artist – someone with experience – to take on what they referred to as “Il Gigante” (“The Giant”). 

Yes, it is kind of ironic that the unfinished statue of the biblical underdog who took  on “the Giant” was referred to by officials of the Church as “The Giant.” Perhaps it is most fitting, then, that while several artistic giants, like Leonardo da Vinci, were considered; they did not receive the final commission. Instead, the commission went to the artistic equivalent of the underdog, a young Michelangelo.

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

 

– Michelangelo

Consider what it would be like to be 26-year old Michelangelo, staring at a chunk of marble. To the outside observer, it is nothing. But he sees inside. Seeing inside takes effort and may be harder for some than for others, but the artist who is literate in their craft may not think much about the process: They just do what they do. 

To someone who is not an artist, the artistic process may seem magical and impossible. If a non-artist were to undertake such a task, without knowing what to look for and what steps to take, the process would be frustrating. The final effort might even be embarrassing. That’s not to say that one of us non-artists couldn’t do it, it just means that we would require more steps, maybe more training and more practice.

As neuroscientists Dr. Beau Lotto pointed out in a 2017 Big Think video entitled, “The Neuroscience of Creativity, Perception, and Confirmation Bias,” we all have “a space of possibility” that, based on our history and experiences, establishes our logical next steps. Ergo, what the artist does can be very similar to you reading this post (or even me writing this post). Yes, it takes effort and energy; however, if you are a literate adult – who learned how to read as a child and doesn’t have a reading impairment – you don’t think back to the struggle of the learning process every time you read or write. Even though the yoga philosophy defines this exchange of words and meaning as one of the “powers unique to being human,” we don’t always think of our ability to communicate as anything more than a tool. It’s simply part of our landscape… like the rocks on the ground before David picked them up. Or, like the hunk of marble before Michelangelo got to it.  

Post Script: I didn’t love the way I wrapped up the 2022 Noon practice. Serendipitously, just before the evening practice started, some of us had a conversation about the movie Hidden Figures and it made me think of the acceptance speech Taraji P. Henson gave when the cast won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast (or Ensemble) in a Motion Picture. Her opening words (“Steady yourself heart; talk to me God; listen…”) could be the words anyone says before undertaking a big task. But, what she says about the women at the center of the movie – Catherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson – the giants on whose shoulders the cast stood, perfectly described the mindset of underdogs like David and Michelangelo:

“They didn’t complain. They focused on the solutions.”

 

– quoted from Taraji P. Henson’s speech during the 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, January 29, 2017 

Tuesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “09132020 What Is Inside, II”]

 

*NOTE: According to some historians, the current pedestal engraving for Donatello’s marble David is not the original and may have been changed for political/religious reasons. Interestingly, the most common English translation – “To those who fight heroically for the fatherland (or motherland) the gods provide help even against the most terrible foes” – may obfuscate an error (in the Latin) made by someone in the 16th century.

 

This past Thursday (September 8th) was the anniversary of the unveiling of Michelangelo’s David and it was also International Literacy Day. For the approximately 775 million people worldwide who are functionally illiterate and lack the basic reading and writing skills to manage daily living and employment tasks, my blog posts can be like Goliath. (I know, I know: Even when you are literate, these blog posts can be like Goliath – but, if you are literate, you are David and you have what it takes to conquer!) To read more about why International Literacy Day is important, you can click here and scroll to the end of my original “David” post or go directly to the official United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) International Literacy page.

### DREAM. BREATHE. DREAM. BREATHE. ###