This is Why We Practice
Originally published in Elephant Journal online as 5 Things I Learned when My House Burned Down
There will come a day, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day that you will have to stand in your sweaty running shorts watching helplessly as your house burns down. Thick black smoke billows to the sky, taking along with it the material trappings of your life. Your fancy Garmin watch beeps to remind you that you are no longer running, as you were just moments before. Just moments before, when you were enjoying the sunny September morning, filled with excitement and anticipation for your first day of yoga teacher training, thinking about what your were going to have for lunch, and then you turn the corner. You think, hmmm, that’s strange, why is there a dark cloud up ahead? As you get closer little bits of understanding fill in your consciousness, that’s not a cloud, that’s smoke. Wait, that smoke’s coming from my house. And then, it registers, Holy shit! My house is on fire!
There’s not a lot else that passes through your mind after that. You just kind of stand there, one hand propping up your elbow as the other hand covers your mouth and the side of your face. In yoga, we often talk about the “true Self” versus the material self. The true Self being Atman, your true nature, the god within you, and the small self all that other stuff you wear for the world as your identity. I’m a woman, a husband, a CEO, a fill in the blank. The Bhagavad-Gita, the classic text of yoga practice and Hindu tradition, is often described as an allegory of life, a life in which a very real internal battle is waged between these two selves, the lower self versus the higher Self. Perhaps your battlefield won’t involve watching your house burn down in your running shorts, but it will most certainly involve some life altering, earth shaking experiences.
In my moment of trauma I very clearly recognized my material self and my true self splitting in two. In our culture we sometimes refer to this as an “out of body” experience, but I think it’s much deeper than that. I could very clearly distinguish my two natures, the smaller worldly self versus the big guy, the divine Self. As these two identities pulled apart, each felt a very different reaction to the chaotic scene before me. My little self totally panicked, of course, as it so often does, immediately worrying about all my fancy pants and high tech kitchen appliances. But its whiny noise was totally drowned out by my divine nature. I’m happy to report my higher Self arrived in that moment and totally crushed it. As flames and smoke quickly destroyed all the things I purchased with money over the course of my entire earthly existence, my small self retreated like the coward that it is. I stood there in stillness with the fire trucks and the hoses and people running back and forth and other people asking if I was ok, and I was, I was actually ok. I was quite literally overcome by an unmistakable sense of peace. Doctors might call this “shock,” instead, I think it’s better to call it surrender. Surrender to this moment. Be present for your own undoing. Soak it in because really, how often do you get to watch as your house burns down? Om Namah Sivaya, indeed. That guy does not mess around.
Of course, after the smoke cleared, my little self arrived once again, drowning out the calm of my divine nature. My peace was replaced with a reminder of how inconvenient it is to have to inventory all your possessions, not to mention the supreme hassle of replacing all your shit. But I have to say, god, or however you want to refer to it in your belief system, stayed with me for quite a while that day and in the days that followed. With me while walking through the house with the firefighters, granting serenity when taking in the apocalyptic scene that had once been my living room. And then arriving in other forms, strangers, friends, family, co-workers. It’s been a month since my house burned down and now reflecting on the whole experience, I can’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude, gratitude for my practice, for my people, and for my crazy, brilliant, undeniably awesome life.
Here it is, five things I learned when my house burned down:
1) Prayer works.
Recently I had the great privilege to be a part of a Bhagavad-Gita discussion with Ravi Nathwani. He advised that prayer matters. If you feel you can’t change the world with your action, pray on it. I personally struggle with disbelief in the power of prayer. I mean, isn’t prayer just wishful thinking? It might make you feel better but does it actually make its way to the receiver? Does it actually doanything? Yes! Turns out that when a lot of people are praying for you, you can actually feel it. Seriously. I can’t really explain it in words, other than to say; it fills you with peace and strength, a kind of cosmic energy transfer. Call it prayer, loving kindness meditation, positive thinking, affirmations, good vibes, whatever, but I’m telling ya, it’s real. The energy embedded in the sincerity of your prayer, the love that fills your positive intention, it’s powerful stuff.
2) You have everything you need already, but a good bed makes you a better person.
Money can’t buy happiness, but let’s be real, it sure does help. Yes, spiritually speaking, I am whole no matter where I am or who I’m with or what I have, but I’m no monk. I like stuff. Caffeine, chocolate, booze, overly priced yoga clothes, scarves, the list goes on. I like having a computer and a fancy blender that pulverizes raw almonds in my morning smoothie. And I LOVE my bed. My husband and I purchased our bomb-tastic California King bed but six months to the day before it was destroyed in our recent fire and, aside from a sweet outfit at Target and some toiletries, it was the fist thing we repurchased after the event.
It makes us better people. I am more calm and kind and peaceful because I sleep in a mac-daddy bed. I know this is counter to all that I was saying before about the higher self and all that, but I just want to make it clear that we didn’t walk away from our material lives to live in a cave somewhere. We just re-bought a lot of the stuff that we regularly use. And while technically, we don’t need these things, it’s pretty tough to go from having a lot to having nothing and feeling comfortable. I am not about to sleep on the floor or wear someone else’s hand me downs for the long haul. So, it does feel like we need these things.
Fortunately, we have resources. We have a savings account and generous people in our lives that have sent us checks and gift cards and boxes of really nice clothes. Losing so much at one time allows you to evaluate your wealth, financial wealth, health wealth, and most of all your community wealth, the people in your life who show up for you. It’s a great gift. We are very lucky. Not to make light of our experience, but in just a few short days we had more stuff in our house than probably 80% of the world population. And now a month later, we have way more than two people really need, the only clue to our recent loss in the emptiness of our wall space. Which is kind of fun because now we have room to put up new art.
3) Human nature is compassion.
There’s been a long drawn out debate in the history of civilization concerning the make-up of human nature. Are we survivalist animals? Will we destroy someone else for our own gain? Or are we something else entirely? Hume called it, “fellow-feeling,” empathy for others. I know that we do some pretty terrible stuff to each other for our own personal gain, but I’ve always believed that there was something more compelling about the human story. That in fact, all the ruinous, destructive behavior has been learned in our culture and at the core of our being, our most basic instinct is love. There’s the argument for the other way around, of course, that we are savages who have learned how to love, but I think we are all just lovers who’ve learned how to be afraid. We’ve learned how to fight.
It’s like this, when buildings blow up and bombs go off, it’s not as if people stand around contemplating whether or not they should run into burning buildings, that’s their first reaction. We run into danger to save the life of another, that’s our story. And when we hear of someone’s suffering, we are compelled to act. The greatest gift of your house burning down is recognizing that people arrive to you with their best self, their true nature. Their instinct is to reach out to you. I know this because it wasn’t just my close friends who sent cards or clothes or whatever, but people I had never even met. People who I didn’t have a close relationship with who, as far as material possessions go, have way less than I do giving me a gently worn sweatshirt or coffee mug. Compassion is not something we learn in our culture, it’s what we are. It is pretty overwhelming to be on the receiving end of that kind of lesson. It is a lesson far more precious than any cashmere sweater.
4) GET RENTER’S INSURANCE!
Seriously, it’s like $20 a month. If you don’t have it, get it…now. Stop reading this article right now and get some personal property insurance. Trust me!
5) This is why we practice.
All the pranayama and the savasana and the arm balances, it’s all just preparing you for this. We practice for the day our house burns down. We practice because deep down we know that our house is already burning down anyway. We know that life is impermanence. Change is inevitable. One day your physical body will die. We practice to surrender to this truth. Fire or no fire, my favorite pair of sweats would not be around in five years no matter how hard I clung to them.
While it’s jarring and pretty emotional to watch it all go up at once, it’s also kind of wild, inspiring, liberating. I have had my moments of tears and feeling totally ungrounded, but within all the mess of that, I know who I am without all my stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I reallylike all my stuff, but everyday I show up on my mat and I practice being empty. Yoga practice provides a space to get familiar with the Self. The same Self that occupies the space between galaxies, that bridges political and religions divides, that spans through time. The Self that knows no boundaries. The Self that is whole in nothingness. All the sun salutations and meditation, it’s all just preparing you for this moment. On that day when our house is burning down, when we are called on to surrender, we don’t cling. We let go.