There is a wonderful scene in How Yoga Works where a young prisoner falsely accused of stealing is teaching her captor the practice and lessons of yoga. She picks up a reed pen and asks him what it is.
“A pen,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“No,” she says, and asks again.
Again: “A pen.”
Over and over again they do this until the lesson finally peaks here.
The explanation is this: The reed is a pen to a human but presented to a cow it would be viewed as something to eat.
The examples are endless. To an adult a gun is a weapon but to a child it is a toy. To some a dumpster is a place to get rid of things and to others it’s a place to collect. A terminal illness is a blessing or a curse. And so on.
Objects are what they are based on the assumptions we place on them, which are influenced by our own personal history, socioeconomic status, geography, etc. Seeing an object as what it actually is requires serious practice in not muddling it with our pre-conceived notions. In yoga it’s called “seeing the object-as-such” and is discussed in Sutra 1.7.
Correct perception is made up of direct perception, inference, and valid testimony.
An object-as-such, as Gregor Maehle explains in his interpretation of the sutras in Ashtanga Yoga Practice & Philosophy, means seeing an object as it truly is without the mind projecting onto it. This is incredibly hard to do.
When we pull it off, though, it can be pretty life changing.
The scene continues (and this is a direct quote now):
“Is this a pen or is it something to eat?” I demanded.
He shook his head again, violently. Help me.
I leaned over intensely and slammed my palm into his chest.
“Is this flesh–born only to die; or is it pure and loving light?”
He looked up at me, his face changing.
“And your wife, and your daughter,” I said, loudly now, thrusting my palm there, at his chest, where the highest compassion of all lies choked. “Are they dead, and gone forever, or do they stand at your side, waiting to be seen, waiting until you learn to see them, be with them, be them?”
And then I slammed my hand down again on the desk and held the pen up between us. “Is it a pen, or something to eat? Answer me!” I screamed.
“A pen!” he screamed back now, nearly across the border. “A pen!”
“No!” I screamed back. “Not a pen! Never a pen! Never a pen! No cow has ever seen this pen, as a pen, and so…” I waited for him.
“And so, and so… they would say… cows would say… that there are no pens,” he finished, still thinking it out. “The mind makes it a pen,” he went on to himself. “It is not a pen by itself. It is empty of that… by itself.”
And then he looked down, at his own chest, where my hand had woken him. “And the body… my body, this flesh…” he said, holding his own two hands there, with a look of wonder growing on his face. “It is flesh, it is flesh, because… because… and only because, my mind makes me see it that way.”
His chin jolted upright and his eyes burned into mine.
How Yoga Works was part of my yoga teacher training curriculum and for some reason I picked it up last night and opened straight to the “Flesh or Light” chapter and for some reason just started crying. I have no idea what my deal is. I haven’t been “moved” by yoga, if you will, for a long long time. I just have a weird relationship with it right now. My immediate emotional outburst was surprising and welcome.
The flesh or light lesson is great when applied to body image issues. I also like it as a reminder of abundance and excess. Like when I’m throwing things out or taking things for granted I remind myself that the trash to me is (pardon the cliche) a treasure to someone else. It’s great in relationships when I catch myself projecting past boyfriends onto a current boyfriend and realize I can’t see him “as such” if I keep burying him under someone else’s shit.
I have no idea why I felt so compelled to share this. I just love it.