Spiritual Chess

I had such an interesting moment in asana today. In one of my favorite classes, led by a brilliant and powerful yogini I’m honored to call a friend, I was geeking out (as per usual) over the layer cake sequence. As I transitioned into plank from vasisthasana, I felt my mind trying to unwind the sequence from the other side and anticipate the next transition. This is, as they say, an excellent illustration of how an asana class is never the same once you’re a teacher. You never just “take class” completely unattached from the teacher’s mind (it can be done, but not without sincere and authentic concentration), going with the flow (pun intended). It’s just natural to marvel at the sequence, try and guess the peak pose, file away awesome ideas in your mind to borrow in your own teaching, luxuriating over certain transitions and variations long after they’ve passed. It can be a whole mental process, if you don’t harness your focus! But that’s what asana is about, harnessing one’s focus. Stilling the mind. Getting into the body and the breath and scattering all the thoughts with ujjayi like a leaf blower in autumn.

As I purposefully deepened my breath in order to quiet my brain, one last thing popped up. Something of merit, though, so I let it manifest before turning up my ujjayi. It was this thought, we are spiritual chess players, always attempting to guess life’s next move.

But what of it? How are we truly benefited if we know what’s coming next? Sure, we could prepare ourselves for what’s coming. But will it be less enjoyable for having known ahead of time, for having guessed right, for having prepared? Or life, as it does, could totally throw a curve ball. What was apposed to come doesn’t come. And what’s left? Disappointment? Or maybe we anticipate life’s next move and we’re totally wrong. What then? Disappointment again? Desire for having just sat comfortably with the not knowing, wishing we’d let the current just take us where it would?

The truth is, knowing or not knowing, guessing or not guessing what comes next has no effect whatsoever on what is actually going to happen. Life is completely unmoved by our rat race minds, by our trying to figure out its next move. The grand Universe spins and swirls onward, regardless of whether or not we “guessed right.” So, I ask myself and you all simultaneously, why do we insist on the mental chess game?

It’s really mental, spiritual chess, and it’s really a game. It frankly serves no purpose. What would serve more of a purpose is to move on from chess entirely and pick up the “either/or game.” That way, if one must analyze and obsess over the possible outcomes and equations of life (as many of us do, and as all of us feel compelled towards at some point or another), at least the positive and the negative (all a matter of interpretation…) are played out in the imagination with imaginary reactions and then – here’s the catch – let go. That’s the only way the “either/or” can benefit us, is if we vow to let it go afterwards. It could be this way, or it could be that way, and I am at peace knowing that whichever way it turns out I have no control over anything but my present mind state. I am okay with that. I accept that. I embrace that.

The point is that spiritual chess is exhausting and depleting. Constantly trying to anticipate your partner (which is, ultimately, the cosmos)’s next move is useless. It’s useless and it’s draining. It’ll siphon your pranic energy reservoir faster than you can say, “Check!”

What is life worth if we’re running on fumes, wearing thin our fragile fibers, fraying our patience and fretting tirelessly over hypothetical outcomes? Life is about filling and maintaing our prana, our life-force, and being mindful about how and where we doll it out. In attempting to prepare for what’s ahead, we lose out on the now. We miss the precious moment, the very Self we embody and will never know intimately again. We are changing with every heartbeat and breath, and if we’re constantly wondering what our future Self will be up to, how are we able to cultivate a sound, secure Self in this current moment? Exactly. We can’t. We’re straddling present and future, with our fingers in both cookie jars, attempting to manipulate the two energies into one stream. How can we have purpose and passion in our futures if we haven’t ever taken the time to just be? How will we be able to react patiently, peacefully and confidently to life’s twists and turns if we haven’t spent intimate time with our thoughts, feelings and physiological state moment-to-moment? 

I am guilty of spiritual chess on a regular basis. Fortunately, my yoga practice has helped me really anchor in the now and, more importantly, why the now is so sacred. So vital. My parents and yoga teachers are who brought it to the forefront of my attention, this habitual tendency to anticipate, plan, guess, manipulate…in terms of what’s to come. I’ve spent sleepless nights replaying scenes over and over in my mind. Planning every moment of the day to come when, in reality, my fear revolved around the unknown. And my staying up all night fretting not only had zero effect on how everything played out, it just sent me into the experience a complete hot mess. As a child my parents would remind me to be present, as we’d be waltzing out of Disneyland and I’d be squealing, “Where are we going next?!” My yoga teachers remind me regularly in practice, as though reading my mind sometimes, “Notice if you’re waiting for something to happen,” they say, “notice how it takes you out of the pose. Be in the pose. Be with your breath.” 

When you’re called out like that it’s hard not to think, wow, I really was waiting. I wasn’t here, I couldn’t be, because I was already 10 steps ahead, analyzing the game and attempting to peek into the future. I was almost holding my breath. How often do you do this in your life? How often are you already 10 steps ahead? How often are you dulling your senses to the present moment because you’re toying with the anticipation of what’s to come?

It’s not that this is a bad thing or that it’s done maliciously, ridden with nervousness or as a coping mechanism. Sure, it can be. But it can also be executed simply by habit. One must only do something “negative” (again, up to interpretation) a handful of times (or even once!) to form a habit (trust me, I’m speaking from experience). Whereas it takes much longer to break a habit or form a new, more beneficial habit…on the upwards of two months, according to Huffington Post. Frankly, as far as I’m concerned and at this point on my personal path, I’m okay with the chess game. I intend to pack away my players, fold up my board and donate my game at some point, making a permanent residence in the present moment…yes, that’s my intention. But, in the meantime, I’m satisfied to be hyper-aware. The veils lifted. Ignorance burned away. I’m content to notice when I’m looking around, projecting and strategizing, rather than just breathing. A living, vibrating organism whose dharma is unfolding as naturally as the tides pulling in and rushing out. A spirit whose true nature is so unconfined by the limits of this realm that the details of reality and what’s happened/will happen/won’t happen is quite meaningless. I’m completely at peace with the understanding that this tendency resides in me, in us all, and is nothing but a detriment to our wellbeing. It’s tempting, yes, very tempting and amusing and entertaining to engage in the scandalous role play of “what if,” but it’s really like running full speed ahead with your gaze fixed to the cracks in the pavement. It’s out of control, dangerous and exhilarating, and will likely end up with you flat on your face.

As Jim Elliot says, “Wherever you are, be all there.” I couldn’t have said it better. So, my lovebursts, let’s take advantage of this cusp. Shifting into a new month, almost a new season, with abundance at our fingertips. Let us challenge ourselves to be present, vividly present for our lives. Let us show up each day and notice when we try to jump ahead. May we simply observe our tendencies, and may we be kind to ourselves in the process. Our minds mean well. They’re trying to best prepare us for whatever outcome we’ll be served. But our spirits know better. They know the Universe can’t be tamed and that our sweet, albeit rat racer, minds beg to differ. Our spirits just give a grandmotherly nod as our minds spiral in circles, unraveling moments to inspect, seek out patterns and place bets, oh that’s just how they are, those silly little minds… May we harness the vaster power of our minds, our higher minds, and let the habits of the lower mind burn off. Like fog lifting as the sun wakes and stretches his rays. May we meet our behaviors with understanding, and inquire within. May we turn down the noise and tune into our breath, bolstering our life-force, and sinking easily into the trust that all will unfold exactly as it’s meant. Then, the tallest and most worthwhile order of all…may we lean back and enjoy the ride.

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