My two favorite extra-curricular activities are trying to teach me something lately, and I have the feeling their lesson may apply elsewhere in my life.
At about this time last year I began playing music with a couple of friends – Depression-era country blues with vocals and a few instruments. It’s quirky and expressive stuff, straightforward enough for us amateurs to jump right into, but with plenty of challenges and room to improvise. It is just plain thigh-slapping wholesome fun to do, but there’s something about it that piques my interest as a yogi.
I play harmonica, an instrument I haven’t touched since I was a kid. For months I’ve been honking away, stumbling upon a few right notes and crashing into plenty of wrong ones. But then recently some moments in the music have begun to feel different.
Just as we come to a turn in the tune where there’s an opening for a harmonica riff, something spreads open inside me. I feel the notes well up invisibly and flow out into the mix. They’re like musical sparklers, fizzy fireflies of sound. This opening, spreading feeling only lasts a second, but it is delightful. Extremely delightful.
Then there’s sculling, which I consider about the most un-innovative activity there is. I have done the same stroke over and over, my oars taking tens of thousands of identical scoops out of the same water. But sometimes as I’m paddling absurdly back and forth, maybe in one out of every five hundred stokes, a transcendent unity alights and inhabits me. Boundaries drop away. The colored sky, the voluminous ocean, the boat and my simplest self all become one.
Rowing and harmonica playing are very different experiences, but for me they have a common core. Both develop internal ease and require sustained effort. And then by some alchemy of the mind, the unbidden gift appears. Ease and effort combine, the music wells up, sky and ocean come together. A delicious experience seems to arrive from somewhere outside my vision, an uncommon grace as though delivered via Fedex.
Patanjali has a neat formula in the second of the two sutras about asanas. It comes right after the sutra saying that asanas must be performed with effort and ease.
prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam
Doing asana with effort, ease, and a meditative mind, we perceive the infinite.
This is the essence of my experiences of grace on the ocean or on the blues harp. When I mix the two magic ingredients of effort and ease in just the proper proportions, this third magical element seems to drop in from nowhere: the flash of grace, the invisible touch and release. Though fleeting and lacking substance in the grand scheme of things, it feels to me like a taste of infinity.
The formula may have a parallel in the revered story that we’re about to celebrate. There once was a carpenter. I worked in carpentry for years and I experienced the effort and discipline it requires. This tradesman married a woman, whom generations would later revere as the epitome of gentleness. In this story, the coming of effort and grace together produce a miraculous baby, the likes of which our world may never see again. How provocative it is, to view my own small moments of effort, ease, and grace as reflections of this Earth-shattering one.
So here’s a question: does life present other opportunities to mix effort and ease? Are there other curtains which, when pushed aside with the right blend of strength and gentleness, allow a glimpse of that infinite star?
It’s worth pondering, I think. The hope of finding an answer is a good reason to practice, practice, and practice.