Lighting the Way by Sara Nolan

We live in the city of incessant lights, but that doesn’t mean we have a clue about its metaphoric value—only that the electric pollution is high, and that when the grid fails, entire lifestyles have to be revamped.

In the winter, I like to live by candlelight after 4:30 PM.  It makes cooking awkward and dish-washing perilously sloppy, but it reminds me that there is other light to see by than the obvious technology.

The Hindu holiday Diwali (or Deepawali, Skr. “lamps in a row”), a five-day festival of lights, precedes and inaugurates our own Western season of light-based festivities both sacred and secular—the blinding commerce-cluster of Hanukah, Christmas and New Year.  For the family unit in India, Diwali is traditionally a time for a purification of the home—outer and inner—through prayers.  Lighting the lamps symbolizes the potency of the inner (little) light (of the soul!) that shines in each of us.  Mythologically, this marks the time when King Rama returned from his fourteen-year exile from his wife Lakshmi and lamps light his way back.

Few people have an easy time navigating this season: for many it is a murky time in which the lack of light issues a deep challenge to the capacity of the psyche’s electric grid.  So it becomes an auspicious time to bring up questions about the function of light for the practitioner of yoga.

According to yogic medicine, for optimum health each of us must tend our own agni–or inner fire.  This fire is our physiological hearth and at the heart of the matter.  If you don’t feed it, forget it.  The ailing Buddha also gave this sort of prescription to his right-hand disciple: Be a lantern unto yourself.

I used to unfailingly rise by 5AM to practice a maverick form of yoga—and still do, when I can.  It calls for Obstinance & Determination.  Not the determination that makes you grit your teeth and bow to your alarm clock before dawn, but something else that that act teaches you: I am going for this, despite all hints (or dramatic clues) of futility.  Then my blood would rush around to circulate this message of allegiance– to the ridiculous and holy– to all parts of my gross (i.e physical) body.  Each day a pact was renewed between myself and the broader context in which I exist– the universe– to burn together, the way two sticks, being rubbed against one another under the right conditions, after a while must cave in and produce fire.

I trust that the world alone would and could not provide adequate light—not the kind of light to really see by.  And a yogi, theoretically, is working full-time to increase the wattage of this apparatus.  Better, we are eco-friendly light-bulbs, and categorically recyclable, disappearing into creation when our work is done and our bulb blows out.   When I take my last savasana, if it comes to that, I want to donate this form to everything that grows still towards the light.  But that donation requires some advanced preparation.
So as lanterns we must give off our own light in the dark months to come through the sincerity of our practice, and polish the glass through which the light pours.
My ritual is simple: I light my candle before I practice, even if it is fully morning, and look at it for a while like one looks at a newborn baby.  I consider the fire that got my food digested, and the sister fire that got my feet out of the bed.  I think about the mysterious blessing of being alive, so misunderstood, potentially so incomprehensible.

These things feed my inner fire, and ask my consciousness to move towards its own frontier.  Sometimes the grid stutters, or the physical apparatus wants to cave—have tea, forget it, whine, throw water on the ashes.  But that isn’t interesting enough for a consciousness that craves to know its true home and capacity, and follow the lights along the way. Singing the Gayatri mantra quietly serves, like bumpers in a bowling alley, to keep my mind on its right track toward brightness.

How will you keep the light coming through your lantern, not just flickering, but ablaze? What rituals will you use to guarantee a modicum of brightness in this dark season?

–Sara Nolan


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