“The Buddha’s message was simple yet profound. Neither a life of self- indulgence, nor one of self-mortification can bring happiness. Only a middle path, avoiding these two extremes, leads to peace of mind, wisdom, and complete liberation from the dissatisfaction of life.” ~Bhante Gunaratana (from “Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness”)
I have been thinking quite a lot lately about practice. My schedule at the yoga center is changing in February. I am going down to one day a week at Uru and will continue to teach my regular schedule at Chip’s. I spent no little time hunched over my journal while I made this decision. In the course of personal essays written in mostly illegible script I noted that spiritual practice and discipline are kinda like the process of making ghee.
Ghee, clarified butter, is a main ingredient in the 10 Day Yoga Detox we do three times a year in Kashi Atlanta. It’s a very dignified process by which you get to stabilize blood sugar, re-set the metabolism and sort out any habits around which you’d like to bring a little more awareness.
Ghee, as part of the diet, is lauded for its health benefits*. It is golden in color, a little yellow and smells like the backroom of a bakery. Its texture is glossy and slick and it leaves a nice sheen on vegetables. In the morning during the detox we drink it. We only drink it in relatively small portions which grow incrementally during the detox week. Sounds crazy, I know, but with a little almond milk and a dash of ginger powder it’s like liquid birthday cake – almost.
During one of the detoxes last year my slippery hands dropped the ghee jar, whipping most of its content across to kitchen floor. I didn’t know you could just go to the store and buy more so I learned how to make it on the internet.
It’s simple, really. You take a pound of unsalted butter and cook it down for about thirty minutes. It makes this little popping sound that sounds like fat raindrops landing on a low roof. To know if the ghee is ready you have to listen; you can’t look at it and tell. The popping becomes almost inaudible and there comes a point when there’s almost no sound. That’s when you take the pan off the stove and let it cool. There are three layers in the pot when it is cooled and this is where I started thinking about spiritual practice and in particular the path of yoga as I have experienced it.
The top layer is this frothy foam that you skim off the top. It is called “catch” and in India it’s sometimes mixed with sugar and is a sweet treat. This top layer of ghee that you have to scrape off is like the euphoric phase at the beginning of one’s love affair with yoga. This is the rainbow and unicorn stage, wherein everything is wonderful and happy and if it isn’t you better suppress it until no one is looking, because that shit ain’t yogic.
It is here that it serves us well to remember that unicorns are massive magical creatures with a sharp protrusion from their foreheads. I’m just saying, if you met a unicorn in real life it would probably be a little terrifying, even if it was friendly. Rainbows are often products of stormy weather and are a combination of sunlight and the shadow of a fine mist combined. But still, rainbows and unicorns it is.
It is best to scrape this layer off sooner rather than later but we get caught in thinking that this layer is the product of our efforts, like the rainbow and unicorn phase is where it’s at. This foam is not the goal, it should be scraped off, preferably with a hand strainer.
On the bottom of the ghee pot there are lactose solids. It’s heavy and brown and reminds me of the skillet my great-grandmother used to cook bacon in. She’d save this grease like it was gold to cook everything else with it. Dear Reader, you do not want to save this portion of the ghee making process, just leave it there. Better yet, pour it down the drain.
This heavy sludge at the bottom represents the opposite end of rainbows and unicorns. It is the this shit ain’t working phase of practice. If you have been at it long enough, if you have sat for meditation for more than five minutes ten or so consecutive days in a row you might know what I’m talking about. This is the heaviness, the unworthiness and the same old repetitive thoughts that will fall away if we let them go. The pound of unsalted butter has no problem letting this stuff go. It takes heat and the willingness to stay in the pot, which is why yoga practice and spiritual discipline are referred to as tapas which translates “to burn” or “fiery discipline”.
Between the froth and the sediment is the ghee. To get at it you scrape crap off the top and then, carefully, pour the clarified butter into a nice container. You have to angle the pot and hold your mouth a little crooked to keep from pouring any of the sediment into the pretty little jar with your clarified butter. With a little practice you’ll get the hang of it.
I think this is the part that represents the real, essential being. The space in the middle is buoyed above the featureless solid hunks that we think is who we really are. I thought about listing examples but decided to let you fill in the blank with anything that holds your heart down or keeps it closed. That’s the stuff that can go to the bottom of the pot. Your only job is to cook it long enough and then, when it is boiled down, to let it go.
I think we spend a lot of the first years of a spiritual discipline focusing between these two phases. There comes a time when, perhaps for just a second, we catch a glimpse of space between thoughts. The first handful of times I heard my Teacher talking about the space between thoughts I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about. After a few years of looking for that space I have come to think of that as an access point to our smooth, golden essence revealed from the heat of our discipline and devotion.
I don’t think we need to torment ourselves for being in one space or another, either. If I am stuck in a sunshine and lollipop stage I just try to remember that it isn’t the goal and to just keep practicing. When I’m happy I must practice. When I’m sad, pissed, confused or elated also I must practice. I think this is how we arrive at clarity and taste the space between thoughts – which is delicious, like buttah.
“This atman (Self), resplendent and pure, whom the sinless sannyasins behold residing within the body, is attained by unceasing practice of truthfulness, austerity, right knowledge and continence.” – Mundaka Upanishad
*From the Yoga Detox Daily Email – 10 health benefits of ghee
- Flushes old bile from the body.
- Stimulates the liver to make new bile, so 94% of old toxic bile is not re-absorbed.
- Scrubs the intestines of toxins and bad bugs.
- Supports the primary source of energy and immunity for the cells of the gut.
- Supports the health of the beneficial bacteria in the gut that make butyrate, a short chain fatty acid (SCFA) that the intestinal tract thrives on, as it helps to protect the integrity of the gut wall, and then some!
- Lubricates and softens the hardened tissues of the body.
- Pulls stored fat-soluble toxins and molecules of emotion out of the body.
- Encourages fat metabolism and weight loss.
- Supports stable mood and energy levels.
- Supports the body’s natural defense mechanisms against bad bacteria and overgrowth.