It had been a long, hot day and I was ready for the heat to subside. Now, the sun was setting behind a stretch of jungle palm, ohia and mango trees, and as the ambrosial hour set in, darkness allowed for greater visibility of an unusual light off in the distant northern sky. This light—glowing red and brown and golden—gives the impression of a city that is burning. It is light reflected from a brush fire caused by a river of lava flowing down our mountain.
My current home is the Big Island of Hawaii, and like many other volcanoes right now on planet Earth, our Kilauea volcano is active and causing a bit of a stir. Unlike flows for the past couple of decades, where we have been able to walk out to the rivers of lava in the middle of nowhere and appreciate the grace, beauty and power of a new earth being born, this flow is heading straight for our small, humble town of Pahoa, an old western-style town of wooden, slanted boardwalks and a smattering of restaurants and shops.
As the people of this rural region of Puna process what is about to take place (which may or may not include the partial destruction of the town of Pahoa, as well as many homes along the lava’s path), it is essentially like watching a slow motion view of an accident. Like knowing your house is probably going to burn down next Wednesday around 9 pm and there is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it. Just pack what’s valuable and get out.
For me personally, though the lava currently threatens no lives, it reminds me of the feeling I had when my partner was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2008, and we watched in slow-motion horror a disaster of epic proportions take over our lives. There was nothing we could do then but watch it play out and keep letting go.
So, this moment on the Big Island takes me once again to the greater lesson of letting go. Letting go of attachments. Trusting in the flow of life, even when it’s a destructive flow. It’s kind of a crappy lesson, at least on the surface, but it’s one that life offers to us as steadily as the gift of birth and life itself.
In yogic philosophy, it is taught that non-attachment is the ultimate practice as we make our way toward enlightenment. The word for it is “vairagya,” the letting go of the many attachments to life, which cloud our ability to realize the self.
If you are like me, you probably find “non-attachment” a really big challenge. Who wants to let go of things they love? A child. A spouse. A career. It can feel horrific. Just letting go of a wonderful Sunday morning routine can leave an ache in our hearts for years or decades.
I’m always impressed (and curious) when I meet people who seem really good at non-attachment. Ultimately, my guess is that they have a sense of an infinite flow in life. If not this house, they think, then another or If not this job/career, then another. They seem tapped into the eternal flow that is life itself.
But how do we help ourselves and learn the art of letting go? Well, life will certainly teach us and take us there over time. But we can also help ourselves by learning from the obvious—the many ways this process of letting go is already a part of our daily life. One day in yoga class I realized that each exhale was a letting go, a faith that the next breath will come. Maybe that is why, when in a crisis situation, many yogis simply say “just breathe.” It reminds us of the eternal flow, and brings our thoughts to a mindfulness in the moment.
The yogic word for posture is “asana,” which means to dwell, to sit, and be present. Simply, yoga is a continuum of postures where we learn to be “present” in each moment. When we are trying to “get” to the next posture, we know we have left our true yogic practice. We learn that even the transitions and rest “in between” are important. How could they not be?
The entire journey is right here, whether we are a gymnast or live with a disability. It’s right “here” wherever you are reading this article - the office chair, home couch, the coffee shop. Its right “here” with our breath, in this moment, with whatever is happening now. It is something to experience when we awaken to this idea that there is no “there” to get to. Our practice comes fully alive in our hearts. We have finally found our true home.
As night became visible I looked to the horizon: a plum of red smoke pinpointed the head of the flow. The lava’s path is now clearly visible from miles away, with a small town and many houses dangerously close to it’s fiery grasp, and I am brought back to my practice. Letting go. Trusting. Being courageous enough to be fully present for what is happening now in life.