Annie Carpenter's Sacred Pause
The first time I took a sabbatical from teaching was in 1997, when I was about to turn 40. I went to India for just two months—which seemed like an eternity as I planned for it, yet was so very short in reality—when I had the opportunity to study with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore. Every morning a group of about 40 of us would gather for our beloved sweaty asana practice, and in the afternoons there was an informal session with Guruji. Sometimes it was storytelling, sometimes a truly moving dharma chat, and sometimes he’d simply read the newspaper and we’d hang
around hoping for a bit of wisdom.
One of those afternoons, a young man who’d just arrived from California asked Guruji, “Who is god?” This is when I witnessed one of my favorite laughs ever—a whole-body, big-belly, throw-your-head-back laugh—which, frankly, was a bit startling considering it was coming from my teacher, a guru whom I’d expected to be ever serene.
Through his laughs, Guruji replied, “God is everywhere! So many gods!” Then he slapped the wall behind him and cried, “God is here!” He then touched his chair and said, “God is here!” Then he pointed to several of us sitting on the floor: “And here and here and here!” Finally, he sat back and sighed, saying, “So many gods: Vishnu, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Shiva—just choose one!”
Guruji’s command of English was limited, and I don’t mean to put words in his mouth. But what I gathered from that exchange was a profound faith in the truth that god—or Spirit, if you prefer—is indeed everywhere, and that one expression is not more or less than any other. In that moment, I learned that the knowing of the existence of Spirit is the reason we practice and is, at once, the practice itself. This insight, and the ongoing awareness that there is no outer goal to be reached, has been a doorway for me into acceptance and forgiveness. There is no asana to master, no meditation to complete. The practice, whatever form it takes, is simply a loving inquiry that continues to circle us back to the present moment in which Spirit can be known.
See also Stoke Your Spirit: 5 Ways to Move Toward Samadhi
Now, nearly 20 years later, I’m taking another sabbatical. Essentially, I am taking a break from traveling for work—no weekend workshops, festivals, or trainings for about four months. While I will teach a couple of classes each week near my home, my schedule is pretty darn sparse. My wish for this time is to set aside to-do lists; to stay out of airports with their rushing, waiting, and inevitable delays; and to get out of planning mode and just be. I want to allow more time for my morning practices of pranayama and meditation, and have more energy for my afternoon asana. I want to stare at a blank calendar and invite the cat onto my lap. I want to stare at a blank page and write.
My deepest wish is this: that in allowing the pause in my work schedule, I’ll invite the pause in every breath I take. The yogis teach very clearly that it is in the pause between each inhale and exhale that transformation is possible. Consider the great teaching of the four phases of the breath: inhale, pause, exhale, pause. The pauses, or gaps, allow time for reflection. We might look at it this way: Inhale, I am conscious of the breath, Exhale, I am aware of no breath. In the first pause, we can experience, fully and viscerally, that we are alive; and in the second pause, we can experience—without anxiety—the truth that this might have been our last breath.
This pause at the end of every exhalation invites our awareness of the impermanence of all things—of life itself. In fact, this fourth phase of every breath has a name in Sanskrit: the turiya, meaning the “fourth.” This state is described as being one with the Self, with the infinite. As we are more comfortable with the pause—and with the truth that though the body is transient, the spirit is immutable—we sense the presence of god in all living things.
A sabbatical, however brief or extended, is simply a metaphor for creating spaciousness in our busy lives and in each moment. It’s a way of creating a ritual, a sacred pause to invite the remembrance that indeed god is here, and there, and everywhere. For me, this recent sabbatical has shifted my attention from being driven by all the myriad ways my work role fills my life to the act of being—of living simply each day. This time has served to deepen my faith in the sacred pause and has reminded me that it is always here, to be accessed in each breath I take.
See also Ask the Mentor Teacher: Annie Carpenter