Saturday, 31 December 2011

Holy Isle 2

Over the new year I went on retreat to Holy Island; this is day 2 of the blog I wrote while I was there...

There is something sublime about rising in darkness to go over to a converted boat house to meditate.  We trudge through the damp dark to a warm, wood-panelled room dedicated to prayer and meditation.  We sit for an hour or so and then emerge into the half-light feeling fresher, cleaner inside, clearer mentally and more at peace.

And the wonderful thing about being on retreat is that, if you desire it, you don't have to 'be' anyone.  People respect your personal space and private intention as nowhere else.  So if you want to chat, there are plenty of people to chat with, but if you choose to be silent, you will be left alone.  Nobody will think anything of it.  It is very comforting to be with people who don't need you to be anyone or to show them who you are, and who don't think anything of it if in the morning you chat away merrily, but in the afternoon you eat lunch alone and then curl up in a corner with a book.

Perhaps this freedom is quite hard for some (we're so used to using short cuts to suss people out - if you have children, what you wear, what job you do), but soon enough everyone seems to settle into just being here.

oOo

I sit through a meditation session alongside a Buddhist nun and marvel at her open face, bright eyes and cheerful, child-like demeanour.  She smiles, not to make you happy, or to demonstrate to you that she is happy, but because there is so much joy in the world that she simply can't help smiling about it.  As a child would.  I wonder when and why and how we learn to guard our joy and fascination with the world and why we seem to value seriousness over light-heartedness.  It seems to me that the serious work of life is staying light of heart.  This nun has found a way to rewind that guarding process.  We should all find a way to do that.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Retreat to Holy Isle 1


Over the new year I travelled to Holy Isle off the west coast of Scotland to stay at the retreat centre there.  This is the blog I wrote while I was there... I'll post them all here over the next few days...  Happy new year!

The distance I have travelled to be here feels like part of the retreat: I have taken a car, a plane, a bus, a ferry, another bus and a small fisherman’s boat.  It's a very long way from home. 

The island is shrouded with rainclouds when I arrive and the sky is very dark and very low; a cold, persistently heavy rain is falling and the ground is boggy underfoot.  The sea is a cold, hard grey, yet when I look out of my bedroom window later, I see that there is someone out there sailing a laser dinghy.

It is wildly beautiful here.  The island rises out of the sea, charcoal grey, green and red.  It is protected from the worst of the Atlantic by being between the isle of Arran and the mainland, but it is still lashed by strong winds and pelted with rain.  It doesn’t get very cold here; but it doesn’t get very warm either.

It’s hard not to feel a little out on a limb when you arrive.  It is very quiet; everyone is friendly, but they are strangers.  There is no escape from the island and there are none of life's usual distractions (tv, radio, internet, telephone).  But you can read and walk and meditate and practise yoga and I have done all these things today. 

To help me get my bearings and to make the most of what little light there was here before darkness fell, I walked about half a mile south towards the first of two lighthouses situated on the south of the island.  I had been told that I might get a mobile reception here and I did, so I sent a text home to let them know that I had arrived safely.  On my way back, I thought that I could pop down there every day and check my messages or perhaps make a phone call.  Then I realised that I absolutely didn't want to do this; actually, I want to switch off my phone and leave it switched off while I am here and when I get back to my room I put my ipod away too.  The world, with all its noise can wait, I am on retreat from it. 

Back in my room, I find I can hardly keep my eyes open.  It feels as though years of the noise, busyness and over-stimulation of modern life has just caught up with me and it’s all I can do to find my way down to supper.  Over spicy lentil and carrot soup and homemade bread, I find that a lot of other people have experienced this same overwhelming tiredness.

After supper some of us trudge over to the old boathouse for an hour of Chenrezig meditation, a Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice.  It’s new to me: everyone sings a very long prayer, with a break in the middle for some chanting of a mantra and then back to singing more prayers.  It’s not what I am used to and I probably prefer silent seated meditation, but it’s good to be in this warm and cosy room with such a nice group of people and to hear them sing their prayers. 

I think, on the way back to the main house through tonight’s storm, how lovely it is that there are so many different paths to peace: a path for everyone.  All you have to do is be open to the possibility of it, respect other people’s choices, and work to discover, by trial and error, by providence, or both, which is the one for you.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Recognition vs. Rejection

The notion that you are already good enough is a difficult concept to accept for everyone that I have ever met.  Different people meet this problem with different solutions…

·         I know people who don’t bother to try so that they can never be found failing;
·         I know people who work so hard, all the time, to prove themselves that they seem to have no time for learning how to understand themselves;
·         I know people who give too much, all the time, because they place everyone else’s importance above their own;
·         I know people who go around doing everything they can for everyone, because they have placed a sense of their own self-worth in being perfect for everyone else;
·         I know people who have lots of stuff, as though that will prove to the world, if not themselves, that they are succeeding, that they are good enough.  Since having lots of stuff is this society’s main indicator of success, then having lots of stuff seems to prove something.  But how many unhappy rich people do you know/have you heard of?  Clearly ‘stuff’ is not the answer.  We see evidence of that fact every day, but seem  collectively to refuse to accept its veracity;
·         I know people who need to be perfect: perfect job, everything done properly, being in the right place at the right time with the right items.  As if being in control of everything is proof of something.
The fact that it is very difficult for us to feel good enough probably stems from childhood and the way that we were brought up.  However, it is not sufficient to drop the responsibility for our lack of self-worth at the feet of our parents.  Larkin’s view

They fuck you up your mum and dad,
They do not mean to, but they do

might ring true, but it doesn’t hold the answer.  Many of us were loved and cherished by our parents and yet we still feel that we are not good enough, we still find it hard to truly love and care for ourselves.  In addition to that, anyone who is a parent knows how much they love and wish the best for their children; that we are not the first generation to have done so is self-evident.  Thus, in spite of our best intentions, each generation finds the same difficulty in finding a true and lasting sense of self-worth, no matter how loved we were as children.

The answer therefore must lie within us and not in the search for someone else to blame for our lack of self-love.
Buddha identified the cultivation of compassion and love for oneself as a crucial practice for living a loving, successful and kind life.  It was his contention that a strong sense of self-worth and self-love is necessary if we are to truly care for others.  This makes sense.  If we are living in a judgemental paradigm where what we do/say/achieve is the only measure of our self-worth, then it stands to reason that, despite our best intentions to the contrary, we judge other people in the same way instead of accepting ourselves and other people for who they are (good enough before they even get out of bed in the morning).

Thinking that you are good enough has nothing to do with complacency – you are still able to engage in life fully, to achieve and work hard and be fully committed to life when you have love for yourself.  Indeed, you may well be able to achieve more, do better, live more fully, when you are not wasting so much of your time and energy proving your worth to the world because you don’t really believe it yourself.
There is a relationship between a lack of self-love and fear.  When we believe that our real selves are not worthy of love, then we are afraid of revelation; we are afraid that if people discover who we really are, they will find us lacking and reject us.  It goes like this: if you knew who I really am inside, then you wouldn’t love me/like me/want to know me; if you knew how unsure I was about being able to do this task well, you wouldn’t respect me; if you knew how vulnerable I feel in this situation, you would laugh at me.  I suspect that a lot of this has to do with the conditioning we had as children - within our home, our extended families and at school we learnt how to be a certain way to avoid being uncomfortable.  As we grow up it is that personality that we present to the world – it gets us by, it gets us liked, it helps us to avoid pain.  Part of our spiritual path is dissociating ourselves from this personality and revealing who it is that we truly are.  For some of us, it might be the case that we have lived for so long with the personality that works for us and the people around us that when we come to look for our true self, we can’t find it; we don’t have a clue who that person is or was, or where to look for him/her.

To reveal our true self to the world can be inconvenient (everyone around us has been used to our projected personality and their habits; the true you might not fit in so well).  To reveal our true self to ourselves and then to others requires the greatest courage.  If you are rejected now, then it’s the real you that is being rejected.  How do you take this?  With courage.  This is what you say:- here I am in all my strange and wonderful glory; some people will like me and some people won’t, but I don’t need everyone to like me, because I understand that in the same way as I don’t like and want to spend time with everyone I meet, not everyone is going to feel positively about me.  BUT I can cope with some people not liking me, because I believe in myself and my own worth.  I am brave enough to let some people not like me.
It’s going to be such a relief!  You won't need to prove yourself with your humour or your intelligence or your knowledge or your capacity to get things done or your ability to bake cakes or the fact that you can run marathons or earn a lot of money or have a fast car.  You will trust that the people who love you love you for who you really are now and not because of who you could be one day, or what you can achieve, or how well you fit in, or what you have. 

So there will be no fear, because you are being authentically yourself – there is nothing for anyone to find out about you.  There will be trust, because you trust yourself and you are therefore able to trust others; when you are being honest, trust comes naturally because there is nothing hidden in you.  This is unconditional trust – nobody has to prove to you that they can be trusted, you trust them because you have nothing to hide.  And it works the other way too:- even if someone else has something to hide/something that they are afraid of, you understand that they are, without doubt, intrinsically good enough and deserving of your respect and good feelings, however they might be projecting themself to the world.
A life without fear is a good life.  Fear takes up too much time and too much energy.  When you are free of fear you sleep well, you eat well, you take care of yourself and of others, you have respect for yourself and for others; you can give without needing gratitude in return; and you can receive without needing justification.       

But it all starts with you.  It all begins with your search for your authentic self and with having the courage to reveal that person to the world without fear.  It begins with trusting yourself.  You do this by living from your centre; you constantly ask yourself is this the truth?  Is this what I really feel?  Is this the right decision for me now?  Am I being true?  Am I being authentic?  Did I give as much as I could have in that moment?  Why did I hold back from that person?
This way you get to live more, love more, feel less resentment and less anger (if you are being true to yourself, you have very little to be resentful and angry about).  Then your life becomes more about what you can do for others than what you can do for yourself.

That we know so few people living authentic, individual lives, free of society’s definitions of personal success lets you know that it is not an easy path to follow.  But it is crucial, absolutely crucial, that you begin. 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Tantra 2 - Windows to Transcendence

Using what inspires you in the world to find the expansiveness within relies on your being able to discern between the transcendence itself and the doorway to it.

It's no good thinking that it is the sunset that makes you feel transcendent, so you must always see the sunset in order to be happy.  It's no good becoming addicted to another human being who makes you feel oneness and acceptance, so that you can experience love.  If being in church helps you to feel peace, then by all means go to the church to find that sense of stillness, but don't make the mistake of thinking that you can only find peace in that building.

We all have things we do/people we see/places we go for inspiration.  However, it is important that you don't mistake the things that inspire you to feel joy, peace and love for the reason you feel that joy, peace and love.  The potential for that feeling is constantly within you, it does not go away. Finding and doing the things that inspire it in you is a good start, the work then is to learn how to maintain it so that you can allow that joy, peace and love to imbue your whole life, not just certain parts of it.

Don't mistake the trigger for the source.  Great love is always within you and it is possible to feel great love for all things, if you try.  It is what most of the major spiritual paths are all about.  We know it's not easy by how few people we meet that are able to do it, but those people do exist.  And they do not exist because they are different or special, they exist because they have made the most of their talent for love. 

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Tantra 1 - Transcendence

The word tantra has unfortunate connotations, but in truth is one of the most beautiful explanations of the human condition and our purpose here that I have ever found.

Tantra contends that everything in this universe is nothing but consciousness, the word used to denote the common basic substance behind all ephemera, all life.  Different people call this different things (spirit, Holy Spirit, God, Divinity, grace, love, soul, heart).  Tantra calls it consciousness. 

For tantra, the human form is the highest stage of development before enlightenment (or complete merging with consciousness), for it is through being human, with our will, our intelligence and our capacity to act, that we are able to more clearly feel the consciousness within and therefore unite with it.

Tantric philosophy tells us that humans are nothing but contracted consciousness.  As water vapour is to ice, we are to consciousness.  The substance is the same, but its form is a contracted version of it.  The work of tantra yoga is to realise this fully in this lifetime.  The task is to expand outwards and to keep on expanding.  This is transcendence.  In doing this, we transcend beyond our limited sense of self (who we are, what we do, what we think, where we have been, where we are going) and dissolve the boundaries between our small body (the place in which our consciousness lives in this lifetime) and everything else that is manifest. 

The various tantric texts (from 12th Century onwards) give us many practices for finding, loving and holding on to this inherent transcendence within.  One of the simplest and most sophisticated is given in the first chapter of the Shiva Sutras:

udyamo bhairavah I.5
The inner upsurge of energy is the Supreme*
or
That effort, the flashing forth of active awareness that instantaneously makes universal consciousness shine, is Bhairava**

When you are walking and the sun in shining and the world is beautiful to you, you experience within yourself an upsurge of energy, a rush of joy.  This is transcendence.  When you are with a friend or lover and you feel love and connection and oneness.  This is transcendence.  When you are eating, mindfully, a delicious meal and you feel sated and content.  This is transcendence.  When you are excited by a fast car journey and you feel vibrant and alive.  This is transcendence.  When you scream on a roller-coaster and feel that rush of adrenaline and wonder.  This is transcendence.

That upsurge of consciousness/energy/love/awareness/joy is your clue; each time you feel it is one small gift of transcendence.  Your job as a yogi is to learn how to stay mindful to it so that you see it when it arises and learn how to hold on to it.  The task is to recognise that it exists within you permanently and to let it radiate from you more of the time ... all of the time.  As a yogi you comprehend that each upsurge of radiance has nothing to do with the thing that caused it, rather that whatever caused it simply opened you up to the potential that is always present within you.  The potential to be more than you are, to be united with life, to radiate with a spirit that encompasses everything with love.

Namaste.

*Carlos Pomeda
** Swami Lakshmanjoo



Friday, 9 December 2011

Prana

Prana is an ancient Sanskrit word that first appeared in the vedas, it is translated by Georg Feuerstein as life, or literally, breathing forth.  It is the word used in yoga philosophy for vital energy, life-force, or the pulsating energy common to all living things (similar to the concept of Qi in Chinese medicine).  The action of prana is behind all life, all thought, all movement. 

Like the energy meridiens of Chinese medicine, yogic texts speak of channels of energy within us (nadis) which convey prana around the body.  When prana runs through the nadis of the body freely, one enjoys vibrant good health; but when the nadis are congested or blocked, one experiences poor mental and physical health.  Hatha yoga works to unblock the nadis and invigorate the flow of prana in the body through the means of asana, pranayama and meditation and some kriyas (cleansing processes).  Thus, the clear-eyed radiance and vitality that we witness in many experienced yogis (or indeed, feel in ourselves after practice) is ascribed to the yogi having improved the free flow of prana through the nadis in their body. 

In addition to the purely physical aspect of prana, there is an inseparable connection between mind and prana.  As Saint Thirumoolar wrote, "wherever the mind goes, the prana follows" or conversely as Swami Satchitananda puts it, "if you regulate prana, you regulate the mind."  The control of consciousness, the ultimate aim of all yoga practice, is therefore intimately linked with the control of prana.  Desikachar writes: "The more content a person is ... the more prana is inside.  The more disturbed a person is, the more prana is dissipated and lost."  Indeed, one definition of the word yogi, is 'one whose prana is all within his body.'

It is said that prana follows attention, so by drawing our attention to our breath, or by quieting the mind through meditative practices, and by not over-burdening ourselves with external stimuli, we may experience an increase of prana within.  As Swami Satchitananda writes:

"... it is easier to control prana in a grosser manifestation than in a subtle one.  So, we first learn to control the physical body, then the movement of the breath, then the senses, and finally the mind.  It is very scientific, gradual and easy."

So you begin by learning how to conserve energy during your asana practice, this means maintaining your inner focus, resisting the urge to look around you/fiddle with your toes/lose yourself in thought while you practise.  It means controlling your breath, so that it is even and full throughout your practice.  It means breathing in and out through your nose and trying not to talk during yoga.  During your asana practice you are opening your body and working out the knots and blocks that exist within you; your aim should be to try not to lose all this positive work and increased energy by expelling it through misdirected attention.  

On a day to day, practical level, we are talking abut conserving our energy so that we can put it to good use for the things that make ourselves and those around us, well and happy.  We probably all know people who haemorrhage prana, flying off the handle at the slightest provocation, or indulging in extreme emotional states and finding themselves exhausted as a result.

When you practise yoga with regularity and dedication, you experience a growing equilibrium in mind and body and a growing capacity to meet the daily challenges of life with equanimity; to remain calm and to keep your breath long and regular even in the most trying of situations.  Your energy levels increase and you find that after your asana, pranayama or meditation practice you tend to feel energised and alive, no matter how exhausted or low you felt when you arrived at your mat.  All of these positive effects can be ascribed to the building of prana within your body and the free flow of energy throughout your body.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Dharma 1


The Sanskrit word dharma is often translated as 'duty', this is correct, although the word duty brings with it, I think, certain connotations of things we have to do, but which we would rather not.  The word itself comes from the root dhri to hold, to establish, to support and I think this is more helpful in understanding dharma and how it relates to our lives. Dharma is that which we are meant to do; dharma is our work in this life, our purpose.  It is the link between the workings of your inner, spiritual purpose and the outward activities and intentions of your life.  Dharma therefore is holding/ establishing/ supporting a link between your inner soul-work and your outer life and livelihood.

In yogic terms, your individual soul chose to become manifest in your physical form for a reason.  Your job in your one life is to polish one facet of this beautiful soul that you have inside you.  Dharma is your soul’s purpose in this life. 

We can have more than one dharma and many different dharmas over a lifetime.  For example, if you have very young children, then your chief dharma is in dedicating yourself to nurturing them; if you have teenage children, your dharma is still to love and protect them, but also to let go a little, to give them the gift of independence.  So the role is the same, but the dharma has changed over time.  Being alert to how dharma changes over time helps us to stay awake, to stay in tune with what is best serving our personal development and those around us.  Being alert to how dharma changes over time helps us to choose courageously and not to cling to outdated, but comfortably familiar, ways of being.

Staying true to more than one dharma at a time might mean that we work in the city, but also dedicate ourselves to a local charity; we might be a parent, but go back to college to learn how to do something new.  Knowing that there is room in your life for more than one purpose can be very liberating.  You realise that you can nurture yourself in the ways that you need, while still fulfilling your role as Sales Assistant / Film Producer / Teacher / Parent / Child.

Your dharma is unique to you; only you can discern it and only you can learn how to fulfil it.  Aadil Palkhivala recommends tuning in with your dharma in the following way:

“… we must regularly step out of our frenzied routine and quietly ask, “Why am I here?  What is my purpose?  What is the reason for my existence?  Why did my spirit choose this body and what does it want to experience?”

You do not need to believe in reincarnation, soul, spirit and the Divine to benefit from this practice.  Simply asking yourself every morning, What is the purpose of this day? will help you to clarify your personal purpose and to live your life in its best and highest form; it will help you to stay on track; it will help you to be clear about what you need to do in your life and this will help you to be bold about clearing the unnecessary impediments out of your way in order that you fulfil this purpose to the best of your ability… Does drinking too much in the evening sap your energy the next day and make you less effective?  Get the drinking out of the way.  Do you have a friendship that seems to steal your energy and never replenish your sense of vitality?  Devote less time to that friendship and more time to those that help you to fulfil your purpose.  Does being unfit keep you from doing the things that you long to do?  Commit to building your level of fitness by taking a long walk every day.

Your longing is your cue – what is it that you really want to do?  Do you feel that you work all day every day only to feel unsatisfied at the end of it?  Why do you think that is?  Is there something else that you should be doing for yourself or for the world that would alleviate that sense of dissatisfaction?  Should you be doing that thing as well as or instead of what you currently do?  Only you know.  So ask yourself the question; and be prepared to acknowledge the answer.

"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough."
Mae West 

Friday, 25 November 2011

A letter to my friend 2

Don't push your feelings away or ignore them, be they physical, emotional or mental.  Watch them, feel them, listen to what they have to teach you about compassion (for yourself and for others) and about love and loving.

Your heart knows.  First learn to listen.  Then to hear.  Then to live according to it.  This takes great courage (from the old French, corage, meaning 'heart, innermost feelings, temper', this word itself from the Latin cor, meaning 'heart'*), but you can do it.  Look to others who have done so before you, or for people around you who are doing it right now; people who are making brave choices and living authentically.  Let them inspire you.  Don't deny the truth of your Self.

There is self-reliance and this is good (when it is based on a strong sense of self); and there is reliance on others and this is good (when it is based on a strong sense of self): we all need to receive love, care, attention and recognition.  We all need nurturing.  Let the people around you love you and take care of you, as you do for them.  Even children can give you the support you need, if you let them; sometimes the nourishment you need comes from the most surprising sources: let it.  There is strength in letting people love you and in admitting when you are in need of tenderness.

Let your beautiful heart be your guide.  Be brave.  Be happy.  Have fun.  And when feelings come, think of them as sign-posts along your path; allow them space and time in your life; know that alongside difficult emotions and physical pain, joy and love co-exist constantly.

Love.



*Thanks to Brene Brown for the etymology

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Recognition

I've been thinking about the concept of recognition for a long time. Someone asked me about it and I have been considering what it means to be recognised by another human being, by the world, for exactly who you are. I've been meditating on how it relates to yoga practice and what it means for the quality of your life.

I'd come to the conclusion that being recognised is a key element of yoga, but I was finding it hard to articulate why this is so.  I felt that it was related to the concept of darshan (to see and be seen by another), which is the treasure that Ram Dass, Krishna Das and others found in their gurus: that rare feeling of being seen by another, really seen, beyond the surface of what we say and do and all of the techniques that we have developed, consciously and unconsciously, for dealing with the world and being loved absolutely anyway, for who we are at heart.

Then this morning, I read the following from the book, True Love, by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn and it all suddenly feel into place in my mind and in my heart:

"To love is to recognize; to be loved is to be recognized by the other ... When we are loved we wish the other to recognize our presence, and this is a very important practice."

We have all developed our different ways to interact with a world that is unpredictable and which is always changing.  Some of us do too much for everyone else, perhaps too little for ourselves; some of us close off important, perhaps vulnerable parts of ourselves so that the world (we hope) cannot hurt us; some of us come out fighting, aggressively defending our space, our feelings, our softness; others fill the world with noise and bluster, talking all the time, filling all the silences, so as to never have to be truly seen or have to admit who we truly are; some show off, shouting 'look at how wonderful I am and all that I have achieved' in order to hide their weaknesses.  But beneath all of that, we are all vulnerable; we all need to be loved.

To be recognised by another is to be loved.  Through loving and recognising you, they are saying: I see all of your hurts and defences and foibles and weaknesses, the things that you do right and the things that you do wrong and I recognise that beneath all of that you are truly a unique and wonderful person; I see into the heart of you and the heart of you is beautiful and good.  They are saying that you do not have to be anything else, you do not have to act a certain way, prove yourself, change yourself, be someone else, they are saying that they recognise you and love you for exactly who you are now.  Imagine someone feeling that for you, or expressing those feelings for you, and you will understand what a gift it is.  The gift of recognition is the gift of true love and acceptance.

And recognising ourselves is just as important and just as much about love.  The idea of loving oneself has negative connotations: we talk about someone 'loving himself' as a way of saying they think too much of themselves, that they are big-headed.  This is unfortunate, because truly loving oneself is one the hardest, most subtle, most profound aspects of our yoga practice.  Can you look into your heart and see all that is beautiful there?  Can you appreciate your own self, behind and beyond all of the surface actions of your personality and ego?  Only when you can do this are you truly able to love others, for when we recognise ourselves as essentially good and true and made of love, then it follows logically that we recognise every other human being as essentially good and true and made of love too, no matter what traits they are projecting to the world.

Yoga practice asks us to look deeply into our own hearts, to be honest, and to recognise that we are each an expression of Divine love.  Then, having recognised it in yourself, to recognise it in everybody else, not just your family, or your friends, or the people that you have chosen to surround yourself with, but everyone.

Practising recognition is not easy, but it is a rare and wonderful gift to give and to receive.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

An Unfolding - Ishvara Pranidhana II

continued from An Unfolding: Ishvara Pranidhana...

Yoga practice is all about noticing our habits and tendencies: eliminating those that lead us towards suffering and cultivating those that lead us towards a peaceful, content, more wise way of living. 

One of my own tendencies has been my resistance to surrender - I find it hard to trust the unfolding.  My habit is to think that I can work it all out intellectually and then make a positive decision about what to do; that through sheer tenacity and the force of my will I can make things happen a certain way.  Of course I can't and I'm working on breaking that way of thinking!  The concept of ishvara pranidhana is helping me to do that.

After writing about ishvara pranidhana last week, from the point of view of one who seeks to control the world, one of my students asked, what if you are coming from the opposite direction?  What if the world feels permanently out of control and that you have nothing solid to cling to?  What if you often find yourself feeling fearful about the way the world tosses you about?  What if, instead of trying to control the river's flow (as I have done), you feel that you are at the mercy of it, with no ballast to keep you steady?

Ishvara pranidhana is as relevant to you as it is to me.  Whether you feel a victim of life's happenings, or you take up arms and fight against them, we are still all subject to the fact that life just happens and all we can do is to meet it where we find it, with as much strength and peace in our hearts as we can muster.  We know when we look back that life is random and curious: some of the best times of our lives came out of darkness; some of the saddest dropped from the clear blue of a sunny sky; still others are that bittersweet combination of bliss and pain.  With the wisdom that comes with time we see that sorrow is as crucial for our personal development as joy.  Ishvara pranidhana is accepting that life is there to teach us if we are willing to watch and to learn from it.

The key to the practice of ishvara pranidhana, whichever side of the control fence you are sitting on, is discovering your own centre; finding your essential core of peace and personal wisdom and resting within it.  Every human being has within them balance, the capacity for love, wisdom, peace and patience.  Yoga is called a practice for a reason: you have to do it yourself and you have to keep on doing it; learn how to centre yourself in the good times so that you have the tools ready to cope with the harder times.

This is also a question of personal power.  Some of us don't like the idea of power - it seems hard and strong and not at all like us.  But as Brene Brown points out, the opposite of being powerful is being powerless... and I don't know anyone who enjoys being powerless.  By personal power I mean the humble kind of personal power that is brave enough to admit one's own frailty and to seek the support of loved ones in times of crisis.  I mean the kind of personal power that makes you resilient, rather than come crashing down or go running from the slightest challenge to the status quo.  I mean the self-reliance that stops you from reaching out to others in the hope that they will save you or give you the answer, the magic pill to all of your questions and problems.  I mean the kind of power that lets you sit quietly with tough feelings rather than hiding them behind busyness and noise so that you don't have to think about them (they don't go away, you know).

So no, we cannot control the fates and life is surprising.  But neither are we powerless victims of life's vicissitudes.  Yoga helps us to locate and develop our sense of personal power; our steadiness; it helps us to stay loving, kind and resilient even in the face of life's most difficult challenges.  Through yoga practice we find we can maintain strength, integrity and equilibrium through the good, the bad and the indifferent times.  In our practice we seek our own wisdom and find the courage to take notice of it and to live by it.  And the next time you feel yourself blown about by life's storms, you find you have become your own anchor.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

An Unfolding - Ishvara Pranidhana

Patanjali tells us that ishvara pranidhana is one of the key routes to peace of mind; to your centre; to your heart/soul/God, whatever it is that you call it.  It is so important it is one of the few things that he mentions twice. 

Ishvara pranidhana: surrender to that which is bigger than you; feeling your connection to everyone else and to every other living thing; letting go of the idea that you can control anything at all and learning instead to meet life where you find it and how you find it; where you find yourself and how you find yourself.  If your life is a river, then invoking ishvara pranidhana is learning to go with the flow of it: staying steady through the choppy bits, learning to allow yourself to love and enjoy the easy-flowing bits, being patient through seeming stagnation, knowing that a river never truly stops moving.  It is understanding that you do not - cannot - control the way the river flows.  Ishvara pranidhana is feeling yourself as an inextricable part of something much bigger than your small individual self: you are simultaneously small and insignificant in the midst of its vastness and yet an absolutely crucial, invaluable part of it.

Your yoga practice is, and will continue to be, a conscious turning back to love; a deliberate move towards silence, that you might hear all that the universe, your heart and the love of God has to tell you.

Ishvara pranidhana.  Life unfolds.  Let it.  Don't push.  Learn how to wait, watch and be alert; learn to trust that unfolding.  There is a rightness to it that you, with all your intellect, effort and knowingness, could never have achieved.

oOo

And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular
Mary Oliver

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Hamstrings

Here's an easy daily practice for anyone who would like to lengthen their hamstrings.

1. Get a yoga belt (or any belt you have)
2. Lie on your back on the floor
3. Raise one leg and put the belt around the heel end of your raised foot
4. Stretch the other leg out along the ground
5. Ensure that the back of both hips is in contact with the ground (the hip of the raised leg will want to curl up off the floor)
6. Hold for at least 2 minutes, each side

If you do this once a day, every day this month, you will see a great improvement in your hamstring length by December.

Do it to improve your asana practice, but also do it to improve your posture, mobility and your sense of comfort in your own body.

Namaste.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Journey

Life is not a straight road from from birth to death; it is a random, wonderful journey full of surprises, detours, seeming wrong turns, dead ends, hills, unseen potholes and steep upward climbs.

The thing is that we think we have the map, don't we?  The result of a+b=c; if I do this thing/behave this way, I will end up in that place over there.  But we need only give the most cursory glance back along the path that we have trodden already to know that this is certainly not the case.  Things come out of nowhere and knock you off your feet, in good and bad ways, and you deal with them all the only way you can: in the moment, to the best of your ability.

If you already have an established yoga practice, then you are better equipped than some to stay true to yourself in the midst of life's ups and downs.

Staying centred and true to yourself is only one of the gifts that yoga practice brings to a life.  The other is the understanding that the journey is your life.  The fun bits, the painful bits, the excitement, the hardship, the sorrow, the luck, the pain, the loss, the love, the change.  All this is the fabric of your life; every thread and stitch, every snag and tear will make up the tapestry of your one life.

In the middle of important life-change or self-questioning; on embarking on a new way of life, or job; at the beginning or the end of a relationship, the tendency for some of us is to long to know the outcome; the end; the resolution.  Like people who read the end of the book before they begin it, we want to know that it's going to be worthwhile; that our new choices are good ones; that everything will be ok in the end.

We cling to the happy times, that they might last longer, and we shun the hard times, wishing they were over and done with.  And all the while, life keeps on happening and you are here, where you are and there is nothing for you, but to live it now with as much love, heart and openness as you can.

The only certain destination for all of us is our death (I am going to die one day, aren't you?)  To long for the end is to wish your life away and to miss the gifts of the present.  The journey is your friend; let it teach you.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
C.S. Lewis

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Time Enough for Yoga Practice

It took me ages to understand that not every asana practice has to be a 90 minute sweat-fest to be worth anything.  Looking back, I've always been the all or nothing kind - when I learnt how to play the violin if I made a mistake playing something, I would always have to go back to the beginning and start again, so that I could play the whole thing through perfectly.  I watch my son play his cello now and observe that if he makes a mistake, he just goes back a bar or two to repeat the bit that he got wrong until he gets it right.  Once he's mastered those tricky bits, the whole piece comes together naturally.

That's how you learn, not by aiming for perfection every time, but by patiently applying yourself to the task at hand, with whatever time and tools you have at your disposal.  I'm glad that he seems to have learnt already what it took me the best part of 35 years to realise.

I wonder why we dissuade ourselves from applying ourselves to something because we don't feel that we have time to do it properly, or as well as we could if all of our stars were aligned and everything went perfectly.  Is it a way of being hard on ourselves: if it doesn't hurt, it can't be working?  Or is it because we think that if we can't do it perfectly, then we shouldn't bother at all?  Or is it just an excuse - a way of letting ourselves off the hook, because in truth we can't find the motivation to do it?

Speaking for myself, I think I was sabotaging myself with my own mental image of what a 'good' asana practice looked like.  If it wasn't going to look like that, then I felt that it just wasn't worth doing it.  In addition, when I am warm and have worked for a long time, my muscles are gratifyingly long and my ego liked that I could get deeply into poses and stay there for a long time.  Harder to accept my creaky old self on a cold morning in Autumn when even a standing forward bend felt difficult.  Lastly, I think lack of focus was an issue: it used to take me a lot longer to get to that place that we're all seeking in our yoga practice: that peaceful, calm, centred state.  If it was going to take me half an hour to get anywhere near that feeling and I only had half an hour available for practice, that meant that my mind was scattered and fragmented for the whole thing.

So what's that?  Imagination; ego; self-criticism; lack of patience.  Ouch.  It turns out that it wasn't my asana practice that was at fault, it was my whole mental attitude to it.

This applies to asana in another way too.  There are always things that we can't do, either because we are not physically open or strong enough, or because we are not mentally ready.  Should we avoid handstands completely, because they make us feel afraid and we can't see ourselves ever being physically able to do it?  Of course not, we know from our efforts to learn simpler poses that improvement comes with time, effort, patience and humility.  So we apply ourselves diligently to each aspect of a pose, accepting our current limitation, knowing that with persistent effort we will move gradually, but inevitably towards being able to do it. 

Our asana practice waxes and wanes too: when the days get shorter and colder our bodies naturally contract and we have to face the fact that the expansiveness of the warmer months (that saw us attempting hanumanasana and challenging arm balances) are over.  This is when we learn to accept and love our bodies and our practice as they are - we work with whatever we find in ourselves in the moment, rather than trying to fit ourselves into a pre-set mould of expectation.

It is the small practices, when we find ourselves with half an hour and seize the opportunity to practice, that make all the difference - these practices lay the foundations for the greater focus, strength, confidence, flexibility and calm of our asana practice in general.

Nowadays, with a busy teaching schedule, two children, a dog and a house to look after my practice usually lasts half an hour.  I know that there are yogis out there who practise for 2 hours a day and good luck to them.  I know that my asana practice won't ever look like theirs - some of them can do amazing things.  But in terms of the true meaning of asana practice, and it's true purpose, I know that I am as focused, calm, humble and happy in my 30 minutes as they are in their 120

Your practice is beautiful and will only become more beautiful.  Don't throw blocks across your path by intimidating yourself or talking yourself out of yoga practice.  Talk yourself into it!  Whatever it is you do (this doesn't just apply to asana practice), the cumulative effect of little and often is of more benefit to you than a once a week marathon.  And if you miss your once a week marathon, you'll have done nothing.  How often does that happen to you?

Sit quietly.  Ask yourself why it is that you hold your particular attitude to practising at home with whatever space, time and body you have that day.  Once you have found the answer to that question, you can shift it out of the way and get on with your yoga.

"Nothing would be done at all if we waited until we could do it so well that no one could find fault with it."
John Henry Newman

Monday, 10 October 2011

The One You Are Looking For

"The One you are looking for is the One who is looking"  So wrote St Francis of Assisi.  I find this reassuring during those periods when I feel that I am not sure where I am going, or what the point is.  Those times when you feel that you have lost your way a little bit, or when you don't like yourself very much; when you start being hard on yourself or when you feel like giving up; when you have lost your clarity or you just feel low on energy.  Whatever your particular way of getting lost is.

What I think he means is that what you are looking for is already there; the peace of mind that you seek is within you.  It is not so much a finding of it, but a letting go of all the stuff that lies between you and it.

Here's how Rumi put it: "This longing you express is the return message."  In other words, your longing, your seeking for truth, your understanding that there is something else, is your answer; it is your calling.  Erich Schiffman writes: "The solution to anything is to slide into a feeling of peace instead of thrashing around to find the answer ... When you experience your essence, you will feel this natural lovingness within yourself without having to do anything

When we take these teachings (from those much wiser than us) to heart, what we realise is this: that we don't have to keep running so fast - either towards the things that we hope will prove our worth (to ourselves; to others) or away from the truth of who we really are and what we really need and want from this life.  Most of all, we don't need to waste energy on being who we are not; we should only work to reveal the beautiful truth of who we already are.  It takes courage to trust that you are already enough.  It takes faith to believe the path is rising to meet you.  Are you brave enough to let the world know exactly who you are and to trust that that which you are seeking is seeking you right back?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

On Feeling Overwhelmed

I suppose that we all know what it feels like to be overwhelmed by all that need to get done in our lives; to be snowed under by a to-do list that never seems to get any shorter; or swamped by the need to make important decisions that could alter our lives irrevocably, yet without the time to think them through properly.  Sometimes we are overwhelmed because we have positively chosen to add something to our lives (an evening class, a training course, voluntary work), at other times, we have situations thrust upon us.

In some of us this feeling might inspire anxiety (accompanied by shortness of breath, sleeplessness, tense muscles), others might fall into a kind of torpor (low mood, hopelessness, lethargy), or feel confused and unable to navigate through maze of things we have to do.  Perhaps we start to ignore the problems or things that need doing in the hope that they will magically disappear.

Whatever your response to feelings of being engulfed by problems or by the work you have to do and the stuff you need to get done, here's the thing that yoga has to teach us: the past and the future are your imagination.  Only the present is real.  All you can do is what you are doing now.  So do that one thing and do it well.  Try not to rush halfway through one thing, only to stop to begin something else and all the while your brain is on tomorrow's appointment or yesterday's meeting or that essay you need to get finished for the end of the week.  Engage fully in this moment - it's an exercise of mind and the more you practice, the more you are able to do it.

What else?  Try to keep things simple!  I can't tell you how many hours I wasted baking cakes into the night for school fetes; making sure that my house was immaculately clean for an in-law's visit, thinking everything had to be perfect.  Henry David Thoreau said: "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail."  I couldn't agree more.  I wonder if my desire for perfection had more to do with my fear that others would find me lacking than anything else... and really, why stay up all hours making things look perfect only to arrive in the midst of that 'perfection' frazzled and lacklustre and unable to enjoy it fully?

That we don't need to do everything is a fact that some of us find hard to encompass.  I know people who can't sleep on aeroplanes because they need to keep concentrating on keeping the plane in the sky!  That we don't have to do everything ourselves is an equally important lesson to learn.  How does it feel to help someone out?  To give someone a hand when they really need it (without needing or wanting recompense or thanks)?  The truth is that it feels pretty good to be of service to someone.  Think about how you can empower others to share that feeling of generosity by asking them for help; do you dare to show them your vulnerability by telling them that it would really help you out if they took Johnny to school or sorted your laundry so you can catch up with yourself?  And if you have children, you can teach them to be the independent and generous souls that you hope they will become by asking them to help you when you need a hand.  Sometimes asking for help can be the hardest thing; rather than ask, we try to demonstrate our needs and then compound our pain when those needs are not met.  Try asking clearly for what you need (from your colleagues, your boss, your partner, your kids) and see what happens - if you're still disappointed, you might have some work to do with them, that's all!  For the mostpart, people don't know you're feeling swamped unless you tell them.

As for your yoga practice... you already know that the days when you feel like you have no time for yoga are the days that you need yoga the most.  You already know that yoga will give you what you most need when you are busy: serenity, a relaxed body, mental clarity.  You already know that if you practise being present, just living this one moment fully, that things go better for you.  I would add to this that yoga helps you to leave aside the stuff that doesn't matter and identify that which does, so that you have more time for the things you need to do and the people that need you to be around.

If you're overwhelmed just now, good luck.  Keep breathing.  Keep doing the things you need to do (in your heart, you know what they are) to stay sane. And do them every day.  Apart from that, do the only thing you can ever do: your best in this moment, right now.

“There is nothing perfect...only life.”
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

Monday, 3 October 2011

Ripening

It occurs to me, wandering through the fields near my home in the sunshine, how everything in nature ripens and then yields to something else, completely without struggle, in its own way and in its own right time. 

The leaves on the trees just now are such beautiful colours and vibrantly alive, but they are about to die, to drop from the trees, form carpets of leaves on the ground and then to yield once again to become the earth.  The hedgerows are ripe with bursting fruit, the trees full of apples, the last of the flowers around here are blowsy with life.  Animals make free with this richness, filling their stores, making the most of the last days of plenty before the winter comes.  At the tail-end of summer everything reaches its culmination.

How stark it is, at this time of year, to compare this natural, circular ripening and yielding to what we do as humans and how we live.

I feel that I have spent a lot of my life fighting.  When I was a mother to two small children, I was impatient with the little amount I felt I could achieve in a day; I felt held up by my duties as a mother and constrained by the things I had to do for them.  In retrospect that time was so brief (they are now much bigger and don't need me so much) and what I learned from them was so profound (how to live in the  moment, how to love, how to nurture and support) that I see I was a fool to ever have resented it.  Watching friends with small babies now, I realise how time-consuming looking after small children is - of course you don't get much else done!  But I also observe how mother and fatherhood mellows us; teaches us; leads us on into new experiences that make us better human beings.  What I mean to say is that it felt like I was achieving little, but in truth I was learning some of the most important lessons of my life.  My understanding of life was deepening without my even being aware of it, let alone fighting for it.  Things ripen in their own time.

We fight against our natures too, don't we?  Whether it's hardening ourselves against life's pain and the people who might hurt us; or toughening ourselves up to deal with corporate life; steeling ourselves against the possibility of failure lest people discover we are not perfect; or putting our vibrant selves away in order to fit into a mould of who we think we ought to be and what we think other people need from us.

And we battle too, when we are unable to see the way ahead clearly, when life gets difficult and the path ahead is obscured.  Hard then to trust that hiatus can be an important, meaningful and beneficial part of our lives.  Hard then to have faith that each period of our life has a purpose and a meaning that we might not be able to appreciate until a long time afterwards. 

I hope that the older I get, the more I will trust in the rhythm of my life.  That I will remember that, like the natural world around me, at times my life will burst forth, blossom and bloom.  I hope that when those times come, I have the courage to seize the opportunities presented and to make the most of them.  At other times, my life will seem to contract and I will feel a sense of withdrawal and hiatus.  I hope that in those times, I can find the faith to understand that sometimes we must draw back in order to take stock and consolidate, before moving forward again.  I hope that I can trust that the movement will return in its own time and in its own way. 

I hope that I can align more purely with my own nature; truly understand it and allow it to be; absolutely trust in who I am and that my life is exactly as it should be in any given moment.  I hope that I am able to confidently seize all the opportunities for growth and enlightenment that life offers me.  But I hope that I can also yield, as nature does, when the time is right and that in yielding, I can accept loss and change, in the knowledge that nothing stays the same and that sometimes one thing must give way to make space for another, better, more enriching experience.  As summer gives way to autumn, so let me give way to that which I do not know and cannot see.  And let me do it with faith, trust and courage.  As my life has taught me in the past, so let me trust that it will teach me in the future. 

All yoga asks of us is that we come to understand our true selves and to live honestly in alignment with that true self; to engage fully in this life and to give wholeheartedly of ourselves; to learn from life and to love it in all its forms.  I hope that I can yield more and fight less while staying true to that which I am.

Namaste. 

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

What do you need today?

What is your yoga practice for?  This is a good question to ask yourself as you come to your mat to practice at home.  This simple question, when considered quietly and with focus will lead you to understand and to give yourself exactly what you need from your asana/pranayama/meditation practice on any given day.

Sometimes, it will be right to push yourself beyond your previous boundaries, to test your courage, your strength and your flexibility, to attempt asana/breathing practices/meditations that you have previously found challenging.  On other days, it will be more appropriate to move slowly and mindfully, or to sit quietly to meditate on something familiar.  The trick is in understanding your differing needs; over time, you will learn how to respond to them appropriately.

Some people find it hard to motivate themselves to get to their mat at all, and once there the feeling that they don't really know what they are supposed to be doing and can't remember any of the poses leads them to give up easily.  But some cat stretches, a standing forward bend, savasana, or some simple breathing practice (of the 'I am breathing in; I am breathing out' kind) is sufficient and could lead you to your intended outcome.

Other people find it hard to believe that 10 minutes of gentle stretches constitutes a worthwhile yoga asana practice; that yoga should be 90 minutes of sweat and hard work, or nothing at all.

But I have come to my mat for 90 minutes of hard work and for 10 minutes of very gentle stretches and emerged feeling more whole, more happy and more centred from both.

Every yoga practice should draw you nearer to kindness, focus, gentleness, strength, serenity, peace and joy.  It should always bring more ease to your body and mind.  But how you get there will differ from day to day.  Sometimes you will find your centre by working hard; sometimes you will find it by giving yourself gentleness.  And it might not even happen on your mat. Sometimes it's enough to take a walk in the countryside (having left your phone at home); sometimes it's curling up with a good book; going for a swim; knitting a jumper... In your heart, you know what does it for you.

No yoga practice is ever a waste of time.  If you start with that premise, then you can't go wrong.

"On this path effort never goes to waste and there is no failure.  Even a little effort towards spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear."
Bhagavad Gita 2:40

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Life without a Plan

Here's an easy trap to get caught in: the sham security offered by always having a plan.  Plans for your career, plans for how your house is going to look one day, or where you are going to live, plans for what you are going to be like when you've lost weight/got fit/run that marathon, plans for your relationship or for your children.

What do you think is the real reason for all the plans that you have for yourself and for your life?  What do you think you are protecting yourself from?  What do you think you are missing out on?

It is true that we need to make some plans - if I don't go to the supermarket, then I won't have anything to cook for dinner later.  But I wonder if sometimes we don't make plans to protect ourselves from the fear of not-knowing.  In truth, not-knowing is an ever-present state.  We don't know where we will be tomorrow - we think we might be at work, sitting at our desks with a coffee and this might well be the case; but we could fall ill, or need to be somewhere else with someone who needs us, or any number of other things that might come to us out of nowhere.  When they do, we will have to respond to them in the moment - the only way we ever truly get to respond to anything.

I wonder also about how making plans for the future gives us a way of avoiding the truth of situations in which we find ourselves now.  If we are unhappy, or stressed, or living in ways that aren't making and keeping us well, then in many ways it is easier not to think of that (and what changes we might have to make to create a new way of living), but rather to project our imaginations into a rosy future, where the promotion, increased salary, new relationship, world trip makes everything ok.  Of course, what we need to do is to look at our lives how they are today. If something is wrong, we need to put it right, not by making sunny plans for the future, but by honestly assessing where we are here, now, this moment.

There might also be things that we miss out on because we have been so invested in a plan; in an idea of who we are, where we are going and how our lives are going to be, that we inadvertently close ourselves off to the many opportunities that present themselves to us out of nowhere.

Being without a plan can feel vertiginous, scary.  We might feel that we are floundering in nothingness, without direction; we might panic because we have nothing to hold on to; we might lose ourselves, because we had so much invested in a plan that we had let it define us.  This is when you practise presence.  Go and meditate; go and practice asana; go for a walk.  Give yourself some peace and time not to be flummoxed by the directionless state you find yourself in.  Wonder to yourself if it might actually be an opportunity, a necessary hiatus.  Be brave, have patience, wait and see.

There is a spiritual element to not-knowingness, summed up by the term ishvara-pranidhana - surrender.  When you look back on your life, you see that some of your best-laid plans came to naught, but that everything worked itself out somehow; that you have learnt even from the periods of sorrow, pain and grief.  In this way we are able to make sense of our past, and yet we don't trust that future has the same rightness to it.  If only we could trust that much; have that much faith; surrender to the idea that there is a wisdom inherent in our life-path, and one day we will be able to see it.

Try to trust in the rightness of where you find yourself in the world, however discombobulating it might feel to not have a plan for what's next.  Stop fighting so much; try letting go a little bit; try having faith in the path you're walking on, even as you realise that you will never truly know what exactly is coming round the next bend.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Four Brahmavihara - Loving Kindness

The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated: friendliness toward the joyful, compassion toward the suffering, happiness toward the pure, and impartiality toward the impure.
Yoga Sutra I,33 Translated by Alistair Shearer

The first practical instruction that Patanjali gives to a yoga aspirant comes in chapter one, verse 33 of the Sutras and it is to do with our social relationships. It is obvious really, that our spiritual fitness should be tested first in the fire of our relationships with others, since it is in our interactions with others that we demonstrate our personality, our capacity for kindness and love and our propensity towards judgement and condemnation of other people's behaviour.

Ram Dass writes that if you want to test how well you are doing on your spiritual path, you should go and visit your family. It is they who will press all of your buttons, reignite all of your childhood petulance and stir up long-cherished grievances. He recounts how his father always wondered aloud when he was going to get a proper job (he was by this time a world famous spiritual teacher and author of many books), but his father was an East Coast lawyer and having a hippy for a son wasn't ever going to cut it. 

In Sanskrit, this sutra reads as follows:

maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha dukha punya apunya visyanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam

Maitri means friendliness, kindness, love. It is one of the highest virtues in yoga and is a quality inherent in all enlightened beings and bodhisattvas. Later in the sutras, Patanjali advises maitriyadisu balani (YS III,24): that by practising friendliness and other such virtues towards all others, not only does our capacity for friendliness and love grow, but our moral and emotional strength is increased.

Karuna is compassion. The giving of our time and our empathy to another human being, animal, or living thing that needs it. It is taking time to understand another person's pain, suffering, or point of view and relinquishing the idea of personal ownership of misery. It's holding someone's hand while they work through their stuff and just being there for them. We all know what we need from other people when we are at a low ebb: we don't need anyone to take the suffering away from us; we don't need to be told what to do to make it better; we don't need it pointed out to us how foolish we are to have gotten into this situation; or how we've had it easy, because they've had it so much worse; and we certainly don't need that kind of sympathy that leaves us feeling patronised. Compassion is that brand of kindness that gives you a hug, talks and is silent, listens and seeks to understand and which is entirely accepting and loving of you in your hour of need.

Mudita is gladness, a positive state of mind to be consciously radiated. How nice it is to be with someone who radiates gladness: someone who can make you smile while you're waiting in the rain for a late bus; someone who can see and point out the beauty in a somewhat desolate city landscape; someone who helps you to remember the simple joys of life (a nice sit down and a cup of tea); or who shares with you the things that make them happy and wants to know all about yours. Learning to be this person; becoming this person, is part of yoga practice. It's connected to the practice of gratitude: we've all been in the presence of those who drain the life-blood from us with their complaints about the things they never had; the things they'll never get and the way life has been so hard. It's easy to be down on the world; the hard work is to remember to look for the beauty and to keep on being glad for it and to carry on sharing that gladness with everyone that you meet and know.  Happy people aren't luckier than anyone else (all humans suffer), they just work harder at being cheerful.

Upeksha is equanimity. I think this might be the hardest of the lot. To regard with equanimity those people who constantly make mistakes; who repeatedly make damaging life-choices; or live in ways that differ from the path we have made for ourselves.  Upeksha is about remaining open-minded and balanced in the face of other people's faults and imperfections, rather than rushing to judge and condemn them for their weaknesses.  The flipside of upeksha is realising that we all have our shortcomings; we all say and do things (known or unknown to us) that annoy or challenge others. Our way of living is not perfect; it's just our way.  Other people have their ways of doing things based on their best efforts and it is not for us to judge or condemn, nor to congratulate and encourage.  According to Patanjali, it is our job only to remain peaceful and calm in the face of this and to attempt to see through people's foibles to the beauty that we know to be present in everyone.

It's worth noting here, that I do not believe that maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha mean that yogis should be passive in the face of injustice. Anyone who thinks this is the case should look to the life of Mohandas Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, or Aung San Suu Kyi - these are peaceful, non-judgmental people with the fortitude to take on repressive regimes and to continue to fight for what they believe in the face of extreme repression and hardship. However, these concepts do feed into protest, as Ram Dass wrote: "You can only protest effectively when you love the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself."  Protest and movement for change comes not because we hate the person against whom we are fighting, but because we hate what they do and believe wholeheartedly in a different way.

The projection or conscious radiation of friendliness and compassion is taught in the Yoga Sutras as a method of pacifying the mind. Pacifying the mind is the true purpose of all yoga practice. Thus yoga is love and love is yoga.  The practice of kindness and compassion is your yoga practice. It is a tangible, constant testing of your progress in yoga. In time, kindness and compassion become less something you practise and more something that you are.  And it can only run in circles... you must allow this love and kindness into your heart and soul as well as projecting it outwards, or else you will be forever limited in the amount of kindness, even-handedness, love and acceptance you can give. Be generous enough to give it to yourself and to receive it from others; for some of us, that's the hardest part of all. 

"A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave."
Mohandas Gandhi

Saturday, 10 September 2011

20 Minutes to Change your Day

I once met a man called Hugh who did a lot of yoga.  We were on a yoga weekend and ended up sitting next to each other at lunch; apropos of nothing I commented that on the days I practised yoga, the day seemed then to roll out more evenly and beautifully afterwards, as if there was all the time in the world for everything (as opposed to that horrible, I'm-never-going-to-have-enough-time-for-all-I-need-to-get-done-today feeling that has become the default setting for too many of us).  Without missing a beat he replied that yoga makes you realise the things that matter and the things that don't, so that after you have practised, you don't waste time on the small stuff.  You breathe more deeply, you take more time, you trust more that everything will get done in its own right time.  I'm not sure that I had put two and two together before and made this realisation, but it was so obvious when he said it and of course, he is absolutely right.  Yoga reframes your day, and when you have practised regularly for long enough, it reframes your life.  Yoga helps you to acknowledge what is important and to leave aside the other stuff.  It teaches you to live with your brain fully engaged with whatever it is you are doing and that helps you to do things better, more successfully, more easily.  You rush less and make less silly mistakes.  You improve the quality of your attention to any given situation and action and this improves both the way you perform that action and your experience of it.

Try to remember that the days when you feel that you have no time for yoga, are likely to be the days that you need yoga the most.

Try to remember that you have it within your power to take 20 minutes out of your day for yoga and thereby to make your whole day better.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

How to Meditate 3 - Sitting with Yourself

Try not to turn your meditation into a battle, or to make it into another thing to beat yourself up with (I can't do this, I'm too impatient, there's something wrong with me because my brain just won't stop thinking).

When you sit to meditate, you inevitably find that you are sitting with yourself.  This can be uncomfortable and/or frustrating.  It might be that you are a planner, or a dreamer; that you relive the story of your past life, or that you imagine your future.  You might get stuck on a person, or a conversation, or a thought you've had.  You might feel something (pleasant or unpleasant) that you can't let go of: reliving a romantic encounter, for example, or going over an argument or past hurt.

Whatever it is that you find in yourself, know that at least the first stage of your meditation will often be a period of reconciling yourself to whatever it is that has been occupying your mind of late (consciously or subconsciously).  This is an important and valid part of the meditation process.  If our yoga practice is about observing ourselves and assessing our actions with clarity, then it is important that we do not flinch from the things that occupy our thinking minds.  Moreover, learning to sit quietly with whatever is present in us, can be the most challenging thing of all.  Sometimes I have longed to lose myself in my mantra, because it is SO much more settling than sitting with me, me, me, for the duration of my practice.

The proportion of your allotted meditation time that is taken up with thinking, will vary each time you sit.  Some days I have spent 50 minutes with thoughts buzzing around my head, finding only 10 minutes of peace at the end of my practice.  Very rarely (beautiful days), I sit and almost immediately fall into that deep, quiet space that exists behind everything.  Other times it comes and goes.  And the curious thing is, that sitting with beauty, joy and peace can be as challenging as sitting with your thoughts.  Sometimes I feel so unbounded, energetic and free that I can barely stand it!

But it is important not to judge.  There is a kind of wisdom to meditation that we cannot understand, but that we must trust.  The days that I sit with my thinking brain are as instructional, as motivational and move me along as much as the days when I fall into instant peace.

Accepting your practice as it comes to you is part of the practice.  That's faith.  That's trusting the process and trusting yourself.

If you continue to come up against blocks; if you find yourself forever mired in painful thoughts or lost in reveries, then you may wish to consider the amount of time that you are giving to your meditation practice.  In the past, I would sometimes emerge from meditation feeling irritable.  It turned out that I wasn't giving myself time to get beyond the busy brain part of my practice to the untroubled, dissolution into peace that comes after it.  Or you could ask your teacher or reach for a good book on meditation; sometimes a kind word and some advice from someone who's been there is all you need to help you along.

Meditation is a practice that moves along in its own sweet time.  We're not used to having to wait for things; we're used to getting what we want as and when we desire it; or else we work harder to get it.  Meditation is the opposite of this: try less, wait more, trust, and watch what happens without judgment.
 
"You can't always get what you want,
but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need."
The Rolling Stones

Friday, 26 August 2011

Unconditional Love - Satchitananda

There are many different types of love, but the only kind that really matters is unconditional love. 

When Ram Dass first met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, he saw in Ram Dass all of the good and all of the bad; the shameful secrets; the deepest, darkest hidden things that Ram Dass would never have revealed to anyone.  Neem Karoli Baba saw all this and he loved Ram Dass anyway.  More than this: he loved Ram Dass absolutely and completely, needing absolutely nothing in return.  This is how Larry Brilliant describes the wonder of Neem Karoli Baba's love: “what ... staggered me (was) not that he loved everybody, but that when I was sitting in front of him, I loved everybody.” 

It’s what a mother and father’s love should be for a child, but too often isn’t.

It’s the kind of love that says: here, in this moment, exactly as you are, you are good enough, you are loved for being exactly this.  Regardless of your dark bits, your spiky bits, your goofs and missteps, the things you do wrong, the things you do right, the days that you are dark and the days that you are light.  Those things change on a daily basis, but unconditional love does not. 

This is the love, I think, that Jesus spoke of. 
It is the love that is written of here by St John of the Cross:

How peacefully, how lovingly
You awaken my heart,
The secret place where you alone dwell within me!
Your breath on my face is delicious,
Calming and galvanising at once.
How delicately, how lucidly
You make me crazy with love for you!

Or in this passage from Rumi:

Be certain
In the religion of love
There are no
Believers or unbelievers.
Love embraces all.

This love is satchitananda (sat=truth/existence chit=consciousness/ananda=bliss).  As Georg Feuerstein writes, “this bliss is not a state of mind, but the condition that remains when all psycho-mental phenomena have been transcended”.  Yogis speak of this unconditional love lying behind everything; always there.  We do not need to ‘find’ it, only to remove the things that stand between us and it; that is the work that we are doing.

We might find this love in another human being... our spiritual teacher, perhaps, or in someone we know who embodies all that we value in humanity and who gives us something strong, yet intangible and asks for nothing in return; we might find it in prayer or during meditation; we might read of it in books from teachers and poets alive or dead; we might see it in the example of people who do good in the world and who ask for no recompense.  So many paths to the same source.

The work of yoga is to find it, connect with it, and let it run through us so that we may express it in our lives.

Ram Dass writes, “once you have experienced unconditional love, you have nowhere to go.  You can run, but you can’t hide.  The seed is planted, and it will grow in its own time.  You can only grow into who you truly are.”