abhyase 'py asamartho 's i/ matkarma-paramo bhava
madartham api karmani / kurvan siddhim avapsyasi
If you cannot practice meditation, then think of my work and perform your own work
for my sake, and you shall attain enlightenment (BG XII.10)
We only really have one job in this life and that is to find God. Since God dwells within each one of us, we had better get inside as soon as possible, if we want to find what we are looking for. Run for cover; seek the solace, which is always waiting for you inside. Don't spend too much time out there looking around trying to find it. Valuable things, the important things that we think we have lost, are always found in the least expected places, the last places we would think to look.
The storm is coming-it might already be raging and you just haven't noticed in a while, or you might even consider yourself well aware that the storm is occurring but you think it is like the weather and there is nothing you or anyone can do about it. You think things just happen to you, the world is coming at you and you are a passive victim of circumstances, sometimes fortunate, sometimes unfortunate. You have heard optimistic people say that peace and love are possible. But the world is in such a mess, shouldn't we or somebody do something about all the violence, misery and unfairness in the world, first, before we go inside and sit down cozy by the fire with a cup of tea?
Everything you see is a projection coming from inside of you. If you don't like what you see out there, the best way to change it is by doing your best to change the inside first. If you want the world to be a peaceful place, you must be a peaceful person, before you expect others to be. Once you have found the inner peace-the inner joy inside of yourself-you are able to move in the world from a place of spiritual activation. You embody that which you want to see in others and the world. God is the source of that inner peace and joy; joy is the nature of God, and you and God are one (that's the meaning of yoga). When you act from that serene inner reality, you can then see the world realistically: you stop blaming others, you stop being angry, judgmental or upset with others and instead you find creative ways to increase your inner joy. If instead you search for God (peace, love, happiness, joy) outside of yourself and try to find happiness and fulfillment in things, situations and other people that appear separate from you, you will eventually, but inevitably, become disappointed, disillusioned and perhaps even cynical. When that occurs you will lose your faith in life, feeling that it has no meaning and there is no lasting happiness or joy to be found.
Often times it takes a violent storm for one to seek shelter. There are many accounts of people who have gone through a traumatic experience-an accident, the death of a loved one or a serious illness-which instigated a mystical or transcendental realization, forcing them to go inside and reevaluate the purpose of their life.
Okay, so you're convinced that it is important to go inside-you have answered the why of the situation, but what about the how? How do we "go inside?" Patanjali says, Give up and take refuge in God (PYS 1.23). But that brings us back to where we started, because we don't know how to find God. Patanjali of course gives meditation as a means to find the inner Self, as does Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. But what if I'm a person who has a lot to do, I have children and a job and not much time, and I can't seem to meditate long enough or good enough to begin to feel that inner peace, then what-am I destined to be lost and unhappy? Is there something else I can do? Yes! Krishna says, Keep doing what you do, but remember me while you are doing it (BG XII.10). You don't have to divide your day into spiritual activities at one time and mundane work or entertaining distractions at other times; all of your life, every moment, can be a spiritual practice, if you can remember God.
I once heard an interview on the radio with Alice Coltrane or Swami Turiyasangitananda, which was her spiritual name. The interviewer was asking her about her prolific musical accomplishments and had cited a list of many recordings she had done and performances that had happened or were scheduled to happen, as well as a recent book she had authored. The interviewer then said, "You have been so busy, how do you keep it all together and get so much done?" To which Alice responded in her characteristic voice, which was so slow and serene, "I only have one job and that is to get to God, and that is a full-time job!"
Focus of the Month Teaching Tips
One Job (September 2011)
. Consider playing Alice Coltrane's and John Coltrane's music during this month.
"I am at home in the entire universe."
-Swami Nirmalananda, the anarchist swami who lived in peace deep in the wild forests of South India
Tompkins Square Park is near where I live on 7th Street in the Lower East Side of NYC. In the middle of the park there is the famous tree where, in the 1960's after arriving in the United States, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada first chanted the Hare Krishna mantra. Lots of pigeons and other smaller birds often can be seen gathering together around the base of that tree, sometimes several hundred. One day as I was walking toward the tree, I saw many birds walking and quietly pecking at the ground. A group of three or four children came rushing by me towards the birds, screaming and laughing. They ran at full tilt, right into the peaceful demonstration. Of course, the birds, alarmed and frightened, flew off immediately, circled around overhead and landed again this time in another place not far off. The kids took off towards them with the same intent to disrupt and cause havoc. I turned to see who I assumed were the parents, who giggled and said, "They've been cooped up all day at school how can you blame them for wanting to go wild?"
Is wildness synonymous with the freedom to do what ever you want, to whomever you want, whenever you want? Contrary to popular belief, to be wild is not to be selfish, chaotic and unorganized. If one observes wild beings in a wild environment you will see that orderly co-existence among all is the norm. To be wild is to be anarchistic-where one's actions are derived from the essential transcendental Self. That Self is the same in all beings. It is what holds us together and connects us to each other. To be an anarchist is to be ruled by the Self-to live your life so as to enhance the lives of others -even to enhance the world and perhaps even the greater universe. To be an anarchist is to know oneself as one with all of life-all animals, plants, water, even the sun, moon and stars. The laws dictated by the Self are the natural harmonious laws of love. The Self is described by the yogic texts as satchidananda-ultimate existence, knowledge and bliss-this happiness is our true nature.
Civilized ordinary people are kept apart from the deep joys that living a wild, free and fully engaged life offers; instead they live in fear-fear of others. So governments with laws and militaries and police forces are employed to protect the people from the people-human people that is. Certainly man-made laws cannot be read by wild animals like wolves or bears, because they aren't written in a language that any wild being can understand; laws are meant for human beings, who have forgotten the universal laws of nature. A yogi is someone who has moved away from the laws of civilized life, which justify the exploitation of others, and is trying to live by the laws of nature. The path of renunciation involves self-discipline in order to become freed from the man-made restraints imposed upon the Self. As poet Gary Snyder suggests, "You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild."
When engaged in the disciplines of yoga the practitioner transforms. A dramatic alchemy is undergone, which changes a person from a cultured, civilized, hypnotized robot into a cosmic being wild and free. As they drop the superficial, artificial restraints imposed by culture's attempt to tame and urbanize, the yogi is actually able to reclaim wildness from within. All of our man-made achievements are just tiny reflections gleaned from a glimpse of the vast intelligence and organizing principles inherent in the wild universe. Perhaps we should be more humble in our relationship with what is wild instead of taking a stance of arrogance and dominance-attempting to harness and lord over others.
A realized yogi is not bound by the false fences and demarcations constructed by prejudiced minds which insist on differences. A true yogi has equanimity of mind and is able to, as the Bhagavad Gita describes, perceive a lump of clay, a stone or a nugget of gold as the same (BG VI.8). When the shackles of religion, nationalism, racism, sexism, and speciesism are broken, one is released from a thousand year prison sentence and able to walk as a cosmopolitan citizen-a citizen of the cosmos-no longer taking pride in the things that separate us from each other, like the confining traditions of language, sex, dress and diet. A yogi moves comfortably as a free spirit easily through walls-those physically constructed as well as those mentally constructed. When one is truly filled with joy, no boundaries can contain them. They live as a friend to all, independent-dependent on no one in particular, as they find their sustenance at the eternal flowing fountain which sustains and nourishes all-God's radiant Love. A yogi lives wild in the light of love.
The Guru as Mirror
guru satyam guru jnanam guru anandam guru shantih
My teacher is the truth, my teacher is the wisdom, my teacher is the bliss,
my teacher is the peace.
Often when a student talks about their guru, they say things like, "It was like they saw right through me. There is nothing I can hide from them; I am transparent in their presence. They remind me of God; I feel more whole when I am with them. They seem to know everything about me, and yet they still love me, unconditionally." How does this work? What kind of relationship is this? Gu means "ignorance; that which obscures Truth." Ru means "that which removes." The guru is the agent-the teacher-who removes ignorance so that the Truth can be revealed.
The relationship between student and teacher is a spiritual one-a relationship focused on identity. The quest for identity is the ultimate quest. To know oneself, to find out, to discover who you are, is the truth that everyone is looking for. The student seeks out a teacher because they want to know who they are. They are looking for help in understanding the confounding complexities and limitations of their own personality. You could say they are having an identity crisis. Usually the search starts with an experience of discontent and a feeling that they may be more than they thought they were, or that life may hold more potential beyond just eating, sleeping, money, sex, marriage, home, job and acquiring more stuff. This is why the spiritual path is not for normal people; it is for people who are looking for something more than success in the realms of the three basic power drives which fuel the three lower chakras: money, sex and fame. When these start to look less interesting, it is then that a person is at a critical point where they begin to realize that they are more than their body and mind, more than a skin encapsulated ego/personality. At this time, they begin to seriously ask: Is there more to life? Is compassion, generosity and kindness really worthwhile? What is Love, and does God exist?
We all need help to be able to see ourselves as we truly are. The job of a guru is to provide this assistance. A guru is someone who sees you as you really are-sees beyond your personality foibles, sees you as a holy being. It is through the medium of love that the guru is able to perceive this truth.
Love is that which connects us all-it is the ground of being, the medium through which all is created, sustained and renewed. Real love is slippery like mercury and cannot be grasped, while at the same time it is attractive, embracing, enveloping, nurturing and constant. Traditionally the guru serves as a love object for the student, allowing the student to love them. It is understood between student and teacher that the relationship will be based on love. The teacher by their presence becomes a focus for the student to pour their feelings into, but it is an unusual relationship because the normal aspects of relationship are missing; material gain, sexual gratification or ego enhancement is not involved. You could say it is a "pure" relationship in that sense; there is nothing else that the teacher gives the student: in the words of the old song, "I can't give you anything but love." There is nothing that the teacher needs or wants from the student other than the student's happiness and ultimate enlightenment-Self realization-the realization of Love.
This realization is facilitated by the guru, who serves as a mirror for the student, reflecting the student's outward as well as innermost desires, and thereby reveals to the student who they really are. The teacher reminds the student of God, which after all is who they really are. Before embarking on a teacher-student relationship, it is good to be sure that you want and are ready for what will come up, because it will all come up. But approached with humility, respect, appreciation and a sense of adventure, the guru can be a doorway, a magic mirror through which the student can walk into the realm of infinite possibilities.
Practice and Non-Attachment
abhyasa-vairagyabhyam tan-nirodhah (PYS 1.12)
Identification with the fluctuations of mind is stopped by practice and non-attachment.
In sutra 1.2 of his Yoga Sutra, Patanjali defines the state of Yoga as the cessation of identification with the fluctuations of mind. Then in sutra 1.12, he offers a 2-step method for how to stop those fluctuations and thus how to attain Yoga. He tells us that through practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya), we will be able to stop identifying with our thoughts and be able to see the true reality of who we are. At that point, we have reached enlightenment --the realization of the oneness of being, eternal bliss.
So all we need to do is practice and not be attached. All very good as a concept. But how to do it? What do those concepts really mean? Abhyasa means to practice, and to practice something implies that you stay with it for a while. You sit with something, and every time you have a reaction to it--likeWhy do I have to work at this job? Why doesn't my spouse listen to me? Wow, why do we have to hold this shoulderstand for five minutes? or Why should I just sit here and try to meditate, I have important things I need to be doing? --you note your reaction and you let it go. Then you note your next reaction, and you let that one go, too. And on and on. You do that as long as you need to, and what will happen is that what is not useful to you anymore will just fall away, and what is useful will keep arising more and more. And eventually you will be able to see yourself as your true Self, your higher Self, rather than as a collection of all the things that run unceasingly through your mind.
So why don't we all just do that and leave behind the suffering of human life? One of my teachers once told me that anyone can experience samadhi if you lock yourself in a room with no books or TV or phones and meditate 16 hours a day for 3 weeks. But almost no one can do that, because after a short time of just sitting we feel we have to get up and do something. Our past actions come to the surface and do their best to distract us, to pull us away; they make it too uncomfortable to just sit with ourselves in such an intense way. Something disturbing arises, and we run away from it, we "change the channel," so we actually never get to fully experience the difficult thing that's arising. And when we do that (when we move away from it), we reinforce the difficult thing, we make it into something that can't be faced, and we cannot move forward. What's needed to sit with something difficult is vairagya--non-attachment, detachment, dispassion. Vairagya is facing something --even something positive-- and not identifying with it, not becoming attached to it so that it comes to be part of the way you see or define yourself. When something arises, you go deeper into it with an energetic investigation, an actual feeling investigation-- What is this thing? How does it make me feel?--and then you recognize that whatever the feeling of it is, whatever the experience of it is, it is just that: a feeling, an experience, and nothing more; it is not you. And then you move on.
There is only one asana and that is the relationship with yourself. Being comfortable with yourself--with your body and your mind--is the goal. Allowing your relationship with yourself to be steady and joyful will reveal the true Self inside of all the whirlings and changing. The true Self is eternal and unchanging. Asana and meditation are the same practice--both about being able to sit with whatever may be happening and trusting that inside of it all is that eternal joy which is the only true reality--and that is your own Self.
Every feeling, every emotion, positive or negative, has a starting point, an origin. In the ancient wisdom--not just in yogic tradition, but in all spiritual traditions--the source of everything is joy. The source of the entire universe is joy: boundless, limitless joy. So if we want to resolve a negative emotion like anger, we have to allow it to go full circle. To resolve means to bring something back to its origin, to go full circle. That's the process involved in yoga. Whether it's asana or meditation, a disturbing emotion or a feeling, you sit with it long enough and let it run its course, you feel it deeply and let it come out the other end, let it go back to where it came from, which actually is joy.
The paradox is that in order for practice to be effective, we need detachment; but in order to develop detachment, we need to practice. So we go through a yoga class, a day at work, an evening at home or a dinner with friends, and no matter what comes up, we sit with it--that is, we don't run away from it or resort to blame or arrogance other externalizing mental actions, or if we do, then we note that and try not to be attached to it (try to avoid "oh, I'm no good at this, all I ever do is lash out!"). And little by little, we find that we can sit with it a little longer, and we can remain unruffled a little more, all at the same time. And that is the two-step method that Patanjali offers.
Is yoga an effective method of detoxification? It may be, but it may depend on what you want to detoxify. While it makes sense that yoga asana practice could detoxify the physical body, there actually are no scientific studies that prove that. But the main toxin for the yogi is avidya-misperception of the true nature of the self; identification with our body, thoughts and feelings, rather than with the Absolute, Divine Self; thinking that there is a "you" that is separate from others-and the yoga practices can definitely clear that away. Avidya is the cause of all of our suffering: it creates all the emotional toxins, like sadness, fear, anger, anxiety, etc., while identification with the larger Self creates a "super" or "angelic" body that is invulnerable to pain, disease or emotional upset. Anyone suffering from avidya can benefit from detoxification through yoga.
How does yoga detoxify? Here are some of the ways:
Chanting. Chanting takes us "out of ourselves"-out of self-absorption and identification with our whirling minds. Negative thoughts create toxins. Also, the suffering of others toxifies the atmosphere around us, so for example chanting a mantra like lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu, which is an affirmation proclaiming that the chanter does not want others to suffer, creates an atmosphere free of suffering and toxicity. This is strong medicine and can act as a powerful detoxifier for the one reciting the mantra as well as those receiving the blessing.
Kriya. Yoga offers an array of cleansing practices called kriyas, each designed to eliminate particular kinds of dirt from the physical and subtle bodies. For example, kapalabhati-short, sharp exhales with passive inhales-eliminates excess air inside the body, helps us overcome our clinging to the inhalation and stimulates the ajna (6th) chakra-the third eye center. Another kriya is agni sara ("fire wash"), which uses the fire element in the body to burn up impurities and blockages in the subtle energy channels. Agni sara is performed by standing up and exhaling all the breath out, then pumping the diaphragm up and down without breathing.
Meditation. Our thoughts are not necessarily poison, and the goal of meditation or yoga practice in general is not to get rid of our thoughts. But identifying with negative thoughts-dwelling on them, letting them grow larger and spur on more and more thoughts, mistaking our true selves for our thoughts about ourselves-this is poisonous. In meditation, we watch our thoughts come up, and we let them go. We do this by constantly returning to the focus of the meditation, such as the breath or a mantra (like "LET GO"). Every time we notice we are thinking, every time we notice the mind wandering, we return to our focus without getting involved in the thoughts. Over time, we develop the ability to hold our attention on whatever we choose for as long as we choose, and we become less and less identified with our negative thoughts.
Asana. Culture limits our physical presence to an acceptable range of motion and movement. The asana practice takes us outside of that limited range of movement and introduces us to a whole world of possibilities we did not realize that we were missing. Asana improves our self-confidence and destroys the poison of low self-esteem. Asana also stimulates the endocrine system, which boosts our immunity so that we become less susceptible to physical toxins like the environmental pollutants in the air, water and food we eat.
All asanas offer these benefits, but twists are particularly powerful detoxifiers. When we twist, we put pressure on the internal organs, and when we breathe in a twist, we modify that pressure. It is like wringing out the dirty water from a dishtowel. Stagnant residue can be released from the organs, and when we exhale or release the twist, the organs are refreshed and better able to do their work. Twists also detoxify the subtle body by activating the manipura (3rd) chakra, located at the solar plexus, which is the seat of the ego. Twisting the torso where our ego resides can help break identifications with power or status. It may be interesting to note that every category of asanas has a twist variation.
Yoga teaches that we create our own reality by how we see things. Our perspective then, is key. Even if we are facing a serious illness, we have the choice to see ourselves as a living person, rather than as a dying one-after all, every living person is also a dying person, whether or not there is illness. Our point of view can be toxic or not, and through the yoga practices, we are always changing our point of view: we look at things upside down, right side up, from all angles, while breathing regularly or controlling our breath, etc. These practices offer the opportunity to experience life from a different perspective and thereby provide us with opportunities to root out the toxins that plague us.
Music: the Language of the Universe
Music is the language of the Universe. By creating good and harmonious sound-vibrations, we should, therefore, extend and expand our mental horizons even while sitting quietly in our home instead of wasting time on cheap entertainment like cinema and TV, which besides making us addicts through systematic brain-washing and slow poisoning, adversely affect the clarity and transparency of the mind. By our noble thoughts, benevolent aspirations and harmonious sound-vibrations we are able to help even plants, flowers, birds and animals. How much joy one is able to feel while watering the plants and feeding the birds and animals with kindness, love and affection of the heart! Even in looking at anything or anyone in this manner it is possible to derive unspeakable joy. These little acts of kindness, help and benevolence in our everyday lives are not wasted. They may even be a better form of help than our helping only the poor.
The poverty and the present plight of the world and humanity are the result of our wrong thinking, wrong notions, wrongdoings and wrong relationships with all. Without correcting these wrong uses of the mind in our daily living, any amount of our organized charity and dry philanthropy are not going to solve the problems of poverty and the growing hardship of the poor. Without going beyond our front yard, we are able to do a world of good for the noble cause of universal benevolence, for a better world and happier humanity. Establishing the right relationship with all is the first step.
With happy and frictionless living and harmonious sound-vibrations, one's life becomes a blessing and a benediction to all. Despite the world and its multifarious problems, we must be able to find our peace, freedom, happiness and harmony in life. Singing and humming with harmony is the easiest way to accomplish this.
Everywhere in nature we see the branches of trees, plants, flowers and the hanging creepers dancing and rejoicing in the breeze. Even distant mountain echoes. The running streams and the flowing rivers make their gurgling sound. Likewise, if there is no dancing of the mind and heart, there can be no religion, peace, poetry, freedom and happiness in us. Our singing or humming or dancing on the stage is only an outer expression of this inner dancing and rejoicing of the mind and spirit. Even birds are singing everywhere their pleasing songs. Children sing all over the world. Angels are said to be singing the glory of God.
Why don't we then sing the "song of life" in our own way and listen to our own music of the heart? The joy of it cannot be described in words. Only those whose hearts are empty and barren cannot sing the joy of life and they are full of excuses for their not singing or humming. We must realize that Life itself is the living poem. If we want abundant life, it is necessary to have more music and poetry in everyday living.
The world is like a looking glass: If we frown at it, it will frown at us in return, but if we smile at it, it will smile back at us. By living an intelligent way of life, we not only derive much joy in ourselves, but also help establish the kingdom of benevolence thereby benefiting all beings far and near. Even though the sun is far away, it creates warmth and light and brings untold benefit to all beings.
Let us, therefore function as God's instruments of love and peace for the well being of all. In this unique way of life there is the living quality of music and poetry, sweetness, harmony and frictionless living. Is this not what we all want in life?
-Swami Nirmalananda, excerpted from A Garland of Forest Flowers, 1993