Monday, July 27, 2009

Tapas and Other Food for Thought


Not usually a word that I have a positive feeling about. That is, the first image that comes to mind is of punishment or having a drill sergeant screaming in my face. In fact, it's an idea that I'm still coming to terms with. I do have an alternate image in my mind for discipline, and the feeling that coincides with it is one of respect, of a can-do attitude, of pride, and of freedom. You see, there are a few different definitions of discipline that appear when you search the dictionary. Perhaps the most common understanding of the word does have to do with punishment. However, there is a definition that refers to learning, to practice that improves a skill. I think the latter definition ties in with my previous post about yoga practice. Discipline is the practice of practicing.

Only through discipline do we become better, do we gain more knowledge, more affluence, more comfortableness with a skill. And it could be any skill of your choosing. How many times have you sat down to do something that you've done at least a million times, and still you learn something about it that you didn't know before? For example, just the other night I was going through my asana practice, and something new opened up for me about grounding into the earth. This revelation, which would be fairly difficult to describe without physically taking you through the sequence, led me to a greater opening in my lower body. It helped me connect the sky energies to the earth energies.

I am fairly systematic with my asana practice. I have a series of 'rules' that run through my head about alignment and lifting and lengthening and which chakras are active; where's my drishti (gaze)?; where's my mind? Grounding has been a somewhat difficult concept for me. It sort of mirrors my tendency to be mentally somewhere in space a lot of the time. I tend toward the busy, masculine, mental energies, and I am somewhat lacking in the more physically attuned, feminine, earth energies. That's not to say, however, that I'm an aggressive person; on the contrary, I'm rather passive, a pushover most of the time. Anyway, the point is that I busy myself with thinking more often than doing, which doesn't bring about a whole lot of manifestation of my goals.

The answer to this quandary comes with the application of discipline. The Yoga Sutra speaks of discipline as tapas, one of the niyamas. Whereas yamas are attitudes we should restrain, niyamas are attitudes we should embrace. Obviously the application of tapas is to quicken one's spiritual development. It has nothing to do with punishment. The definition of discipline that denotes punishment must have been developed by someone who did not like to live by the rules, did not want to better himself, and felt restricted. But even as I write these words, the picture becomes clearer. Punishment is associated with discipline because one who does wrong must practice right in order to improve his character. (Yet another illustration of how the ego takes hold of us and creates this fear of dying, of change.) The only restriction that occurs with discipline is the restriction of the ego, and for those of us on a spiritual path, restriction of the ego is a healthy thing--it cultivates control, and ultimately leads to freedom. When one is free from egoic mind chatter, she is free to respond to a stimulus in any manner that she chooses; she is not bound by egoic re-action, which by its very definition means to act again in the same manner as before.

When we are stimulated to change, we quite often have an egoic reaction: "Why should I change? I wasn't doing anything wrong," or, "You can't tell me what to do! I'm just fine the way I am!" These are reactions of the ego wanting to stay the exact same way it always has been. The ego doesn't want to die, it doesn't want to change, so instead, it opts to kill you; for if you consistently choose the ego, your energies slow down. They stop evolving, stop moving. They become sluggish and will most likely manifest as a disease or an unwanted life experience.

At which point, it must seem like punishment.

My own relationship with tapas is sporadic at best. It's one thing to understand these ideas conceptually, and quite another to know them through practice. There's that word again.

You know, many who are afraid of change become so because they are not the ones causing change. They wait it out until the change happens to them. They sit in fear of the inevitable change that is to come and wipe out everything that they have taken to be a certainty. They build their life-houses on the shaky sands of the ego whose grains provide an illusion of stability, and solidity--yet it is fragmented. Those who practice change and discipline have built their life-houses on the secure rock of ages: the soul. They know that if they practice tapas, if they change and mold themselves into an image more like that of the Creator, more like that of the highest Self, they will have freedom, and they will be safe, and they will not die.

In the Bible, there were only twelve disciples (meaning those who are disciplined). It is a relative few who seek out change on their own, who are disciplined in becoming, which is the continual evolution toward the ideal self. But I believe there is a quickening, and many more have decided to be disciples to whatever spiritual path they may follow. They choose to change; they choose to live; they choose to be free.

Discipline: the practice of practicing life.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's yoga practice, not yoga perfect

Those are the most memorable words of advice I have ever heard.

"It's yoga practice, not yoga perfect."

From where I stood, or from where I sat contorted, it was that piece of advice that helped me let go of my constant struggle for perfection. (Yes, I am a Virgo.) It was toward the beginning of my second real attempt at taking yoga seriously as a path for transformation that these words were spoken to me. And those words are my reminder to let go of expectations, to stop comparing myself to others, and to ultimately let go--my path is my own, unique to me while at the same time intertwined with and inseparable from all others. While I have no problem with uniqueness, it's the inseparability that scares me because it implies responsibility. All my choices affect everyone else. The cosmic potential revealed by that singular, universal truth is akin to Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. In fact, I'll bet the mythology surrounding Atlas is meant to teach responsibility to humankind. Anyway, I digress.

Because yoga is practice, and life is practice, it's ok not to be perfect--not that anyone ever could, really. But the point I'm trying to make is that I continue to practice at life. I continue to have experiences, to make choices, and they all end up according to whatever the Creator has in store for me, for us all, regardless of how comfortable the process may be. But I want to share these experiences with you. Beginning this blog is for me yet another redo, another practice session, another attempt to be better than I was before.

Essentially, I desire community. And the same etymological root for community is also the basis for communication. And commune. All of these words imply a coming together. And while you can take it at face value to mean physical communication or assembly of a group, I feel it is more important to understand it at a soul level. Bringing something together means assembling many parts into a larger whole. The final outcome may be large, it may be small, but it is a whole no matter if it is composed of three people or 3000 people. The headcount of the group may vary, it may fluctuate, it may dissolve altogether and be born anew, yet it is still whole, it is still a community. When you assemble with a group, just because you have left it doesn't mean you are not still a part of it. And when you no longer desire to commune with them, it does not make the group less valuable or less whole. Of course, a group is a lot more stable when it is composed of many parts as opposed to a relative few--think of it like gravity--but regardlessly, it is always whole.

Getting back to the soul level understanding: the mind-body-spirit connection functions the same way. As individuals we begin our spiritual paths, attention scattered, feeling fragmented; but as we grow, as we seek knowledge and understand, as we continue to practice life and garner experiences, we become aware of all that is offered, all that we have to offer. We become aware of the greater wholeness, of the wholesomeness of the Self.

Yet all this understanding, all this growth, is nothing if you selfishly guard it and keep it to yourself. What good is all the knowledge, all the wealth, all the love in the world if you have no one to share it with? Your growth is for naught. As you grow individually, you must grow universally. You must give, you must share. You must take only what you need for your health, joy, and fulfillment, and share the rest selflessly. It is precisely the aforementioned selfish mentality that got us into such mess with the current financial crisis. If only all the Wall Street bankers, mega-corporations, and politicians who sacrifice their morals for lobbyist backing had known that all they had to do was share. While I'm not Catholic, I do respect what the Pope had to say on the matter: "Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end, it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty." While his statement was in reference to the financial crisis, it's meaning is universal and can be applied to the mind and to the soul. Spiritual poverty is far worse than financial poverty. It leaves you empty, devoid of feeling or joy, not just devoid of money.

So here I am, sharing my experiences with you, taking advantage of the practice of life, surrendering to Savasana (corpse pose) and assimilating growth. A mantra I was taught at a spiritual school I once attended was, 'I die daily,' meaning that I lay down all my burdens, my egoic construct, and I let it die with an exhale, only to inhale once more and be reborn like the phoenix, free from old habits and thoughts, free to become someone new.