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.


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