On Personal Practice or “Noisy Bangles”

Beaten RiceLong ago in an Indian kingdom, there was a poor girl who wished to marry. When her prospective in-laws came to visit her home, she greeted them graciously and bade them to sit. Her parents entertained them while, unknown to the guests, she went to the back of the house to work in the kitchen. They were planning to serve a meal with beaten rice. Ordinarily pounding the rice is the job of the servant. This family was too poor to have a servant and the girl had to pound the rice herself. She began the laborious process and quickly noticed that she was making a lot of noise. As most Indian women, she wore numerous bangles and this was causing such a racket as the flattened the rice. On account of her poverty, she did not wear gold bangles but ones made of glass. She knew that the sound of her jingling bangles could be heard throughout the house and she did not wish her prospective in-laws to know that she was doing the work herself. She started by breaking few bangles but found that they still made noise as she worked. Eventually she broke all her bangles save two and still they made noise by jingling against each other. Finally she broke another, leaving her with only one bangle and in silence.

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This is a very old story that was told to monks, yogis and spiritual seekers of every kind. The lesson of the story is that as soon as there are two, there is discord. This means that as soon as two people practice together, there will be disagreement. Each of us has a path to walk and we must invariably walk it alone if we wish to reach the destination. Simply, we all have different minds, bodies, capacities and goals; therefore our practice must be different.

This also applies to the practice of Hatha-Yoga. Group practice is nice and offers certain advantages (group energy and motivation). However, to make real progress we must develop a personal practice. This will develop the discipline required to move forward on our path. Practicing alone also allows us to enhance our internal sensitivity and develop concentration in our practice. You can listen to your own breath and follow a sequence that is tailored to your needs, which is unavailable to you in a group setting. It makes it possible to really practice Yoga. By practicing alone, you offer yourself the possibility to deepen and evolve your practice. This will result in real progress toward your goal. This is not to say that you should give up group classes, which can be very enjoyable. It is important for anyone wishing to genuinely practice to remember that true and transformative Yoga is purely an individual pursuit. I understand that it is not what we may want to hear but Yoga is an uphill climb that only you can do for yourself. Understand why you are practicing, where you are trying to reach, take courage and keep climbing.

On Jealousy or “the Eagle & the Kite”

In the same forest there lived a kite and an eagle. Both birds enjoyed their freedom and never interfered with each other. Whenever the kite flew, he always looked up toward the eagle. He grew envious that the eagle could fly over the forest at such great heights. Naturally, because his size and build, the eagle could easily climb nearly out of sight. Despite the eagle’s indifference, the kite grew more jealous and plotted to destroy the eagle.

eagle flightOne day a hunter entered the forest. The kite approached and spoke to the hunter: “That eagle up there has long terrorized this forest; they say he is possessed by a demon. All the creatures of the forest will be indebted to you if you destroy this menace. It will be a great service you are doing”. A little surprised at the request, the hunter nevertheless understood the kite’s true intentions. The hunter replied “I wish I could help but it is an impossible task. My arrows can never reach so high. Perhaps if you give me one of your long feathers it will allow my arrow to fly higher.” At this the kite plucked one of his choicest feather and handed it to the hunter. The hunter tried a shot but the arrow fell back without nearing the eagle. The hunter said “Perhaps another feather will help it to go even higher”. Even though it hurt greatly, the kite thought of killing the eagle and removed another feather. Again the hunter tried, the arrow rose a little higher but then fell back again. “Perhaps another feather will do the trick” said the hunter and again the kite yanked a feather; each time with the same pain and the same effect.

After numerous efforts the kite found himself suffering from removing his own feathers and no closer to destroying the object of his jealousy. Angrily, he shouted at the hunter “You said my feathers would be enough to reach that eagle. Now look, he still sores high above me and I have lost so many feathers I can no longer even fly. What am I to do?” The hunter answered by promptly turning his arrow on the kite and killing it.

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Often when faced with our own jealously we try to justify it to ourselves and others. Rather than try to rise to the other’s height, we instead try to drag down the other person. Like anger, jealousy only consumes the one who carries it and never touches the object of our jealousy. The most positive options are 1) to strive to achieve whatever we jealous of to satisfy that desire and if that is not possible, 2) to learn to be satisfied with ourselves and our lives (please see my post On Contentment). Contentment (santosha) is the best protection against envy. In the end, jealousy only ends up destroying the one who harbours it.

On Penance (tapas) or The story of Vishwamitra

Long ago there was a great king named Kaushika, who was unequaled in might and splendour. His life-long quest began not in glory but in his utter defeat and humiliation. He and his armies were once the guests of the great sage Vashishta. The king, jealous of the sage’s gift-giving cow Kamadhenu, tried to take it by force. Upon being attacked, Vashishta reduced the king’s armies to ashes and Kaushika’s defeat was total. The king realized that his strength of might was insignificant next to the power wielded by Vashishta. Kaushika vowed to forsake the world and pursue these powers by undertaking great tapas.

vishvamitra_menakaKaushika gave up his royal comforts and sought out solitude in the forest. There he began to practice with great intensity. As time passed, his power grew and Indra, king of the gods, became worried. Indra feared that Kaushika’s power had grown so much as to eclipse his own and so he devised a plan to distract Kaushika from his tapas. Indra dispatched the most beautiful apsara (celestial dancer) Menaka to lure Kaushika away from his practice. The former king fell deeply in love with Menaka. They lived together happily and had a daughter named Shakuntala. Ultimately, Kaushika became aware of Indra’s plan and rejected Menaka to return more ardently to his practice.

Kaushika began again to re-gain his lost power. Indra, again fearful of his position, this time sent down the queen of the apsaras, Rambha, to tempt Kaushika away from his penance. This time the it was not love that the lovely lady met but anger. The former king learned that his real enemy was not Indra but himself. His anger taught him that he had still not mastered himself and again set himself to great tapas. Indra tried once more by visiting Kaushika in the guise of an old beggar just as he was about to break a long fast. The disguised Indra asked for the little bit of food that Kaushika had prepared and the former king gave it without hesitation. Indra had been thwarted and having finally conquered himself, Kaushika’s powers were like no other.

There was also an incident where Kaushika again depletes all of his powers in helping his friend Trishanku to ascend to the heavens with his physical body. Again Kaushika returned to his penance which he held without distraction for many years. Finally Lord Brahma appeared to Kaushika to reward him with a boon. When asked, Kaushika requested to be a Brahmarishi (Brahman Sage), equal to his old rival sage Vashishta. Brahma explained that because Kaushika was a king he could not be a Brahmarishi and instead gave him the title of Rajarishi (Royal Sage). Kaushika was not satisfied and continued his penance steadfastly. Again Lord Brahma appeared and offered a boon; Kaushika’s reply was the same. Brahma gave him the same explanation saying it was impossible and this time gave him the title of Maharishi (Great Sage). Kaushika continued his tapas undaunted until Brahma appeared a third time. In the last encounter Brahma finally accented and bestowed the title of Brahmarishi on Kaushika, who was renamed sage Vishmamitra.

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Vishwamitra is among the most famous rishis of ancient India. He is spoken of in the earliest text, the Rg Veda, he is credited with giving us the Gayatri mantra and there is even a yoga posture named after him. Plenty of literature exists about his adventures but I have attempted to recount for you only the essentials of the “making of” Vishwamitra for the purpose of presenting the benefits of developing will power. The story may be understood as an allegory which teaches that austerity breeds strength.

The concept of penance exists in every tradition around the world. It is a universal tool at our disposal and may be used in any variety of ways. In every case the purpose is the same: to make us stronger. As the Christian world prepares for Easter, many Christians still maintain the habit of penance during Lent. The most common example we find is giving up something we enjoy for the forty days (sugar in our tea, chocolate or alcohol…). The fact is that it makes no difference to Jesus if you don’t eat chocolate during lent. Likewise, God isn’t effected by your penance but it has a great effect on yourself. By exerting our will power we develop mental strength.

The most readily available penance is fasting, which we find across religions. Penances are also called austerities but this does not mean self-mutilation or dangerous practices. It refers to controlled austerity for the purpose of developing mental strength. In the very same way that physical training is in fact controlled “austerity” for the muscles.

In India there exists a long tradition of penance for spiritual benefits. The Sanskrit term for austerities is tapas. Many traditional legends offer the same motif of a man, god or demon who performs great tapas and is eventually granted a boon. An common alternate of the same motif usually involves a man who performs such tapas that Indra, king of the gods, feels his that power is threatened and devises a way to distract the ascetic from his practice. The stories demonstrate that developing mental strength is the pathway to great personal power.

Tapas is one of the observances (niyama) listed by Patanjali in the Yogasutras (II:43). As elsewhere (notably Shamanism), the yoga tradition understands tapas as “heating”, like a fire. In this sense we also understand that penance purifies, like gold in a furnace. Likewise, yoga maintains that strengthening the will weakens the ego, which results in great personal power. It is a difficult practice because it runs counter to our regular tendencies. True freedom lies not in the easiest way, of doing what we want but in breaking mental conditioning and choosing to do what we do not want.

Here are three quotations that have always inspired me in regards to penance:

“Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

Bruce Lee

“He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty.”

Lao-Tzu

“A gem cannot be polished without friction nor man perfected without trials.”

Chinese proverb

On Dharma or “Do the right thing”

In an ancient kingdom there was a master builder of great skill. The kingdom prospered under their wise and benevolent king. The master builder served the king his entire life and was responsible for all the buildings of splendour to be found in the kingdom. For the great king, the builder had constructed many glorious palaces and impenetrable forts. When the old king died he was succeeded by the his son. By this time the master builder himself was getting old and was hoping that his building days were over. When he approached the young king to ask his permission to retire from service, he was surprised at at the new king’s response: “Very well. You have served my father well and for so long. Before you enjoy your leisure, I ask one final project. You must build for me a grand palace as your last task.”

indian_palaceThe tired master builder was greatly irritated with the young king’s request and grumbled to himself, “Doesn’t this pompous youngster have enough palaces?” He had no choice but to comply and begrudgingly began the task of building another palace. As the project moved along the old master builder became increasingly bitter and spitefully plotted to cheat his king. He began to cut corners everywhere: he used lesser building materials, he was careless in his work and he even started dipping his hand into the building funds.

When it came time for the inauguration of the new palace the young king was on hand. The master builder felt he had done well to cheat the king who he found ungrateful. After the king had lighted the lamp he approached the master builder in front of all who had gathered. With folded palms, the young king offered the old builder a garland, a gift and these parting words: “Dear master builder-ji, you have long served my family and your kingdom with your exceptional talent and skill. We are all grateful for your service and I bestow on you this very palace to enjoy for the rest of your days.”

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Dharma is a very subtle concept and much ink has been spilled in its exploration. The term is packed with meaning depending on the context. A common and basic view is understanding dharma as right action or duty. We all have duties in life depending on our situation and we are challenged to do everything we do properly and well.

Why should we bother? In the famous Bhagavadgita, Sri Krishna explains that ignoring one’s dharma invites ruin for both the individual and society. In the grand scheme if people skirt their duty (or don’t do the right thing) other people tend to follow. If you’ve ever seen a motorist pull an illegal move, you’ll know what I’m talking about. An easy example is if a driver is in the reserved turning lane but go straight. Many others will follow suit and even more motorists, frustrated at waiting in traffic and being passed, will question why they should bother waiting properly when others don’t. Blocking intersections is another great example (it shows a lot of other things too).

As the above story illustrates, not doing the right thing causes us to suffer. It also effects the world around us, if you can just imagine if everyone stopped following rules and doing a terrible job at whatever they do. The simplest way to live your dharma is to always do the right thing and perform your task, however trivial, to the best of your abilities. Whether you’re a banker, a teacher or a car-washer be the best banker, teacher or car-washer possible. You and the world deserve nothing less.

On Mental Baggage & Letting Go

In India there are many old buildings with equally old and somewhat precarious elevators (“lifts”). Once, an elevator opened onto a busy lobby and was quickly flooded with people. The lift doors closed, buttons were pressed and… nothing! The lift was overloaded and would not budge. The people looked around as no one wished to disembark. Soon their attention came to rest upon a very big fellow among them. He was made to understand their point and stepped out of the lift. Again the doors closed, buttons were pressed and… nothing! Next to step out was a tiny old lady, whose weight was mostly her hair and jewelry. Again the doors closed, buttons were pressed and… the lift went shooting upward.  Now, standing next to each other in the lobby, the big fellow was staring at the tiny old lady with astonishment. The small lady, sensing his confusion turned to him and politely volunteered, “Oh! I had a lot on my mind.”

Bill in Japan

Mental baggage serves no purpose but to weigh us down and slow us down. When living in the same place for a long time, without knowing it we collect so much stuff. Likewise, through life we accumulate more mental baggage as we go. Most of it is absolutely unnecessary  but we’ve been carrying it for so long that we become accustomed to the weight. Like our closets and storage places, we need to do a little mental clean-up from time to time. Discard all those bags filled with old hurts, grudges, jealousies and fears; let it go. The journey is difficult enough as it is, don’t weigh yourself down. Let go and be free.

The Invisible Hand of God

There was a very pious old man who lived in a small town; he was a man of great faith. On account of a terrible storm there was flash flooding in his town. He lived on the second floor and as soon as they heard the news, his neighbours came to see him. They asked the old man, who they knew was alone, to come with them as they were leaving before the waters rose any more. He thanked them but refused to go saying “You needn’t worry; God will take care of me.”

A few hours passed and water had entered the first level. Firemen came in their truck and brought the ladder to his window. They told him that this part of the town was being evacuated and that he must go with them. Again the old man refused saying “Not to worry; God will save me.” Another few hours passed and the water had entered his apartment. The army arrived in a helicopter overhead, they let down a rope ladder and beg the old man to grab hold. Again the old man refused in every confidence that God would save him. Soon after the old man drowned.

When the old man arrived in Paradise, he meets God but feels a little bitter at being left to drown. He asks God “I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I was a man of great faith. I was certain you would save me but you let me drown.” To which God responds “First I sent your neighbours, then the firemen and then the army! What more do you want?!”

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God works through other people and likewise we can best serve God by serving others. The hand of God is quite subtle, almost invisible. I remember it best said in an episode of Futurama in which Bender meets God. God tells Bender “You have to use a light touch… When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

On Contentment

Contrary to what many may think, Yoga does have rules. In fact Patanjali places the ten injunctions as the first two steps, before asana (postures) and pranayama (breath control). There are many ways to understand the first two steps known as yama (moral principels) and niyama (observances). That is not the subject of this discussion but I should mention that all practitioners (and especially teachers) of yoga should strive toward maintaining these ten rules. I would like to discuss the second niyama: santosha (contentment).

A yogi must be content, satisfied. We should first draw a difference between happiness and contentment. Happiness comes with unhappiness, two sides of the same coin. If we have great highs we will also suffer crushing lows, we can count on it. Contentment is stable and strong. It maintains equanimity in your life. We sacrifice the highs in order to save ourselves the terrible lows. Not an easy virtue to practice.

A good start is having a non-comparative/competitive view of our own lives. By nature humans compare themselves to others: “The grass is always greener”. If we are always looking at our neighbour’s lawn we will never enjoy, appreciate and be satisfied with our own lawn. We have the choice not to look or even better, not to compare it to our lawn. The truth is that in life there will always be someone younger, fitter, better looking, thinner, wealthier… than us, always. By constantly comparing ourselves we block our own chances of self-satisfaction. I leave you with one of Jesus’ parables found in the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-15) that speaks exactly to this point.

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There was a vineyard owner whose harvest was great. He sent his servant into the market place early in the morning to get extra labourers to work in the fields. He promised them each a denarius (a Roman silver coin) for the day’s work. Near midday, seeing that there still remained much work to do to, again the owner sent his servant to fetch more men to work in the vineyard. workers in the vineyardLate in the afternoon again the owner found much left undone, he sent his servant to the marketplace to get more labourers. At the close of the day all of the workmen gathered before the vineyard owner to receive their wages. The owner happily gave one denarius to each man. The men who had worked since early morning protested but the owner rebuked them. He told them to take their pay and go home. He had not been unfair as he had given them exactly as he had promised. The men’s unhappiness and dissatisfaction came not from the owner but from their checking the wages of the other men.

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