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.

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How’s your yoga teacher?

What would you do if your doctor was always sick? You would change doctor.

If your yoga teacher isn’t smiling; change yoga teacher! It indicates either that they aren’t practicing or there’s something “wrong” with their practice. Either way, they are in no position to help you. (Almost) Every teacher is nice in the class but how are they outside the studio? If the only yoga in their life and character is doing postures, then that’s all you’ll ever get from them.

It’s a vocation rather than a profession. If you want to be a good teacher, you must wrestle down your ego: teach for them and not for yourself. You must be vigilant to practice what you preach: if you ask your students to be mentally open and flexible you must remain open yourself. Be sincere and don’t say things you don’t know to be true. That also means continuing to study and knowing that not everything you’ve heard may be accurate. Being nice and caring isn’t enough; you need to know your stuff. Please remember, your teacher training was only the start.

Krishnamacharya's padukas

Teach what is in you, not as it applies to you, to yourself but as it applies to the other.” – Sri T. Krishnamacharya

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.

Will the real St. Patrick please stand up.

St-PatrickOne of the most celebrated feast days is March 17th, the feast of St. Patrick. Named “The Apostle of Ireland“, his cult has been strongest where there have been Irish immigrants, notably the United States and Australia. Here in Montreal we have St. Patrick’s basilica and New York’s principle cathedral in named the same. Unfortunately the popular legends about him are all created much later. There is no evidence to support that he taught the concept of the trinity by using the shamrock. He certainly did not convert all of Ireland single-handed; the process took numerous missionaries and many generations to accomplish. The most famous legend recounts that while on a mountain retreat, Patrick was accosted by snakes and in return he chased the snakes to the sea and out of Ireland. The scientific fact is that Ireland never had snakes! However, St. Patrick’s actual life is as interesting as his hagiography.

The only reliable information about Patrick comes from his own writings, two of which remain. The son of a deacon and grandson of a priest, Patrick was born in Northern England in the early years of the 5th century. As a youngster he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and made into a slave for six years. After having a prophetic dream about his release, he either escaped or was freed and made his way two hundred miles to a seaport. There he eventually gained passage on a ship and returned to his family. St.PatrickBack home he undertook basic training as a priest, which consisted mainly of study of the Latin Bible (Vulgate). At the time, the Pope had sent (St.) Palladius as the first Bishop of Ireland but his mission did not last very long. Patrick became the second Bishop and went to Ireland in 435. He set himself up at Armagh, close to a powerful king. From there he organized missionary activity in the North. Patrick preached against slavery, paganism, sun worship and idolatry. Also, he made no distinction of classes among men. He is presumed to have died around 460.  Along with St. Brigid and St. Columba, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.

 

On Self-Help

From 2000 to 2004 I worked at a SmithBooks and it was the best job I ever had (I consider teaching Yoga a vocation). It offered me a marvelous chance to observe and further investigate human behaviour. The most popular section in the bookstore was the “Self-Help/Pop-Psychology” section. This was during the glory days of “Oprah’s Book Club” and also saw the introduction of Dr. Phil McGraw. If these books sold so well, why was everyone so unhappy? Clearly, the books weren’t working or at least they weren’t enough. I recently heard “If you want to be happy don’t read a self-help book, get happy friends”.

Like Buddhism, Yoga sees suffering in regular life but Yoga asks “What are you going to do about it?” Patanjali‘s Yogasutras is the authoritative text and offers us many tools to work with. Patanjali describes what suffering (dukha) is and what are its causes (klesas). My favourite sutra is II: 16: “Suffering that has not yet come can be escaped”. It is a bold and powerful statement that fills me with confidence and hope. Patanjali tells us clearly that we can avoid future suffering, the only question is, what are we willing to do about it? It shows that we are indeed powerful beings, masters of our own lives but we must act accordingly. Truly, through our own efforts we can save ourselves from undue pain and suffering but we must have the strength and courage to act. Remember, God helps those who help themselves. Yoga only works if we do it.

Knowing is not enough, you must apply; willing is not enough, you must do.” ~Bruce Lee

I leave with you a marvelous little video narrated by Alan Watts:

What do I desire?

“…if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way…so it’s all retch, and no vomit, it never gets there.”

The story of Savitri or An Indian “love” story

There was once a great king who was without issue. The spent a long time in prayer and austerities to the sun (Savitr – Lord of Creation) and was finally granted a daughter, she was Savitri. She was so remarkable that she intimidated most young men. When the time came for her to marry, her father was surprised to find that no one sought her hand despite her great qualities and striking beauty. He granted Savitri to choose her own husband and she left on pilgrimage to do just that. On her travels she met a young prince named Satyavan who lived in the forest and chose him. She returned to her father’s kingdom only to learn from the sage Narada that Satyavan was destined to die exactly one year from the day he marries. He father tried to dissuade her but Savitri replied that she would only choose once. She married Satyavan and lived for one year in the forest.

Satyavan and SavitriA few days prior to the one year anniversary, Savitri began rigorous fasting and prayer. On the morning of the anniversary, she asked her father-in-law’s permission to accompany Satyavan into the forest. Though surprised, he consented because she had never asked for anything in the year that she had lived with them. In the forest, while splitting wood, Satyavan felt very tired and weak. He laid his head on Savitri’s lap and there expired. Soon Yama, the Lord of Death, appeared on the scene to collect the body of the deceased. She converses with Yama who tells her that she cannot come as she is still living. She politely replies that she goes where her husband goes! Yama takes up the body and begins his arduous trek to the underworld. The determined Savitri follows them for days over hard terrain with little food, water or rest. Yama, seeing the girl following, tries several times to dissuade her from her project and send her back. He explains that it was simply not possible to go with them. She again converses with Yama and he, very impressed with her wisdom, determination and efforts grants her a boon. His only condition is that she cannot ask for her husband back. SAVITRIShe thinks for a moment and then asks for one hundred sons. Yama immediately grants her wish and with a grim, she asks him how she can have one hundred sons without a husband. Caught by his boon, Yama relinquishes Satyavan, who wakes up like after a deep sleep.

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Savitri is one of the most famous female names in India and her story is equally famous. It is found in the abundant wealth of the epic Mahabharata. I have heard it said that love is universal but romantic love is a Western concept. This is a tale more about fidelity and dedication than romance.  There are numerous heroes and mahatmas who, through their efforts, were able to decide when or how they would die. But they still had to die; this is the law of the universe, he who is born must die. The clever Savitri is the only person in Indian lore (that I know of) that cheated Death of his prize.

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