In one of the most effective self development training programs that I’ve done there was a saying “you can have a comfortable life but it won’t be inspiring or you can have an inspiring life and it won’t be comfortable“. What we humans desire, of course, is to have an exciting and inspiring life but remain in our comfort zone. We want to achieve a lot, with very little commitment to the hardships that might entail.
This is my experience in the world of spiritual development and inside my commitment to meditating every day. The biggest breakthroughs in my practice thus far in my life have been when I have been least comfortable physically, emotionally and mentally during practice. Something happens however when you come out the other side of the endless thrashing about of the ego in which desires are ever increasing for ever decreasing satisfaction. I find it very difficult to simply notice that my mind is very full and very distracted – after all, in the world of meditation this may seem as though something is wrong: the mind is not becoming calm and relaxed and thoughts are increasing rather than decreasing and there really is no gap between thoughts. Of course it’s then a vicious circle because getting into a judgement or frame of mind about what is happening on the cushion is the very formula that will increase the difficulty of the session – the ego is enjoying grasping the story of not being good enough.
I’ll give you an example from an experience of a Zen meditation retreat, in which the time after lunch was an enormous battle with the mind and body since it’s the time of sleepiness. As the digesting of carbs began to rob me of wakefulness, the wall in front of me no longer held entertainment value in terms of its patterns, shapes and interesting nuances in fact it became a hateful wall – one from which I wished to escape as soon as possible.
All I could feel was screaming agitation as I tried to maintain an upright spine having sat still and upright all morning without much effort. The desire to slump was so strong it was almost impossible to resist so I begin a bargaining dance with my own mind in which I allowed myself a measure of cheating and relief from rounding my spine which in turn forced me to negotiate a return to a more focused attention because I had nearly fallen off my meditation stool! It was with huge reluctance that I hauled myself out of this state of negativity and almost comatose-like brain fog.
All this silly nonsense is a small example of what is happening every hour of every day within the human mind – the retreat just served to shine a light on my mind’s behaviour. There is no easy path to getting over this or any other of the obstacles that observed in the early Yoga Text – the Hatha Yoga Padipika which is offering instructions for Yoga Practice on how to avoid distracting the mind. The six obstacles are:
- Adhering to Rules
- Company of Common people
As you sit battling with these obstacles, you realise just how much of life is wasted on desiring behaviours and grasping attachment to fulfilling what the impatient, greedy and unfulfilled mind is demanding. If we are to progress on the spiritual path we must avoid all activities which waste energy and distract the mind. We will be having discussions in class about whether these six obstacles are relevant today and what they really mean…
The teachings of Patanjali – the original very well educated, Indian yoga philosopher – who wrote the Yoga Sutras some 2000 years ago, instructed that we are use our practice to increase our awareness of how much our lives are spent in ignorance of our identification with ego. His Sanskrit yoga sutras have been standing as a testament to how a profound, wise and inspiring guidebook based on universal truth has stood the test of time and is still celebrated in various rich, variegated and diverse forms. He was the first to systematise long-standing oral tradition and utilised the terminology of the times but he never taught blind belief – in fact authentic yoga was seen as a threat to existing authoritarian patriotic structures because it was not dependent upon belief systems and control of the believers through them. There was no suggestion of worshipping idols, deities, gurus, or sacred books. My experience of almost every possible spiritual path is that sooner or later a doctrine becomes apparent in which rules are generated in order to control followers of a particular faith and an egotistical attachment to a one right way ideology becomes all too apparent. To me this is not the intention of any of the original proponents of a spiritual path based on personal experience.
Patanjali always points the Yogi towards exploring her/his HeartMind, establishing an inner and intimate familiarity based on direct experiential data. We are therefore our own teachers and need not look to another in order to progress on the spiritual journey. Often self styled special interest groups, cults, gurus and their followers are motivated by their ego attachment to have us abandon our innermost master in order to follow a man-made culturally specific ideology. My dissertation as an undergraduate was a fascinating (because of the brave survivors I interviewed) study of a local Christian New Religious Movement. My study involved listening to the women who had been abused by the disgraced leader and analysing their talk to deconstruct how the community members had been controlled by the symbolic and linguistic ideology which was designed to remove their intuition that told them over and over that things were wrong.
Here is a documentary showing how the women were very aware of the wrongness of their abusive experiences but were so deeply enmeshed in the culture of the Church that they had no choice but to go along with it and keep quiet:
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
As we talked about at the beginning of term, the finger is not the moon. So there is no universal prescription for enlightenment, awakening, experience of the Divine or God, however there are certain guidelines which we may find interesting even in 2018 and the Eight Limbs of Yoga that Patanjali used to help people become aware and awake is a good place to start as a student of Yoga.
We don’t attain a final state of spiritual absorption without working through the eight limbs of yoga which are jointly called Raja Yoga. None of these stages toward enlightenment represents something easy to attain. There is no sense in which some attainment in one of the elements will necessarily mean you follow on to the next – generally speaking you will be working on all of them at the same time becoming aware when you are rather miserably off target. In fact yoga sutras are devoid of ceremony and ritual and are not self-important, but rather the yoga practice is the path where the yoga sutras are simply a guidebook to one’s practice and not an exclusive necessity . In other words Patanjali’s yoga sutras are psychological and spiritual, but not religious and ideological and it is useful to examine what the early yogis considered important life choices on the spiritual path.
Where Yoga Poses (Asana) fit into the Spiritual Journey
Yama and Nyama (see picture above) aim at external purity through various social practices; Asana consists of the performance of the Asana of yoga, in which we can choose to die to a wilful mind, which is avoiding all sense of discomfort and begs for a long relaxation session and lots of lying down!!! Yoga practice has to be practical and experiential never be studied theoretically. You can read every word of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which outlines guidance for the physical practice of Yoga Asana but be no nearer experiencing a release from the suffering of the body and mind. The Asanas are a means of gaining steadiness of position and help to gain success in contemplation without any distractions of the mind. The idea is to be able to train the body through regular practice to be able to retain stillness. Once the spine is straight and strong, all of us are aware that at the beginning stages of yoga practice the mind becomes agitated by the slightest inconvenience and discomfort. The practice of yoga Asana is done in order to facilitate a one pointedness of the mind without much effort but as we have all realised this isn’t achievable with only a short amount of time and takes years of dedicated practice at being both relaxed and alert at the same time – most of us can achieve one and not the other.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a practical guide to the practice of the physical Asana and the main state required during practice. It suggests that yoga is destroyed by the six obstacles mentioned above and I have no doubts that all of us have experienced these obstacles in class! We are urged to bring our courage, daring, perseverance and discrimination to have knowledge: faith and aloofness from company into our daily practice of yoga in order to progress on the yogic path toward awakening.
Pranayama is the control of the breath and we all understand how during times of stress this can be a difficult thing. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the sense organs from the corresponding sense objects. At the stage of pratyahara, the consciousness of the individual is internalised in order that the sensations from the senses of taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell don’t reach their respective centres in the brain and takes the sadhaka (practitioner) to next stages of Yoga, namely Dharana (concentration). Dhyana is meditation and Samadhi is the final state of spiritual absorption. This is not to say that you may not experience flashes of enlightenment, bliss and other benefits of meditation however, it’s likely that you will be practising a life of ethics and integrity on the spiritual road before these experiences become more frequent.
We can conclude from this that yoga is not simply a set of physical poses and time spent on the mat. It is a set of principles designed to acclimatise the mind and body to the natural non-dual intuitive state which our modern Western culture is designed to negate. Yoga give us an idea of the kind of hindrances that we may come across during meditation, such as sleepiness and agitation and sets out a method of practice that remediates the hindrances through various effective yoga practices which are designed to liberate the mind from the suffering that is produced from endless desirous chatter which we have been getting present to these past few weeks. The main remedy is meditation practice which is outside our reach until we become conscious of how attached we are to the desires of the ego, which creates all manner of drama in order that we don’t let go of this mind-made false identity. Through body/mind integration, love, beauty, and wisdom manifest through Yoga in action, which is essentially being present in the moment without fear, attachment or delusion that is ever present in the average human mind. It truly is a Road Less Travelled.