PYS I.33 Maitri karuna mudito pekshanam sukha dukha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam
Patanjali said in the yoga sutras that we can maintain the serenity of our mind. They key is to understand which of the four situations we find ourselves in, and we choose to respond in a corresponding way.
The first situation we may find ourselves in is that other people are happy. The appropriate response is to be happy for them, by cultivating maitri or loving kindness or friendliness. As with most teachings, it is easier said than done. I remember one time when I joined a raffle, the winner’s name was called out. My reaction was not to be happy for this person. Instead, my thought was “why not me?” It does happen that when others are happy, we are jealous or envious, we compare or complain. It’s because we have this misunderstanding that when someone is happy, it takes away from us.
Maitri is like a muscle we need to keep using to strengthen it. We start where we are, and we practice. Think of someone you know who is happy right now, and allow yourself to touch that gentle part of yourself that is capable of feeling this joy sympathetically. It’s interesting that when it comes to the word sympathy or empathy, we often associate it with difficulties and challenges and hard times. But for this sympathy or empathy to be complete, we must also learn to feel as others feel when their feelings are joy and happiness. Now, think of everyone you know who are happy, and see if you can expand this practice of sympathetic joy, and you allow yourself to partake in that joy. We may begin to understand and even experience on a very physical level that happiness does not have to be personal. It is not necessary for something to happen to us for us to feel bliss and elation, we can generate the same feelings even if good things happened to someone else. Further expand this practice and think of everyone in the world who is happy, imagine that you are including everyone you do not know and will never meet, and you are also still able to generate that loving kindness towards them. Let your practice be so expansive that you are happy for everyone in the world who is happy.
Through practice, we let go of the mistaken notion that happiness works like a pie; that if someone is happy, our share of happiness gets smaller. Through practice, we understand that when happiness is shared, it multiplies. Through practice, we experience that when we are happy for others who are happy, we retain the serenity of our mind.
The other day, I was crossing the street at a pedestrian lane when the stoplight turned red. I was one literal step away from the sidewalk then. The driver of the car in front of me grew impatient very quickly, and they honked in an angry way. I thought to myself, It was just one step. How impatient can one be? Geez, this person needs to practice yoga. And then I realize in my judgment that I too was impatient. I crossed the street when the stoplight was blinking, with only a few seconds left. I also was unwilling to wait. I too was in a hurry.
This culture of rush permeates us, so much so that in our everyday lives, we do not even notice that we rush from one thing to the other, one place to the next. This is why those of us who are new to meditation cannot stand sitting still. We want to get out of that moment right away. This is why our mind reacts violently when we are in a challenging yoga pose. We have our concept of time all distorted. That is our starting point.
Begin to include practices of slowing down. We can start small. We can start, say, by eating slowly. Before eating, we think of where our food came from, whether its origins were kind or violent, whether it helps sustain the environment or destroys it, whether it nourishes us or further starves us of nutrients. We can also practice yoga slowly. Instead of thinking of a particular pose as the goal, we befriend our body, we feel at home in it, we seek refuge in it.
At a time when rushing is the norm, taking things slow becomes rebellious. Conscious living becomes an act of defiance. Moving intentionally becomes radical. Break down this culture of rushing by patiently moving, and let us be kinder to ourselves and others in the process of cultivating this awareness.
There's an African saying that goes like this: Times are urgent, let us slow down. It may seem counter-intuitive as we face life's urgent problems. All over the world, many democracies and freedoms are threatened, are we supposed to slow down? The threat of climate change is dawning upon us and the window of opportunity to take action is small, are we supposed to slow down? The new coronavirus is a pandemic predicted to be uncontainable, are we supposed to slow down?
We may think that faster and sooner are the solutions, but faster and sooner can end up being problems by themselves. If we are in a hurry to address political problems without a long-term view, we may end up ourselves becoming the people we abhor. If we rush to find quick fixes to climate change, we may lose sight of the fact that our solutions harm many others. If we think getting a vaccine is needed with the-end-justifies-the-means mindset, we may end up using sentient beings for experimentation. Times are urgent, that is why we need to more than ever-- slow down. So we can think critically, take intentional action, and choose that which is not only efficient or effective, but also kind and non-violent.
Times are urgent, let us slow down. Let us practice this slowing down in our bodies, in our yoga asanas, in our decision-making processes. In this slowing down, may the actions we take consider the full view and the long term, encompass the interests of not just a few but all, result in not just quick wins but everlasting positive changes.
Times are urgent, let us slow down.
The focus of the month is called “Life: A continuous movement— rhythm, flow, and change”. It is what we experience, that life doesn’t stop. In my own life, when I am grieving— a death, or an end of a relationship, a loss of something that was important to me— there’s a surreal quality in realizing that life didn’t stop for me, though I feel that in those moments of bleakness, it should. During those times, it is with indignation and a sense of injustice that despite the tragedy that has befallen me, business is as usual for most everyone else. Life does go on, including myself. In the same manner, when things are peaceful, uneventful, predictable, normal, ordinary, time can feel faster, they fly by without us taking much notice. During those moments, life is also continuous. There is also a rhythm to it, there are also changes, albeit not as drastic or noticeable or sudden. This is simply how we experience life— flowing, continuous, rhythmic. And it helps to remember that, so we don’t get stuck when things are difficult, we don’t get attached when things are good, and we are also aware that as life flows, we move with it as an active participant. We are not just watching life go by, we live this life as it goes by.
Think back to your life 10 years ago. In 2010, where were you? What were you busy with? Who were the people around you? What did you do? What was important to you? Would you have predicted or even imagined then that your life would be as it is now?
A lot can change in 10 years, and it is through a succession of changes that it happens. One event leads to another and another and another, and it is all continuous. It doesn’t stop. Life flows— which is the February focus of the month in Jivamukti.
A few things to ponder:
Can we practice in a way that takes into account that events are continuous? Even when we think we pause, that pause is not a detour, it’s a continuation.
If we want to sustain something in our lives, be it a goal or a passion or a relationship or a cause we believe in, how would we take action so we do not burn out, so that our commitment is continuous?
When we fear for the unknown future, can we find ease in that life is a continuous movement? We do not jump from here to there, we flow to it, step by step, moment by moment, in a succession of events.
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said that the greatest gift we can give others is our true presence. That means we show up, and we do so without any agenda, without any expectations, and without any distractions.
Everything we do in a yoga practice is training us to give that presence to ourselves. Our breathing reminds us we are here. Our asanas ground us in our body. Our meditation teaches us to bear witness to our mind.
Try this. Say to yourself: I am present. I am here. I am available.
Take it further. Examine all that arises. Bear witness to all those parts. Then say to yourself: I see you. I accept you. I will sit with you.
Without judgment, without picking and choosing, without denying any part of yourself, sit with them all. Then say to yourself: I love you unconditionally.
When we are able to practice true presence with ourselves, we develop friendship with ourselves, or what is called “maitri” in Sanskrit. Thich Nhat Hanh said true presence is the greatest gift we can give someone. Why not include ourselves as well?
The focus of the month for December is Tantra Yoga. There is common misconception that tantra is eroticism. In fact, all that we know of yoga today belongs to the tantra system of yoga.
This age that we find ourselves in is called Kali Yuga, the dark ages. And during this time when there’s a huge spiritual disconnection, we are taught that the physical body is not a barrier to enlightenment. Quite the contrary. The body is used as a vehicle to enlightenment. The body serves as our teacher to show us parts of ourselves that may be hidden before.
As you practice asana, observe the physical body— the sensations, the reactions, the patterns. Bring the unconscious to the level of consciousness, and then this body could serve as an instrument so you could be free.
The other day, I woke up from my alarm. In my haste, and because I was still half asleep, I accidentally stepped on my cat. I didn't mean to cause harm to my cat, and yet I did. Much of the harm that we cause to other beings and to nature itself does not come from ill intent. We cause harm because in a way, we are half asleep. We are not very conscious of our actions.
Something we take for granted is the lights that we keep on at night. To us, it may mean just illuminating dark streets, but to some insect species, it causes their population decline. According to an article from The Guardian, "The most familiar impact of light pollution is moths flapping around a bulb, mistaking it for the moon. One-third of insects trapped in the orbit of such lights die before morning, according to work cited in the review, either through exhaustion or being eaten."
It is easy to say we care about nature, more challenging to truly embrace all that caring for nature entails. It means that not only do we check our intentions, but we also actively seek out information to do the right thing, to reduce harm, to create more harmony. Insects are part of nature too, their lives matter to them, and we need them for a balanced ecosystem.
Have you ever wondered about how ancient yogis practiced? Certainly not on their Manduka mats wearing their matching Lululemon outfits. We can imagine that they were likely out in nature, feeling the sun against their skin, moving freely with nature’s elements.
Modern yogis like us practice in more controlled environments, and because of that, we are also not as in touch with nature. There is a danger though, in thinking that nature is inaccessible to us, in perceiving that our lives now are so “civilized” that we are estranged from wilderness. You see, countless reports are telling us that we have a very small window of time to manage this climate emergency. If we feel out of touch with nature, how will we be motivated to protect it? It’s only when we are in touch with nature that we can fall in love with it, and we can only truly protect the ones that we love.
Now, instead of thinking of nature as that untouched land we have never been to, we begin to see it through glimpses. Perhaps when you look out the window, and you see trees, you start to think, ah this is nature. When a trail of ants show up in your kitchen, instead of thinking of them as invading your home, you see them as part of nature. When you pass by the park, you stop a but longer and maybe the lizards and other insects come out, and you observe this glimpse of nature. When we see that nature still surrounds us, we would do what we can to protect it, to let it flourish, to preserve it, to let it thrive. We won’t allow nature to fall into demise.
Yes, we are modern yogis. But it’s time we reclaim our wild side, our innate connection with nature. We have to stop seeing ourselves as so “domesticated” or “civilized” that nature is separate from us. Going back to our wildness may be our only hope in preserving this home we share. The Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth.
We are running out of air. This is the headline of the article about the air pollution in New Delhi. It sounds like it’s from a science fiction movie, yet its apocalyptic message speaks of the truth that is happening now.
Take a moment to breathe the air around you. We are able to live our everyday lives, to practice yoga, to do what we love etc because the air around us makes it possible to do so. We take clean air for granted, but we are at this point that we have to pay attention to air quality, and do what we can to stop it from being further polluted.
A yogi realizes that their actions matter. We co-create the world around us. “We are running out of air” may be the headline of today, but it doesn’t have to be the headline of tomorrow. We can still turn things around if we want to. Create the headline of your wish, for the kind of world we deserve we live in, and do what you can to turn that into reality.