Have you ever asked yourself that question? What is the obvious answer?…You!
You might spend a lot of time and energy trying to make sense of your relationships with other people. You might invite people to your life and say good bye to others often connected to what they bring to your life, but how much time do you spend trying to figure out the person who will be with you until your last breath, namely you?
If I ask you how well do you know yourself? What would be your answer? Hopefully, you know your likes and dislikes, and you know your strengths and weaknesses. Often, however, our introspection stops there. We know how we think, how we feel and how we act in different situations, and we limit ourselves to believe that there is nothing we can do about it believing that that’s just how we are.
Yoga teaches us that there is more to ourselves than what we usually think, and taking the time to get to know ourselves better can help us:
- Accept ourselves better
- Gradually let go of the aspects of our mind that bring suffering to bring lasting peace of mind
- Cultivate the qualities that bring inner peace
Rude honesty, acceptance and refinement
The work of introspection starts with self-observation, honesty and acceptance. Observe your behaviour, thoughts and attitudes, and find what doesn’t help you cultivate inner peace, what creates distress, what hurts others and yourself. Honest reflection is required here but do this with the same kindness you would use to rise your own child. Do this with acceptance and without judgement, because if you don’t accept yourself, the work of refining your thoughts will be very difficult. Being judgemental towards yourself will mislead you and you will get stuck in the negative emotion created by your judgement missing the opportunity to go deeper.
Let us say that you have a tendency to get very angry and you don’t like how you behave when you do so. Every time you get very angry you end up doing and saying things that you know hurt others. After an outburst of anger, you then end up feeling frustrated and angry towards yourself regretting the whole situation for hours or even for days. Ruminating, blaming yourself for not being patient, blaming others for their behaviour, blaming the world for being as it is.
Do you see how much time and energy is invested in a pile of emotions that are not helping you? What we learn through the study and practice of yoga is to first and foremost accept that you experience anger but you are not anger. Anger is an emotion that comes to you as some sort of messenger, and you are invited to listen to this emotion, figure out why you get angry. The tough part is that you need to look inside yourself to find the answer instead of pointing your finger toward other people, or the circumstances that make you angry.
In yoga psychology, we learn that anger is often connected to our expectations or to fear. If we manage to recognise the source of the emotion, we then are able to do the work by asking ourselves if we can change or let go of the expectation or if our fear is unfounded. This kind of process requires patience, time and a lot of practice. Awareness is the first step, acceptance is the next one and then we can start the work of refining our perception in order to change the behaviour.
That is where the regular practice of meditation comes in handy. When we sit in silence with ourselves, we learn breathing techniques that help us slow down and relax. We learn to observe our thoughts as if they were some sort of movie playing on the screen of our mind. When we sit in meditation we do not act. We just observe. With practice, we can bring some of the elements of meditation to our everyday life. When I notice that I am angry, I can take some deep breaths to calm myself and create some space between the emotion and the reaction. I can observe my thoughts and allow them to stay as thoughts and not as actions. I can then remind myself where this emotion comes from, and choose the best way to deal with the situation without hurting myself or others in the process.
Another useful practice is to start noticing your self-talk as you go about throughout the day. Whenever you catch yourself being nasty towards yourself, stop, and try to change it to constructive self-talk. It is okey to be critical, to want to improve, but it is not okey if you are constantly putting yourself down.
Cultivate qualities that bring inner peace
The work of introspection is not easy, and it can leave us feeling vulnerable. It is not easy to see with full honesty into the limiting ideas we have about ourselves and those around us. It can be tough at times. That is why, we need to see ourselves as our most important ally in life. We need to accept, love and show compassion towards the aspect of ourselves that we do not like, and keep cultivating the aspects of ourselves that we know bring peace to our mind.
Both in the Bhagavad Gita and in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we are encouraged to replace limiting thoughts that bring pain to ourselves and others with thoughts, attitudes and actions that bring inner peace and by consequence peace around us.
There are several ways to do this, but I want to highlight three:
- Decide which values you want to live up to, write them down somewhere. They shouldn’t be more than five. You can maybe range them from your topmost important. Every morning, read your values, and either choose to live consciously by applying them every moment of the day, or choose one for a period of time. Whenever you are in a situation where you need to make a choice on how to behave, go back to your value and reflect how you are applying it in the situation. It might happen that you sometimes go back to acting in a reactive way without reflecting, and realise that you went the completely opposite direction than the one shown by the chosen value. This is completely okay. Practice is one of the main principles in the yoga tradition, and it is not by chance. Every deep change needs practice. So, forgive yourself, learn the lesson, and keep trying.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we find some guidance if we were unsure on what to choose, in Chapter 2, sutras 29-32, he talks about the Yamas or great vows, and Niyamas or observances. The Yamas are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-greed, and the Niyamas are purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books, and self-surrender or worship to God (the Divine).
Furthermore, in chapter 1, Sutra 33, he gives practical advice on what kind of attitudes we can cultivate towards other people in order to cultivate inner peace:
‘By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.’
In the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 16 verses 1-3, we find many uplifting values and attitudes that can help us:
‘(1) Fearlessness, purity of heart, perseverance in acquiring wisdom and in practicing yoga, charity, subjugation of the senses, performance of holy rites, study of the scriptures, self-discipline, straightforwardness;
(2) Noninjury, truthfulness, freedom from wrath, renunciation, peacefulness, nonslanderousness, compassion for all creatures, absence of greed, gentleness, modesty, lack of restlessness;
(3) Radiance of character, forgiveness, patience, cleanness, freedom from hate, absence of conceit—these qualities are the wealth of a divinely inclined person, O Descendant of Bharata.’
2. Whenever you catch yourself having thoughts that limit yourself. Thoughts that bring distress, stress and/or pain, acknowledge them, accept them, and remind yourself what you want to replace them with. Let’s say I want to live in Trust instead of Fear. Whenever I am worried about an uncertain situation in the near or far future, I can remind myself to trust I will be able to deal with it, and that I will get through whatever life brings.
‘When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.’ Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras translated by Swami Satchidananda
3. Create yourself an affirmation. If you know in which area of your life you struggle the most, for example, having a feeling of unworthiness, or feeling a lack of love, or feeling unsafe, create an affirmation for yourself: ‘I am enough’, ‘I am loved and protected’… During the day, whenever you remember, repeat your affirmation in your head, and especially in moments of distress.
You are much more than what you believe
Lastly, in the yoga tradition, we are constantly reminded that our body and our mind are only the vehicle through which we experience life, but we are much more than that. Every sentient being is at their core what in Sanskrit is called Atma. My favourite translation to English is Pure Potential. We all are this Pure Potential which is source of infinite love, creativity and happiness. That is why we keep seeking love and happiness throughout our lives! The challenge is that throughout our life (and lives, if you can accept the idea of reincarnation), our mind has been shaped by experiences, and this Pure Potential is covered with layares and layers of limiting ideas that do not allow us to see our real nature.
Our job is then to peel off the layers of limited thoughts to come closer to our core. We start by replacing our thoughts and behaviours that cause pain with what doesn’t cause pain, and little by little we are able to let go of everything that limits us to finally see the infinite goodness in ourselves and others.
Whether you believe in this or not, you should at least know that we all are capable of much more than we limit ourselves to believe. We all have the ability to change our mindset. It is not easy, it won’t happen in a day or two, but with practice and perseverance, you will notice the gradual changes.