How do we measure spirituality?

Last fall, I wanted to start a series of workshops about what I find are some of the most useful principles taught in the Bhagavad Gita to cultivate peace of mind. For this, I had to revise some of the chapters I have studied during the last five years through the guidance of my Yoga teacher, Prasad Rangnekar. I mentioned this to a good friend of mine who likes studying philosophy and especially Stoicism, and he got curious about Yoga and my engagement in it. He asked me if I could recommend a couple of books about Yoga he could read. I gave him a short version I have of the Gita but warned that it was difficult to read it from start to end without taking the time to study it, preferably through the guidance of a teacher. I also gave him another book that summarises the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Yesterday, we went out with my friend and his family for a hike, and at some point, he asked me “How are your Yoga studies doing?”. I got excited with the question because for the moment, I am taking an online course with my teacher about the origins of Yoga and its development through the years until today. His next questions took me by surprise: “What do you want to achieve by studying Yoga? What kind of title will you get in the end? Are you aiming to climb up in some sort of hierarchy?”. I had to think a bit about what he meant, and what I could answer. I study because it is interesting, and because I see positive changes happening in the way I perceive myself and interact with the world through the practice of Yoga, but I don’t think there is a specific title I can get from my studies, I said.

This, or course, kept me thinking and that is why this blog post. It has happened, during the last five years that I have at times asked myself what would happen if I spent the time I dedicate to study Yoga to study something that can give me some sort of degree. I don’t have a Masters degree, for example, and I know that I will eventually need one if I one day want to change jobs. The thing is, however, that I think my life is busy enough as it is for the time being with three kids and a job. In order to add one more item to my ‘to-do list’ I would then have to sacrifice time with my family and time for my personal growth. This personal growth happens through the study and practice of Yoga, and cannot be measured as we are used to measure things in this side of the world.

So that is one aspect of my reflection today, it is difficult for some people to understand why someone would invest time, energy and even money in studying something that doesn’t give any sort of degree. This said, that is personal growth, isn’t it? Who can measure it? And why would anyone except for myself and eventually my teacher measure it?

Secondly, as I was answering his questions, it kind of hit me that I am literally on a path. I am slowly walking into something without having a very clear idea of what the ‘end goal’ is. Although I know that the ‘end goal’ is self-realisation or union with Universal Consciousness because that is what the scriptures say, it is way too abstract for me to say ‘that is my goal’ for the time being. But I walk with faith and curiosity, because so far, everything I have learned and applied has made positive changes in my life.

Thirdly, I realised how little my friend understands Yoga, and how limited my own knowledge and understanding is. I also realised how difficult it is to understand a spiritual tradition without proper guidance. It actually made me feel humble towards all spiritual traditions. My friend asked me if I am aiming towards becoming a guru. In my understanding, there is no such thing as ‘aiming towards becoming a guru’. I don’t think one can decide that one wants to become a guru. Maybe the simple fact of doing so disqualifies one to become one (hello ego!). Why would anyone want to become a guru anyhow? I guess it is because he doesn’t understand what a guru is. I’m not even sure I understand completely what a guru is, but I do understand that there is no prestige attached to it. Teaching and guiding others in the Yoga tradition is part of the cycle of life. It is a big responsibility, and should not put people in a position of power. My teacher keeps reminding us to be very careful of calling anyone a guru. According to Yoga, the natural thing to do is to help others once one has reached a certain level of understanding because we all have the same divine potential. If I remember right, it is part of what in yoga is called lokasangraha. Spiritual maturity is not measured with how many scriptures one has studied, it has to do with an internal process.

Yoga has taught me to walk life (as opposed to run) with as much awareness as I can. It has also taught me to be curious and be patient. It is teaching me humility and faith. One day, I will take a Masters degree that will benefit my profession, but it is not the right moment yet. I am way too busy with other aspects of my life, and when I am not fulfilling my responsibilities as a mum, wife or teacher, I spend time studying something that I think benefits me directly and those around me indirectly. It is not easy to measure, and I won’t get any titles for it but I believe in it. Actually, one thing that is certain about the spiritual path is that it pushes us to let go of things, we eventually loose everything we thought was so important, we do not acquire anything new…

One last thing, this is how I choose to live my life right now. I do not expect everyone to feel or want the same, let alone understand it. I am not annoyed with my friend when he asks all these questions. I like them because they make me reflect, and allow me to see things from another perspective.

Where did you loose your key?

According to Yoga, we seek happiness and love because that is the natural state of our Higher Self. This Higher Self (Atman) is who we really are. The issue is that most of us don’t have contact with this Higher Self. We live deluded believing that we are our lower self which is our physical body, our thoughts and everything we perceive and identify as ‘me’.

One way to the Higher Self is through meditation which requires practice and non-attachment. This non-attachment is our tool throughout the day and during our practice to reach the state of meditation. Sitting in silence every day is a way to train the mind to slow down and focus which in turn is a tool to gradually detach from what is in our way to see our Higher Self.

The challenge is, that this Higher Self seems so difficult to reach. Most of us are dealing with a very limited mind. So, it is easier to reach towards what we can see in search for happiness and love getting lost in our senses, acting in selfish ways and in worst case scenarios acting in self-destructive ways. Unfortunately, nothing in the tangible world can give us lasting happiness or a lasting feeling of being loved because everything is in constant change including our perceptions and expectations. What made me happy today, might not be enough tomorrow. The most trusted and loved person you have can suddenly change his/her mind and walk away from your life.

Once a seeker in the path of yoga accepts these basic principles, life’s small and bigger challenges take a slightly different form. We are affected by them, but we have the tools to work ourselves out of the negativity that can be created by our emotions, especially those like anger, fear, jealousy, desire and greed.

In the Bhagavad Gita, we meet Arjuna, a great warrior who finds himself paralysed by fear and anxiety right before the battle of his life. The more we study the Gita, the more we can identify ourselves with Arjuna and realise how limited and limiting our mind can be. We learn to observe our attitudes and behaviours, and with practice, discipline and patience, we manage to make adjustments that bring us to a steadier calmer state of mind.

Learning about the limitedness of our minds, and the absurdity of pursuing happiness outside ourselves is also a powerful tool that helps us better interact with other people. When you start observing your mind and realise all the internal work you need to do in order to live a more peaceful life, you are also able to recognise the same struggles in other people. You might be able to forgive easier when you acknowledge the fact that we all are seeking the same but act (out?) in different ways to achieve it.

Think about this next time you have struggles with someone you expect something from. How can you expect the other person to give you what you believe you need, when the other person is busy in his/her own mind? If you are lucky, this person is aware of his/her struggles, but most of us spend a good part of our lives completely oblivious of our own limitations.

My advice is 1) If you are lacking something, see how you can provide it to yourself. If it is love that you are seeking, find this love inside yourself. Or at least be very clear of how this love should look like and give it the same way you expect to receive it without expecting anything in return. 2) Next time someone hurts your feelings, think about the cliché line “It’s not you, it’s me”, and believe in it. Whatever people do is an expression of their own inner world, of their perceptions and expectations. Even when someone acts in response to your actions, they are acting with their mind as the puppeteer. Just observe this in yourself during the next days. People are just people doing their thing but we have decided who we like, who annoys us, who we hate, who we want to have by our side, and who we want to push away. This connects to another way of interpreting the same line, ask yourself why am I reacting like this? In most cases, it is because the other person’s actions did not meet our own expectations.

I once heard a story, I am not sure if it comes from Buddhism or from the Yoga tradition, but I think it fits here. When we keep looking for what we feel we lack in the outer world or in other people, it is as if we had lost the key for our home, and keep searching for it at the wrong place knowing very well that it wasn’t there we lost it.

What I think Krishna would say now

“As Krishna watches the once-brave warrior prince plunge into pitiable weakness His normally soft eyes become steely, and He speaks. “Arjuna, where does all this despair come from? This egoistic self-indulgence at a time of crisis is shameful and unworthy of you. You are a highly evolved, cultured man who is supposed to live a truth-based life, a life of dharma. And yet your confused mind is unbalanced and would not know truth if it hit you over the head.”

Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (pp. 11-12). New World Library. Kindle Edition.

These are the words spoken by Krishna to the great warrior Arjuna almost right before the battle of his life. Arjuna has lost his center in the tornado of his emotions, and is unable to think clear as he stands in the middle of the battle field.

I think Krishna’s words, although they sound harsh, are very powerful and useful for all of us in any situation where life throws at us challenges. Like the Corona-virus challenge we are in now.

Krishna starts by scolding Arjuna for being selfish and indulging in the emotions created by his own perceptions in a moment where he should be on top of things. What does Krishna mean with egoistic self-indulgence? Have you ever experienced something similar? I can definitely relate to this description. I have experienced that life doesn’t go as I expect it to go. That there is a huge gap between what I want and what reality serves me and I get lost in the dark cloud of emotions. I keep thinking and overthinking and the more I think, the more I feel I am right, or even entitled to feel how I feel, and I keep feeding into these emotions.

Let’s take the Corona-virus situation as an example. I am used to the predictability life in Norway brings, but now, we don’t really know what is going to happen. We don’t know how long we will have to live a quite different life from the one we are used to. It feels like we can’t make projects, we have lost some of our freedom. It can almost feel that we are all put on hold. What can be my natural reaction to this? Anxiety, frustration, fear. Nothing wrong with any of these emotions, they are a natural response to situations like this, but what Krishna is trying to make Arjuna understand is that one thing is to experience these emotions and another is to be stuck in the web of negative emotions and just continue spinning a more and more complex web by feeding into them. Once we notice these emotions, we need to do our best to get out of them because acting out of fear, frustration and anger will not bring us to a good place.

For this, it is important to note what he says next: “[…it] is shameful and unworthy of you. You are a highly evolved, cultured man who is supposed to live a truth-based life”. This is, in my opinion, to help Arjuna find his self-confidence again. He is reminding him of his potential, a potential that we all share with Arjuna. We can read this aloud to ourselves in front of the mirror every time we are taken down by self-doubt. By reminding him what he is made of – pure potential – he reminds him that even in moments of fear and despair, he is capable of dealing with life provided that he doesn’t indulge in the negativity produced by his mind.

We are all able to live a truth-based life. This truth-based life is a life where we first of all are centered in what is stable, and that stability cannot be found in the external world. No matter how hard we try, we will never have full control of the circumstances, but we can have control of our actions and reactions. We are all part of this truth and when we center ourselves in it, we can then skilfully fight any battle, just like Krishna knows Arjuna can because we know what our duty –dharma – is.

I think the concept of dharma is very useful in difficult and uncertain situations. Once the first shock of emotions has passed, we can ask ourselves, what is my role in all this? How can I contribute to both my well-being and the well-being of those around me? What is in my hands and how can I make the best out of this situation? We all have our set of skills and unique talents that make a difference in the big picture. Imagine if all of us always acted with the clear intention to contribute instead of reacting out of fear or frustration!

Sometimes, our dharma is to do something that we might perceive as unpleasant or even scary. Like Arjuna, his dharma is to fight this battle, but we have to keep the big picture in mind. Have our intentions clear. Arjuna has to fight this battle to reestablish the moral order, not out of thirst for power or revenge.

So, in these times of Corona-crisis, once we have gotten over the shock of having to change our way of living for some time or maybe even permanently, let’s spend our energy in finding our center instead of rejecting a situation we cannot change. Let’s spend our energy in doing the best we can do with what we have. So we have to stay home? What can this mean for you other than not being able to do what you want to do? What can you do to make this time a good time for you and those around you? How can you contribute? It can be as simple as staying calm to help your family stay calm. Last but not least, let’s keep our intentions very clear. Are we acting out of fear? Out of selfishness? Are we seeing the whole picture?

Why develop compassion and forgiveness?

The yogis look upon all—well-wishers, friends, foes, the pious, and the sinners—with an impartial intellect. The yogi who is of equal intellect toward friend, companion, and foe, neutral among enemies and relatives, and impartial between the righteous and sinful, is considered to be distinguished among humans.’  (Bhagavad Gita 6:9)

How does this resonate with you?  What is your immediate reaction to it? Can you accept it? Why? 

If we define Yoga as equanimity of mind (Gita 2:48), does that change your way of understanding this quote? Why would this be important in order to have a calmer mind?

Although this quote doesn’t talk directly about compassion or forgiveness, for me, it is an invitation to practice both. Compassion is an important concept in many traditions. Have you ever thought about what compassion means for you?

When practicing compassion, we are always encouraged to start with ourselves. When you allow yourself to see inside your mind with complete honesty, you will discover both the bright and dark sides of it. Instead of criticising yourself, try to understand yourself. Try to understand why sometimes, you act and react in ways that do not serve you or those around you. It usually has to do with thoughts and ideas that are imprinted in your mind as a result of past experiences. When you are able to understand yourself, you are able to show compassion too. This is the first and most important step towards self-transformation. By observing, accepting and understanding, we create space between our thoughts and our actions, this space, with practice allows us to stop living a reactive life and start living an active life.

Once you are able to show compassion to who you are at any time, you will see that it is possible to show that same compassion towards others because you realize that they too, act and react according to their own mental limitations.

Compassion has two main benefits, the first one is helping you stabilise your mind, the second one is to interact with everyone in a more open and harmonious way.

Once you are able to show compassion, you might be able to forgive. Forgiveness comes from our willingness to let go of our expectations towards others. If you are struggling to forgive someone, try to think in the same line as with compassion. Someone once said that hating someone is like drinking poison and wishing the other person to die. When we go around with resentment towards others, the only affected is our own peace of mind. In addition, we can consider the fact that we all are seeking love, freedom and happiness, but we do it in different ways. We all act out of our patterns of thought and perception, and for some, there is a real feeling of no other choice. This can help us feel compassion and eventually forgive.

Recognise yourself in others.


Santosha or contentment

From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness’  Iyengar, B. K. S.. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Contentment is an important ingredient in the life of a yoga practitioner. In my understanding, we need to keep it in mind at all times during our everyday life in order to channel our energy in the right direction and cultivate a calmer state of mind but it is also something I can notice developing on its own inside me as I walk on the path of Yoga.

The what, the how and the why of contentment we try to generate.

Firs of all, what do I understand by contentment? I tried to find a translation in Spanish for one of my students but all I could find was something that translated back to English is “happy”. In my opinion, it is more nuanced than that. Being content is not necessarily being happy. Being content is more like being ‘okay’ no matter what. Noah Rasheta from Secular Buddhism defines it as ‘okayness’. This means that no matter what life is serving you today, you try to stay balanced. Why? To save energy mainly. Mental energy. If you don’t waste energy in getting all worked up in everything that doesn’t go your way, you can then direct your efforts towards dealing with the situation more appropriately. You avoid reacting out of impulse and you start acting more skilfully.

Contentment is one of the four niyamas in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. We are encouraged to practice it together with cleanliness of body and mind, sustained courageous practice, self-study and surrender to the supreme Self or God.

Being content means that when things go the way we wish them to go, we enjoy them and let go when we have to let go of them, and when things don’t go as we want, we focus on what can be done and what can be learned instead of getting lost in negativity. Not because negativity is ‘wrong’ but because most of the time, it won’t lead us towards any constructive action.

As one of my students put it today, if you get lost in negativity, you can’t get the whole picture of what is happening around you which may also include positive things. I loved this reflection!

Another way of cultivating contentment is to be tankful for what we have or for what does go as we wish it to go. It might sound difficult when we are in the middle of a crisis, but if you think about it, we can always be thankful for something: for being strong enough to endure this difficult situation, for the support we receive from others, for the food we get, the clothes we wear or the bed we sleep in.

How does contentment start growing from the inside?

When we constantly practice non-attachment to the results of our actions and at the same time put our best intentions into them.

Detachment brings discernment: seeing each and every thing or being as it is, in its purity, without bias or self-interest. Iyengar, B. K. S.. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Kindle Locations 774-775). HarperCollins Publishers.

It requires a lot of practice, but when we manage, the feeling is of pure freedom. When you can tell yourself: I did my part, the rest is out of my hands and you really let go. If the result is the desired one, we are thankful, if not, we try to find the lesson in it, and move on. Done. No need to dwell on it. Freedom and contentment.

When we learn to trust. Trust in ourself, trust in the journey, trust in our guide(s), and/or trust in the Universe/God or however you want to call it. You stand up, brush the dust, and keep walking.

When we understand that our inner peace is independent of external stimuli. When we understand that what lies at the core of our being is independent and unaffected by anything that is external to us.

But the individual who truly loves the soul and is fully satisfied with the soul and finds utter contentment in the soul alone, for him no duty exists.’ Yogananda, Paramahansa. God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita Ch11 v17