Peaceful mind through uplifting attitudes

Both in the Bhagavad Gita and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali we find practical advice and techniques to cultivate a calmer state of mind. The beauty of it is that not only do we attain a more stable state of inner peace, we also contribute to a more harmonious and peaceful environment which in turn help us keep our mind calmer and clearer.

In the Gita chapter 6 we read:

6:8 “He is a supreme yogi who regards with equal-mindedness all men—patrons, friends, enemies, strangers, mediators, hateful beings, relatives, the virtuous and the ungodly.” Yogananda, Paramahansa. God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita . Self-Realization Fellowship. Kindle Edition.

When we learn to meet all sorts of behaviours with equanimity, we are able to better deal with challenging ones. If we get caught up in our opinion, our experience and our feelings around the behaviour (our ego), we most probably end up wrapped up in a more complicated situation. The practice of meditation can give us the tools to keep this equanimity such as breathing exercises and the skill to observe both a situation and our thoughts before acting (instead of impulsively reacting). It is difficult not to judge a situation or react emotionally to something we perceive as ‘wrong’ or ‘unfair’ or ‘hurtful’, but it is possible to observe the emotional reaction arising, and control it before it translates into an action. We can try to tell ourselves that the behaviour is the result of the inner state of the person and has little or nothing to do with ourselves. We just happen to be the receptor. Furthermore, we can try to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. We are all trying to find some sort of happiness, some sort of feeling of fulfilment and purpose, and we act out of what we perceive, what we have experienced and what we know. We can recognise that we too have probably acted in hurtful ways in certain situations as a result of our limited thought process at the time.

If we manage to detach from our need to judge others and react emotionally to their behaviour, our mind is calmer and thus ready for the meditation practice. The less we attach our ego to other people’s actions in the everyday life, the less they will come and buzz in our head while we sit in silence. The calmer the mind, the closer we get to that inner state of ours that is undisturbed by outer circumstances. A lasting inner state of peace. The closer we get to that state, the calmer we are off our mat too. So you can say it’s a positive spiral.

We feel better, we deal with the world better, and we don’t make other people feel bad with our reactions.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we get more detailed advice:

1: 33 “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” Satchidananda, Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—Integral Yoga Pocket Edition: Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda . Integral Yoga Publications.

The way I understand it, step nr1 to start working with our limiting thoughts is to try to replace them with uplifting thoughts. Uplifting attitudes are closer to our true nature than limiting ones, and they give us energy instead of draining us. Friendliness, compassion and delight are much better for us and for those around us than envy, jealousy and judgement. If we sit to meditate with a feeling of compassion, it is much easier to calm the mind, than if we sit with thoughts of judgement.

So, work on your thoughts and attitudes to calm your mind and thus create a more harmonious environment around you so you can live a calmer and more harmonious life.

Easier said than done, you say? I totally agree, but with practice, I think it is possible.

Are you your own friend?

5-6  “I must emphasize, Arjuna, that you have to lift yourself by your own efforts! You must not allow yourself to be demeaned by your ego-self. Know that the self can be both friend and foe — a friend when used to conquer the mind, senses, and body; a foe when it drags one into the mind, senses, and body. True Self (Atma) is the ally; the ego-mind self is the enemy.
Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (p. 58). New World Library. Kindle Edition.

These are the empowering words of Krishna explaining meditation to Arjuna. Meditation as a 24/7 practice. Meditation as a mindset: to learn to control the mind to quiet the cacophony of thoughts and thus be in touch with your inner peace.

When we sit in silence, we aim to slow down the body and the mind, to shut the senses, and focus our attention inwards. It is inside ourselves, beyond our thoughts that we can find lasting peace that is unaffected by whatever is happening around us. But it takes practice and time, and it requires that we also do some inner work the rest of the day, when we are not sitting in silence.

We can be our own friend and our own enemy when seeking this inner peace. Our mind often seems to live a life of its own. It often seems like emotions and thoughts arise without us having much control. Therefore, we are encouraged to observe the thoughts and emotions that are limiting us, and work towards gradually letting go of them.

You can start by observing your self-talk. How do you treat yourself? Are you your own friend or foe? Can you change your self-criticism into constructive feedback? How do you respond when you make a mistake? When things don’t go as you expected them to be? Do you mentally drag yourself further down? Start practicing self-compassion. Whenever you notice your negative self-talk, say something nice to yourself that will help you in the moment instead of make you feel bad about yourself.

Next, is to observe your recurrent thoughts. Those that keep your mind busy. Where do they come from? How do they make you feel? Are you ruminating about the past or worrying about the future? You can’t change the past, and all you can do about the future is to be clear about your intentions behind your actions, and do your best. Regret and worry won’t help you. On the contrary, since you are spending mind energy in regretting or worrying, you are loosing the opportunity to use that energy in being aware of the present moment. When we don’t spend mental energy in regret and worry, we have more time and space to better enjoy the present and better deal with the challenges it might bring.

Past events do have an impact in us, but we can also do the mental work to let go of what is out of our hands. Acknowledge the emotions that those past events have created in you (or others), and again, use compassion and understanding to let go of them. There is a difference between accepting and acknowledging emotions and feeding into them. You can be your own friend by allowing yourself to feel, tell yourself that you understand, and invite yourself to move forward, to let go.

The future might seem overwhelming sometimes, especially when facing challenges. Tough periods are tiring and draining. Try to find the confidence in yourself that you will be able to walk through this too as you always have. There is always a lesson to be learned, and fortunately, things are in constant change. A period of difficulty will be followed by a calmer period. You can create inner peace to better go through whatever life is throwing at you, and again, with this inner peace, you will be able to better deal with anything.

The inner work we do in our everyday life has an effect in our meditation practice. When we learn to befriend our mind and let go of thought processes that do not help us, our mind is calmer and it is easier to focus our attention when we sit. This again has an effect in our mindset for the rest of the day. In order to slow down the mind, we need to practice meditation both when sitting and when playing our parts in life.

Krishna also mentions the body and the senses. I will come back to them when sharing other verses.

Everyday warrior

What are the characteristics of a warrior? How would you define yourself as an everyday warrior?

These questions came to my mind when I was planing an asana class where the main poses were the different variations of Virabhadrasana or Warrior pose.

In the yoga tradition, and as far as I know, the most famous warrior is Arjuna who is one of the main characters in the Bhagavad Gita. We meet him right before the battle of his life, the battle of Kurukshetra. Luckily for him, he has Sri Krishna as his charioteer and closest friend.

What I like about the Gita is that although it is known that Arjuna is a great warrior, the first we learn about him is that he is in despair. He is invaded by doubt and maybe even fear and he doesn’t know if he wants to fight this battle or not. What? A warrior that shows weakness right before the battle of his life? How come? How can we relate to that?

Arjuna teaches us that a warrior isn’t always on top of everything. A warrior experiences moments of doubt, of despair and fear, but what makes Arjuna an exceptional warrior is that he acknowledges these feelings and seeks for advice from Krishna.

Krishna then has a long conversation with him where he seeks to encourage Arjuna to make his own decision, but this decision should not be based in fear and distress. Arjuna needs to calm his emotions and see the whole picture. He needs to look inwards and find out what his duty is regardless of the outcome of the battle. Running away is most probably not the best solution because the issues that led to the battle will continue hunting Arjuna and his people.

I believe, there are many ways to interpret this story and make parallells with our lives, but what I have been reflecting about lately is the importance of doing what we can with what we have, with the best of intentions, and allow the result to be as it needs to be. Sometimes, we are put in situations where we feel helpless, where we don’t know what to do. It is wise to pause, calm down, and then proceed. Sometimes, we make the wrong choices or we make mistakes, but what makes us an everyday warrior is that we learn and move forward.

We don’t have all the answers, and that is perfectly fine. If we had them, we most probably wouldn’t be here…

Who knows what is best for you?

“You can rise up through the efforts of your own mind; or in the same manner, draw yourself down, for you are your own friend or enemy.” Bhagavad Gita ch6v5

This quote is from chapter 6 in the Bhagavad Gita where the path of meditation is explained (Yoga Dharana). Krishna, Arjuna’s friend and guide emphasises that we have the power to make our lives good or bad.

Notice how Krishna talks about the ‘efforts of [our] own mind’.  The mind is key and the outer circumstances are secondary in this theory of Yoga.
The work of self-observation and self-reflection is crucial in order to decide which aspects of our life and mind we can continue cultivating and which ones we need to change, and more importantly, how.

In the quest towards making choices that will improve your well-being, you can start by avoiding taking your mind and body too seriously. What does this mean? Avoid over-identifying yourself with the shape of your body or the state of your mind. Avoid the extremes of overindulging or neglecting yourself. In both cases, you are feeding into your ego mind which prevents you from reaching deeper into your Higher self which, according to Yoga, is Pure Potential.

Overindulging 

What do you associate with overindulging? How do you overindulge? We often think about food and alcohol, but there are other ways to overindulge: sex, work, sleep, social media, reading the news… It is basically any activity we do to stimulate our mind through our senses where we lose control.

Beside the possibility of harming our health, by losing control of our senses, we also lose the opportunity to keep a calm and clear state of mind. Patanjali talks about thoughts that bring pain, and thoughts that bring suffering. Thoughts that bring suffering are selfish thoughts. Whether we like it or not, when we lose control over our senses we are being selfish. We are seeking to feel good through the experience of sense objects. The problem is that, when we seek comfort by satisfying our senses, we end up in a negative spiral. We either experience momentary pleasure in sensual experiences, but the moment the stimulus is over, we start craving for more, or even worse, we don’t experience satisfaction until it is ‘too much’ leaving us feeling overstimulated, and maybe even remorseful for the loss of control over ourselves.

Overindulging often comes from a conscious or unconscious feeling of void. This void is felt in different ways by different people and we often connect it to past experiences or trauma. The truth is that if we all observe our mind, we all experience some sort of emptiness. For some, it is stronger, and for others it is more bearable. 

So, what to do?

  1. Slow down: when we slow down, we are more aware of what we do and why we do it.
  2. Make sure you rest enough: lack of sleep and rest can lead to overindulgece. The mind seeks stimulation to get out of tiredness or the emotional instability tiredness brings.
  3. Enjoy life with moderation: we are not encouraged to neglect ourselves. We are encouraged to use our senses to experience the world with its ups and downs but we are warned of the consequences of being controlled by our senses. Instead, we should aim to live a life of discipline, where we control the senses.
  4. Try not to put your well-being in sensory experiences. Cultivate contentment that is independent of the external world. Contentment is mentioned in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is anchored inside ourselves, no matter what is happening outside us.

By contentment, supreme joy is gained.” Book II sutra 42 Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Swami Satchidananda writes in his commentary on Paranjali’s Yoga Sutras that one must understand the difference between contentment and satisfaction: ‘Contentment means just to be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness. If something comes, we let it come. If not, it doesn’t matter. Contentment means neither to like nor dislike.’

“ The contact of bodily senses with objects and attractions in the world creates feelings like sorrow or happiness, and sensations like heat or cold. But these are impermanent, transitory, coming and going like passing clouds. Just endure them patiently and bravely; learn to be unaffected by them.” Bhagavad Gita ch2 v14

The Bhagavad Gita invites us to live a life of moderation and of constant awareness over and control of the senses. The problem with putting our happiness in sensory experiences is that they do not last. Everything we experience in the outer world is transient. If we want to experience a constant feeling of contentment, we need to put our focus inwards. According to Yoga, all we need is already inside ourselves, beyond our mind and our body. If we take the time to slow down, to make contact with this inner core, we will gradually experience this feeling of contentment that is independent of anything that is happening around us.

  1. Take time to know yourself in all aspects of your life. Observe what happens when you sleep less, what happens when you sleep more. Try different techniques to improve sleep: reading, light exercise before bedtime, meditation, yoga, staying away from electric devices. Observe what happens with your body and mind when you eat certain food. Be honest with yourself. It might be possible that you feel satisfied after overindulging, but what happens next? Do you experience discomfort? If not, continue as you do. If yes, what can you change? If we take the time to listen to ourselves, to observe how our body and mind react to different stimuli, we find out what best suits us.
  2. Create habits and stick to them. We are all different, and it is good to listen to advice, but if you keep jumping blindly from one thing to another, you are not listening to yourself. It has taken me many years of either overeating or dieting to finally realize that something in between is what is best for me. I have tried different things and have come to a sustainable diet. Something that I can live with, that doesn’t complicate my life, on the contrary, it makes it easier.
  3. Be patient. Be consistent. Be kind and compassionate towards yourself. 

Self-neglect

“I must emphasize that you have to lift yourself by your own efforts! You must not allow yourself to be demeaned by your ego-self. Know that the self can be both friend and foe – a friend when used to conquer the mind, senses and body; a foe, when it drags one into the mind, senses, and the body. True Self (Atma) is the ally; the ego-mind self is the enemy.” Bhagavad Gita ch6 v5-6

Some feed into their ego by overstimulating their senses, some, by self-neglect. Many move from one to the other constantly beating themselves for either overindulging or for not taking care of themselves.

In any case, we are only feeding into our ego mind creating stress and distress for ourselves. Neglect is not only harmful for ourselves because how can we function to our best when we don’t take care of ourselves? How can we show genuine care, compassion and love to others when we don’t do it towards ourselves?

Therefore, the best thing you can do is to find MODERATION in your life.

“It is impossible to practice Yoga effectively if you eat or sleep either too much or too little. But if you are moderate in eating, playing, sleeping, staying awake and avoiding extremes in everything you do, you will see that these Yoga practices eliminate all your pain and suffering.” Bhagavad Gita ch6 v16-17

Note that ‘practice Yoga’ doesn’t mean to do physical exercise (asana), but the practice of cultivating a peaceful and clear state of mind. If what we seek is to live a more peaceful and clear life, we need to start by taking good care of ourselves. Even if we are taught that we are much more than our body and mind, these are the vehicles we have to move around and experience life. Therefore, we need to take care of both. The best way to do so is by living a life of moderation in actions and in thought.

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.