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

Energy

It is well known for most of us that physical activity in the right quantity and intensity can help keep our energy levels balanced. Yoga asana, if practiced with respect for your own body’s strengths and limitations can be a good way to keep the physical energy at a healthy level. When doing asana it is important to balance between stability and mobility. Generally, poses for stability require muscle strength and are thus more intense, they can be practiced to create heat in the body. Poses for mobility are mainly poses that work with flexibility, those practiced seated or lying down are generally less intense than standing poses. Remember to always keep in mind what the intention of your physical practice is and adapt the time and intensity accordingly.

What else affect our energy levels? Food, sleep, responsibilities, work, and what does yoga have to say about these? We are encouraged to practice moderation:

‘Verily, yoga is not for him who eats too much or abstains too much from eating. It is not for him, O Arjuna, who sleeps too much or keeps awake too much. ‘ Gita 6:16

‘For the man who is temperate in food and recreation, who is restrained in his actions, whose sleep and waking are regulated, there ensures discipline (yoga) which destroys all sorrow.’ Gita 6:17

Key words here are discipline, moderation and the destruction of sorrow. In chapter 6 of the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga is defined as the disconnection from union with pain, and in order to achieve this state, we need to find a balance in our physical and mental state through practice (abhyasa) which requires discipline.

If your goal is to improve your energy levels, start by having an honest conversation with yourself about your lifestyle. Are you getting enough sleep? If not, why not? What changes can you make in your everyday life that will allow you to improve your sleep? What is part of your daily routine that you can either modify or let go of that is not allowing you to get enough sleep? You should aim towards at least 7 to 8 hours sleep every night. There is so much research that shows how lack of sleep is harmful for the physical and mental health.

A close and honest look at our eating habits can also be beneficial. I would like you to consider the following points:

  • Pay attention to your relationship with food. Do you eat for other reasons than when you are hungry? Is food intake related to boredom, anxiety, emotional pain? If yes, start by just accepting this fact, observing how your emotional state affects your need to eat, and make small adjustments especially when it comes to eating food your body doesn’t really need. Seek help if you need it.
  • Don’t get caught up in diets, or super healthy trends that are difficult to keep up with. Be rather curious about your own body. How do you feel when you eat this or that? Which food combinations are the ones that make you feel good? I sincerely think this is very individual. It requires time, rude honesty and patience to find out what kind of diet is the appropriate for you.
  • Balance your meals with the healthy amount of different kinds of nutrients.
  • Do enjoy guilty pleasures, but try to avoid overindulging.

So far, I have talked about the ‘obvious’ when it comes to our body’s energy levels: physical activity, sleep and nutrition. Can you think of anything else that affects your energy levels?

For this purpose, I want to suggest a short meditation. Read first the instructions, and then try it out. You will need a timer, a notebook (or a piece of paper) and a pencil. Start by finding a comfortable sitting position. It can either be on the floor or on a chair. Make sure you ground yourself on your sitting bones and from there allow your spine to grow tall, light and strong. Shoulders rolled back and down, chin parallel with the floor. Hands on your knees or lap. Set your timer for 3 to five minutes, and when you are ready, close your eyes, or place your gaze at a point on the floor in front of you. If you choose to keep your eyes open, keep your gaze soft and don’t move it during the meditation. Bring your attention to your breath, feel your inhalations and your exhalations. As always, your mind will serve you with all kinds of thoughts, allow these thoughts to come and go. When the timer is off, grab your pencil and write down on the paper the thoughts that came to your mind during this meditation. Without any judgement, without any analysis. Just honestly, write them down. Do this for some days, and compare your notes. You will most probably be able to then see what kind of thoughts are recurrent.

Our mental activity has a very big impact on our general well-being, and it affects directly our energy levels. Recurring thoughts that stress our nervous system such as worries, ruminating and discontentment, end up making us feel drained. One important aspect in the practice of yoga is the development of mental discipline that will allow us to keep a balanced state of mind regardless of what is happening around us. How? Here are some basic principles:

  1. Awareness and acceptance of the every changing nature of the external world. Change is inevitable, the way we deal with is up to us. We have a tendency to anchor ourselves in external factors: people, money, work, material objects, etc, but none of these are guaranteed to last. Enjoy the ups when they are there, and try to deal with a clear mind with the downs knowing that they will not last forever.
  2. Cultivate contentment or okayness that is independent of whatever is happening outside yourself. Start by being grateful for what you perceive as ‘the good’ and the growth you can achieve by what you perceive as ‘the bad’. Train your mind to deal with both pleasant moments and challenging moments equally.
  3. Build clarity of mind by evaluating everything you do in life and deciding what your priorities are and what you can let go of. Always ask yourself why do I do what I do? Be very honest with your answers.
  4. Do what you have to do with a clear intention and detach from the results of your actions. If we are too attached to the results of our actions, we tend to experience tiring emotions like regret, frustration, and anger over past experiences that didn’t turn out as we expected them to or worry and anxiety for future experiences.
  5. Keep expectations and desires in check. Expectations and desires are not ‘bad’, but if the unfulfilled expectation/desire keep disturbing your mind and draining you from energy, you might need to revise them and eventually let go of them.
  6. At any given situation, especially a challenging one ask yourself these three questions: can I change my attitude? can I change the situation? do I need to withdraw?

The mind’s job is to think so don’t judge your mind, and don’t try to ‘stop’ it. Disciplining the mind takes practice and patience. It is not only about sitting five, ten, sixty minutes a day to observe our thoughts. We also have to start making small adjustments in our everyday life, we need to slow down, accept more, push less and let go of what doesn’t serve us. It is a long and sometimes frustrating process, but it is worth it if you want real long lasting changes.

The main principles of Yoga (session 2)

“Working in this state of Karma Yoga consciousness, there is no loss of good beginning or adverse result. Even a little effort saves one from great danger.” Gita 2:40

These are the words of Krishna to the prince and warrior Arjuna at the battlefield before the great battle of Kurukshetra according to the Bhagavad Gita. What we can retain from this verse for the purpose of this text is the fact that the practice of yoga is not dependent on any special place, special time or even special ritual. The sincere practice of yoga has more to do with a mindset rooted in several basic principles. A simple yet sincere practice is much more beneficial for the practitioner than getting lost in techniques and too much unassimilated knowledge, and most importantly, to practice yoga, you don’t need to be anywhere else than where you already are.

The Bhagavad Gita is a relatively short text composed of 700 verses (slokas) divided in eight chapters. It is part of a larger epic called the Mahabharata. It was written approximately around 200 B. C. in India, and it is one of the most important scriptures in the yogic tradition because it summarises the essence of the Yoga tradition. (You can watch this short video for a more thorough introduction) The Gita, is an invitation to observe, accept and reflect upon our perceptions, attitudes, actions and interactions, and thus through practice and patience, make some adjustments to cultivate a calm(er) mind. It describes the theories, methods, techniques and paths that can help us liberate ourselves from suffering.

You must know that disjunction from union with sorrow goes by the name of Yoga. That Yoga should be practiced with determination and unwearied mind. (Bhagavad Gita ch6 v23)

Yoga is detachment from sorrow through control of the mind and senses. Suffering comes from the misperception or ignorance (avidya) of who we are as well as our inability to see or accept the transient nature of the practical world. It is in avidya that we believe all our thoughts and perceived needs are the only reality. We identify ourselves with our limiting thoughts and desires.

According to the teachings of yoga, everything that we seek in the outside world is already inside us: peace, happiness, love, freedom, security... The starting point is therefore to gradually detach from the illusion that we are incomplete and that we need something outside ourself in order to be at peace. We practice vairagya or detachment to live life as it is, knowing that our inner self is independent and unaffected by the external transient world. Practicing vairagya allows us to live without experiencing the suffering that comes from the illusion of unmet expectations (towards ourselves, the fruits of our actions and other people), fear and unfulfilled or insatiable desires. The less we cling to, the freer we are, the closer we come to our true potential.

You can start by observing your own life and the material objects, relationships, ideas and expectations that create mental distress for you. Why do they create distress? Is it fear of loosing them? Is it frustration because of unmet expectations? Is it sorrow because of loss? What would happen if you decide to let go? It might seem like something very scary to do. You might even think that a part of you would get lost but if you let go of the fear, you might notice the feeling of freedom that letting go can bring. When it comes to relationships, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to cut people out of your life, it might only mean that you need to look at certain relationships from another perspective. What we often need to let go of in relationships is expectations. Expectations towards the other person, expectations towards ourself, and expectations towards how the relationship ‘should’ be.

Practicing vairagya can help us cultivate a state of contentment or santosha because our mental and emotional well-being is no longer subject to external circumstances. Santosha is another very important principle in the practice of yoga. Life still happens with its ups and downs, but we can be okay with both because, through practice (abhyasa) we learn to keep a steady mind. We are able to discern between what is transient and what is not (viveka).

‘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).

The practice of yoga can at times feel lonely and frustrating. As we start learning how our limiting thoughts create distress in our life, we want so badly to change them, we want so badly to improve only to find ourself making over and over the same mistakes, falling into the same patterns of thought and behaviour. This is normal. The changes that living a life of awareness bring take time. We need to continue practicing, to continue falling and failing, to continue learning, and above all, to trust. To trust in the process, to trust in ourself, and to trust in the teachings that come from an ancient and still very relevant tradition.

‘Practice demands four qualities from the aspirant: dedication, zeal, uninterrupted awareness and long duration.’ Iyengar, B. K. S.. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Kindle Locations 780-781).

In Spanish we say “cada quién habla de la feria según le fue en ella“, which basically means that we talk about something out of our own experience. In my spiritual path, the mentioned principles have been the most important for me to start cultivating inner peace so far, and I can honestly say that I am noticing the changes in my way of seeing and living life. So whatever resonates within you in this text, try to apply it to your own life, and see what happens. If nothing resonated, keep searching, you will find your way.

The Inner Vacuum

According to the Yoga tradition, everything we need is already inside us but we have somehow lost the connection with what we are at our core. The deepest part of us, our true Self, is complete and unshakable but covering this unshakable Self , are layers of misleading ideas we have about who we are. This is called the lower self.

The bigger the gap between our Self and our self, the more we experience an inner vacuum. This inner vacuum manifests itself in different ways in each person, and this sensation is at the base of all our uncontrolled and unconscious craving for external attention, affirmation and validation.

In my experience, I do see this vacuum at the base of emotions and behaviour that keep bringing pain for myself and others. I have observed that for me, the vacuum manifests itself as a perceived lack of love or attention from those close to me. When I feel the vacuum, I always blame it on what the external world is not doing to fulfill my ‘needs’. It has taken time and patience to accept this, and even more time and patience to convince my mind that I am ok. I still have moments where certain situations become difficult because my mind perceives them as a proof of my ‘unworthiness’, but little by little, it is becoming easier to take myself out of this limiting idea. Because that is what the inner vacuum does, it convinces us that we are lacking something and it is often because we ‘don’t deserve’ it.

Other people try to fill the vacuum with objects, with food, with projects, titles, goals, experiences… I am not saying that any of these things is wrong. There isn’t really an absolute right or wrong way to try to live a fulfilling life, and we all do whatever we can to feel satisfied. However, if you find yourself constantly running after or away from something, constantly stressed about your life, you might want to consider this idea. The typical way to discover if we are being chased by our inner vacuum is if we keep living in the “If…. I will be happy”.

All the external world can offer us are glimpses of moments of fulfilment because everything is in constant change and out of our control. This leaves us mostly unsatisfied, craving for more or disappointed because nothing and no one can measure up to our expectations. This inner vacuum can be at the base of our constant business too.

This does not mean that we should loathe the world or our lower self, what we need to do, is learn to take them for what they are: the self is our vehicle to be and interact in the world and the world is here to give us experiences to learn to know ourself better, first the lower self and its limiting tendencies, and by letting go of each one of these tendencies, we gradually get closer to who we really are, the Self. As Jack Hawley explains in his translation and interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita:

[…]this world is a learning ground, a place to discipline, train, and elevate all beings. If we decline to learn we cannot derive the benefit of the schooling.”
Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (ch3 v16, p. 31). New World Library.

The ‘schooling’ is life, and we are here not to get caught up in the self and its limitations but to learn and grow to achieve a lasting inner peace and happiness. This way, we function better in the world and we fulfill our true potential. For our own good and for the good of the whole.

What is it that we need to discipline and train? The mind. To discipline the mind, we need to create the space to get to know our patterns of thought better. This needs to be done without judgement so the first step is acceptance. To accept that a limited view, an expectation, a craving is damaging our inner peace. The next step is curiosity. Ask yourself, why do I think like this? What triggers this or that emotion? And finally, little by little and with a lot of practice, start making small adjustments. Start by trying not to act on or react to the thought or emotion that you know only brings suffering in the long run, this way the mind starts to calm down in that area and eventually, you will manage to let go.

What kind of thoughts do we need to discipline and train our mind to let go of? Basically, all thoughts that lead us to believe that we are what we do and what he have, and by consequence we also are what we don’t do and what we don’t have. By identifying ourself with what we have and or do, we can easily allow sensory indulgences, expectations, and selfish desires to be at the base of my actions. The problem with this is that we never get completely satisfied mainly because the result of our actions is rarely exactly as we expect it to be so we end up frustrated or the feeling of satisfaction lasts just for a short while so we keep wanting more.

Being aware can help us recognise when our motivation to act is the inner vacuum and either refrain from acting or change the intention. A third option is to act to hide the inner vacuum for a while, but be conscious of it.

A quite common place where the inner vacuum messes up for us is in our interactions with other people. Ask yourself, how many times have you done something expecting a specific response in return? And how often have you been frustrated because the response is not the one you were expecting? If we go around believing that the world is there to fill our vacuum, that the world owes us something, we are going to live a quite tiring and frustrating life, not to mention selfish. So step nr1: have your intentions very clear, and try to understand your emotional reactions when the result of your actions isn’t the desired one. Be compassionate towards yourself and the person or people involved. Step nr2: try to move away from acting to fill your vacuum. For this, you need to start cultivating inner contentment and self-sufficiency.

In order to cultivate contentment (santosha) you can start by focusing on what you can be thankful for every day. Some people practice writing three things at the end of each day. No matter how bad your day was, there is always something to be thankful for, if only the practical things that we give for granted: a bed, food, clean clothes, etc. Contentment can then be extended also to the not so pleasant things in your life. As painful as some experiences can be, we can always draw something positive out of them. I remember the feeling of overwhelming thankfulness I have had every time I meet someone that is able to help my daughter who has special needs. I am not thankful that she was born with a syndrome, but I am thankful for the lessons I have learned since she was born, and the opportunity to meet so dedicated and wonderful people. It has also inspired me to be a more understanding and compassionate teacher and mum.

Self-sufficiency is slightly more difficult for some of us (or maybe for most of us), but it is very important. Think a bit about this one, if you were really satisfied with who you are, would you then be craving for someone else’s attention? If you truly respected yourself, would it then be so important to you that other people show respect to you? If you truly loved yourself, would you then need so badly for others to love you? All the things that you need, you can cultivate inside you, and then, you will easily see how much you already get from the outer world. You will also and most importantly be able to give more, and above all, you will be able to show compassion to other people when you recognise that their sometimes challenging behaviour comes from the same space than yours: the inner vacuum.

“Arjuna, those who have found the pure contentment, satisfaction, and peace of the Atma (the True Self Within) are fulfilled. They have nothing more in this world to accomplish, no more obligations to meet. Being in the Atma,these people are beyond karma.
Hawley, Jack. The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners (ch3 v17 p. 31).

To be self-sufficient requires (again) practice and patience. It requires our full acceptance of who we are, compassion towards ourself, and the willingness to change our mindset from seeking outside to exploring innards.