Week 49. Reflections

Last Sunday, I went to Nidaros Cathedral to the service that marks the start of Advent. It is called lysmesse which means Light Service. Although we are not a Christian family, we have been going to this service for some years because of our children who have been in the Scouts, and recently, our youngest has joined one of the choirs connected to the cathedral.

I enjoy this service. The cathedral’s pastor has always a very nice sermon that I feel is addressed even to the youngest. A message of hope and a reminder of what is important to prioritise during this time of the year and otherwise. It feels comforting to be inside such a magnificent building, protected by the cold, surrounded by beauty and light, listening to the beautiful voice of the Girl’s Choir.

This year, because of the pandemic, very few people were able to attend the service. The Cathedral opened up for only fifty people to make sure they could keep the safety guidelines. I was lucky to be asked to come as support for the choir.

During the service, I sat alone, close to the choir. Calmness started to take over the place. Dimmed lights, beautiful stained glass windows, everyone silently listening to the pastor and the choir. I started to think about older generations who lived in a world that looked quite different from ours and to imagine the feeling of coming into such a magnificent building, in the middle of Winter. Maybe times were hard, maybe some of them were also anxious about what the future might bring. So they came to their holly place, to listen to their spiritual leader. To get some comfort, to regain hope.

I grew up in Mexico, where the majority of people are Catholic, but my parents were so disappointed with the Church even since they were kids, that they consciously decided not to raise their children into the Catholic religion. My father had seen the church in his neighbourhood receive money from the poorest who sometimes didn’t have enough to feed their children at the end of the month, while the priest lived in a big house and drove in a luxury car. My mum couldn’t make any sense of the sermon which often seemed more like a reprimand towards the congregation. There was a clear distance between the priest and the congregation. A relationship of power too. It felt like the priest was the intermediate between people and God, and he had the power to decide who is close to God and who is not.

I have studied Art History and I teach History to middle schoolers, so I know of the things humans have done in the name of religion, and I understand why, many people, especially in the West, have decided to distance themselves from it. In addition, especially in the Christian tradition, many of the texts used during the liturgy don’t make any sense if they aren’t explained properly. They seem so detached from people’s reality.

Still, the older I get, the more I study Yoga, the more convinced I am that we do not benefit from living a life without spirituality but spirituality requires individual work. It requires that each individual takes on the work of seeking, exploring, experimenting, questioning, reflecting and internalising. We have been so disappointed and critical of religion because it has been misused for power and oppression, but if we peel off the layers of institutions, rituals and systems, the message at the core of each religion is the same: seek the love inside you and spread it around you. Each spiritual tradition has its core values that we are encouraged to cultivate in order to live a better life and create peace and harmony around us.

I don’t think we need to be part of a religious community in order to be better human beings, but I do think that we need to be conscious of what kind of values we want to live up to, and acknowledge that each and every individual in this world has an important role to play to take care of herself, other people and the environment. There is more meaning to life than running from one thing to another to tick off all the boxes in our to-do list, there is more meaning to life than acquiring more things. We have lessons to learn in order to grow.

I also think that we have the responsibility to seek what makes sense for us, maybe also the responsibility to seek for someone who can guide us in the right direction? Not just follow each other like sheep either towards or away from religious institutions.

Life is unstable, life can bring us down to our knees, and we need to take care of our mind and our heart. In the world we live now, we are made to believe that peace of mind will come from acquiring things, from seeking entertainment and satisfaction in the senses. Why would I choose to watch a soap opera instead of listening to some uplifting words from a spiritual leader? Why would I choose entertainment instead of a walk in the woods? I think many of us have gotten accustomed to hide our fears and worries behind stuff instead of looking into the bigger picture. I think that we would benefit more from feeding our minds with words of hope and meaning than filling them with information we don’t need. At least ask ourselves from time to time, what can I feed my mind with that will bring lasting peace?

I think we are reaching the point where we have been at the two extremes. One being following religion blindly and being lured by the few who got sick with power and delusion, the other being lost in our day to day life forgetting to seek for something bigger than our wants.

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.

LOVE

Almost a year ago, my teacher gave me the task to write a text about love. Love is something that has occupied my mind a lot, especially during the last five years. Five or six years ago, I experienced something that turned my world upside down, and it made me start questioning the idea I had about love, especially what we tend to call ‘romantic love’.

The last weeks, I have been listening to an audiobook called God Speaks to Each of Us which is a compilation of lectures Thomas Merton had using Rainer Maria Rilke’s texts to talk about different topics related to the meaning of life and how we interact with each other.

One of the last lectures is about what Merton calls human love. In it, he quotes from Rilke’s book called Letters To A Young Poet:

‘For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation[…] Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.

But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing: they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment. And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? And so each of them loses himself for the sake of the other person, and loses the other, and many others who still wanted to come. And loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for an unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into one of the many conventions that have been put up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous road. No area of human experience is so extensively provided with conventions as this one is: there are life-preservers of the most varied invention, boats and water wings; society has been able to create refuges of every sort, for since it preferred to take love life as an amusement, it also had to give it an easy form, cheap, safe, and sure, as public amusements are.

There are many things in this quote that resonate with me. To begin with, the fact that love is hard work. Any love. To love each human being we interact with requires that we are willing to accept the good and the difficult. To love is to observe ourselves reacting and rejecting what we don’t like and be curious enough to discover why we react so strongly. To love is to grow because once we decide we will love, we have to move away from our instinctive way of clinging to what we like and pushing away what we dislike.

We have to accept that our happiness doesn’t come from other people fulfilling our needs, it comes from our ability to see our neediness and work on it. We have to learn to accept the emptiness and fear that come with the realisation that regardless of how much we seek in the other, we are in reality alone. Once we have taken the first step of acceptance, we can gradually feel comfortable in this loneliness and build a relationship of trust with our own self. We are ok on our own. This relationship with the self can then be the bridge between us and the other. We can then see the same vulnerability in the other and show understanding and compassion. That is when the real love happens.

My teacher often says that not all love needs to become a relationship. I think that what we call ‘romantic love’ is a kind relationship and as my teacher defines it, relationship is a contract. We all have our explicit and implicit terms for the different contracts we have with people: mum, teacher, lover, children, etc. There is nothing wrong with it, but we should learn to make the difference between being ‘in a contract ‘ with someone and loving someone from the deepest of our hearts.

I like how Rilke writes that to love is to become world. To me, this means that we become space for the other to be, without judgement and without neediness. It doesn’t mean that we have to put up with whatever the other brings. Some relationships are toxic, some people hurt, and sometimes it is necessary to part, but we can still love without the contract, without the relationship.

Only this kind of love will set us free.

PS He keeps referring to ‘young’ people, I am not in that category anymore, and still, I know that I have a long way to go to be able to fully understand and live up to this kind of love.

What my Yoga practice does and doesn’t do.

Practicing yoga doesn’t stop me from getting frustrated. Practicing yoga doesn’t stop me from getting angry. Practicing yoga doesn’t stop me from feeling blue. But it helps me accept my frustration, my anger and my sadness. It helps me create a space between my emotions and my reactions. It makes me question my perspective. So I get out of my spiral of negativity faster. Yoga has taught me to find my balance over and over again. Therefore, study, practice and use what you learn on yourself. Fail, fall and get up again and learn. That is all we can do.

Yoga: from doing to living (session 1)

If you’re reading this post it is either because you already are a yoga practitioner or because you are curious about the practice. Take a minute to close your eyes, feel your breath, and ask yourself, what is my motivation to practice yoga? Why am I interested in yoga?

For some, yoga is associated with physical activity. Practicing yoga means to move the body, to strengthen and/or improve flexibility, maybe also to have a time in the day or week to unwind and simply spend some well-deserved self-time. There might even be the wish to slow down and reduce stress.

The physical activity that we call yoga in this side of the world is called asana in the Yoga tradition and it can be part of the practice of yoga, but it is not THE practice of Yoga. Practicing asana can be a very good way to start bringing our attention inwards by paying attention to our body and our breath. In order to achieve this, we benefit from approaching the asana practice with an open mind towards ourselves, with curiosity and without judgement. By paying attention, we will discover what are our strengths – physically, mentally and maybe even emotionally- and what are our challenges and limitations.

For the asana practice to really benefit us, it is imperative to accept our body where it is, and learn to practice – preferably with guidance – the movements and poses that benefit our body and not our expectations towards our body or our ego. It is absolutely not necessary to do extremely complicated and/or physically challenging poses to be an ‘advanced’ yoga asana practitioner. I would even say, on the contrary, if the yoga asana practice becomes another pursuit in our life, something else to ‘achieve’ to the point that we even harm ourselves, we are not practicing it to its purpose. If we practice asana blinded by our expectations and desires on how our body should be like, we are missing the opportunity to get to know ourself better.

Not all yoga practitioners do asana, and personally, I use my asana practice to slow down, to reconnect with my body and to keep it healthy, but the most important aspect of my practice is my daily sadhana. Sadhana is defined as the daily spiritual practice. The word spirituality can make some eyebrows rise since it is often associated to some sort of mysticism difficult to grasp, but in the context of this text and my own practice, it is first and foremost the attitude of constantly improving ourself in order to reach a calm and centered state of mind (Prasad Rangnekar). So sadhana, is the time we spend daily for this purpose. For some, it is a combination of breathing exercises and sitting in silence/meditation, for others it also includes chanting, and for those that want to go deeper in the understanding of oneself through the study of yoga, it also includes the study of yoga scriptures. The one scripture that is most accessible for most of us living in the practical world is the Bhagavad Gita. It contains the essence of the teachings of yoga, the theory as well as the techniques to achieve steady and long lasting inner peace. The study of the Gita is not to be used as some sort of dogma, but to understand our own thoughts, emotions and behaviours in light its teachings. The theory of yoga, if directed as some sort of light towards our inner world, can help us understand why we think and behave as we do, and then, start making some adjustments to live a more skilful and purposeful life. One must apply these teachings to one’s own life and observe what happens. Learning in the yoga tradition is very empirical.

As one advances in the path of Yoga, the line between practical life and the practice of sadhana begins to vanish. On one side, the habit of observing our own thoughts achieved through meditation can be used in everyday life to slow down, to start living life through action and not reaction. As we continue doing breathing exercises, our breath improves and we learn to slow down our mind using our breath. Finally, through the study of oneself in light of the theory of yoga, we learn to accept who we are, see our limitations, and gradually make the adjustments that are necessary to live a more peaceful inner life and thus interact with the external world better following some basic principles.

The study and practice of Yoga is not always a walk in the park, and is definitely no quick fix to all our troubles, but with patience and dedication, I sincerely can say that you start noticing slight changes in your inner world that have enormous positive consequences in the way you interact with the outer world. My advice to finish this post is, keep it simple, keep it clear. Stick to one practice, don’t jump from one thing to another to please the restless mind. Give it time. You don’t need to make any complicated pose, you don’t need any specific object, all you need is the sincere wish to go deeper, patience and guidance.