On wishes and desires

Most of us experience if not often, at least at some point in life wanting something that is difficult to get or even that we cannot have. I remember when we were trying to have our first child. It took us a while, and at some point, we were told we probably wouldn’t be able to without ‘help’ from specialists. I remember the feeling of desperation and helplessness. Of feeling that it wasn’t fair. Why us, why me? We talked a lot about it and decided we didn’t want to go through the process of trying with in vitro. I tried to understand why I had such a strong need to become a mother.

Thinking back, I think I was still relatively immature, but I was able to understand that I had a need to nurture someone, to give love to someone. I said this to my husband, and we decided that it didn’t matter if the baby was born from us or not. We contacted adoption agencies to start the process of adoption.

It turns out that the Universe had other plans for us, and I got pregnant some months after we received the papers with the information, and not only did we have one child but three! Almost one after the other.

I have had other periods in my life where I have felt a similar lack like the one when we were struggling to conceive. I have wanted to have something that I don’t have. Maybe the need to become a mum wasn’t the first need I felt in my life that was difficult to fulfill, and it certainly wasn’t the only one.

Yoga came to my life in one of these periods of lack. It has taken me years to understand where it comes from, accept it and direct my attention to what I have and can create. Yoga has given me the tools to go a bit deeper, to turn my gaze inwards. Of course, on the surface, there is always something out there that I might desire but looking closer and reflecting I realise that the lack was all a product of my perspective. Maybe the feeling of lack of validation comes from a deeper need to see my worth that is independent of what I do or don’t do. My lack of connection with someone might be a lack of connection with myself which then makes it difficult to connect with others. My lack of love might be my inability to see that I have love inside me. And so on.

The challenge when we seek to fulfill our needs with a very specific wish is that 1) we risk not seeing what we do have 2) we don’t realize that what we seek, is deeper than the material thing, and thus we can give to ourself and others.

I thought to write this post partly because I have teenagers in the house. They all want things, and of course, I think that this is partly positive since that is what drives us to keep going in the world. But sometimes, they can get so obsessed with what they “lack”, that they don’t see what they do have. I know, this is a typical phase in life, and there is maybe a scientific explanation to it, the problem is when we become adults, some of us might never realize what I describe above. We might spend a lot of energy and time chasing that single thing that we think will make everything be better.

Right before I sat down to write this, I saw a short video from a Yoga teacher I follow on Instagram (@yaeleshy1), and I was surprised to see that she was talking exactly about the same thing I’ve been reflecting on these days. She put it beautifully: when you feel you lack something, sit with that desire, feel it, and try to see if you can define what the deeper desire is. Is it love, is it safety, is it happiness? If yes, how can you create it for yourself and others? There is nothing wrong with wanting as long as we manage to understand where this want comes from and evaluate whether we want to spend all our lives chasing that specific form that we think this want or this need “has to” have, or if we can invest our energy and time in seeing what we have inside ourselves and thus what we are able to create around us.

Reflections over Karma Yoga, Pancha Klesha and Yamas/Niyamas

Although the path to liberation from suffering described by Patanjali is through meditation, we cannot reach a state of meditation as long as our mind is a mess. In order to calm the mind, we need to live a mindful life, and this can be done through the modalities Patanjali gives us in the method of Ashtanga Yoga, which in some aspects, seem to me to be connected to the principles of Karma Yoga as I have studied them in the Bhagavad Gita.

I recently wrote a post about the Yamas and Niyamas which can be seen as values and observances that when used in our interactions with ourselves and others, help reduce and eventually eliminate the fuss in our minds (chitta vrittis). In the same scripture, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we learn about the five kleshas (pancha klesha) or afflictions which are described as the obstacles to cultivating a calm state of mind. As long as our actions are a result of these afflictions, we are stuck in the cycle of karma – cause and effect. If we, on the other hand, choose to live a life of awareness and apply the Yamas and Niyamas, we avoid increasing the karmic load for ourselves, and contribute to a better world.

II.12 The stock of karma has the kleshas as its root. It is experienced in present or future lives. -Patanjali Yoga Sutras

The five kleshas are: avidya (ignorance), asmita (egoism), raga (attachment), dvesha (repulsion or aversion) and abhinivesha (fear of death – clinging to a life of delusion).

The klésha that keeps us in the loop of the other four is avidya, or ignorance. In the context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the ignorance referred to is our inability to see what is called our True Self (Purusha) which lies beyond our thoughts and physical body. This ignorance bounds us to act out of attachment and/or aversion and their derivates such as anger, fear, greed and so on. Purusha is described as eternal consciousness or pure potential. It is said, that once we realize our True Self, we find inside us a steady state of peace, love, freedom, and happiness. The problem, and the source of our suffering, is that since we’ve lost contact with Purusha, we keep seeking for peace, love, freedom and/or happiness through our actions, but nothing in the world around us -called Prakriti in the Yoga Sutras and Sankhya philosophy- can give us a constant unchangeable feeling of peace, love, freedom, and happiness because the nature of the world is transient.

“II.5 Ignorance is the notion that takes the self, which is joyful, pure, and eternal, to be the nonself, which is painful, unclean, and temporary.” [Commentary: ] Patañjali here gives a very important definition of ignorance, the primary cause of all bondage: Avidyā, ignorance, entails confounding the nature of the soul with that of the body. The body is here described as painful, duḥkha; unclean, aśuci; and temporary, anitya, unlike the puruṣa who is joyful, sukha; pure, śuci; and eternal, nitya.” Bryant, Edwin F.. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali (pp. 216-217). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I have to say at this stage, that I often see the path of Yoga as a game with levels. At the level, I operate today, the idea of Self Realization, or reaching a state of complete awareness of Purusha seems a bit far out for me and challenging to grasp. However, the path towards it is what motivates me to study and practice Yoga which, will lead me to develop a better version of myself by living more mindfully and creating less suffering for myself and others- note that suffering is used as a common term for distressing feelings such as frustration, anger, regret, stress, and anxiety.

Also, the idea of having, inside me, a place of peace, love, freedom, and happiness that is constant and independent of my mind and the world around me gives me comfort, even though I still have a long way to go, sitting down in silence, practicing breathing exercises and studying and reflecting upon scriptures such as The Yoga Sutras, bring peace and reassurance to my mind and body, especially when being challenged by life and/or my thoughts.

I believe that the two main ways avidya is at the source of all the other kléshas are:

  1. Since we don’t know who we really are, we identify ourselves with our physical body, our mind, what other people think and say of us, and all the different roles we play in life. From the moment we are born until we die, we become the child of someone, the grandchild, the sibling, the student, the friend, and as life advances, we keep adding to the list. We create, in a way different identities in relation to each role. Each identity has its attachments and aversions and whatever happens, through the lens of the identity (ego) will be liked (attachment) or disliked (aversion) leading to a specific thought and emotion in our minds and a possible action or reaction. For example, in my role as a teacher, if I step into a classroom and the students are unable to be quiet and listen, I can experience frustration and anger. Why? Because I expect the students to show respect since I am the teacher. If I go into the same classroom as a guest, I most probably won’t experience the same strong emotion since I have no attachment to the role of being a teacher nor expectations towards the kids in the room. On the other hand, if I start my lesson and things are flowing smoothly, I might feel a pinch of anxiety for the rest of the lesson hoping that the students continue displaying the same expected attitude (attachment). I can observe the same in every role I play. If my husband forgets something that I asked him to do in the morning, I might get offended because I have expectations towards him in my role as the wife. If I ask my neighbour to do the same thing and she forgets, I might not react the same way since my relationship with her and expectations are not the same as towards my husband. But I might get annoyed at her if she parks her car in my carport. And so we move around in the world, each role we play is the ground for likes and dislikes creating a bunch of emotions and thoughts in our heads.
  2. Since we don’t know that we are love, freedom, and bliss, we seek it outside ourselves. We use our identities to find them through validation, recognition, achievements, and so on. Every time we do not meet our own expectations in our role, we experience aversion to what we see as a failure or mistake. We seek our value in our roles and in other people’s opinions about how we perform in these roles. Here again, we get trapped in the cycle of attachment and aversion. One example can be that I get caught up in seeking pleasurable experiences to keep feeding into the idea I have of happiness. Overconsumption can be a good example. We believe our happiness is in having things. Clothes can be a good example for me. I wish for a specific pair of trousers, when I finally get it, the joy of having a new pair of trousers lasts for a little while until I find out that I also want the shoes that go well with them, or the jacket, or the sweater, and so on. In recent years, I have become more mindful of the impact the garment industry has on the environment, so I buy used more often than new. This summer, while tidying up in my closet, I realized that I have lured myself with this. I need to stop buying altogether! It happens also with our roles. I am attached to my idea of a ‘good mum’, My idea of a ‘good mum’ is, among other things, that she is liked by her children, so when I set boundaries, or are strict, and my kids show their displeasure, I experience self-doubt and thus distress because I am not getting the validation that I unconsciously expect from my children. This can lead me to be an unclear and stressed parent affecting also the well-being of my children – I realized this recently too.

So, because we don’t know our True Self, we identify ourselves with our body and mind and the different roles we play in life. For each role, we have consciously and unconsciously a list of likes and dislikes that trigger emotions and thus actions and reactions. When we are not aware of this, we trap ourselves in some sort of hamster wheel (the wheel of karma). Reflect on the following quote written by my teacher, Prasad, for the Yoga Sutras course from 2021:

“The wider the net of I, Me and My, the more our energy dissipates.”

This is the essence of the Pancha Klesha teachings, I think.

The theory of pancha klesha, Karma Yoga and the study and understanding of Yama and Niyama can help us develop better habits to calm our minds and thus live a simpler, more content life. This in return affects in a positive way our environment because we become clearer, more confident, and compassionate members of society.

One way I use to get myself out of an aversion-attachment situation is to tell myself that things are happening and it is when I add ‘to me’ and especially ‘to me in the role of ____’ that distress happens, or at least it is amplified.

Frustration and the way out of it

When things don’t go the way I expect them to, I go through a series of emotions. The first one unsurprisingly is frustration. Depending on the level of attachment that I have to the situation, I can sometimes work with my mind to let go of the frustration and see the possibility in the situation. If my attachment is stronger, the turmoil of emotions doesn’t stop with frustration, and unfortunately, it often culminates in self-doubt. It is an awful feeling, self-doubt, and the problem is that I don’t always manage to see it. So the spiral of negativity takes me really low.

So, what to do? I think that although it is important to be assertive and speak up for myself when I feel unfairly treated, once I have said what I think, the best I can do is to bring my attention inwards to stop feeding into the frustration and counteract the self-doubt that only makes me feel even worse.

Throughout the years, I have been trying to create a method. This time, I have even come up with some bullet points. To begin with, I ask myself:

  • Why am I so attached to this situation? Can I let go? Can I make a compromise with my mind?
  • What is my part in this? Is there something I could have done better? Is there something I can change in my future actions, attitudes and expectations?

And I forgive myself. For the reaction, for what I think I could have done better before the situation and whilst in it.

It is not fun to realize that I could have done better when it is too late, but luckily for me, as long as I can breathe, I can learn. I don’t win anything by doubting myself and my capabilities. The bottom line is that like anyone else, I am constantly doing the best I can with my set of skills and limitations, and it is in moments like this that I am offered the opportunity to stop, reflect and realign myself.

So, stand up, brush the dust, look up, and keep walking. No idea of myself is worth my peace of mind.

Yoga and the senses

Most Yoga practitioners are familiar with Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga that, if practiced sincerely, disciplined, and with the right support, will lead us to the liberation of our conditioned mind and thus the realization of who we really are: ‘love, freedom and bliss’ (Prasad Rangnekar 2011)

One of the so-called ‘eight limbs of Yoga is pratyahara or control of the senses.

Withdrawing the senses, the mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer is pratyahara.” Yoga Sutras of Patanjali book II, sutra 54.

The goal is to get in touch with that part of ourselves that is beyond our body and mind and the means to achieve this goal is to calm down the mind. Therefore, an important part of our practice towards controlling the mind is the control of the senses.

In the Bhagavad Gita, we learn that we have five senses of perception or jñānendriya: the ears, nose, tongue, eyes and skin; and five organs of action or karmendriya: legs, arms, mouth (for speech), genitalia and anus. It is through the senses and the mind that we experience and take part in the world. We are however warned that what the senses bring to our mind is impermanent and we, therefore, have to learn to seek stability within ourselves.

“[…]the contact between the senses and the sense objects gives rise to fleeting perceptions of happiness and distress. These are non-permanent and come and go like winter and summer seasons […] one must learn to tolerate (endure) them without being disturbed.” Bhagavad Gitra Ch. 2 v.14

If we seek happiness in the outer world, we tend to get attached to the pleasures that the senses bring because these pleasures are short lasting. This kind of attachment is easy to see in our actions and in our mind. I can observe myself thinking about getting home, opening the cookie box and eating a cookie. I can observe myself daydreaming about the cookie. Maybe, the thought of eating that cookie is what helps me get through the day, and what is wrong with that? Nothing is wrong with enjoying a treat after a long day at work. The problem is when my welbeing depends on that treat or any other treat. Here are three main reasons I see why it can be a problem:

  1. The pleasure of eating a cookie lasts for just a short moment which can lead to either overindulging because I want to extend the moment or me seeking the next sensory stimulation to continue feeling ‘good’/’happy’.
  2. My happiness is dependent on something exterior to me but what if I get home and the cookie box is empty? I will then find myself with an unmet expectation. What will my reaction be? How will that make me feel?
  3. All the time and mental energy spent in thinking about the cookie distracts my mind and does not allow me to be present in the moment. It becomes nothing more than a distraction.

“While contemplating on the objects of the senses, one develops attachment to them. Attachment leads to desire and from desire arises anger.” Bhagavad Gita, Ch2 v.62

Pratyahara in the context of meditation is when we sit down with ourselves in our daily practice and start by “turning off” our senses to bring the attention inwards. We aim to let go of the need to register and identify sounds, let go of getting caught up in specific smells and for most of us it is easier to close our eyes to avoid getting distracted by our sight. But the senses don’t necessarily stop when we avoid using them. Thoughts continue to fly in our head, and if we haven’t been practicing non-attachment in our daily life, it is when we sit in silence that all these sensory attachments can become stronger. They way we live our daily life affects our practice and in return, our practice affects our daily life.

Throughout the years I have been studying Yoga, I have come to observe other ways I overindulge my senses that I wasn’t aware of like for example when I sometimes want to know certain things that are unnecessary for me to know. I have sometimes catched myself wondering if so and so has said this or done that just to stop and ask myself, why do I need to know this? Gossip is maybe the right word here. How would my life improve if I know more details about other people’s lives that do not have any direct effect in my own life? It’s just a way to ocupy my mind really. Or how about reading and listening to the news? I think that as a mum and a teacher, I should stay updated about what is happening in the world, but to what degree? How much is too much? How much is necessary and how much is just overinduging?

What I like about Yoga is that it is never dogmatic. We are encouraged to take part in life and enjoy it, but we are warned of getting attached to the external world because as mentionned above it only feeds into the limited idea we have of who we are and most importantly, everything in the exterior world is transcient so we doom ourselves to a life of Sisyphus.

“That person who gives up all material desires and lives free from a sense of greed, proprietorship (I and mine) and egoism, attains peace.” Bhagavad Gita ch2 v71

By controling our senses, we filter what we allow into our mind and by doing this we gradually regulate our reactios to the external world. It is all cyclic. Less sensory innput helps create more inner silence in the long run which allows us to access our inner peace, this in turn results in less seeking of sensory stimuli which leads to a quietter mind. It is not simple, it requires courage, perseverance and a lot of practie. The inner void before the inner peace can be quite scary.

Sacrifice in Karma Yoga

“Once, a fellow went into the jungle and became very tired. He foud a beautiful tree and sat beneath it. But the ground was thorny. He couldn’t lie down anywhere. ‘How nice it would be if I had a small cot!’ The minute he thought of it, he found himself sitting on a cot. ‘Oh boy, I have a cot!” He lay down. ‘This is very comfortable, but I’m also hungry. I could use something to eat, maybe a banana.’ Immediately a bunch of banans appeared. ‘What is this?’ He couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘It seems whatever I want I can get here. Then how about some gourmet cooking?’ Immediately, plates filled with delicacies, delicious dishes, pudding and desserts appeared. He ate sumptuously and then thought, ‘It would be nice if there were someone to massage my feet to put me to sleep.’ Even as he thought of it, there was already a beautiful angel-like person there massaging his feet. He became excited, ‘Oho! It looks ike whatever I’m thinking, I’m getting. Now I have a comfortable bed, a good, sumptuous meal, and somebody to massage my feet. But what if, while I’m getting the massage, I fall asleep and suddenly a tiger comes from the jungle. What will happen?’ Immediately he heard the roar, and a tiger appeared and devoured him.”

I read this story while studying Chapter 3 in the Bhagavad Gita with commentaries from Sri Swami Satchidananda. He shares this story when commenting on the concept of yadnya or sacrifice that is described between slokas 9 and 16.

Chapter 3 is about Karma Yoga which encourages us to live a regulated life where our actions are the means to our spiritual development. As you might know, the Bhagavad Gita is basically the conversation between the great warrior Arjuna and his friend and charioteer Krishna, who also happens to be a divinity, right before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is filled with fear and self-doubt and is considering leaving the battlefield. Krishna is teaching him the main principles of Yoga to help him make the right choice. I find it fascinating that the teachings of such an old scripture (it is said it was written sometime between 400 B.C. and 200 A.D.) are of so much relevance for us today. It is maybe not surprising though since the basic needs and inner struggles of humans haven’t really changed since then.

3. 9 The world is bondage when actions are done just for your own sake. Therefore, Arjuna, make every action a sacrifice, utterly free of personal attachment. Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (p. 36). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

I find the idea of yadnya or sacrifice very inspiring, and I believe that learning to live following this principle would spare us and others a lot of suffering.

First of all, what is yadnya? My teacher once described it as ‘the principle of interdependence’. If you look at nature, there is a cyclic system of giving and receiving. Rain falls and all living beings benefit from it. The tree gives fruit so animals can be nourished and by doing so, the seeds of the tree are spread so more trees can grow.

3.14. From food, all beings arise. From rain, food originates. Rain is the result of selfless sacrifice (yajna). And sacrifice is the result of actions (karma). Sri Swami Satchidananda. The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: a Commentary for Modern Readers (p. 43). Integral Yoga Publications. Kindle Edition.

The idea of sacrifice does not mean self-neglect or self-flagellation, it means that we choose to act with awareness and with the intention that our actions not only benefit us but also the whole we are a part of. We act with a sense of purpose, with the intention to learn and grow and to contribute to the whole.

This does not mean that we all have to give up our jobs to do volunteer work. It means that wherever we are, whatever our roles are (yes, we have many so try to identify yours), and whatever we do, we are encouraged to mind our intentions and let go of the need to be rewarded (here, the principle of vairagya or non-attachment is emphasized) because if we only act out of a need for validation or greediness, we are bound to suffer. Oftentimes we will experience that the validation does not come as we expect it to be, or once we get what we want, we will crave for more falling into indulgence which can have a negative effect on us, the environment and other sentient beings.

Going back to the poor man in the jungle, he had found a source to fulfill his needs, but his uncontrolled mind brought an abrupt end to his life. This story, my teacher tells me, is used to talk about the dangers of greediness. Nature offers us what we need to survive, but we often abuse Her generosity.

3.12. “Dear old friend, you should strike a balance in life between giving and getting. When you engage in selfless service (which is sacrifice), your desires are fulfilled, unasked by nature. Righteous people give more than they receive, indebred ones get more than they give. The one who receives without giving is stealing.” Jack Hawley. The Bhagavad Gita. A Walk Through for Westerners (p.30)

We consume more than what we need because we have forgotten to take the time to see that our inner life also needs nourishment and that this cannot come from material things. Our inner growth happens through acting with a sense of purpose, offering all our actions to the benefit of the whole, to something bigger than us, and finding a way to cultivate silence so we can access our inner source of peace and contentment.

3.17. “Arjuna, those who have found pure contentment, satisfaction and peace of 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.” Jack Hawley. The Bhagavad Gita. A Walk Through for Westerners (p.31)

There are certain actions where I can easily apply this principle, and I am guessing you can identify yourself with some of them. In the context of my family, for example, or when I choose what to eat. I am also changing my ways when it comes to what I wear, what I buy, what I dispose of and how I dispose of it. There are, however, other arenas in my life where I still struggle to effectively apply this principle. I often forget it. I expect, I seek validation, and when I do not get it, insecurity arises and the cycle of stress is fired up. So, every once in a while, I have to go back to this chapter, to be reminded, to discover new ways, to hopefully internalize.