Tag Archives: Buddhism

The Power of Positive Thoughts

Buddha ThoughtsIn the Dhammapada, Buddha speaks of the power of thoughts when he says, “all that we are is the result of what we have thought.” Yet, Zen master Suzuki seems to dismiss that power, when he likens those same thoughts to passing waves, urging us to learn to let them go, for, they are not who we are.

It seems contradictory. But we can look upon this delightful little enigma as an invitation to reconcile both aspects of the polarity. It’s kind of like light…now it’s a particle, now it’s a wave.

Where thoughts are concerned, the catch is that they can and do pass…when we let them. As weary travelers pass continuously through the revolving doors of the grand hotel, so our thoughts go flooding through our minds. As Yogi Bhajan says, thoughts erupt at the astounding rate of 1000 per blink of the eye. At this rate, it’s hard to imagine we could catch any of them, but this is exactly where it gets tricky.

The problem happens when we get stuck on a thought. Like gum stuck to our shoe, we then begin to wear it, exude it, transmit it. And then, it wears us.

What are we to do?

Through the simple practice of mindful meditation, we practice letting thoughts come and then letting them go. We practice non-attachment to those thoughts. Like anything worthwhile, it takes a lot of practice (which is why the monks and Yogis have traditionally retired to their caves for a life of seclusion and long hours on the cushion)…because let’s face it—most thoughts only get us into trouble!

But as we become more comfortable with this process, we learn how to work with our thoughts in more skillful ways. MRI screening now confirms what Patanjali told us 2000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras, namely, that through focus and conscious intention, we can convert pesky thoughts into more uplifting ones. Cultivate counteractive thoughts, he said.

What it all boils down to, is living a more fulfilling life because when our thoughts have got us by the nose (to use an expression my Zen teacher once used with me), we become too engrossed in our internal battles to truly enjoy life.

This is where positive affirmations come in. By learning how to actively work with our thoughts in a more purposeful way, we can affect our physical, mental and emotional well-being, as well as usher in the kinds of positive changes in our lives that may have once seemed out of reach. In other words, by learning to work with affirmations, we may even open doors to the realms of the miraculous.

Two Stories: An Opportunity for Growth Rather than Grief

forgivenessHere are two situations which I present as examples of ways we allow ourselves to be negatively affected by others. But I show that they may be seen as opportunities for liberation, rather than suffering. Although I have fictionalized them by changing the details, they both resemble recent events in my own life.

Situation #1: You work in an office. You came up with a wonderfully creative idea that you’re sure will be adopted by management. This plan is likely to win a new contract with a highly sought-after company and will also guarantee your upward mobility in the company. But, to your shock and distress, you learned that as soon as the new guy obtained one on one time with the boss, he represented your idea as his own. You feel betrayed and disappointed.

“Wisdom Balm for Situation #1:
” Convert your anger, your hatred and your betrayal into compassion. Suppose somebody betrays me. I feel that god is very kind because he has given me the energy to tolerate it, and I am not the one who betrayed.” ~Yogiji

Situation #2: You wrote a screen play over a year ago. You just got word from your agent that a well-known film producer has made an offer to buy the rights to it. You always had faith in this project and knew in your heart it was a story that needed to be told. You also know how hard it is to get this kind of recognition here in L.A., where the market is so saturated and competitive. When you sent out a celebratory e-mail to your friends and family, most everyone responded with accolades, except the people that matter most to you. You feel hurt and unacknowledged.

“Wisdom Balm for Situation #2:” Happiness is your birthright. It cannot be taken away from you.” ~Yogiji

The first situation portrays an action that is taken as a betrayal. The second is rather, the omission of an expected course of action. What these two stories have in common — for the spiritual practitioner — is the need for forgiveness, or as I like to say, “forth-giveness,” since, as implied in the word, it is through the process of forgiving that we allow ourselves to go forward.

If we permit ourselves to feel victimized us, we are giving away our power. This is especially poignant in the first situation. So, when you see the occasion as an opportunity to practice and go higher in your way of looking and ultimately, in your spiritual awareness, you unchain yourself, at once. Say, thank you for this blessed challenge. And you come away feeling lighter. And lightness is closer to the divine.

In the second situation, the wisdom quote is deceptively potent. Just as we give away our power when we allow ourselves to feel victimized, we do it still, when we wait for someone’s approval to validate our sense of worth and accomplishment.

What difference does it make who notices?

No matter who notices, there will always be plenty who don’t, so this becomes a fruitless concern. You can authorize yourself to enjoy it. Besides, it is likely that the others don’t understand. Especially in a situation like this one—a family in the midwest, for example, simply wouldn’t understand how huge it is to sell a script in Hollywood! They’re probably just waiting for you to get a real job, anyway. The point is that your celebratory moment was never about others’ recognition, at all. It’s about you serving the world in a way only you can. That takes it to a higher level.

And higher still, is to realize, in both cases, that the perceived wrong isn’t about you. It’s about them. It’s a betrayal of their own consciousness. It indicates where they are in their own evolution. They are driven by their own demons, their own fears and insecurities. Far from making us more bitter, this recognition enables us to have compassion for them, since we’ve all been there. To this end, there is a teaching in our Yoga tradition that urges us to recognize that the other person is you.

This way of seeing brings us immediately into humility, as we begin to understand that everyone is ourselves at a different stage. And when we’re humble, we stop fighting and we heal.

So, we become at once, empowered and humbled. Empowered because we let go of our own victimization while authorizing our own experience of joy. Humbled because we come to see that our mission is less about impressing the world than it is about serving it.

True Freedom Is More than Free Will

“It might sound funny coming from a guy in prison, but never before have I felt so free.” ~Denzel Washington in Flight

The kind of freedom the philosophers talk about in the west is quite different than the freedom of the saints and mystics and Yogis.

The philosophers speak of defining our own purpose and identity through the choices we make, of carving out our own paths and therefore, living an authentic life. In philosophical terms, it means rejecting the traditional notion of destiny and the corresponding idea that things are inevitably the way they are, set and fixed, in a pre-planned, determined universe.

Existentialists like Sartre—so called, because our very existence is ours to shape—would famously ask, where is this plan? The very idea left too much room for excuses, he said, since it would then be all too easy to pawn off our actions on circumstances, falling back on such clichés like It must have been in the cards, or That’s just the way I was made. And so, the urging was to use our free will, the natural byproduct of being born as a conscious human being.

Is this the same as the injunction, in the eastern mystic traditions to wake up? To actively shape our own Karma by making conscious choices and to reshape our plethora of long-established, unconscious habits through mindful awareness? Insofar as we are to create our own lives, with all the responsibility that goes along with this freedom, there is a parallel.

But existential freedom has more to do with conscious choosing than one’s state of consciousness.

For thinkers like Sartre, consciousness is the source and spring of free will. But, this unyielding and often rigidified consciousness is exactly the source of trouble from the point of view of Buddhist and Yogic teachings. Existential freedom (free will) is an ability to choose from among genuine alternatives that exist in the world, whereas the freedom the Yogis speak of refers to an awakened state of mind that shapes what we see as choices in the first place.

* For more on this topic, see my book, Buddha in the Classroom (Chapter 19. Sartre and Buddha—True Freedom is a Settled Mind)
* The next post will expand on this theme, exploring the differences between spiritual development and traditional methods of self help.

How to Turn Anger into Forgiveness (Four Tools)

Lists are cute, but…they can only take you so far. The reason is usually because they tell you the “what” at the expense of the “how,” rendering them entertaining, and perhaps inspirational, but simplistic.

For example, I saw this piece of advice, in a list, just last week:

Give up the need to always be right.

 

A good pointer, for sure. After all, the need to be right is not worth the price of your inner peace. But, alone, it’s a bit like that pair of shoes that looks really good, but won’t help you much when it rains. First, we need to understand where this need comes from. Yes, it’s the ego’s obsession. But for practical purposes, the need to be right arises, all too often, in the midst of conflict, and in the nub of an argument. And it comes with anger (the deeper problem), which is escorted by the inability, or unwillingness, to let go, which, in its turn, comes with the inability, or unwillingness, to forgive.

So, what do you do when your mind is spinning, your composure is slipping and your heart is raging? Here are four tools to use, either alone, or in any order you choose:

1. Affirmations. To diffuse anger.

And you thought a Zen person would only tell you to stop talking to yourself! It all depends on what you say. Talking to yourself can either be a help or a hindrance. We talk ourselves into things and out of things all the time and can skillfully talk ourselves out of being angry if we commit to the task. We can start by reminding ourselves that it is our choice to refuse anger and turmoil and instead choose peace and tranquility. It’s also a choice to be offended and if we’re not offended, there’s nothing left to “prove.”

Anger starts out as a feeling and can quickly turn into words, or even worse, violence. And as both the Yogis and the behavioral therapists say, you are not your feelings. Meaning, that bit of anger that starts out as a nudge can be nipped before escalating into a coercive shove.  It’s a kid, talking out of turn. “Thank you for sharing,” you might say, and move on.

But, what about those television shows that tell us to punch things and get it all out? Anger is not something that needs to be nurtured or “practiced.” Which is why, “venting” doesn’t work. Venting is destructive, rather than constructive. Anger is a habit, like everything else. By venting, you are nurturing the combustible mixture of blame and resentment, clinging to the short-lived illusion of relief due only to the effect of exhaustion.

So, how do we talk to ourselves effectively? A positive affirmation is a bit like a mantra, which, when used properly, results in healing and restoration of the mood and emotions. By repeating a mantra, you are enabling your mind to focus on what you want it to focus on, rather than on the continued negative self-talk that only spins the anger. An affirmation can create a powerful shift in your attitude, resulting in peace of mind. An example would be something simple, such as, “I Am Love,” or, “I Am Forgiveness,” or, “I Am Light.” Notice these are all grounded in presence, as opposed to the past or the future realms, which keep us grounded, in turn.

2. Perspectives. To diffuse anger and enable forgiveness.

The need to be right is a poorly covered power struggle, with you vying to maintain control. The palpable tension it creates is driven on by your belief that there is a price the offender must pay, for their wrongful words or actions.

Remember back, for a moment, to a time when you acted rudely to someone you loved, when you unintentionally hurt someone either because you were distracted by your own troubles or because you let your emotions take you for a ride. Sometimes we don’t even know why we do certain things. We can hardly understand, let alone control, our own moods and behaviors—how much more difficult to fathom someone else’s? It’s seldom even about us, at all. Remembering our own slips and blunders brings us quickly into a state of equanimity and calm compassion. It lets us remember that we too, have been there, done that.

3. Visualizations. To Forgive and let go. 

This is a powerful Buddhist meditation I learned many years ago from one of my teachers. It is both startling and highly effective—if done with concentration. Here is the shortened version:

Imagine the dead body of the person who angered you. Visualize their body as distant, pale and lifeless. See, in your mind’s eye, the lifeless body beginning to rot. Imagine worms crawling in and out of the eye sockets and the mouth, and all of the crevices, eating away at the putrefying flesh. Finally, see nothing left, at all, but a strewn pile of dried-up bones. 

This ancient meditation will remind you of the fleeting nature of existence. It will remind you of how silly it is to get hung up on what usually turns out to be nothing at all. It will remind you, most powerfully, of the precious, short time we have to spend with our loved ones and to cherish that time, rather than waste it on nonsense.

5. Breathe.  To diffuse anger and quickly switch gears.
Truth: Most people breathe unconsciously. Which means, too shallow and too fast. We don’t fill up our lungs, which means, we’re not getting enough oxygen and we’re not expelling carbon dioxide. Aside from the health problems that would likely be ameliorated through deep breathing, what it means for our purposes here, is that we’re irritable. The Yogis have long known that shallow breathing is associated with anger and ill temper. And to make things worse, stress uses up even more oxygen. To turn things around, take three big, long breaths—but really do it! With one hand on your belly to act as a guide, bring that breath down toward your belly, expanding your diaphragm until you look like you’re pregnant! This activates the parasympathetic nervous system and effectively kick-starts the relaxation response, immediately bringing you into a different state of mind.

“The art of deep breathing is also the art of real living.” ~Yogi Bhajan

The Ego—What Is It?

Ego is a misconstrued phenomenon. I often forget this fact when I say something like, It felt ego-driven to me. And the person with whom I’m speaking will say something like, Really? You think he was arrogant? So, here, I offer a little portraiture of this elusive, oft-misunderstood, conceptual thing.

Ordinarily thought of as arrogance, in its subtler shades, ego is desire, attachments, expectations. It is greed. It is the picking and choosing mind. It is jumping to conclusions, clinging to positions, single-minded stubbornness. It is anger. It is pushing your agenda. And it is all grounded in fear. The ego is the insecure part of us that needs constant recognition, approval, reassurance, and flattery (of which there is never enough). Mostly, ego just needs to be right. It is ignorance. It is the dualistic mind. And because of the fear generated by its exaggerated sense of self, and because of its dogged fixation on meeting its needs, it is in a constant state of alienation, worry, and suspicion of others’ intents. When these pestilent mental states are painstakingly peeled away, layer by layer, the light of compassion shines through, and we find that in this new state of lightness, we are able to harmonize with our surroundings, enabling others to effortlessly harmonize with us.

(Excerpted from my book,  Buddha in the Classroom; Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers, 2011)

Heal Thyself First

It is February—the month of love, so, in the spirit of the season, I offer a note about the importance of healing your own heart first.

There is a consistent message found throughout the higher wisdom traditions, that of tending to your own healing and transformation first. They say that it is imperative to purify yourself before trying to fix the world. To put it slightly differently, although we do exactly the opposite, in the form of finger-pointing, whistle-blowing and fault-finding, the call is to look to the inside before looking to the outside.

Rather than simply take it for granted, I would like to explore the reasons why this makes sense.

Firstly, because when we are miserable, depressed and despondent, or angry and in great angst, we are less likely to be open to the needs of others. We are more likely to close ourselves off and tuck ourselves away into a cocoon where we are both unavailable and unable to be of service to anybody else.

Secondly, because while we’re on this planet, the very least we can do—even if we don’t do much good—is refrain from causing harm. And when we’re suffering, we’re likely to lash out on others in myriad ways, from the little things, like general rudeness, to the big things, like the Columbine massacres.

Finally, in a more etheric sense, an open and balanced heart center—what the Yogis call the anahata chakra—can have a natural healing effect on others. When we start to heal and our hearts start to open, we tend to radiate warmth, and that creates joy all around.

10 Houses of Suffering

Intro: These stories originally appeared on my old blog–I wrote them to illustrate the many ways that ordinary people, living seemingly ordinary lives, make themselves suffer. And in virtually every case, it is some particular shade of mental angst-a particular varietal of suffering, although none the less…ordinary. And in virtually every case, as my students quickly recognized, it has arisen because of the unwillingness to come to acceptance with the inevitable changes of life.  I recently used these in class (lecture recorded on Youtube) to introduce Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, which summarily present the madness of the human situation, namely, this inability to accept the inevitable and the pain we cause ourselves in persisting to look everywhere else but within for our peace of mind.

Lead-in: Imagine a row of ten houses facing a creek. Each one is big and beautiful, except the last one – the tenth one – which is smaller and needs some upkeep.

Inside the first house is a man who suspects his wife is sleeping with somebody else. He spends every minute of every day, in a state of paranoid suspicion. Right now, listening to her phone conversation, creeping along, crouching under the row of expensive paintings in the long corridor, he hopes the floor doesn’t crack with his sneaky footsteps, giving him him away, betraying his jealousy.

Inside the second house is a 25-year-old woman with an eating disorder. At least five days of every week are spent alternately binging and purging, and taking no pleasure from the compulsive acts. Her throat, her teeth, and her stomach are destroyed, and she lives with the fact that she is killing herself, and can’t stop. The other two days are spent in isolation, hunger, and vile self hatred.

Inside the third house is a mother too afraid to answer the phone, yet simultaneously too afraid to stray too far from the house, because her son is in Iraq, and news of her only son’s status might be delivered at any moment.

Inside the fourth house is a 33-year-old aging cover model, losing jobs to 18-year-olds. She curses at her face in the mirror, and doesn’t have any more will to get out of bed in the morning. She owes 20,000 dollars in debt from lost pay, yet just accepted one more credit card offer to schedule plastic surgery on her neck and eyes, in the hope that it will make her better and that it will make her like herself better.

Inside the fifth house is a heroin addict. He is missing out on his children’s young years, but can’t stop. Making it worse, is his wife, who calls him a loser, taunting him daily for his weakness. Every time he tries to give it up for good, he gets violently ill, and gives in to the urge to shoot up again, even though he knows it is only a temporary pleasure. It’s gotten to the point where he stands to lose his job, his wife, and the house. He no longer enjoys being sober because of the agonizing guilt that eats him alive.

Inside the sixth house is a 60-year-old woman who has just been diagnosed with incurable cancer. She knows her body will soon start to break down, and that she will have to soon face her death. She will have to come to grips with the fact that she will never see her grandchildren, or her husband, or her dogs, again.

Inside the seventh house is an 85-year-old woman who lost her husband five years ago. Having lost her will to live, she lies in bed all day long, surrounded by the dusty antique knick-knacks she spent her life collecting. Her social security checks go entirely to the illegal caretakers, paid to help her go to the bathroom, and take her to the doctor. She refuses to leave her home and go to an elderly home.

Inside the eigth house is a 19-year-old boy with agoraphobia. Stepping outside of the house is like hanging off a bridge, sweaty fingers slipping, no one to catch you. He takes his xanax, and sits in front of his computer, wearing the mask of his artificial identity, chatting in forums, witty and sarcastic on screen, hating himself all the while on the inside because he’s lonely and bored, and it never goes away.

Inside the ninth house is a 30-year-old ambitious office worker, who just missed out on a promotion due to the fact that his scheming female colleague in the next cubicle claimed his idea as her own, taking all the credit and the rewards. He takes his seething hatred out on other women, in the form of abusive relationships that leave him feeling more empty and worthless, rather than potent, and valued.

Inside the tenth house – the smallest house on the block – is a newlywed couple who bought this fixer-upper because it was the only house they could afford, given their loan qualifications. Because their house is at the end of the street, they are forced to drive past the other more glorious houses every day, going to and fro work. He imagines his neighbors’ luxurious lives, Saturday barbeques, and big TV screens; and she is filled with increasing bitterness toward him, for promising a new kitchen, plumbing that works, bathrooms she can decorate in coordinated colors, like in the magazines. Yet the months go by, and still her husband has done nothing to improve their house. Their relationship is quickly turning bitter.

To Reflect On
-This is the meaning of samsara (life sucks, but only if mind sucks.)
-This is the meaning of the expression, where ever you go, there you are (all is perception.)
-This is why it makes no sense to covet (addiction is an everyday affair.)
-This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness on the outside (pleasure is not happiness – it has a dark side)
-This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness at all – it’s not a thing to get! (it is a by-product of presence.)
-This is why the masters say to wake up to what is (to accept.)
-This is the meaning of the saying, you don’t have to believe your thoughts (thoughts are kind of like, secretions.)
-This is why monks meditate (meditating is dealing with what’s in front of you.)
-This is why you have to put out your own fire first (you create the world.)

Emotions Don’t Make a Man

Sometimes I receive notes from people I don’t know. Sometimes they ask me for advice, and sometimes I’m able to give it. Here is an (edited) version of a recent one.

Question from an unknown friend:

I have always read about “letting go…” and specifically about letting go of the ego. Isn’t this the purpose of Yoga and Buddhist practice? I think it sounds good but I wonder if it is healthy overall to let go of so much in life. Isn’t part of life just feeling good and acting upon emotions? Isn’t that part of a fulfilled life to accept those feelings? How do I know when I should allow feelings and emotions to exhibit themselves or not? I struggle with this immensely. I almost feel like ego is me and therefore only death would detach me from any thread of ego attachment. When I have an opinion – am I just supposed to suppress it? Thank you for your time.

————

My response:

Friend:

You said: ” Is not part of life just feeling and acting upon emotions? Isn’t that part of a fulfilled life to accept those feelings?”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could tell you, “Yes, you’re right, I guess that’s what life is for.” But I can’t be the one. You see, this very idea is what Yoga (and Buddhist practice) is there to correct.

The whole purpose of “having a practice” is to steady the mind. Yoga is about the mind, not the body. It is about managing your energy, your emotions and your thoughts, so that those emotions don’t manage and overwhelm you. It’s therefore about you managing you.

Imagine if we took your question (in quotes, above) and made it universal, which is to say, allowed for society at large to act on it as a sort of “rule.” The result would be exactly like the fourth grade school yard, where anytime anyone gets angry, they just stomp and scream and throw their toys at others. After all, they would simply be “acting on their emotions.”

But, here’s the thing. Society is actually like that. Most people have not learned to manage their emotions, have not evolved to where life is about anything other than their passing feelings, nor have they come to identify with any higher purpose of existence.

It’s all about “how I feel.”

And so, we have road rage, prozac, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, war, hatred, envy, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, emotional disorders, a never-before-seen number of learning disabilities, stress, tension, and political elections that resemble an afternoon at the local kindergarten.

When body, spirit and mind are in a state of balance, which is to say, at the very least, that the “negative mind” doesn’t govern, those emotions don’t seem so overwhelming and living becomes more peaceful. What does this have to do with “letting go?” We stop getting so caught up with those habitual thoughts that only keep us limited—judgment thoughts, self-deprecating thoughts, doubtful thoughts and resentful thoughts—the kinds of thoughts we don’t want to characterize our ideas of ourselves and others. Because our thoughts weave the fabric of who we are.

It’s as Yogi Bhajan once said, in his characteristically straightforward and slightly mischievous way, “it’s not emotions that prove you’re alive. The way to find that out is to check your nose. If the breath goes in and out, then you are still alive.”

You see, once we begin to quiet the spinning mind, once we begin to relate to that which is infinitely greater than our passing trifles, once we begin to become truly conscious beings, then we relate to those emotions differently. We learn not to define ourselves by them and they begin to lose their hold and power over us. We become more stable and more able!

Kind Wishes,
~Donna

Misunderstanding Religion; What Is its Purpose?

One thing students realize when they begin their readings for my class, is the lack of anything resembling unified agreement, among academics, on what religion is.

Firstly, if you’re looking for agreement among academics, you’re looking in the wrong place.

But in a more analytical vein, every attempt at a common denominator is defeated by a counter example. Even the belief in God, which isn’t embraced in the context of Buddhism, is frustrated. In short, we are hard-pressed to find one feature common to all religions of the world. So, rather than one solitary feature, scholars have taken to describing a collection of characteristics – things like community, beliefs and stories –
that are inevitably found, in some combination or another, in the world’s many religions.

One student expressed concern over the problem of interpreting those stories that are part and parcel of the world’s religions. In a disdainful tone, he alluded to the violence that is easily justified by a relativistic interpretation of religious writings.

A common and seemingly justifiable concern, considering the state of the world today.

Nonetheless, I find it lamentable because it stems from a massive misunderstanding of what the whole point of religion is and has always been. Arguing about scripture reduces it to nothing but philosophy—a discipline which is deep, difficult and meaningless, all at the same time. Joking aside, it’s not exactly meaningless, if we understand that its value lies, not in finding answers, but in the very act of asking questions. That is, meaning emerges when we stop misunderstanding its purpose.

Likewise, in the domain of religion, we get hopelessly caught up in the supposed contradictory nature of certain passages, especially where violence is implied. This is common in the context of the Jewish and Christian bibles, and in that of the Koran. But what if we were to consider the very purpose of these holy books differently? What if we were to assume its purpose lay in encouraging us to look upon our own violent ways?

Thus, rather than assume a breach between our virtues and those in the holy stories, we might consider the purpose of those stories. And more pertinently, we might let go of the assumption that these stories contain explicit instructions. In that way, the bible may become purposeful.

But perhaps the most profound problem lies in a different kind of chasm. There is an immense difference between the spiritual state of the reader and the nature of the divine. A holy book is of a different nature than a science book or a philosophy book or a car manual. Dare I say bluntly that its arcane nature will be missed by an unenlightened mind? Its higher truths will not be revealed to eyes that don’t yet see, to a mind that is not ready.

Or even more to the point, to a mind that pushes an agenda.

Anyone can misuse anything when guided by greed, selfishness, lust for power, and vengeance. A person whose mind is clouded by odiousness has eyes that are blind. He will misinterpret, misconstrue and misuse. He’ll abuse the land, other people, scripture, and everything he touches. Put that person in a position of power and watch the world crumble.

Which brings me around to the closure of the circle and to my final point, that of looking to the academics for a definition of something that does not lend itself to definition.

Just as looking for answers misses the point of philosophy—which values itself on the questions it asks, looking for definitions misses the point of religion—which treasures only experience as a means to truth.

No matter the religion, its purpose is to bring the practitioner to an experience of his or her own wholeness. When this underlying essence and purpose goes missing, it quickly and inevitably dissolves into empty rituals. How could it be anything else in the absence of an awakened consciousness? Even the meaning of the word religion betrays its supreme spiritual purpose—to remember your spiritual identity. But without clarity all we have is confusion, without heartfelt practice all we have is mechanized ceremony and without open eyes all that is left is the blind leading the blind.

What is Spiritual Surrender?

One of my Kundalini Yoga teachers, Gurudhan, often plays a song during our deep relaxation, called “Never Surrender.” Some of the main lyrics resound in my mind:

Don’t lose faith and don’t lose heart.
Don’t lose faith and never surrender. 
Don’t lose faith and don’t lose heart.
Don’t lose faith and never surrender. 

Never surrender to your tears,
though you’ve been crying them for years.
You know the pain is just a part
of what is opening your heart.

The message is to never surrender. Yet, ironically, the importance of being able to surrender is at the heart of all the great spiritual teachings. In Taoism, it is taught that you will live with greater ease through the art of surrendering to the rhythms and natural cycles of the universe—The Tao. In Buddhism, you lessen the suffering of yourself and everyone around you by applying the wisdom to accept life’s inevitable changes, regardless of whether or not they correspond to your preferences.

And in Kundalini Yoga, surrender has its place, as well. It is the way to personal evolution and ultimately, joy. It means, surrendering to the lessons presented to us, in order to benefit from the perspective they permit and thus, to grow from them. It is the courage to use those stumbling blocks as springboards to our own higher consciousness.

To add a few layers on, surrendering, in this case, is to let go of the stories we tell ourselves—the stories we use as defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms keep us stuck. And so, to get unstuck and to live in grace, means accepting, with all our heart, our own purpose in this life, while rising above that we think will consume us. And that is both empowering and fulfilling. But more, it is knowing that we have the capacity for this fulfillment and that state of knowing leaves no room for despair.

We only need courage and commitment. And so, “to surrender” is, in this context, to fully accept that commitment to live in grace. But, as the song reminds us, and as Buddha’s example of resisting the temptations of Mara, reminds us, we must not give in to the demons and destructive patterns that only hold us back.