Tag Archives: ego

Hope & Faith

I closed my eyes one day and asked for this question to be answered:

What is the one thing people need to be able to feel joy?

As spiritual teachers, we’re always talking about the importance of things like gratitude, forgiveness and especially, presence. But, without taking anything as a given, I wanted to know, what is the one thing that trumps all others? I received the answer very clearly in three different forms that day.

The answer was Hope.

The first message of hope came in the form of this story, as told by the mystic, Sri Ramakrishna:

Once there was a man about to cross the sea. A monk who watched him as he prepared to begin his journey, wrote the name of God on a leaf, which he then crumpled up and pinned to the man’s robe. Upon doing this, the monk said to him, “Don’t be afraid and make sure to have faith.” Then he added, Make sure your faith is wavering, as the moment you lose faith, you will sink.” The man then began to walk across the water quite easily. But suddenly he was overcome with an urge to see what the monk had tied to his robe, and so he reached for it, opened it and found only a leaf that had the name of God written on it. He thought to himself, “Is this it? Just the name of God?” And just then, as doubt began to creep into his soul, he sank.

Hope has been called, in the Christian tradition, Active Faith. It is similar in meaning, to the Zen instruction to Act As If. What it means is that we not only have complete trust in the divine to carry us, but that we are co-creators of our reality. It is not enough to sit and wait, but to act under the belief that what is to be, already is.

Like the mantra: Humee Hum Brahm Hum (What is to be, already is)

This teaching is exemplified in Jesus’ command that we not look up to the sky and pray for the seeded field to yield harvest after three months’ time, but rather, to look out to the empty field and see in those seedlings, a rich, full harvest, already ripened and mature.

Hope, so understood, is faith in a forward-looking perspective. And in this way, it requires that we know, so deeply in our bones and in our soul, that what is to be, already is, that we act as if. Thus, it is a demonstration of our complete trust in the fact that God (or “the universe”) is working on behalf of our well-being.

Hope is not wishful thinking

To be clear, hope in the spiritual sense, is not the same as wishful thinking. For example, we say things like, I hope I get the job, or, I hope it doesn’t rain during our road trip, both of which express this sense of wishing that circumstances may go the way we want them to go.

It is, rather, a deep and unwavering sense of knowing.

Knowing what? Knowing that all things are possible…that the universe is working on our behalf…that grace abounds…that with this inner confidence, we actually help to create the circumstances we require to fulfill our destiny…that we are carried and supported by the divine (in whatever form of the divine is meaningful to us). And this is actually the opposite of wishful thing. With true hope, there is no room for uncertainty. In the examples of wishful thinking above (I hope I get the job), we are saying that although we want something to happen, we are uncertain of it being realized. Hope means total and complete certainty.

Why is hope so important to the experience of joy?

Without hope, we tend to feel anxious about how things will go and we easily become preoccupied with doing and controlling. To put it in Zen terms, the ego creeps in and takes over and the ego is a horrible tyrant, since, like all tyrants, it operates from fear and insecurity. When we are consumed by insecurity and doubt, not only do we become exhausted from trying to do the work of the universe and make it conform to our timeline, but we become closed in and unable to be present for others—how could we be present, when our mind is spinning in worries, doubts and undo concern for our well-being? (Because we don’t believe in our heart, that we are already taken care of.)

Hope is like a wellspring of inner strength.

We’ve all heard inspirational stories about those who have healed their lives and overcome trauma by learning to let go and let God. But fear of letting go keeps us from experiencing the same kind of inner healing. Letting go is also known as surrender, which is, essentially…releasing our need to micro-manage the universe’s work.

Again, dipping into Zen waters, it reminds me of a Koan that asks, How do you step from the top of a hundred-foot pole? You just do it! Or, better yet, we already have!

But we are carried and supported in our journeys. Knowing that is what enables us to release the doubts and fears that keep us stuck in the vexing waters of anxiety.

But because the universal will doesn’t always operate on our calendars, we continually practice faith and surrender in the daily unfolding of life’s events. This means that the business of dropping doubts is a constant practice. And things that need practice aren’t usually easy. After all, doubting is really just a judgment that God is wrong! Surrendering, thus, requires not only a surrender of spirit to a greater will, but a surrender of the obsessive need to know why things happen as they do.

Surrender is not the same as giving up!

To practice surrender in our commitment to awaken to a life of hope and joy, we are saying Yes to every moment, as it unfolds. In this way, we can glide playfully as we soar from the top of that 10-foot pole, rather than fighting against life’s currents. And, surrender is not the same as giving up. Giving up is of the ego. Surrender is of the spirit. Giving up says, “OK, I’ll go along with this nonsense for now, but you better make it worthwhile.” Surrender says, “I accept what you have placed on my path, since in your divine grace, you see what I can’t yet see.”

Hope is not a prediction of the future; it’s a declaration of what’s possible. ~Yogi Bhajan

 

On the Fallacy of Spiritual Perfection

Don Quixote“I’m only human,” the saying goes. To my perfectionistic Virgoan ears, it always sounded like a cliché, or worse, an excuse for shoddy work or behavior.

But, thank goodness, like many other quixotic notions I have had to let go of, I unshackled myself of this, too. Not only does it make life harder and more stressful than it is supposed to be, but aspiring to the impossible is a most subtle form of arrogance, worn in the guise of “high standards,” or worse, spiritual advancement.

Of the latter, one of my teachers in the healing tradition, calls it “purple-washing.”

Because purple—color of the crown ckakra—is thought of as a spiritual color, this expression refers to the tendency of spiritual people to think of themselves as “above” certain emotions, fancying themselves, for example, invulnerable to fear, or anger.

“How lofty of me!” She jokes.

The reality is, perfection is unattainable for three main reasons:

1. Life is change. It was the Buddha’s starting point and the keystone for the body of his teachings. If all of life is impermanent, then we are too. Thank goodness! This means that we are always evolving. Perfection implies that a resolution has been achieved, and is, as such, a frozen state. Thus, perfection and change are a contradiction in terms.

2. The fantasy of perfection is born of ego. What would perfection even look like? It’s unanswerable, since for every ten people asked, there would be ten different answers. It’s relative. And why would we want to be perfect, when we saw, in the above passage, that perfection (if it existed) means no more growth? But back to the point about the ego…by virtue of the fact that perfection is nonexistent in any objective sense, its pursuit easily slides into the realm of narcissism. As psychoanalyst, Karen Horney, has pointed out, it is not narcissistic for a person to value a quality in himself which he actually possesses…the problem arises when narcissists admire themselves for qualities that have no foundation in reality. It seems the pursuit of perfection is the ultimate neurosis!

3. We are supposed to go through emotional trials. It’s part of the game of being human, of being part of this play that the Yogis call Maya. As a teacher, there is thought to be a practical purpose to it all; we go through our own challenges to be able to show others the way through. Having traversed the rough terrain ourselves, we can then show others the potholes. And from the perspective of a healer, we can better recognize the energetic vibration of what we have come to recognize in ourselves. Besides, in every wisdom tradition, from the Kabbalah, to the heart of Yogic wisdom, emotions are thought to be a compass, giving us feedback about where we are on our own journey. So, even as we’re pulling someone else up the mountain with one outstretched arm, we’re simultaneously clearing debris from the path with our other arm. The overarching point is that there is a reason for emotions that are considered “imperfect.” As the teacher of my teacher famously said, “we are spiritual beings having a human experience,” meaning both, that we are limited by virtue of our human embodiment and the challenges that come from limited seeing, and that we are subject to the experiences that come from being trapped in this realm and the duties and interactions that go along with it

In the meantime, we forgive ourselves and others as we stumble our way through the wilds of human life, as we search in vein for the way home. Because after all, as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz discovered, and as we too will discover for ourselves…it was right here, all the time.

Choice

CHOICE chart


Commentary:

I made this chart to show the different ways of interfacing with our moment to moment decisions in life. Even the most subtle decision is vast and carries with it the potential for extensive repercussions. For example, whether we decide to breathe into a moment of frustration or channel it into verbal abuse toward a loved one makes a tremendous difference in our lives, especially, as those moments add up and habit patterns set in.

I make the assumption here, that we’re not always at our optimum. But, life is a process of evolving, if we are fully awake and have the courage to look at ourselves squarely. This means embracing our freedom to make a choice at every moment and owning those decisions. Thus, it also means accepting the consequences of those choices without making excuses for ourselves. This chart shows us that only when we can truly do that, do we evolve into the optimal version of ourselves.

The caveat against making excuses comes from Zen Master Nyogen Roshi, who reminded us very often, during Dharma talks, to (1) Not DECEIVE ourselves (2) Not make EXCUSES for ourselves, and to (3) Take RESPONSIBILITY for ourselves. In my book, I captured this teaching with the acronym, DER.

These injunctions encourage honest, conscious reflection and enable continuous growth—which is what we’re here for! To evolve in our own way and according to our own propensity, is our overarching purpose on earth.

But, sometimes we find ourselves stuck. We call it a problem when we’re unsure how to get unstuck. This chart demonstrates what Yogi Bhajan said—that there is always a pathway through every problem. Curiously, we often access this pathway by letting go. This is the feminine aspect of the dance of life.

This chart shows us that even when we feel we have not acted optimally, in a situation…say, by lashing out instead of breathing, as in the example above, we can use that moment as an opportunity for conscious reflection, rather than self-reproach. For, emotions like guilt, serve only to block our growth. But the recognition that there may be some fear, like the fear of losing control, underlying our frustration, will set us free. It disables that fear.

Very often, this moment of consciousness is enough for clearance to occur. As I’ve said in my classes: “a moment of awareness is a moment of healing.” This is the D, the E and the R, altogether! We haven’t deceived ourselves, we haven’t indulged in excuses, and we’ve taken responsibility, which in this case, entailed nothing more than ownership of our action.

The masculine aspect of doing, comes into play inevitably, as every step, however subtle, is a form of action, but through our willingness to surrender to the outcome, we manifest the feminine. Without that feminine aspect, we lock ourselves into an insecure need to control—bereft of the trust that comes from connection to what isIt’s as Lao Tzu advised: “Know the right, but keep to the left.” The left is the feminine quality of receptiveness. And in this way, we form a relationship with the way and the rhythm of the universe. The dance of life is an interplay of masculine and feminine energies.

The feminine is all about surrender, which trumps the ego’s need to control. It is a must, if we choose to grow. We must welcome what is, with a heart full of grateful acceptance, in order to go forth. We have to be good with where we are before we can get to where we want to be, since the moment we push it away with excuses, we allow the useless emotions of guilt & regret to subsume us, forming, in turn, a murky blanket of resistance to life’s lessons and the evolution of our own consciousness.

It is as such that we behold the interplay of self-acceptance and self-improvement. We often defeat ourselves by trying to have the latter without the former. But, self-improvement, on its own, quickly devolves into an obsessive game of chase, creating a gap in our consciousness, between who we are and who we want to be. It leaves us un-whole. 

The Sycamore that Wanted to be a Cactus

sycamore I created this story and told it for the first time at Yoga West last Sunday. Some of my students encouraged me to publish it, so here it is!

I was inspired by the two sycamores we share a home with, “Don Quijote” and “Sancho Panza.” The picture with this post is actually one of them. I suppose you could say that we are the family in this make-believe story. Only, the message isn’t make-believe. You’ll probably see very quickly, that we all do what the sycamore tree does.

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This is a story about a sycamore tree who wished he could be more like the cactus. He stood very tall, next to another sycamore tree. Together, they guarded a charming old bungalow house and were much loved by the family who lived there.

He got the idea to imitate the cactus because all the billboard ads say that cactus spikes are in fashion. With all the attention the cactus was garnering, the sycamore began to feel that he wasn’t as handsome or as special as the cactus.

So, the sycamore went online and payed top dollar for the rarest cactus spikes from Mexico. From his elevated position, he was able to watch the street everyday, for his coveted Fed Ex delivery.

Finally, they arrived! And on that day, he pulled off all his fan-shaped leaves and replaced them with the pointy spikes in the box.

While he was online, he had seen more ads for similar imported goods from Mexico. One item, in particular, caught his attention: Genuine El Norteño cowboy boots! The ad said that these boots would make him more masculine. He couldn’t stop thinking about them, so once again, he snuck into the house, went online and ordered them.

And once again, he watched and waited for the unmistakable white truck to come down the street. Finally, when his beautiful boots arrived, he rushed to put them on. But this proved to be a formidable task, as his roots were very long and stringy and he was having a hard time scrunching them into the pointy, leather, boot toe.

At first, he felt proud and pleased with his new look. But after a few days, he wasn’t feeling so well. The Dr. said that without his leaves in tact, he wasn’t getting enough sunlight to facilitate photosynthesis. Tests also showed a deficiency in CO2.

As if this news wasn’t bad enough, he learned that the family members in the old wooden house, weren’t feeling well, either. They were short on oxygen and no longer had any shade to keep them cool on hot summer days.

That did it. The sycamore put his leaves back, at once, and replanted his roots in the earth, which immediately and thirstily began drinking up water, like happy kids sucking up apple juice with straws.

As he fortified his body with sunshine and water, balance was quickly restored and everyone felt better right away. The family once again began to enjoy picnics under the lush, green canopy formed by his fan-shaped leaves, and the giant expanse of shade that this created, kept the air fresh all year round. They even built a beautiful treehouse in his strong, shapely branches!

The sycamore came to realize that there is no other tree quite like him, that each one is beautiful in its own way, and that each fulfills a unique purpose in nature. He now felt very proud to be himself, to serve in a way that only he can, and to be such a tremendous source of delight in the world.

~DDQ

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Moral of the Story…
We give away our authenticity through our fixation on identity and our need for outside approval. We also succumb to what my teacher calls “OPO,” better known as, “Other People’s Opinions.” There is perhaps only one thing that’s worse—we cripple ourselves with our own stories, such as when we buy into it all, and begin to tell ourselves that we’re not good enough as we are.

Why Meditation Works

morning meditateWhen I was growing up, it seemed everyone was impressed with those who could fix computers or who were technologically savvy in some way. They’re so intelligent, they’d say. And then there was always that family superstar who could answer the questions on Jeopardy before the contestants. Everyone would ooh and ahh, admiringly.

But, from the point of view of our soul, we are not here to fix computers or recite historical data.

Philosophy was impressive, too. While I wasn’t the one you’d call for a hard drive on the fritz, nor the one yelling out the answers to civil war trivia, I could talk about free will or argue about the existence of God. Of course, I didn’t choose this line of study in order to impress people, but as a girl in my twenties, I could already count on the type of reaction I’d get when asked what I’m majoring in.

That is…until I went to a real Zen monastery.

When I was in my 20s, I was already drawn to the eastern traditions—I knew about Zen and emptiness. I had read Alan Watts and even knew about koans. And for the first time, no one cared.

The bald man in robes, who they referred to as “Roshi” spoke that day. He said we were all there because we were “neurotic.” No words were ever truer! None of the brilliant papers I’d written seemed to matter at that moment. I still had my hang ups, just like everyone else. Because I still had that head of mine. All the studying in the world doesn’t seem to do much when it comes to true transformation.

That was when it dawned on me: Even the geniuses are screwed up! It’s like this passage:

Have you seen all these people who drink, who search for a partner, and who look for drugs? They start the search in earnest, or have the urge to do it, after 4 p.m. Why do they need drink? Why do people feel they need to take drugs?  They do all that out of an instinct to seek stimulation. At those times their biorhythm has gone down, and they feel irritated. They cannot exist like that and have to have a change…The root cause is that your basic biorhythm of energy, your mental projection and strategy are not reflected in a unisonness of character. Those zones are natural times that shift your energy level, your mental projection, and your performance. That is the time you must direct the mind, refine it, and create a consolidated unisonness of character and projection. ~Yogi Bhajan

The point is, what we are really here to do is guide the mind rather than let it be guided. Guided by what? By our own emotions, by other people’s expectations, by traffic, by disappointments, by the media…by endless, daily provocations (the worst of these being our own thoughts). Neither techie skills, nor historical data, nor a big bank roll can do this for us.

To me, it all boils down to this question: Are you a sanctuary for yourself?

Can you be still in your own solitude? We become a refuge for ourselves only when our mind is at peace. And only then is it remotely possible to be a source of peace for others — because our mind is the wellspring of every word we speak, every decision we make and every action we take.

How do we become our own sanctuary? When we discover our neutral center—the crowned sovereign over all the noise, the judgments, the neurotic outbursts and the incessant tug of war between positive and negative. The neutral channel is the balm that quells the drama that turns people’s lives upside down.

That neutral eye sees right though the drama. Thus, this quality creates vastness of character. This is true greatness. And this is what we’re here for.

If you have not established some vastness in your attitude, then your habits and facets, your fears and pettiness will betray you. ~Yogi Bhajan 

What is meant by “vastness?” No matter what spiritual tradition we’re speaking of, it all comes down to union, or, said the opposite way, letting go of the illusion of separateness. Where is that illusion kept? In the mind. Zen calls it the small self. Yoga calls it the finite self. No matter what we call it, this ego-based identity is what drives the pettiness in our lives, which in turn, makes spiritual union impossible. This is why governing the mind is the first task in any spiritual practice.

How do we refine the mind, in this way? It’s too bad you can’t just take a 6-week course, or a workshop, or an intensive. The old masters weren’t lying when they said you have to sit. There’s no way around it. It’s not as easy, of course, as taking a course and sticking some degree on your wall, but that’s also why there are so few truly enlightened beings in the world.

So how does it work?

Consider this car analogy: Before driving off to work in the morning, you warm up your car for a few minutes. As the engine warms up, a distinct alteration takes place within the engine that affects the oil pressure and viscosity, which prevents wear and tear on your car and gives you a smoother drive. In a similar way, it is through meditation, that we “warm up” our systems by better preparing our minds to handle the stress of daily living, to make the choices that need to be made and to navigate our way through our own doubts and anxieties. Through the refinement process that only meditation affords, we give ourselves a smoother drive.

Not only is there an alchemical process taking place, via the glandular system and the nervous system, but by coming to stillness, we develop a capacity to stay present even when things seem unpleasant. This translates into less reactivity and more patience in the “real world,” as we interface with difficult people and everyday dilemmas.

Through meditation, instead of simply reacting at once, we create space around every stimulus, whether pleasant or unpleasant and whether internal or external.  Our minds challenge us at every turn, like a toddler pulling at our pants for an ice cream, but as we persist, we become solid. We become a witness to the ways of our own minds, which is what Buddha meant when he urged us to study the Self.

To be sure, being a witness does not mean being passive. Nor does it mean being narcissistic. Not passive because we retain our intention to cultivate our awareness even when we get up off the cushion. Not narcissistic because as spiritual warriors, we know all too well the effect of one mind on the world at large.

We know that even a few minutes of warming up our engine daily, will shape every decision we make, in every area of our lives, from relationships to work. This is why it is the highest form of self betterment—because we are getting to the root of our being.

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.

The Morning, the Mosque and the Glandular System

What do the early morning, the pituitary gland and the mosque have in common?

I had done my early morning meditation the other day before taking my dogs out for their walk. I live on the street with the beautiful Mosque, so I always see activity there during the pre-Dawn hours. On this occasion, I saw my mechanic, who is a Muslim. The sun, not yet reflecting off the minaret, was just beginning to lighten the sky as I waved hello and turned the corner.

If I were to walk a little further, I’d see the Orthodox Jews making their way to temple for their early morning prayers. And in the many Buddhist temples across town, the monks are chanting their first sutras while the smoky aroma of sandalwood incense fills the dimly lit room.

The pre-Dawn hours have always been the favored time to engage in spiritual practices, among all traditions, since the time before those practices were subsumed and consumed by religion as we know it today…since the time when all who practiced were Yogis—since, true to the spirit of the word, they were merely seeking divine union. They were mystics, seeking nothing but the experience of God.

Although the façades have changed, the inner motivations are varied and the reasons why are largely unknown, the custom of rising early remains.

In Sikh scriptures, it is known as the Amrit Vela—that special and tranquil time we may call the ambrosial hours. The ancients may not have known that this is the time when our glandular system undergoes a natural shift, but they knew there was something very magical about it. They may not have known about the pituitary gland, whose proper function regulates all other endocrine functions and brings us into that state Yogis called Shuniya, but they experienced this state of neutrality and they knew that this was the gateway to higher consciousness…to that realm that transcends time-space boundaries.

These are the hours when the world sits still. It is when the earth’s magnetic field and its angle in relation to the sun make it the perfect time to sit still with it. It is when we are given refuge from the tug-of-war between those forces known in the Bhagavad Gita as Rajasic and Tamasic. Between fire and sloth. But between them, there is balance. It is therefore, the most Sattvic time to enter into that divine stillness that lies within. It is when ego’s protective wrapping is most easily peeled away, along with those habits that go along with it.

It is as such that in these ambrosial hours, the pituitary gland—master at the helm—secretes optimally and when all those who pull themselves out of bed to practice, can melt into the stillness that was there all along.

Uniqueness vs Ego

The Art Student

One of my international students knocked on my office door one day. She was a 21 year-old Korean girl that I would learn was here to study engineering. Although, as I also quickly learned, she didn’t like engineering. When I welcomed her into my office, she lifted her eyes briefly to say hello before quickly looking down again. When she began to tell me about her situation she could barely hold back the tears. She was clearly under a lot of stress. As it turned out, the decision to study engineering was not her own. It was a decision made by her father as the condition of going abroad. What she really wanted to pursue was art. This was the first time she had confessed her true feelings about the issue, she said, as the tears, held back for too long, flowed with relief down her cheeks, dripping on her notebook. Her father didn’t feel that art would prepare her for any kind of career and refused to pay for a useless major, she explained.

This story (from my upcoming book) shows why it is so disastrous to compel others to fit into a pre-carved mold, to fashion them by the we-know-what’s-right-for-you pattern.

I began reflecting on what it means to truly live authentically. It means living by the light of our own uniqueness, embracing it and more importantly, sharing it, for, our uniqueness endows us with gifts that are multiplied when offered back out to the world. How may this girl help shape the world through her art? Who can know the future of her life on either path?

But isn’t this ego? Isn’t it more spiritual to not press and push and assert ourselves? What is the difference between personal empowerment and ego? Or, between uniqueness and ego?

Ego just wants to stand out.

Individuality without YOU is just difference. ~Catalyst Yogi

Standing out, or, being different for the sake of being different, is not true uniqueness.

True uniqueness is the acceptance of your own gifts, talents and capabilities. It is the willingness and courage to live from your own authority, shape your own beliefs, forge your path and create your own destiny. It is the right to be yourSELF.

Ego is not yourSELF. It is an impostor shaped from images, roles, expectations and ideas—your own outdated ideas, as well as other peoples’.

We affirm our own existence. There is no one exactly like me. My attributes are singularly my own. My uniqueness is to be respected, cherished, honored, trusted. ~Guru Rattana

While ego, in its search for approval, fame, pleasure and glory, leads us inevitably into disaster, embracing our uniqueness—our true Self—allows  us to better serve in this existence. After all, only you can offer what you have to give.

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