Tag Archives: Patanjali

To Accept Ourselves or Transform?

accept or transform

When you make some special effort to achieve something, some excessive quality, some extra element is involved in it. ~Shunryo Suzuki

You know you’re surrendered to God when you rely on God to work things out instead of trying to manipulate others, force your agenda, and control the situation. You let go and let God work. You don’t have to always be in charge. Instead of trying harder, you trust more. ~Rick Warren

The quotes above emphasize the importance of letting go of the illusion of control. It’s a teaching that comes forth in all traditions, no matter how we couch it, from the Christian maxim to Let Go, Let God, to the Zen maxims that tell us to  flow with whatever happens.

But, if we truly practice acceptance, won’t we become complacent, without really bothering to make improvements. And isn’t that what life is for…to improve?

Yes, we’re here to evolve, but it will never work when our eye is fixed on a certain outcome. The reason why is because a specific outcome is just a fantasy, concocted by our imaginations. And ironically, although it is created by our imaginations, which take us into the realm of the limitless, a specific outcome  can be very limiting, since (1) we hardly ever get to choose the exact outcome (2) there are conceivably better outcomes than the one we imagined and (3) it is by definition conceptualized and takes us out of the present moment.

So then, how do we approach the task of healthy evolution? What is the right approach, especially when there is something seriously wrong that needs to be changed, for example, addictions, or some other self-defeating, self-degrading habit?

A conscious strategy would be to set an intention to incorporate a healthy, self-promoting habit into your daily life. In Yoga, we call it a sadhana, a daily spiritual discipline and commitment to meet ourselves, as we are, and where we are, everyday. A daily practice that brings us in touch with the present moment and what it feels like to breathe and move into our bodies, enables a connection to be made—a connection to inner stillness. It also renders conscious, what was previously unconscious.

This active process of shining the light of awareness onto what was heretofore hidden, keeps us in touch with an abiding source of strength and empowerment that can only be found within. It also keeps us in touch with the unchanging essence of who we are—because those habits that we’d like to change are not who we are. These are practices from meditation or Tai Chi, to simply walking in nature.

The irony is that, when we meet ourselves with honesty, as we are, we release the chains that have kept us from who we are to be.

When we cultivate a daily practice, and infuse it with our heartfelt intention, rather than fixate on a specific goal, we discover a much more effective and elegant strategy. When we try to change habits with iron will, by focusing only on the end result, we tend to hit a wall, since willpower can only go so far. But the rub is that our uncompromising focus on the result engenders nothing but frustration and anxiety. This is the reason dieters quickly become fixated, to the point of obsession, on food…the very thing they are trying to find a copacetic relationship with quickly becomes a monster of a problem.

Lessening our grip on the end result, and instead, redirecting our focus to our daily practice quickly becomes a source of upliftment. The intention itself, along with our conscious awareness spent in real-time, keeps us grounded in the present moment, and places us in the driver’s seat—I can only control what I do in this moment. And the result is our empowerment and increasing confidence that is generated from the inside out, rather than feigned as iron will, which leads us right back to discouragement, time and time again.

Transformation starts with wholehearted acceptance of where we are right now.

As it happens, this is a compassionate approach. Each time we sit, we accept who we are in this moment, complete and whole as we are, with all our warts and bruises. Yogic wisdom has long reminded us that transformation is a lifetime process. Several lifetimes, actually! As one of our own famously said, even though you know the staircase is there, you can only take one step at a time.

You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step. ~Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s a funny thing, we humans tend to be hard on ourselves, as if it would serve the purpose of knocking us into the right direction. The opposite is true. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali explains that a  harsh and critical approach to transformation is a scarcely camouflaged form of ignorance.

Ignorance, in Vedic teaching (as in Buddhist teachings) is not defined as deficiency of information in the conventional sense, but rather, confusion with regard to who we really are.

In other words, when we find ourselves inflicting criticism and blame on ourselves for not being able to effectively change some behavior—not to mention the guilt we seem to to enjoy sucking on so much, like an after dinner mint—we are confusing our habit with our identity. Seeing clearly means to see the habit for what it is…just a habit.

This is where self-love comes in. Loving where you are closes the gap between here and where we’d like to be. As long as that gap exists, we’re not whole. To heal is to make whole. So, letting go of the space entails letting go of the “goal,” and embracing ourselves as perfect, right here and now.

Although modern approaches to therapy are beginning to see the wisdom of the compassionate approach, the resistance comes from the deeply ingrained belief we have as western people, that we need to “be tough,” in order to properly “kick ourselves into action.”

The reality is that this “tough guy” approach, or self-bullying often backfires into “I already screwed things up, so I might as well go all the way.” And the cycle continues.

But, by bringing ourselves to the cushion everyday, or to the Dojo, or to a healing place in nature, where we can create a sacred, meditative space, we momentarily (and that’s all we ever have, anyway, is a moment) drop our defenses and welcome ourselves in, no matter the discomfort and general unease. And low and behold, the discomfort loses its charge! It was the discomfort and defensiveness that led us into the habits in the first place, and so, they too, start to lose their power over us.

This is the power of simply being, in conscious awareness. We are in constant renewal and change, anyway, whether unconscious or conscious; why not bring consciousness to it?

In conclusion, self love in real time allows our inner trauma to be digested. Remember, the habit is, after all, a symptom, rather than an intrinsic part of who we are. So we’re getting to the cause, by healing on the inside. We’re unlocking it, listening to it, letting it move through us. We’re re-inhabiting this damaged space that we were trying to fill with the wrong things, be it cigarettes , food, shopping or alcohol, etc. We were looking for comfort in all the wrong places!

But, now, we can begin the alchemy of transformation, as we re-connect with our body, mind and spirit, with love…

And the habits change of their own accord.

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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.

The Yamas–What Yoga is Really All About


Patanjali–Composer of The Eight Limbs of Raj Yog

Here I offer a study on the foundation of Patanjali’s path, with additional insights from the perspective of Kundalini Yoga.

Although Patanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga were penned some 2000 years ago, they are more relevant today than ever, not least of all because of the horribly mistaken, but popular belief that yoga is but a system of exercises, but because the function of those eight interconnected branches is better thought of as the route to a balanced mind–a most dire need, now as always.

The first of those eight limbs, the yamas, are themselves, divided into five parts, and serve as ethical restraints on our behavior. Patanjali saw it as imperative that we get our act together, morally, before we can ascend our spiritual paths.

Ahimsa, or, non-violence–the first of the five yamas–brings our attention to the the violence we direct toward others, as well as toward ourselves. The idea of violence conjures up all kinds of dramatic images, but it is really about the ill-will that starts in our hearts and that shapes our attitudes. It is reflected in everything we do–in what we eat and in what we consume. And it cultivates powerful habits. Even the judgments we fling out so freely toward others is a form of violence, which ironically, only keeps us trapped at the level of the behavior we are criticizing. In Kundalini Yoga, this tendency toward fault-finding and pointless grumbling is simply the nonsense of the negative mind, and it is specifically these restraints that call it to a halt. The yamas help us help ourselves.

Consider now, the second mark of the yamas, satya, or, truthfulness. Again, looking deeply, we don’t think of ourselves as liars, but every time we gossip, we take part in tarnishing someone by spreading what we don’t know to be true. Every time we make a false promise, or indulge in exaggerations, we participate in a form of lying. Even saying that nothing is wrong when something is clearly wrong, is a form of mis-communication, that will likely explode in the wrong way later. But worse, trust breaks down, relationships break down, and on a larger scale, social balance breaks down. We end up causing suffering and feeling alienated by the karmic effects of unskillful speech.

The third instruction within the five yamas is asteya, non-stealing. Again, no one wants to think of themselves as a thief, but we steal in the most subtle ways, all the time. Taking credit where it’s undue–seeking fulfillment in superficial acclaim. Every time we’re late, we steal someone’s time. Every time we take more than we need of anything, we magnify our role in the earth’s depletion and simultaneously draw it away from those who need it more–making us participants in the mass gluttony of consumerism. But, we are driven on by the hope that temporal things might deliver lasting joy.

Next is brahmacarya, the most misunderstood of all. Normally interpreted as total renunciation of sexual activity, the householder’s practice of Kundalini Yoga holds it as a reminder of the pitfalls of abusing sexual energy. It means we don’t engage in activities that involve taking advantage of others or that degrade ourselves–behavior that lies outside the confines of a balanced relationship. Not only do such situations leave us depleted, but they prevent growth into higher realms of yogic practice, such as pratyahar, or, commanding the senses. How can we harness the whimsical diversions of the fickle five senses, if we’re drunk with desire? And dharana, or, concentration. How can we hone our powers of concentration if we’re following every fancy?

The last yama, aparigraha, means fulfilling our needs rather than our interminable parade of wants, lest we live out another existence without having known the subtleties of a heightened awareness. In our commercialized world today, it means seeing through the seduction of the dazzling array of things we’re told at every turn, we must have–the biggest screen, the fastest phone, the greenest car, the greatest package, or the latest version.

The yamas strengthen our will so that we may master our impulses and master our selves. The idea of spiritual progress otherwise would be like the smoker trying to meditate while fighting the nagging thought of his next cigarette. But with compassion, consider that we are all like that smoker, every time we jump up to check our e-mail for the fifth time that hour, every time we lose our tempers and every time we overdo whatever we weren’t supposed to do in the first place.

In Kundalini terminology, it is the negative mind giving vent to its usual nonsense. But through the yamas, we train that trouble-maker, so that we may meld freely into the clear space of balance and neutrality; where the judgments, frustrations, doubts and insecurities subside; where we connect to our infinite, boundless, divine selves, and where that radiance that lies within, may shine freely on the whole world without.

It’s true, the yamas serve as an external check, but it works like a loop, since behavior tends to reinforce itself. We’re setting up conditions for new ways to act. And when we act differently, we begin to feel differently, until finally, we begin to be differently. We experience life in new shoes, so to speak, and the new gear reshapes us. New behavior takes the place of the old, and new responses follow. Through it all, we experience life differently while engaged in habits that serve. As we experience, we become.