Asceticism and the Human Condition

I was watching The Buddha at the gym the other day, so naturally when I left I was thinking about Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment.   The phase in particular that was on my mind was his time spent as an ascetic, depriving himself of all worldly  pleasures and experiences in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

I think there’s something to be said for this- there definitely appears to be a disconnect between people as spiritual creatures and humans as animals.  This isn’t only the case for humans, though- I think it applies to other creatures too.  All of us are simply souls residing inside our physical bodies- I believe C.S. Lewis said something about that in a far more eloquent way, actually.  Obviously this isn’t a novel idea, but its a dichotomy that any sentient being has to grapple with.  The world can be a dangerous place for a soul seeking enlightenment.

At the same time, it seems naive and a bit irresponsible to just abstain from all things worldly entirely.  Of course, we are defined by our souls more than we are as humans, but is it not relevant that our souls are living in bodies on this place called Earth?  Should we really spend all of our time here trying to escape?  The world is full of suffering, but it’s also full of wonder.  We can learn a lot about our souls from experiencing both.

Of course like all paradoxes that we deal with, a balance must be struck.  I would think it’s helpful to experience one or the other or both walks of life in order to realise that neither is spiritually ideal.  We can’t live like Siddhartha in his early years, lavishly and wastefully.  But we also needn’t constantly deprive ourselves constantly in order to cultivate the higher being residing within all of us.

How do you balance the experience of life with spiritual health?

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Yoga in the News

Yoga’s been growing in popularity in the western world for awhile now, but it’s been a particularly hot topic lately with practitioners being accused of involvement in sex scandals and Wiccan cults, the New York Times writing about yoga wrecking the body, and now talks of it being an Olympic sport.

I find this incredibly disheartening.  First of all, these news items do not take into account the other five branches of yoga.  Yoga is not simply physical exercise; it’s not just contorting yourself into strange shapes.  While exercise and physical health is a large part of yoga for many people (myself included), it’s really more of a guide for living a meaningful life.  The branch of yoga that most think of when hearing the term is Hatha yoga- asanas, or postures, that are intended to clarify the body in order to calm the mind.  This is definitely important, but there are also Bhatki (yoga of devotion, love and acceptance), Raja (yoga of self control), Jnana (yoga of the mind, intended to unify wisdom and intellect), Karma (yoga of selflessness), and Tantra (using rituals to experience the sacred).  The idea is that a person can use a combination of any of these paths to travel towards enlightenment.  Each branch is important in its own way, and the most optimal way to approach nirvana is to integrate all of them into your life.

I love that more people are integrating yoga into their lives.  I truly believe that everyone can benefit from following any one of its branches, even just a little bit.  Yoga is an ancient set of methods designed to try to help citizens of the world heal physically and mentally to reach a state of peace.  Yoga as an art should not be judged because a few people abuse its ideals for personal gain, and it should not be judged because those who are inexperienced and lack a proper teacher injure themselves.

Yes, Hatha yoga started as a branch of Tantra- but even Tantra isn’t exclusively about sex.  It’s about experiencing the sacred, and while union between man and woman is part of it, it also includes many other aspects such as dedication, purity, and truthfulness.

You can injure yourself in any physical activity if you don’t know what you’re doing.  Would you try pole vaulting without someone carefully explaining it to you and taking you through small steps to get there?  Of course not.  Just like you shouldn’t immediately try balancing on your head without a careful teacher guiding you through the steps preceding it.  Yoga is entirely safe if you know your body’s limits and take it slowly.

This brings me to my last point: Yoga in the Olympics.  As I mentioned before, yoga is not just postures.  It’s a lifestyle.  If you can do the most advanced and complicated postures, that’s great- but that doesn’t necessarily make you a better yogi than someone who can barely manage a down dog.  Yoga is in the mind just as much as it is the body, and bring a competitive aspect to it is borderline sacrilegious.  I absolutely appreciate watching graceful yogis move through asanas, but I would never consider judging them.  There is no way to tell what a person is thinking, assess the flow of his prana, see how focused he is while he is practicing- and that is what yoga is about.  Bringing yoga to the olympics cheapens the yogic experience to merely contortion and physical strength.  I love the idea of accomplished yogis getting the attention and reverence that they deserve, but it shouldn’t be competitive and it shouldn’t be based solely upon asanas.  All yogis and yoginis should be honored for their yogic accomplishments in life so far and their progress on their spiritual journeys.

Shanti, friends. Namaste!

How to Be Alone

One of my close friends shared this video on Facebook recently, and I thought it was a beautiful and poignant expression of the human condition.  Allowing yourself to be alone is sort of like allowing yourself to be quiet and keep excess noise from your life.

Being alone is definitely something that scares a lot of people, because it really does force you to be yourself- you have no one left to impress, you have no need for conscience, and it is really the only time when you are free to be yourself in your purest form.  I would venture to say that a lot of people don’t really know themselves because they do not spend time alone.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course- human beings are adaptable by nature.  It’s no secret that people act differently depending on their surroundings- I can be irritatingly cheerful if it’s sunny outside and I’m enjoying a nice walk, but catch me off guard in a practice room and I will most likely be nearly unapproachable.  This applies to the people you’re with as well- when I’m around my brother, we’re probably planning mischief or perhaps already in the midst of blowing something up, but when I’m at work I am (believe it or not) entirely capable of being serious.

But who am I when I am alone?  I’ve never had to explain it, really.  And why would I?  As long as who you are when you are alone is somebody that you are comfortable with, that’s what matters.  It’s really helpful in the process of finding out who you are to spend time alone, free from distractions and ego, because when you know who you are everything else really becomes a lot easier.  Decisions, enjoying life, knowing what you like and don’t like- even being far more confident.  When you’re alone enough to stop worrying about others judging you, then eventually you’ll stop worrying about it even when you’re not alone.

I’m not saying to be a hermit by any means.  But I feel that humans in general get so caught up in specific relationships and people and connections that we lose sight of the individual.  We all need to learn to be at peace with ourselves before we can be at peace with others.

Anyway, I hope you all find some time in your hectic lives to get to know yourselves a bit more.  You deserve it!

Love (and science)

As much as I detest Valentine’s Day, it seems as good a time as any to write about love.  It’s rather a bizarre concept, since it encapsulates so many different ideas.  Most other languages actually have dozens of words for “love” to describe its many incarnations.

I think that it is important to point out the distinction between feeling love and showing love in a “romantic” way.  Showing love includes gestures like flowers and chocolate and often even saying “I love you.”  Feeling love is a much deeper thing- it’s liking how something or someone makes you feel or act.  It’s not even quite the feeling of being “attracted” to someone  because we all know that following attraction isn’t always in our best interest (Fatal Attraction, anyone?  If that’s love, be very afraid this evening).  Love really is the most pure element on earth because in its truest form, it causes us as humans to feel the most positive power there is.

How?  Science, my friends.  It is science.  The reason for these positive powers are not only good vibes you send into the universe, but also oxytocin hormones- the opposite of cortisol (stress) hormones.  But good news for you single ladies and gentlemen out there: you can generate oxytocin in many ways and reap the same benefits of love without having to put on a fancy dress or pay for an expensive dinner!

Love is not just something for two people to share.  I am very wary of the concept of bestowing it all upon one person- it’s a bit selfish, and also potentially extremely destructive (putting the proverbial eggs all in one basket, so to speak).  If you are in a genuine, healthy relationship with someone and you feel real feelings of love toward that person, great!  But don’t keep it all for yourselves- the rest of the world is just as deserving of love as your S.O. is!

Don’t focus all of your positive energy on one person; send it into the world for everyone.  This sounds airy-fairy and sort of nonsensical, but the power of positivity is frequently underestimated.  Karma is a real thing- but hey, even if you’re a skeptic what do you have to lose by being kind and pleasant to people?

Here are some ways that you can increase your oxytocin to generate more love to share with the world:

  • Appreciation:  In the same way that you appreciate things about a person you love, you can appreciate things about the world and get the same or even more enjoyment from it- just from enjoying things like a warm cup of tea or a nice walk.
  • Give Back: Just help someone who needs help- carrying boxes, cooking dinner, whatever.
  • Puppies: Well, it doesn’t have to be puppies.  Positive contact with any living thing generates oxytocin!
  • Meditation and mantrasKeep your thinking positive!
  • Chocolate and mud: It’s true, they both have lecithin- a chemical used by many homeopathic practitioners to boost your mood.  So eat a few truffles or run around barefoot for awhile!
  • Sex:  Hey, it is the #1 oxytocin-generating activity.  Just throwing it out there.
  • Anything that makes you truly happy: If you’re happy, you’re more likely to exude honesty, generosity and empathy, which are similar effects to those of oxytocin anyway!
Hopefully all you single ladies and gentlemen are having a splendid day despite all of the “romance” in the air- remember, you don’t need to be dating someone to feel love!  I am sending lots of love to all of you today and every other day as well =)

Om, Shanti…Mantras

Mantras are an important part of many yogis’ practice.  They can be anything from the traditional “om” to something complex and unique to the individual.  It’s something that I gave a lot of thought to while I was in the Tibetan settlement Bir, India last month.  I hadn’t quite made the connection between mantras as used in yogic practice and mantras that are religious prayers, but they really are quite similar- even in Western religions the idea of mantras or repeated prayers are pretty prevalent.  When I was in Bir, I noticed that many people carried malas (the Buddhist equivalent of  rosaries) and even walked around chanting.  It seems like something that brought a lot of peace to them as individuals.  Something as simple as mindfully saying words that bring positivity really can make a difference.

To me, it seems that the chief difference between a mantra and a prayer is that a prayer is usually asking a higher power for Om mani padme humguidance, while a mantra is introspective and reminds the individual to find inner power and contentment.  A popular Buddhist mantra that is printed on many of the colorful prayer flags and wheels that I saw in Bir and Dharamsala is “om mani padme hum.” The syllables have literal, earthly translations like “self, “lotus,” and “jewel.”  I was told that it’s impossible to translate the deeper implications of the words, but they represent something like “generosity, ethics, patience, devotion, poverty, and wisdom” respectively.  The idea is that these are the six tenets of life that all people must try to purify- renouncing pride, jealousy, lust, desire, ignorance, possessiveness, and aggression.  Another, more simple mantra that I often choose to use when I meditate is the hindi “shanti,” or peace.

A mantra doesn’t have to be something complex and in a foreign language, though.  It can be something as simple as “this too shall pass” or even “just get through today.”  Maybe it’s as simple as a word that just has a good rhythm when you say it.  You don’t even have to commit to only one- perhaps one day you need to remind yourself to stay grounded, but the next you just need to remember to breathe.  The important part is to identify and connect with whatever words or sounds you choose.

The power to synthesize our thoughts and contemplate the deeper meanings of them is one of the main things that makes us human beings rather than simple primates and it’s essential to making the most of this earthly life before moving on to the next one, whatever that means for you in your belief system.  Keeping a personal and positive mantra in mind both when you’re happy and when you are experiencing something difficult is a great way to keep your inner self content and perhaps even in tune with your higher power.

What’s your mantra?