LIVING IN BALANCE
by Lynn Theodose
Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” And while that might be a bit dramatic, they certainly can complicate things. Consider this: traditionally, yoga seekers spent the majority of their lives in solitude, deep in the mountains or jungles, in search of tranquility and divine connection. They believed the unraveling their personal thoughts and emotions could take thousands of lifetimes. So what chance do we have of ever finding peace when we’re surrounded by all these damn people?
We live in a world full of humans in progress, all with their own beliefs, preferences and distortions. We certainly can’t change them all…or any of them, so we need to find a way to coexist without losing our peace of mind. And the pandemic is only making it harder. Some of us are out of work or suddenly working from home, stuck inside with our partners, kids or roommates. And with many face-to-face interactions on hold, we’re likely spending more time connecting on social media, inundated with endless thoughts and opinions.
Thankfully, yoga practice offers us moments of solitude. Even in a crowded classroom our mats become little isolation pods where we contend solely with our own bodies, thoughts and breath. But as soon as we rise from shavasana we’re confronted with other people and all of their unpredictable humanness. Have you ever walked out of a yoga class feeling calm and loving, only to be cut off in traffic ten minutes later? “ Hey!! Namaste, Jerk!!” How quickly the index finger drops away from the peace sign!
What we need is a manual for maintaining our equilibrium in the midst of all of this humanity. Luckily the Patanjali Yoga Sutras offer us one:
This four-part prescription can help us navigate how we relate…to the people we hold most dear, the ones we know peripherally, and those we’re tempted to strangle. It’s actually quite simple, but it does require our vigilance. The key is to remember that we are all so much more alike than we are different…to recognize ourselves in everyone we encounter.
Be friendly towards the happy.When we’re feeling good it’s easy and natural to celebrate another’s happiness. But when we are low, someone else’s joy can feel like a personal assault. It’s hard to get excited about your friend’s engagement when you’re reeling from a breakup. And when you’re feeling defeated or overwhelmed, a Pollyanna’s chipper, “Cheer up, Buttercup! Life is beautiful!!” can grate like nails on a chalkboard. Roll your eyes all you like, but happiness can rub off on us and remind us that joy is our birthright.
Be compassionate towards the suffering.Conversely, unhappy people can activate our defense mechanisms. We might try to avoid them so we don’t catch their sadness. Or we rationalize that they brought in on themselves or are playing the victim, “At least you have a roof over your head and food on the table!” In this way we can pretend that suffering is avoidable, and that if we’re smart and stay positive, we can dodge it. Nope – sorrow is a natural and appropriate response to loss or hardship. We have all suffered before, and certainly will again. When we remember this, we can move from judgment to compassion, and become a source of comfort and understanding.
Delight in the virtuous.The virtuous can definitely trigger us. The Supermom who has spent quarantine Marie Kondo-ing her closets, baking bread, rocking home school, and starting an online business can leave you feeling like a loser. And that goody-two-shoes friend who won’t gossip “thinks she’s so much better than everyone else!” When we’re feeling bad about ourselves it’s tempting to try to level the playing field by tearing other people down. But comparison and jealousy never lead to contentment. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and when you see someone doing good work, use it as an inspiration and a reminder of your limitless potential.
Ignore the non-virtuous.And then there are the troublemakers, the button pushers…the nasty and the negative. You can find them in the “Comments” section. These people feed on conflict, and if you want to starve them out… Don’t Take the Bait!! You’re not going to change anyone’s mind about masks. When your spouse snaps at you after a frustrating day, try to let it slide. A fire will burn out quickly if you don’t add fuel. Avoid negativity if you can, and if you can’t, take care not to reward it with your attention. Perfectly wonderful people can be perfectly beastly at times. We never know what someone else is going through, so this is an excellent time to practice forgiveness…from a distance.
Apply this formula to the same aspects within yourself.When you feel happy, celebrate it! Grab on and let yourself feel great. When you are sad, practice kindness and self-compassion…even though other people may have it worse. Congratulate yourself when you are living up to your highest ideals. And when you falter…think a nasty thought or say an unkind word, apologize, move on, and remember your innate goodness…commit an act of kindness, make a gratitude list, breathe into your heart center, or step onto your mat.
With this simple teaching as a blueprint, we can remain unfazed in any interaction. Of course, it’s going to take practice, but the rewards are serenity in your heart and peace in your relationships. What could be better than that?
Global Pandemic!! Economic Devastation!! Explosive Racial Tensions!!
There are so many reasons to be terrified right now. Take your pick…or you can be like me and just go ahead and worry about all of it, plus the dark political climate, global warming, wildfires, hurricanes, hurtling asteroids, and the insidious evil of TikTok. Yes, my friends, it’s 2020, and as my teacher likes to say “Fear is in the house!”
Unlike vampires or the police, Fear doesn’t need to be invited in…it comes oozing in through keyholes, slithering through cracks. Sometimes it kicks down the door. Once it’s inside the question becomes, “What do you do with an uninvited guest who threatens to tear your house apart?” Easy, you ask it to leave. But Fear doesn’t follow the rules of polite society…it just flops down on the couch, kicks its feet up on the freshly polished coffee table, and starts screaming, “Oh my God, Oh my God!!! It’s time to PANIC!!!” You beg it to quiet down, but it won’t be silenced. “I know you don’t like me, but you needme!!!” Fear implores. And maybe it has a point.
The Sanskrit word for fear is Abhinvesha.Literally translated to “moving towards, and liking life,” Abhinivesha includes our resistance to change, general insecurities, and ultimately, our fear of death. The trio of current crises speaks directly to primal, biblical themes of annihilation: Plague! Famine! Bloodshed! Such fertile ground for Fear to take root! It’s uncomfortable and often paralyzing, but like all unpleasant emotions, Fear arrives to get our attention, spur us to appropriate action, and provide us with an opportunity to reconnect with our center.
When discussing Abhiniveshain the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali tells us: Even the wise sage clings to the familiarity of life. (PYS 2:9)This is important because it reminds us that fear is a perfectly natural response to threat. It’s not something to be ignored or rejected, but rather invited in, accepted, and ultimately transmuted. We are encouraged to put down our distractions of choice (the glass of wine, remote control, Cheetos, and to-do lists, etc…), sit across the table from our unexpected guest and listen to what it has to say.
Abhinvesha wants to spur us towards actions that can help keep us safe: wear a mask and social distance, adjust our spending and explore new income streams, uncover our blind spots on racism and work to increase social equality. Excellent advice we’re wise to heed. But why does Fear stick around after the message has been delivered, often leading us to freeze or lash out? Because, on a deeper level, Fear also shatters our single-paned illusion that we are completely in control of life’s circumstances. We are reminded once again that life is impermanent and unpredictable, and that the only thing we truly have control over is how we respond to everything else. And that’s where the Yoga comes in.
Our work on the yoga mat prepares us for dealing with discomforts we encounter in life. As we dive into a forward bend, perhaps a little deeper than before, our hamstrings contract, “Whoa!!! We haven’t been here before! Scary!” In that moment we feel the urge to come out of the pose. But as we acknowledge our hamstrings’ limits, and stay and breathe, respecting the edge of the stretch, they slowly begin to let go. This is how we expand the envelope of comfort in our forward fold. We open up, little by little, day by day…through practice and consistency.
And so it is with Fear. Fear IS contraction. You can feel it in your body as everything clenches up ready to fight for your life or run like hell. And what do those of us on the Yoga path do with contraction? We stay and we breathe. Left unattended, fear will lock us in the cellar and/or set our house on fire. Either way, it will not be ignored. Perhaps it’s time we pour a cup of tea and give our guest the attention it deserves.
The next time Fear comes barreling into your house, find a quiet spot and take a seat. Close your eyes and scan your body. Fear should be easy to find in there (check your jaw and your solar plexus). Once you’ve located it, breathe deeply into the places Fear has set up shop. Feel the contraction, hear the alarm bells, and get curious. “What do you want me to know? Are your concerns legitimate, or are you just trying to freak me out? What rational steps can I take with the information you’ve given me?” Keep breathing, asking and listening. As this becomes a practice, little by little, day by day, Fear will start to let go. As we sit with and breathe into Fear, its screams begin to fade into whispers, until we can once again hear the placid voice of strength, divinity, and wisdom within. At this point we might like to thank our gatecrasher for reminding us of where our true courage, power and serenity lie.