In Search of Kindness

I recently read a very interesting book entitled Diet for Transcendence – Vegetarianism and the World Religions by Steven Rosen. In it he takes a look at the major world religions and what their scriptures and philosophers have to say about a meatless diet.

Something all the major religious traditions have in common is a version of “do onto others as you would have others do unto you”:

In Judaism (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a):

What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowmen.

In Christianity (Matthew 7:12):

Whatever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.

In Islam (Sunnah, Hadith):

No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.

In Confucianism (Analects 15.23):

Surely it is the maxim of loving kindness: Do not unto others that which you would not have them do onto you.

In Buddhism (Udana-Varga 5.18):

Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

In Vedic Literature (Mahabharata 5.1517):

This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.

The problem often is that we consider ourselves to be above other living creatures and think that what applies to human beings do not apply to all living beings, but I like to agree with Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) who is considered to be one of Islam’s most brilliant philosophers:

“Compassionate eating leads to compassionate living.”

 

The Art of Breathing

Have you ever noticed how your emotions impact on the rhythm of your breath? How when you are angry or upset, your breathing is completely different from when you are happy and content? When I practise yoga asanas that flow to breath, and I can feel my heart rate and breath starting to quicken, even though I do my utmost to keep my breath deep and slow, I feel very much alive, as breath, after all, is life. Without breath we simply have no life.

Osho has a very interesting take on pranayama, which in yoga circles are mostly referred to as “breath control”. Pranayama, according to him, is not breath control, but the “expansion of vital energy”. Think about the times you are happy and content. Not only will your breathing be mostly deep and slow, but you will also feel that you are in complete harmony with the world. As you start to expand your breath, you will get the distinct impression that your soul is also expanding, merging with the Divine, and your consciousness starts to expand beyond the struggles and concerns of daily life.

When we breathe there is a slight moment after each inhalation and exhalation where we actually stop breathing. This moment is usually so fleeting that you may not even notice it. In this moment, Osho says, we come face to face with death and the eternal. For that moment we are completely in tune with death. We are exactly in the same state we will be in when we die. If we can spend time, on a regular basis, focusing on expanding and prolonging the time in which breath is suspended between inhalations and exhalations, as well as exhalations and inhalations, we will be able to dispel the fear we often hold of death, and connect with our eternal soul.

It is in that suspended moment between breaths that our thoughts also stop. Both breath and thoughts belong to the physical world, while the moment in which we stop to breathe belongs to the eternal world. Try the following: sit in a comfortable position and gently close your eyes. Start to focus on your breath. Breathe only through your nose and feel how breath moves in and out your nostrils. Now start to lengthen your inhalations and exhalations. Keep focusing completely on your breath. When this is comfortable, start to focus on expanding the moments between breaths. If you focus completely on your breath you will find your thoughts disappear. Suddenly your mind is completely preoccupied with breathing. When you do become aware of any thoughts, you will realise that you have stopped focusing on your breath. So simply connect with your breath again. Do this for as long as you feel the need and see how it affects the way you feel and consequently live your life directly afterwards.

Notice your breath and appreciate the fact that you have life. Notice your breath and get rid of the thoughts that diminish your worth and life as a whole. Notice your breath and realise that death is not to be feared. Notice your breath and know that although life is filled with hardships, magic surrounds us all the time. Notice. . .

Are You Suffering from Information Overload?

Clear communication is vital to foster healthy relationships, but in the advent of the Internet and social media, the way we communicate have changed. The question is: are we improving our communication skills or are we drifting further apart? There are no simple answer to this question, but one thing that is certain is that we all have access to a lot of information. What we do with it and how we engage with it is a very personal matter.

The Museum of Communications in Bern, Switzerland currently has an exhibition which is running to the 15th of July 2012, that is trying to raise awareness about the amount of information we are bombarded with on a daily basis and the influence this has on our mental health and well-being. They reckon that the amount of data released daily is equal to 12, 000 books per individual on earth. It is a shocking amount of data and it makes me wonder. . . How much of this do we need to live happy, fulfilling lives? Will this improve communication with our friends, family, work colleagues? How much new information are we really capable of processing daily? How do we sift through information to find the relevant truths it hold for us and our lives? Does the information we are exposed to scare us, inhibit us, or does it free us?

In the exhibition visitors are asked to complete survey forms that measure the amount of information overload they are suffering from, and then, depending on the results, walk through either a green, yellow, orange or red door to receive the relevant ‘treatment’. The green door is for those with no problem, the yellow door for those who are “mildly troubled”, while the orange and red door are for more serious cases. The orange door opens up to a space where visitors can take a walk through ‘nature’: wooden walls and a floor of pebbles greet them, while soothing sounds of birdsong and flowing water further help to calm the senses. Behind the red door is a meditation room. . .

Patanjali in his 8-limb yoga system has the perfect solution for anyone suffering from information overload, namely pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses. It is said that the senses follow the mind in the same way as bees follow their queen. It doesn’t matter if the mind turns inward or outward, the senses will simply follow. It is through our senses that we can delight in the bounty of life, but our senses can also enslave us and tire us out. It is when, during meditation, we start to practise pratyahara that we gain control over our lives. Smooth, deep, quiet and steady breathing without pausing, as well as a comfortable seated posture are the necessary ingredients and first step towards developing pratyahara. When our senses aren’t stimulated, but disengaged and we experience an inner calm and expansiveness, we are experiencing pratyahara.

Like so many things in yoga it may be easy to understand the principle, yet so much harder to engage in the practice for lasting personal transformation to take place. When we withdraw our senses it means that we stop to engage with the images our minds conjure up, but it doesn’t mean that we should try to suppress these or stop them from happening. Our thoughts should be allowed to flow through our consciousness. It is when we manage to not attach any emotions or specific images to our thoughts that they fail to stimulate the senses, and as a result our minds will slow down and we can connect with the True Self. It is through the continual practice of pratyahara that we can deepen our experience of dharana (concentration), dhayana (meditation), and samadhi (bliss).

So how do you engage with the information that flood your world on a daily basis?

Following the Footsteps of Passion

Being passionate about something implies a strong emotional attachment to or enthusiasm for something. Passionate people often seem as if they have a fire burning within them when they talk about what they feel passionate about. It is their passion that, more often than not, fuels the choices they make and which acts as a compass to align them with their goals, ambitions and desires.

The concept of passion can be linked to that of tapas in yoga. Tapas is often described as austerity or discipline. When I think of these two concepts the words flooding my mind are: an unbending attitude; sternness; severity; rigidity. Often this is exactly how people engage with it, but tapas, when seen from another angle, has more to do with a dedicated, sincere, enthusiastic and life-enhancing attitude that creates a healthy disciplined commitment, than one that is too rigid and limiting. When we become too rigid in our approach to life we catapult ourselves into a life of imbalance and intolerance.

Patanjali, in his 8 limb yoga system, classifies tapas under the niyamas or observances that we should follow to guide us towards and perhaps through a spiritual transformation process. When we misuse tapas or discipline we are sure to become over-worked and stressed. The drive to succeed or achieve in the fast-paced culture we live in, is often a smoke screen for a deeper pain we are reluctant to face, or in many instances don’t even know exist. And so we start a vicious circle that drives us to burn-out.

Judith Lasater says that “a better way to understand tapas is to think of it as consistency in striving towards your goals”. This consistency may be found in maintaining a regular yoga practice, without beating yourself up when you miss a class or two; by reading uplifting and inspirational books; by having a positive attitude towards life or simply by surrounding yourself with kind-hearted people. The daily practising of tapas is unique to all of us, as we simply do not all need the same things. What is aiding my spiritual quest may be a severe hindrance to yours. Through defining and refining our goals, and by measuring them to our values and spiritual yearnings, we are able to use tapas as the light guiding us towards the achievement of our goals.

Robert Butera calls discipline a “process of abstaining from those activities that negatively affect you and engaging in those that enrich you”. And by engaging in those activities that enrich us, we may even encounter what may be perceived as laziness or alasya: taking long slow walks – not to get exercise, but simply to enjoy the movement of the moment; sitting in the garden or on a park bench without any planned agenda or glimpse at your watch – breathing in life; or simply sitting on your mat – waiting for your body to move where it wants, without any input from your mind. To this I say, “bring on the laziness”, as it is in these moments that I feel content and free from obligation.

It is when I am on my mat without a plan or a goal that I feel most alive. And as my body slowly starts to move, I become aware of the delicate interplay between effort and release; between giving and letting go. It is in that transformative moment of surrender that I fully accept my life: no longer am I fighting the limitations of my body to achieve the ‘perfect’ postures I have seen in books; no longer am I pushing through discomfort or pain – I am simply allowing my body to be where it is; accepting it; loving it; expecting nothing, yet receiving in abundance. It is in the moment of surrender that I understand what it means to “just be”: I simply am.

Tapas can be the quiet surrender to the beauty of any particular moment, or the fiery desire that motivates us to create change. Whatever it is for you, discover it, embrace it and follow it!

Santosha

I met a good friend yesterday for lunch, and the concept of ‘santosha’ came to mind during it. Santosha in yoga philosophy refer to contentment. You neither like or dislike the moment, but you simply allow yourself to be present and to bask in a sense of inner harmony and love. These moments are mostly hard to find, as, although we often engage in conversations, we aren’t always present during them. Instead our minds are often so busy interpreting and judging what is being said, that we hardly ever just sit back and listen. It is when we start listening without feeling the need to reply, that we most often stumble upon moments of pure contentment.

Robert Butera describes contentment as “the art of appreciating what we have and desiring no more than what is necessary for maintaining our life”.  In the consumer society we live in, santosha becomes more a  conscious choice than a state of being that simply happens, as we have to daily choose contentment when bombarded by advertising that try to convince us that we are lacking whatever is being sold. And selling products sometimes have less to do with the product, than with what the product represents. So we try to buy happiness, acceptance and contentment, which may last for a brief moment in time before it simply disappears again like early morning mist that are being burned away by the sun. And so the cycle of consumerism sucks us in, as we will never find santosha this way. Discontent will always be the dominant energy in our lives if we allow our habits to be dictated by a society that says ‘more is better’.

I am presently very aware of the role I play as a consumer, and I must confess that it is not entirely pleasant to face the reality of my habits and desires. I love beautiful things, and, even though I try to buy only what I need, I am at times tempted to buy into the advertiser’s dream of the perfect life. My solution has always been to avoid shopping centres all together, which is not a bad tactic in itself, but it simply does not address or change the way I function in this world. It is simply avoidance and denial. Now that I have started to rid myself of all the belongings that I no longer need or desire, I have come to realise just how many things I have in my life that I simply do not need anymore to maintain a happy and comfortable life.

We certainly do need physical possessions in order to be comfortable and to live the life in which we can function optimally. The question we need to ask is simply: “how much do we really need?” So as I am sifting through my earthly possessions, I can see when in my life some of the things were necessary, but as I moved from place to place, instead of letting it go once its original purpose has expired, I simply kept it, and found a space for it in my new home. I have come to realise that this is how I started to clutter my life with the past.

The past is my lived reality, and even though I will always keep certain mementos and objects that I love from it, I also realise that I should only keep what I love and still need. If I don’t, I am preventing myself from embracing my future, as I am weighing myself down with my past. Life should be lived in the moment, and it is by letting go of what no longer serves us, that we can invite new adventures into our lives. And that is what I am doing: inviting in the energy of endless possibility.

Without Words

My mind has been jumping from one interest, obsession, task and thought to the next over the past week. And although there has been a perceived busy-ness in my life, I am unable to pick one topic to focus this week’s post on. So I have decided to start writing and see where it will lead me. For me, at any point in time in my life, to complete a task successfully, I need a point of focus where I am able to only concentrate on the task at hand. Working on my computer, which is where I spend most of my time, is often tempting my mind to wander off to ‘greener’ pastures. There are always e-mails to read and answer, my Kindle wish list to work on, and Google’s many tempting avenues to explore that leads to subjects as diverse as sprouting, and financial freedom to travelling adventures in India….. The list just goes on and on. And the end result is often that I spend a whole afternoon in front of my computer, feeling uplifted and wonderful, yet without achieving what I originally set out to do. At times this habit can be extremely frustrating, but I mostly find great pleasure in the wild travels I embark on in cyberspace.

In Yoga there are eight steps or eight limbs that help us on our spiritual journeys and result in self-awareness and the discovery of our true selves. These teachings from Patanjali are both inter-related, in other words, they cannot function on their own, but they are also steps that have to be followed in a specific order. These steps are self-restraint (Yamas); fixed observance (Niyamas); posture (Asana); breath regulation (Pranayama); abstraction (Pratyahara); concentration (Dharana); contemplation (Dhyana) and trance (Samadhi). As spiritual journeys go, one often gives one step forward and two steps back, but with time and practise there is always progress.

I should, strictly speaking, look at these steps in the order in which they should be approached, but seeing that my mind is all over the place, I have decided to take a quick look at Dharana, or concentration, as this is the limb I am most at need of at the moment. In this step you bring your mind to one object and in doing so give direction to your consciousness.  This will allow thoughts to disappear as, according to Osho, thoughts are only possible when our consciousness wavers. And when our consciousness wavers, our minds are flooded with many voices chattering, distracting us, tempting us, deluding us, and often create stories that are full of lies. And when we start to believe the stories of the mind, we are often trapped in emotions that over-power us and hinder any real contentment with our lives and ourselves. It is therefore very valuable to remember that we are not our thoughts. That thoughts simply come and go, while our true selves are constant and unwavering.

But spiritual growth and Dharana have to wait for another day, as I have just noticed an unread e-mail…and then I need to get on my mat, and pick up my new passport!