For one who seeks to scale the heights of yoga, action is said to be the means. Once they have scaled those heights, repose is said to be the means. ~Bhagavad Gita 6.3
But what exactly is that practice – other than simply doing those various activities? And how does it finally benefit me, us?
In my experience, it is quite common for people to think of their practice – whether it be yoga, or prayer, or meditation, or bike riding – as something that they turn to in the moments of least grounding and least clarity to find their way out of those dark waters, but in those very moments, we often find instead that the practice seems inadequate and even foolish.
I recall once being in a meeting with a yoga board I was involved in where one of the board members worked at a school that had recently experienced a shooting. We began to talk – as good yogis do – about how our practice could help us. It was during this discussion that one of the members said, “Sometimes just hitting my mat doesn’t seem like enough.” I was honestly confused as to what she was even talking about – did she mean “hitting,” like “punching,” her mat? Why else would you use a mat in the face of something so difficult?
But then I realized of course she was talking about her yoga mat, getting on it and doing some asana practice, and how she was now having the feeling that perhaps that wouldn’t soothe her mind or soul in these circumstances. I wouldn’t ever think it would, and I suppose that’s where my confusion came from.
The verse from a song by the 80’s hip hop band, Arrested Development, popped into my head:
The lady prays and prays and prays and prays
And prays and prays and prays and prays, it’s everlasting
“There’s nothing wrong with praying,” It’s what she’s asking
She’s asking the Lord to let her cope
So one day she can see the golden ropes
What you pray for God will give
To be able to cope in this world we live
The word cope and the word change
Is directly opposite, not the same
She should have been praying to change her woes
But pastor said, “Pray to cope with those.”
This reminded me very much of what my colleague was saying, she wanted to use her asana practice to cope with what was happening for her or around her – but it wasn’t working. This is because the power in the practice is actually in its ability to fundamentally change the way we think, the way we perceive ourselves, the way we perceive the world around us, and how we navigate the ever changing flow of our individual lives. It is this fundamental change that allows us to cope, often not the practice itself.
In a yoga practice, if we are looking to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, I think we will find that the second two verses are the most important, for they lay out the reason – the end goal- of the practice.
Sutra 1. 2 says something like,
“Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”
This is how we apply the work, this is why we do the practice – to learn how to still the fluctuations of the mind. Patanjali then goes on in the entire second chapter of the sutras to give us a list of specific techniques that will help us to achieve that objective – the ability to still the mind, to help us to find a way to be with the natural flow of the river, of our material lives. This yoga is said to be the “means.”
Sutra 1.3 follows,
“And then we rest in our own true nature.”
This is the goal, this is the promise of what we will experience, even know, through the techniques, through the practice, through the means. This – the “state” of yoga – is said to be the “ends.”
If indeed the purpose of our lives is to find a way to move with that natural flow, to find our true selves (which is usually defined as something like God presence), then our practice becomes a way to realize that knowing, a way to be able to finally just flow.
In the Bible, we find the well known verse in Psalms,
“Be still and know that I am God.”
How beautiful to see this mapping over time, these mystic traditions urging and consoling us in much the same way, even using similar wording.
Be still – find ways to quiet the mind, to gather oneself together, to quiet the noise of the ego, of fear, of our desire for life to be some other way than the way that it is. Still the fluctuations of the mind.
And know that I am God. Surrender, rest, you have done the work of stilling, now it is time to simply allow yourself to be in that stillness, where the work is no longer necessary, and even counterproductive. Now you get to simply be. Allow the flow, gather yourself, and when the time is right, you may find you want or need to work again, to “practice” again. But now, just rest in your own true nature. Just rest.
This is so hard for most of us. Paramhansa Yogananda in his seminal book “Autobiography of a Yogi,” quotes his teacher in saying,
“Do not mistake the technique for the goal.”
And yet, in our every day, production oriented, goal driven lives, and just as much in our yoga (and other contemplative and religious) practices, we tend to become so highly focused on the technique – the asana, the meditation, the prayer, that we forget that it was only ever meant to be a means to an end. In the case of yoga, and in the case of most religious and spiritual disciplines that goal is the same, to feel unified with Divine Presence, to know our own true nature, which is a reflection and manifestation of God. Once we have achieved this goal, we no longer need the technique, we don’t need to “hit our mats;” this then becomes the time where we simply rest and let the waves wash over us, where we benefit from the fruits of our practice.
In another quote by Yogananada, he offers,
“You do not have to struggle to reach God, but you do have to struggle to tear away the self-created veil that hides him from you.”
But we are so used to struggle, so used to work, that we often forget that once we have put in the struggle, the “work” of practice, we might attain the promise the deep grace and solace that comes from finally being with God presence, being with our own true nature, or if you’d prefer more secular language, simply being with this flow and trusting we will be (divinely) guided. That in some way, in its own time, “all will be well.”
We don’t have to simply “cope” any more, if we put in the practice, we will find ourselves changed. When we understand that our woes, our suffering, come from our disconnection with our deepest, most essential selves, we know that redemption and succor come from that inner change. The practice is to effect that change. Once the change has occurred, the practice may no longer be what is indicated.
As an open ocean swimmer, this makes me think of the strategy for encountering a riptide. If we are being pulled out to sea, the natural response is to swim and swim frantically against the tide. But a practiced swimmer knows that this won’t work. In fact, it is the opposite strategy that will get you out of the riptide. You surrender. You stop swimming, you just allow the tide to take you out. Then, once you are out, once the waters have calmed, only then do you begin to swim again. But you have practiced this so many times, you are not afraid, you know that surrender is the only response – and you can do this because you have practiced swimming, because you are competent in the water, because you have already faced these very fears from your hours and hours of being in those waters, from swimming through the unknown. The technique has prepared you for this moment. The goal of open ocean swimming one might say is to be courageous, powerful and deeply humble in the ocean, in fact to feel one with the ocean. You may have experienced all of these things through the act of swimming – it is the practice of swimming that got you there – and yet swimming – the practice – is not what you need now. In fact, simply repeating the practice will take you further away from stillness, further into deep and unclear water.
But of course I get it. I know all too well the experience – in real life, outside of the ocean – of trying to just cope, of trying to “do my practice” in order to make my way through serious challenges. In fact, in a story from 2013 that is included in my book, I describe the aftermath and intense anxiety I suffered after having seen a child die at the beach. I talk about how I tried to sit in meditation to find relief but instead felt ridiculous.
I grasped at my practice and felt little relief. I looked every day – almost obsessively – for news of the family, to know who this girl was, who these people were, and my mind continually leaned towards thoughts of all the people suffering everywhere. An overwhelming shadow of darkness, and not even mine.
Finally one day during meditation, I opened my eyes and looked at my altar and saw the face of Swami Vivekananda looking back at me. In an instant, I knew I had to pull out of this thing, and that altogether in our lives we have to constantly find our inner resources, not just for ourselves, but to keep a strength and hold a faith for peace and some kind of healing for others. (No Gurus Came Knocking)
I remember that moment so well. It was the look in Swami’s eyes that reminded me that now was no longer the time to work so hard. It was the time to rest, to trust in the inner resources that had been developing over all of those years of work, of practice. I had to stop swimming against the flow, and simply be still.
Having truly understood the power of this knowing, I encounter it over and over in working and being with others who find themselves in new unexpected riptides of their own lives, and who have the instinct- like I did – to rely on the practice itself when it is no longer what is needed. In fact, it was just a few years after writing that story that I was walking with a friend who had just been diagnosed with cancer. She said to me, “You know I try to do my meditation now, but it just doesn’t seem to work.”
I heard almost the exact same words from another dear friend who attended a recent workshop on Life after Loss, only days after having lost her own mother. “When I try to meditate, when I try to practice, it just feels ridiculous.”
But of course it does. Because it is no longer the time for the practice. It is time to rest, time to benefit from the fruits of the practice.
And I have had to remind myself of this paradox many times in the past year or more. Working my way through this profound grief and period of multiple losses, I too have had moments where I have gone to “do” my practice, only to find it a chore, rote and prescriptive, and not particularly healing.
And then I pause, and I remember what the ancient sages knew – there is a time for practice and there is a time for rest.
And so I wanted to share this with all of you, especially in this busy season where we might believe that doing our practice will help us to cope with the anxieties and stresses of the holidays and beyond. And to be clear, it “might.” But it also might feel like a chore itself, another thing on our to do list. We might feel like we don’t have time for our practice and that might serve to create even more fluctuations – more tides and currents for us to manage.
If you find yourself in this predicament now or at any time when you are struggling with the weight of grief or the pressures of life, you can recall that perhaps now is not actually the time to work, that you can let go of your practice. Perhaps now is the time to rest, and to not shoot yourself with that “second arrow,” by telling yourself you should be doing your practice. You are suffering enough. You are tired enough, you are grieving enough, you are handling and managing enough. Don’t take on this second unnecessary burden. Remember what all the scriptures have expressed in various forms – we practice a means to get to an ends. And when we get there, we have the invitation, even the expectation to rest, to feel the benefits of the techniques, to enjoy the fruits of our practice.
You have scaled the heights, you have done the work. Trust it. Now you can rest. Now you can simply be. That is your practice.
Be still. Just be.
Please enjoy this 8 minute “Be still” meditation from our October 2019 Contemplative Retreat.
Here is a simple practice for you when you feel like you need to “practice.” I call it “starfish asana.” Try it for 5 – 10 minutes as needed.
1. Lie down on the floor.
2. Stretch your arms and legs out beside you.
3. Close your eyes or stare at the ceiling.
4. Just be.