Saturday, February 12, 2011

Reflections of our true nature

Photo credit: Bryan Ray (black_listed/ Flickr Creative Commons)
"While we practice conscious breathing, our thinking will slow down, and we can give ourselves a real rest. Most of the time, we think too much, and mindful breathing helps us to be calm, relaxed and peaceful. It helps us stop thinking so much and stop being possessed by sorrows of the past and worries about the future. It enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment."
- "Peace is Every Step" by Thich Nhat Hanh

As I mentioned in a post last month, I've been following Tricycle Magazine's Commit to Sit challenge for the past 27 days. As it draws to a close, I've been reflecting on the experience. I did my full-day meditation challenge yesterday and am finishing the experience with two days of the regular Week 4 program. The full day of meditation was... well, challenging for me. I've never meditated for longer than an hour at a time before. The experience ranged from pain, frustration and self-hatred to bliss, gratitude and insight. Towards the end of the second two-hour block, I rose to do walking meditation and I felt like I was gliding through each step in pure awareness.

In that moment, I had a new understanding of the ethical components of yogic and Buddhist practice. During the Commit to Sit program, I committed to the Five Precepts as best I could. These practices were familiar to me as they share a lot in common with the five yamas of yoga. I've always struggled to follow the yamas, feeling some of them were almost unattainable. The yamas are often translated as "restraints" or "abstinences" or even commandments or "thou shalt nots" (ugh!). I recently encountered an alternate translation in Nischala Joy Devi's The Secret Power of Yoga book, which is subtitled A woman's guide to the heart and spirit of the Yoga Sutras. Whether or not you agree that a heart-centered perspective is a purely feminine construct, it is interesting to read this refreshing and positive take on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras text.

Many traditional translations of this part of the sutras (II29-39) think about the yamas as restrictions to our behavior towards others (ahimsa = non-violence or non-harming; satya = truthfulness; asteya = non-stealing; brahmacharya = well, we can't agree on a translation for this one because we're afraid it might mean no sex! but commonly continence, sense-control, celibacy, or the like; aparigraha = non-hoarding, non-stealing, non-greed). Nischala Devi has a different take (p.p. 168-169):
"Often, to simplify the enormous breadth and depth of the Yamas and Niyamas, they are called the "Do's and Don'ts of Yoga" [sic] or sometimes the "Ten Commandments of Yoga." This is taking a highly refined and virtuous way of living expressed throughout the millennia and reducing it to a finger-shaking image... When observed on a subtler level, the Yamas and Niyamas seem to be more of a tribute to being, affirming our already Divine nature..."

"Knowing the importance of repeating a statement in the affirmative, I have chosen to translate (as much as I possibly could) using positive, life-affirming language... When words or phrases evoke fear, punishment, or denial of pleasure, they encroach on our spiritual practices and diminish rather than enhance the glory of our true nature."
 Her translation of the yamas (reflections of our true nature) is:
  1. Ahimsa: reverence, love, compassion for all
  2. Satya: truthfulness, integrity
  3. Astheya: generosity, honesty
  4. Brahmacharya: balance and moderation of the vital life force
  5. Aparigraha: awareness of abundance, fulfillment.
Doesn't that feel different?

Anyway, whatever translation you use, it seems clear enough that it's desirable to achieve compassion and reverence for all life, integrity, generosity, and a sense of fulfillment. But then you're going about your day and you yell at the driver in front of you, and then you gossip about someone at work, and then you decide not to share part of your lunch with a coworker who doesn't have any because you want it all for yourself.

So, how in the world do you achieve this stuff? What occurred to me yesterday in meditation is maybe you just slow down. We go through our lives so fast, we can barely see them happening to us, just like we walk so fast, we can't feel how our body is moving through the steps. Maybe you just slow down enough that you can see and feel what is happening. In that walking meditation yesterday, I felt that, at my core, I was calm and peaceful. Each step was smooth and steady and careful. From that place, I think the yamas would arise naturally and with ease. "Reflections of our true nature."

I know that this isn't a new concept, but experiencing it the way I did was new to me. Of course, slowing down that much is easier said than done. But it's a start. It's a piece of the puzzle, something concrete to move towards. It sounds easier than just love everyone and everything. I'll give it a try.


Nathan said...

Makes me wonder, though, if those folks of "ancient" times were speeding about, missing everything in their wake because of that speed? Certainly, things are much more sped up today in so many ways. But in some ways, I think the drag of survival actions - trying to feed yourself and others, stay warm, not get sick, etc. were so much more in people's faces 2-3 thousand years ago. Of course, this is still very true for some people today, but not for people like you and I. Those issues are sometimes pressing, but no where near what they could be.

So, maybe it's the speed in which the brain gets wound around the challenges of life, short circuiting the ability to see the greater picture?

Just speculating here. Thanks for the alternative translation of the yamas.

dragonfly said...

Yes: "the speed in which the brain gets wound around the challenges of life." I like that. It feels right to me. Glad you liked the translation - I thought it was a really nice way of looking at them.