Categories
Uncategorized

“Effortless Wellbeing”: Meditation as Everyday Life

Of all the meditation approaches I’ve experienced and studied, the one I keep coming back to in the end is a little out-of-the-mainstream book called Effortless Wellbeing by Evan Finer.

Evan set out to discover and distill the essential elements of meditation that can affect our everyday sense of wellbeing. Eventually he boiled it all down to three key skills, which can then be used in a rich variety of ways, tailored to you individual needs.

He has systematically removed anything that he doesn’t think is essential. So this book is not about yoga or zen or vipasanna or any other specific “denomination” of meditation. But it is consistent with them all, since there are several simple common elements that make them all work:

1) Relaxing the body,

2) Learning to breathe smoothly and naturally, and

3) Calming the mind by learning to focus.

It’s this last skill, learning to focus, where the variety of meditation lies, and where meditation becomes a rich source of everyday wellbeing (not that the author treats the other two, relaxing and breathing, lightly). For, as it says in the Yoga Sutra itself , once you learn to focus the mind, it can be focused on anything you choose.

Evan talks about a number of specific kinds of meditation. But there are few things in life which cannot be enhanced by relaxing your body, breathing more naturally, and gently focusing your mind.

In short, anything can be turned into meditation. Meditation can be not only something you go off and do as a separate practice, but something that can permeate your everyday life and create “Effortless Wellbeing”.

Beyond this, each person’s approach will vary. In my case I like to remind myself of the following variations (this is my personal list, not Evan’s), each of which starts with relaxing the body, breathing naturally and smoothly, and focusing on:

1. The simple in and out of the breath itself.

2. A mantra. I happen to prefer A simple Sanskrit mantra, but Evan feels any words will do, since it’s the focus that makes it work, not the words themselves.

3. A single object. This is the traditional method of the Yoga Sutra, whereby one can become as one with any object. A less obvious example–I focus entirely and exclusively on the ball when I play tennis, which turns it into an hour and a half of moving meditation.

4. A scan of the body or other body focus. This is the method used by Buddhist whole-body vipasanna meditation and yoga nidra. Chakra meditation also falls into this category.

5. A concept or idea or feeling. It could be passage or principle from an ancient text, or a koan, or a wish, like loving-kindness or world peace, etc. (This is a broad category that includes many variations.)

6. The details of performing a specific task. This extends meditation to virtually anything–driving a car, cooking a meal, solving a problem, weeding the garden, washing the dishes, conducting a meeting, playing guitar, doing yoga poses. Anything you do can be enhanced by treating it as an opportunity for meditative focus.

7. What I like to call ultra-awareness, whereby you tune in more acutely to specific sounds or sights or sensations or emotions. Maybe it means noticing the shape of the clouds or the color of the trees or the distant sound of cars on the freeway, just paying close attention to some detail of daily experience you are usually oblvious to.

8. Visualization. Picture yourself on a beach in the Caribbean, or looking out from the peak of your favorite mountain. Relive an enjoyable mood or feeling you’ve had in the past simply by closing your eyes and imagining it.

9. Relaxed, non-judgemental focus on the present moment–whatever happens to be going on right now, at this moment, no matter what it is.

As you can see, this is meditation as everyday life, even though meditation as a separate practice is still certainly very important, too. Evan Finer calls this broad-based approach to meditation Effortless Wellbeing.

If this sounds intriguing to you, get the book. You’ll love it.

Categories
Uncategorized

How Yoga Has Transformed American Spirituality: An Interview with Phil Goldberg, “American Veda”.

I am pleased to welcome special guest Philip Goldberg to Elephant Journal. Phil is the author of the startling new book American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.

Phil Goldberg is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including “Roadsigns: On the Spiritual Path” and “The Intuitive Edge.” Based in Los Angeles, he is an ordained interfaith minister, a public speaker and seminar leader, and the founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates. He is director of outreach for SpiritualCitizens.net and blogs regularly on religion for the Huffington Post. Visit philipgoldberg.com or americanveda.com for more information.

(See also my review of American Veda: True or False?: Physical Yoga Has Had a Far Bigger Impact on America than Yoga Spirituality.)

Bob: Why did you decide to write American Veda?

Phil: Because I think it chronicles one of the most important trends in American history—certainly in American spiritual history. In a sense I started researching the book over forty years ago, when my own life was transformed by Vedantic ideas [Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads] and yogic practices. I was not the only one at that time, of course, but I gradually came to see that it was more than a counterculture phenomenon.

Over time, as the teachings seeped into the fabric of American society, not only through the Indian gurus but also through Western transmitters—artists, scholars, psychotherapists, doctors, etc.—I saw that the assimilation was more subtle and more pervasive than most of us realize. As both a writer and a proponent, I wanted to tell the story.

So I proposed a book in the mid-80s. I couldn’t interest a publisher. Twenty years later, the phenomenon had become so much more visible that an editor at Doubleday had the same idea, and our paths crossed at the right time.

Bob: What are the most important things you’d like the Yoga world to learn from American Veda they don’t know already?

Phil: It’s been very satisfying to hear from both new practitioners and long-time teachers that they learned something new from the book. It gives them a full picture of what brought us to this moment of time and how the current Yoga scene fits in the social and historical context of America. It goes back further and penetrates more deeply than most people realize.

I hope that teachers and practitioners, especially the young ones, also come away with greater reverence for the full scope of the tradition and resolve to protect and preserve its integrity, so it does not get reduced to a form of physical fitness or a therapeutic modality. Those are wonderful in and of themselves, but the body of spiritual teachings that underlay the physical practices are not only precious but vital for the ongoing evolution of our troubled species. India has given us a great gift, and we should make sure we don’t squander it.

Bob: What are the biggest difficulties you had in writing the book, and how did you overcome them?

Phil: In a nutshell, time and space. The book took almost two years longer to complete than I anticipated, and it could easily have been a thousand pages in length. There were difficult choices along the way, since a lot of juicy details had to be left out and worthy teachers and lineages could not be given the space they deserve.

As with most books, organizational structure presented challenges along the way too. In the end, it worked best to keep it somewhat chronological, but not rigidly so, in order to keep it flowing and be able to show all the streams and tributaries through which the teachings filtered into the culture.

Bob: What is most surprising experience you had in writing American Veda?

Phil: I thought I knew a lot going in, but it was amazing how much I discovered on a regular basis—and how much I still learn. I have a file of information to post on americanveda.com, and I seem to add to it every day.

One surprising thing was discovering gurus and yoga masters who spent time in the U.S. whom I somehow never heard of. They had small followings, and in some cases ashrams and centers, in places I would never have suspected, and some of their followers went on to have a significant impact in the transmission of Vedantic ideas and yogic practices.

Bob: How did you come to choose the title, and what were some of the other possibilities you considered?

Phil: I’d like to take credit for the title, but it was my editor’s idea from the start. I tried to think of alternatives, just in case there was a better choice, but everything I came up with was either too boring or too cute. One candidate was “The Full Lotus.”

Bob: Why did you choose to use the word “Veda” in the title, whereas you avoid that term in the text itself in favor of “Vedanta” or “Vedanta Yoga”? Wasn’t Vedanta Yoga in fact somewhat of a rebellion against the elaborate, ritualistic, priest-driven, superstitious organized religion of the Vedas?

Phil: You’re right of course, but we weren’t thinking of it in a literal or historical way, but rather “Veda” as “knowledge” and as a pithy way of evoking an ancient, complex tradition that was the fountainhead of all the wisdom that flowed out of India. In short, like many titles it’s meant to evoke, or suggest, or get attention.

Bob: What’s the most interesting question I should be asking that I haven’t thought of yet?

Phil: In my first few public appearances for the book, I was asked to summarize the influence of the Vedic tradition on America. So I now build it into my presentations. Here’s my list:

India gave people who are indifferent to, uncomfortable with, or hostile to conventional Western religion a way to be authentically spiritual. “Spiritual but not religious” would be an empty phrase without the framework and methodologies we imported from the East.

It changed the way we understand consciousness, the mind, the mind-body relationship and the connection between individual awareness and the larger whole.

It added higher levels of development to our understanding of human potential.

It changed the way we see ourselves and human nature. As one scholar put it, from original sin to original bliss.

It placed direct experience of the divine in the forefront of spirituality, as opposed to belief.

It stimulated a revival of Western mystical practices.

It gave us a vision of Oneness and a framework for a healthy, unity-in-diversity pluralism, with “Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”

Bob: Phil, thanks for joining us here. Your book is amazing, and I again urge everyone to read it.

Categories
Uncategorized

True or False? Physical Yoga Has Influenced America More than Spiritual Yoga.

True or False? Physical Yoga Has Influenced America More than Spiritual Yoga.

Answer: False! The reverse is true. Spiritual Yoga has had a far bigger impact on America than the physical poses most people think of as Yoga.

You’ll almost certainly agree after reading the startling new book American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West by Philip Goldberg

(See accompanying interview with Phil Goldberg.)

The spirituality of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, the original texts of Yoga, has found its way into the very core of spiritual life in America, according to Goldberg, even though this is often masked by the form it has taken, and sometimes through outright repression of historical facts.

American Veda is an absolute must-read for anyone serious about Yoga. It is one of the most important books I’ve personally ever read about Yoga, or anything else, for that matter. It is surprising, entertaining, and highly readable throughout, and it will cause you to forever think differently about the impact of Yoga in America.

This book is so momentous, that at first I had trouble imagining how I could adequately describe it’s message and scope in a “review”. Then I suddenly realized that this would be the easiest review I’ve ever written. Here it is:

The following is just a partial list, just to give you an idea, of the famous people who, as documented in American Veda, have been profoundly influenced, not just a little bit influenced, but profoundly and pivotally influenced, by the Yoga of the original ancient Yoga texts, the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, often referred to as “Vedanta Yoga” (Most are Americans, but I also included others who heavily influenced Americans.):

Authors

Ralph Waldo Emerson Henry David Thoreau Walt Whitman Aldous Huxley

Samuel Taylor Coleridge William Wordsworth William Blake Emily Dickinson

Robert Frost Jack Kerouac Allen Ginsberg Alan Watts Gotham Chopra

Tim Gallwey (Inner Game of Tennis) Herman Hesse Oliver Wendell Holmes

Somerset Maugham J. D. Salinger Christopher Isherwood Timothy Leary

Huston Smith T.S. Eliot William Butler Yeats

Psychologists

William James Carl Jung Abraham Maslow Stanislav Grof Daniel Goleman

New Spirituality/Self-help

Eckhart Tolle Deepak Chopra Michael Beckwith (Agape) Ken Wilber

Joseph Cambell Madame Blavatsky (Theosophical Society) Wayne Dyer

Marianne Williamson Norman Vincent Peale Tony Robbins

John Gray Joan Borysenko Andrew Harvey

Musicians & Entertainers

The Beatles (especially George Harrison) Philip Glass Judy Collins

Russell Simmons Elvis Presley John Coltrane Alice Coltrane Donovan

Mick Jagger Marianne Faithful Mia Farrow Mike Love

Paul Horn Madonna John McGlaughlin

Yehudi Menuhin Van Morrison David Lynch Shirley McClaine

Jerry Seinfeld And many others

Religious Figures

Mary Baker Eddy (founder Christian Science) Ernest Holmes (Religious Science)

Thomas Keating Thomas Merton Father Bede Griffiths Rabbi David Gelberman

The “New Thought” Movement (source of many modern congregations)

Politicians/Activists

John Adams Martin Luther King (through Mahatma Gandhi) Booker T. Washington

Philosophers

Arthur Schoepenhauer Friedrich Hegel Alfred North Whitehead

Scientists

David Bohm (quantum physicist) Rupert Sheldrake (biologist) Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics)

J. Robert Oppenheimer Erwin Shroedinger (physicist, close friend of Einstein)

Nikola Tesla (legendary inventor) John Hagelin Amrit Goswami

Health and Wellness

Andrew Weil Dean Ornish Mehmet “Dr.” Oz. Herbert Benson (The Relaxation Response)

See also: How Yoga Has Transformed American Spirtuality: An Interview with Phil Goldberg, Author of “American Veda”, and then read the book!

Phil Goldberg is the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including “Roadsigns: On the Spiritual Path” and “The Intuitive Edge.” Based in Los Angeles, he is an ordained interfaith minister, a public speaker and seminar leader, and the founder of Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates. He is director of outreach for SpiritualCitizens.net and blogs regularly on religion for the Huffington Post. Visit philipgoldberg.com or americanveda.com for more information.

Categories
Uncategorized

What Is It That Brings Us Happiness?

SEEKER

What is it that brings us happiness?
I am deeply troubled by this in my life.
I seek guidance from your superior years
And knowledge of the ancient Yoga texts.

SAGE

All you desire to learn about happiness
Is to be found in the ancient scriptures.

Study the Bhagavad Gita,
the Yoga Sutra,
and the Upanishads
Until they are as close to your heart as your heart itself.
Then you will know how to be truly happy.

SEEKER

I will. But can you not tell me yourself
Right here, right now, what I am to learn?

SAGE

From the Bhagavad Gita
You will learn to live the life you are destined to live
Always full of love in your heart,
To live with great purpose and to act decisively
But with no ego attachment to the results.

From the Yoga Sutra
You will learn that the secret of happiness
Is strong self-discipline of the body and the mind
And the ability to penetrate deeply
Into the true nature of reality.

From the Upanishads
You will learn that you are already supremely happy
Because you are already perfect and divine.
You are already the absolute wonder of the universe.

SEEKER

These are indeed overwhelming truths.
I will study the Gita, the Sutra, and the Upanishads.
But what can I do right now
To begin to experience these truths?

SAGE

Focus gently on the present moment
Without judgment or ego.

Focusing on the present moment
Will allow you to act decisively with love
Without your ego being attached to the results
As prescribed in the Bhagavad Gita.

Concentrating on the present moment
Is the essence of self-discipline and meditation
As prescribed in the Yoga Sutra.

By focusing on the present moment
You will start to see
That every moment is divine and precious
And that you are already the very life force of the universe
As taught in the Upanishads.

SEEKER

My mind spins. I ache for more.
I will approach these profound and ancient texts
With an open heart
And a fervent desire to drink of their wisdom.

~

See also
Yoga Demystified: The Six Big Ideas

and
Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell

Categories
Uncategorized

Yoga Demystified: Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary.

Hi, everyone.  I’ve published two major articles aimed at understanding the sublimely simple, profound, and livable philosophy of Yoga:

Yoga Demystified: The Six Big Ideas
and
Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell

Below is a companion collection of my own supporting poems and articles.   (See also the many book and website recommendations at the end of Yoga Demystified.)

~

Poems & Musings

Bhagavad Gita for a Fish.

What Is It That Brings Us Happiness?

What If Every Breath You Took Was
Like Eating a Bite of Chocolate Cake?

Should We Worship the Sun,
or Should the Sun Worship Us?

Six Short Poems About Joy.

Each Moment is Like a Precious Diamond

10 Things I Learned from Listening
to All 27 Mozart Piano Concertos.

~

Articles

How To Live an Extraordinary Life
~ Kripalu’s Stephen Cope.

True or False? Physical Yoga Has Influenced America
More
than Spiritual Yoga.

“Effortless Wellbeing”: Meditation as Everyday Life

How Yoga Has Transformed American Spirituality:
An Interview with Phil Goldberg, “American Veda”.

Bob vs. Buddhism: The Satisfying Conclusion.

Georg & Brenda Feuerstein—the Elephant Interview.

 Yoga Can Change the World. Get Yourself Out of the Way!
~ Kripalu’s Stephen Cope, Part 2.

~

Enjoy best of elephant journal on Pinterest

Categories
Uncategorized

Whenever Things Get Difficult or Complicated, I Always Return to This.

SEEKER

What is it that brings us happiness?
I am deeply troubled by this in my life.
I seek guidance from your superior years
And knowledge of the ancient Yoga texts.

SAGE

All you desire to learn about happiness
Is to be found in the ancient scriptures.

Study the Bhagavad Gita,
the Yoga Sutra,
and the Upanishads
Until they are as close to your heart as your heart itself.
Then you will know how to be truly happy.

SEEKER

I will.  But can you not tell me yourself
Right here, right now, what I am to learn?

SAGE

From the Bhagavad Gita
You will learn to live the life you are destined to live
Always full of love in your heart,
To live with great purpose and to act decisively
But with no ego attachment to the results.

From the Yoga Sutra
You will learn that the secret of happiness
Is strong self-discipline of the body and the mind
And the ability to travel deeply
Into the true nature of reality.

From the Upanishads
You will learn that you are already supremely happy
Because you are already perfect and divine.
You are already the absolute wonder of the universe.

SEEKER

These are indeed overwhelming truths.
I will study the Gita, the Sutra, and the Upanishads.
But what can I do right now
To begin to experience these truths?

SAGE

Focus gently on the present moment
Without judgment or ego.

Focusing on the present moment
Will allow you to act decisively with love
Without your ego being attached to the results
As prescribed in the Bhagavad Gita.

Concentrating on the present moment
Is the essence of self-discipline and meditation
As prescribed in the Yoga Sutra.

By focusing on the present moment
You will start to see
That every moment is divine and precious
And that you are already the very life force of the universe
As taught in the Upanishads.

SEEKER

My mind spins.  I ache for more.
I will approach these profound and ancient texts
With an open heart
And a fervent desire to drink of their wisdom.

~

 See also
Yoga Demystified: The Six Big Ideas

and
Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell

Categories
Uncategorized

Yoga Demystified: The Six Big Ideas.

Yoga philosophy is sublimely simple, profound, and livable.  Yet it can be difficult to grasp because of its unfamiliar language and complex history.

My aim here is to capture the essence of Yoga philosophy in plain English, with a touch of fun. I hope beginners will be inspired to learn more and experienced Yoga practitioners will come away refreshed and energized.

Let’s begin by talking about the Six Big Ideas of Yoga Philosophy.

It took me awhile to fully appreciate the truth and depth of these six simple gems, but now I’ve kind of internalized them and they have made my life immeasurably richer.

1) Each of us is already infinitely wondrous—miraculous, awe-inspiring, unfathomable.  (This is well hidden beneath the distractions and emotions of everyday life.)

2) Our wondrous nature is the same as the infinite wonder of the universe.

3) The way to experience our wondrous self is to fully experience the present moment, since each moment of consciousness is infinitely wondrous in itself.

4) The mind, body, and spirit are inseparable.

5) Experiencing our wondrous self leads to an abundance of joy and goodness.

6) The techniques of Yoga, leading to enhanced awareness, are one method for discovering our true wondrous nature.

Let’s take these one at a time.

1) Each of us is already infinitely wondrous–miraculous,
awe-inspiring, unfathomable.

(This is well hidden beneath the
distractions of everyday life and emotion.)

Ask yourself this question:  “Which is more wondrous, the entire universe or an individual human being?”

Think deeply about this.  Most people can’t honestly choose between the two.  The question is, of course, unanswerable.  The entire universe is so wondrous (miraculous, awe-inspiring, unfathomable–whatever words you choose to use.)  Yet, when seen objectively, so is a thinking, breathing, feeling human being.

dnaThe fact that it’s not easy to choose is fascinating in itself.  And it’s a dramatic argument for the most basic Yoga idea that just being alive can be infinitely wondrous, if we let it.

For me this is a blockbuster, mind-blowing insight, and undeniably true.  I had always thought of the individual human being as small and insignificant, like a grain of sand on the beach.  And we are, in a way.

But each of us is also infinitely wondrous–so wondrous, in fact, that it’s hard to decisively declare even the entire universe to be more wondrous.

The universe is complex and unfathomable, indeed.  But a human being, in body alone, is equally complex and unfathomable, and, in addition, we are conscious.  We are able to perceive the miracle of our own being.

(Yoga often uses the word “divine” for this.  The most basic finding of Yoga is that each of us is already divine.  I prefer the word “wondrous” instead of “divine”, because “divine” has too many other religious meanings, some of which Yoga doesn’t necessarily intend to convey.)

According to Yoga, this wondrous, blindingly amazing self is the “true self” referred to in the title of Cope’s book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, and the process of self-realization, or “enlightenment”, is not the process of “becoming” something, but rather simply “discovering” the joy of who we already are, buried beneath the pressing distractions and emotions of everyday life.

For me the conclusive, objective realization that each of us is as wondrous (“divine” if you prefer) as the entire universe is like a light switch that changes everything about the way I think about myself and my life.

2) Our wondrous nature is the same as the
infinite wonder of the universe.

What fills you with wonder and awe? Is it the staggering beauty of the Grand Canyon? A Mozart opera? Walking through a garden blooming with flowers? A jumbo jet passing overhead? The birth of a child? A Brett Favre touchdown pass?

The big things are obvious. We all know what that kind of wonder feels like.

The wonder of a galaxy is obvious. Think about its hundreds of millions of stars rotating around a central axis, and the whole galaxy itself barreling at an incredible speed through space. And then think about the fact that there are millions and millions of galaxies!

What about a paper clip? In many ways a paper clip is as wondrous as a galaxy.

To begin with, like the galaxy, a paper clip consists of millions and millions of things (molecules, atoms, and the even smaller quarks) interacting with each other in complex ways. Then consider what happens to all these tiny elements and how they have to interact with each other. They’re not spinning around an axis like the stars in a galaxy, but, then again, a galaxy can’t bend and spring back into shape like a paper clip can.

If you were small enough to stand on the nucleus of an atom within a paper clip, it would be a lot like standing on earth surrounded by stars.

Now, consider what it took to design and make that paper clip–the metallurgy and engineering that led to the precise formulation of just the right flex, the mines that had to be dug to extract the raw materials, the processing plants that transformed the raw materials into the right metal, the machines that had to be designed and built to manufacture thousands of paper clips a minute.

Somewhere in the world, there is a person who is an expert in paper clips, for whom the whole world revolves around the design and manufacture of paper clips. He or she can tell you the entire history of the development of the paper clip, and what people did before there were paper clips, and who invented it, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of all the different possible designs and materials for paper clips, and the future of the paper clip, and where we go from here, etc. etc.

Convinced yet? In reality, everything within our perception is utterly fantastical and pretty much unfathomable. If a paper clip is wondrous, is not everything wondrous? What’s surprising is that we are not in a continual state of gaga just perceiving whatever is in front of us at any given moment.

Really, living is like walking though an incredible kaleidoscope. Consciousness would be like a perpetual hallucination if we didn’t have automatic mechanisms for just getting used to the pure wonder of what we see, hear, and feel. But instead, most of the time we are simply oblivious to it.

Yoga seeks to put us back in touch with the infinite wonder of just being alive, starting with the wonder of ourselves, then the wonder of the universe. And then Yoga wants us to understand that these wonders are one and the same, because our wondrous selves are an integral part of that infinitely wondrous universe.

But if we and the universe are so wondrous, why don’t we experience life like that most of the time? How do we turn this blockbuster insight into an everyday experience?

3) The way to experience our wondrous self is to fully
experience the present moment, since each moment of
consciousness is infinitely wondrous in itself.

One of my favorite Yoga stories is the one about the young American who makes an arduous journey to the farthest reaches of the Himalayas, seeking to learn the secret of life and happiness from one of the greatest Yoga gurus.

Once in the Himalayas, he travels five days up into the mountains, through many trials and difficulties.  Finally he reaches the high mountain pass where the great old man in a white robe and long flowing grey hair sits in lotus position, staring peacefully off into space.

The young man sits down next to the guru and assumes a similar pose, waiting for his words of wisdom.  An hour goes by.  Then several hours.  Then a day, then several days.  Finally the young man says to the old man, “What happens next?”

image004The guru answers, “Nothing happens next.  This is it.”

Every moment of life is precious and magical.  We experience this not by striving to be happy, but by focusing, in a relaxed way, on the present moment.  Most unhappiness comes from regrets about the past or worries about the future, both of which are greatly diminished by gently focusing on the present moment.

Yoga makes no attempt to change the regrets, worries, or other suffering we face, but merely to provide a different perspective on them by making us aware of the wonder of life beyond our current preoccupations, no matter how important or serious they are.

Focusing on the present moment, we cannot help but become tuned into the wonder that is just being alive and conscious.  No effort is required, just a relaxed shift in consciousness–a simple receptivity to the indescribable wonder of being alive and conscious at this very moment.

We don’t need to try to force ourselves to feel good, as in “positive thinking”.  When regrets and worries occur, we don’t need to fight them.  Instead, feel them just as they are, without judgment, then gently refocus on what’s going on right now in the current moment.  The current moment is rarely unhappy in and of itself.

You might say, this is all well and good if one is already content and happy, and one’s problems are relatively small.  But what about the truly serious pain and anguish that happens in everyone’s life, to one extent or another?

It would appear that the more stressed and troubled one is, the more helpful Yoga might be.  Yoga and Yoga-like techniques are being used today for the treatment of even the most overwhelming grief and health problems, including tragedies like terminal illness and the loss of a loved one.  Like acupuncture before it, “mindfulness” meditation is starting to be studied and proven scientifically in the West.

You might think if one is “present-focused”, one would just sit around like a wet noodle all day and do nothing.

Surprisingly, I find the opposite is true.  Since my regrets and anxieties are reduced to relative insignificance (still all there, but put into perspective by the awareness of continual wonder) I find myself with more pure energy to do everything.

I’m able to give myself more completely to other people in conversation.  I find myself enjoying or easily tolerating things that would have made me very unhappy before.  I am more objective and creative about solving problems.

And, without being false, forced or even effortful in anyway, I do have a much more constant and abiding appreciation of the everyday incredible magic that is being alive.

4) The mind, body, and spirit are inseparable.

Yoga in America is best known as a popular exercise program and health club fitness class.  This is what many people think of as Yoga in the U.S.  However, just because Yoga poses and movements are popular doesn’t mean they’re not important to Yoga philosophy.

Yoga has always taught that whatever we think affects our body, and whatever our body feels affects our mind.  The poses of Yoga are nothing more than a unified meditation involving both the mind and the body.  And much of Yoga literature describes the body as though it were one big brain, with its “chakras” (energy centers) and energy flows.

Today the “mind-body connection” is pretty well accepted as part of our thinking about psychology.  But it was still a fairly radical idea 15-20 years ago, much less 5,000 years ago when first proposed by Yoga gurus.  (Actually, maybe it wasn’t a radical idea back then.  Maybe it just became a radical idea more recently with all our emphasis on the intellect.)

Before this starts sounding too abstract, let me give you a very down-to-earth example.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling a little stiff, stressed, or worn out, I get up, spread out my Yoga mat and just run through some basic Yoga poses for ten or fifteen minutes, focusing on the present moment.

This leaves me feeling completely invigorated in mind and spirit.  My Yoga routine is like a cup of coffee for me.  It works every time, no matter how lifeless I feel before I begin.

Let me give you another simple example, this time how the mind affects the body.

I am a serious tennis player.  You might recall that all this Yoga stuff started for me when I took Yoga classes to improve my flexibility for tennis.  Yoga was great for this.  I did become much more flexible and it did improve my tennis.

What happened next was unexpected.  I found that the philosophical practices of Yoga, especially focusing on the present moment, and detaching my ego from the results, had a far more beneficial impact on my tennis than the flexibility.  The Yoga of the mind had a bigger effect on my tennis performance than the Yoga of the body.

Many religions (and even some Yoga traditions), treat the body as though it is something to escape from, into the purer world of the spirit.  The body is treated almost like the enemy to be overcome in one’s spiritual quest, particularly in the ultra-traditional Catholicism I grew up in and struggled with as a kid.

Yoga is the opposite (at least the branches of Yoga that appeal to me).  The mind, body, and spirit are inseparable and the same.  We are unified beings, and our physical presence and actions are an integral part of our quest for happiness, not separate and distracting.

5) Experiencing our wondrous self leads to an
abundance of joy and goodness.

“What did the Yoga Guru say to the hot dog vendor?”

Answer:  “Make me one with everything.”

Good joke.  But this is, in fact, kind of the way we feel when we’re most happy–one with everything.

The great gurus of Yoga and other Eastern traditions achieve inner peace and experience the ultimate joy in life by cultivating the boundless wonder of a child. For them every moment is the occasion for innocent amazement, even in the middle of the most trying circumstances.  They still experience all the ordinary pain and difficulty of being human.  They just process it differently.

There are certain types of experiences that can suddenly thrust anyone into truly appreciating the utter joy of being alive.  The most dramatic example is a serious illness or a near-death experience, in which we are suddenly on the verge of NOT being alive.  Another example is temporary blindness.  Imagine being blind for a while and suddenly being able to see.

But we can also be moved to this kind of ultimate appreciation of being alive by great music, or overpowering natural beauty, or reading about an amazing scientific discovery, or by the experience of great art.

I’m relatively new to Yoga, but in a way not so new if the subject is “transcendent consciousness” rather than Yoga itself.  One of the reasons I’m so attracted to Yoga is that I’ve had semi-ecstatic “one-with-the-universe” experiences all my life.  They are like the experiences Cope describes in his book as the initial basis for his interest in Yoga, but far more plentiful.  I seem to be prone to them, in fact, with or without Yoga.  I consider this a great blessing.

I’ve had them in music, in nature, in literature, in relationships, in tennis, occasionally in religion, in business, in my family, in windsurfing (especially in windsurfing, where one must focus intently on the wind and the angle of the sail for hours at a time), etc.

I know Yoga is a different kind of pursuit, but I believe it is closely related to, and encompassing of, these other experiences I’ve had with transcendent consciousness.

The practice of Yoga seeks to make this type of ecstatic, wonder-filled, one-with-the-universe consciousness commonplace and readily available in our everyday lives.  In a nutshell, it seeks to give us unlimited joy.  (Sound ambitious enough?)

Yoga knows it doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of joy, of course.  Yoga assumes itself to have discovered universal truths.  If you look at almost any moment of pure joy it usually has this character of total absorption in the present moment, where all other concerns and preoccupations fade into insignificance.

So it’s not surprising that one can come up with countless examples of Yoga-type present-focused joy in every aspect of human life.  Yoga is just a powerful way of discovering and exploring this aspect of our existence.  Yoga didn’t invent it.

That’s the joy part.  What about the “goodness” part.  Why would all this self-absorbed consciousness-raising necessarily lead to goodness?

Yoga scriptures have strong and clear moral teachings, which are similar to any religion’s.  Yoga assumes that when we see ourselves and the universe in their true natural wonder, we will be moved to act in a highly moral way.  We are much more likely to do the right thing in any circumstance if we see ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the entire universe as wondrous, divine and inseparable.

6) The techniques of Yoga, leading to enhanced awareness,
are one method for discovering our true wondrous nature.

You might have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned Yoga techniques so far, except in passing.  This is because, while they clearly have a lot of value in themselves, the techniques are also the means to a philosophical end.

The poses, meditation, and breathing techniques of Yoga all have a central aim–to move toward enhanced awareness.  Enhanced awareness is non-judgmental, egoless witness of ourselves and our emotions.  It is what allows us to experience the full spectrum of consciousness–the universe and the “universe within”.  Enhanced awareness is how we experience more fully all the wonder and awe I have been talking about.

If you are unfamiliar with Yoga, try this deceptively simple Yoga approach to see what I mean:

Focus on the current moment – what’s going on right now at this moment.

Breathe deeply, relax all the muscles in your body.

As a thought or feeling enters your mind, let yourself feel it as deeply as it goes (whether it is a regret about the past, a worry about the future, or just a neutral thought).

Accept and completely allow yourself to have that feeling.

Mentally step out of yourself and watch that feeling as though from the outside.

Gently focus back on the present moment.

You can see this is the opposite of “positive thinking”, which involves pushing yourself to think certain positive thoughts, and to push out all negative thoughts.

In contrast, Yoga philosophy involves not trying to think anything in particular, and not controlling your thoughts at all, except to gently focus on the present moment, or to focus your mind on one particular thing.  This is actually not that easy to do at first, hence the many branches of Yoga that teach a variety of techniques.  With time and habit, however, it becomes truly effortless.

When we are able to do this, the magic often just happens on its own because we truly are all already indescribably wondrous (“divine” if one feels comfortable with the term). The wonder becomes obvious when we pay relaxed attention to what’s going on right now, both within us and around us.

You might find, as I have, that this simple habit eventually starts to bring out the amazing nature of everyday existence, without the often counter-productive effort associated with trying too hard to “figure things out” or searching for something outside ourselves to “turn us on”.

Most other Yoga techniques are just expansions and variations of this present-focused philosophy.  Poses help us become more aware of our bodies in the present moment.  Meditation helps us get into the present moment more and more deeply.  Breathing exercises get us in touch with our most primal source of energy–our breath.

Some Yoga techniques have you focus for an extended period of time on just one thing, anything.  It could be your breath, or your heartbeat, or a mantra, or a single leaf on a tree (or even a paper clip, I guess).  By focusing so completely on one thing, you not only become super aware of your object of concentration, but also kind of clear out your brain to be more receptive to every other sensory perception.

Other Yoga techniques are the opposite–they expand your awareness to take in everything at once instead of a single thing.  I call it “ultra-awareness”.  You become very still and allow yourself to be ultra-sensitive to all the immediate sights, sounds, and feelings around you.

Yoga techniques can have a strong impact on everyday emotions.  My own experience, paradoxically, is that I tend to feel an emotion more directly and strongly than I did pre-Yoga, but I don’t struggle with it as much.

This is because, while I’m struggling with it, I can often shift into non-judgmental awareness, and this helps me see the struggle in perspective, and thus deal with it better without diluting it or avoiding it.

In this way, Yoga enhances and informs all our human feelings and actions.  It does not replace them or mask them.

If you decide to delve deeper into Yoga, you need to pick and choose what is most meaningful and useful for you.  The whole picture can be overwhelming and intimidating.  The insights you get are more important than the specific practices you adopt.  And, even though it has a sprawling 5,000 year old history, ultimately Yoga needs to be about simplicity, not complexity.

For a broad discussion of Yoga techniques, just pick up a copy of Kripalu Yoga–A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat.  And remember what I just said about picking and choosing.

In a Nutshell: Continual Wonder and Awe

For a simple renewing meditation, I often just recite these same six key points in my head as I relax all my muscles and breathe comfortably:

1) Each of us is already infinitely wondrous—miraculous, awe-inspiring, unfathomable. (This is well hidden beneath the distractions and emotions of everyday life.)

2) Our wondrous nature is the same as the infinite wonder of the universe.

3) The way to experience our wondrous self is to fully experience the present moment, since each moment of consciousness is infinitely wondrous in itself.

4) The mind, body, and spirit are inseparable.

5) Experiencing our wondrous self leads to an abundance of joy and goodness.

6) The techniques of Yoga, leading to enhanced awareness, are one method for discovering our true wondrous nature.

As persuasive as I hope these cosmic truths are after reading this essay, it really takes considerable (but relaxed) practice to work them into one’s habitual everyday life and consciousness.

I once wrote to a friend:

Just relax, breathe deeply, and experience each moment, non-judgmentally,
as it’s happening, no matter what is happening.

That’s a summary of 5,000 years of Yoga wisdom in a single sentence.

The central message of Yoga is that just being alive contains infinite and unlimited wonder (and meaning) all by itself, regardless of what else is happening in your life.

Yoga reduces the complexity of our lives to the elegant simplicity of continual wonder and awe, without losing any of the other things we treasure about being human.

RECOMMENDED READING

The Ancient Texts

To further explore Yoga philosophy, I urge you to go directly to the ancient texts.  Although they have a reputation for being difficult, I personally find them to be exceptionally direct and inspiring, often mind-blowing.

It does take a little getting used to the rich metaphorical language they use. And they contain some ancient beliefs that won’t necessarily make sense to you today.

But it’s well worth the effort, and you’ll find it very useful to refer back to The Six Big Ideas as you read these texts.

A great place to start is Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas & Best Quotations, which is my own loving thematic overview of this most central of ancient Yoga texts.  It will work with any translation, but is based on Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation by Stephen Mitchell.

Whatever text you choose, it’s important to find an accessible version with great commentary.  They are not all the same.  These are my preferred versions of the other two most important ancient texts:

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, beautifully translated and explained in Part III of The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar.  ( The rest of the book is good, too, but I’m including it here for the Yoga Sutra.)

The Upanishads, lovingly introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran.

For a quick feel for what these texts are about, see What Is It That Brings Us Happiness?

Yoga Practice

Yoga postures and techniques are best learned in classes.  But reading can be very helpful, too.  These days you can also find a wide variety of videos on the Internet.

If I had to recommend a single book for Yoga practice it would be the one I mentioned earlier:

Kripalu Yoga–A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat by Richard Faulds and Senior Teachers of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.  The title is self-explanatory.  It covers a very wide range of topics in an accessible and “browsable” manner.  You can get whatever you need from it right now, and it will continue to serve you for a long time to come.

Websites

My favorite Yoga philosophy website is Rod Stryker’s parayoga.com.  This is a rich and wonderful synthesis of ancient Yoga for modern devotees.  Click on LEARN and thoroughly explore all the menus there.

Rod also now has a wonderful book The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Prosperity, Happiness, and Freedom, which will soon be the subject of a new online book club on Elephant Journal.

I highly recommend Georg and Brenda Feuerstein’s Traditional Yoga Studies for college level distance learning courses on the sprawling history of Yoga and in-depth analysis of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra.

See the delightfully rambunctious Yoga 2.0 for a  revolutionary contemporary interpretation of traditional Yoga, created by Matthew Remski and Scott Petri.

Other Great Books

Here are some other books you might find interesting and useful:

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self  by Stephen Cope.  An inspiring exploration of Yoga philosophy, and its relationship to Western religion and psychology–the book that got it all started for me.

Babar’s Yoga for Elephants by Laurent de Brunhoff.  Now the truth can finally be told–Yoga was originally developed by elephants in prehistoric times, and only adopted by humans many years later.

Effortless Wellbeing by Evan Finer.  My favorite book on meditation.

~

I always enjoy talking about Yoga philosophy with anyone.  If I can be helpful to you in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

~

See also:

Yoga Demystified: Poems & Articles.

Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas & Best Quotations.

~

~Please like elephant yoga on facebook~

 

Categories
Uncategorized

Gita in a Nutshell #13: The Yoga of Action (Karma Yoga).

As you recall from “Different Yoga Strokes for Different Yoga Folks“, the ancient Yoga sage(s) who wrote the Gita recognized that different people would need different types of Yoga to match their personality types:

Yoga of Understanding / Yoga of Meditation / Yoga of Love / Yoga of Action

Today, let’s let the Bhagavad Gita speak directly to you about the Yoga of Action, or Karma Yoga.  As we’ve seen, when the passages are grouped together like this, they are so clear and powerful that they really don’t need any interpretation:

(For those new to Gita in a Nutshell, the voice speaking here is the infinitely wondrous universe itself, what some refer to as the “Unfathomable Life Force of the Universe” and others choose to call “God”. In the Gita these are one and the same. See GN #2.)

The superior man is he
whose mind can control his senses;
with no attachment to results,
he engages in the yoga of action.   (BG 3.7)

The whole world becomes a slave
to it’s own activity, Arjuana;
if you want to truly be free,
perform all actions as worship.     (BG 3.9)

Though the unwise cling to their actions,
watching for results, the wise
are free of attachments, and act
for the well-being of the whole world
.   (BG 3.25)

Performing all actions for my sake,
desireless, absorbed in the Self,
indifferent to “I” and “mine”,
let go of your grief and fight!   (BG 3.30)

~

He who can see inaction
in the midst of action, and action
in the midst of inaction,  is wise
and can act in the spirit of yoga.

With no desire for success,
no anxiety about failure,
indifferent to results, he burns up
his action in the fire of wisdom.

Surrendering all thoughts of outcome,
unperturbed, self-reliant,
he does nothing at all, even
when fully engaged in actions.

There is nothing that he expects,
nothing that he fears. Serene,
free from possessions, untainted,
acting with the body alone,

content with whatever happens,
unattached to pleasure or pain,
success or failure, he acts
and is never bound by his action.

When a man has let go of attachments,
when his mind is rooted in wisdom,
everything he does is worship
and his actions all melt away.
(BG 4.19-24)

~

A man is not bound by action
who renounces action through yoga,
who concentrates on the Self,
and whose doubt is cut off by wisdom.   (BG 4.42)

~

He who performs his duty
with no concern for results
is the true man of yoga-not
he who refrains from action.

Know that right action itself
is renunciation, Arjuana;
in the yoga of action, you first
renounce your own selfish will.

For the man who wishes to mature,
the yoga of action is the path;
for the man already mature,
serenity is the path.   (BG 6.1-3)

~

He who acts for my sake,
loving me, free of attachment,
with benevolence toward all beings,
will come to me in the end.     (BG 11.55)

If this is beyond your powers,
dedicate yourself to me;
performing all actions for my sake,
you will surely achieve success.  (BG 12.10)

~

Give up all actions to me;
love me above all others;
steadfastly keeping your mind
focused on me alone.

Focused on me at all times,
you will overcome all obstructions;
but if you persist on clinging
to the I-sense, then you are lost.   (BG 18.56-7)

Categories
Uncategorized

The Yoga of Love.

Gita in a Nutshell #12

(Complete contents at
Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas and Best Quotations.
For notice of each weekly blog,
please join our Facebook group.
)

As you recall from “Different Yoga Strokes for Different Yoga Folks“, the ancient Yoga sage(s) who wrote the Gita recognized that different people would need different types of Yoga to match their personality types:

Yoga of Understanding / Yoga of Meditation / Yoga of Love / Yoga of Action

In the original Gita Talk discussion series, I brought in a wonderful guest writer, Amy Champ, to cover the Yoga of Love and Devotion or Bhakti Yoga.  I highly recommend it to you:

Gita Talk #14: A Warm and Wonderful Article by Special Guest Amy Champ

Here are the specific passages in the Gita about the Yoga of Love and Devotion:

(For those new to Gita in a Nutshell, the voice speaking here is the infinitely wondrous universe itself, what some refer to as the “Unfathomable Life Force of the Universe” and others choose to call “God”. In the Gita these are one and the same. See GN #2.)

This Supreme Person, Arjuana,
who contains all beings and extends
to the limit of all that is,
can be reached by wholehearted devotion. (BG 8.22)

~

But the truly wise, Arjuana,
who dive deep into themselves,
fearless, one-pointed, know me
as the inexhaustible source.

Always chanting my praise,
steadfast in their devotion,
they make their lives an unending
hymn to my endless love.
(BG 9.13-14)

~

In this way you will be freed
from all the results of your actions,
good or harmful; unfettered,
untroubled, you will come to me. (BG 9.29)

~

He who can understand
the glory of my manifestations
is forever united with me
by his unwavering love.

I am the source of all things,
and all things emerge from me;
knowing this, wise men worship
by entering my state of being.
( BG 10.7-8)

~

To those who are steadfast, who love me
with true devotion, I give
the yoga of understanding,
which will bring them to where I am. ( BG 10.10)

~

Only by single-minded
devotion can I be known
as I truly am, Arjuna-
can I be seen and entered.

He who acts for my sake,
loving me free of attachment,
with benevolence toward all beings,
will come to me in the end. ( BG 11.54-55)

~

Those who love and revere me
with unwavering faith, always
centering their minds to me-
they are the most perfect in yoga. ( BG 12.2)

~

He who, devoted to me,
is beyond joy and hatred, grief
and desire, good and bad fortune-
that man is the one I love best.

The same to both friend and foe,
the same in disgrace or honor,
suffering or joy, untroubled,
indifferent to praise and blame

quiet, filled with devotion,
content with whatever happens,
at home wherever he is-
that man is the one I love best.

Those who realize the essence
of duty, who trust me completely
and surrender their lives to me-
I love them with very great love. ( BG 12.17-20)

Previous:
#11: The Yoga of Meditation.

Next:
#13 The Yoga of Action (Karma Yoga).

(Complete contents at
Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas and Best Quotations
To receive notice of each weekly blog,
please join our Facebook group.)

Categories
Uncategorized

Gita in a Nutshell #11: The Yoga of Meditation.

(Complete contents at
Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas and Best Quotations.
For notice of each weekly blog,
please join our Facebook group.
)

As you recall from “Different Yoga Strokes for Different Yoga Folks“, the ancient Yoga sage(s) who wrote the Gita recognized that different people would need different types of Yoga to match their personality types:

Yoga of Understanding / Yoga of Meditation / Yoga of Love / Yoga of Action

Today let’s look at specific passages in the Gita that describe the Yoga of Meditation or Dhyana/Raja Yoga.

(For those new to Gita in a Nutshell, the voice speaking here is the infinitely wondrous universe itself, what some refer to as the “Unfathomable Life Force of the Universe” and others choose to call “God”. In the Gita these are one and the same. See GN #2.)

The man of yoga should practice
concentration, alone,
mastering mind and body,
free of possessions and desires.

Sitting down, having chosen
a spot that is neither too high
nor too low, that is clean and covered
with a grass mat, a deerskin, and a cloth,

he should concentrate, with his whole
mind, on a single object;
if he practices in this way,
his mind will soon become pure.   (BG 6.10-12)

~

Constantly mastering his mind,
the man of yoga grows peaceful,
attains supreme liberation,
and vanishes into my bliss.
(BG 6.15)

~

With a mind grown clear and peaceful,
freed from selfish desires,
absorbed in the Self alone,
he is called a true man of yoga.

“A lamp sheltered from the wind
which does not flicker”—to this
is compared the true man of yoga
whose mind has vanished in the Self.

When his mind has become serene
by the practice of meditation,
he sees the Self through the self
and rests in the Self, rejoicing.

He knows the infinite joy
that is reached by the understanding
beyond the senses; steadfast,
he does not fall back from the truth.

Attaining this state, he knows
that there is no higher attainment;
he is rooted there, unshaken
even by the deepest sorrow.
(BG 6.18-22)

~

You are right, Arjuna: the mind
is restless and hard to master;
but by constant practice and detachment
it can be mastered in the end.   (BG 6.35)

Meditate on the Guide,
the Giver of all, the Primordial
Poet, smaller than an atom,
unthinkable, brilliant as the sun.
(BG 8.9)

But to those who meditate on me
undistracted, and worship me
everywhere, always, I will bring
a reward that can never be lost.   (BG 9.22)

Concentrate your mind on me,
Fill your heart with my presence,
love me, serve me, worship me,
and you will attain me at last.   (BG 9.34)

Those who love and revere me
with unwavering faith, always
centering their minds on me—
they are the most perfect in yoga.   (BG 12.2)

Concentrate every thought
on me alone; with a mind
fully absorbed, one-pointed,
you will live within me, forever.   (BG 12.8)

Give up all actions to me;
love me above all others;
steadfastly keep your mind
focused on me alone.   (BG 18.57)


Previous:

#10: The Yoga of Understanding.

Next:
#12: The Yoga of Love.

(Complete contents at
Gita in a Nutshell: Big Ideas and Best Quotations
To receive notice of each weekly blog,
please join our Facebook group.)