This piece was originally published July 2020 on the Bodhi Yoga Spain blog.
Today marks four months since I’ve been in self-quarantine, hiding away from the global pandemic that is Covid-19. It’s actually been a really nice time. I’m privileged with the opportunity to work from home, a cabin outside of the city where I can enjoy long dog walks twice daily and the birds at my backyard feeder. I benefit from home grocery delivery and a once weekly visit to an open air farmer’s market, where of course, I wear my mask.
With yoga studios closed, I no longer drive 60-90 minutes daily to teach. I’ve found myself with extra free time that I’ve applied towards two at-home meditation retreats, online language learning classes, and sometimes thrice-weekly dharma classes on Zoom. I count my blessings daily. I have everything I need and then some.
And yet, I struggle with feeling content. This time hasn’t been without two or three tearful mental breakdowns, a general anxiety and a profound awareness of uncertainty. I “should” have had a yard sale in May. My remaining belongings “should” be in boxes for a July 1st move to Mexico. I “should” be promoting both October and January yoga retreats to Southern Baja. I “should” be teaching studio classes again now that the governor of Texas has said it’s ok. But I’m not.
The future I had built as an image in my mind, and my present circumstances are at odds with one another. I realize so much of my past ability to be content with the present was predicated on the idea that in the future, I’d be somewhere else. Sure, this present moment is just fine, but later….it will be better. Now that future plans have been pushed aside, it’s time to get real about contentment.
Death is Certain
Death is certain, and I’m not sure what else is. We can make the best of plans, but we cannot guarantee they’ll come to fruition. I’m doing my best to practice patience and present moment awareness in what’s increasingly apparent as a bardo, or in-between state. I’m in a holding pattern between life in Texas and life in Mexico, no longer as free as I have been to move back and forth between the two.
Life as we know it has died. Rather, life as we think we knew it has died. Things have always been uncertain. As a yoga teacher and spiritual practitioner, the concept of impermanence is not foreign to me. Everything is impermanent. Things arise, last for a while, and dissipate. Our friends, family, strangers and selves could die at any moment. But while we understand this logically, do we really live it? Whether we realize it or not, the ego refuses to believe.
For me, and I think for most all of us, Covid-19 has taken on the role of a giant flashing arrow pointing to uncertainty. “Impermanence is real!” it shouts. “Pay attention!” I’m no stranger to the feeling that the rug’s been pulled from underneath me. In hindsight, moments like this have been my greatest teachers. In the moment, however, there is still fear. What’s next? What happens when our illusory future plans die? The real question is ‘what happens we die?’
The greater fear of death is the fear of the little deaths. Our grasping to this body and to this life expresses itself in the ways in which we grasp to plans, to ideas, to people, places and things. Who we want to be when we grow up defines who we think we are. Anything we’ve tied our identity to becomes something that we can’t let go. We can peel our fingers from all the stuff we’re holding on to, one small death at a time. Or, we could let go of the entity doing the grasping, our belief in a separate, self-existent, self.
Our struggle with uncertainty is our struggle with the big uncertainty. How does this life end? Thanks to a global pandemic, our eyes have been opened to this big uncertainty and we have an opportunity to tackle it head on. As the ultimate of the five kleshas, or mental afflictions, why not wrestle first with our attachment to this life? We can keep putting out the fires, or we can kill the dragon. Death is certain.
The Time of Death is Uncertain
The big one is coming and we don’t know when. In our ignorance, we’re doing our best to cling on to the good, push away the bad, and re assert dominance over our present circumstances. In the United States, this arrogance is currently in full swing. We’ll just pretend Covid-19 doesn’t exist. We’ll open. We’ll make plans. We’re at war with reality and soldiering on.
On the flip side of the same coin, some of us are being careful. We’re wearing our masks. We busy ourselves with taking precautions. But the precautions we’re taking aren’t the right ones. Staying indoors and wearing a mask will flatten the curve. If everyone does it, it might even eliminate new cases. What it won’t do is give us certainty over our time of death. For as long as we believe we’re living in samsara, another crisis and something else to worry over will be waiting around the bend. The precautions we’re taking won’t free us from fear.
The real enemy is not the pandemic. It’s us. We walk through this life with tinted glasses. Our view obscured by the kleshas. We can’t see the truth about what’s ‘out there’ and we cannot see the truth of who we really are, and what it is that will actually make us happy and content.
Yoga, or our spiritual practice is the solution via which the veils of the kleshas are lifted. Master Patanjali breaks down the five kleshas in Chapter 2 of his Yoga Sutra.
“The five mental afflictions (kleshas) are ignorance, egoism, attraction, aversion and grasping.”(YS 2.3)
Avidya – Ignorance
One of my favorite teachers, Cindy Lee, recently reminded me that ignorance is not ‘not knowing’ but rather thinking we know something about which we are mistaken. I think I am my body and my mind. I think this body and mind would be happier somewhere else, despite the fact I struggle with contentment here. I think things and people and circumstances are the source of my happiness, rather than connection to the source within.
“Ignorance is the belief that what is impermanent is permanent, what is impure is pure, what will bring suffering will bring happiness, and what is without essence has an essence.”(YS 2.5)
Ignorance is the way in which the mind turns things around. We’ve gotten everything backward. Yoga stops these fluctuations of the mind, revealing wisdom. As the Yoga Sutra says, yoga citta vrtti nirodhah, we become whole by stopping how the mind turns (things around).*
Asmita – Ego
The impact of our ignorance is perhaps most strongly experienced via our belief in a separate, self-existent “me.” Ego requires us to feel separate and different from others, and depends on the illusion that the way we see things is the way they are. Of course that’s not how we see. We see things the way we are.
“Egoism is thinking that the seer and faculty of seeing are one and the same thing”(YS 2.6)
In a recent talk by Eckhart Tolle I was reminded of the ways in which we use our future plans to strengthen the ego. Not everyone has plans to move to Mexico. This makes me different, special and separate from you. In this time of pandemic, as these future plans get ripped away, the ego panics. Who am I if I’m not my future goals? Identity then, must be somewhere else.
Raga – Attraction
There’s nothing wrong with desire in and of itself. We get in trouble when we ignorantly think the things we’re attracted to are the cause of our happiness. I get pleasure from planning a move to Mexico, so I’ve become attached to it. But pleasure isn’t intrinsic to those plans. If it was, those plans could never cause me pain, and yet they currently are.
“Attraction derives from feelings of pleasure.”(YS 2.7)
Dvesha – Aversion
Disliking is a problem. Disliking is only able to function because of this grand mistake of thinking things are separate and self-existent. Through the process of disliking, we’re able to further fortify this mistake, and the ego. Disliking allows the belief that ‘me’ and ‘my (fill in the blank)’ is better, smarter, more right. Disliking says the pandemic is a bad thing. Yet couldn’t this pandemic be fodder for spiritual awakening?
“Aversion derives from unpleasant feelings.”(YS 2.8)
Abhinivesha – Fear of Death
Abhinivesha is the profound anxiety we have regarding change. In our ignorance, we layer this anxiety on top of ego, attraction and aversion. If I’ve affixed my identity to things that are impermanent, I’ll be in constant anxiety about those things potentially changing. If I believe my identity is attached to this body and this mind, I’ll be very afraid of dying.
We want to live and we want to live our way, with everything we want, and nothing we don’t want. We’re terrified this might not be what we get, because we’ve haven’t yet realized we’re seeing it all wrong.
“Grasping then arises; it naturally comes about, even for the wise.”(YS 2.9)
The Only Thing That Can Help You at the Time of Death is your Spiritual Practice
Thankfully, Master Patanjali and yoga give us a solution. The solution is our sadhana, daily spiritual practice. By practicing the yoga of action our obscurations are removed. We transcend mental affliction, remove the tinted glasses of the kleshas, and at last see things clearly. What do we see? That things are perfect just as they are. Heaven is here, on earth. We reveal samadhi.
“The Yoga of Action (Kriya Yoga) entails self discipline (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and surrender (isvara pranidhana). By doing this, we minimize the kleshas and reveal samadhi.”(YS 2.1-2.2)**
To reveal the final stage of yoga, this union between the seer and what’s seen, we practice discipline, introspection, and surrendering to ultimate reality. This mirrors another path with which I’m more familiar, the three Buddhist trainings of ethics, meditation and wisdom.
Tapas & The Path of Ethics
“Because impurities are destroyed through austerity (tapas), attainments of the body and senses are achieved.”(YS 2.43)
This Sanskrit word, tapas, is akin to austerity, ethics, spiritual challenge, or spiritual hardship. Based on the root ‘tap’ meaning to burn, tapas is discipline and the fire of passion. It’s also pain, penance and suffering. Tapas is the passionate and joyful effort required of us to achieve deep meditation.
Tapas recognizes that the path is not an easy one. It’s far easier for me to blame circumstances and Covid-19 than it is to turn inward and explore the true source of my discontent. But if I can stay the course, tapas is also the result of my effort, the heat that destroys impurities, allowing us to master the body and senses.
Tapas also purifies via commitment to morality and ethics. By committing to the five precepts and abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication we free ourselves from the karmic causes of our suffering. With our minds free from guilt, shame, or regret, we’re better able to sit on our cushion and meditate.
Svadhyaya & The Path of Meditation
Once accustomed to meditation, we practice svadhyaya. This is both the personal study of spiritual texts, studying on our own, and the study of the self, observation or self-reflection. The root adhyāya relates to the lesson, the reading, the chapter or lecture. When broken down as dhyāya, however, it means to meditate on, contemplation, or reflection.
“As a result of independent study, one reaches the divinity of his or her choice.”(YS 2.44)
We learn not only from reading and hearing the dharma, but from looking within. Through teachings and observation we break down our ill-conceived perception of ‘self’ and discover that the guru is not ‘out there’ but within. We connect with the divine being of our dreams, our teacher, our Lama, our God. We connect to the truth of ultimate reality.
Isvarapranidhana & The Path of Wisdom
In our wisdom, we surrender. It’s far wiser to accept things as they are, than to fight against the truth of our experience. It’s worth noting that acceptance is not the act of giving up, it’s merely an agreement to see things clearly. Until we surrender to reality, all our action is in vain.
“From surrendering to the Lord, full integration is achieved.”(YS 2.45)
Full integration, samadhi, cannot be achieved until we’re all in. Isvara is to surrender, to devote, to offer, to dedicate. We give ourselves over to the Lama, our teacher, our God. We trust fully in the process of our spiritual path. Our faith is strengthened as we begin to see the results of tapas and svadhyaya, or morality and meditation.
Pranidhana is the divine, the supreme being, the Lord. Pranidhana is also truth, ultimate reality. Through discipline (tapas) and the practice of meditation (svadhyaya) we attain the final meditation (isvarapranidhana). We at last recognize things don’t arise the way we thought they did. They don’t exist the way we think they do. And they won’t dissipate in the way we think they will.
Transcending the Fear of Death
“For the one who can make the proper distinctions, there is an end to speculation about the true existence of self.”(YS 4.25)
Through tapas, svadhyaya and ishvarapranidhana, or ethics, meditation and wisdom, we begin to understand we are far more than just a body and a mind. By no longer identifying with body and mind, our grip on body and mind softens.
But fear of death is not an easy one to let go of. Again and again, we forget. Our ingrained habits and mental afflictions come back to haunt us. I know things are impermanent, but here I am upset, because I wish I was surfing in Mexico.
“When there are lapses (in discrimination), it is because of intervening factors that arise due to mental imprints.”(YS 4.27)
Our memories trick us into seeing things the way we always have. But the path is not linear. So we go back to the application of ethics, concentration and wisdom. We return to our practice until old habits and predispositions are destroyed, along with the kleshas, our mental afflictions.
“It is said that they (samskaras) can be destroyed, just like the mental afflictions (klesas).”(YS 4.28)
We are not who we think we once were. By acting ethically, studying, and meditating, wisdom is revealed. We will someday believe this on a level that transcends body and mind. We’ll no longer beat ourselves up for getting it right or wrong. We’ll understand there is no right or wrong, we’ll no longer take an interest in karmic accounting.
“When one takes no interest even in such karmic accounting, the full integration known as the Dharma cloud is attained by one whose discriminatory viewpoint is complete. It is then that karma and mental afflictions come to an end.”(YS 4.29 & 4.30)
The mental afflictions come to an end when the mind stops turning things around. This is the promise of yoga. Yoga citta vrtti nirodhah.
We let go of grasping because there is nothing to grasp, and no-one to do the grasping. Free from attachment to and identification with the body we live in union with the divine. We surrender to ultimate reality and the truth that everything is already perfect, just as it is.
It’s perfect even if we’re stuck at home, even if we cannot travel. Our contentment is no longer dependent. And if we’re still working on building this faith and trust? Then we can be thankful that we’re losing things, it’s an excellent way to learn how to let go.
This piece was originally published July 2020 on the Bodhi Yoga Spain blog.
- All Yoga Sutra translations by Lama Marut, supported by personal notes from his teachings
- *The Essential Yoga Sutra: Ancient Wisdom for Your Yoga by Geshe Michael Roach
- **not Lama Marut’s translation
- Sanskrit definitions thanks to https://www.wisdomlib.org/