Three yogis were meditating in a cave. Their names were Ida, Pingala and Sushumna. After about 12 years Ida opened his eyes and said ‘it’s very cold in here’. He closed his eyes and resumed meditation. 12 years later Pingala opened his eyes and said, ‘I find it very dry in this cave.’ Then he closed his eyes and resumed meditation. After about another 12 years, Sushumna opened his eyes and said ‘Can you two please be quiet? I’m trying to meditate!’
Over the last few days I have been working with three teachers in a session led by just one teacher. Already you can probably sense the challenges and stimulation of this experience. One of the absent two teachers is my friend who has become a synchronistic virtual commentator. Overlapping messages have come to me through the ether in a kind of dialogue going on inside my head. I may need to meditate for at least 12 years to make sense of the conversation! For these reasons, I am summarising some of the ideas covered without attributing any of the ideas.
This is a different kind of post from usual. A couple of readers have expressed interest in the content, so here goes. I am indebted to all my teachers, and their traditions, for making the thinking more clear. If you know little or nothing about yoga, there is nothing in this post about exercise. It is all about living life with discernment.
“Teaching is the highest level of work required by civilization in the world. In ancient traditions, the teacher was placed at the very summit of the hierarchy. Even the King consulted teachers for their advice.”
Vanda Scaravelli said this and, as I came across it today as I was writing, it feels highly relevant.
In Eastern tradition, the relationship with the teacher is placed higher even than a relationship with a higher force or God. Why is that? Because a teacher is there, to help enlighten what is not. The Indian mystic poet Kabir wrote about this in words I cannot translate. I am told ‘God is just a construct whereas the teacher is real.’
It is said, whatever the situation, unless you place your mind at the feet of the teacher, what is the use? The guidance given is to look at the feet of the teacher first. This does not mean, as so many Westerners think, placing yourself below the teacher in a hierarchical, gurulike or even cult-like way or prostrating yourself; instead it means literally look at the teacher’s feet.
Who is walking, what is he talking? What do his feet tell you? Does he practise what he says? Are his feet smooth or are they careworn, can you see the marks of the journey on them? This is especially important for a yoga teacher, a teacher of life. I have been told that Krishnamacharya, the father of yoga, had certificates for everything he studied except for yoga. His teacher told him, ‘you are the certificate. Renew it every day by being who you are.’ This is particularly striking, especially in our time of monitoring and certification for everything. We live in a time when what counts is ticking all the boxes, not how the person is.
There is a Sanskrit chant which is meant to be chanted at the beginning of any new venture or relationship, includng the teacher-student relationship. It asks that we be protected on our journey and enjoy studying together. It invites us to work vigorously and grow together, to be confident and full of courage. In one translation it says: ‘Let our study together be fiery (to illuminate) and (because of this) may we not hate each other’ – a really powerful invocation. It also asks for light and no expectations that may burden the relationship.
I particularly like the last lines, which acknowledge that for a relationship to be valuable and real, there will be moments of fire – and of light.
Yoga has a lot to offer us in terms of understanding relationships – with others, the world, and most importantly, with ourselves. There are four aspects to any relationship:
the one who initiates, for instance the one who says ‘teach me!’
the one who responds – saying ‘yes, I will teach you’
the meeting point, physically or metaphorically, the context for the relationship
how the relationship is expressed.
Something can go wrong with any of these, and if one parameter changes then the whole relationship can change. It is interesting to note that in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna becomes Arjuna’s teacher only when Arjuna says, ‘please teach me’ – before that he was like a friend. In the teacher-student relationship, the student must be the first to make contact. A teacher cannot teach without students.
In the BG there are five relationships that are described:
Raga – the desire to be with somebody or something, when the person doesn’t want to be with us
Anuraga – a two-way relationship, where both parties want to be there
Sneha – friendship, which in Sanskrit literally means ‘sticking together’ despite distance or time; there is no desire in this relationship, just a connection
Bhakti – reverence from one to the other, who is perceived to be higher
Prapatti – complete surrender where you cannot fight, there is nothing you can do, acceptance.
It is important to understand the nature of the relationship, to avoid problems and entanglements; to ask oneself the question, ‘why must I be in this relationship in this form?’ to ensure that it is appropriate.
Prapatti is a difficult concept for 21st century Westerners to grasp. It does not mean giving up one’s self-responsibility and empowerment. The feeling that ‘you are/this is the only choice’ comes from a place of inner choice and strength. Prapatti literally means ‘bound to light’. The example given was when a man says to God, ‘oh let me win the lottery’, God says, ‘first you must buy a ticket’. There is always something we need to do to surrender in a positive way to a higher power. We must make the first step consciously ourselves.
So what makes relationships go wrong? We become trapped in our patterns of perception. We all have these patterns, from our genes and our families and cultures. They are engrained from an early age and through life they can be reinforced. So for example, one person thinks of going to a football match and feels full of joy and energy, whereas another feels full of boredom and dread. The football match is no different, it just is. It is the pattern of perception which creates the response.
Things happen because of these patterns of perception, not because of what is in our hearts. We become trapped in these patterns that define us and how we experience the world. Certain memories will trigger certain patterns. We may choose people (including our teachers) because of shared patterns and comfort. Or do we choose people sometimes because of repeated dysfunctional patterns? Only when the connection goes beyond these patterns, from heart to heart, can we be free. This is most importantly true in our relationship with ourself.
We will always have these patterns of perception, even as we surface them and become aware of them and of the deep impressions that influence us (these are called vasanas, which literally means ‘smells’). We may be able to substitute other patterns for them (hopefully more constructive patterns) – and we can become less affected by the patterns which is what the practice of yoga is about. Many readers will think of yoga as a physical routine, but this is not correct.
Our deep impressions are triggered by four factors:
the same cause – for example, when I see that person who was aggressive to me last time we met, I feel an aversion, a desire to ignore them; or when I see that person who always compliments me, I feel really good
an environment or context
a state of mind
Deep impressions are created early in life. If you think of a wall, balls bounce against it and some leave a mark or an indentation whereas others don’t – the mark may be positive or negative. This can happen at any time in life, but the wall is more impressionable early on, when the cement is not yet dry. The mark or indentation can reside in any layer of the psyche – the physical layer, energetic, intellect, in our behaviours and traits and in our deepest emotions. These impressions are triggered and reactivated when buttons are pushed – perhaps a similar way of being treated (as by our parents) might invoke a similar response, or a physical experience (eg sailing) or being in the same environment (at sea) or in the same state of mind (excited). In yoga we are working at different layers at different times to see what is happening now and create more awareness with the potential for choice and change.
Why do we run away from our deep impressions rather than facing and embracing them? When we uncover the impressions that govern our reactions, then we have greater self-awareness which can make us lighter (less burdened, and more ‘in the light’ of self-understanding). When we do not see them, then we are acting from ignorance, giving conditioned responses which may or may not connect with our hearts. By surfacing our deep impressions we are able to deconstruct reality – that is break down created perception (kalpitavrtti). When constructed reality is disrupted and starts to fall away, then reality can surface.
Yoga offers some guidelines in communication to improve our relationships:
speaking about what happens as it is, with no judgment, speaking about what is happening now not what happened in the past
speaking with lightness – no baggage, no obligations or expectations
speaking in the right way for the occasion
making sure the communication has austerity – neither too many words nor too few
using communication in such a way that it is expansive not disparaging
speaking what is real for the speaker
And always remembering that while you are the master of your words, you are not the master of the consequences of your words – so not taking responsibility for other people’s reactions.
We can bring a mix of attitudes to our communication:
The difficulty is that we can get muddled about when to express what. We often try and have a mix of these in our communication with everyone which isn’t possible. Many people want to be friendly and compassionate to many people even everyone, but it’s not possible to be friendly to everyone and not everyone wants or needs compassion. We may appreciate others to receive appreciation in response, which is not genuine appreciation. Most important of all, is to bring these attitudes to our relationship with ourselves.
Ultimately we can only be concerned with our own actions, not anyone else’s. Ideally we are moving to a place where we can move lightly – without baggage or encumbrances – to a place of light. This is something that can only be felt, it cannot be faked. Just think of the amount of time we spend speculating about what is going on with and for other people, especially when relationships go wrong – we spend a huge amount of time at work concerned with this rather than focusing on what we ourselves are doing and why, or why we interpret things as we do when others might interpret them very differently. This is time spent heavily and incurs a huge loss of energy.
We endlessly wonder about other people’s circumstances, what is in their minds. Yoga brings us back to the truth that we cannot worry about where other people are, that is their job. We can only look at where we are coming from ourselves. Are our reactions unconstructed reality, or are they somehow governed by previous perceptions, memories and impressions? If we take response-ability for our responses and actions in our relationships, then we will become light.
We especially need to realise this lightness in the teacher-student relationship. This does not mean everything is cosy and comfortable. There will be moments of fiery challenge to cut through the fixed impressions and patterns and remove heaviness.
The purpose of yoga is self-reflection to discover who we are. This can only become visible through examining the relationships we have – with others, with our community, family, the environment, pets, society, nature – and the way we conduct these relationships. How we relate, how we communicate and act tells a lot about who we are – for example, our lifestyles and habits, our attitudes towards exercise, how obsessed we are, how hard we work, how generous we are, how easy we find it to receive, how forgiving we are, how we treat guests, how we behave as guests, the people we choose in our lives and the people who choose to be with us, the teacher we choose, how we relate to children and them to us, our spirituality.
When our connection to ourselves is there, there is no longer any worry about what others will think. Interestingly when you are true to yourself and are doing what you believe in, then external appreciation comes spontaneously. A simple example is of a flower or plant that just grows and blossoms and offers what it has to offer, without being concerned about who will notice it – unlike, say, a performer who can spend much of their life worrying about their fans.
The practice of yoga is shrouded in mystery and, especially for those who don’t practise yoga, it is seen to be quite esoteric – weird and wonderful with peculiar rituals – or else it is understood as a physical fitness regime. In fact, it is all about personal development and being yourself in relationship with the world – the hardest challenge life has to offer. So it’s about exploring all your edges and finding the potential for change in that process.