Author Archives: Atma
Earlier this week while catching up on current events courtesy of the internet I read this: New York Times, October 3: Mr. Obama, in his Saturday radio and Internet address, noted that the job loss rate was continuing to decline, reflecting what economists have said was evidence that the recession is slowly ending. But that’s not really the case is it?
We are also being mislead by politico’s, pundits, and spin doctor’s tying to convince us to manically cling to the evaporating hallucination that every will be alright if we just get back to our old shopping standard. Our preceding era of relentless consumerism is now giving way to the sober reality that a credit-driven economy has to come crashing down sooner than later. As obvious as this might seem, many people are caught in the anthem of all dogma, “we believe what we want to believe.” Historically this is a launch pad for fascism, totalitarianism, and the inevitable dismissal of human rights. Unfortunately, public policy, control of the media, and economic development at a national or global level, are all things that seem to be well beyond our control. And, to some extent, this is true. So what is a modern yogi to do? A great deal actually. The consciousness we bring to the ups and downs of everyday life is has a real impact on others. The principle of the tipping point applies to social consciousness. We need just enough Modern Yogis and a small percentage of us could change the world.
There is an excellent verse in the Bhagavad Gita, which explains the concept of Karma Yoga and gives a prescriptive for good times and bad.
kurvann api na lipyate” (5.7)
Word for word definitions:
yoga-yuktaha—the art of using everything for connecting with spirit;
vishuddha-atma—a being (soul) free of all hallucination or delusion;
vijita-atma—the self is liberated;
jita-indriyaha—having freed sense perception from the influence of selfishness;
sarva—bhuta—to all living entities;
atma-bhuta-atma—compassionate (a soul who is always concerned with
the wellbeing and prosperity of other souls);
kurvan api—although acting and serving in the material world;
lipyate—tainted, defiled, adversely affected.
The yogi is connecting everything in their life to spirit and using everything in pursuit of spiritual union. The yogi’s obstinate pursuit of clear thinking has freed them from a materialistic perception. Such a person is dear to everyone, and everyone is dear to him. This modern yogi remains in the world working, serving others, but is never entangled or caught up in the spectacle.
The idea is, ‘to be in the world, but not of the world’. The question is, what does this actually look like ? How do we apply this in everyday life? The key to understanding the rich concepts captured by this verse is in the compound expression of the first two words, yoga – yukto.
Beyond the literal meaning of these two words (unify and engage) is a concept very important to understanding yoga philosophy – dialectics. In a literal sense the word dialectic can be understood as, “the space between the words”. It is the idea of paradox and juxtaposition, that one plus one can be greater than two. It is the path way to the realm of the mysterious and the inconceivable. It is the lesson the sage longs to impart to the disciple through koan and parable. Before the Mahabharata war Krishna advises Arjun to kill everyone, but know that nobody dies.
Another example of a dialectic is the seeming contradiction in yoga philosophy between dualism and monism (are we souls separate from God or are we God?) Yoga resolves this in a solution that is difficult if not impossible to conceptualize, ‘simultaneous oneness and difference’. We are all part of the whole, yet the whole remains whole without us. Ouch. That can hurt the old noggin. It can also free it. For spiritual paradox is the mysterious door through which we the sincere seeker must travel.
So the words from the verse above yoga and yukta form a dialectic about being in the world but not of the world. The resolution to the seeming contradiction, between being apart from daily life while being engaged in daily life, is in seeing daily life not as a trap but as an opportunity. Daily life is an opportunity to play a part in a divine scheme. To tap into that and experience the divinity inherent in daily life one simply has to take on divine attributes. Sounds like a reasonable idea. But, here is the kicker. Divine traits are almost always paradoxical. The modern yogi’s job is to upgrade their consciousness by choosing to live in paradox.
So how do you live in paradox ? By practicing self-preservation AND charity, confidence AND humility, bravery AND kindness, ambition AND detachment, and by knowing AND embracing mystery. Living in paradox is the opposite of living in dogma.
Living in paradox means throwing your arms open and running forward into life welcoming and experiencing fearlessly everything it brings your way all the while feeling like a kid running through soap bubbles. Spread the joy.
photo license: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos
A beautifully shot movie with no redeeming social or artistic value
Walking out of the film Revolutionary Road, my mind was numb from the deadening effect of this miserable film. It was like Requiem for a Dream but without the drugs. It’s as if the filmmakers just got out of a bad relationship and figured out for the first time that material life is hard. Jesus, the Buddha, and countless Vedic texts have already told us that life is hard. Or perhaps they heard about the artistic genre known as a tragedy, read some cliff notes of the Greek plays or read about Ibsen and Chekhov on Wikipedia, and decided that a tragedy is a movie about bad things happening to sad people. Or maybe they just found out that the illusion of a nuclear family in the 1950’s collapsed under the pressures of relentless, sexism, racism, and classism, but hadn’t had time to come up with something meaningful to say about it.
Hmmm, actually I can’t really come up with an excuse for these filmmakers. Except that they have written and produced a move with great, art direction, cinematography, music and with absolutely nothing to say. Unless their goal was like the upbraiding owner of a new puppy who must rub our collective noses in the crap pile that is life. This movie says nothing new, nothing important, and deserves no accolades. The one bright spot was the acting of the so called crazy realtor’s son (Michael Shannon) who played the part of the chorus in a greek melodrama telling us the obvious moral of the story. He played his part very well, as did his mother (Kathy Bates) the realtor. Kate Winslet was a seeming paragon of pathos, and Mr. Dicaprio’s performance ranged from wooden to apoplectic, not his finest hour.
Unless you are a masochist for mediocre melodrama, do not waste your precious time on this travesty of a film. It is a film that wanted to be about emptiness and hopelessness and instead became an empty and hopeless film. If you want to catch up with a meaningful drama, stay in and rent, The Grapes of Wrath, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, or Wuthering Heights… these are examples of what a tragedy, or a melodrama, is supposed to be.
Recommendation: avoid like an unanaesthetized root canal
Film auteur Danny Boyle’s rags to riches story is a genre-defining masterpiece. But first, a word, two words actually, from our sponsors: karma and dharma.
Karma is what you are born with, the stuff you can see, birthplace, family, body, etc… Karma is also the stuff you can’t see, i.e. destiny, the future you have created by your choices and actions from the now forgotten past. This includes your successes, your failures, your happiness and distress, as well as your income for life. This may be one of the most unpopular and ill received aspects of Vedic philosophy. Nonetheless, it holds true for all of us. As was quoted in the Sanskrit classic, Mahabharata, “Destiny is all-powerful and it is difficult to evade the consequences of our past actions.”
So if Karma is what you are born with, then dharma is what you do with it. Free will is the choice to act virtuously in relation to your lot in life, or not. You get to choose if you are going to be a zero or a hero by the way you handle what comes your way. If you protect dharma, dharma will protect you.
Slumdog Millionaire is the superbly told story of karma and these two dharmic options. The hero is Jamal Malik a young man born in the slums of Mumbai. The zero is his brother Salim.
The film is the retelling of Jamal’s life and his one true love Latika. The context is a jail house interrogation. Jamal is arrested because he is suspected of cheating on the Indian version of, Who Wants to Be Millionaire, and is on the verge of winning twenty million rupees ($420,000 US).
The ensuing story of poverty, simple aspirations, tragedy, cruel gang lords, decency, and unrequited love is a marvelous, upsetting, and rewarding adventure to witness.
From a spiritual point of view, we see how two people can be given the same horrible circumstances and yet choose two very different paths. Jamal consistently pursued virtue (dharma) and time again he was protected by virtue. All the while his karma, both fortunate and unfortunate, pursued him relentlessly.
While the concept, destiny, may be a difficult pill for many to swallow, it is not as bleak as it appears. Pursuing our dharma offers a path to personal strength and peace of mind. It can be very freeing to realize that even though we can’t know what lies ahead for us there is joy in hoping for the best and strength in preparing for the worst.
Our destiny may be written for us, but our fortune is in the storehouse of love, patience, kindness, forgiveness and the celebration we have in our hearts. Sadly, this is a store house, which, for many of us goes forgotten and unused. But what is keeping us from breaking down the door and looting the love in our hearts? That would be the six dark shadowy figures known in Sanskrit as the Sad Garbha that guard the heart’s door: 1) selfish longings, 2) anger, 3) perpetual dissatisfaction, 4) delusion, 5) pride, and 6) envy. Throughout the film Jamal’s older and decidedly unvirtuous brother demonstrates all six of these traits. How we deal with these six enemies of the heart has everything to do with dharma or the choices we make. This is a film that powerfully brings out this idea.
It is so gratifying when art provides us with powerful experiences that prod and poke at our consciousness. When art does its job, it finds us thinking new thoughts without seeming to have told us to have new thoughts. Director Danny Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy, working from a novel by Vikas Swarup, have managed to do just this with Slumdog Millionaire.
Recommendation: See it and tell me what you think…
“Beth I hear you calling…” KISS
In spiritual life affiliation is everything – because you will be drawn up or torn down by the consciousness of those around you. Sometime life doesn’t always give you a choice about how you have to around. It is at those times when it is most important to find common goals that can lift you and your unsolicited fellow traveler upward.
Role Models is a hilarious film about just this theme. The film centers around the downward-spiraling, increasingly contemptuous, dourly-disparaging of all Danny, played by Ben Affleck look-a-like Paul Rudd (a fact that is used for effective laughs on multiple occasions) and his over-the-top sense-enjoying coworker, Wheeler played by an effervescent Seann William Scott.
After the two spokesmen for a Red Bullesque energy drink get in trouble with the law they are forced to do community service at a big brother type center. The center’s director is scene stealing Jane Lynch, whose performance of a recovering cocaine whore deserves an Oscar for funny. The two charges given over to the court ordered mentors are hilarious Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Augie Farks, the nebbish geek who has found refuge in a dungeon and dragon role playing sword fighting tournaments, and Ronnie the all too cute uber-foul mouthed, booby infatuated twelve year old (played like a pro by 12 year old Bobb’e J. Thompson.)
The result of these pairings is good comedy (notwithstanding a few over sentimental and simplistic turns) that brings home the message that cynicism is dead. And that to see the good in life and in difficult situations is the key to self transformation. There are no short cuts in life. You have to roll with the punches, get back on your feet and go at it again. It just helps if you can see the humor in it. This is a film that definitely sees the humor and the irony of life in a world where materialism tends to bring out the worst in us and the desire to go against the current brings out the best.
The sweetly sober message of this film is that everybody needs something or someone to believe in. Maybe the Legendary Rock Group KISS isn’t the ultimate higher power, but the idea of using something bigger than you to uplift you is certainly the right idea.
Recommendation: A comedy worth its weight in buttered popcorn, enjoy.
Some of my friends have encountered people who have dedicated themselves to a spiritual lifestyle. After meeting them they have noted that they often seem the opposite of spiritual. These would be spiritualists are stressed, frustrated, insensitive, etc… “How is this possible?” they ask me.
This unfortunate but all too often observable contradiction is because people often go towards spiritual life as a refuge from life’s confrontation rather than a place to confront their lives’ refuse. Consequently the people you meet at yoga retreats, ashrams, spiritual conventions, and the like tend to have the same personality or similar characteristics they had before they took up spiritualism.
Our personalities are deeply structured emblems of our heart (shakti) and our history (karma). Personalities tend to change very little over lifetimes. This is partly because significant change requires soul age, which is the resilience that comes from many lives in a human form, what I call heart.
Mike Leigh’s new film, Happy Go Lucky is a study of personalities and soul age. His principle character is Poppy, a resiliently souled optimist, who is determined to keep a sense of joy and wonder about her. Her nemesis is an immature souled, paranoid, racist, victim of a institutional standards – who has now found a minute sense of control as a driving instructor. The other characters in the movie serve as marvelous foils to Poppy’s irrepressible good nature. The most interesting of which was a schizophrenic homeless man with the countenance of mature soul who has somehow been left behind, i.e. the right heart, wrong history.
But the most interesting part of the film was its total lack of anything remotely cinematic (at least by Hollywood standards.) The events and people portrayed were events and people of everyday life. The story was about as provocative as oatmeal. But as I have said, many times before, it is not the story, but how you tell it. Happy-Go-Lucky is a story well told.
As you allow Poppy’s very mundane life to unfold in front of you have a chance to explore the multihued fabric of Poppy’s world. While Poppy’s almost preternatural optimism carries her a great way we are able to see its limits and even its down side. For example, we have to ask ourselves, was she at least partially responsible for the driving instructor’s breakdown? Did she, in her over exuberance and insouciance, fail to assess the dark and tormented man’s emotional frailty? She had entered in to his phallic realm (the car) the one place he felt he had dominion and she unseated him completely. Yes, we saw her effort to peer into his troubled past, but did she go far enough to see the impact she was having on him. This is the responsibility of the more mature soul, and an important lesson of the movie. A lesson Poppy learns the hard way.
There is much to be mined from this delight of a movie. This includes an insight into the question of what does it take to be a good person? And, is it more than just a sunny disposition? (This does seem a good place to start.) It also takes a willingness to look into the soul’s of others and see what is it that they need. And that can be hard work, but hey, happiness is hard work.
Recommendation: If you are a fan of Mike Leigh, or if you like thoughtfully paced cinema, then you you will like this.
Happiness is the birthright of every spirit-soul, at least according to the Sanskrit saying, Ananda-mayo bhyasat. That is good news we can all use. After all, many of us have experienced moments of happiness; yet an enduring, persistent kind of happiness has been largely elusive.
So where is this birthright of bliss of which the Vedas speak? An important clue lies hidden in a word we hear on almost a daily basis, “Yoga.” Not the yoga of stretchy-pretzel-limbed fame; but rather Yoga as the timeless knowledge of the Self. The word is a cryptic passage to a realm beyond the impermanence of material life. Yoga invites us to experience that which lies outside the boundaries of body and mind. Yoga is not a belief, or a fact. It is an impulse, a drive, a longing to connect with something real. Yoga is the exquisite pursuit of a life more real than the transient glamour and fleeting joys that punctuate the otherwise drab and anxious tone of material life.
The modern yogi’s journey of self-discovery begins when the appeal of material objects and objectives begins to pale. This can begin as disillusionment with our preconceived notions of life, or the creeping realization that even if we got everything on our wish list, we wouldn’t necessarily be happy. This idea emerges in most of the wisdom traditions. As our spirituality matures, it begins to emerge in our consciousness.
It can be a bittersweet realization that true happiness or what I prefer to call anxiety-free happiness (ananda in Sanskrit) is not to be found in material artifacts or accomplishments. It can be hard to let go of the deep-seeded belief that the right partner, the right bank account, the right environment will make us whole (even if we know intellectually that is not the case.) As André Gide once said, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” So, it is normal to have pangs of remorse as we slowly turn our backs on the sea of material longings that beckon and promise to fulfill us. In many ways it is a revolutionary thing to turn away from hopes we have harbored our whole lives.
Yoga, as I am describing it for the modern person, is the spirit of this revolution. This is a revolution against anxiety, dread, and fear. This is a revolution in pursuit of absolute truth, absolute happiness, and absolute freedoms. Yoga is a next-generation paradigm that portends the end of relative happiness. Yoga psychology champions a happiness that is not dependent on external factors. This type of happiness is a completely internal state that arises or disappears in spite of external factors and not because of them. A happiness based in the bliss-from-beyond is the result of turning toward the ephemeral and its loss is the result of turning away. When the modern yogi understands this it slowly becomes easier and easier to participate fully in life; while at the same time maintain an internal distance from it.
Consequently, the modern yogi becomes a citizen of two worlds – on the inside you identify with the journey of discovery, with the mystery of God, with your dharma which is described in certain Vedic texts as das-anu-das-anu-das… meaning, the servant of the servant of the servant of Spirit. On the outside you play the roles you are presented with, and you play them with feeling, and with commitment, but you don’t accept them as who you are because you are increasingly aware that you are the servant of the servant of Spirit. The modern yogi is one with and yet separate from the world at the same time.
This oneness and simultaneous difference is the beauty, the mystery and the philosophical underpinning of Yoga: the more you become free from the influence of matter, ego, dualism (distinguishing between pain and pleasure); the more you see the inherent spirit in all, the easier it will become to participate in the rituals and roles of daily life. The need for personal gratification will no longer be the driving force in your life, because you will have rediscovered your bliss. Instead you will participate in life for the sake of serving others. And even more you will want to help those around you rediscover their bliss. The modern yogi is filled with longing to help fellow yogis restart or continue on their individual journey of self-discovery.
Of course this may sound like so much lovely philosophy. What if we are not yet firmly on the path of the modern yogi? What if we feel a longing in our hearts for other things, alongside our desire to serve others? What if we want a loving wife, a compassionate husband, a house of our own, a good future for our kids? The beauty of the modern yogi path is that whether you are changing diapers, holding hands at sunset, paying bills online, or going it alone, living like a monk, it doesn’t matter. The modern yogi simply stands (or sits) in the place that they are, and uses that moment to connect to spirit. The modern yogi does this by paying attention; paying attention to breath, to sensation, to sound, and above all to the burgeoning sense that she or he is an observer.
As your capacity for paying attention expands it is likely you will experience more spiritual or ephemeral emotions: lightness, giddiness, buoyancy, etc… All this opens you up to a grander scheme. The trick is to avoid the pitfall of assuming too quickly that someone or something is orchestrating these experiences which you are beginning to observe. The caveat is on the “assuming too quickly.” For jumping too quickly to metaphysical conclusions runs the risk of becoming mired in sentimentality. It is worth it in the spiritual process to pace yourself, question everything, and don’t accept every experience as necessarily spiritual. It is of little value to become religiously sentimental. Sentimentality, like any superficial redressing, is the touchy-feely remapping of the false ego.
It is also easy, but equally disadvantageous, to try to just feel better by believing in you, or some newly conceived version of you. Many of the new age and recent self help movements simply push out the boundaries of self-esteem, resulting in an expansion of the false ego (the source of our misery and material misidentification.) The more authentic process is to have respect for the body and mind that surround you, while you work on discovering your true Self and whether or not someone is orchestrating all this.
The fact is something, or someone, probably is orchestrating the experience we call life on Earth. And Yoga is about exploring the mystery, the beauty, and the romance of making a connection with whomever it is that lies beyond the resoundingly transient realm of our senses. The modern yogi path is about doing that without dogma and ill-conceived ritual. Leaving behind the man-made means of escapism; the yogi instead looks for an internal way to touch the wings of hope, to trace out the path of spirit. The modern yogi may regulate and follow certain rules, but not for rule’s sake. Rather the rising spirit-star relies on mantra and practice. Mantras provide the fuel and the landscape. Yoga practice is the repetition of new spirit-affirming skills, replacing old, ego-entrenching acts.
All this requires a very new and real bravery; a courage born of compassion and kindness. Without this fearless determination to discover what lies on the unseen shore of one’s consciousness, the journey of self-discovery stalls in the ports of self-pity and complacency.
Perhaps the most difficult part of initiating this journey is being willing to surrender hope of finding fulfillment for our many material desires; desires that surround us and pervade every aspect of our experience. Desires overwhelm us because they spring from the soul. The soul’s desires are for spiritual romance and adventure. Fortunately the desires of the soul can be fulfilled. Unfortunately, while we are trapped in this material body, our desires turn from spiritual objectives to material objectives; and we find ourselves chasing mirage-like fantasies that never fully materialize (and if they do we live in anxiety knowing they won’t last). It won’t be easy to overcome the influence of the body, mind, and the material universe; but you can be confident that it is possible, and it is possible in this life time.
This world is real because it feels real. And it will go on feeling real for most of us for a very long time. But if we can wake up in the morning and make a decision: that no matter how real it feels, whatever happiness or distress we experience, we will perceive it with equal amusement and observation. We will observe ourselves the way a parent watches a child at the beach, sharing the triumph of the sand castle and the dismay of its erosion by the tide, but all the while knowing it is just a play date with the sea.
The old-school-mystic yoga path requires, among other things, total renunciation (vairagya in Sanskrit.) The modern yogi is encouraged to renounce by using everything in service of the Divine. This dovetailing or engaging everything you have (time, talent, money, etc…) is called yukta in Sanskrit. So the modern yogi’s rallying cry is yukta vairagya: use everything in service of spirit.
If, powerful material desires exist in the heart, they can be used to fuel the spiritual journey. The great danger for the modern yogi, is getting lost in personal sense gratification. The solution is to simplify one’s lifestyle to the furthest extent possible.
The fully surrendered yogi gives up everything in pursuit of his spiritual mission. That might be a bit extreme for most people. Four-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the Bhakti yoga scholar Jiva Goswami gave the formula for the ideal modern yogi: 50/25/25. The idea was, “Simplify your life so that you can use fifty percent of your income for charity and good works; live on twenty-five percent, and the rest should be invested for retirement and future care of family.” While this would be a challenge for most, it is not unheard of here in America. In December 2007, People Magazine highlighted a number of people living the fifty percent rule.
Here is a list of ideas for practicing yukta vairagya – modern detachment:
1. Keep a journal for one month of what you spend and what resources you use
2. Have a family meeting and brainstorm on how much less you can live on
3. Make a dream list of what charities or spiritual programs you would support if you freed up 50% of your income
4. Plan a volunteer vacation
5. Choose a number (1-30) for the day each month you will do a major life style simplification overhaul
6. Push the boundaries of sustainability: each quarter set a new and higher green standard for yourself and/or your business
7. Make a 10 year plan to grow your income and shrink your living standard
8. Have family and community contests to discover new ways to simplify and reduce
9. Create a web page or blog journaling your down-sizing
10. Create a facebook/myspace community to promote simple living-evolved thinking
11. When you make or receive food mentally offer it to the divine with the love of a lost lover, as if they were finally joining you for dinner.
12. Whatever new purchases you make, bring them home and offer them to the divine as you understand him/her
13. Create a sacred space or alter in your home, bring in flowers and incense daily
14. Play mantras, kirtan, gospel, or any spiritual music throughout your home (even when you are not there)
15. Find spiritual sounds you can play quietly while you sleep
16. Start a book club, reading classic literature but exploring the spiritual meaning
17. Create a community meeting online or live to discuss the Sanskrit texts (Bhagavad Gita, etc)
18. Encourage your employer to bring in a onsite yoga and wellness program
19. Read from a spiritually inspirational book at least once a day
20. Associate with people who have advanced spiritual knowledge
21. Smile, chant & serve
Any failure to live in abundance is a result of mental conditioning. Unfortunately, thinking or wishing will rarely remove these mental roadblocks. Dislodging the conditioning that has created our current sense of scarcity demands a new behavior. Actually, if abundance is to be attained, a new lifestyle is required: The secret lifestyle of the modern yogi.
The secret of the modern yogi’s lifestyle is in having a conscious approach to finance. The essence of this approach is to make as much money as you can; live on as little as you can, and use the rest to serve spirit and humanity. The consequence of this leaves one feeling deeply satisfied.
It sounds simple, and it is. So what is keeping people from setting out on a lifestyle of simple living and evolved thinking? The problem, whether we like to admit it or not, is that we are deeply invested in the fantasy of financial freedom. We place a great deal of stock in the idea that somewhere, somehow, enough money is going to set us free. We have dumped our assets into consumption, catching up, and keeping up. We are deeply dug in, with debt-based lifestyles. Unwinding these long-standing cultural and emotional investments won’t be easy. Fortunately, help is available in the age-old teachings of Yoga.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is an ancient language, and the wellspring of yoga philosophy. Sanskrit words, and the sounds they are made of, are far richer and more magical than the words in our modern languages. Each Sanskrit sound is a both a story and an adventure. Each Sanskrit sound is a mantra. A mantra is a sound vibration powerful enough to push back the boundaries of the mind. (In Sanskrit mantra literally means, that which can liberate the mind.) Sanskrit mantras are doorways to another universe: the universe of self-discovery.
Yoga’s process of self-discovery can show us a way out of the conundrum of wanting more for humanity without wanting less for ourselves. To understand how yoga psychology can accomplish this feat, and bring us to a state of abundance, we must understand six Sanskrit words or mantras. They are: karma, dharma, kama, kripa, yajna, and yoga. Taken together these six mantras form the basis of the modern yogi’s lifestyle.
Karma is physics. It is the consequence of past actions. Karma is responsible for your genetics, your culture, and your lot in life. Genetics is the kind of body you have (tall, short, athletic, hobbled, etc.) Culture is the circumstances of your birth and/or upbringing (race, class etc,) and your lot is what you have coming in life (money, difficulties, good times, etc…) This can be a bit of a difficult pill to for some to swallow. It makes some feel as though they are hopelessly trapped by destiny. This, however, is not the case. There is plenty of hope.
Karma is inextricably intertwined with past lives. When we view life through the lens of past lives, life makes more sense. It is easier to understand why good things happen to bad people and vice-versa. The karma described in yoga philosophy is somewhat different than the popular notion of instant karma. According to the yogic theory of karma the results of your activities in this life have more to do with what you did in previous births. This can be very confusing to contemplate and might even suggest a course of inaction, “why put out the effort if outcomes are predetermined?” This is not recommended, because failure to play the game to your fullest dooms you to another round with increased difficulties. Karma is the hard-wired consequences of your actions, going back farther than you can ever remember. It is not a reason to give up or feel defeat.
The most discomforting aspect of karma is that, although you know what your genetics and culture are, you can never know what lot awaits you. Even Vedic sciences like astrology, Brighu readings, or face reading, give only cursory and vague indications of what lies ahead. So, what do you do if you have no way of knowing if prosperity or tragedy awaits you? You do what any spiritual warrior would do. You assume the best, and prepare for the worst.
If karma is what you are stuck with, dharma is what you do with your karma. Dharma is an exciting and multifaceted story. It has to do with what is right. In that sense dharma means virtue. Dharma also holds the key to discovering who you really are. Dharma is your essence, your true nature. Dharma is inherently reciprocal. When you protect dharma, dharma protects you. Dharma is the opportunity to redefine who you are by choosing to be defined by your actions (dharma) rather than your assets (karma.) So, if life hands you obstacles, or even a tragedy, you either go dharmic on it, and turn the fire of adversity into fuel for growth or you capitulate and let the fire burn down all hope.
The essence of dharma is the drive to connect with spirit. This same impulse is part of the creative impulse. This is why art, music, science, and literature, is, at its best, about gaining access to the indescribable, the mysterious, and the exquisite-absolute truth. The negation of dharma is the laborious effort to try and control the unconquerable realm of matter. Because matter is transient it offers only the illusion of stability and can never be fully controlled. Consequently, no amount of material success will ever bring a sense of abundance. Dharma is the courage-instilling-adventure of stepping into the unknown and discovering who we really are, and what we are capable of.
In your heart is a city overpopulated with longings, lust, and desires of every possible size and shape. If this city had a name it would be Kama. Kama includes every material desire you have, or will ever have. Kama also represents one of the greatest opportunities for spiritual growth that awaits you: the chance to harness a force greater than all the material obstacles put together. Kama is the secret weapon of all great yogis and spiritual warriors. Because they know that kama does not originate in the realm of matter. Kama is originally a part of spirit, intrinsic to the soul. Only as a consequence of our having forgotten our spiritual nature did kama become colored by material desires. The secret to redirecting the power of kama is to replace our material goals with spiritual goals. You do this by analyzing your material wishes and figuring out a way to make them spiritual. [See box inset for examples]
Basically the modern yogi only has three options for dealing with the endless desires of the heart: 1) ignore or repress them and eventually suffer the consequences, 2) submit to them and attempt to fulfill them and eventually suffer the consequences, or 3) engage them in the pursuit of spirit and make them work for you.
If the mysterious, the exquisite, or the absolute have an emblem, it is the inconceivable quality of kripa, or mercy. Kripa means grace. It is the only force capable of making an end run on karma. Outrageous quantities of it are all around us, yet it cannot be mined or extracted at will. Those who attain it know its intrinsic properties: uncontrollable and undeserved. Though we can never command it, we can dispense it freely. It is the one thing you can never purchase, yet you have an unlimited supply to give away.
For those who are interested in obtaining it, yoga philosophy does offer one clue; it is all about who you know. Similar to knowing the doorman at a club and getting an undeserved break, resulting in quicker entry, association with spiritually advanced persons results in being moved to the head of the line. Consequently, the modern yogi is always anxious to serve the saintly.
Yajna (pronounced yug-yuh)
Yajna is Sanskrit for sacrifice. In the ancient practice of mystic yoga, sacrifice involved elaborate rituals or extreme acts of self-denial. For the modern yogi sacrifice is about engaging everything you have in service of spirit and humanity. In other words, “What is the least you can need, so you can do the most for others?”
Some people are apprehensive about the word sacrifice. Interestingly, the word sacrifice is synonymous with the word yoga. In this context of modern yoga, sacrifice does not mean performing painful austerities. It means making everything sacred. This is the origin of the word (Latin=sacrificium; from sacer or holy + fic, from facere to make.)
Making life sacred is based on the practice of engagement (versus renunciation.) Yogic engagement means you give more than you use. The modern yogi should be able to support spiritual programs, give in charity, and provide for the welfare of those who work exclusively for the benefit of humanity.
All of this takes money. From this perspective the modern yogi is expected to make money, but not for personal indulgence. The guiding principle is, “What is the minimum needed to serve the server?”
The word Yoga is a powerful mantra. It is a universe of stories, histories and adventures. Yoga opens the door to a waking world where each day brings new awareness and experience.
Literally it means, “To yoke”. This yoking, or connecting, refers to restoring the relationship between the self and its original source, the source of all abundance. Another Sanskrit synonym for yoga is atma-jnana: which means journey of self-discovery. Yoga has always been about self-discernment; i.e. knowing yourself. Through self-knowledge yogis discover what they can they can and cannot control. A yogi then derives power from knowing they have no control over life’s outcomes. Yoga is about living what you can control and not being controlled by what you cannot live.
Abundance exists in the now
It is interesting to note that abundance seems to elude the poor and rich alike. Too little money will almost always lead to unhappiness. Too much money also leads to unhappiness (although not the same unhappiness of being too poor.) After meeting one’s basic needs, increasing income tends to lead to increased consumption. This leads to what researchers call, the hedonic-treadmill-hypothesis, where nothing is ever quite enough. Fortunately, spiritual happiness depends neither on abject poverty, nor material success. It does, however, depend on being able to live in a state of abundance.
Abundance is not measured by what you have, but by what you can give away. Those who have little but give a lot are often happy. Those who have a lot, but give little, often are not. If you start today and figure out what is the least you can need, so you can do the most for others, then abundance manifests immediately. Why wait for something that exists in the now.
Culver City, California – A tired and poor black man shuffles by the Starbucks. A motivated-pencil-skirted young woman strides briskly into the store. A hip-hop based soundtrack plays over the scene from a Mercedes-Benz idling at the stop light. Jacaranda-tree-filtered-sunlight gently fills the outdoor patio. The question occurs to me at that precise moment. What is this place? What am I doing here?
This query seems to stir up a desire to be of help to others. As that thought rises up through the self-conscious soup of my mind, I can’t help blushing at the unoriginality of it.
It feels both presumptuous and arrogant to think I can be of help to anyone. Up to this point I had thought, if I knew more about yoga and its psychological implications than most people, I would be allowed to play the part of teacher or expert. In a quiet moment of self-honesty, however, this seems hopelessly grandiose.
As that hopped-up caterpillar sitting on his toadstool puffing on his hookah would rightfully say to me, “And whoooo are YOU?!??” After all, my life has hardly been a paragon of principle and virtue. I have lied, cheated, stolen, and participated in countless amounts of self-indulgence. However, having been there, done that, the longing to be a little more selfless and perhaps encourage others to share this journey of self-reclamation with me persists. Why invite others to come along on this journey? The words of Mark Twain come to mind, “Misery can be experienced on its own but to get the full measure of joy you have someone to share it with.”
Inviting others to share any type of journey or event, however, is fraught with peril. Not just the peril of presumption that arises from thinking one knows better than others, but even worse, the risk of over-thinking and mechanized parts of life that are meant to stay organic and spontaneous.
The good news for the reluctant explorer is that the journey suggested in these letters is predicated on Yoga (the ancient transformative one, not the sweating and bending one.) The wisdom reservoir of Yoga has a plan for defusing the tension and tendency of over mechanizing the journey of self-discovery.
Yoga’s built in fluidity compensates for time and circumstance (see my summary on the history of Vedanta.) Yoga additionally suggests an approach that begins with an expedient amount of structure and discipline but blossoms into irrepressible spontaneity (see my article the hidden history of Yoga.)
The goal of these letters (articles, blogs, electronic offerings…) is to hew to the fluid, structured, spontaneous nature of Yoga while exploring the lesser-known face of Yoga: a system of psychology, a healer of identity and the synthesis of celebration and scholarship.
The goal of the author is to offer his services as valet. Allow him to hold your coat and baggage while you enter and explore the working dimensions of the world of yoga psychology.
The goal of life is to learn how to be a modern yogi: balanced, focused, kind, connected to spirit, and happy to serve; all while grabbing a decaf mocha latte, answering your iPhone and surfing the waves of 21st century life.
See you soon.
Your servant with love,