Perhaps some of these experiences are familiar to you:
It’s morning and you hop out of bed ready to begin your daily yoga practice. Two minutes into practice a deep craving for chocolate arises. At a certain point it becomes so compelling that you abandon downward dog and head to the kitchen, even though you know that practicing the postures will mitigate your cravings.
Another day you sit down on your meditation cushion and begin to watch your breath. Your silent reverie is shattered as a bubble of anxiety about a difficult conversation with your partner bursts open and floods your attention. Try as you might, you cannot quell the eruption of memory and projection about the situation, even though you know that a few calm quiet breaths will give you a more balanced perspective on the challenge.
You are really and truly happy. As you look around your life, you see that you are surrounded by blessings. But, in the presence of others, you compare yourself to them and find yourself lacking. Your home isn’t as luxurious or your spouse doesn’t behave like theirs does. Every time this happens you find that your sense of self is deflated.
You have been at the top of your game for years in your chosen career when the tide shifts suddenly and you find your role is no longer relevant. As you go through the process of decision making about your future, you are plagued by the nagging sense that some critical piece of yourself is being stripped away from you.
You are about to begin a new project at work. It is a great opportunity and you are excited about it. But nagging fear and insecurity disrupt your ability to focus on the project itself.
You are offered a new project at work which is a great opportunity. Your ego, rightfully it may seem, inflates. In that state of inflation you inadvertently alienate a dear friend, a lover, or a colleague essential to the success of the project.
The person in the cubicle next to you at work has a tendency towards mild vulgarity. Nothing far outside conventional boundaries, but you find yourself feeling squeamish in their presence, often going way out of your way to avoid making eye contact.
As the years go by you experience despair about changes in your body.
You are given an opportunity for a great adventure: climbing a mountain, doing your first handstand or going on a first date with someone you really like. You find that you are too overwhelmed with fear to fully participate.
Yoga is a success practice. The practices of yoga clear away the debris which keeps us from leading successful lives. In my experience it is one of the world’s most consistently powerful tools for transformation. It sometimes takes some time, but often happens quite quickly. The success may not be visible or outwardly apparent to others, but consistent practices reliably bears the fruit of small inner victories. Moment by moment the yoga practitioner acquires the skillful means to conquer the psychological afflictions which keep them fettered and dis-empowered. Those small internal victories are like bricks in a foundation for good living.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he summarizes the afflictions as:
Avidya (ignorance) the experience of being submerged in and identified with the material. Feeling worthy or unworthy based on what we own or the shape of our body is an example of being identified with the material.
Asmita (I am-ness) the experience of seeing the world through mundane personal perception. When our sense of being “right” obscures the objective nature of a conflict, or when we become so strongly opinionated that we alienate others we are perceiving from a limited perspective.
Raga – Attachment – to call forth again and again a desire for an object which previously gave us pleasure.
Dvesha – Aversion – to repeatedly push away an object which previously caused us pain.
Abinivesha – Fear of death – All fear emerges from the the fear of death.
Afflictions is an ideal word, because you may notice that these painful inner tendencies appear powerfully and abruptly at the most inconvenient times. Sometimes they are experienced as torments, as though something external is hammering at us.
There is a beautiful story told about the Buddha’s awakening. The Buddha, prior to his great awakening, was living in great austerity as a wondering sadhu or holy man. One day when he went to touch his belly he discovered that his body was so wasted away that he could touch his spine. There was no flesh between the belly and spine. At that moment he realized that he was off his path and that depriving himself to such an extreme was counterproductive to his mission to awaken. The practices he’d been doing were not leading him to the truth he was seeking. He walked away from those practices and committed to sitting under the bodhi tree until he awakened. “There must be a better way”. During the night as he sat in meditation, he was plagued by afflictions – ancient memories and profound self-reflections unfurled in his interior space. At one point, Mara the demon, the ego himself, appeared, flinging sharp arrows at the peacefully sitting Buddha. As those arrows neared the form of the Buddha, the sharp arrowheads transformed into flower blossoms, showering down upon him. The Buddha understood that Mara the demon and the arrows he shot were not coming from outside of him, but were generated internally. The practices of yoga, approached with consistency and awareness, empower us to manage our own minds, bodies and spirits, transforming the arrows of the afflictions into blossoms and blessings.
So, how do we do this? Patanjali says that the kleshas, or afflictions, can be resolved through the committed effort to address them through discipline, self-awareness and letting go.
The first step is to commit to a practice. I suggest you begin with asana, or physical yoga postures. Make the commitment manageable. It is better to start with five minutes a day that you actually successfully complete than to make grand commitment of an hour which, in practice, is very difficult to do. As you fulfill one level of commitment, expansion occurs fluidly on the strong foundation of commitment. This is discipline in practice.
The second step is to develop awareness of the afflictions themselves. One way to do this is to set any alarm to go off three, four or five times a day, and note the state of your mind when the alarm goes off. Are any of Patanjali’s affliction’s occurring when the alarm goes off? This is a practice which increases self-awareness.
Third, begin to discern if the triggers for the afflictions that you note in the alarm exercise are things you can change, or things you cannot change. For the things that you can change, as part of the discipline process, take one step a day to change them. For example, conflict about weight can be resolved by committing to one small painless adjustment. As the shelter in place extended, I found myself putting on weight. I changed my grain portion from a third of a cup to a fourth of a cup, for every meal (I eat many whole grains). I didn’t expect a difference, but it occurred, and I never felt hungry. For things you cannot change practice just being spacious and not judging the situation, moment by moment.
Before you know it, you’ll notice that the affliction have less ability to disrupt you, and that you have more power to move forward in your life.
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