When we’re born, we don’t realise that we are setting out on what will be an unknown, epic journey. A life unfolds over a long time, and our understanding of its meaning changes and ripens with experiences, one connecting to another in succession. Over time, we come to think we know what to expect, until life throws us a curve ball. The first time we are thrown into the deep end of the unknown, it can be debilitating. The phrase ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and ‘crisis builds character’ are anthems of my adolescence.
Somehow though, learning how to continue through uncertainty and seeing it out through to the other side can be immensely important for spiritual development, if that is something of interest. On the other hand, humans are experts in sweeping entire uncomfortable experience under the carpet; on many fronts this has resulted in ‘history repeating itself’. All too often the choice to forget the discomfort resorts in old habit patterns overtaking the memory of the negative experience itself. The preset behaviour is so strong that we forget any lessons learned until another crisis is again, right under our noses.
If not from our habit patterns (that might help us manage through difficult times but not without consequence), where does the courage to continue come from in a world that is full of unknowns?
Today we are sitting on the precipice of unending uncertainty. Who knows what the world will look like in 6 months, or in a year? In a short amount of time, many people have experienced immeasurable loss: loss of loved ones, jobs, relationships, to name a few. Picking up the pieces while trying to carry on can be a daunting task, one that can seem insurmountable at times.
The Gītā Dhyānam, the pre-quel to the Bhagavad Gītā, reminds us that the practice of yoga is for everybody* – even, and especially when things fall completely apart; when we reach our darkest hour. It says ‘even the weakest, the oldest, those that cannot speak for sorrow, that those who cannot walk for lameness’ will find a place of solace on the path of yoga…if we can simply learn to surrender**.
It does not imply that the path is easy or effortless. It says nothing about overnight transformation. The most challenging thing, though, will not be learning to balance on one’s hands or performing gymnastics; it will be learning to get out of your own way, to put the ego aside and show up, with humility**.
Of course, many of us do show up to yoga, under the guise of humble student but with a cast-iron ego protecting our ingrained beliefs that keep our false sense of self intact. *This is why my yoga teacher David Life would claim that yoga is not for every body. It is for those who are willing to change.
What this time in lockdown has taught me so far is that the unknown, and all it’s variations, is yet another habit pattern of the ego – it is an avatar of fear, and fear only comes from within. We make it up in our minds! To make the unknown-known requires getting out of the mind’s fluctuations and into the present. Making the unknown-known requires taking things step by step.
This is the practice of yoga, a sequencial, guided unfolding of actions, with some restriction, in a progression over time. Handstand is not possible without building up an understanding of gravity, proprioception, muscle strength and flexibility. All these things must be present before adding in the humility to understand when not to jump, and when to have the courage to lift a large part of the body up in the air. For most, this is a process that takes time. It could even take a long time. Hopefully, by the time the body and mind are prepared for adho mukha vṛkṣāsana, the yogi has learned many more important things about fostering good relationship along the way, so that by the time handstand is accessible, the importance of the process has overridden the importance of the goal.
The courage to carry on in challenging circumstances comes in meeting yourself where you are; in knowing you are doing the best you can in any given moment and not allowing the mind to get too far ahead of itself. Having the bravery to help another who is suffering – to do everything you can to boost them up, is another way of giving yourself a lift. In this way, together we find one foot in front of the other, walking over the steepest of mountains! What is the point of only elevating yourself out of misery if all of those around you are in peril?
While we may be quarantined again by the government and by the need to stay out of harm’s way, the courage to continue comes from giving the heart freedom**… a proverbial hand, a kind thought, a simple gester of friendliness goes a long way.
**Surrender, humility, giving the heart freedom…all of these are ways of remembering God. Whether God means basic goodness, loving awareness, higher power, The Lord, or some other incarnation of the divine, the basic underlying principle of the yoga practice is the cultivation of faith by offering our efforts up to something other than our own ego; for most of the time, the ego creates the cycle of suffering to begin with.