Good intentions…

I went through a phase where I never made New Year’s resolutions because the “loose 5 pounds” goal was getting a little old and redundant. Plus, I didn’t feel like it was a healthy goal (in the sense that it just promoted the negativity of my body-image issues)… but now I’m looking at new years resolutions from a different angle where it is a good and healthy practice.  Making an intention is like taking aim or pointing your arrow at a target. So here’s what I did this year…

A positive 2013…

  • Reviewed all my accomplishments
  • Reviewed all my actions or words I regretted – Okay. So nobody likes this step. But it is necessary to bring light to who you do not want to be as well as who you do… Write them down just so you can tear them up or throw them in a fire. It’s very relieving.

“You can’t step consciously into the next phase of your life unless you bring consciousness to your past.” ~Sally Kempton

  • Asked myself 3 questions:
  1. What would I most like to accomplish this year?
  2. How do I want to live my life?
  3. What qualities in myself would I like to bring forth?

One of my intentions is to get a clear sense of what I’m meant to offer as a teacher. I know I have found my passion working with special needs children but what is going to make me an exceptional teacher? Patience, loving, compassion, consistency? Yes, all of the above. But honestly, all of those things are standard issue for the job. Requirements, really. I’m not exactly sure yet what will make me exceptional, but I think it will have something to do with yoga. Kids yoga!

“If your intention is clear enough, it gives a focused direction to everything you do, and you find yourself making choices that naturally expedite the journey toward your goal.” ~Sally Kempton

Happy resolutions!

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What to do when…

…LIFE gets in the way of your YOGA practice.

Here’s my dilemma: Work during the day. Volunteer during the day. Paper due by midnight. Halfway finished. Yoga 6:45-8:30pm. I am totally useless past 9pm.

What to do… 

1. Do it in your living room… Or kitchen, or bedroom. Pick your favorite spot, throw down your mat and do your thang. No, it’s not the same as going to class. Personally, I love classes, the energy from the other people gets me going and not to mention there is somebody there to challenge me into new asanas my body has never seen. However, I also like my solo practice. It’s calming, quiet, and who can complain about having the world’s-best-dog lay next to your mat (and sometimes ON your mat) and kiss you during savasana?  So, no, you won’t have any help in your latest pose adventure, but there’s something to be said about doing it all by yourself.  Better yet, do it outside and get some vitamin D/fresh air/sounds of nature/sounds of the city while you’re at it.

2. Drink a chai while you study… Seriously. New studies show that coffee and tea are great nutritious snacks (in moderation). That’s almost as exciting as the study that says that chocolate is good for you, right? Almost. I’m not a big caffeine person and I don’t drink coffee, but chai has just the right amount of caffeine for me. I like to use two Tazo Organic Chai tea bags (for extra spice), 1/2 cup of soy milk, and a splash of pure vanilla extract. Caffeine speeds up your metabolism and gives your brain a little kick to get you into study mode.

3. Take meditation breaks… And by meditation I mean any activity that gives you a brain-break. Walk the dog, sit on your porch, take deep breaths, cook dinner, whatever it is that calms you. When I take Bailey for a walk I usually realize halfway through that my mind has been completely free of thought, just focusing on the simple act of walking. If that’s not meditation tell me what is.

Bailey likes meditation breaks.

4. Yoga will wait for you… Realize that your practice will be there when you need it most. Yoga is pretty dang reliable. To be honest, this one is hard for me. Mostly because I want to conquer that next pose. But I realize that in this moment what I need most is not yoga (sigh), it is to be a good student.

5. Focus on the present moment… Blah, blah, blah, right? You hear it over and over again but it’s true. If I focus on why I am skipping yoga it helps. I am writing a paper to make an ‘A’ in this class. An ‘A’ in this class gives me more knowledge in my field making me, potentially, a better teacher. I am actively preparing for my future in this moment, writing this paper, drinking my chai.

Whatever it is that you must do instead of yoga, go do it. It’s okay. Life happens. Yoga will wait for you.

Goal setting…

This year, for the first time ever, I am going to write down my goals. Long term and short term. Goal setting is believed to make you happier and more productive. Goals can be large or small, playful or serious, but the more daring the goal, the more likely it is to be effective as a catalyst to action.

I feel like I’ve made some big leaps and bounds in my personal life in the last few years and  I have yoga to thank for opening my mind. With the power of self-realization (still in the process) I am going to dig deep and set my goals.

“Failing is an essential part of success. To make goals effective, you have to fail at them 50 percent of the time, or they didn’t stretch you far enough.” ~Chip Wilson (founder of Lululemon Athletica)

I found these steps to goal setting in an article inspired by Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon, in my monthly Yoga Journal. The article states one of his goals was to climb the Grouse Mountain trail, a steep hike (2,800-foot vertical rise over 2 miles) near downtown Vancouver. The challenge was not just to get to the top, but to climb it at least as many times as the number of his age each year. In 2011, at 56, he had hiked to the top 56 times by September, achieving his goal. What a great personal goal to keep him active and healthy. Which also reminded me that my goals don’t have to all be about career, they can (and should) be about personal health too.

Aim high… steps to goal setting

1.  Imagine… Start by thinking of your life 10 years from now. Imagine a detailed picture of where you see yourself. What kind of home do you have? Who do you spend time with? What work do you do? How does it feel?

2.  Break it down… Work backward from that vision to figure out the steps you need to take to turn your vision into reality. Define 10-year, 5-year, and 1-year goals.

3.  Set deadlines… It’s easier to get yourself focused on a quantifiable goal with a “by-when” date. For instance, if you’re hoping to become a yoga teacher some day, turn that into “I will complete a 200-hour training by January 2014.”

4.  Test your goals… Read your goals aloud to see if they feel authentic. If you feel a little tension in your belly as you read, that’s probably good. Powerful goals will excite you and drive you to action.

5.  Recruit support… Share your goals with friends who you know will support you. Encourage them in their goals as well. The mutual support will help you make it to your personal finish line.

6.  Revisit and refresh… Write your goals on a piece of paper and keep it where you will read it often. Feel free to revise them. Nothing’s set in stone except your commitment to achieve the success you are capable of.

Here I go…

A yogi’s prayer for 2012…

May all who are mean return to good;
May all who are good obtain true peace.
May all who are peaceful be freed from bonds;
May all who are free set others free.

Blessings upon all the earth;
May all of the world’s rulers uphold righteousness.
May only good fortune reach everyone;
May all the world’s creatures be happy.

May rain fall when the earth is thirsty;
May all the storehouses be filled.
May everyone here be free from injury;
May all who are good be free from fear.

May everyone know a life of joy;
May everyone live a life of health.
May everyone see only good in the world;
May everyone soon be released from pain.

May everyone overcome all their woes;
May everyone see only good in the world.
May everyone realize all their desires;
May everyone everywhere be glad.

May our mother and father be blessed;
Blessings upon every creature on earth.
May our works flourish and aid everyone,
And long may our eyes see the sun.

Om shanti, shanti, shanti (peace).

(From Mukunda Stiles’s “Structural Yoga Therapy”)

Beyond belief…

{Yoga and your religion}

Is yoga a religion?… Most American yoga students would answer this question with a simple no. As practitioners, we aren’t required to adhere to a particular faith or obliged to observe religious rituals such as baptisms or bar mitzvahs. We aren’t asked to believe in God, to attend organized worship services, or learn specific prayers.

And yet, Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an ancient text that is widely referred to in yoga classes today, clearly presents a moral code for yogis to follow and outlines the path toward a mystical state of enlightenment known as samadhi, or union with the Divine.

So, even if yoga is not practiced like a religion today, did it descend from a religion and morph into a form of spirituality? Is it naive to think of yoga as a wholly secular activity? These are questions essential  to explore, as yoga is increasingly taught in schools, hospitals, and secular institutions across the country. Some religious leaders and parents have expressed concern about yoga in schools, leading yoga teachers to strip the practice of anything remotely foreign or spiritual. But can you teach this way and still call it yoga?

Yoga Journal asked practicing yogis and scholars to give their thoughts on the intersection of yoga, religion, spirituality, and mysticism. Their answers reveal a spectrum of opinions as deep and wide as the practice of yoga itself.

The panel of yogis include Brooke Boon, the founder of Holy Yoga, a nonprofit christian ministry that promotes intentionally connecting the body, mind, and spirit with Christ. David Frawley is the founder and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies which offers courses and publications on Ayurvedic medicine, yoga, meditation, and Vedic astrology. Gary Kraftsow is the founder and director of the American Viniyoga institute. Kraftsow holds a master’s in depth psychology and religion and studied Tantra with the mystic-scholar V.A. Devasenapathi and yoga with T.K.V. Desikachar. Finally, Stefanie Syman is a writer that has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for  years. She wrote The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, in which she pieces together yoga’s history in America and the many permutations it has undergone.

The conversation…

  • Did yoga originate from Hinduism?

Gary Kraftsow – The big issue is how you define terms. The origins of Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga are Vedic, which predates the kind of formulation of what we call “modern Hinduism.” I think that, although the sources of Hinduism and yoga are the same, yoga as tradition predates the formulation of what modern Hindus think of as their religion.

David Frawley – Well, the main point I would make is, as Gary says, how do you define terms? In terms of the classical yoga, predominantly it comes from the Hindu tradition. Modern yoga, however, particularly as practiced and understood in the West, often has a different meaning. It’s more on the asana side, and it has moved away from the spiritual and religious connection in some groups, so it can have different definition and a different meaning for people. But even a lot of the modern yoga still has a kind of spiritual aura and connections to India. We see that particularly in the kirtan {devotional chanting} movement.

It’s also important to note that yoga has a tradition of dharma. And religion in the Western sense, as a belief system, is often different from a dharma tradition. Dharma, like yoga, is a difficult term to translate. Some call it natural law or the law of consciousness universe. All dharmic traditions emphasize universal ethics like ahimsa {nonviolence}, the theory of karma and rebirth, and a culture of meditation. But not all – for example, Buddhism – postulate any God or creator of the universe. Though recognizing a cosmic creator (known as Ishvara), most Hindu and Vedantic yoga traditions emphasize Self-realization, rather than worship of God, as their main focus.

So, yoga’s not a belief system. And may of the other traditions coming out of India – Hindu and otherwise – are not belief systems like Christianity, which has one singular perspective that followers have to adopt. Dharmic traditions emphasize knowledge and direct experience at an individual level over outer belief structures. Dharmic traditions emphasize the same type of freedom in our approach to spiritual truth that we have in out outer lives today. We are free, for example, to choose the food that we wish to eat or the job that we wish to follow. Dharmic traditions are pluralistic in that they provide a variety of paths for different types of people and do not have one standard approach for everyone.

  • Should parents who follow a non-Hindu religious faith be concerned that the yoga taught in their child’s school might interfere with religious ideas that they are teaching their children?

David Frawley – Well, it depends again on what you’re teaching as yoga. Obviously, yoga has a number of levels and dimensions: yoga asana, pranayama, yoga meditation to clear the mind – even an atheist can do these. These practices don’t necessarily have a religious connotation, but they do have a spiritual connotation. But overall, I think if we teach yoga in a way that is not overtly religious, there should not be any problem in teaching it in schools or in other public locations.

That being said, there are also yoga groups in private who, of course, can teach whatever they want. If we then go on to meditation, mantra, chanting, and other things, then those are more in the spiritual or quasi-religious domain and may pose more trouble for certain groups in the West.

Gary Kraftsow – You know, I’d like to add this one comment: Yoga was never secular, traditionally. It was always connected to spirituality, and spirituality was never separated from religion. But the spiritual dimensions of yoga were used by many different religions. Although religious-specific faiths taught yoga, the actual yoga teachings were used by many different religions. So I think this distinction between yoga as a spiritual journey that supports religion versus yoga as a religion is very useful.

And then the current modern context is that yoga is secular. Yoga is adaptable. So yoga can be presented in a secular context that has no elements of spirituality, or it can be presented as a spiritual discipline that supports the Christian faith or the Buddhist faith or the Hindu faith.

David Frawley – I’d like to add that classical yoga is concerned with religious experience or spiritual realizations at an individual level, rather than promoting one en masse faith. So, in that regard, yoga has a certain adaptability and universality, and we can apply yoga in many contexts. At the same time, yoga does have a certain philosophy. Yoga is not exclusive; it doesn’t insist upon a particular belief, but a lot of classical yoga philosophy does bring in concepts like karma and rebirth that certain religious communities may have difficulty with. We should bear that in mind.

  • So, do you believe, then, that the concept of yoga as Self-realization conflicts with the Judeo-Christian belief of God realization?

Stefanie Syman – If you are seeing yoga as a spiritual discipline and taking its claims seriously and are on that path – a classical yoga path, a path beyond asana, well beyond asana – then I do think, at a certain point, you get into some pretty big metaphysical and theological disparities. Which is not to say you can’t teach yoga in schools in a way that is productive and doesn’t tread on religion. It’s just what you’re teaching may not – You know, at what point, I wonder is that still yoga?

Gary Kraftsow – So, I just want to make a couple of comments that you may or may not be aware of. First of all, let me start with a quick anecdote: Krishnamacharya was a very old man when I was studying with him, and he basically said that when you gain discriminative awareness, you have Self-realization, which is equivalent to God realization. And so, for him, the goal of yoga was merging with God. But I look at one of his students, S. Ramaswami, and for him the goal was Self-realization separate from God realization. So, it’s not that in classical yoga there’s one definition of what the goal is.

I think the only disparity is if you assume that there’s one yoga doctrine about the goal of life. But what I’m saying is, historically, there is not. Different religions that formulated their goals differently all used yoga.

David Frawley – Yoga is more aligned with the mystical experience, and Self-realization developed through that. Although all religions have a mystical dimension to some degree, certain sects do not accept mystical revelation. So it’s usually those groups that are opposed to mysticism that have some issues with yoga.

Stefanie Syman – I think, David, that’s a very excellent point. I had the experience of speaking with a prominent Baptist leader, and he basically that no one should practice yoga. He just cannot accept that yoga should be available to Christians for their own type of revelation. So, I agree: it’s not anything inherent in yoga, but as a practitioner of a different faith, you may find some conflict, depending on your tradition.

  • So, there are shades of belief within the yogic experience. Brooke, do you feel that there are shades of belief within the Christian experience, especially as it pertains to yoga?

Brooke Boon – Without a doubt. I think most Christians are uneducated about yoga, and what they have heard is rooted in fear: that it is Hindu; it can’t be separated: that somehow the postures, the movement of the body or the breath, or yoking is something other than the God of their own faith, and so it gets very confusing. They have a lot of fear.

At Holy Yoga we simply say, “God is sovereign.” If you believe that God is sovereign in terms of the truine God, you can stand in that and you can exercise the spiritual discipline of growing closer to God in intimacy and awareness.

That doesn’t go over well in a lot of Christian communities. But this is what it is for us. It’s about God realization, who Christ is, that coming-alive in an intimate way of Self-realization in response to who God is. So, in answer to your question, there is definitely a difference in different sects of Christianity.

  • Brooke, do you feel that any of hatha yoga’s basic rituals, such as breathing practice or meditation, conflict with your personal practice or religion?

Brooke Boon – No, not at all. In fact, I believe that we were created in the image of God, for the glory of God, for the worship of God. An all of these things that we’re talking about in terms of Western yoga that we practice in gyms and in studios – the pranayama, the meditation, and the asana – all three of this things are addressed in the Bible.

I believe that yoga is a spiritual discipline that draws you closer to God. And so, if that is true, then the intention of my heart trumps the posture of my body. I think if some of these people who are fearful about yoga looked to the word of God in terms of the modalities of yoga, I think it would ease the apprehension.

  • So, in your mind, the intention of the practice is as important as the rituals of the practice.

Brooke Boon – I think it’s more important.

Gary Kraftsow – I agree with her completely. In yoga I think the intention is the whole key, so it’s all about intentionality.

Brooke Boon – God looks at the heart and not the body. It always comes down to intentionality.

David Frawley – Yes, and even in yoga, the heart is the place of unity in which the entire universe dwells inside us.

  • Beautiful. So, going on a slightly different trajectory for a moment, I’m curious how you feel about people taking some of the spirituality out of yoga. If yoga is being taught in a school and the teacher is not allowed to say Namaste or they have to create different names for things, like “bunny breathing” instead of “pranayama,” do you feel like some of the essence of yoga is being lost?

David Frawley – Certainly. I mean, the deeper practices of yoga philosophy are all very important. In fact, yoga is primarily meditation, it is primarily deeper spiritual essence, and it has its own profound philosophy of life.

That being said, I can understand why they might do it, but they should recognize that there are those for whom yoga is a sacred spiritual practice, and they have trouble with it being simply secularized or, even worse, commercialized.

I think it’s important to realize that there is the other yoga community out there for whom yoga is a spiritual and even sometimes religious discipline, as well. And we can use the secular yoga for its benefits, its health benefits, which certainly should be there for all humanity, but we should recognize that yoga as a term can mean more than that, as well.

Gary Kraftsow – But, you know, yoga is for everyone. So it’s totally appropriate for me to help somebody with back pain who’s not interested at the moment in anything deeper; it’s consistent that you adapt the practices to suit the individual where they are. So, it’s fine to do it as long as it’s done respectfully so that those for whom it is more sacred and even perhaps religious don’t feel that their sacred symbols are being disrespected.

  • So, you can teach asana to people of any faith, but do you think it’s possible to teach the deeper aspects of yoga in a way that doesn’t cross boundaries of ideology and belief?

Gary Kraftsow – Yeah, I think absolutely. There’s a lot of money and research now from the government and various organizations – our military even – going into this field of mind-body medicine. When we say that asana is just exercise, we shouldn’t belittle exercise. They’re showing that exercise of many kinds, not just asana, is more powerful in many cases than psychiatric pharmacology in certain kinds of depression. I think we can definitely teach a mind-body connection and teach deeper aspects of yoga without any language that would conflict with anyone’s ideology.

David Frawley – One more point is that I think yoga should challenge our belief systems. I don’t think we have to say yoga doesn’t challenge our belief systems. Yoga should challenge our belief systems in a positive way of creating more peace, understanding, discrimination, and higher awareness, and connecting us to a greater universal truth, rather than getting us caught in barriers and boundaries. It should help us break down these social, political, religious, ideological, and philosophical boundaries. But it can’t be neutral and inoffensive.

Even science can be offensive to certain religious groups. We can’t say science will no be taught in those schools.

Gary Kraftsow – Right.

Brooke Boon – I completely agree with that, yes.

Stefanie Syman – I think it’s been very effective to promote yoga for back pain and depression, but I also think that it’s kind of this double-edged thing, where you promote a very secular yoga and, in so doing, lose sight of some of its greatest potential, or certainly its purpose. We want to separate out the secular element from the spiritual elements, and I always wonder if that’s totally possible.

Gary Kraftsow – Well, I hear what you are saying, but if you have a deeper initiation into the broader tradition of yoga, then you recognize that what’s relevant for one individual group isn’t the same as another. If you see what is going to be appropriate for the individual or the group you’re working with, you can adapt and give them what’s going to serve them.

You don’t want to shove mantra and prayer at someone who’s not interested in it. The role of a teacher is to be able to assess appropriately the context that they’re teaching in and adapt the tools appropriately so that it serves the people that you’re working with.

So it’s not like there’s one thing and that we’re doing some kind of fragmentation. I think the deeper initiation and understanding you have of yoga, your responsibility as a teacher is to make it available and accessable to the individuals that are coming to you for help at whatever level they’re coming.

That’s the emphasis of Krishnamacharya’s teaching – that yoga is for the individual. It’s not about the teacher; it’s about the practitioner. And our job is to provide for them what’s going to be useful for them where they are when they’re coming to us.

Brooke Boon – That’s right. I think that if we don’t secularize it at least a bit, then we’re going to miss out on introducing a lot of people to this amazing spiritual discipline of yoga.

  • There is a growing trend of incorporating Hindu iconography into yoga classes, such as Ganesh or telling stories of Hanuman or even chanting without translating the meaning of the chant. If a Christian person walks into a class like this, are they being asked to engage in things that conflict with their faith? Brooke, do you encourage your students to go to public classes?

Brooke Boon – I absolutely encourage them to go to any classes that interest them.  I think they find themselves most comfortable in Holy Yoga classes, and if that’s the case, then  I tell them that they should stay in Holy Yoga class. But for me, I’ve practiced in studios. Do I participate in chanting? No. One of my primary trainings is in Anusara Yoga and the other is in Ashtanga. I don’t chant, its not for me. Does it mean that it’s wrong? Absolutely not; it just means that I don’t participate because it’s not conductive to my faith and what I’m comfortable with.

Gary Kraftsow – A lot of the yoga teachers are just mechanically saying things like Namaste and chanting Om or they have a statue of Ganesh in their studio, without any deep understanding of what these things actually mean or represent. So, I think that there is a lack of education, and there’s sometimes an unfortunate sort of grafting of things that come from Hinduism onto yogic classes, without any real deep understanding of the meaning behind it. And I think that’s a problem.

David Frawley – Overall, I would say that the devotional element is essential to yoga, and if people are finding something of value in it, then I don’t think it’s a problem. See, we live in a global culture today; in the past, we had to follow the religion of our ancestors. Now, you have people in India becoming Christian; you have people in America influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, joining the Eastern religions, and so forth. I don’t think this has to be a problem. This is a part of global movement and we should see the value in it.

  • Any final thoughts?

David Frawley – I would like to add one point. A lot of the Western religions feel that yoga or Hinduism or Buddhism are polytheistic, and that isn’t true; they are pluralistic. They have a variety of names and forms and approaches to the one reality. These are not separate gods or separate deities in conflict with one another or anything like that. So, I think we have to teach yoga with that pluralistic point of view and with the understanding that pluralism not only extends within Eastern traditions but can extend through all religious, scientific, and philosophical traditions. That gets us out of this need to either accept a particular form or deny a particular form – they’re just part of the many options.

Gary Kraftsow – That’s so beautiful. It’s such an important statement, David. Thank you.

If you’re like me, some of these questions have weighed on your mind… especially during the holidays. Hopefully this brought you insight and peace. I personally believe it’s all about acceptance of others. We have to accept that other people have religions other than our own and respect their traditions. What they believe is just as important to them as yours is to you. On the other hand, if you’re questioning your religion that’s okay too, my favorite quote from this article is, “Yoga should challenge our belief systems in a positive way” (David Frawley). Meaning, it’s okay to challenge the rituals of your religion; it brings you closer to Self-realization and thus (if you believe) closer to God.

I don’t know about you but I’ve heard all my semi-adult life, “You have to know yourself before you can be a part of someone else.” I think this is so true. Yoga truly has led me to understand who I am at a deeper level than ever before. I feel like I finally truly know who I am.

Namaste Y’all,

{Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Seasons Greetings (etc). from the south}

Reference: Yoga Journal 2011

Gratitude…

Today I am reminded of a verse in the bible, “In everything give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). I am thankful for so many things in my life, mostly the things that didn’t work out as I planned because they turned out even better in the end. I am a true believer of  that old saying, “everything happens for a reason.” I wouldn’t trade my life for anything in the world, problems and all.

Sitting around with the family this morning, dog at foot, dad watching TV (Beauty and the Beast, we have a love for classic Disney movies!), mom cooking breakfast, brothers still asleep, and I’m reading through my Yoga Journal. I am not thinking about how grateful I am for all of these things when I stumble upon an article on Gratitude.

The practice of Selfless Gratitude…

Gratitude is the sweetest of all the practices for living the dharma in daily life and the most easily cultivated, requiring the least sacrifice for what is gained in return. It is a very powerful form of mindfulness practice, particularly for students who have depressive or self-defeating feelings, those who have access to wonder as an ecstatic state, and those with a reactive personality who habitually notice everything that’s wrong in a situation.

The Buddha taught that every human birth is precious and worthy of gratitude. In one of his well-known analogies, he said that receiving a human birth is more rare than the chance that a blind turtle floating in the ocean would stick its head through a small hoop. He would often instruct a monk to take his ground cloth into the forest, sit at the base of a tree, and begin “gladdening the heart” by reflecting on the series of fortunate circumstances that had given the monk the motivation and ability to seek freedom through understanding the dharma.

Practicing mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to life and the realization that there is a larger context in which your personal story is unfolding. Being relieved of the endless wants and worries of your life’s drama, even temporarily, is liberating. Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy. Gratitude can soften a heart that has become too guarded, and it builds the capacity for forgiveness, which creates the clarity of mind that is ideal for spiritual development.

Let me be clear: The practice of gratitude is not in any way a denial of life’s difficulties. We live in troubling times, and no doubt you’ve experienced many challenges, uncertainties, and disappointments in your own life. Nor does the practice of gratitude deny the Buddha’s teaching on death: Death is certain; your death is certain; the time of death is unknown; the time of your death is unknown. Rather, gratitude practice is useful because it turns the mind in such a way that it enables you to live into life or, more accurately, to die into life. Having access to the joy and wonderment of life is the antidote to feelings of scarcity and loss. It allows you to meet life’s difficulties with an open heart. The understanding you gain from practicing gratitude frees you from being lost or identified with either the negative or the positive aspects of life, letting you simply meet life in each moment as it rises.

In the Bible the disciple Paul instructs, “In everything give thanks.” What he means is that from your limited perspective it is not possible to know the outcome of any event. What can seem unfortunate at first may turn out to be an unforeseen blessing.

There is a very old Sufi story about a man whose son captured a strong, beautiful, wild horse, and all the neighbors told the man how fortunate he was. The man patiently replied, “We will see.” One day the horse threw the son who broke his leg, and all the neighbors told the man how cursed he was that the son had ever found the horse. Again the man answered, “We will see.” Soon after the son broke his leg, soldiers came to the village and took away all the able-bodied young men, but the son was spared. When the man’s friends told him how lucky the broken leg was, the man would only say, “We will see.” Gratitude for participating in the mystery of life is like this.

The Sufi poet Rumi speaks of the mystery of life coming from God in his poem “The Guest House:” “This being human is a guest house / Every morning a new arrival. / A joy, a depression, a meanness / some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. / Welcome and entertain them all! / Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows / who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture. / Still, treat each guest honorably. / He may be clearing you out for some new delight.” (The Essential Rumi. Coleman Barks, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.) Gratitude practiced in this manner brings delight, balances out your tendency to focus on the negative, and can even lift a dark mood.

Counting Your Blessings…

There are numerous ways to use mindfulness to cultivate gratitude. Of course you acknowledge your appreciation when things are going well. But even more helpful is to notice those things for which you are grateful when you are contracted physically or emotionally. I often instruct students to respond to a difficult situation by acknowledging it as such, then saying to themselves, “Yes, this is terrible, and I am grateful for . . . .” An example would be, “I am angry at this moment, and I am grateful I have a mind which knows this is so and can deal with it.” I also encourage students to focus on the wonderment of nature and the human capacity for learning and creating. It is so easy to only notice the terrible aspects of human beings so that wonderment is often forgotten.

You can reflect on gratitude by inquiring if it is time-based. Ask yourself what happened to all the gratitude you have felt in the past? Where did it go? Do you believe that gratitude is dependent on feeling good right now? If so, isn’t that a very small-minded, “what have you done for me lately?” attitude? Would it not imply that your gratitude is contingent upon an exchange—as long as you feel good, you will be grateful, and if not, forget it. This is not the quality of gratitude that leads to a mystical, direct experience of life; it is an unskillful blackmail or emotional demand on the universe.

You can also practice being consciously grateful to your family, friends, teachers, benefactors, and all those who have come before you who have made it possible for your existence to be comfortable, informed, and empowered. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to mentally note the many people who have invisibly served you by providing medicine, shelter, safety, food, and education.

If you were asked to make a list of things for which you are grateful, how long would this list be—20 items, 100, 500? Most likely you would include your health, your mind’s ability to function well, family, friends, and freedom. But would it include the basics, like a safe place to sleep, clean air and water, food, and medicine? What about for Earth itself, blue skies, a child’s laughter, a warm touch, the smell of spring, the tang of salt, the sweetness of sugar, or that morning cup of coffee?

The making of such a list is not meant to make you feel indebted but is intended to clarify your understanding of how life really is. It is a reflective meditation that uses mindfulness to carry you beyond the superficial to a deeper experience of your life unfolding moment by moment. You learn to throw off the blinders of habitual assumptions that prevent you from perceiving the miracle of life.

The next step in gratitude practice is to actively notice things you are grateful for throughout your regular day. For instance, when you’re stuck in traffic and it’s making you late and irritated, you notice you can be thankful you have transportation and that other drivers are abiding by the agreed-upon driving rules, which prevent chaos and unsafe conditions. In other words, there is a level of well-being and community cooperation that is supporting you even in the midst of your bad day. And you do this not just once or twice, but a hundred times each day. You do so not to get out of a bad mood or to be a nicer person, but with the intention of clearly seeing the true situation of your life. Traffic remains frustrating, but the inner experience of how your life is unfolding begins to shift. Slowly you become clearer about what really matters to you, and there is more ease in your daily experience.

You might ask yourself about your “gratitude ratio.” Do you experience the good things in your life in true proportion to the bad things? Or do the bad things receive a disproportionate amount of your attention, such that you have a distorted sense of your life? It can be shocking to examine your life this way because you may begin to realize how you are being defined by an endless series of emotional reactions, many of which are based on relatively unimportant, temporary desires. When you look at how much griping you do versus how much gratitude you feel, you realize how far off your emotional response is from your real situation. The purpose of this inquiry is not to judge yourself but rather to motivate yourself to find a truer perspective. Why would you want to go around with a distorted view of your life, particularly when it makes you miserable?

Without instruction, reflecting on gratitude can seem boring or sentimental, evoking memories of your mother admonishing you to eat all the food on your plate. Part of the confusion is that many people have come to equate gratitude with obligation. But real gratitude begins as appreciation for that which has come into your life. Out of this appreciation, a natural, spontaneous emotion arises that is gratitude, which is often followed by generosity. When gratitude comes from indebtedness, by definition what’s been given cannot have been a gift.

There is a shadow side to gratitude, in which reality gets distorted in yet another way. It manifests as a hopeless or helpless attitude disguised as gratitude, and it expresses itself in a self-defeating, passive voice—”Yes, these things are wrong and unfair, but I should be grateful for what I have,” or “At least we have this,” or “Compared to these people, look how much better off we are.” This voice, whether it is an inner voice or comes from someone else, is not to be trusted. Gratitude is not an excuse for being passive in the face of personal or societal need or injustice. You are not excused from working to become a caring person, creating a better life for your loved ones, or protecting the innocent. Acknowledging the great gift of a human life through gratitude is just the opposite; it is a call to action to be a caring human being while acknowledging the folly of basing your happiness on the outcome of your actions.

Shortchanging Gratitude…

Many students ask, If experiencing gratitude feels so good, why do we often shortchange it? If you will answer this question for yourself, you will gain much insight into how you make your life more difficult than it need be. Sometimes you shortchange gratitude because your mind is stuck in problem-solving mode; it only notices what isn’t working and sets about trying to resolve it. This might seem desirable, but in fact there will always be things wrong in your life. So you reduce your experience of being alive if you are only responding to the negative. Is that what you want out of life? Do you really want to delay your sense of being alive while you await a future, perfect moment that is unlikely to arrive?

A second reason you might shortchange gratitude is related to the first: The mind tends to take for granted whatever is both desirable and present. This happens because the mind wants constant stimulation, and whatever is present and pleasant tends not to create that stimulation. You can see this for yourself around eating a favorite food: Notice how the first few bites taste so delicious, then how quickly the mind ceases to register the pleasant sensations. It is like this with everything—a cool breeze on a hot day, the sound of a stream as it flows over rocks, the freshness of the morning air after a rain. They all simply disappear from consciousness in the untrained mind. However, a mind trained in mindfulness of gratitude will stay attuned far longer and note more details of that which is good.

The phenomenon of comparing mind is another hindrance to practicing gratitude. It is the aspect of your mind that notices, “She has a nicer car than I do,” “He is stronger than I am,” or “She is a better yogini than I am.” Understand that there is a difference between discernment, the factor of mind that sees things clearly, and comparing mind, which exercises judgment and hides a belief system that says, “If only I have more of the right things, I will be happy.” This is a false belief, of course, a mental habit really, but because it is unacknowledged and seldom examined, it holds enormous power in your life.

Unrecognized arrogance arising from a hidden sense of entitlement can also be an obstacle to practicing gratitude. When you have a strong feeling of entitlement, you don’t notice what is going well, but rather what is not right. It can stem from a sense of either having suffered unfairly or having been deprived. It can also arise from feeling special because you are smart, a hard worker, or successful. At the subtle level of mindfulness, this arrogance is a form of ignorance where these two truths of life are mixed together.

Finding Grace Through Gratitude…

The words “gratitude” and “grace” share a common origin: the Latin word gratus, meaning “pleasing” or “thankful.” When you are in a deep state of gratitude, you will often spontaneously feel the presence of grace. The grace in receiving a human life is that it grants you the capacity to experience that which is beyond the mind and body—call it God, emptiness, Brahman, Allah, or the Ground of the Absolute.

Reflect on this: You, with all your flaws, have been chosen for this opportunity to consciously taste life, to know it for what it is, and to make of it what you are able. This gift of a conscious life is grace, even when your life is filled with great difficulty and it may not feel like a gift at the time.

When Henry Thoreau went into retreat at Walden Pond, he and his friend Ralph Emerson had been studying Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist texts. He wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” He understood that conscious life was a gift for which the highest form of gratitude was to know it in all its depths.

This grace of conscious life, of having a mind that can know “this moment is like this,” is the root of all wonder, from which gratitude flows. The wonder, the mystery, is that you, like everyone else, are given this short, precious time of conscious embodiment in which you can directly know life for yourself. However you find life to be—cruel or kind, sorrowful or joyous, bland or stimulating, indifferent or filled with love—you get the privilege of knowing it firsthand.

Gratitude for the grace of conscious embodiment evolves into the practice of selfless gratitude, in which your concerns slowly but surely shift from being mostly about yourself and those close to you to being about all living beings. As this occurs, you need less and less in the way of good fortune. It becomes enough that there are those who are happy, who are receiving love, who are safe, and who have a promising future. It is not that you would not prefer good things for yourself, but your sense of well-being is no longer contingent on external circumstances. You are able to rejoice that amidst all life’s suffering there exists joy. You realize that pain and joy are part of a mysterious whole. When this state of selfless gratitude starts to blossom, your mind becomes more spacious, quieter, and your heart receives its first taste of the long-sought release from fear and wanting. This is grace.

Reference: Yoga Journal.com, article by Philip Moffitt

Contemplation…

Not Going, Not Coming… by Shih-Te

not going, not coming

rooted, deep and still

not reaching out, not reaching in

just resting, at the center

a single jewel, the flawless crystal drop

in the blaze of its brillance

the way beyond

You have to LOVE what you DO…

As I watched the video of Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple) delivering a commencement speech to the 2005 Stanford graduating class, I had no idea I’d be so moved. His life story spoke to me. Being a returning college student I sometimes tell myself that it would have been so much easier if I had just finished the first go-round. But I can’t begin to explain all the life experiences I would have missed if it happened any other way.

Here are a few quotes from his speech that I found particularly inspiring…

“Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path.”

“There is no reason not to follow your heart”

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

The secret of happiness…

A story…

“A certain shopkeeper sent his son to learn about the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world.  The lad wandered through the desert for forty days, and finally came upon a beautiful castle, high atop a mountain. It was there that the wise man lived.

“Rather than finding a saintly man, though, our hero, on entering the main room of the castle, saw a hive of activity: tradesmen came and went, people were conversing int he corners, a small orchestra was playing soft music, and there was a table covered with platters of the most delicious food in that part of the world. The wise man conversed with everyone, and the boy had to wait for two hours before it was his turn to be given the man’s attention.

“The wise man listened attentively to the boy’s explanation of why he had come, but told him that he didn’t have time just then to explain the secret of happiness. He suggested that the boy look around the palace and return in two hours.

“‘Meanwhile, I want to ask you something,’ said the wise man, handing the boy a teaspoon that held two drops of oil. ‘As you wander around, carry this spoon with you without allowing the oil to spill.’

“The boy began climbing and descending the many stairways of the palace, keeping his eyes fixed on the spoon. After two hours, he returned to the room where the wise man was.

“‘Well,’ asked the wise man, ‘did you see the Persian tapestries that are hanging in my dining hall? Did you see the garden that it took the master gardener ten years to create? Did you  notice the beautiful parchments in my library?’

“The boy was embarrassed, and confessed that he had observed nothing. His only concern had been not to spill the oil that the wise man had entrusted to him.

“‘Then go back and observe the marvels of my world,’ said the wise man. ‘You cannot trust a man if you don’t know his house.’

“Relieved, the boy picked up the spoon and returned to his exploration of the palace, this time observing all of the works of art on the ceilings and the walls. He saw the gardens, the mountains all around him, the beauty of the flowers, and the taste with which everything had been selected. Upon returning to the wise man, he related in detail everything he had seen.

“‘But where are the drops of oil I entrusted to you?’ asked the wise man.

“Looking down at the spoon he held, the boy saw that the oil was gone.

“‘Well, there is only one piece of advice I can give you,’ said the wisest of men. ‘The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.'”

~Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist