Some of the talks I gave during class this month are based on these 2 lectures. Here they are:
I wasn’t a cat person before. For many years, I thought cats were boring and all looked the same. Well, things changed and I now have 3 cat animal companions. Two of them I adopted from a friend who found them wrapped in plastic thrown in the trash, and one I found myself while walking home from class one evening. Now, it’s very clear to me that they are safer with me than they were before. But they don’t know that. Their wild nature is still there. There are times I’d notice that three of them are gathered around the window, and I’ll see that they’re looking at a bird perched up on a ledge across. For them, staying in a 31-square condominium unit probably feels like prison. Almost every single time that I go home, the moment I open the door, the cats will try to escape. Sometimes one, sometimes two, and when I’m really really lucky, all three would like to run out the door at the same time. So that’s my routine. They would go to that corner and this corner of the hallway, I’d chase after them, and eventually I’d coax them into going back inside. There are times that I’m tired, or I really need to go to the bathroom, and I want to get annoyed at these cats for delaying me. I really want to get annoyed, but I end up just finding the whole thing really amusing, because they are so clueless. And it really helps that they’re super cute, so I can’t bring myself to be seriously annoyed at them.
The focus of the month is about souls and enlightenment and being one with all— and these are concepts that I feel are very hard to grasp. But this is what I think. Enlightenment, put simply, is to love everyone. Just as I love my cats. You see, other people around us will do what they want based on their perspective, based on what they think is going to make them happy. And loving them means that no matter what they do, regardless of how far they stray, we keep the door of our hearts open. We accept them in our hearts unconditionally. And through this acceptance, there is no desire to control, no need to use our power. One more thing about this loving everyone bit is that it includes ourselves. No matter what we do, regardless of how far we strayed, what mistakes we made, what embarrassing things we got up to, we accept ourselves completely, we keep the door of our heart open for ourselves. And when we can love all, then that is connecting to the soul, that is enlightenment.
The other night, because I was so tired from the day, I slept from 7pm to 8am. It was deep sleep and I woke up completely refreshed. Do you sometimes get to sleep like that? How was your sleep last night? Do you remember your dreams? Was it a dreamless sleep?
Here is a trick question, where are “you” when you’re in dreamless sleep? What about when you’re dreaming, where are “you”? Now at this moment that you’re awake, where are “you”? Yoga philosophy recognizes these 3 states: jagrat (waking), swapna (dreaming), sushupti (deep sleep). Another trick question: Which one is “real”? In the context of yoga, “real” is defined differently. It does not mean material or tangible, rather it refers to something that is unchanging. The only state that is “real” is a fourth state called turiya (samadhi) or cosmic consciousness. That is the state that does not change. To use an analogy, it’s like traveling among 3 cities, but your home— where you truly belong— is the state of cosmic consciousness. Another analogy we can use is of one actor playing different parts, the waking, dreaming, and deep sleep states are roles that the actor plays, while samadhi is his true nature. It is the only thing that is real.
In the state of turiya, time and space become immaterial, the attachment to the “self” falls away, there is no longer anything “personal” because one feels completely at home in the universe, one feels united with God, one experiences the kind of consciousness that is not bound by this body, this mind, this identity, or this incarnation. This is what is referred to as enlightenment.
The word “soul” is commonly used in the context of “heal your soul” or “my soul is broken” or “my soul feels light”. The word itself means many different things to many different people, but if we were to use “soul” in the context of yoga, it refers to something unchanging, something whole, something complete. This individual soul is called “Jiva”, and this individual soul has the ability to connect to something bigger, the cosmic soul called “atman”.
I know that when I first encountered yoga as a spiritual practice, the question in my mind was: What does exercising this body have to do with spirituality? The soul exists in the realm of the spiritual, yes, but it also exists in this world through a container or a vehicle, the physical body. If the vehicle is broken, uncovering the soul would be difficult because all energy would be spent on fixing the vehicle. In the same manner, if the vehicle is operating in tip top shape, the machine is maintained very well, the vehicle can do its work of transporting the soul.
Of all the physical exercises that I’m aware of, it’s only yoga practices that acknowledge both the body and the soul. And it is because of the recognition of the existence of both that the approach to the physical body is nurturance over obsession, conditioning over attachment, practice over perfection. We acknowledge that we keep this body in shape not because the end goal is to keep the body in shape, the end goal is to delve into the soul.
The thing with saving the lives of others is that we don’t know it might be our own lives that are saved in the end.
The story of Wesley the Owl is one of such— an interspecies friendship that spans years, health and sickness, and reminds one of the will to live.
May we see animals not as things, but as beings who value their lives as much as we value our own.
Imagine that you are the last of your own kind to survive in this world. That is unfortunately the direction many of the animal species are heading. The Kauai o’o Bird became extinct in 1987, and now we can only hear his sound through recordings. His singing has stopped for good.
The way we can prevent this from happening to others is to take care of their homes and food sources. On our end, that means consuming only what we need, going vegan, keeping in mind that this home is not ours alone, but one we share with others.
A German photographer took pictures of birds in the sky, and only upon checking the images did he notice that thousands of starlings in the sky have formed the shape of one giant bird.
This phenomenon of flocking together, as if they were one organism, into one-shape shifting cloud is called a murmuration. It is said that birds do this to ward off threats, to make sure predators do not approach them. Their strategy simply is in strength in numbers. Researchers found that each bird interacts with seven other birds, and this is how they manage to coordinate with each other as one giant unit. They don’t know why the magic number is seven though. They were only able to observe but not explain.
Starlings forming these murmurations is one of the most amazing phenomenon observed in the wild. Unfortunately, starling populations and bird populations in general have been dwindling, because of shortage in food and nesting places caused by destructive human actions.
And for now, even though we cannot completely understand nature, we can appreciate its wonder and beauty, and we can learn from it too. We can certainly do our part in preserving our environment, making sure our fellow Earthlings have a safe space to dwell and have enough to eat, and one of the most efficient ways we can contribute to that is by looking at our lifestyle choices and going plant-based. The less resources we use— land, forests, trees, water etc— the more that can be left for other animals, including the birds.
Aparigraha means non-greediness. And according to the yoga sutras, if we practice non-greediness, the benefit is that the meaning of our lives will be revealed to us. That is quite a promise, something all of us would appreciate. No more asking those questions about why we are here and what the purpose of living is. There would be clarity.
How, though, do we determine what greediness and non-greediness are when our baseline has been distorted so much? We live at this time where excess is the norm, consumption is at an all-time high, and materialism is rewarded. This is my own experience, and I believe the experience for many of us. I grew up in the city, and weekends meant shopping, family time meant going to the mall, traveling meant checking out the outlet stores available in that city. This has been our norm for so long that these days, Decluttering with Marie Kondo has become so popular. We are now catching up to the realization that we have too much, our possessions are far excessive, that we now have to cut down and declutter and make sense of the mess of it all. Now that we know we live in excess, where do we begin in the practice of aparigraha? Where do we even start?
My teacher Sharon Gannon gives a simple but perhaps an unexpected piece of advice—feed the birds. What does feeding the birds have to do with practicing aparigraha? Well, it has to do with intention and mindset. When we are constantly accumulating things and thinking of our wants, we are living with the mindset of impoverishment, feeling that we do not have enough, and so we hoard to overcompensate, afraid of the safety of our future. But when we feed the birds, we turn this around. We shift our mindset, feeling safe that because we have enough and we are enough, we could turn our attention to others. We could afford to think of the welfare of others because our own future is safe and secure. We are sending out the message that we have enough, so we no longer have to worry about our own needs, we can tend to others. Why birds? Karmically, when we feed wild birds, we reclaim the wildness we have lost through the years. Our life of rules and dogma and living up to the expectations of others may have trapped us and prevented us from getting in touch with the meaning of our lives. When we reclaim our wildness, we become free to explore the world around us, our hearts and minds expand. And in that process, the purpose as to why we are here can be more easily revealed.
We often forget, because of excess as our norm, that we already have enough, that we have in fact more than enough. Think of the conditions available to you right now that indicate you already have enough. Appreciate it. Be grateful for it. Find joy in it. And then aparigraha will not feel like an imposition of what you need to do. Rather, it becomes a natural progression. Because you have already enough, you are inclined to give to others, you are inclined to think of the benefit of others, you are inclined to become selfless. And anytime you are unsure about where to start, start simple: feed the birds.
The story goes that there’s a group of frogs walking in the woods. Two of the frogs fell on a deep pit, and the other frogs looked down from where they stood, saw how deep the pit was, and they started yelling and screaming that it’s too deep and they should just give up. The two frogs jumped up and down, wanting to save their own lives. Still, the other frogs kept saying it was without hope, that they’re doomed, that they’re good as dead. This went on for some time. Eventually one of the frogs did give up. The other frog continued to jump until he jumped out of the pit. It turned out that the first frog was discouraged by the things he heard, and the second frog was deaf and didn’t hear any of it.
As we go through our everyday lives, we do not really know if the people we encounter are going through a tough time. Usually, they don’t share it with us. And the words we use to speak to them could either encourage or discourage them. That is why it is important to ask ourselves these three questions when we speak: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? Perhaps there are times that our best course of action is to say nothing at all. When we ourselves are angered by something, or otherwise feel intense emotions at any given time, maybe it is best to practice silence instead of saying something we would later on regret. All of us have been recipients of unkind words, and we have ourselves experienced how damaging that can be, and that even as we forgive and let go, we cannot really forget.
The yoga practice teaches us to pause in lieu of reacting without thinking. We can use this pause and apply it to our speech. When unsure, we can ask ourselves: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? And when the words we had intended to use do not pass this test, we consciously choose silence. And then, if someone happens to be in a deep pit, we refrain from causing harm, we avoid passing on to them our own negativity. It is the least we can do for those around us who are already suffering.
In Patanjai’s yoga sutras, it is said in chapter 2 verse 36 that: satya pratisthayam kriya phala ashrayatvam. In English, the commentary is: When one does not defile one’s speech with lies, the words one says are listened to and acted upon in a positive and immediate manner. The speaker will be able to say what they mean. What one says comes true.
There is a quote that is the complete opposite of this sutra, attributed to Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels: If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and even you will come to believe it yourself. This phenomenon of the illusion of truth is also observed in the field of psychology. In this experiment, test subjects were given trivia. And the more the trivia is repeated, the more it was taken as the truth. The explanation is that the human brain takes a shortcut, so we judge the reliability of information based on how often we’ve heard it. Does it mean, then, that human rationality is doomed?
The phenomenon calls upon us, now more than ever, to pause before we repeat what we have heard. If we are unsure about whether something is true or not, we can fact-check. Let us be contributors to truth prevailing. Let us stop fake news. Let us stop the culture of spreading myths in lieu of facts. On a personal level, we can also start to examine the storylines we tell ourselves. Do we repeat belief systems that are not only untrue but also keep us in misery? What if we changed our approach and started to speak the truth about ourselves as well?
The yoga sutra and the quote by Joseph Goebbels are certainly two different perspectives. And while the latter can give us control and power, it is only through the former that we can attain ultimate freedom. As yogis, it is apparent what values we hold— freedom over oppression, kindness over control, and truth over lies. Always choose the truth.