<-  Thought for February

Thought for April  ->

March 2022
Thought for March

image missing

What it Takes (3)


Swami Ambikananda Saraswati


Just as we were starting to see light at the end of the dark pandemic tunnel, the tunnel itself began to sound with the drums of war ~ and it is a sound that has changed our world.  There are wars taking place in other parts of our world and the past few decades have seen wars that our own countries were involved in.  The difference with this war is that it could unleash nuclear weapons that would bring an end to life on this planet.  I remember a headline in the eighties about us ‘having enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world 100 over’ ~ as if once wasn’t enough!


What does Yoga offer us in this situation?  And just as important, what does it require from us, as Yogins, to meet it?


The Ancient Teacher


The oldest surviving text we have of Yoga as a philosophy and a practice, is the fabulous Kaṭha Upaniṣhad. In it the teacher is Śrī Yama (often referred to as 'the God of Death' however, a better description would be, 'the God Beyond Death').


Yama and his twin sister, Yami, came into being before there was death ~ they were both immortals. Yama looked into the future and saw a time when men and women would be subject to both birth and death. He took the momentous decision, as an immortal, to deliberately sacrifice himself to death so that he could make a place for us in the life after this life.


The Yoga teaching of the Kaṭha Upaniṣhad emerges when a young seeker approaches Yama in the halls of the ancestors, the halls of death, to enquire about the meaning of life. Before Śrī Yama embarks on the ancient teaching of Yoga, he warns that what we need in preparation for it is… the pause.


One Road, Two Paths

anyat śreyo'nyad utaiva preyas te ubhe nānārthe puruṣaṁ sinītaḥ ||
tayoḥ śreya ādadānasya sadhu bhavati hīyate'rthād ya u preyo vṛnīte || १ ||


Yama said,
There are two paths:
One leads outward and the other inward.
You can walk the way outward that leads to pleasure, the path of preyas,
Or the way inward that leads to grace, the path of shreyas.
Of these two it is the path of grace,
Though concealed, that leads to the goal.   (1)


sreyaś ca preyaś ca manuṣyam etastau samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ |
śreyo hi dhīro'bhi preyaso vṛṇīte | preyo mando yogo kṣemād vṛnīte || 2 ||


Both of these paths lie before each person eternally.
It is the way of things.
Day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment,
The wise must distinguish one from the other ~
And for the sake of Yoga choose which one to walk.
The foolish, grasping first at this and then at that,
Choose to walk the path of pleasure. (2:2)


As Yogins, this is the first teaching we are asked to accept, embrace and work with.


'Day-by-day, hour-by-hour, moment-by-moment we can act on our 'gut feelings,' our first reactions, or we can pause. The former will build our anxiety, the latter will allow for something else to emerge. All too often we move past this first teaching with the belief that we have understood it. However, as Yama points out, it is a subtle thing because the Path of Grace is concealed.


In these times we are in, times of pandemics and war, anxiety builds and frustration and anger are easily at hand. Unless we are made of stone even the briefest encounter with the daily news will give rise to a host of emotions. And there it is: the one road we were walking split into the two pathways that the God Beyond Death spoke of, and before we know it, we are walking down that Path of Pleasure. It is here that the moment of pause counts because only in that pause can we choose another direction.


We can let the anxiety build, the frustration simmer, and while it builds and simmers we can even engage in our Yoga studies and asana practices ~ and even a bit of pranayama and 'meditation'. What we are not doing, however, is taking the pause. We do not take it because it requires a real and genuine look at our anxiety, our anger, our frustration ~ and we would rather spend our time and energy searching out the ways to justify our reactions: 'just look at the world!' we cry out in despair if anyone dares question this choice of pathway. 'I am a sensitive person, it deeply affects me, you don't understand…'. That is the Path of Preyas, the Path of Pleasure.


We, all of us, have habits of negotiating with this world. Weeping genuine tears of distress is a way; sharing our distress is a way; shouting against it is a way; praying for it is a way; contemplating its madness, is a way.


What Yama offers is the hidden path, the Path of Śhreyas. To take this path we have to refuse every habitual reaction, no matter how reasonable the mind makes it seem.


However, we have to be ever watchful, practicing that vichara ~ constant moving awareness ~ which the Sage Vāsiṣṭha taught. Suppressing our reaction is itself a reaction. That is definitely not what we are required to do. Swami Venkatesanandaji used to offer us a simple equation for us: "Suppression = compression = explosion." This hidden Path of Śhreyas requires more attention and more subtlety than that. The other thing my beloved guru used to say about it was, " There is no way round but through." We have to continue through our reactions, our ocean of samskara, knowing that the far shore is our reality.


The Path of Śhreyas offers us the greatest gift on this path of Yoga: silence.


The South-Facing God


Śhiva, it is said in legend, came as the consummate teacher Dakṣhiṇāmūrti, and sat in silence. He did not advertise his presence, no You Tube presentations or best-sellers, yet seekers gathered around him and in that profound silence their ignorance was dispelled.


The most surprising thing is that this story has survived centuries in which our human family has become more and more noisy. Bound to the noise we make is our concept of time. Our reactions - many and varied as they are ~ are 'The Path of Pleasure' because even while anxiety or anger or frustration don't feel pleasurable, their constant build-up and release is what we know, it is our pleasurable 'known' Path.


Yama is asking us to enter something much less predictable: silence.


Silence calls us 'to be' - something that can only happen in stillness. Time calls us 'to do' and in doing we move out of stillness into activity, reaction. Time, as we have come to understand it, is progressive: it is a thing we can 'run out of' (sometimes 'before our time') so we must not waste it because, he warning goes, 'time is money'. But in the middle of our rush 'to do something,' this story about the power of silence hangs around at the edge of our consciousness, calling us to enter its mystery.


In it, face to face, guru and disciple sit in silence, with no visible or audible evidence of a teaching taking place. The great Kashmiri philosopher/saint Abhinavagupta spoke of this moment as, " finite consciousness directly encountering enlightened consciousness ". It can only happen when all argument and discussion, all our anxieties and justifications ~ which take place within time ~ collapse.


Even in the noise-filled environments we have created for ourselves, that silence exists. The ancient rishis, who understood with such compassion our crisis, pointed out that all sound is contained within silence, just as our ignorance is contained within Truth. In every generation there have been those who point us towards that Truth by calling on us to enter into the same awareness that the disciples who sat at the feet of Dakṣhiṇāmūrti entered into.


In this intense awareness we move past our habits of 'doing' into a state of 'being', in which silence consumes sound and isolation is consumed by the reality of our Oneness with each other. This is the moment when we realise that what we have been seeking outside of ourselves, exists as a reality deep within the cave of our own heart, that time is an ever-present moment that is constantly renewed from its Source, from within the Śhiva Consciousness.


From this silence, the Path of Śhreyas comes into clear view and we know how to respond ~ rather than react ~ to whatever situation faces us. We cannot, from our noisy minds, predict where that path will take us ~ indeed, we do not even see it. All we can do is step into the pause and let it take us into the silence ~ from there the Path of Śhreyas will leads us.

Back to The Pause


Yet, it is the hardest task. Its difficulty lies in the fact that only this pause can take us from our internal noise into the silence. But is that not what all our Yoga practices give us: the courage to (metaphorically) stand still and hold the pause?


On the mat we hold the body in a physical posture that is not an imposition, but a moment of developing that inner gaze and holding its stillness, awareness and posture becoming one.


Our pranayama practices might do great things for body and mind, but is not their purpose also to draw us into the still rhythm of our own breath, which leads us to the ocean of breath in which we relinquish control of the isolated breath? Then we cease to be the roar of the wave and become the ocean of silence.


Our focus: dharana and dhyanam? Their promise is that meeting of ' finite consciousness encountering enlightened consciousness'. An encounter in which the Path of Śhreyas lies clearly before us.


Let us all, as Yogins, commit ourselves to that pause, because only from the silence it offers will any of us be able to take the wise and timeless course as the world around us spins on the axis of time.


┬ęSwami Ambikananda, March 2022


Copyright © The Trustees of the Traditional Yoga Association®, 2021. All rights reserved.
Privacy Policy