Equality & Forgiveness in the Bhagavad Gita


“If, thinking you human, I ever
touched you or patted your back
or called you “dear fellow” or “friend”
through negligence or affection,

or greeted you with disrespect,
thoughtlessly, when we were playing
or resting, alone or in public,
I beg you to forgive me”
BG 11.41-42

Stephen Mitchell Translation

 

In this section of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is apologizing to Krishna for all the times he may have intentionally or unintentionally treated him carelessly or poorly.  The beauty of it is not so much the apology, many of us have made similar apologies. But Arjuna is apologizing because he has suddenly seen that Krishna – his best friend, warrior wing-man, and divine being – is actually in every human being, animal being, or other type of being.  Or rather, every being is actually Krishna, the one he loves above all else, even himself.

We have all experienced, personally or via a movie, the sinking feeling of mistaken identity. Criticizing the food at a party to a guest, to learn that guest is the caterer.  Jostling back the person behind you on the elevator who just jostled you, to turn around and see your boss’s boss.  Ignoring or excluding a new addition to your yoga studio, to realize it’s your teacher’s best friend.

This is what has happened to Arjuna, but he has realized all those careless, mindless actions were done to the divine, he is aghast to think how many times he has jostled, criticized or given the cold shoulder to Krishna, mistaking him for a random human unworthy of more careful consideration.

How many times have we done this? Whether or not we believe that person or other being to be divine, whether or not we cherish them above all others, or love them more than we love ourselves, someone does.  They are incredibly special and unique, no matter how we see them. And this makes this passage a repetition of the Bhagavad Gita’s call to treat all equally, and one of forgiveness as well:

“The same to both friend and foe”

This is a theme woven throughout the Bhagavad Gita, repeated again and again.  In this section, Arjuna is experiencing it personally.  Can we take Arjuna’s lesson as our own?

Can you imagine walking down the street, and seeing the next 5 people as the divine in disguise?  Can you do the same with the first 5 plant and animal beings when you go to the park this summer? Can you allow this to shift your perspective, if even for 5 minutes, while in a crowded plane, subway, car, bus, train, or hiking group?  Can you imagine how it would feel to have some random person see you this way? Can that inspire your own practice?

Can you treat all beings as if they were divine?

Forgiveness

Recently I listened to a Michael Stone podcast where he softly defined “mindfulness” as “forgiveness”.  It is an artful discussion which I won’t repeat here, but encourage you to listen to for yourself.

Podcast: Centre of Gravity Episode: Lotus Sutra 20 ~ Forgiveness as the Heart of Practice

What I will suggest is that you take his advice for the practice of mindfulness as forgiveness. And then to go one step further.  As yogis we tend to be too quick to forgive, and it winds up more of a pushing away, and a negating of hurt, then actually fully experiencing and acknowledging the hurt, in order to truly forgive.  So as “dark” and unpleasant as it may seem, as much as a part of you may say “I have no one to forgive” “I hold no grudges”, etc.  Take a moment, and reflect on the people who have truly hurt you in your life, intentionally or unintentionally. Make a list. Sit with each name and each experience, notice what arises.  Spend time seeing if you have truly forgiven the hurt, or if you just pushed away the hurt.  It may result in you re-experiencing the hurt again. This time, use tools of the breath and witnessing without judging, or trying to explain or change or make better, and just be with whatever it is.  When you can stay there long enough, part of you will let go, and release. From there will either arise a teaching, or just the true start of letting go that can allow for forgiveness.

Om Mani Padme Hum & Visoka Va Jyotismati: Buddhism & Yoga

Om mani padme hum

The jewel is in the lotus. All that needs to be known dwells inside your own heart.

Viśokā vā jyotiṣmatῑ   PYS I.36

Or by concentrating on the supreme, sorrowless Light within.

The first chant is from the Buddhist tradition, the second, from the Yoga tradition.  This is one of many instances where they overlap (although there are also plenty of places where they don’t quite see eye to eye either).

Michael Stone, whose dharma talk podcasts I listen to often, and quote in my classes nearly as often, ties these traditions together well. Finding not only overlaps, but moments that inform each other in the traditions of each.

One of his recent talks on the Lotus Sutra was one of such moments, and called to mind for me the above chants.

He spoke of how in Buddhism, in order to be a Buddha, the requirement is not to get enlightened, but rather to be able to see another person as a Buddha. During my teacher training Davidji and Sharonji would often tell us our most important job as a yoga teacher is to see our students as holy beings. Just as important as our sadhana – our yoga practice, our meditation, our off-the-mat practices, is the way in which we see other people.  And granted, to see another person as a Buddha can be as challenging a practice as sitting for an hour.  However, we are gifted with an amazing imagination, and should call upon it in this case.

I’ve been reading The Brain That Changes Itself– a great book on brain plasticity (which I feel is in some ways the modern science of yoga), and had just read a section on imagination.  There were two experiments discussed where two groups were asked to undertake an activity – learn a piece on the piano, and perform a strength exercise. One group was able to practice physically, the other was asked to practice only mentally. They practiced the same amount of time, the same repetitions, over the same period.  The only difference was that one was physical, and the other purely in the imagination.  The results for both experiments were the same, but the results of the strength exercise are more clearly statistically understood, so I will give those.  The group that did the physical exercise improved its strength (and the brain area associated) by 30%, the group that did the mental exercise improved its strength (and the brain area) by 22%.  To the body and mind the difference between thought and action is not that different.

So take advantage of this.  Imagine someone who you can easily conceive of as a hair’s breadth from being a Buddha – a teacher, a child you know, the Dalai Llama, your local grocer.  Spend time imaging her/him in front of you, in detail. Note the qualities you associate with that state.  Then imagine yourself as that Buddha, infused with those qualities.  Then try practicing your next asana class from that place, and see what happens.

ImagePerhaps you are able to see others as buddhas better.  But anything undertaken once or twice runs the risk of becoming new agey or trite.  Imagination is not just a flight of fancy in this case – it’s a practice. So like all yoga practices, you must repeat, in all earnestness, for a prolonged period of time. And then the magic will arise.

Atha Yoga Nusasanam PYS I.1

At the Opening Ceremony for the Jivamukti Tribe Gathering – the week of teachings by Sharon Gannon & David Life –  Sharonji read a list of all the countries that were represented by students in attendance. It was a long and eclectic list, from all over the world.  It seemed impressive to me at the time, mostly from the standpoint of “Wow, I can’t believe how long that flight must have been” or some other logistical theme.

 

It wasn’t until a few days later, just before my third class with Davidji, that I fully experienced what that meant. My mat was down towards the back of the room, and the scope of how many people were in front of me, how many people were practicing yoga became almost tangible. From there, I started to think of all the people in America who do yoga, and then started to think about the millions of people all over the world that do yoga.

 

Millions of people every day are doing yoga – and with time zones probably all day.  All of these people working towards cultivating clear seeing of the self, working towards living the yamas, working towards compassion and peace, working towards cultivating flexibility inside and out, working towards being the best they can be in this lifetime, and it is by and large confined to the studio.

 

Yes, amazing things have transpired “off the mat” because of the efforts of yogis. But I was staggered to think of the true potential, and also how we as yogis are not living up to it. I finally understood – felt – what Michael Stone speaks of when he talks about horizontal transcendence. Because what is the point, of all of that work, of all of the millions of people cultivating yoga, if it only stays in the studio?

 

Imagine the possibility if everyone in the world who does yoga in the studio, practiced while they were outside the studio, if we had all those millions of people walking around with yoga as the first step they take in each moment, paying attention to the way that they breathe, the way that they speak… if the world were as filled with what people cultivated on the mat – in the world itself.

 

So here’s to an auspicious year of living into the potential of uniting outside the studio in our practice – the way we do on the mat. Because what we cultivate is too precious, too transformative, too amazing not to be shared.  Not to do so is a waste– because we have the potential to transform, actually transform, what happens outside the studio, if we truly harness what we cultivate within and share it.

 

atha yoga nusasanam PYS I.1 – now is the practice of yoga

Dukha

“People are drawn to yoga, they come to the studio, they practice because they are suffering, because they have recognized some form of this in their lives.”

Perhaps you have come across a similar quote, generally in the opening to a yoga text of some kind.  It has been the only consistent thing I have come upon in yoga that creates a feeling of alienation. It was simply not true for me. To this day I can’t exactly say why I started doing yoga, but it definitely was not for having recognized suffering in my life. To the contrary, I began it during some of the least suffering moments I’ve had in my adult life. However, I have heard countless stories of people for whom this quote speaks the exact truth. So for some, yoga calls as an answer to suffering, for others, it is a path to reveal the nature of suffering that exists in our life. In the end, or rather I imagine, what is only the beginning, we have this concept of suffering, of dukha.

To say that dukha is the underlying nature of our life, is not to say we exist in perpetual gloom. We all smile, laugh, experience elation, and other aspects of sukha, the flip side of the coin. The key is in recognizing we are on a cycle that vacillates continually between sukha and dukha, within an asana class, within a day, week, year, and sometimes, within only a few minutes. We feel varying degrees of control over which part of the cycle we’re on. Yoga, and Buddhism too for that matter, offer paths to gaining first awareness of this cycle, and then ways to approach sukha and dukha in order to experience life more intentionally and fully.

I find that sukha (good, happy, sweet, joy, etc.) usually gets the attention of the pair, and wanted to spend some time with dukha this month.

I would like to consider two definitions (outside of the traditional “suffering”) for dukha, and in doing so, find some constructive, concrete ways of directly addressing something we have all, as yogis, by some means, recognized to be part of our reality.*

The missing piece

This is a concept introduced to me both by Sharon and David at Jivamukti Training, but also in podcasts by Michael StoneDukha can also be translated as “lack”. This is manifested in our impetus towards achieving things, buying things, changing things, or otherwise altering our current state, which is lacking, in order to achieve happiness. All we need is that better paying job, that home with another room, a partner with a different quirk, a friend that’s around more, another hobby, those new yoga pants, etc. Any time we reach out beyond our current situation as the place where sukha is located, we are setting ourselves in the direct path of dukha.

The mis-aligned wheel

I was first presented with this definition in a writing by Frank Boccio in Michael Stone’s Freeing the Body, Freeing the MindDukha, before being appropriated by Buddhism and Yoga, was first used to describe the state of a mis-aligned wheel axle on an oxcart.  Frank asks us to imagine how a ride in such a cart would be uncomfortable and jarring. Much akin to the ride we are taking through life – although the sweet moments are there, there is under each of those moments, dukha, waiting for the next bump in the road. This manifests every time we move out of the present moment, refusing to see the bumps or the misaligned wheel. Instead we turn to the past, and berate ourselves for not seeing the bump, berate the person(s) we feel caused the bump to exist, or towards the future where we plot ways the avoid all future bumps, or steer clear of situations or people that would cause them, all in the name of ensuring sukha.  Either way puts us once again in the path of dukha, because all of those things are impossible.

The work

First, notice these cycles and thought patterns (citta vritti) that you run in. Be aware of the feelings of lack, and the movements into the past and future. This is always the starting point for work on the yogic path. Awareness. It is the greatest tool to bringing about any evolution of consciousness.

Second, start to re-align with the truth of the present moment. There is a teaching that says it best:

Don’t go forward, don’t go back, don’t stand still

Don’t go into the future, nor the past, nor hide out in the present until everything passes. Nor move forward towards sukha/dukha, nor away from sukha/dukha, nor revel in sukha/dukha. Find the fourth option.

Third, which also can be a result of the work of the first two stages, realize that nothing is missing. Give yourself a few moments of really feeling that nothing is missing. That you, and everything in your life, is complete and full just as it is now. Repeat, and gradually the truth of it arises.

The Tao

13

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
Your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
You will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
That arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
What do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
Then you can care for all things.

16


If you don’t realize the source,
You stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
You naturally become tolerant,
Disinterested, amused,
Kindhearted as a grandmother,
Dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
You can deal with whatever life brings you,
And when death comes, you are ready.

29

Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.

The Master sees things as they are,
Without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
And resides at the center of the circle.
~Translations by Stephen Mitchell

Above all this is work to be fully present and deeply in life. It is not an escape, nor encouragement towards an unfeeling existence.  It is a path towards a life of feeling fully awake, immersed, and aware of life.

*It is also quite possible that you have not quite reached that juncture, and the idea of suffering as the underlying quality of life is off-putting, to say the least. And that is a place I can certainly recognize, having been there myself.

Kena Upanishad I.5 – Language in Yoga

“That which makes the tongue speak but cannot be spoken by the tongue, know that as the Self.  This Self is not someone other than you.” ~Kena Upanishad

This idea is echoed in the Tao:

That Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.

Simply put – the Self can not be described or put into words

In Yoga we have this tradition of words falling short, being inferior, and even in the way of, connecting to the Self.  However, we need language not only to communicate as human beings, but to communicate this practice.  Words and language are unavoidable.

Not only are they unavoidable, but they shape what we consider the reality, or truth of our experience.

In the sutras, it says that an experience (which we describe in words) is made up of perceiving through the senses, the perceptions are transmitted to the mind, the mind draws on past experiences to categorize and understand the perceptions, and then we decide on an experience.

It might go something like this:

You wake up in the morning and look out the window.

Perception: see a rainy day

Mind categorizes based on: past rainy days, images of rainy days, plans made for the day that will be canceled/modified, how it’s felt in the past to cancel/modify plans in general and specifically for rain, expectations you had for a sunny day, etc.

Mind decides on a worded description of the experience: “This sucks.” “Cozy day, awesome!”

Action:  Follows based on the worded description of the experience.

Generally, we are unaware of this process and arrive at the words, and possibly even the action, totally unconsciously.

It is the mind’s reaction, put into words, that we understand as our experience. And it is upon this understanding that we take action. It is therefore of utmost importance that we are active participants in this process of framing perception with words.

Michael Stone says that often, when we are suffering, and believing the world to be a place that is “wrong” in some way, it is actually our description that is wrong.  We have the power to decide on our description of the world. The opportunity to reorient or create a shift is always open to us.

This does not mean that we put a happy face on things, and just think positively.  It is much more challenging than that. To own our experiences, words, and in the end, world, we must connect to the perceptions, be active in the mind’s processing, and carefully choose the words we use to describe both the perception and the processing.  This means that when we perceive that It’s a rainy day. we stay right there with the perception and then watch the mind move. We then select the description, and consciously act accordingly.

This empowers not only our own lives, but the lives others as well.  The words we choose to speak, become perceptions themselves to other people.  When we speak the truth, we mutually create, with others, a whole world of truth.  Anna Lappé, in her recent book launch of Diet for a Hot Planet, spoke about the work being done on the negative environmental effect of factory farming. As a general rule, there is a disproportionate amount of animals for the size of land they are being kept on.  Which means there is a disproportionate amount of fecal matter for the land.  People in the factory farming industry refer to those areas of the land in which the feces pools, as “manure lagoons.”  Anna and her compatriots have chosen to rename them “manure cesspits.”  This evocative wording is much closer to the truth, and will create perceptions within others that bring us closer to the truth of the situation than the word “lagoons” ever will. When we speak more accurately, the mind processes the accurate information, and can therefore act, or not act accordingly.  The ability to change the world is founded on the way we turn perceptions into words and share, or disguise, the truth with others.  Of course as this works on the macro-cosmic scale, it will absolutely apply to the microcosmic ~ our personal relationships.

In the end the Kena Upanishad is a description of the Self. And when we get to the heart of perception, and immerse ourselves in that practice, there is eventually a dropping away of the languaging of separation between self and Self. In other words, we move from “I feel pain” to the more accurate “My body feels pain” to the even more accurate “perception of pain” to “pain” to the perception without words at all.  It is when we distill language to its essence, without the attachment of pronouns of I (asmita), we break through words to the Self.

In yoga, we cultivate practices that allow us to slow this process, to focus the mind so that the ability to be an active participant in how we decide on our experience is possible. These are the timeless tools of breath, bandhas, dristhi, and intention that are the foundation of yoga asana practice.

Leave Wanting at the Door

Asana can either reinforce our convictions, habits, thought patterns, or be an opportunity to evolve.  The next time you practice, read the following excerpt from a conversation between Michael Stone and Chip Hartranft:

“Let’s say I’ve come to a yoga studio and class is starting. Have I checked all my wanting and not wanting at the door? No, I’m still the same old self, fearing pain and hoping for gratification. Now when I get the euphoric endorphin rushes that come with practice, I’m going to mistake them for the goal, and each time I do yoga I’m going to unconsciously strive to recreate that pleasure. So Patanjali is saying that the relationship to the body must be very carefully cultivated. The body is the biggest part of the world that we know. And the world of the body is immense. The body is an enormous universe in and of itself.” – C.H.

In the moments you are sitting on your mat, before class begins, mentally re-enter and check wanting at the door. Spend a class getting to know your body within the space this creates.  Allow the typical asana checklist you employ to stay at the door as well, and consider, instead, the question “What does it feel like inside Virabhadrasana II? What does is feel like inside paschimottanasana?”

Repetition is the format that our brains and body respond to, and is the way that new neural, emotion, and physical pathways are formed. Evolve, by continually re-entering and checking your wants. Continually asking what it feels like inside the pose.  Ask, also, what is inside the pose with you right now that you could check at the door.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.21-22 “For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, realization is near. How near depends on whether the practice is mild, moderate, or intense.”

Chanting in yoga class

Perhaps you love chanting in asana class, perhaps you find it silly, perhaps you boycott and wait silently for the “real” class to begin.  Maybe you’ve only been to one class with it, or you’ve been to tons, but either way, you still don’t really know why you’re being asked to “sing” before a class. Especially if you don’t sing in front of other beings normally.  For students and teachers alike, the debate over whether or not to chant, when, where, how and what to chant is ongoing and often tied into personal feelings and experiences.  Sometimes chanting itself creates yet another samskara (habitual response) or chitta vritti (mind fluctuations) to deal with, in a practice that is largely designed to help us move beyond those very things.  No matter where you fall on the spectrum, becoming familiar with the reasons why a yogi chants will inform your practice, either infusing what you already love to do with a depth beyond the form of the chant, reinvigorating what has become rote, or keep you from missing out on some great classes.

Seven Reasons Why We Chant in Yoga Class

1) The language of yoga is sanskrit.  The poses are in Sanskrit, Patanjali’s yoga sutras are in Sanskrit, and much of the philosophical canon of yoga is in Sanskrit.  It is a language developed with intention, with purpose. It did not arise, like most languages, out of a need to communicate and organize.  Each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet was designed to create a certain vibration. The stringing together of the letters, Sanskrit words, were also designed to create certain vibrations.  Similar to musical notes strung together to create a song.  It is in this form, vibration, that the Yoga Sutras and yoga philisophy are best understood.  English explanations are always offered because they satisfy our mind’s intake of knowledge and understanding. But in order for yogic writings to be fully incorporated into our being, they must be chanted in Sanskrit.

2) According to yogic philosophy, and now quantum mechanics (Super String Theory), the essential nature of the world is vibration. By that I mean that everything, from your pen to your blood to the book your reading to the mousepad under your fingers, at it’s most simplified, smallest level is a collection of vibrations.

Chanting is like striking the tuning fork of your body.  It aligns your vibrations with other beings, within your body itself (muscles, bones, skin, organs begin to harmonize), and with the essence of the entire universe.  It is one of the simplest and most direct ways to move into intimacy with others; to unite your mindy, body & soul; and to connect with the infinite and basic nature of reality.

3) Michael Stone, in his dharma talks (see the Resources Page), talks about the use of form and ritual in the study of yoga.  In his sangha (community of practioners), he utilizes a bell to signal the beginning and end of a session.  He makes the point that the ritual of the bell provides just enough form to hold the space sacred for practice.  Chanting is often used in much the same way.

4) Chanting is an essential part of Bhakti Yoga.  There are four main schools of yoga: Bhakti (devotion/love), Raja (kingly/Hatha), Jnana (intellect/study), and Karma (action/service).  As asana practioners, we are all Raja Yogis.  Each individual tends to gravitate towards one school over another.  Ideally, as we deepen our practice, we begin to integrate all four schools of yoga, even though one generally remains the main practice.  By combinging chanting and asana, we begin to unify ourselves through the integration of Bhakti Yoga.

5) “Sound rides on the back of the breath” – Manorama.  Chanting necessarily influences the breath.  When practiced correctly, chanting is a subtle form of pranayama, and prepares one for asana or other breathwork.

6) Chanting can set the tone for the class.  The sutra, prayer, blessing, evocation or calling out focuses the class around a theme or intention.  The vibrational quality unites the entire class under this theme/intention.  It is the breath and intention that separates an asana class from a “stretching” class.

7) Singing is good for you. This, and other articles, describe the physical and psychological benefts of singing.  Additionally, the experience of singing is theraputic, almost everyone has self-medicated with it.  Or, on the other side, has rejoiced with it. If you think about times you’ve been in either emotional state, chances are you don’t need to read a website to know the value of singing.  While chanting is not singing, as it’s focused on the vibrational quality of sound, rather than vocalization, they produce similar results.

Chanting, as with any aspect of your yoga practice, should not be something you do simply because the teacher has told you to.  Try it, investigate it within yourself, share with other students about their experiences, and always feel free to talk to your teacher.