Equanimity: More Than One Story

On the announcement of being one of the first professors to be fired from Harvard, Ram Dass (then Richard Alpert) was in a room with the press. He writes, “They had that look on their faces you have when you’re around a loser… And I looked around and saw that everybody believed in only one reality to this situation except me.”

One of the hallmarks of when we’re in that more awake and story2aware space is that we’re not tunnel visioned into just one way of seeing ourselves or others or a situation.  We hold space, we don’t make up our minds about what’s in front of us, we have more than one story – without needing any of them to be right or wrong.

“My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books.

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.  Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.”   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Danger of a Single Story

Books are about specifically American and British lives, and they are also specifically about Nigerian ones.  Being fired from Harvard was disgraceful, and it was also freeing. Working ourselves free from the habit of a single story cultivates the type of equanimity required to really see ourselves and others, to really be present with the moment arising in front of you.

Often we drift into a single story when we are explaining “why”, and using language like “That’s just the way it is. That’s just the way I am, she is, he is, the government is, my handstand is, my body is.” Or, like Ram Dass, when our culture has a very strong single view of a situation.  It can be hard to climb out from under that.

stories1When we notice there’s just one story in our perception, we can stop, and ask “That’s one story, what’s another one?” Who or what do you have a just one story about? Where do you feel stuck? Test run this question now, and then try it out over the next few weeks. Try it with people, try it with yourself, try it with situations. Let equanimity be your guide. When it starts to slip too far from your field of vision, check in with this question.  Save yourself from having a single story of any aspect of your life.

Sthira Sukham Asanam – I

In the Patanjali Yoga Sutra tradition, there is but one guideline for asana practice – that it is steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham).

sthira sukham asanam PYS II.46
The connection to the earth should be steady and joyful  -and-
Asana should be steady and joyful.

Sukham

Looking at a yoga sutra that comes just before this one, we see that Patanjali has provided a pathway to practicing sukham:

Santosad anuttamah sukha labhah
By contentment, supreme joy is gained.

To practice joy is to first practice contentment – santosa.  The origin of the word contentment is “contain”.  When we are in a state of contentment, we contain everything we need to be happy. Nothing is missing. Nothing. The heart of this sutra is not that we need to work towards being content, but that we already are. Right now, we have everything we need. We are whole.

This is sometimes expressed as the ability to want what we have, rather than have what we want.

We have all experienced this. Moments when we look around us and realize that there is no where else we’d rather be. Or we look at our companion(s) and realize there is no one else we’d rather be here with.  Nothing is missing. We are happy.

The sutra on contentment is asking us to stop leaving it up to luck and happenstance, to a perfect concentration of circumstances.  Instead, intentionally shift perspective to contentment, to nothing missing. Try it out. Even if you have to do so doubtingly, put aside the new job, the different apartment, the change in your partner, the place you’d rather be, and fully believe that right now nothing is missing.

A natural joy and happiness arises, without force, as a result of a moment, however fleeting, of contentment.  It is a shift in perspective, not a shift in circumstance, that allows for santosa and sukham.

Repetition is necessary, all aspects of yoga are a lifelong practice. Eventually, we develop a deep well of sukham.  In the analogy by Matthieu Richard*, we are like the ocean far out to see. On the surface we may have leaping waves dolphins frolic in or turbulent storm tossed ones, but deep down we have a still, steady, always present serenity and joy.

Sometimes we experience this in asana. When we experience the sthira sukham within each pose, instead of purely the external motions of the physical body on the surface, we notice  how the body is moving around this steady joyful source.  All the asanas begin to feel the same.  Our sukham – joy – begins to become steady.

Next month we will focus on sthira.

*Inspired by Matthieu Richard’s November 2007 TED talk.