Anxiety, Ahimsa, and A New Earth

Feeling overwhelmed with training homework and a busy schedule, I took last week off from posting–and wow, did I beat myself up for it! Every day I felt guilty, and often had repetitive worries surrounding my next post, because secretly I thought that “this one has to be really good to make up for skipping.” Meanwhile, my jobs go on, dishes pile up, and preparation for my next training looms over me–reading, sequencing, creating my own ten minute warm-up to teach, finding and learning to lead a new pranayama practice, identifying areas I need to work on, attending classes, and so on. An unkind voice goes with me. She says, “You’re forgetting things. You didn’t do _______. What’s wrong with you, this is supposed to be your passion! Maybe you’re just kidding yourself about this. You want to be a writer, and a yoga teacher, and you can barely write or keep up with yoga!”

So, let’s explore that.

On my first teacher training weekend, Sept 12th &13th, we briefly went over the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Despite the two hundred hours that we could spend discussing those alone, training requires moving very quickly over a lot of material so that we can safely teach a physical vinyasa class, not just guide a philosophical dialogue. To scratch the surface, the Eight Limbs are comprised of: yamas (restraints), niyamas (disciplines), asana (physical practice), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (liberation). While traditionally the limbs must be mastered in succession, modern interpretations see them as concurrent practices. The first of the five yamas is ahimsa, or nonviolence–a semi-familiar concept in contemporary culture via civil rights and peace movements. Less common to the conversation of nonviolence is the necessity of its cultivation towards the self, “observing with compassion and gentle humor the successes and setbacks on the yogic path, [taking responsibility for one’s own behavior],” as described by Linda Sparrowe’s summary in Yoga. The phrase “gentle humor” should follow me wherever I go. I get way too bogged down by the seriousness of my aims, and it sets me up for the following problems:

  • not enjoying my life
  • not noticing the present moment
  • always becoming, never being
  • comparing myself with others
  • rigidity in thinking/lack of creativity

The spectacular thing about the Eight Limbs (and, of course, the Sutras) is their scope; one small idea, phrase, or image can have massive implications for delving into one’s own, or social psychology. I could run my self-criticism through many of the principles of the Limbs, but that would consume pages and pages, and perhaps be a bit pedantic for the updates in thinking and practice that I want to convey here.

Once I applied some “compassion and gentle humor”, presence came back to me like a boomerang: how useful is it to beat myself up about the past I can’t change or the future that hasn’t happened yet? Does stressing out about missed items on my to-do list give me more brainpower, more time, or even a strategy? A resounding no, as everyone experiences.

Another sneaky, previously undiagnosed facet of my worries came to me earlier today, by remembering a few passages from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, which was part of my required reading over the summer–“when you want to arrive at your goal more than you want to be doing what you’re doing, you become stressed.” So often, when I’m disappointed, lacking, or frazzled, I build my story of how things are going off of a few outliers, and dive even deeper into depressed fantasies of becoming someone different than I am. Everything that supports me, and that I do well *now* goes out of focus. Time, external events, and other people become distorted into the narrative that the future could be better and is therefore what matters. But the truth is that as long as we are alive, we’re arriving, never arrived. It’s not so much that these ideas around compassion and presence are novel–they’ve been expressed in countless ways across cultures and millennia, and have come to me in a plethora of forms and people, but to really incorporate them into the response I have to daily life makes them meaningful now. Tolle asks, “What is the relationship between something that you do and the state of joy? You will enjoy any activity in which you are fully present, any activity that is not just a means to an end. It isn’t the action you perform that you really enjoy, but the deep sense of aliveness.”

Do I go to yoga for it to be over? Do I want to write just to have things written? Both cease to be practices, then, and seem hollow, like objects instead of experiences. The busy nature of life often feels so alienated from the sense of spirituality and consciousness that I’m drawn to; meditation reminders pop up from an app on my iPhone, I most frequently listened to A New Earth in morning rush hour traffic, trying not to lose my temper at anonymous strangers who are in reality, living Beings with an emphasis on that capital B.

Finding the balance between doing and Being, Presence and planning is difficult. C’est la vie. That’s the work. I remember a gem from one morning’s car-ride: “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”


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