The Yoga of Relationships

“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained through cultivating friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and equanimity in the face of adversity.” – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; Sutra 1.33

In this sutra, Patanjali reflects on the yoga of relationships. Interpersonal relationships can be notoriously difficult and are arguably the fastest way for even the most accomplished yogi/ni to lose peace of mind. This is perfectly summed up in Ram Dass’ famous quote: ‘If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your parents’. Therefore, it is really important that we apply the yogic principles of equanimity not just on our yoga mats, but within our relationships, too. It is easy to remain calm and peaceful when we live a quiet, secluded life – yet, we find out how calm and equanimous we really are when we are confronted with the mirror of The Other.

Undisturbed calmness of mind is one of the main purposes of yoga. When we are able to observe and thus still the ‘monkey mind’, our thoughts that so often run wild with us, we come to a place of peace. And peace and equanimity are important if we want to liberate ourselves from lifetimes of samskaras and cease creating karma after karma that keep us in bondage. When we observe our patterns and emotions rather than react, we become free of them and advance towards the goal of all spiritual practices: moksha, liberation. So how can this daunting task be achieved? Let’s break down Patanjali’s sutra into small segments and reflect upon his words adequately.

Patanjali says that undisturbed calmness of mind is attained through cultivating friendliness towards the happy. This sounds easy enough. Happiness is contagious, right? Not quite. It all depends on how happy we are ourselves, and how generous we feel at any given moment. When we see happiness and success in others, and are not in a happy, fulfilled place ourselves, we can sometimes feel jealousy, envy, or even anger. Why are they happy and fortunate and not me? we may ask ourselves. Sometimes we may even wish that bad fortune befalls others. Such negative thoughts and feelings however do not bring us undisturbed calmness of mind. Rather, they unsettle the mind and increase our negative emotions. Not only do we bring harm upon ourselves by filling our bodies and minds with negativity that can result in illness, but we also energetically harm the other person by harbouring negative thoughts about them. We may even actively disturb or destroy their happiness through cynical, negative remarks and actions that hurt them.

If however we cultivate friendliness towards a happy person, it will have a number of beneficial effects. First of all, it brings us joy when we truly wish another well. We will not disturb another’s peace of mind and happiness through our envy and negativity. Thus, the person continues to feel good, and we in turn feel good, too. Our friendliness also has other benefits. If we can drop comparison and see the happy person as an aspect of ourselves, indeed of the Divine, then why would his/her happiness not be our happiness, too? We can cease to feel separate from others and understand that their happiness is our happiness, and vice versa. Thus, if we thus cultivate friendliness towards the happy, our minds will be undisturbed by jealousy, envy, anger and other negativities and thus become calm like a still lake.

Let us move on to the second segment. ‘Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained through compassion for the unhappy’, it says here. Again, at first glance this seems effortless. Who would not have compassion for another’s unhappiness? And again, it is more complicated than we think. Sometimes we may have the tendency to experience an inner Schadenfreude when things go wrong in another’s life, most likely for the same reasons that we are negative about another’s happiness: comparison, envy and jealousy. We might envy the other person and thus rejoice when bad fortune befalls them at long last. Or we may be highly competitive and therefore be pleased when our opponent comes to injury. We may even justify others’ misfortune in our heads as ‘they brought it on themselves’, so that we don’t have to reach out and feel compassion in our heart. This is especially true when we don’t like the unhappy person. These are all negative emotions that seriously disturb the mind. Positive emotions expand the body; negative emotions contract it. It is very hard to experience undisturbed calmness of mind when contracted and ragged by negative emotions. If however we practice compassion towards the unhappy, it brings us peace. The unfortunate person will feel soothed and supported, and we practice loving kindness, which in turn brings us peace.

Furthermore, Patanjali suggests that ‘undisturbed calmness of mind is attained through delight in the virtuous.’ This, of course, depends on how we interpret the meaning of ‘virtuous’. According to Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, virtuous qualities include non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual responsibility, non-grasping, cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self-study and surrender to God/dess. Such qualities are often found in sincere, advanced spiritual practitioners and teachers. Rather than delight in the virtues of others, though, we sometimes have the tendency to ridicule those qualities or try to expose the virtuous person as a fraud. We may even gossip about them and try to find fault with them, rather than cherish their positive qualities.

The reason for such unwholesome behaviour? Comparison, again. When we can expose a virtuous person as ‘not so virtuous after all’, it makes us feel better about ourselves and our shortcomings. Furthermore, we may envy the virtuous person and resent them for ‘making us feel small’ and not good enough. Self-acceptance therefore is paramount to undisturbed calmness of mind. When we love and accept ourselves as we are, at the stage we are at on our spiritual paths, then virtuous people become guiding lights. We can aspire to internalize their positive qualities without grasping. Delight in their virtuous qualities and self-acceptance therefore brings us more calmness of mind than negative states such as envy, criticism and judgement.

Finally, Patanjali states that ‘undisturbed calmness of mind is attained through equanimity in the face of adversity.” This is arguably the most important point of Patanjali’s sutra, and quite possible the one that is hardest to achieve. It is easy to stay equanimous when pleasant things are happening to us; it is quite a different story if calamities befall us. Nevertheless, maintaining equanimity in the face of adversity is of the utmost importance if we want to achieve undisturbed peace of mind. Adversity and struggle are an undeniable part of life – it is how we deal with them that makes all the difference to our evolution. When we accept reality as it is, rather than as we would like it to be, when we cease to struggle against the moment and what is, great peace enters our being. This is facilitated and increased through the awareness that struggle is fertile ground – it is growth waiting to happen. If we learn to see adversity as a gift, then we can sail through it unperturbed. It takes courage and strength to truly believe that everything in the universe is in perfect order and for our highest good, even when our world is falling apart.

If we surrender, we can grow into all we can be. This surrender can be greatly facilitated through meditation, in particular with practices such as Vipassana that encourage us to observe pleasure and pain with curiosity and equanimity. As we all know, pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional – and the suffering is created by non-acceptance of and struggle against the pain. If we understand that there is no day without night, no light without darkness, and that life is a cycle of pleasant and painful phases, we can be at peace. When struggles arise and we breathe through them, we slowly become more equanimous, one step at the time. Through our practice, we want to become like a tree: strong, rooted firmly into the ground, moved by storms, but not uprooted. When we are like the tree, we are always finding back to our centre, and this is why our sadhana is so important. That daily period of time that we take for ourselves and our spiritual growth makes all the difference.

With this sutra, Patanjali has beautifully outlined the obstacles that stand in the way of our spiritual growth. Undisturbed calmness of the mind, equanimity, is the aim of sadhana, and this state can be greatly facilitated when we observe and eventually transcend the negative emotions that contract our bodies and keep us prisoners in the wheel of samsara. If we desire liberation from our karmas, it is therefore important that we cultivate the practices Patanjali has described: friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and equanimity in the face of adversity. With sincerity, time and the grace of the Divine, they will lead us to freedom.

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