Is your spiritual practice working in your daily life? A reflection on patience, equanimity and compassion off the meditation seat

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Lord Shiva in meditation

‘Spiritual work is not something practised only on remote mountaintops or isolated monasteries. The inner work I practice is marketplace yoga, or as Rudi once called it laughingly, ‘Survival yoga’. It is a spiritual work that bridges between our everyday life and our inner life. There is no separation in this work. We don’t punch a time card at the end of our day and move on to meditate. Our life is a meditation and a deepening of our consciousness.’Alik Elzafon

Has it ever happened to you that you felt very peaceful and full of love during your meditation session, and then lost your calm completely a little later in a traffic jam, during an argument with your partner or upon receiving an uncomfortable e-mail? If so, worry not – this is actually quite normal. Until we’re enlightened, we’re bound to lose our temper from time to time. And perhaps that’s even the case after enlightenment.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to observe the distinction some of us make between our spiritual practice (in meditation, during yoga class etc.) and our ‘normal life’ at work, with friends or at home. A friend of mine once said ‘you can see how spiritual somebody is by the way they treat other people.’ And there is some truth in that, for what good is our spiritual practice if it doesn’t carry over to the rest of our lives and instead makes us self-centred and insensitive to other people’s needs? A good sadhana should have the ability to open our hearts wide with compassion, to help us see life’s situations and ourselves clearly and with equanimity, and to promote happiness, joy and peace inside of us. This ideally will then also have an effect on how we interact with the world around us.

But it’s not always as simple as that. Our conditionings and samskaras often surface in situations that push our buttons. Old fears and unprocessed emotional wounds surface and lead us to react in stressful situations, and it’s often the case that we watch ourselves doing it as though we’re watching a movie. However, a good spiritual practice will at the very least alert us to what we’re doing and shorten the process of reaction drastically; and at best it will stop us from reacting altogether, no matter how uncomfortable the situation, because we have gained control over ourselves.

Uttarkashi in the Himalayas

Uttarkashi in the Himalayas

For me personally, I struggle with being patient. No matter for how many years I’ve practiced yoga and meditation, lack of patience is still an issue for me in certain situations. At the moment, my great test to see if my sadhana is working happens every week when I leave my peaceful abode in a tiny Himalayan village for the market town of Uttarkashi. Now, Uttarkashi can hardly be compared with big metropolitan cities like London or New York, but nonetheless – it’s India. Those of you who’ve visited India will know what I mean by that.

First of all, there is the journey to get to Uttarkashi, which is an adventure by itself. Here, we travel by ‘share jeep’. In India this means: as many people as humanly possible will be crammed into a jeep (if it is designed to hold nine people, at least twelve or fifteen people will be made to fit into it) which then has the task of reaching Uttarkashi on something that used to be a road once, but is now a succession of precarious landslides. You will then have the joy of bopping up and down in the jeep in a tight embrace with your neighbours while seeing steep cliffs on one side of the road and vertical landslides on the other.

Share jeep in India

Share jeep in India

At this point, in the early morning, I am usually still happy and calm and can even enjoy this bumpy ride. Then I reach Uttarkashi with a list of things to do and purchase, and usually one of the following things happens: 1) all the ATMs have run out of money and I might have to return back home as I don’t have enough money to buy what I need, 2) there are power cuts that prohibit me from doing my work on the Internet, or 3) shop keepers have decided that it’s a holiday but haven’t announced it to the rest of the world. This, together with the chaos, dust and kamikaze motorbike riders that are a part of most Indian cities, make it a great opportunity for me to see whether my meditation practice actually has any effect in the ‘real world’.

I sometimes fail dramatically, especially at the end of the day, when it’s time to go home and the jeep driver simply won’t leave, even though the vehicle is already piled up to the brim with people, but he’s waiting for yet one more person who can sit on somebody’s lap before he wants to start. But for every time I’ve lost my temper, I’ve been interested to observe the Indian reaction to such delays. Indians stay curiously calm most of the time – no matter what the delay or the annoyance. They may not be meditators, but they are simply used to this and don’t waste their energy getting annoyed – they wait and know that at some point, the wait will be over. It’s as simple as that.

I have to admit that I’m not that far advanced in my equanimity and patience skills, but I am learning something every time here. I use all of these delays and obstacles as an exercise in practicing patience, for, if I’m not going to learn to be patient in India, then where else? I’ve also developed a few strategies to remind me of my sadhana and to keep calm. One of the most important ones is the silent and constant recitation of my Guru mantra as soon as I set foot into Uttarkashi. Apart from keeping me connected with Guruji, it reminds me to remain calm and that everything is perfect as it is. If the ATMs have run out of money, then that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and I need to find another solution. If there is a power cut, I need to take a breath and use the time to do some purchases instead until the electricity comes back.

The Guru mantra also works wonders when I am at the grocery store. There is a curious system in India that I’ve now managed to figure out. The first time I went to the grocery store, a bunch of customers was standing closely huddled together in front of the counter, and everyone was shouting their orders at the same time towards the shop keeper, who then in turn shouted different orders to his assistant at the back of the shop. As I stood there wondering about how to get myself noticed, a man advised me to ‘just push in and shout as well, otherwise you will never get served.’ So that’s what I had to do, and I also had to learn to be patient in this situation because it can take a long time to get what you want with this system! This in turn I learned by looking at the shop keeper, who appeared unruffled and smiling in the onslaught of simultaneous shouted orders from at least ten people.

Another thing I do before braving Uttarkashi’s market is to visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple (ancient and famous Shiva and Shakti temple) on my way in and get my blessing from this powerful place. It works wonders, as the vibrations in this temple are so strong that I invariably exit with a big smile on my face.

Kashi Vishwanath temple, Uttarkashi

There are many strategies that keep us connected and remind us to take our sadhana into our everyday lives. The good thing about a spiritual practice is that it makes us reflect – and very often, that means reflection and awareness of ourselves and our behaviours. When we become more sensitive through meditation and other practices, we not only see ourselves and others more clearly; we also start to understand why we are acting in a given way and what we can do to change it. Sadhana ultimately is a tool for understanding our mind and its modifications, most particularly at an unconscious level, where all these disturbances originate. When we meditate, we connect with Shiva: pure consciousness; the unchangeable, immovable Self. This in turn then helps us to free ourselves from reacting to uncomfortable situations and to leading a more harmonious and joyful life. A bridge between our inner and outer lives is built that allows us to participate fully in life without forgetting its real purpose: realization of the Self.

My book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India

The issues are in the tissues

So it’s that easy? You do a few yoga postures and suddenly, you’re charging towards enlightenment? Or worse, you want to renounce everything and go live in an ashram in India?

Not quite. But there is a logic to the mysterious process of yoga, though I can’t claim to fully grasp it myself. This is how I understand it through my own experiences. Asanas, or yoga postures, release tensions in the body and balance the nervous system. When we thus cleanse and balance the body, we start to get a glimpse of who we really are and where our challenges lie. Most things we perceive as problems, such as difficult people or situations, are really a result of our conditioning and wounding we experienced earlier on in life. Because our vision is not clear, we tend to either blame these ‘opponents’, resulting in anger and victim consciousness, or  we blame ourselves, resulting in depression and self-pity.

To use an analogy, imagine a window that’s really dirty and hasn’t been cleaned in decades. Can you see the beauty of the world behind it accurately? You can’t. Everything will seem ugly, dark and distorted. But once you wipe it clean, and this can take years depending on how long it hasn’t been cleaned, suddenly you can. You realize that the sun shines brightly and that things aren’t dark at all. This is what yoga does.

My Ayurveda teacher, Dr Vasant Lad, always used to say ‘The issues are in the tissues’. He said this in reference to our bodily tissues. In the human body, every event, especially the traumatic ones, is recorded by our bodies. We store these unconscious memories as tensions mainly in the tissues of our bodies. We call these psychic tensions samskaras, or mental scars.Often, we are unaware of them, because the whole reason they have been tensions is that we have suppressed them because the event was too traumatizing for us at the time of experiencing it.

Our body is made up of these samskaras, and in Vedic philosophy, it is said that we carry them from lifetime to lifetime. The way we look now, and the ailments we have in this lifetime are a direct result of our actions in the past. Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, this theory makes sense: whatever you eat actually becomes your body. In Ayurveda, we have seven bodily tissues, and the food ingested matures into all of them in a matter of days. So whatever food you eat or action you perform in this lifetime is likely to have a reaction at some point of time.

When we practice yoga postures, these tensions are released. The muscles relax, and the energy flows more freely through the body. Our nervous system relaxes through the calm breathing, and this in turn relaxes our mind and emotions. Hence, the system cleanses itself and a clear vision can emerge. With a sattvic vegetarian diet, the more advanced yoga practices like the shatkriyas cleansing methods, fire ceremonies and extended sadhanas, this process is aided along. And before you know it, the window is getting cleaner and cleaner, and your whole outlook of life changes.

In Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, it’s very similar. Through the process of Panchakarma, a cleansing method that may involve purgation, vomiting therapy or medicated enemas, years of accumulated toxins are removed from the body. I always find it interesting how much emotional baggage comes out together with the physical toxins, and how much clarity there is in the mind afterwards. It’s incredible how closely related body and mind are. I recently heard that the ultimate aim of Panchakarma, just like sadhana, is enlightenment, and it made total sense. If your body is clean, but your mind full of dirt, you can’t be enlightened. Likewise I would argue, if you practice a lot of yoga and think positive thoughts, but eat at McDonald’s every day, the path to realization might be quite arduous, too.

It’s still amazing to me how precise and vast the system of yoga is, and how it addresses every single challenge a human being could ever face. And it seems to be never ending: first you get over the physical challenges, then the mental/emotional ones, and suddenly you find yourself immersed in spiritual challenges and in vast dimensions that you never believed existed when you went to your first yoga class. You’re like ‘How on earth did this happen? I didn’t plan for this!’ But worry not. Many people who only practice yoga once or twice a week for health reasons will never get to or even know about this stage. For most people, myself included, unless they already come to the planet highly evolved, it takes years of arduous and sustained practice to free themselves of the shackles of conditioning. But everyone will benefit nonetheless, whether you practice once a week or every day. Harmony slowly weaves itself into the lives of all, depending on where you are at on your journey.

So it pays to keep the body clear, whether you do it for physical health reasons or for reasons of elevated consciousness. Both feed into each other: you can eat the most healthy, organic diet and yet still be full of toxins if you have an excess of unprocessed mental tensions such as anxiety, anger and rage. On the other hand, I have a friend who lives on a diet of frozen potato chips and chocolate sandwiches but is pretty healthy as he practices two hours of Vipassana meditation a day. So it can work both ways, and as has been shown by research studies, some of the causes of serious illness such as cancer can be wrong diet as well as unprocessed emotions and relationship stresses. So it’s always good to keep a check on our mental as well as physical health.

And it doesn’t have to be yoga. Any process that detoxes the body and facilitates a smooth flow of energy can do the same – whether it’s Tai Chi, Quigong, meditation, energy work, fasting or cleansing. See what resonates for you.

Wishing you bliss and joy on your journey!