Whenever we look deeply into our behavior, we begin to recognize that many of our interactions with each other are unconsciously based on protecting our self-image, trying to control the ever-changing world around us or win the acceptance of others. We can practice having compassion for the ways that we all suffer from our attempts to arrange for happiness, reminding ourselves of the innate goodness within, like the light beneath a lampshade. We can also acknowledge the ways we may have hurt others when we’ve been preoccupied with our own safety and desires, and in this spirit of compassion, forgive ourselves for these mistakes.
Sometimes things break. Sometimes we break them. It’s not the breaking that matters, the how or why. What matters is how we choose to respond to the broken-ness. Does it kill us? Does it throw us into a downward spiral of blame and punishment?
Does it help us remember how to love deepest? Does it push us towards compassion and over the hurdle of “rightness” and “wrongness” into LOVENESS?
From a poem by Kathleen Fleming
Picture courtesy of Pixabay
The residents of the Institute chose to practice “service and self-care” for the month of November. We often observe ourselves struggling to make wise choices when deciding between serving others and taking care of ourselves. Many of us were raised with a strong work ethic that is reinforced by the “gotta get ahead” mentality of American culture, the value placed on sacrifice in Judeo-Christian faiths and the Yogic teaching of selfless service.
Depending on the mental mood, we may find ourselves dwelling in unhealthy thoughts like, “Why should I have to do this? It’s not fair.” or the opposite, “I should do this. I’ll show them how good I am.” Both are based on judging and comparing ourselves to others, and are products of the ego—that persona we have unconsciously developed that compels us to look good in the eyes of others.
Of course, selfless service is a key element of Yoga in action and can be a tremendous source of joy and fulfillment. But it is meant to consider the well-being of everyone—including ourselves, not a form of self-denial. We can be so focused on promoting a successful image to sustain a reputation that we ignore our own needs. After periods of self-denial, we may feel resentful and needy, and react to that by making selfish choices.
Even when we do think about our needs in a healthy way, it may feel self-indulgent. Contrast that with a baby–an infant never hesitates for a second to express its needs, and quite convincingly. It is so important to remember that taking good care of ourselves is not in conflict with service. It makes it possible to serve with sustained energy, a focused mind and an open heart.
Sri Swami Satchidananda articulates this clearly in his book, The Golden Present: “You yourself should know how much you can give. You cannot give beyond your capacity. If you have done a lot of service that day, and if you are really tired, you should say no. Otherwise you are saying no to your own body or mind.”
We can all practice finding a balance between service and self-care so that we don’t go overboard by either giving too much or too little. And, of course, this discernment is aided by a daily meditative practice that builds enough clarity and awareness to catch ourselves falling into overdoing or being self-centered. Observing our habitual tendencies, we can learn to see when we need to show more compassion for ourselves or could reach out more often to lend a hand.
Fortunately, we have countless opportunities to practice service and self-care every day, whether we are driving, listening to a friend, checking out at the grocery store or working with others. Clearly, the best motivation for serving others comes from experiencing for ourselves the feeling of compassion flowing through our hearts, and the natural sense of joy that arises from giving freely. Ultimately, we are all learning, one act of kindness at a time, that loving each other and loving ourselves are actually the same thing.
I have always been strongly attracted by essential truths, statements that get right to the heart of the big questions about why we’re here and how to navigate this life. I found this kind of clarity and depth in the words of Sri Gurudev, Swami Satchidananda. One of the teachings I have treasured is what Sri Gurudev calls “keeping the most important, sacred property: your peace.” This concept can be a powerful way to examine our lives and the choices we make, and a great reminder to keep everything in perspective.
This statement implies that peace is something that we don’t need to acquire because it is already there, as our essential nature. While that may be true, most of us don’t experience that truth so easily. Only when we have focused and calmed the body and mind through our spiritual practice or become deeply absorbed in some activity, do we begin to taste that part of our being that is sacred and already at peace. When the thick clouds of fear and desire that often dominate our minds begin to dissipate, the light at the heart of our being shines through. Even a small taste of that peace, which feels like an inner serenity, can be a godsend in the midst of the crisis and turmoil of daily life.
Sri Gurudev suggests using this teaching as a touchstone for analyzing what course of action to take. If a choice will cause me to lose my peace, it’s not a healthy choice. If I see that my inner serenity can be maintained, then I can go ahead. Of course this analysis must be done with sincerity, and with the understanding that anything I do that hurts someone else, will also disturb my peace of mind.
For example, can I be truly at peace if the “truth” that I tell is motivated in part by revenge? No. When I am serving others, if I stop to rest in order to keep my balance and maintain my ability to serve well, can this be called a right action? These are tricky questions. How can we tell what the right action is in any given situation?
The way we practice Hatha Yoga provides an excellent analogy for reflecting on this. We see that in performing an asana, the real benefit comes from a mindful effort to move beyond our normal limit by consciously releasing tension and relaxing. But if our stretching is done without regard for where we are now, (as when we try to look impressive), then there’s a good chance we’ll injure ourselves.
Likewise, most of us benefit from stretching a little further in our efforts to be loving to one other. This effort, too, should be mindful and tempered by listening for signs that we’ve reached the limits of what our bodies and minds are capable of. This means that as we learn to grow more compassionate with one other, we also practice compassion for ourselves. For example, at times, eating and resting properly, or taking time to be quiet or pray, can be the best way to serve others. Those around us are not served by another example of a stressed out person who doesn’t know when to call it a day.
When we can keep alive even a small flame of peace and equanimity in ourselves, we have already contributed to world peace. Establishing peace in ourselves is the only way we can expect to have the clarity to then express it in our daily lives, in the difficult interactions we have, where peace is sorely needed.
Our ability to embody nonviolence and compassion will bring those values more powerfully into the world than any speech we can make. We have literally hundreds of opportunities every day to make a choice to be loving, to listen and understand others, to give without expecting something. If we can open our hearts to even a few people we encounter, we begin to live as a light for peace, one step at a time. There is nothing more important for us to do and nothing more fulfilling.
I hope you join us in this month’s practice of keeping your peace!