Sunday, September 09, 2007

Off the Mat -- Tapas

(Another in a series of dharma talks with my yoga students)







There is an interesting practice that I recommend you try sometime: svaha. It starts with a fire, so kindle a decent-sized fire in your fireplace or a campfire or, for that matter, your charcoal grill. For the purposes of this discussion and the mind-image, a good-sized campfire will do. You’ve kindled the flame. You respect its intensity, its potential for good or ill. You can now take two different approaches to the fire. By itself, it will die out over the next hour or two. That’s the nature of fire. Alternatively, you can feed it and keep it going.

Let’s suppose that you choose to maintain it. You now have two interesting choices about how to implement that decision. You can see the fire as demanding your attention and maintenance, or you can see the fire as an opportunity to transform what you no longer need into brightness and warmth – or to transform things that you want less than you want the brightness and warmth that will come from giving them up to the fire.

The ritual is to identify what you can put into the fire, and then to do so. While I’m as literal-minded as the next guy, some things just don’t burn too well, so I tend to think of this ritual as more of a way of re-assembling my interests and priorities in life than as a way to reduce no-longer-wanted/needed possessions to ashes. I have, on more than one occasion, written out a word or two on a slip of paper that I’ve tossed into the fire, giving up my attachment to the idea penned there. Perhaps, it’s been a treasured resentment. Maybe an insistence on my own viewpoint. You get the idea.

I like the brightness of fire.

But I’ve practiced a version of this many more times than I’ve built campfires. For many weeks in a row, one of my more wonderful yoga teachers began each class she taught with the simplified ritual of starting us in seated meditation, asking us to think of something we could give up, imagining it cupped in our hands, then raising the hands to the sky, giving it up to the divine fire. That practice worked for me by putting me into a mindset of seeing the obstacles to my yoga practice (both off-the-mat kinds of practice as well as on) as things I could give up.

Now maybe you aren’t as interested in or moved by rituals as I am. If not, there are other ways to practice tapas. The Book of Malachi in the Bible refers to God as the “refiner’s fire.” (Malachi 3:2) In simple terms, a smith would take gold ore, put it into the most intense fires that could be generated at the time, and would burn away everything that was not the gold. I like that verse and image, as it makes clear to us that our core essence is already gold. What is needed is a fire to remove the obstacles. I think that Malachi may have been getting poetically at the same kind of experience as that which Patanjali articulates in the Yoga Sutra, when he writes

For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, realization is near.

How near depends on whether the practice is mild, moderate, or intense.

Doesn’t that sound rather like a football coach talking to his players in training camp before the season starts? Football coaches weren’t the first to figure out that intense personal commitment can turn talented players into something altogether different. Tapas is the niyama that speaks easily to our culture. While we may not really feel connected to saucha and we may think that santosha is a bit suspect, we can totally relate to tapas.

In a way, the “how near” question presented in I.22 is asking, essentially, “How badly do you want it?” But it isn’t a tax demanded by a greedy universe that we can pay grudgingly – it’s a transformation of ourselves – indeed, a transformation of our very notions of “self.”

Lama Surya Dass wrote:

Last night across the globe, millions of new parents were awakened by the sound of a crying baby. Around the world, these parents responded by groaning as they stood up and made their way to the baby's crib in order to do what had to be done. All of these parents were renouncing, giving up, or letting go of their much needed sleep because they cared more about the well-being of a little child. The child's needs were more important than their own. Their parental love was stronger than their attachment to their own sleep.

Renunciation, an important and recurring spiritual theme, is not that complicated to understand. Renunciation means sacrificing or giving up something that seems important at that moment in favor of something that we know ultimately has more meaning. Each time we do this, we are making a spiritual choice – a decision to go with the bigger picture. ...

A spiritual journey almost inevitably begins with a decision to renounce a certain way of life. But that decision is less about changing your environment or letting go of people and things than it is about transforming your inner being – learning the inner meaning of letting go and letting be in order to find wise naturalness and authentic simplicity.

(Awakening to the Sacred: Creating a Personal Spiritual Life, Lama Surya Das, Broadway Books: NY, 1999, pp. 31-32)

Along the same lines, Ram Dass wrote in Be Here Now:

You might think of renunciation in terms of some external act like a New Year's resolution, or leaving family and friends to go off to a cave. But renunciation is much more subtle than that – and much harder – and much much more continuing. On the spiritual journey, renunciation means non-attachment.

To become free of attachment means to break the link identifying you with your desires. The desires continue; they are part of the dance of nature. But a renunciate no longer thinks that he is his desires.

(Be Here Now, Ram Dass, Lama Foundation: New Mexico, 1971, p. 9)

So what’s the benefit of tapas – of practicing yoga with deep intensity and commitment? Patanjali promises in language that seems to borrow from Malachi’s refiner’s fire idea that “as intense discipline burns up impurities, the body and its senses become supremely refined.” (II.43)

This is something as yogis we can sink their teeth into – something we can test. As you have committed to your practice, performed even just the on-the-mat work with commitment, managing your life to get you to practice, have you discovered that you have been able to perceive things through your senses and body more clearly?

On a very tangible and physical level, I have. As I’ve mentioned in class before, before I discovered yoga, I had gotten desperate enough to meet with back surgeons to see if they could help me fix the constant pain I was in. Though I started my practice of yoga for entirely different reasons, the more I practiced, and the more attention I paid to exactly what I was experiencing in my body, the more I began to perceive the actions, the postures, the motions I was making and holding that complicated and amplified my back problems. Seeing that, I began to change the ways that I sat, the ways that I moved, the ways that I stood. Doing that lessened the pain. The more I practiced, the more I began to distinguish between muscle groups affecting the positions of my lumbar vertebrae and disks. That led me to discovering that as I strengthened – really strengthened a lot – not only my back muscles, but also my psoas, my abdominals, my obliques – I found that I didn’t have any back pain left at all. Now, I don’t want to mislead – yoga didn’t magically heal my back. It did, however, refine my perceptions. It helped me to discover all those things about my back, and having discovered them, to change them. If I revert to the same behaviors I was pursuing when I was talking to back surgeons, I can make my back hurt again, just as it did before. But it’s been years since I wanted to do that.

Off the mat, commitment to the practice of Yoga has similarly refined my perceptions of my body that affect not only physical conditions, but also matters we more often talk of as related to the heart and mind. There is a radical and elemental connection between minds and hearts, spirits and bodies. The same kinds of refinements of perceptions can allow us to see how our actions cause harm to other beings and to ourselves. They can enable us to perceive the effects the foods we eat have on our bodies and on our minds. They can allow us to understand more clearly how other people see a situation, and how they feel about it.

At its core, Yoga can be understood as a set of practices that applies mindfulness to increasingly refined perceptions of the relationships between ourselves and the beings, the world, and the universe around us.

Everyone’s fire burns at different temperatures at different times. So what can you do to build tapas, if you feel like you’re less motivated, less inspired than you might be at other times?

Here’s what I do, in no particular order:

1. Connect with someone who inspires you. This can be anyone, living or dead, someone you’re close to or someone you’ve never met.

2. Get outside – outside your office, outside your house, outside your normal routine, outside your thoughts, outside your habits.

3. Yoga. For me, at any rate, no matter how grumpy, lethargic, sick, lazy, depressed, or bored I may feel, if I can get myself into a yoga practice, I start to feel better, more interested in practicing. When we practice yoga – especially the vinyasa style that we typically do in class – it gets easy to think of tapas as simply the body heat we generate, but the heating affects much more than just the temperature of our muscles and tendons – tapas affects our minds, as well.

One caution as a parting thought: tapas or intensity does not mean “force,” either on or off the mat. Forcing ourselves into a posture wrecks knees. Forcing ourselves into a thought process performs similar damage to our minds. Yoga tempers tapas with santosha (contentment) and ahimsa (non-harming). Find ways to make tapas compatible with those principles – not an opposition to them.