Sunday, January 27, 2008

Off the mat -- Self-ness, the Yamas, and the Niyamas

Off the mat – Self-ness, the Yamas and Niyamas

Once our minds have constructed the notion of "I," it becomes our central reference point. We attach to it and identify with it totally. We attempt to advance what appears to be its interests, to defend it against real or apparent threats and menaces. And we look for ego-affirmation at every turn: confirmation that we exist and are valued. The Gordian Knot of preoccupations arising from all this absorbs us exclusively, at times to the point of obsession. This is, however, a narrow and constricted way of being. Though we cannot see it when caught in the convolutions of ego, there is something in us that is larger and deeper: a wholly other way of being.(1)


We started our conversation about the eight limbs of the practice of Yoga with the discussion of the yamas, or ethical practices, first, and the niyamas, or self-discipline, second. Though they may seem pretty familiar to folk who have been taught to live ethical, responsible lives, deeply integrating them into our lives is a powerful way to begin maturing and developing both the discipline and the insight needed for liberation.

As a reminder, the yamas:

Ahimsa – non-harming
Satya – truthfulness
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacharya – avoiding sexual misconduct
Aparigraha – non-grasping

The niyamas:

Saucha – purity
Santosha – contentment
Tapas – intensity or fire
Svadhyaya – self-study
Ishvara pranidhana – alignment with existence

Before moving to the third limb of the path of Yoga – pranayama, or energy control – I wanted to pause to talk about a particular practice I’ve recently learned that provides an effective way of integrating the yamas and niyamas in daily life. I have a tendency to think of all kinds of instructions like them as “shoulds” or “oughts” or (worse) “have to”s. I was raised in a relatively strict religious tradition that entailed (with a lot of very important benefits) lots of emphasis on commandments. But when I start thinking of the yamas and niyamas as commandments, I fall back into my traditional understanding of myself separate and apart from the commandment-giver, and – further – separate and apart from the action itself.

Patanjali and others (the Buddha, in particular) help us to see that viewing the individual as separate from the actions of the is an artificial convention – not that it’s not useful in some regards – just that it’s no more “natural” or “right” or “complete” or accurate a picture than a variety of other ways of seeing and conceiving. The convention may be useful for some purposes, but mistaking the conventional perspective for something permanent and inalterable and “right” really limits our ability to see and understand clearly.

So if we don’t think of them as commandments of one sort or another, how should we approach the yamas and niyamas in life off the mat?

Here’s the practice – I first found it in The Diamond Cutter(2), a book by Geshe Michael Roach – and it comes in three steps, each one building on the previous one:

1. Close observation. Though the practice works with regard to any relationship, I found it easiest to start the practice by picking someone I interact with frequently. So the next time you interact with the person, make an effort to really observe the person closely. Notice what she says, what he is wearing, how she holds her body as she stands or sits, the ways he speaks and pauses, everything you can. After that interaction is done, take a minute or two to make some notes of your observations to help cement the perceptions in your mind. Approach the exercise as if you were going to become that person’s personal assistant, and wanted to know everything that you could to facilitate interacting with the person professionally and usefully going forward.

2. Go inside. The next part of the practice requires a bit more effort, a bit of laying aside your own thoughts, needs, wants, etc., but if your experience is like mine, it’s really interesting mental shift. After the first encounter with the person, and after the note-taking, the next time you interact with the person, try to imagine how that person is experiencing the interaction with you. Imagine what the interaction with you is like from her side; what he is expecting, thinking, needing, wanting, hoping for; how she perceives your words and actions; and what you can do to be of use to the person in that situation. For me, the first time I tried this, it was like pulling back a curtain and finding a window I had forgotten was there. I could suddenly see how much of my interaction with that person before then had been a stumbling combination of projecting my own wants and desires, thinking about my concerns, and unconsciously assuming that the other person was getting what I thought needed to be understood.

3. Expand your view of “me.” The third step is the natural extension of the second, though you don’t need to be in a hurry to finish with the second step. My experience is that practicing the second on different occasions with different people can reveal more than just a single insight or understanding. But once you’re ready to move along to the next step, here’s the exercise: Go through the second step again to get as clear a sense as you can of how the situation feels and what it looks like from the other person’s perspective, then imagine a bubble big enough to hold both you and the other person inside. And instead of thinking about “me” and the “other person,” think about each as a part of something composed of both of you.

From that expanded perspective, review your expectations, wants, needs, concerns, not as the limited you before the bubble occurred, but the expanded you. You now have two concentrations of matter and form, rather than just one. You now look out on the world through four eyes, rather than two. You now have two perspectives on every situation, rather than one. You now have two bodies to care for and protect, rather than one. In some ways, your connection to the new “part” of “you” isn’t as strong as your connections to the narrower self you started with before the exercise.

Those connections and interactions will take time to stabilize and deepen. Remember the first time that you tried Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose)? The connection between your vision and the standing leg and the balancing sense took a while to “see” one another clearly enough to hold the pose comfortably. My experience with this third practice stage has taken a while to stabilize. In some ways, I still haven’t fulfilled my original expectations. But in other ways, I’ve discovered things that I never even guessed at.

Over time, you may find that for you, too, the connections between what you previously thought of as your self and the other person will strengthen. You may find yourself thinking of your skin as not the outer boundary of “your self,” but rather an interface – a sensing organ – that connects parts of you to other parts of you. And you may find that you interact more gracefully with the other parts of you than you did before.

But back to the original topic – with this practice, you’re likely to find that the more you live with this expanded understanding of “you,” living the yamas goes from a “should” or an “ought to” to something as practical as pulling your hand out of a flame. Living the niyamas will feel as normal as avoiding something you discover you’re allergic to.

One evening, my wife and I attended a reception with several friends and acquaintances. When we got to a buffet table, one friend turned to me and asked if a particular dish had shrimp in it. I’d tasted it already, and said, yes, it did. He looked carefully and seriously at it, then he shook his head sadly and said, “It just doesn’t look good enough.” I told him it was pretty good, and he went through the same actions, and said the same thing. Then after playing with me a little longer, he added with a grin, “I’m allergic. My doctor told me that if I ever ate shellfish again, I’d die, and that just doesn’t look good enough to be worth it.” He chuckled to himself and headed for the guacamole.

My friend's diet choice was a niyama – a recognition that his life would be better (or in his case, “possible”) only by choosing to forego something that might have looked just fine from the perspective of someone else. As you practice your yoga on and off the mat, you needn’t contrive to practice the yamas and niyamas. Life seems to have lots of ways to present us with opportunities to be contented or perturbed, to do harm or not, to be disciplined or lackadaisical, to speak truth or spin lies. When life gives you such a chance, just notice what happens. Notice what you do, notice how the expanded you responds. Notice everything. And then consider whether a different approach might yield even better outcomes.

What has been your experience with the various yamas and niyamas?
1John Snelling, Elements of Buddhism; from Everyday Mind, edited by Jean Smith, a Tricycle book.

2 Geshe Michael Roach, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, Doubleday Books: NY, 2000, pp. 210-218.