I hope the start of the year went by smoothly and brought some new experiences into your life.
This month I would like to go over some of the common clichés that represent a new age approach to spirituality. Some of these platitudes I will mention are actually pointing in the right direction, they were very likely originated in sincere intentions that were aligned with contemplative teachings such as yoga or dhamma (Buddhism), but somewhere along the line ended up missing some very important points and became somewhat misleading.
Before I start, it might be very useful to define what "spirituality" means in the context of yoga so that we can avoid misunderstandings. Here's a good definition that I came across - rigorous introspection, a commitment to investigate in depth our inner world so that we can transform it in a way that improves our life at the root level of experience. This definition may already dispel some of these statements but there are other nuances that can be worth while to explore.
Here are some of these slogans:
Listen to your heart
If I understand this correctly, this encourages us to let our emotional and mental content determine how we perceive who we really are and then act in the world accordingly, assuming that there is some deep hidden truth about who we are in how we feel, think and see ourselves and/or others.
According to yoga philosophy the source of all our mental and emotional content is the conditioned erratic human mind, which is commonly referred to in India as "monkey mind". In fact, one of the main purposes of practicing yoga is to reduce the impact of thoughts and emotions as they are considered as distorting our ability to see what's real. Through effective practice we can start to see clearly the transitory nature of these patterns which are essentially empty of real substance, they are simply forms of energy. When we realize this through a process of meditative inquiry, we naturally lose interest in forming attachments to the content of the mind and instead view it as it is, a natural changing phenomena. We can then let them move through us just like clouds move across the blue sky.
Progress in yoga or any other contemplative practice can take many forms, but one thing that it should contain is a growing ability to snap out of the compulsive attachment to the content of random thoughts and emotions, making sure we don't get stuck in our biases, and be free to let go of narratives or interpretations of reality, particularly when they are harmful to us.
The suggestion to listen to the heart is in essence a permission to allow the conditioned mind to operate freely, uninspected, and keep us trapped in the bondage of attachment to its content. This slogan is really giving us no hope for any progress on a spiritual path and instead is more likely to lead us in the opposite direction. If we want to discover who we really are, we must still the erratic movement of thought and emotion so we can see clearly what's beyond that, just like a little pond, only when the ripples on its surface subside, and the water is still, one can see the bottom with clarity.
This also applies for statements like:
Go with the flow
The universe is sending me a sign
This one I hear a lot, I even use it myself from time to time with a touch of humor and sarcasm. if I understand its original intention correctly, it means that when we're in doubt we should take what happens to us as some kind of reference or guide to help us see things more clearly and maybe even make better decisions based on these occurrences.
Here's one major problem with this statement, it is based on an assumption that the answers to our dilemmas or uncertainties are external which is in complete opposition to yoga philosophy. From the yoga point of view, every difficulty we face, every challenge or hardship, and also everything else, they are all primarily internal experiences. We may believe that we are dealing with some external situation, but in reality we are dealing with internal ones. This realization is at the heart of the yoga discourse and all yoga practices are based on this thesis. It obviously does not mean that we do not have to deal with external things, of course we do, this is part of living in the world, but the root of any problem, confusion, or anything like that is within the mind-body continuum, and therefore any real resolution can only take place there, all external dealings are just practicalities.
Additionally, going back to the previous statement, we are all trapped to one extent or the other in our conditioned way of thinking and perceiving things, we are heavily biased in how we perceive others, ourselves, and interpret everything that happens to us. One of the biggest biases we have is what we give attention to and what we don't, we are facing countless number of events every day that come in different shapes and forms, and yet we pay attention to very few of them. When we claim that the universe is giving us a sign, we really just point out that we unconsciously chose one thing to notice and ignored all the others, that's really all there is to it.
This also applies for statements like:
Everything happens for a reason (for the best)
Trust the process
You create your own reality
That one is actually quite true, we do create our own reality - our internal reality! With effective practice we can transform the content and impact of our thoughts, emotions, states of mind and moods, which all determine the quality of our life. The only real resource we have available to us that affects how we experience anything in our life is our attention, it can be scattered and move randomly out of our control from one disturbing thought to another, or it can be more focused and intentionally create its own content which serves us well. And then at times it can also rest in the present moment noticing the breath, sensations in the body or input coming through the senses.
This is the highest form of yoga practice, the contemplative practice of mindfulness, which is simply noticing any experience as it arises, as it is, and it can be practiced 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, anytime, anywhere, we don't need any special equipment or space for that, we just need to pay attention.
When we develop this capacity we can start making conscious decisions which thoughts we entertain, which ones we let pass through us, and which ones we intentionally create that are useful to us. One common example is when we feel a strong resentment towards someone we can consciously generate thoughts and feelings of compassion to counteract this negative state, this can change our experience and help us feel more calm, loving and receptive which are much more beneficial states than aversion, frustration, or even hatred.
It's your karma
This is also somewhat true, but we must understand the principle of Karma otherwise it is just a watered down use of it that completely misses the point. Karma is a very important concept in Indian tradition and culture and can have slightly different interpretation depending on the context.
The word karma come from the root 'kr' which means to do or to make. It refers to a concept of action, work, or deed, and its effect or consequences, meaning that every action we take (even mental action aka thinking) leaves a footprint, a residue, externally, in how it effects others or the world around us, but mainly internally, through the imprint it leaves in our mind and body. According to this model everything we experience in the present is a product of our past karmic residue, the result of previous actions.
To be honest, I am not sure if this concept is fully aligned with what we know today about cause and effect which is why it's crucial to understand that the main reason it was formed was to motivate people to live an ethical life. It's true that according to this principle we really have no control over what we experience at the moment, it is all predetermined, but it can only have any real benefit if we transform all our future actions for the better.
If you decide to buy into the model of karma that means that you have to look at every choice, action, deed, and even active thinking, as something to observe meticulously to make sure that it will only bring good karmic effects for you in the future, that probably means that you should base them in compassion, kindness and love, and express a genuine interest in the wellbeing of all beings on earth. That's what karma is all about, which is a bit more difficult than simply using it as a catch phrase for accepting things as they come, which is not a bad thing to do as well.
There are many more of these slogans that I could dispel but I think you got the point ;-)
I hope no one got offended, the intention was not to shatter a belief in something but rather to bring a little more depth to these concepts and connect them to the teachings of yoga.
Looking forward to sharing yoga with you in February.
Wishing everyone peace and happiness,