Lifestyle, Mind and Disease

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Heart Health

Recently, I met a beautiful woman who presented as a new patient. She was fit, curious and intelligent. As I read through her chart, I made note of her history – cancer treated with conventional therapy a few years ago, now in remission. She also had a few risk factors for heart disease, for which she was referred to me. As we talked about her history and her life, she stated that she had chronic insomnia from worrying about her health. What follows is a snippet of this conversation.

Question (me): So, tell me about your lifestyle.

Response (her): You know what? I have always been very conscious about my lifestyle. I eat healthy, I exercise avidly, I have never smoked, I don’t drink alcohol..

Q: That is wonderful!

R: Yes, but look at the irony of it. Compared to all my friends and family, I live a very healthy life. And yet, I am the one that got the cancer.

Q: Hmmm.. So, you think you should not have gotten cancer..

R: Exactly. Cancer runs in my family. My siblings are obese, they smoke, they never took care of themselves and yet I am the one that got it.

Q: So, in your opinion, if anyone should be getting cancer, it should be one of them. Not you. Is that how you feel?

R: Yes (sheepishly). Although I know that sounds terrible and I should not think that.

Q: Well, it is irrelevant what you “should” think. You are thinking it anyway, isn’t it (smile)? So, essentially you are saying that all those people that don’t take care of themselves “should” get the disease, and those that do “should not”. Is that right?

R: Yes.. This makes me so angry. I should be the last person to get cancer.

Q: Because..?

R: Because I am conscious about my lifestyle.

Q: And yet, you got the cancer.. Even when you think you “should not” have. Clearly, life is not listening to you. Tell me something. Have you always felt like you were in control of life?

R: Oh yes! I am a Type A personality.

Q: So was I (smile). Until life showed me who’s boss. Is it the loss of control over life, and things not going your way that is keeping you up at night?

R: Absolutely. I worry about my health. What more can I do? I am already doing everything!

Q: Are you? What do you think a “healthy lifestyle” entails? How about this seething inside you are experiencing? Are anger and resentment a part of healthy lifestyle choices?

R: No.. I have been angry for a long time about how hard I have to work to keep healthy and after I got the cancer, I became more angry and resentful.

Q: Do cancer or heart disease care about how hard you have worked? Have you tried to reason with the cancer about this?

R (Laughing): No. Of course they don’t care. Still..

Q: Still.. Hmm.. So, the cancer won’t listen to you and will do what it wants. Sounds to me like your trying to convince it otherwise is the problem. Would you agree?

R (after several moments): Yes. I can see that.

Q: Would you say that the main problem in your lifestyle is your worrying about something that cannot and will not change? It is like banging your head against a brick wall. What gets hurt – the wall or your head?

R: My head.

Q: Exactly! You can wage a war with what is really happening by thinking it should not have happened. In this case, you got cancer. What you think about it makes no difference to what has transpired. The cancer happened – yes, despite your lifestyle choices. Is there anything else happening right at this moment, without reference to memory, should or should not have, who should get it or not get it, and what might happen in the future? What is reality at this moment? There are two women talking in a room. Words are spoken and heard. Even as the words are spoken, they are already in the past – nonexistent. Can you find the memory of cancer hidden away some “place”?

R: No.

Q: Can you find anything else at this moment?

R: My heart is beating. I can feel it.

Q (smile): Even as you say “heartbeat” referencing one particular heart beat, it is history. Is anything going on at this moment that isn’t already the past?

R (thinking several minutes): No. Wow! I had never looked at it this way.

Q: I’d say the most important “lifestyle change” is to question the contents of your mind – your assumptions, judgments, comparisons, the incessant commentary about everything. Perhaps the cancer was a wake-up call for you to do just that. Perhaps it was the cancer’s way of telling you that despite your “healthy” living, you are caught in a whirlpool of toxins – the toxins of your thinking, of you trying to dictate what must happen to not just you, but to the whole world. When life doesn’t listen, you go to war with it. And you find yourself losing this war. This is not a war that can be won. The only way out is to wave the white flag in surrender. Tell me, how do you feel about your siblings and friends who don’t live a “healthy lifestyle” and have no disease?

R: I resent them.

Q: I love your honesty! Yes, that is exactly it. You resent these people that you love because they don’t have the disease you have! Look at the insanity of our minds!

R (shaking head): I had never thought of it this way.

Q: Lets see if we can make this most important lifestyle change now. Would you be willing to try something?

R: Anything!

Q: Great. I’ll teach you a simple mindfulness meditation technique to practice twice a day. Don’t expect changes overnight! This is a gradual undoing process of years of toxic thinking (smile).

R: Ok. I’ll do it.

And so this is the pattern I see so very often. Lifestyle changes are great, as long as there is no “tightness” around them. “Tightness” is the fixed expectation of the outcome that an action must bring. When the outcome differs, there is great suffering. The problem then is not around the lifestyle choice, but around the expectation. Why? There are infinite possibilities in every given moment on how the next moment will turn out. When we perform an action, the only thing we have control over is that specific action (and even this is an illusion, actually). We have absolutely no control over the outcome. Sure, we seem to know this intellectually quite well. However, how we take an unexpected outcome is the sure test of how well we really know this!

There is no dispute that most chronic illnesses are related to lifestyle choices. However, it is not as simple as saying that everyone that does “a” will develop “b” or that everyone that does not do “c” will not develop “d”. Even within these lifestyle choices, there are infinite possibilities – the environment, our individual constitutions, genetic predispositions and very importantly, the role of the mind. If fear of disease is the driving force for a particular lifestyle change, that disease is foremost on our minds. This fear “eats away” the sophisticated apparatus that connects the mind and body even as we make those lifestyle changes. Fitness of the body does not guarantee a balanced mind and outlook.

On the other hand, if the relationship with the lifestyle choice is one of wisdom and acceptance (and not of war), we can make the appropriate choices but not be too hung up on the outcome. Perhaps disease is the outcome – perhaps now we can be led to that place within that is already (and always) free of suffering. From this vantage point, there is no dis-ease. There is only wholeness.

Image Source: Cancer cell, Wikipedia Commons.

Teaching Children the Art of Giving

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Yoga of Parenting

Question: My five-year-old gets very upset when she gives gifts to her friends and they do not reciprocate in the same way. Any thoughts how to handle this?

Response: To
begin with, I am neither a parenting expert nor a child psychologist. I can give you my thoughts based on how my child’s behavior opens the door for deeper exploration of my own motives and actions.

It does not seem
wise to reason with a 5-year old who is crying or throwing a tantrum! It might be best to distract her with a favorite toy or activity. Avoid the temptation to buy her something, since the longer-term goal is to teach her how to give without expecting something in return.

Incidents like
these are beautiful pointers to our own minds and actions. Our children are much more likely to do what we do, rather than we say. Thus, if my child has the concept that giving a gift must result in a similar gesture from her friends, I need to look at how this I might be contributing to this behavior modeling. It is true that children are like sponges, soaking our ways of thinking and acting even when we think that they are not watching! It is in the tone of our voices, our criticism of others (or ourselves), our behavior with people in front of and behind their backs, our response to the world’s (and our own) shortcomings, what we really value and so on. It is also in the countless non-verbal ways we employ to express our approval and distaste of the world around us – the smiles and the smirks, the gestures of love and contempt, the laughter and the jaw tightening and the myriad reflections in the eyes. They mirror our behaviors perfectly.

Thus, in a situation where my child has the mindset that giving is an activity that results in a similar gain, I might be prompted to inquire deeply into my own patterns of giving – do I give with reservations and expectations, or do I give freely as an expression of joy and love? Giving does not refer to giving of gifts alone, but the giving of myself on a daily basis.

For example, do I really give unreservedly to my spouse? If my concept of a strong intimate relationship is one of “give and take”, I can never teach my children to give. Give and take implies a barter more than an intensely intimate connection with my partner. Yet, this is the current popular psychology regarding marriage and partnerships. Magazine and newspaper columns pour out advice on “how to make your man do XYZ for you”, or “how to make the girl fall for you”. Notice how these strategies are more about taking than giving. Even when we do not overtly agree with such advice, the subtle undercurrent in intimate relationships can be one of expectation of the other or meeting the other’s expectation to keep the peace.  Often, we manipulate each other in subtle ways to get things our way. Giving in this context is always with the intent to bring about the desired outcome (which is sometimes innocently thought to be the “better” outcome for all concerned). This way of manipulating in the act of giving is picked up by our children even at subtle levels.

This behavior does not end at home, of course. It permeates all our interactions. At work and in the community, we give only when there is “something in it” for us. If there is no promise of a personal gain with our efforts, we are less likely to be interested in giving our time or resources. And this behavior is not only acceptable but expected in modern living! We are molded from an early age to focus on our own gains, albeit in civilized ways. Even service-oriented activities are performed to collect credit, earn praise or as material for college applications.

Question: Very true. So how can I teach my child to give?

Response: By learning how to give yourself. You cannot teach her this if it is not your way of being. Your child will smell you out if this is contrived, trust me!

Question: How do I learn to give?

Response: By digging into the cause of the behavior of “giving with wanting”. This behavior arises from a deep sense of insecurity and incompleteness, needing constant validation in exchange for every act of giving. Insecurity and incompleteness are the hallmarks of the ego (false identification of the “I” to be the body-mind). The ego is fragile by nature and employs every tactic in the book to feel more secure and complete. For the ego, giving is a disaster because it feels threatened by someone else having more. The natural reaction then is to expect something back in order to feel complete or good. But since this security is temporary and can never satisfy the ego’s desires, the feeling of having gained something feeds into the loop of fear of loss or craving for more. Fear and craving lead to further grasping and neediness. There is absolutely no way for the ego to curb its own desires, for craving is its very nature. The only way “out” is to step out of the false identification with it, and to discover who or what the “I” is. In reality, our true nature is of eternal-consciousness-contentment (sat-chit-ananda). When we discover this absolute completeness, expectations fall away and giving becomes an outpouring of this contentment.

Question: How can I learn to not expect?

Response: By minding your own business. In the context of giving, this means that your only job is to give as fully as possible. The moment your mind begins to expect something in return, ask yourself if you are still in your own business. When we begin to think, “he or she should reciprocate in some way”, we are in their business over which we have no control. Our thinking that someone should or should not do something has no bearing on what they will or will not do. It is not their action but our thinking that their action should be different that causes us suffering. Suffering is the result of war with what is.* The only business we need to be concerned about is ours. As the wise old saying goes, “do good and throw it in the river”. When lived this way, giving becomes an extension of overflowing completeness.

As our children begin to see this new paradigm of living and giving, they can be confused for a while and wonder how they must model themselves. However, as our own authenticity pours through, they can relax that this way of being is non-threatening to their developing sense of self. Through our own example of giving, they might glean the truth of St. Francis’ words, “It is in giving that we receive”.

*This type of inquiry is called “The Work” by Byron Katie. A powerful method of questioning our thoughts, “The Work” is beautiful in its simplicity and its ability to transform one’s life.

Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Pushing Our Children to Succeed

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Yoga of Parenting

There is no question that we live in a competitive world. It does seem like this competitiveness begins much earlier and is much fiercer with every generation. As a parent, I have often found myself in the place of too much or too little in terms of “pushing” my children to “succeed”. In my experience, inquiry into pushing my children to succeed is rich grist for the parenting mill.

I have always been an over-achiever. Competitiveness was the hallmark of my childhood. Only in retrospect and in the context of stillness was I able to see what that was all about. It was really an effort to “make up” for what I felt I lacked inherently. That sense of lack could never be filled, no matter how much I achieved. Achieving one thing drove me to the next thing in an endless loop. Without any overt pressing issues, my life came to a grinding crisis when I realized one morning a decade ago that nothing I could possibly achieve would fill this gaping hole. My whole life until then had been characterized by searching for the next thing that held the promise of respite from the inner critic that needed constant proof of my ability to succeed. Every “success” brought the much-sought respite, but it was always temporary. I thought there was some magical achievement that would provide permanent rest and silence the inner critic forever. That morning however, I realized that what I was seeking was the end of seeking. 

My children have been an integral part of the journey of discovering the end of seeking. By their very presence, they demand that I clearly examine my intentions as a parent. This is because the intentions behind my “encouragement” of my children were not always crystal clear. Of course, I had grown up with the concept that parents are supposed to know what is best for their children. Like every other concept, this too came crumbling down. Do I really know what is best for them? From a practical standpoint, yes, I know it is in their best interest to not play with fire or jump off a two story building. Beyond that, can I really know what the future might hold for them and whether their “successes” in grade school will ensure their happiness later on? How can I be so presumptuous when I don’t really even know what this evening will bring? More importantly, what is the true intention behind pushing them to succeed according to my definitions? 

When my children would display less then stellar self-motivation, I would notice myself lecturing them about my own childhood marked by dogged determination. I would find myself telling them stories about how fortunate they are to have the opportunities they have, compared to what I had while growing up. My children would shrink as they reluctantly listened to these stories that subtly insinuated them of being “not as good” as their mother.

Added to this predicament is the culture of expectations, be it at school or in extra-curricular activities. Competition can be very useful to bring out the best in our children. However, it is also one of those things that can become the bane of one’s existence. To succeed with a cut-throat attitude requires pushing down others in overt and vicious ways (albeit hidden under masks of politeness). It causes us to “help” our children in underhanded ways, such as concealing opportunities from other parents and their children, teaching our children to keep secrets about their activities to give them an “advantage” and so on. Strategies like these are considered fair and acceptable in the modern world, but are enormous blocks to inner growth and freedom from suffering. When we tell our children things like, “There is room for only one at the top”, we transmit our viciousness and pain of separation to them. They will grow up with this great burden and discover that they can never keep pace with expectations (theirs and ours).

We might justify our need for our children to be at the top and find nothing wrong with this approach. For two good reasons, such an approach falls short of wholesomeness. Firstly, life teaches us again and again that what goes up will come down. In the “real world”, nobody can be at the top all the time. Moreover, the top is a lonely place that needs to be claimed again and again with no respite. This was my predicament, where I longed for rest from the rat race. Secondly, the underlying issue with this approach is the distorted perception of “my” children versus “not my” children, which is an extension of “me” versus “not me”. The “me” is by nature fragile and insecure because it is an illusion. It does not have inherent existence and must continually resurrect itself in the form of pushing and pulling. Conflict is the result of this continual rebirth. Unknowingly, our children become pawns for the “me” to resurrect itself in new and conniving ways. The “me” shamelessly uses our children to feel good about itself.

The yoga of parenting leads us to question our motives for pushing our children to succeed. From my own experience and eyes wide-open approach, I find that it is my insecurity that drives me to push my children. When my children succeed, I feel good and validated for having done “my job so well”. When they do not, I feel like a failure and it hurts. I  transfer my pleasure and pain to my children, and they have to carry the unthinkable burden of “looking good for Mommy”. Throughout this mess, I fool myself into thinking that this is for their best interests and for their future. Mostly, I fool myself into believing that this is for their happiness, as if happiness can ever be equated to success! There is no question that I love my children, but when my self-interest becomes mixed up in it, I am treading in the muddy waters of self-deception. Ultimately, they might need an existential crisis to discover that none of this matters, and what they are seeking is also the end of seeking.

When we want our children to earn praise for being talented, smart, capable, strong and so on, it behooves us to question our motives. When we encourage lack of transparency in order to come out on top, we are placing “winning at all costs” higher than integrity. When we push our children to be recognized every single time they venture out, we are instilling insecurity and fear of failure. We can never teach our children graciousness, equanimity and the path to inner freedom if we are caught up in the drama of vicious competitiveness. When I sit with the question, “would I be at peace if my children turned out to be mediocre?”, the answer is a resounding yes. Where my children go to college, what sort of vocation they will end up with, how “on top” they will come out and how “successful” they will become will make no difference to who they really are or to who I really am.

The greatest gift I can give them is to impart the ability to see that who they are is beyond definition, wanting, grasping or needing completion. They are already complete, perfect and full. The highest mountaintop would still be a speck in the magnificence of their fullness. The respite they seek is here, now.

Image Source: Shutterstock

What is yoga, really?

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Yoga Practices

It is “International Yoga Day”. People are practicing yoga en masse all over the world. Many of my friends and family have reached out to wish me well for this day. Some ask me what I’m doing for this special occasion and this question evokes the same answer every time, “There is no day that is not yoga day!” To see what this means, we must first understand what yoga really is.

Yoga is often misunderstood to simply be an exotic sport. Since its introduction in the west decades ago, it has gradually attained the status of an activity that the “cool folks” indulge in. It is after all what the celebrities swear by, clad in their designer gear and toting their yoga mats for hungry paparazzi. Yoga studios have popped up in most towns, advertising everything from “hot” to “naked” yoga. And it isn’t uncommon for these studios to branch out into selling raw foods and expensive juices, jewelry and “Om” bearing t-shirts, all in the name of “yoga”. Further, there are master businessmen who have “patented” poses (that were perfected and freely given by ancient sages) to attain name, fame and yes, great wealth.

It is not unusual for my colleagues and friends to say that they would love to try out my yoga program, except for their lack of physical fitness and inflexibility. Most participants in my program are shocked to hear on the first day that our sessions may or may not include yoga postures. They listen with fascination when I say that some of the greatest yogis that the world has known were/are unable to touch their toes, let alone twist into pretzels!

What is yoga then? Derived from the Sanskrit root, (yuj = union) yoga is a comprehensive science that strives for union or joining of the mind, body and spirit in awareness. Why would this be important? To understand this, we must discover the nature of suffering and the “connection” between the mind and body.  Although it seems like the body and mind are two different entities “connected” by some third entity, there is no boundary that clearly separates the two. The one “thing” that binds all these seemingly separate parts of ourselves is the sense of “I” or “me”. It is this “I” (or rather, what we mistake the “I” to be) that is the cause of all suffering. We mistakenly assign our identity to the body or mind, both of which are in constant flux. The body will invariably decay and die. The mind is fickle by its very nature and our lives can (and are) governed by our constantly changing beliefs, ideas, judgments, comparisons and the general non-stop commentary that rests only in deep sleep. The root cause of suffering is the war within, stemming from this fickle nature of the mind. It is the result of being a slave of the mind’s many components – thought, memory, projection, intellect and ego. Suffering is translated into the body (because of lack of boundaries between body and mind) and most of us lead lives of struggle due to this (mis)identification with the body/mind and the sense of being separate from everyone else.

While “union” is the popular definition of the word “yoga”, it is a misnomer since “union” would apply to two separate objects (body-mind, mind-awareness, and so on). While this is how it seems for a while on the path of yoga, eventually we come to see that the body and mind are emanations of the one awareness. Awareness is all there is. That which prevents us from seeing this truth is called “ignorance”. The primary cause of this ignorance is the mind and its constant turbulence, which forms a thick veil that obscures reality. Thus, the ancient Indian sage, Patanjali defines yoga as the mastery of the mind’s modifications (“yogash chitta vritti nirodhah” (Yoga Sutras, 1:2). Thus, yoga is the journey through the veil of the mind to finally come to rest in the knowledge of our true identity. The light of this knowledge that banishes the darkness of ignorance is the the sole goal of yoga, and of all life. This knowledge is known as “enlightenment” or “self-realization”.

The paths to this great knowledge of our true identity are many. When we utilize our actions in the world to attenuate our selfish desires (one form of the veil), it is karma yoga. When we use our emotions to rise higher and higher in devotion towards our ideal, it is bhakti yoga. When the various elements of the body and mind  (postures, breathing techniques, meditation, ethical values and so on) are used to thin the veil of ignorance, it is raja yoga. When the intellect with its reasoning abilities are used to penetrate the veil of ignorance, it is jnana yoga. Many other yoga forms (Hatha, Ashthanga and so on) are combinations of the above with a strong emphasis on yoga postures and breath awareness.

Although these seem like unique “paths”, they are merely superficial descriptions. Each of us will be initially attracted to a specific path based on our individual tendencies and desires. Proceeding in one yogic path invariably leads to the others, and all of life (actions, emotions, mental processes, bodily functions, relationships, work and roles) eventually flows into one path with no distinction between life and yoga. We become anchored in our true identity and everything flows from this, saturating every experience with love and beauty.  This is the fruit of yoga.

Perhaps the time is ripe for an “International Yoga Day”, where there is greater awareness of the transformational power of yoga. It must begin somewhere, and yoga postures, beads and juices are good starting points. Yoga moves on its own and transmutes everything in its path. And so we will collectively move past the (mis)identification with the body/mind that drives the desire to attain the perfect yoga posture or look/act spiritual. We will then come to discover the inner sweetness that needs no flexibility of the joints, fancy outfits, studios, patents or lifestyles.

Teaching Children To Serve

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Yoga of Parenting

My daughters are at an age where they are becoming more aware of the world around them. With world events being discussed at home and school, they are beginning to form opinions about themselves through this novel view that expands beyond the familiarity of parents, family and friends. One such world event has shaped their blossoming through its gravity. With the devastating earthquake in Nepal, the girls were shaken by the images on news media outlets. As it is with children in general, their kindness and concern were aroused and they began to ask what they could do to help. Having heard of a local organization founded by a dynamic doctor, they decided that they wanted to contribute to it and involve their friends in the effort. With some brainstorming, they came up with the idea to make this an art-based project. Under expert guidance by their martial arts mentor, they invited their friends and schoolmates to create art projects for an auction. The event raised a considerable amount of money for their first “service” project.

Through the whole process however, my concern was centered around their intention to serve. Two days after the event, the opportunity  to explore the meaning of service arose. As it happens, it is when I am driving them around that I have their undivided attention. The following is the conversation that ensued:

Mom (M): So girls, how did you think the Art For Relief project went?

Daughter 1 (older daughter, D1): Good.

Daughter 2 (younger daughter, D2): Great, mom!

M: How did you feel when you found out how much money you raised?

D2: Really good! Now there is so much money for Detroit2Nepal (the organization they raised money for) to help kids in Nepal.

M: Yes, that is true. I’m very pleased with how much you care. Did you feel happy and responsible that you made it happen?

D1: Hmm… yes.. I suppose..?

M (laughing): There are no right or wrong answers! It is okay to feel fulfilled when you do something for others.

D1 (laughing): Ok then, I do feel fulfilled.

M: So, can either of you tell me what the purpose of service is?

D2: To think about others and their needs.

M: Exactly! Just for a moment, can you both sit still and see what all your thoughts are about? Who or what is the topic of most of your thoughts? When you are meditating and thoughts come up, who do these “talk about”?

D1 (after several moments of silence): About me.

D2: Yeah, about me.

M: Yes! If you can just observe, you will see that all day long (and even in dreams), everything that goes on in your mind is about you and how you feel, what you must do to feel a certain way, etc. So the whole purpose of doing something for others is to direct your thoughts to someone else for a change. But, this is pretty tricky. Even when people do great things for others, the thoughts can still be about themselves and how it makes “them” feel fulfilled and good. Although they have genuine concern for others, the main person they are loyal to is themselves. Can you understand this?

D1: Yeah! So, if I do a project just so that I can get into college, that would not be real service, right?

M: Exactly! Not “real” service. Can you think of some more examples of “not real” service?

D2: If I tell all my friends how much I am doing for others?

M: Yes!

D1: If I want to feel better about myself compared to my friends?

M: Yes!

M: Good job thinking of very good examples. So what would real service look like?

D1 (after very long moments of thinking): Where I do something for someone even when I don’t want to or don’t like it.

D2: If I do something for someone even when nobody will find out.

M (teary-eyed): Yes, you don’t need to do big service projects. Whenever you put aside your own self-interest and jump in, it is true service. When you do something so that the other benefits (whether you win or lose), it is true service. If I say, “I do selfless service”, would that be real service?

D1: No, because you are still thinking about yourself.

M: Good girl! We can talk about this more later, okay?

D2: Okay mom. Can you put on some music now?

And so it goes. What is service, really? The whole purport of karma yoga is about service. It is the remedy for obsessive self-referencing, the universal human affliction. All our thoughts refer to the “I”, its likes and dislikes, its preferences, its fears and pleasures, its beliefs and notions and so on. This self-referencing is reinforced by parents, teachers and society, fed by competitiveness and rivalry, and nurtured by insecurity and separation. In Vedanta, this notion of the self to be the body-mind is known as “ignorance”, since this identification is a result of not knowing our true nature. This ignorance is dissipated through knowledge of the true nature of the “I”, that is beyond the body-mind (Self, with a capital “S”). Karma yoga is one “path” to Self-knowledge, and  begins with thinking about others so that the dualities of likes and dislikes can be mitigated. For a very long time, karma yoga is invariably tainted by self-interest – from feeling fulfilled to accruing “good karma”, from “doing good for society” to “spiritual attainment”, it is still about the “I”. Gradually, the self-referencing becomes more and more subtle, with many opportunities for self-deception. Eventually, karma yoga leads to exploration of the nature of the “I” through self-inquiry and other tools that cut through this self-deception.

True karma yoga begins with seeing through the “I” and that it does not exist the way it is thought to. The body-mind do not hold the “I”, but appear to it. The real “I” or Self is transcendent of body-mind-world and yet permeates and illumines all experience. In this dawning Self-knowledge, boundaries of separation blur and disappear as doing happens without self-interest. Service no longer makes sense as the old concept. Instead, the individual body-mind begins to be used in service of the whole. Individual concerns no longer plague decisions and actions; they merge into the flow of Life.

Selfless service does not happen through willing it, but by transcending the sense of “I” as the limited body-mind through Self-knowledge. Until then, service cannot be truly selfless, no matter how noble. As my daughters stated, selfless service is doing for others whether there is acknowledgment or not, whether it is recognized or not, whether it is liked or not, whether it makes us feel good or not.

Dasha Mahavidya – Kamalatmika

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Tantric Practices

She sits upon a lotus, while four elephants surround her and bathe her continuously with sweet waters. In two of her four hands, she wields ever-fresh lotuses. The other two hands form boon-bestowing mudras. Brilliantly radiant, she saturates creation with beauty. Such is the iconography of the last of the Mahavidyas, Kamalatmika (or Kamala).

She closely resembles the more popular Mahalakshmi (specifically, Gajalakshmi or the Lakshmi with the elephants). However, Kamalatmika differs from Gajalakshmi, displaying alternative fierce forms typical of the Mahavidyas. She is more closely connected to Tripurasundari, the third Mahavidya. While Mahalakshmi is venerated as the consort of Lord Vishnu, Kamala stands alone and independent like the other Mahavidyas. She represents the “downward” movement of the spiritual journey. While Kali symbolizes the upward journey into the transcendent, Kamala marks the descent of transcendent knowledge into the mundane and ordinary.

It is Kamala’s grace that bestows beauty into that mesmerizing sunset, that haunting melody, that exquisite touch of the beloved, that juiciness of the perfectly ripe fruit, and that lingering fragrance of the rose bloom. The allure of sense objects is the magic of Kamala; without her, no object would hold our interest or desire. While the beauty of some objects seems obvious, Kamala’s grace results in opening to the inherent beauty of consciousness beyond the appearance of objects. Thus, even situations, people and objects that were previously unacceptable are welcomed with a renewed vision. No circumstance or action is seen to be “gross”, “dirty”, or “immoral”. Her exquisite beauty is seen in all manifestations as equally valid and beautiful.

Kamala’s grace manifests in unexpected and wild ways. Resplendent beauty cannot be known without unconditional love and acceptance. Anything less is a subtle form of violence. Especially on the spiritual path, much of what we do (worship, meditation, inquiry and so on) can become tools to push away suffering. In spiritual circles, this is a well-known phenomenon, known as “spiritual bypassing”. We try very hard to “let go” of our limitations only to discover that they cannot be let go of. If an issue or perceived limitation is examined with the sole ulterior motive of “letting it go”, the said issue is driven deeper into the psyche (as suppression or repression, or vasana). Sooner or later, it is bound to surface again as deeply patterned thoughts and actions. The lifeblood of an issue is rejection.

How is rejection violent? If we look closely, we will see that just as the sun shines equally on flowers and weeds alike, all phenomena are welcomed in awareness. If something is occurring, it has already been allowed, despite the mind’s labeling of it as right or wrong. Awareness does not evaluate what to let through. It is only the separate “I” that filters experience, calling this acceptable and that not, based on what it has learned through upbringing and previous experience. This has no bearing whatsoever on what must and must not happen, since the “I” passing such a judgment is itself an arising in awareness. Thus, a higher state of consciousness is as much an arising as a lower state. Just as the sun cares not if the flowers and the weeds approve, awareness cares for nothing preferentially. Kamala reveals this paradoxical truth – suffering is the result of rejection

In my sadhana, practices like inquiry were used with this subtle (violent) intent of being rid of a said issue that caused suffering. Innocently, I believed that I could “inquire it away”. However, Kamalatmika will have none of this if her grace is to be had. Her beauty is unconditional – it must be seen equally in everything. No higher state can be preferred over the mundane and ordinary, for such preference is a subtle form of violence. Her sadhana is one of acceptance in toto. Her beauty does not lie in the external form of the object or situation as much as it does in the life force that fuels the seeing itself. Thus, when anger, jealousy or anxiety arise, there is no preference for peace in its place. Instead, the discomfort is allowed to arise and is felt fully. This is an act of love, and of epic proportions. For without such unconditional love for our own follies, the world will always remain separate and seem like a source of suffering. Self-judgment must be allowed and loved before judgment of the world can be seen. In this act of radical ahimsa of allowing everything to arise and simply be, the exquisite beauty of the arising is deeply felt and seen. This tantric sadhana is one that opens the doors to unimaginable sensuality and radiance. In this absolute allowing, inquiry becomes a tool of curious and loving self-discovery. When the intent of inquiry thus shifts, the separation between awareness (Shiva) and the said issue (Shakti) collapses, revealing their eternal union. The ocean is seen to be one with its waves.

The path of the Mahavidyas begins with Kali’s blow that cuts off the head and brings us to Kamala’s glance that opens the heart. The path does not end here. Instead, a previously hidden secret path is revealed. It is one of softening and allowing, melting and opening. Kamalatmika initiates a deeper level of alchemy, where harsh resistance to the totality of life is transformed into the sweet nectar of love. 

Image source: Wikipedia commons.

Teacher’s Pet – The Tyranny of Favoritism

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Yoga of Parenting

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Ben Parker to nephew Peter Parker, also known as Spiderman.

We’ve all been there. We’ve been favored at times and not so much at other times.  Since favoritism is so pervasive, we’ve come to accept it as “real life” . We remain unfazed even when we see parents subtly (and not so subtly) favoring one of their children over others. “This is life”, we tell ourselves. We try to move on. Yet, we face favoritism again and again. Like when the teacher of a class passes your child over. Just because. Or your boss gives the other guy the promotion despite the fact that you’re more qualified. Just because.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. When I was teacher’s pet, I wished for invisibility because the other kids resented me. When I was not teacher’s pet, I wondered what was so “un-special” about me. Now that my children are subject to it, the whole dynamic of favoritism hits home. Hard. When my child is passed up without being given a chance to demonstrate her talent or hard work, it brings up distaste and puzzlement. There are no answers or justifications on the teacher’s part. The dynamic becomes far more complex when the teacher’s kids are thrown in the mix, creating the perfect recipe for conflict of interest. Most teachers either have no awareness of the power they wield over their students, or blatantly abuse it. They’re either clueless about the damage they cause to fragile self-esteems, or frankly don’t care. “This is life”, they say. When asked why they prefer one child over another, they simply shrug. Just because.

Of course, this disease of favoritism doesn’t restrict itself to the materialistic world. It’s especially rampant in spiritual circles, which are usually made up of all-too-human patrons. Spiritual heads wield exceptional power over members of their organizations; after all, they control these lesser mortals’ salvation! Often, these heads are fraught with the universal human flaw of being driven by likes and dislikes. Like when their own offspring come of age, they skillfully manipulate the organization to position them to pass the baton to. It hardly matters that there may be other, far more advanced members who may be much more capable of handling the responsibility. “This is life”, they say. And there is that less-than-satisfactory explanation again. Just because.
And then there are those rare teachers that are evolved beyond the human tendency to be driven by circular thinking. They are bestowed with the marvelous gift of being able to identify the tiniest of sparks in a student even when it is densely hidden from view. They tease out the best from every student they come in contact with. They understand the power they exert, and use it responsibly. Ben Parker would approve. They don’t settle for flimsy explanations like “This is life.” They transform the circles they live and work in. Just because.
I’m immensely fortunate to have been tutored by some exceptional teachers. They never gave up on me, even when I was ridden with self-doubt. They pulled me up and pushed me ahead, foreseeing a future for me that I couldn’t see myself. And I was not the only one. They shaped the unique destinies of all their students in subtly different ways. For all the teachers that dabbled in pettiness and favoritism, these rare ones stood steady and rock-like. They transformed every student they ever taught, whether they were teaching biology, mathematics or music. They understood the complex dynamic of favoritism – that playing favorites is toxic for group learning. They didn’t fall prey to the “just because”. The whole group benefited as a result of their wisdom and grandness of vision.
What happens with favoritism? You know, the way “life is”? While the favored ones soar from overinflated egos, the others merely resent it all. While the favored ones learn arrogance and acquire superior-than-thou attitudes, the others lose interest in the teaching even when they have talent or passion for the subject. While the favored ones will eventually learn humility (this is life, yes), the others learn to doubt themselves. Due to their own inadequacies, teachers create disharmony in communities and societies, perpetuating the helpless attitude of “This is life” and “Just because”.
What does this mean for me as a parent? I decided to talk to my child after she had been passed up in her activity in favor of the teacher’s pets. I asked her what she thought about it. She was ten years old at the time. To my surprise, she answered, “Well, I know I’m better than what the teacher thinks, Mommy. I’ll just keep working at it.” Bravo, I thought. She demonstrated an attitude that was far more balanced and mature than that of the teacher! Over the years, she has continued with the activity despite growing favoritism in the class. We talk freely about it, knowing fully well that the teacher’s dismissal of her talent means little in the grand scheme of things. She has learned to separate the grain from the chaff, taking in what benefits her growth and ignoring the rest. There will come a time when her unique gift will serve it’s divine purpose. How do I know this? Why, because this is really how life works! Life will take of us whatever it is that we were made for. No petty teacher, community or society can stop it. She (life) is the supreme boss.
And of course, this is such rich grist for the inquiry mill! When I fight it, and think that “it is not supposed to be this way”, I suffer. When I come into alignment with what is, I gain clarity. I see that this is how it is; this is not resigning to the situation, but accepting it. The difference between the two is that resigning to something leaves the residue of resentment; acceptance occurs in peace and love. Clarity is the key ingredient for transformation. In inquiring, I come to see why it bothers me. When scars of my own life surface, they are healed by the power of loving clarity. When I heal, I am able to be totally present for my child. When I am present, she learns to see that she is not who the teacher makes her out to be. She sees that she is beyond the pettiness of lessons, grades and preference. She senses her potential and begins to transform from within. In the increasing light of loving clarity, we both come to see the superfluousness of “me vs. the other”, “us vs. them”. In this light, we gain compassion for these teachers and wish wisdom upon them.  In this light, we learn to see the beauty of human nature despite all its flaws. In this light, we begin to see that we are complementing infinite facets of the vast universe.
This is life. Just because.
Image Source: Where Learning Clicks.


Heal Your Heart Program 2015-16

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Heart Health

The fifth annual Heal Your Heart program begins this week. There are many new exciting changes to the program. While we have focused primarily on an inside-out approach the last few years, the program takes a new turn this year. In addition to the inside-out approach, we have added an outside-in component. This component begins with an individual assessment of your constitution and proceeds with a lifestyle plan based on this.

Why is this important? Clearly, one size does not fit all. What seems to be the right diet and lifestyle for one isn’t right for another.

Where does this wisdom come from? The answer is Ayurveda, literally translated as “science of life”.

The program this year will consist of 18 sessions over 6 months. You will learn how your unique constitution responds to the environment, to health and to disease and how to return the body and mind to balance.

For information and to register, please contact: Ann DePetris, RN at or 248.840.8081.

It starts here

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in This and That

The beloved City of Lights mourns. And the world mourns with her. As we watched the news last night, my family and I sat in silence. We had nothing to say to each other. Even, “Oh no!” seemed superfluous. In the aftermath of such an event, we expect anger to be the natural reaction. In fact, we expect retaliation in kind as a natural and just response.

Fortunately, my day began with a text from a dear friend. John is exceedingly wise, kind and beautiful. As we chatted, he poignantly stated, “I hope that we can all be still for a moment, reflect and pour our energy in the form of love towards France and her victims, rather than becoming immediately agitated and misdirect the same energy towards violent revenge. Yes action must, I think, be taken. But let us be still first.” His words felt like a soothing balm. 

I was reminded of a prayer verse from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

Lead me from the falsehood to truth.
Lead me from darkness to light.
Lead me from death to immortality.

The falsehood here is the total entrapment in the ego and of the ‘us versus them’ paradigm. It is the result of ignorance that shows up as darkness. In this model fear of death is inevitable. Violence is the result of fear. Retaliation is fear’s reaction to violence. Darkness begets darkness. 

Can we find stillness in this pain? While we mourn for the innocent victims of insanity, can we find compassion for the perpetrators? Think about it. How dark might be the hell for those living in hate merely in the hope for an imagined heaven? How depraved must one be to surrender to such perversion?

Stillness is the necessary prerequisite for illumination. When we remain still, we come to see that darkness is known by the light of awareness. Like the sun that doesn’t discriminate between the flowers and the weeds, the light of awareness allows everything to be known. Weeds are known only in comparison to the flowers – by the light of the sun. As long as we remain enchanted by the flowers and the weeds, we cannot turn our eyes toward the sun. We remain in falsehood, fearful of death. 

In the illumination of stillness, we come to see that there is no ‘other’. There is only me, no matter which way I turn. This is a peculiar light. It breaks the heart open so that it bleeds love. The love colors everything I do. Actions and responses that arise from light are surprisingly radical and ‘out of the box’. In turning to the light, I move from death to immortality.

Does this mean the world needs to sit back and condone acts of hatred and violence? Of course not! It means that we allow the light to lead our actions and not our rage or grief. We can continue to fight darkness with darkness. Or we can discover the light that expels it instantly.

Paris has stood tall through the wars and revolts that have shaped her history. She will stand tall again. We can aid her return to light – by becoming still, as John sagaciously stated.

It starts here. It always has.

Image: Jean Jullien (see here for an interview with the artist whose symbol of peace for Paris is trending everywhere).

Discipline: A Paradigm Shift

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Yoga of Parenting

“Mommy?” The owner of the small, subdued voice peeked in. I paused in kapothasana, “Yes, baby?” She invited herself in and perched by my yoga mat. I waited patiently, noting that her hands fidgeted nervously. She cleared her throat and asked softly if she could have her phone back. This was going to be a lesson in discipline – for us both.

She had lost her device privileges a week earlier for being exceptionally sassy and disobedient. Now, I had the merciful mommy sense that this here was a big moment. I uncurled from the pose and sat on the mat as she proceeded to justify her reasons for wanting the phone back. I asked her if she recalled why she had lost access to her phone. She answered truthfully that it was because she had misbehaved. I asked her if she had learned anything from this exercise. Hesitant and unsure of what she was supposed to say, she responded, “I learned that I must listen to you.”

Here was the perfect example of parenting ridiculousness. Neither of us was really sure what she was being punished for! I had hoped that she would learn to behave in ways that promoted harmony in relationships. She saw it as a punishment for not obeying my command. As we sat quietly, I noticed that she had stopped fidgeting. In the profound stillness that had descended upon us, she and I became as one – sparks of sensations, breath and mind arising and subsiding back into stillness.

The clarity of the moment lent itself to seeing that in the default mode, discipline is a war of wills. We learn early on from our own caregivers that there is a “right” way to behave and to interact with others. That becomes the lens through which we judge ourselves and the world. Our own innate wisdom becomes veiled by the voices of our mothers, fathers, teachers and friends. We do things in certain ways just because we have been instructed to and not because we are guided by our own inner light. We foster the same dysfunctional patterns in our children when we hold them to our standards without giving them a chance to figure it out for themselves. We don’t allow them to ask questions because we were taught not to question our caregivers. We take this non-questioning to be a sort of virtue, when it is really lack of curiosity and blind acceptance of dogma. This blind devotion to dogma becomes the basis of discipline.

Behavior arising from such discipline is always forced, rooted in ignorance and not conducive to authentic, joyful living. This was very true for me. I “grew up” finally when the voices in my head belonging to parents and teachers lost fuel and died. In this radical growing up, I needed nobody to tell me what to do. In this vast inner freedom, I am fully responsible for my own thoughts and actions. I know that nobody can make me think or do anything; nobody has that power. When I surrender to the stillness within, I become invincible, authentic, joyful. I live guided solely by the guru of the heart.

As we continued to sit still, I knew that the greatest gift I can give my children is to free them from me, from my voice in their heads. I want them to discover their guiding light and let it take over their lives. I want them to wake up to true authenticity. Threats and punishments wouldn’t be useful for these goals. It had to begin with honesty on my part – I told her that I was wrong to give her the impression that she needs to obey me (or anyone else) without question. I invited her to tell me why her behavior at times may not be conducive to harmony. She thought for a minute, responding that when she acts impulsively, she feels bad later. When she argues without purpose, it causes tension and unease. I asked her to tell me what might happen if she paused before acting or speaking. She thought aloud, stating that if she didn’t act out immediately, the reaction might go away. Bingo!

We agreed on a plan of action. From her meditation practice, she knew how to bring her attention to her breath. Simply noticing the breath is a powerful way to step out of the mind with its conflicting thoughts and emotions. When we bring attention to the breath, we allow the mind to subside into stillness and for fresh, unconditioned action to arise. When the mind rests, the inner light shines through. The breath can teach us the difference between response and reaction. We become our own gurus.

We practiced this together. I asked her to bring up a thought that induced fear – a spider in her room. As she did this, she noticed that her breath had changed pace. As she continued to notice her breath, it quietened and the fear subsided. I encouraged her to find her breath before beginning a task, during a test and during anxious moments of the day. She promised that she would try, and agreed that I could remind her often. I returned her devices after we hugged for several long moments.

This change in the “discipline” paradigm will take some getting used to. It will require me to become still in the moment to see clearly that the purpose of discipline is to allow my children to be true to the goodness that already shines in them. It is not about them following my truth, but living their own.