Posts Tagged ‘ignorance’

Eating for Yoga and for Health, Part I – General Principles

Written by Heal Your Heart on . Posted in Heart Health, Yogic Diet

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As a cardiologist, I spend enormous amounts of time counseling patients about lifestyle changes. This is because cardiovascular disease as well as most other chronic illnesses are the result of lifestyle. Surgeries and procedures help tremendously in acute settings; however, studies have shown again and again that there is no substitute for lifestyle changes (and medications) in preventing illness as well as events such as heart attacks, strokes and repeated procedures.

As a yogini, my focus remains on changing the inner substance of being that then manifests in the outer in terms of lifestyle changes, disease, health and wellness. No amount of counseling works in many of my patients, whether it is about quitting smoking, changing their diet or exercising more. It is not that they do not understand the benefits of such changes; often, they know more about the damaging effects of their habits than those that do not struggle with them. Yet, there is inner resistance to change in the form of excuses, mental or intellectual reasoning to keep up their nonserving patterns, or the emotional seduction of the habit that is extremely difficult to overcome by sheer will alone. Some make changes driven by will and succeed for short periods of time, only to fall back into the comfort zone of the ingrained habits. Yet, some seem to suddenly wake up one day for no particular reason and find they have undergone an internal shift. Within a very short period of time thereafter, the specific change they have been struggling with seems to occur all on its own. They quit smoking once and for all, take up exercising, lose and maintain a lower weight, change their diet for good, and report feeling great overall. Such miraculous transformations are delightful to observe and share in and are the true rewards of my vocation. These observations have proven to me time and again that all meaningful changes must necessarily come from within.

Interestingly, dietary suggestions of yoga are similar to those for prevention and management of chronic illness as well. In yoga, every aspect of life is included in the practice. This involves how we talk and think, interact with others, express our emotions, go about our daily business, eat, sleep, maintain intimate and other relationships, etc – no aspect of life (seen or unseen by others) is excluded. Thus, when it comes to food, the emphasis is not only on what we eat but how we treat and prepare the food and its overall significance in a yogi’s life. While food has become the tool for celebration and grief alike, this is not so for a yogi. As with all other aspects, food is another vehicle through which the yogi finds the calm, inner stillness behind the veils of thought, personality, emotions and conditioning. Thus, the preparation and consumption of food is aimed for this higher purpose only. Living this way and aligned with this small still voice, lifestyle choices arise automatically to support health and well-being. The need for external guidelines falls away when the wisdom of the still center is listened and surrendered to.

A word of caution is necessary here. Many spiritual aspirants will assert that because inner wisdom trumps in choices, they need no external guidelines or “rules”. To the guideline of vegetarianism for example, some may vehemently quote the example that the Buddha ate meat. Yes, this may be true. But the point here is this – if one is already a Buddha, there is nothing more to discuss. Until we get there however, guidelines are helpful. At various stages of yoga sadhana, we may become highly sensitive to various foods where they affect the ability to dive deep within. At a very advanced stage of sadhana, the yogi becomes one with the entire cosmos. What he/she eats is not seen to be different or other than himself/herself. At this stage, he/she has the ability to consume anything and remain unaffected. The penchant to fool ourselves that we are already there is merely the demonstration of the mind’s power over us to prevent us from making a meaningful change and that of our slavery to the mind’s pull.  It must be emphasized that (with very few and rare exceptions), it takes months/years of dedicated practice to arrive at the still center and to be directed by this higher wisdom. Thus, the first obstacle in sadhana is the belief we are more advanced than we actually are.

The guidelines for eating like a yogi encompass different aspects of our beings. The body is said to be made up of the gross body, the subtle body and the causal body. The gross or physical body is made up of flesh and bones, the sense organs (eyes, nose, ears, skin and tongue) and the organs of action (movement, grasping, speech, elimination and reproduction). The physical body grows or shrinks in size and shape and decays and disintegrates in the form of disease and death. The physical body is dependent upon food for sustenance. The subtle body is made up of energy or prana, mind and intellect. It is where the sense organs and organs of action are registered – it is here that the external world is brought “in” through the sense organs (in the form of seeing, smelling, hearing, touch and taste) and reaction or response is sent “out” through the organs of action. These registrations occur through the complex play of the mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), past learned impressions/memory/habit patterns (chitta) and ego (ahamkara, or sense of a distinct “I”). The causal body consists of the root or the causal ignorance that in turn gives rise the subtle and physical bodies. Ignorance of what? Ignorance of one’s true nature. It is that which leads us to believe we are separate entities because our bodies, upbringing, culture and other influences seem different. It is that which gives rise to “me” versus “not me”. These three bodies can be imagined to form three “sheaths” or veils that cloud or cover our knowing of our true nature as Atman, soul or spirit. The aim of yoga is to part these veils so there is direct seeing that this separate self is indeed an illusion.

All lifestyle choices work on all three sheaths – the physical, subtle and causal. There is no action, thought or choice that does not permeate through all three, creating the cascade of what is to come in the form of physical disease or vibrant health (gross), mental happiness, peace or distress (subtle) and further tightening of the grip of separateness or its opposite, liberation (causal). This is why yogis eat and live in specific ways.

What does eating like a yogi entail? We will see in the next post.

Teaching Children To Serve

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

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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.