It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up – release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast, true nature. For some of us, our love of the world is so passionate that we cannot ask it to wait until we are enlightened. Joanne Macy
Listening to a podcast recently, the presenter talked about how it is only when we stop being a spiritual seeker, and we become a spiritual student, that the real work begins. For many the distinction may seem moot, but it resonated with me. I have spent years seeking, I think truly, my whole life.
From my childhood star-gazing and pondering the big questions, to my love of psychedelic music as a teenager, to a deep plunge into mind-altering substances as a young adult, The common thread was seeking. Seeking what? Meaning, purpose, the answer to the big “why are we here?” The question that has, in equal parts, fascinated and plagued me since the age of five.
Seeking, and the curiousity that drives it, has probably saved my life too many times to count. That quest for something deeper and more profound, that had driven me into the depths of drug addiction and periods of dark depression, has also pulled me out. It was impossible for me to imagine that the answers to my profound life questions could amount to the sum total of a fifty buck fix. Always I was searching for more.
Waiting is but a thought. It will not lead you anywhere. Anand Mehrotra
The solution I was offered for my addictions was to live “life on life’s terms” with the aid of a “higher power” who would restore me to sanity around my addictive choices and then be my constant guide. It was testament to my desperation that I was even willing to contemplate such a radical turnaround in thinking and living, but I did.
This path led me on a very focused, sometimes fanatical search for this “higher power.” How could I know what was my will and what was this higher power’s will? Would he/she/it speak directly to me? And if so could my drug-adled mind be trusted?
Most spiritual seekers will know that this early phase of seeking is often one of trying different spiritual paths and seeing what fits. For me, initially each path would bring amazing revelations and awakenings to my self and my purpose in life, but in time these peak experiences would settle and I would find my old thinking returning, a sense of “well, is this it, then?” Often followed by a period of depression, until I discovered some new practice and the cycle would begin all over again.
This very blog is testament to my ups and downs with spiritual seeking. Each practice being “the one” answer to all my problems. Followed by a period of intense research and development, by workshops and courses, by rituals and the highs of amazing experiences, and then the inevitable crash.
Let me be at pains to emphasise that the fault did not lie in any of the practices or paths I had pursued, most of which are still in my life today, but in my expectations of what a “spiritual life” looked like.
You see, I was still searching for something outside of myself to fix me, to take care of me. When in fact, I see now that spirituality is really about self-mastery. The spiritual master finds their strength and stability within them.
There is in all things…a hidden wholeness. Thomas Merton
At some point in the last couple of years I kind of experienced “spiritual seeker fatigue.” No longer was there the elation at the prospect of the “next big thing.” When other seekers around me kept saying “the shift” was coming, I kept thinking, when? I had worn myself out getting healings and readings that assured me my breakthrough was coming in the next six to twelve months. Only to return a year later, sad and lost, to be told the same thing.
Now again, this is no criticism of the healers and readers here, it’s just that a healing or a reading can’t do the work for you. I probably could have had a “shift” in six to twelve months if I had actually stuck with anything consistently instead of flitting around and scattering my energy on too many things (as one of the readings actually told me.)
But don’t you know, when the student it ready the teachers appears. A cliche, yes, but cliches only get to be cliches because they contain some truth.
I’ve written before about the serendipitous events that led me to India, to discover Sattva Yoga and my teacher Anand Mehrotra. And to begin with it was the same old all over again. All the “this is it, I’ve found my guru, all is going to be well now for ever and ever, amen.” I was elated. The Beatles had a guru from Rishikesh. I had always wanted a guru.
Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at anytime and be yourself. Hermann Hesse
When I started practicing Sattva Yoga with Anand, even online at home via video, I experienced really profound shifts in my body, mind and spirit. And I still believe it is absolutely the path for me, a path that incorporates all the practices that came before that had proved so beneficial to me. It is a full spectrum yoga, with meditation, breathwork, postures, ancient Vedic and Tantric wisdom teachings, shamanic and nature-based ritual, ecstatic dance, chanting, devotion, the chakra system… I mean I could go on, it’s such a rich practice that I have only begun to scratch the surface of, but still… It hasn’t magically fixed me. Nor could it, seeing as I’m not broken. I’m just a human being having a plethora of human experiences. There’s no cure for that.
Which, as embarrassing as it is for a grown woman to admit, is what I have always wanted. Respite from the realities of life. A magic bullet, a total transformation into a mind and body that I feel comfortable in ALL the time. I mean it’s fantasy-land stuff, but it was a deep need in me. That’s why people take drugs, by the way, to feel comfortable, ALL the time. As a buffer from all the slings and arrows of living. And no, it doesn’t work long-term, but just getting clean and sober hadn’t changed that as my modus operandi, now I was using spiritual seeking as a way to feel good. And not just to feel good, but more to the point, to avoid feeling bad. To avoid facing the uncomfortability of life.
Now in fairness, my heart and mind has always been in the right place. I have always been very, very respectful of any path or practice I have followed, I have always conducted myself with as much grace and integrity in my pursuit of spirituality as I could. But my subconscious was still like a frightened child wanting everything safe and fixed for good “Are we there yet? Can I relax now? Am I doing it right? Are we good?”
Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution—these are the qualities which mark a masterful people. Theodore Roosevelt
Anand’s teachings were anything but light and fluffy or comfortable. His focus is on self-mastery. Self-mastery attained through self-discipline and commitment to practice. Pushing through our comfort zone, transcending our fears. I practiced daily, becoming stronger physically and spiritually, and yet that inevitable streak of self-sabotage seeped back in. Or maybe it’s just garden variety laziness. I didn’t want to get up two hours early to practice. I would rather watch Netflix and eat snacks in bed than do my evening practice.
So inevitably, at some point the gloss wore off my daily practice, life got busy, grief hit me hard like a locomotive train – actually three trains, one after another after another – and again I found my practice waning. I was phoning it in, “half-assing” as Anandji would say.
My dad used to say I had no “stickability.” Great starter but no follow through, no commitment. Blunt, yes? But totally on the money.
Cultivate body awareness. A yogi is energy-rich and enhances any environment with aliveness. Anand Mehrotra
When I went back to India to study Sattva Yoga with Anand I asked him what I could do to overcome this inability to stick with the practice. I was waiting with bated breath for his response – finally the answer to all my problems. And look, in fairness, it was. He told me I needed to develop staying power, which could only happen through consistent practice, especially working with my navel centre, my solar plexus chakra, the seat of personal will and power.
And really it is his answer for everything, because it IS the answer for everything, to just stay with the practice. No matter what life dishes up. To paraphrase an old AA saying, “even if your head falls off, pick it up and go do your practice.”
Develop some backbone, stop giving in to comfort and honour your commitment to yourself.
And for the most part I have. I have maintained a twice daily meditation practice and daily Kriya yoga practice, and although at times I will admit to half-assing it, I haven’t given up. And the changes I see are (mostly) less electrifying than at first, but more consistent. Less highs and lows, more generalised focus and calm. An ability to recognise when I am disturbed, when I am out of my integrity and power, and to use the techniques to bring myself back to centre.
Open yourself to discomfort. Meet it with mercy, not fear. Recognize that when our pain most calls for our embrace, we are often the least present. Soften, enter, and explore, and continue softening to make room for your life. Stephen Levine
Anand tells us that consistency takes time, it is normal to fluctuate when our practice is new, we can’t be instant Zen masters. But, the more we can consistently maintain a higher energy vibration through the practice, the more we will begin to embody that in every aspect of our being and every area of our lives.
Anand emphasises the importance of developing a strong navel centre or solar plexus chakra. Sattva Yoga focuses on activating this energy centre, as it is the key to our staying power, our will and our vitality.
He talks about cultivating an “energy-rich environment,” in this high pranic (life force energy) state we are less likely to succumb to old patterns and self-destructive habits.
Enlightenment is not a static, utopic state. It is a consistent journey with greater and greater degrees of awareness. With really no end. For why are we interested in an end? Only when we are in suffering in life, when we are in conflict with ourself, with life, are we looking for an end where ‘this’ doesn’t exist. You are still using life as a waiting room. So the very thing you are looking for is keeping you from that which you are looking for. Anand Mehrotra
Caroline Myss, in Anatomy of the Spirit, describes the solar plexus centre as the centre of our honour code, especially with self. Do we respect ourselves? Do we keep the promises we make to ourselves? Do we honour our commitment to self?
What is a commitment to daily practice if not this kind of personal honour code? As Anandji says no one really cares whether we practice or not, ultimately we do it for our own growth and evolution. And yes, developing self-mastery and discipline, raising our energy, will undoubtedly have flow on effects for our family, our community, our world. But we do it out of a sense of self respect. Out of a sense of acknowledging this great gift that is a human life and desiring to make the very best of this opportunity, this lifetime.
Carolyn Myss goes on to say that it is her belief that the epidemic of depression and anxiety in the modern world is due to a generalised inability to honour ourselves. We make promises to ourselves that we don’t keep. We promise to change our diet, our lifestyle, our job, our relationship but we don’t follow through. As a result we don’t trust ourselves, we lose confidence in our self, just as we would in any person who consistently lets us down.
Anand describes the energy of the yogi in a similar way. There must be a basis of trust and consistency in our self. We must be able to honour ourselves by turning up to our practice without getting flaky or “half-assing” it.
Half measures availed us nothing. Bill Wilson
In the yoga tradition Svādhyāya or self-study is a two fold concept. It invokes a sense of self -inquiry or studying ourselves, our habitual patterns, our mental traps, as well as the self discipline of studying by oneself, the teachings and texts and applying them directly into our lives.
A key part of being a student is that you have a teacher and teachings. There’s a significant distinction in the level of humility required here. My experience of teachers and mentors is that sometimes I don’t like what they have to say. As a spiritual seeker I can go from practice to practice cherrypicking the bits I like and ignoring the rest, flitting off when things gets uncomfortable, but as I student I cannot. And I cannot always be the ultimate authority on what will serve my growth. Sometimes we need people ahead on the path to encourage us not to give up on the practice when it gets hard. To show by their own example that, in fact, the real gold is to be found by plumbing the depths of our discomfort.
The woman who was my greatest mentor and friend, my AA sponsor for nearly 20 years, always said that her role was not to play God but to show me how to have a relationship with a power of my own understanding. To my mind this is what all great teachers do, they offer you a map and a kit of spiritual tools. Whether or not you take them is up to you. As Anand says, nobody really cares if you meditate or not. Carolyn Myss talks about our honour code, it’s between you and God – or you and yourself – what anyone else thinks, what you look like to others, is irrelevant.
Yoga is powerful. Realise yoga is not a path for the weak. It is for you to overcome your self-imposed limitations. Anand Mehrotra
There are times when I feel great resistance towards my teachers, I felt it with my sponsor Jane, I feel it sometimes with Anand. There’s a saying in AA that “if you don’t have a resentment on your sponsor, they’re probably not doing the job properly.” Why? I think because to be a good teacher, you will be a challenge to your student. Growth is uncomfortable, even painful when we are really resistant to it. Nobody likes someone who asks them to be uncomfortable and in pain. But the teacher knows that pain is the touchstone to spiritual growth and a great motivator. It’s unavoidable. Nor should we attempt to avoid or escape it. Because the discomfort is showing us EXACTLY the stuff we need to look at, and transcend, in order to evolve.
For me, right now, it’s my commitment to self and self-discipline. I’m disciplined for three weeks, then I’m flaky for a week or two. And it’s making me really uncomfortable because I can undo three weeks discipline in a few days. Well, not really but it feels like that. I feel as if I could be ‘miles in front’ – there’s that striving again – if I could only be consistent, well, more consistently. My mind tells me to just give up, that it’s hopeless, that I’m just chasing my tail. But Anand’s words ring in my ears. It’s normal to fluctuate at first, be patient with yourself. Keep coming back to the practice…
There are certain powers that go with an internal honour code. One is integrity. The capacity to give your word and keep it. The other is the power to endure. In order for our spirit to thrive, we have to develop integrity and endurance. Carolyn Myss
These mental fluctuations are part of the path. Either we can avoid them, or we can pick them up, examine them and see what’s really going on. Carolyn Myss believes that our inability to stay with spiritual discipline is a deep-seated fear of our own power and potential. We play small because it feels safe. But in the process we sacrifice our integrity, our honour code, our inherent and deep-seated commitment to our evolution.
At some point we have to just be with life as it is, and just live it enthusiastically, no holding back, fully present and committed. I think I have spent my whole life waiting to be somewhere else, someone else. But life is always lived here, it’s always lived through me, and it’s always lived now.
This was the greatest of lessons my mentor and friend gave me, and all who knew her, to “just be.” Stop striving and grasping and waiting for a moment and just take a breath. This breath is the miracle. Being alive is pretty special, and totally beyond our control, and yet most of us fritter that gift away with self-doubt, worry and fear. Always seeking more, or trying to hang on to an ever changing reality.
Your purpose here is to evolve, to transform, to experience your radical aliveness, to awaken to your true nature. You are the path. The path is you. The time is now. Anand Mehrotra
Instead of self-flagellation, I try to practice self-acceptance. So maybe a week per month I get a bit flaky. That’s better than four weeks a month. Sometimes I just turn up on the mat with zero motivation. As long as I turn up. Progress is the goal, not perfection.
And this is where I see the growth. I’m not looking around for something else, something new. I’m not distracting myself with new people and shiny new things. It’s very uncomfortable at times but I am staying with the discomfort, trying to develop some curiosity about it. Because I know consistency of practice is the answer and any resistance is fear. Even though it seems crazy and counter-intuitive, often when we are in bucketloads of pain, we resist the very thing that is the solution to our pain. I know I do.
Hence the shift from spiritual seeker to spiritual student. At some point the time comes where we must stop distracting ourselves by looking outside for answers and learn to sit quietly and make peace with what’s within. To make a commitment to self that we keep, even when no one else is looking. Even when there’s no trip to Bali or India attached. Even when it’s just sitting wrapped in blankets, meditating at a cold dawn in our own apartment.
Since it’s so counter-intuitive to touch unpleasantness, it’s a gradual process of getting used to, of becoming familiar with, opening to whatever arises. And it’s the unpleasant part, the painful part, the insecurity part, the uncertainty, the really distasteful part that we are not accustomed to being open to. But these three qualities, openness, open-awareness and warmth, living in a way to uncover these, they provide the support, or the container, or the atmosphere, that allows us to become more and more fearless and embracing all of our experience. But it really takes time. And I think all these teachings, you could take them and brand them, and make a lot of money with workshops where you did, A, B, C and you got results… fast. But it isn’t like that. Trungpa Rinpoche used to say that it was like walking from San Francisco to New York rather than flying in an aeroplane. It took a long time but you really knew the territory well. Pema Chodron
Pema Chodron talks about “discomfort resilience” I think meditation does this. We keep bringing our attention back from thoughts, from distractions. We develop the capacity for our nervous system to get used to discomfort. Over time, we are developing new habits, new neural pathways, new cellular memory, that allows us to stay in some degree of calm and presence even when facing challenging emotions and experiences. We get to know ourselves, our little cognitive blips and cheats, the ‘terrain’ really well.
Meditation teaches us to be present with what is. To just breathe. Not react. Not grasp or panic. That’s a valuable skill in life. In the end that’s what life teaches us, if we are willing to learn, to be open and available to every moment. To be curious. To be a ready student.
Being a student and developing self-mastery may sound like contradictory concepts. But I don’t think so. I think it is arrogant to assume we have all the answers or even the sophistication of consciousness to intuit all the answers on our own. We need teachings, practices, guidance, support and community to evolve.
A commitment to study is a commitment to do the work, to go deep into our selves and to not run away or seek distraction from what we find there when it is displeasing or uncomfortable.
As we so often hear, to the point I think we often ignore it, life is a journey, not a destination. There is no place to rush to, to strive for. That doesn’t mean we don’t have things we would like to do or places we would like to go. But none of that will fulfil us if we haven’t learned to “just be” with what is.
Without the ability, the discipline, the practice to be here now, we just keep missing it, missing life and the experiences we have often yearned so long for, caught in a perpetual trap of “when I get/have/do this, then I’ll be able to stop and enjoy life.”
The most important practice is the one you do in your aloneness. As you go into your own sadhana, the world starts to fade, and what starts to happen in you is the celestial glow of self starts to get established. And it is of paramount importance that we really cultivate this self-practice. Anand Mehrotra
In yoga tonight the teacher talked about a mindset called ‘Be. Do. Have” Loving the synchronicity with what I had been writing moments before, I listened as she described it.
Most of us think we need to “have” a certain thing or set of things (more money, love, time, experience, etc.), so that we can finally “do” something important (pursue our passion, start a business, go on vacation, create a relationship, buy a home, etc.), which will then allow us to “be” what we truly want in life (peaceful, fulfilled, inspired, generous, in love, etc.). In actuality, it works the other way around.
First we “be” what we want (peaceful, loving, inspired, abundant, successful, or whatever), then we start “doing” things from this state of being – and soon we discover that what we’re doing winds up bringing us the things we’ve always wanted to “have.”
It’s a mindset used by self-help guru Tony Robbins, among others, but it’s been around for a lot longer than that. In fact, like so much self-help practice, I’m sure it has its roots in Indian Vedic teachings.
It acknowledges that we still want to ‘do’ and ‘have’ but instead of putting that first, we focus on the ‘be’ and act from there.
I love the simplicity – and the synchronicity. Be. Do. Have. For me it starts with my values. What kind of person do I want to be, rather than what do I want. It makes us question why we think we want what we want. What is it we think it will do for us? For me, fundamentally, I want to be present and loving and kind. I want to be the best expression of myself I can be. I want to thrive and enjoy my life whilst inspiring joy and value in others.
If on the day I die I can say, ‘To the best of my ability—cutting myself some slack for my human flaws and fallibilities—I was faithful to my gifts, to the world’s needs as I saw them,’ then I can take my final breath with a feeling of satisfaction that I showed up on earth with what I had and offered it up to the world. Parker Palmer
These are exactly the qualities that attracted me to Jane and Anand. They live that way.
When I search and push and strive in life I am not really here, not present. I’m trying to get ‘there,’ which is never here. The greatest masters, in my honest opinion, teach the same thing. Be here now. That’s it. So what if your practice is less perfect than yesterday, if you were up all night with a sick child and slept through morning practice time. It’s okay. Just stay with it.
In fact see THIS – whatever’s happening right now, as your practice. The sick kid, the rushed days that skimp on formal practice, as your practice. Can I be okay with imperfection, upheaval, discomfort? In short, can I be okay with this human gig?
Isn’t that why we seek? To find purpose and meaning for this life. Isn’t that the purpose of our practice, to learn to be in full expression of this life? In all it’s nuance, its shadows and light.
The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to live it. Bill Wilson
Many years ago I learned this. We have to live our practice. In every area of our lives.
Carolyn Myss regards our integrity of practice as including, not only our actions, but even our thoughts. She sees every challenge, every seemingly external situation or relationship, that comes our way as an opportunity to test our integrity and endurance. To test the commitment we made to ourselves. The commitment for spiritual evolution. Will we honour ourselves even when no one is watching? It’s a tough call.
I understand that a seeker and a student can be complimentary archetypes. A seeker has an openness and sense of wonder that is also beneficial to the student. Maintaining a beginners mind, as the Buddhists say, is the essential starting point for learning.
For me, the subtle distinction, the shift, is that as a student I have made a commitment to a teacher and a tradition of teachings – not even to the exclusion or what came before or what is to come, but most certainly as my first priority for my time and attention. For me, this has stabilised my energy from the more scattergun and less focused, ‘tasting from the smorgasbord’ approach that came before.
There’s also the sangha – the community of Anandji’s students who keep each other on track, who inspire, guide and support one another. These commitments, to a teacher and a community, help me stick with the practice when I find myself waning.
On a good day, I am inspired by my new ‘stickability’ and the shifts I see in my physical, mental and spiritual being. On a bad day, I just stay with the practice and let it carry me through. Knowing that really there are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days, these are just stories, positionalities created by the mind.
Life moves in cycles and I’m sure there may come a time when I become a seeker again. But for now, I find great solace in sitting still, at the feet of my teacher (literally or figuratively) and immersing myself in these teachings, knowing that their depth and weight would be enough to sustain me for a thousand lifetimes, if I let it.
Having loved enough and lost enough, I’m no longer searching just opening, no longer trying to make sense of pain but trying to be a soft and sturdy home in which real things can land. Mark Nepo
Hari Om Tat Sat. Namaste. Blessings.