Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism.
With its central themes of atonement and repentance, Jewish people the world over, observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and prayer, which requires both self-discipline and a strong mind!
Lao Tzu said, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Sound advice for any age. And to live this advice, is to live the life of a Sage.
I am living the life of a human striving to live the life advised by the Sage. It isn’t so easy for me to let things flow. Instead I make plans. All too often I make plans for my day ahead just to be thwarted by the unexpected. No matter how precisely I control my life, things happen. Mail isn’t delivered. Traffic makes me late. The line at the bank takes three times longer than I’d expected it would. My dog is sick and must go to the vet. I receive a call that someone close to me has died. The list goes on. Life happens and pushes my plans off the tracks. I think most of us experience life like this. Most of us make plans because making plans helps us to navigate the unknown. Making plans is easier than letting things flow. That’s because by nature, humans believe that if we let things flow we are even more likely to be thrown off the tracks, or even worse, killed.
Darwin capitalized on this fact, that which is fittest – survives. Through our evolution humans have adapted to be on the alert for dangerous surprises that could kill us. Human brains are prone to be cautious and ready for a bad situation, skeptical of new potentially dangerous situations, and attached to the beliefs of what has proven to keep them alive, in order to not get killed. The history of human civilization tells this story on repeat.
And yet we continue to make plans. It’s not that making plans is bad its more that making plans sets us up for disappointment when life has other plans for us. No matter how well any of us knows this we continue to make plans to mediate an implicit and often explicit fear of the unknown and react to life when our plans go awry. We make plans because the mind is fast, capable, and ultimately fallible. Most choices are made in an instant, without second thought or rationalization. Reaction follows when our idea of reality is confronted. Some react to life as victims of a merciless God’s meaningless whims. Others as dominators constantly striving to force their will upon the world. Reacting is the norm and responding a much uncharted territory. Reacting is a symptom of a weak mind.
I think it is fair to say that we all do our best to not spend our lives in weak minded reactions, yet fear and reacting is the norm. With so many of us walking through life with long to-do lists and little time for anything else, it is no wonder the human population struggles with excess stress and anxiety overall. None of us help an already difficult situation by living busy lifestyles packed with stress and overwhelm, but we all do it. We have evolved to direct our lives in a way which keeps us alive but not in a way that mitigates our fear and reduces our stress.
This is why I continue to turn to my yoga mat. This is why I daily invite others to join me. Not because I want all the people I know to touch their forehead to the sole of their foot while balancing on their hands, but because yoga heals the reactionary mind and the serves its seeking curiosity. Yoga helps us get into the flow by teaching us how to quiet the fluctuations of the mind stuff. Responding, not reacting, is a result of awareness and mindfulness practice and is an example of a strong mind. Yoga trains the mind to be strong.
Weak mind reacts to life happening with fear. Fear of the unknown and the weak mind’s penchant to write stories of why, how, should have, etc. in that fear, is one of the minds common states, Vikalpa. In yoga philosophy the five mental modifications are named in Yoga Sutra 1:6.
Pramana Viparyaya Vikalpa Nidra Smrtayah
“The five mental modifications are right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep, and memory.”
Writing theater dramas in the mind of situations from the past and how they should, or could have happened is an example of Vikalpa. Day dreaming, fantasizing about future events, or thinking that the elephant in the room does not exist are examples of Vikalpa. Vikalpa is delusional fantasizing and not life enhancing nor healthy for a human mind or spirit and must not be confused with the practice of Sankalpa – meditative visualization, which is life enhancing. Vikalpa are thoughts and imaginings that are not connected to abiding awareness, rather they are fragmented and demanding to be knit into a valuable whole.
A weak mind learns to choose a response by first being challenged, then exercised, all while held to strict standards and nourished with kindness and love. To sincerely mitigate fear the weak mind must be confronted and its habitual reactive nature opposed. Without opposition toward the habits of the weak mind one cannot effectually move out of reaction and into response. Until a person learns they have a choice to respond to life rather than react they will experience life through the lens of their Vikalpas.
Vikalpas are trains of thought that can and do take our lives off the tracks, but they can also be worked with and resolved. One way to work with Vikalpas is to ask yourself while you are experiencing a Vikalpa, why you want to run away with the fantasy and story you are telling yourself? What is the motivation? What is the pay-off? Another practice is to engage in a dialogue with yourself in which you contemplate the usefulness of your fantasizing and storytelling. A third practice, which can begin the process of disengaging from the bound cycle of Vikalpa, is to ask yourself where the fantasies will lead to. These basic practices bring attention to the mindlessness and destructive nature of Vikalpa. They also bring attention to the weak minds anchors and provide insight into where the weak mind needs additional strengthening.
Over time, and with effort the mind can be trained to look for the good before looking for that which will kill it. By turning your gaze at the dysfunctional behaviors of your mind you becomes attentive to them and they can no longer act out like criminals with no accountability. Following attention to the negative behaviors of the mind, the mind learns to choose a state of response when life happens, though it may have no choice of the circumstances of experience. This is the practice of the strong mind. A strong mind can experience stillness and peace amidst a torrential world swirling about it. A strong mind knows how to get into the flow of life and let reality be reality. A strong mind is at the heart of Spiritual practice.
Spiritual practice is not fulfilling the obligations of your dogma, it is opening to the flow and getting into life’s current. Spiritual practice is stillness. Spiritual practice is the trust that in yielding, you are receiving. Spiritual practice is a fearless faith that your prayers will always be answered. Spiritual practice is acceptance of all the gifts bestowed upon you in your short magical life, no matter how they present themselves. Spiritual practice is being happy you have what you have, all the time, no matter what it is. Spiritual practice is all abiding awareness of and reverence to the magnanimity and beneficence of the Divine. Life is spiritual practice. Peace is a strong mind’s reward.
Peace comes through gentle persistence. A gentle and persistent practice of mental confrontation will teach the mind to be strong and respond with spaciousness. Like any muscle training the mind will, overtime, become more capable. Eventually revealing the mind of the sage, consciously surrendering to the current that it cannot control, from the heart, with unconditional love. For peace, surrender is the only practice and so the invitation is, to let life flow.
For more on Genevieve and Shree Yoga Taos, please visit their site linked below this post.
All images thanks to Genevieve and Shree.
Photo of Genevieve by Sue Hunt.