Swami Ramananda writings

Swami Ramananda writings
President, Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco

 

Contents
1.  How Yoga Enlightens
2. Reflections on 9/11
3. Thanksgiving
4. The Dis-ease of Busyness
5. Awareness Listening
6. Peace as a Touchstone
7. Meditation poem
8. Steady Mind Through Practice
9. Silence
10. Happiness
11. Hatha as a Tool for Self Discovery
12. Humility
13. Prayer

How Yoga Enlightens

Interest in Hatha Yoga has grown tremendously in the last few years. Students find powerful benefits ranging from simply feeling healthier to feeling a deep inner connection with Spirit. For many practitioners, Hatha Yoga is a purely physical practice and that is enough. But those who look more deeply, can learn that it originally evolved as part of an eight-limbed path to experience enlightenment, or the realization of our true nature. This greater context for Hatha practice is methodically presented in the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, and is called the study of Raja Yoga. Here, one encounters a step-by- step approach to what may appear to be impossibly lofty goals, such as selflessness, unconditional love, permanent peace. Fortunately, the approach elucidated is gradual and comprehensive; even a little effort begins to help us understand more fully who we truly are and what will enable us to experience deep peace and lasting happiness.

The first two limbs are Yama and Niyama, and involve the practice of ethical principles that require us to reflect on our relationships with others and ourselves. For example, the principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence, requires that we consider the wellbeing of others and the harmful repercussions of our actions, speech, and even our thoughts. By practicing non-violence, we begin to see the subtle ways that we hurt each other and how such behavior affects us as well. Can I really be at peace with myself when I speak badly about others else behind their backs or answer them sharply because I'm annoyed?

Yama and Niyama bring more and more awareness to all our interactions, helping us to reflect mindfully on them and restrain ourselves from behaviors that hurt others and ultimately ourselves as well. This effort helps us quiet our self-centered thinking and be guided by our conscience, or spiritual consciousness. Thus, we can gradually learn to refrain from harmful behaviors (which waste a tremendous amount of energy), and begin to quiet our minds and listen to our hearts.

The third limb is Asana, which is becoming widely practiced, but is often approached incorrectly. Many practitioners apply the same "just do it" mentality to asanas that they have used to be successful in other activities and to get a competitive edge. Asanas should be performed with acute awareness of the body's capacity in this moment, challenging us to let go of our normal preoccupation with wanting to impress others or straining to look good. Then we learn how to develop our capacity, both physically and mentally, by being present where we are and moving forward gradually with ease and balance.

The fourth limb is Pranayama, which means to extend or control the subtle, vital energy that animates everything. We use breathing practices to influence prana to flow more fully and evenly which in turn calms and steadies the mind. Whenever the mind is agitated, the breath also becomes agitated.  Conversely, when the breath becomes smooth, deep and steady, the nervous system is calmed, prana moves more freely and the mind is influenced to become energized, balanced and serene. 

The fifth limb is Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses directing the mind toward something without the senses drawing our attention away. This ability grows stronger as the mind becomes calmer and more balanced, an ability that the previous limbs help to develop. Pratyahara is inherent in our efforts to practice meditation, focusing the mind on one object, such as a mantra or the breath. 

The beginning stage of meditation is called Dharana, or concentration -- the sixth limb -- which refers to the process of bringing the mind back again and again to our intended object. As we practice regularly, we gradually learn to sustain our focus, withdrawing our mental energy from dwelling on other thoughts, an effort that requires patience and persistence. As with Pratyahara, all the previous limbs act as a preparation for Dharana, stabilizing the body and building up the energy that is needed to begin controlling the subtle, mental level. Sri Swami Satchidananda uses the analogy of a rocket propelling itself beyond the pull of gravity to convey how we must restrain ourselves from wasting energy, eliminate physical toxins and reduce mental tension to build up the strength to free ourselves from identifying completely with the thoughts.  We always have thoughts and feelings, but they do not have to govern our experience of life. 

When a one-pointed focus is sustained, then we reach the seventh limb, Dhyana, or meditation. Here one really begins to experience some stillness in the mind and see whatever we meditate on with real clarity. When the mental level is quieted sufficiently, it can experience the even more subtle spiritual aspect of our being that is normally drowned out by all the "busy-ness" in the mind. 

Finally, when even that one-pointed meditation is sustained, Samadhi, the eighth limb, is attained. At this stage, there is a complete experience of our spiritual consciousness and a sense of oneness with all of creation.  The inner Light or true Self shines forth unobstructed into the serene mind, illuminating it with wisdom and deep peace. Even though this final stage may seem distant to us, the first six limbs can be practiced regularly, by anyone of any background or faith. Together, they form a firm foundation for spiritual growth and bring benefits to all aspects of our lives: our health, our mental and emotional stability, our ability to focus on tasks and to be clear in our relationships with others. Most importantly, they help us to experience ourselves as more than just the body/mind and give us access to the deep, peaceful ocean of Spirit within that can, with regular practice, become a source of tremendous healing and guidance.

Reflections on 9/11

In the first few weeks following 9/11,  I  remember how many of us at the Institute kept up with the news specifically to stay informed on how we could help.  We gathered items needed by relief workers and collected donations for the families that lost loved ones. It felt like the whole city rallied together to support the recovery from this tragedy.  Now, months later, the question, “How can we help?” has largely faded from our minds, but is in reality equally important.  While most of us are not in a position to fight terrorism or negotiate peace in the world, we are all responsible for our own little corner of this planet and significance of what we can do every day to give birth to peace is a point that has been hammered home in a very violent way.  Peace in the world is dependent upon nothing more than our own combined ability to know peace in ourselves and express it in how we live.

One important aspect of coping with any crisis in life is acceptance.  While it may be impossible for us to grasp why events like 9/11 occur, we can learn to accept them.  It is natural for grief or anger to arise in response to tragedy.  But to become wild with rage or lost in bitterness will simply drain our energy and prevent us from staying present and doing anything truly helpful.  When we accept what comes as a part of a Divine plan or the natural laws governed by a higher power, our own suffering eases, our hearts can breath and we can begin healing or being useful to others.

One of the most powerful things we learned to do in response to 9/11 was to pray.  Our spiritual teacher, Sri Swami Satchidananda, reminded us that very evening that we can send our prayerful thoughts to those who passed away and to those who lost loved ones.  In doing so, we open our hearts and express our compassion on a spiritual level where we truly are connected with everyone.  We found praying this way to be a tremendous comfort for ourselves and the efficacy of prayer to comfort and bring healing to others has recently been documented in numerous scientific studies.  Sri Swamiji suggested that we use whatever form of prayer comes naturally in our hearts and put our whole being into it.  I have probably led at least a dozen or so gatherings of people in prayer this way and found it to be without fail a tremendous healing experience for those praying, and I feel certain, for those being prayed for as well.

Another important aspect of living in a time of crisis is to maintain  practices that keep us in good shape–that relieve tension and bring stability to body and mind.  Under the stress of trauma or thrown off balance by the unexpected, we can easily be swept away with fear and abandon habits that keep us strong and healthy.  It can certainly be difficult to discipline ourselves in such moments, but we can recognize the value of caring for ourselves properly and spend even small amounts of time doing deep relaxation, restorative asanas, or deep breathing.  Practicing Yoga or praying with others can be especially helpful, feeling the strength and support of the group.  Restoring our physical and mental balance enables us to make good decisions and be of service to others.  Any practice that quiets our minds–meditation, Hatha Yoga, or even prayer, helps us to let go of conflicting thoughts and feelings, and open our hearts and minds to be guided by the spiritual wisdom that lies always within us.

 When we can keep alive even a small flame of peace and equanimity in ourselves, we will have already contributed to world peace.  Establishing peace in ourselves is the only way we can expect to have the clarity to then express it in our daily lives, in the difficult interactions we have, where peace is sorely needed.  Our ability to embody nonviolence and compassion will bring those values more powerfully into the world than any speech we can make.  We have literally hundreds of opportunities every day to make a choice to be loving, to listen and understand others, to give without expecting something.   If we can open our hearts to even a few people we encounter, we begin to live as a light for peace, one step at a time.  I think there is nothing more important for us to do and nothing more fulfilling. - from Spring 2002

Thanksgiving

As I reflect on how the Institute is changing and growing, I feel compelled to share how things are going here. We’ve recently completed our busiest summer by far -- attendance has grown faster than ever before.  Nalini and Nirmala, who oversee our program planning, have tweaked our schedule over and over to allow for the most possible classes and workshops in our seven rooms. Dharmini is scheduling teachers for about 100 open Hatha classes per week, and, in July, we began to offer programs at a location on 29th Street and more open Hatha classes at the Interfaith League on First Avenue. Despite those we are turning away more students than we ever have before because the classes are full.

When I listen to our reception staff, with real pain in their voices, report on how many students did not get into a class, we all know we need to do something. Our goal is to turn no one away. What we are not going to do is put more students in the classes. We have already heard from students that they feel crowded in class, and we are working with our teachers to see that students are evenly spaced in the rooms. It’s clear that we also need to expand our operation if we want to accommodate everyone. We are continuing to look into ways to do this and welcome your input, as well as anything you might tell us that would improve your experience here.

The practices of Hatha Yoga and of Buddhist meditation seem to be growing in unprecedented ways in this country, and I can’t help but think that it has something to do with the human experience of this era. With the boom of this information age, there is more access to more things than ever before, perhaps creating an even more striking contrast to those things that we don’t experience...like peace in our hearts, forgiveness for family and friends (and for ourselves) when we hurt each other, and the simple but profound joy of being quiet and having enough. Our world has become so connected externally, yet we feel such separation from each other and from the truth within ourselves. Perhaps this accounts in part for the tremendous interest in practices that teach us how to let go of so much doing and learn how to be, to experience the richness of life, and of each other, without having to get something from it.

A wonderful antidote to looking for fulfillment from outside ourselves is thanksgiving. Giving thanks starts with reflecting on and appreciating all the blessings we’ve been given: this body and mind, food and shelter, the loved ones in our lives, the spiritual teachings available to us, even the air we breathe.  And the natural expression of this gratitude is to share what we have, however small it may seem, with each other, for we truly experience that which we give.  We know love by expressing it-- that is what opens our hearts to feel. Appreciating what we have and sharing it can have a profound effect on our lives.  We begin to sense that we have been given exactly what we need to grow and realize our potential. I have felt this in my service here in New York City. I am challenged in just the right ways to cultivate an ability to remain at peace in the midst of activity, and to be compassionate to both those with whom I live with and those I encounter on the street.

I can confidently represent all our staff and teachers in giving thanks for the precious opportunity we have to offer the teachings of Yoga, that mean so much to us.  This is how we experience the light of truth that is within all our hearts, and the deep connection that is there between us all. We thank you, students, for all your understanding and support, your helpful feedback and your keen efforts to learn, that constantly inspire us and help create an uplifting environment where we can all grow together.  - from Winter 1999

The Dis-ease of Busyness

Almost everyone, when you ask how they are doing, respond with something about how busy they are. It has become the status quo for our lives to be filled to the maximum and beyond, so that we're not really aware of how driven we are, how stressed our lives have become, and how it is affecting us. Even when we are aware of it to some degree, we feel unable to do much about it. We seem to value "doing" many things over "being" well and at peace.

Our sense of self-esteem has become so strongly associated with being busy and stacking up accomplishments that we sacrifice really self-worth to create an impressive image that will make us look good.

So many of the ways that we hurt ourselves seem to be rooted in this need to win the love of others (and even ourselves) so that we can be happy. Yoga teaches us that our effort to find happiness by controlling things outside ourselves, such as the opinion of others, will never bear lasting fruit. Our endless efforts to prove worthy of love may bring temporary results, but as we probably all know from current relationships, the affection of others comes and goes; demanding it or holding it too tightly is generally counterproductive. Keeping busy may help us feel good about ourselves, but this feeling will also prove temporary when the pain of pushing so hard catches up with us. There is true irony in discovering that we are hurting ourselves in our attempt to feel good, to be happy.

It's well known now that a number of the physical problems we experience in western society are caused by or complicated by stress, and that many ailments can be improved significantly by proper rest, diet, exercise and self-acceptance. Of course these lifestyle changes take time. It is rewarding to see how popular Hatha Yoga is becoming, but even in these classes, the engrained belief that "more is better" can dominate the experience, and straining to get a better pose can be the norm. I know I've hurt myself more than once from wanting to be or look better than what I am. I remember really overdoing it with fasting during my younger fanatic days, and revolting afterwards with equally zealous overeating.

What to do? I can't pretend to have mastered this issue…a few of the staff at the IYI snickered when they heard I was going to write on this topic, suggesting I have a lot to learn. I can share how I'm learning and what Sri Swami Satchidananda (Sri Gurudev) has taught us. We can address the issue by both reflecting on the root cause in the mind and by undertaking step by step changes in our daily habits.

We can consciously begin to value our physical and mental health in concrete. Preparing healthy meals, getting a massage, taking a Hatha class, spending time in nature or with loved ones, and time alone to be quiet or creative, are all things that will help maintain a balance of giving out and restoring energy. In the midst of busy days, with even a few extra minutes (i.e., if someone is late for an appointment,) we can relax and reflect on how we're feeling. A few minutes of stretching, deep breathing and consciously relaxing the abdomen, neck and shoulders, jaw and especially the eyes, can have a marvelous renewing effect. When we eat, we can make it a habit to stop for a moment, calm ourselves with a few breaths and bless the food, then chew it well. When we answer the phone, we can pause for a few seconds to be present for that call.

An even more powerful change with much deeper benefits, is to reserve one evening per week as unscheduled time that you can devote to caring for yourself. The idea is to turn off the TV and the phone, and cook, do something creative, take a bath, do a deep relaxation, read and/or go to bed early, whatever would refresh you. Sri Gurudev has often encouraged us to spend some time each week practicing silence. If you have a family, such an evening might be important time apart from them, but it might also be planned as a evening to have meaningful time together to play, relax and appreciate each other.

A similar practice that has been so helpful to me is to fast one day per week, giving a rest to the body and giving me some extra time to rest from doing. I always sleep better that night and feel rejuvenated the next morning. In addition, my practice of meditation and Hatha the next morning is inevitably more alert and focused, their affects often lasting through that whole day. Some may find it difficult to fast the whole day and could try eating only fruit for a day or skipping the evening meal, which provide similar benefits.

When we experience the benefits of any of the above ideas, even a small one, we will be inspired to continue it and perhaps to take another step toward the same goal. We may even be inspired enough to try a bigger step, like attending a weekend retreat dedicated to rest and reflection, communing with nature, or spiritual practice. Such a retreat can very effectively relieve built up stress and help establish new habits, like a regular practice of Hatha yoga and meditation.

These practices, more powerfully than any other suggestions I've made, can heal the harmful effects of stress and restore balance to the body and mind. And the other remarkable benefit they offer is teaching us how to prevent a stressful response to life's difficulties in the first place. By developing an inner awareness of our physical and mental condition, we learn to notice tension or anxiety when it first appears. To respond to that situation mindful of our capacity at that moment, and equipped with the effective tools for relaxing that those practices bring us.

As a meditative practice bears fruit, we begin to have moments of real contentment that are not contingent upon completing tasks. A deeper examination of such moments reveals that this experience is the result of letting go of our preoccupation with making things happen, with trying to create happiness. Instead, as the mind begins to quiet down, we approach a natural completeness that is already there, a feeling that is wonderfully relieving and healing.

Though these glimpses of our true nature may not last as we move on with our day, they can help in several ways. One is to inspire us to continue making time for the practices that have quieted the mind. Secondly, we can create an affirmation based on that experience that reminds us of what we have found to be true in ourselves, and use that affirmation regularly to assert that truth, to counter the old patterns of thought we have held that still arise. As our practice enables us to repeat this experience of inner peace and that deepens, our old ways of thinking about achieving happiness begin to erode and we can create a new relationship to "doing" things. Our doing can become a joyful expression of the wells of light and love that bubble up from within.

When we approach life with neediness, clutching for something to make things right and bring fulfillment, that narrow vision of who we are can only serve to close the heart. When we nourish ourselves with moments of peace, our hearts overflow and we can truly serve others, wanting them to be nourished as well.
Yours in the light,

Awareness Listening

One of the most fundamental elements of Eastern spiritual teaching and living is the development of awareness, the ability to be awake to the present moment. Awareness enables us to witness both our own minds and the events around us with accuracy, and to respond skillfully to our thoughts and the situations we encounter. Such a presence of mind is not easily had but must be cultivated slowly and steadily by some regular practice such as meditation or Hatha Yoga. Sustaining a regular practice takes patience, persistence and perseverance, and we can easily become discouraged if we feel little or no benefit from our practice in our daily lives.

One place where awareness enriches everyday life is in interpersonal communication and more specifically in listening. Sri Gurudev (Swami Satchidananda) has often remarked that it is through “rubbing and scrubbing” that we are cleaned up, meaning that through difficulty we learn and grow, through painful situations we awaken to our own unhealthy ways of thinking and acting.

I’ve recently seen a number of examples of how our relationships bring adversity. We are tremendously challenged to maintain our own peace of mind and to act with compassion when “working things out” with those we work with and live with, even those we love the most. When faced with another person’s point of view, we are faced with ourselves. Sometimes with our preoccupation with our own security and happiness, other times with our inability to stand up for that in which we believe. In the clouded confusion of fear, hurt and anger, the light of awareness can help us to act sincerely, caring for both ourselves and for others.

A powerful form of awareness in interpersonal communication is true listening. During the Stress Management Teacher Training Program at Yogaville this past June, Surya Sierra, (one of our NY teachers), led a communication exercise. He divided us into pairs and instructed us to take turns talking about how we were feeling about the training program. He asked that we not speak while listening, and that we notice any thoughts that arose as we attempted to do so. It was remarkable to see how many of us experienced the same things as the listener. We observed how our minds began to dwell on similar experiences we had to those of our speaking partner, and how quickly we were moved to speak up and share what we had learned or suggest what they should do. This tendency made it difficult to really listen to them, and we had to keep bringing ourselves back to listening instead of reminiscing, interpreting and preparing our advice.

When we did a similar exercise in our Tuesday evening Raja Yoga study group, it became even clearer to me how hard it is for us to hear someone express their feelings without being compelled to help the speaker resolve them. As if they could fold their feelings neatly, like shirts to be stacked in a drawer. And it has struck me frequently in observing conversations since then, how quick we are to bring our own experience or point of view back into the conversation.

This is not to suggest that expressing our point of view is inappropriate, but simply that really listening first will enable us to respond to what another person truly feels. It allows us to be open in the present vs. stuck in a personal vision for the outcome. And it can serve as a check on our motivation: “am I sincerely wanting to consider this person or simply to press my points, get my way.” Communication really happens when each person takes the time to acknowledge the other’s perspective -- to understand them, and understanding leads to compassion. Out of compassion we can respond mindfully, striving to bring the most benefit and the least harm.

In the Raja Yoga study group I mentioned, we had been discussing ahimsa, or non-violence, and how we might practice it in our lives. We decided to practice by being more considerate in our conversations, by listening well to others, and responding thoughtfully. We also talked about listening to ourselves. Sometimes we are quick to judge ourselves without really looking deeply at the painful feelings that are an underlying cause for our thoughts and actions. Listening to understand first may be the best way to support our own growth, and we may even ask for that listening support from a friend. Then we can make new efforts that are based on where we are now instead of how we’d like to be seen.

Bringing this kind of awareness to our relationships is fertile ground for a lifetime of growth. However the benefit can be felt immediately -- even listening a little better begins the opening of our hearts to each other. And that opening is where we feel love. It is with the heart that we can look at another person and know they are a part of us. Then, real commune-ication can occur. - from Fall 1997

Peace as a Touchstone

I have always been strongly attracted by essential truths, statements that get right to the heart of the big questions about why we’re here and how to navigate this life.  While sifting through various philosophies and teachings, I would get excited when I found a clear, simple principle that could be applied to daily life. I found this kind of clarity and depth in the words of Sri Gurudev Swami Satchidananda. One of the teachings  I have treasured is what Sri Gurudev calls “keeping the most important, sacred property: your peace.”  This concept has become a powerful way to examine my life and the choices I make, a great reminder to keep everything in perspective.

This statement implies that peace is something that we don’t need to acquire because it is already a part of us. While that may be true, most of us don’t experience that truth so easily.  Only when we have focused and calmed the body and mind through our spiritual practice or become deeply absorbed in some activity, do we begin to taste that part of our being that is sacred. When the thick clouds of fear and desire that tend to dominate our minds begin to dissipate, the light at the heart of our being shines through. The peace that is always there can be experienced. Even a hint of that peace, which feels like an inner serenity, can be a godsend in the midst of the crisis and turmoil of daily life.

Sri Gurudev suggests using this teaching as a touchstone for analyzing what course of action to take: If an action will cause me to lose my peace, it’s not a healthy choice. If I see that my inner stability can be maintained, then I can go ahead. Of course this analysis must be done with sincerity, and with the understanding that anything I do that hurts someone else, will also disturb my peace of mind. For example, can I be truly at peace if the “truth” that I tell is motivated in part by revenge? No. If I rest after working, or retreat from helping others to rejuvenate, to keep my peace, this can be called a right action -- if I hurt no one but maintain my ability to serve. This can be a tricky decision in that choosing not to give more of myself can be selfish, I could be avoiding that which I am called to do. How can we tell the difference?

The way we practice Hatha Yoga provides an excellent analogy for reflecting on this. We see that in performing an asana, we stretch by becoming acutely aware of our capacity in this moment – and the real benefit comes from a mindful effort to move beyond our normal limit by consciously releasing tension and relaxing. But if our stretching is done without regard for where we are now, (as when we try to look impressive), then there’s a good chance we’ll injure ourselves. Likewise, most of us benefit from stretching a little further in our efforts to be loving to one other. This effort, too, should be mindful and tempered by listening for signs that we’ve reached the limits of what our bodies and minds are capable of at that time. This means that as we learn to grow more compassionate with one other, we also practice compassion for ourselves. For example, at times, eating and resting properly, or taking time to practice Hatha Yoga or to pray, can be the best way to serve others. Who profits by another example of a stressed out person who doesn’t know when to call it a day?

Ultimately, when we experience the joy of opening our hearts to give, we find that giving to others is never in conflict with giving to ourselves. Allowing love to flow through us (as it is meant to), acting free of our own fears and worries, is one of the most fulfilling experiences we can have.  And if we pay attention to the moments when we suffer, we are likely to discover that the flow of love is obstructed by our habit of believing that we can arrange the world around us to bring about our own happiness. When we practice quieting the mind and all thoughts and feelings that we are separate, we begin to discover what all spiritual teachings tell us: that we are a part of everyone and everything. This is where “keeping your peace” becomes loving everyone as your self. This kind of deep understanding doesn’t come overnight, but catchwords and phrases like this one can help tremendously to guide our way as we learn and grow. - from Fall 1999

Meditation

Just for a moment
let me loosen these tangled vines of effort
    to hold happiness
Remain a moment between relentless waves of longing for more

accept this present gift
    that slips between the fingers of that
    reaching hand
bathe in this quiet pool
    naked white moon awake

why wear those clothes again?

                                    Yours in the Light,
- from Spring 1998

Steady Mind Through Practice

Many people I’ve spoken with have experienced moments of striking clarity or deep peace while doing spiritual practices, communing with nature or during periods of creativity such as painting or playing music. Despite sincere spiritual aspirations, these experiences tend to be few and far between and take place while in solitude or on a retreat. The idea of feeling centered while at work or while working things out in a relationship seems a remote possibility at best. Even the best intentions and highest philosophies may go out the window in the face of a crises or confrontation, allowing layers of tension to build up and be carried into the next interaction. Then, when our buttons get pushed, we may “lose it” despite our best efforts to control ourselves.

The best way to develop any muscle is to build it up by repeated use. Developing a steady mind and an inner ease -- strong enough to last in the midst of activity -- also takes practice. A keen effort to steady the mind through Hatha Yoga, meditation, chanting or prayer can have a tremendous impact on the rest of our lives, especially if done regularly, over a long period of time. Even relatively brief sessions, such as 15 minutes twice a day, begin a process of transformation, of undoing the conditioned ways of thinking and reacting we fall into by habit.

During such a meditative practice, we refocus the mind again and again, patiently directing it, training it to remain steadily engaged. As the body relaxes and the mind calms down, we begin to taste the simple joy of being present in the moment. We can start to develop the same ability to focus at work. And, we certainly will become more aware of the mind’s restless tendency to flit back and forth between thoughts, remaining half preoccupied with worries rather than the task at hand. We can learn to recognize this tendency as the habit of wanting, of scheming to secure our happiness, as an endless anxiety that things may not go right. When I am struggling so hard to solve the day’s problems, it can be a tremendous relief to realize that it is precisely this tense effort that keeps me from being at ease: from being present with clarity to understand that which needs my attention (not my tension). I discover over and over that one of the best ways for me to be effective is to keep my own peace no matter what happens around me.

One of the teachings from Raja Yoga that especially supports that effort is the idea of responding with friendliness to friendly behavior, and with compassion to sorrow, with delight to virtuous behavior, and with detachment to harmful behavior. It has probably happened to all of us that after someone has acted unreasonable, angry or obnoxious towards us, that we later find out how much pain they were in. We may not be able to help them but I know I have benefited so much from not taking such behavior personally, and waiting for a calmer moment if possible, to interact with them. We can never expect to control the moods of others, but we can value our own balance, knowing it is the only way we can hope to respond constructively.

The way we practice Hatha Yoga can be a great analogy for how we can work. In all our efforts, there should be an element of relaxation that allows us to stretch further. And I have often seen in my service the importance of distinguishing between that healthy pain that comes from stretching carefully, and the strain that comes from forcing too much, causing me to get sick or to hurt someone else. During stressful situations, we can re-center ourselves by consciously focusing our minds on the focal point we have used regularly in our meditative practice. By inwardly repeating a mantra or prayer, or by calming and watching the breath, we draw on the powerful association our practice has cultivated, which helps us slow down. Returning to the present, we call forth our connection to the spiritual consciousness inside that remains undisturbed. If we can remain even a little connected to that consciousness, where we can experience our natural completeness, our self-esteem is not so dependent on being right, and we are more capable of accepting criticism or standing our ground in the face of adversity. It is a true sign of inner strength to be able to express ourselves with conviction and be open-minded to the suggestions of others but not side-tracked by their personalities.

It can also be helpful to understand that the challenging circumstances we face may be exactly what’s needed to draw forth new strengths from us, to teach us where our weak spots are, to bring attention to what in us needs healing. Fortunately, most of us seem to have ample opportunities to experiment and learn from this universe-ity. - from Winter 1998

Silence

"Silence is the source of all that exists, the unfathomable stillness where vibration began -- the first oscillation, the first word, from which life emerged. Silence is our deepest nature, our home, our common ground, our peace. Silence reveals. Silence heals. Silence is where God dwells. We yearn to be there. We yearn to share it."- from Sharing Silence by Gunilla Norris

from Swami Ramananda:
An element of spiritual life found in every religious tradition I can think of, is observing silence. In the Yogic tradition, this practice is called Mouna. The practice of silence for spiritual growth includes a withdrawal from self-expression even by writing or sign language. This relieves us from the stimulation of outward communication and is conducive to inward communion with the Divine. Prayer, meditation, worship -- any practice where we attune our minds to the spiritual consciousness within -- are done in silence. And many of our daily activities can be done with this indrawn intention to remain attuned to the Divine in the midst of movement.

One immediate benefit of silence is that it saves a tremendous amount of energy. Consider the thought and energy which goes into communicating with others, thinking about what to say and taking the time to explain the nuances of your opinions and feelings. It is interesting to notice how much of our conversation is concerned with presenting ourselves in a desirable way. Think of how often a unique moment is interrupted by wondering how you’ll explain it to someone. Silence frees us from this preoccupation and from any need to externalize or justify what we experience. Silence gives us the opportunity to simply be with what is, to connect deeply with what we encounter.

This effort to be silently present is an essential element of cultivating awareness through meditation. Tremendous insight into the nature of the mind and the processes of thought comes from learning to observe without judgement or commentary. The ever changing nature of the mind is thus exposed against the backdrop of this unchanging witness, bringing to light a profound truth --that we are not the mind and thoughts.With even a taste of this truth, we begin to experience the possibility of thinking and acting with love and compassion for all, free from identification with only this body and mind. However, with the waves of daily life constantly washing over us, this freedom is not easily maintained. A regular practice over a long period of time is required.  

Last summer, Swami Bhaktananda and I had an opportunity to speak briefly with Sri Gurudev, Swami Satchidananda. We spoke about the challenges of living in New York and keeping up with the continual growth of the Institute. After listening, his one recommendation to us was to make sure we take regular time each week to be silent, to let go of goals and lists and rest -- to just be without aiming to accomplish tasks. This has proven to be a wonderful reminder of how to keep myself rejuvenated. And fortunately, silence can be incorporated into our lives. In addition to observing silence when we meditate or practice Hatha Yoga, it can be as simple as turning down the phone while you clean your room, or eating a meal quietly and mindfully. If you are around others, it’s helpful to wear a little sign reading “observing silence”, so they won’t misunderstand your intention.

It is also a powerful practice to share with a group. This was recently reaffirmed to me during the one-day Mini-Retreat that I led with Shankar Fern: I saw how the participants developed a harmonious group energy as the day progressed. I remembered my own experience on similar retreats, feeling a connection with others, much deeper than if we had been speaking. We’ve also been very moved here at the Institute by sharing silence with our students and staff on what we’ve named Mouna Day, which we plan to continue observing regularly (this quarter it falls on September 9). On that day, we all practice silence (the staff speaks as necessary) in an effort to be present in each moment, with each action. I hope you have the opportunity to join us or to observe silence in your own way, and experience ever more fully the profound peace within that is our true nature.

Happiness

Sri Swami Satchidananda (Sri Gurudev), our spiritual teacher, has often remarked that all people share a common desire -- to be happy -- but attempt to fulfill that desire in myriad ways. One way of expressing that goal from a spiritual point of view would be that we want to be at peace with ourselves and the world around us. Such a profound goal seems to require great effort. Many of us pursue our spiritual happiness with the same “just do it” mentality with which we’ve learned to pursue school, jobs and recreation. We end up struggling with ourselves and trying to force change, as if we must battle for personal growth by conquering our wrong thinking and bad habits. Unfortunately, fighting to bring change is not such a good way to find peace.

Another spiritual teaching suggests that the source of all unhappiness is selfishness and the way to peace is to renounce our desires. While this is a deep truth, if we do not learn how to develop renunciation and selflessness step by step, this teaching can worsen the tendency to fight with the patterns of behavior we wish to change, rather than help us to grow out of them mindfully. How many of us, for example, upon suffering the ill affects of eating or drinking too much of the wrong things, have vowed to ourselves, (in a moment of temporary dispassion), to never do that again. And then we watch ourselves making the same mistake over and over. When we are under stress and fatigues, or when our emotional buttons get pushed, our will power may fade, and self-discipline disappears. Though we may know that change is needed, we may not know how to overcome patterns of behavior that are compulsive, and probably deeply rooted. I remember once thinking that the only bad habit I ever gave up was making vows I couldn’t keep.

Lasting growth comes from transformation that happens deep within. This requires bringing compassionate attention to the root causes of our unhealthy ways. By cultivating the ability to witness our own minds in meditation, we can become less identified with our thoughts and feelings, and better able to analyze them without shame or frustration. As we look deeply into compulsive behaviors, we can begin to understand that, as much as we may not like them, they are fulfilling some need. We may see how we use food and drink as a reward or an escape in response to some difficulty we experience, or the pain we want to block out. Pain is a message to us, a call for healing attention and if we can learn to bring awareness to our suffering and understand it, it will begin to transform and we won’t need to escape into some form of pleasure that brings temporary relief.

Sri Gurudev has taught us to grow out of thoughts and behaviors by replacing them with more appropriate ones. Taking time after work to exercise and relax, take a sauna or get a massage, can be excellent replacements for other way of relieving stress and recovering from a hard day. The most effective way of letting go of undesirable foods may well be to find healthy ones that we can enjoy as well and add them in. Spending time in good company, with like-minded people that are supportive of our efforts, can help break away from relationships that contribute to or support behaviors we want to change. The fresh energy of a new hobby, habit or friendship can be so helpful in interrupting unproductive patterns, and the company of others making the same kind of efforts is a powerful reinforcement that focuses our energy on a positive step vs. a negative one.

Another beautiful example of compassionate efforts to grow is illustrated in the practice of Hatha Yoga. When we encounter the limit of our capacity in a specific pose, we combine our effort to move further with an effort to soften around the resistance, we attempt to let go in tiny increments. If we push through the tightness in the body because we want to be further than we are, the body revolts by contracting and resisting further to protect itself. Likewise the psyche may revolt when our efforts to change disregard where we are now. When we accept and understand where we stand now, we can set realistic goals for ourselves and step mindfully forward without strain. We can develop our willpower a little bit at a time and build confidence, rather than failing in an attempt to reach goals that are too big a stretch. In this way, our growth is born of a compassion for our bodies and minds that is in harmony with our natural tendency to be loving, and with our ultimate goal to be at peace.

Hatha as a Tool for Self Discovery

We tend to identify with the body/mind because it is concrete, easily experienced and appears to be permanent, thus dependable, giving us a sense of security and control. Yoga teaches us that we are much more and that to center our lives around body/mind will be ultimately unfulfilling, often painful, leave us feeling incomplete and unhappy, missing love and peace.

Hatha works with the body/mind to lead us beyond this identification to experience the Self, by attuning ourselves step by step to the more subtle aspects of our being.

Deepak Chopra describes the body’s impermanence by reminding us that “We replace 98% of our atoms in one year.” Like a river, we appear to be -- but never are -- the same. Otherwise, how would neck pain, ulcers or allergies remain? In exploration of that mystery, ancient yogis discovered the underlying force that animates and structures the body. That force is called prana. The flow of prana gives life to every atom and the patterns of this flow determine physical form – if the flow of prana remains unchanged, so does the form it creates. Those yogis then traced this pattern of prana to its source – the mind. The thoughts and feelings that predominate in the mental level determine the flow of prana that structures the body.

Present day examples of that pattern are easy to find. Medical studies show that people who express a lot of hostility and anger outwardly, have a higher rate of heart disease. People who tend to chronically repress anger have a higher rate of cancer. Dean Ornish’s newest book, “Survival and Healing” documents the connection between loving relationships and healing.

Our understanding of how the mind works, while more scientifically accountable, supports those ancient yogic theories. It is estimated that 95% of our thoughts are the same as what we’ve had before. Thus, set ways of perceiving ourselves, the world, and reacting to each other, lead to characteristics which develop into habits then into a lifestyle that determines our destiny. What remains truly profound, and even crucial in our quick-paced world, are the ways in which yoga teaches us to use that information. The rich tradition of yoga provides specific tools to observe, utilize, and overcome those patterns to assure “an easeful body, a peaceful mind, and a useful life”.

In Hatha practice, we attempt to move and think about our movements in ways outside of our patterned thinking and moving. We practice being and acting free of our conditioning by moving with complete, non-judgmental awareness and in loving response to the capacity of the body in this moment only.  A mind that is focused, quiet and open can truly listen to the body as it is without interjecting what it should be. It is this accepting awareness that liberates us from egoism and allows the mind to begin to be guided by the deepest part of our being, the Self or Spiritual Consciousness. Thus we use the body/mind to become less identified with it, and ultimately free of it’s patterning or conditioning.

Then our mental level can begin to be influenced by the wisdom and compassion of our Spiritual Nature. As our thoughts become healthier, the pranic level also will change, flow more fully, and manifest as healing for the harm caused by unhealthy habits of the past. In this way, our Hatha practice becomes a means to contact the Spiritual level and allow it’s light and energy to express through all the grosser levels of our being, recreating this body/mind in the image of our Divinity.

With a conditioned body/mind, it is difficult to rise above our patterned behaviors and thinking, our long time identity, our ways of defining ourselves. Our Hatha Yoga practice very consciously trains us to look and listen deeply within ourselves and to begin to align the body/mind with that consciousness. This process comes over time, with steady effort, patience and non-attachment. With even a little effort to practice hatha yoga regularly, you will  begin to experience your natural compassion and wisdom. That little effort will be felt in big ways when these qualities spill over into your daily life. - from Winter 2000

Humility

While humility is the hallmark of a sincere spiritual aspirant, it doesn’t get much press. In an age where self-empowerment is synonymous with personal growth, the idea of humbling oneself is decidedly unpopular. It can easily be dismissed as a sign of weakness or allowing oneself to be pushed around. Understood and practiced correctly, humility is an essential part of spiritual growth. It is letting go of the need to be right, to defend ourselves, and making space for the truth, whether or not the truth is in agreement with what we want. For example, no real communication can happen without accepting the possible validity of another person’s point of view. Then even when we disagree, we have communed – we have allowed ourselves to be touched by another person’s perspective.

We humans, like all animals, make an instinctual effort to achieve some mastery over our lives in order to survive. Things like securing a home and a livelihood depend upon asserting ourselves enough to achieve success. A healthy self esteem serves us in accomplishing these basic goals, but will lead us astray if we then identify our success in life completely with this ability to control the world around us. It is just as important to realize that there are ways in which we cannot master the world around us, that we cannot control the outcomes of our efforts, and that our happiness does not have to depend on events conforming with our plans. We can put tremendous effort into building our dream house or getting the perfect job, only to have a hurricane or a stormy boss take it away in a matter of minutes.

Real mastery requires not only the courage to try, it requires the courage to accept being unsuccessful in that effort without going off the deep end, without losing the ability to learn and adjust. This is where humility comes in – it is exactly the virtue that allows us to accept what comes or to see that we are making a mistake. And instead of being lost in disappointment over that mistake, to move onward with a new lesson to guide future efforts. We’ve probably all had experiences where our efforts seemed to fail, but if we had the awareness and the humility to see it, we find that the undesired outcome is actually better or more important than the original goal.

When I moved to the San Francisco Institute in 1988, I was eager to be well thought of, to be a sannyasi (monk) that people would admire. The first Hatha class I taught was attended by one of the Institute’s instructors and I felt that familiar anxiousness of wanting to make a good impression. When I realized I had left out an important part of the instruction for deep relaxation, I was really embarrassed.  Finishing the class probably helped me calm down and collect myself; at the end I mentioned to the students that they should not skip that part of the deep relaxation when they practice at home. The teacher later commented that she was so impressed with my honesty in admitting the mistake and felt she learned an important lesson from that example. Though I went through a roller coaster ride of emotions, from pride to anxiousness to shame, and failed in my own eyes, accepting the mistake was more important than not making one.

The serenity prayer of St. Francis beautifully expresses this need for a balance of courage and humility: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This serenity is born from humility – the ability to know that we (our bodies and minds) have limitations, and that we are powerless over some things. A posture of humility then opens the door for wisdom, that truth that is available when our hearts and minds become quiet enough to listen, to allow themselves to be guided by spiritual principles that reside in the depths of our being.

We can develop humility in a number of ways. With Hatha yoga , we can practice with the clear intention to listen and accept the body’s capacity in each asana, without wanting it to be better or more impressive (even when our neighbor in class looks like a contortionist). When we meditate, we consciously affirm an effort to quiet the mind, so that deeper wisdom can express itself. Thus, we acknowledge the limitations of the mind and the need to keep it in its place. During daily life, we can cultivate the belief that each challenge that befalls us is an opportunity to learn. Even when we feel hurt by someone else, we can learn to reflect on our own part in the problem. Sri Gurudev often says that when we point a finger to blame someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at us. It can be a powerful experience to apologize and see how the other person’s heart also softens and caring communication can take place. Some people will not respond to our efforts, but we can be at peace in our own hearts knowing we did all we could.

Of course we will struggle with this practice and get lost in our pride numerous times. But even a small success with opening to the truth will come as great relief from the pain and tension of trying to live up to a false image and closing our hearts in defense of that image. When we begin to live with even a little more humility, everything we experience becomes an opportunity to learn, to discover something. Like in the well-known Buddhist story, we become an empty cup that is ready to receive. All the saints and sages tell us that there is much more to receive than we can imagine. - from Winter 2001

Prayer

Many of us have lost any feel for the meaning and purpose of prayer. Though most of us, at one point, have probably tried to pray in a desperate plea to get something we cannot otherwise obtain.   I know I rejected the whole concept of prayer when I was young and searching to really experience something, versus simply believe what I had been told.  The idea that some being out there would hear and respond to my thoughts was just too abstract for me.  Now, through the teachings and practices of Yoga, I have come to a much different understanding and experience of it.
   
Prayer begins with acknowledging that our minds have a limited capacity to see who we are, to make sense out of our lives, to know how to wake up and realize the truth, or to even know what to pray for.  In a very basic way, prayer is an effort to look beyond the mind, to open our hearts to a wisdom that we cannot find with our thinking.  In effect, the mind is quieted by turning our attention beyond it. We have an opportunity to receive the message of our essential spiritual consciousness, to connect with the place within ourselves that is unaffected by the fears and doubts in the mind.  Even if we have no concepts, nor words to explain it, we can choose to listen deep within, where we can begin to experience the very ground of our being, where we are connected to all of life.
   
It is not easy to look beyond the mental level, since we are used to identifying ourselves so completely with the mind and our thoughts.  It’s hard to envision that there’s anything better to do than to think harder or ask someone else (which amounts to trying another mind). That’s why we may be more inspired to pray by directing it to a saint or holy person, or any symbol that represents a higher power, a source of wisdom beyond a normal mind.  Seeing that light of truth in someone else, or believing in the presence of a higher power and opening ourselves to it, again has the effect of quieting our limited thinking.
     
When even a little of this inner light is shed on our darkness or confusion, a deeper clarity begins to shine into our awareness.  This may be a process that occurs over time or as a flash of insight, but whenever we sincerely open ourselves to the truths behind our pain, we create space for our spiritual nature to emerge.   No matter how angry we may be at a foolish person, when we ask for guidance and begin to open our hearts, we can feel a natural compassion arise from within. We may begin to see that our anger is only hurting ourselves and we may see clearly how to correct someone else with love, not revenge, as the impetus behind our words.
   
I have found it immensely helpful to create my own prayer, which I say regularly as a way of reminding myself of the truth about what I am learning in this life.  And when I find myself struggling and groping for answers, I bow my head and open myself with whatever words express my turmoil at that moment.  Below is an example of one way to pray that might help prime your pump. Ultimately, the best prayer for you is one that is born from the suffering you experience and your own way of expressing a longing for peace and light.

Dear________,
Please help me remember that the only thing that can really make me happy is to feel that peace, that complete love that is my true nature, so I can be free from clinging to anything outside that brings me only temporary pleasure, and binds me to an endless cycle of desire and disappointment.

Let me remember that I can enjoy everything I do by dwelling in the natural joy of a quiet mind and an open heart, and by taking good care of this body and mind with proper diet, exercise and rest.  Let me stay connected to that Presence within, and serve as an instrument of that unconditional Love.

                    Yours in the Light,
                    Swami Ramananda


more writings by Swami Ramananda
Awareness In Action
http://instantkarmastore.com/newsletter/features/ramananda2.html



page published by Creations in Consciousness November 20, 2002 | updated July 10, 2004  webmaster | site map