In yoga philosophy, suffering is explained as being the result of an action, taken sometime in the past, that is now bearing fruit. For instance if you made a decision and took an action not likely to end well, you will eventually feel the result.
To use a simple example, if you stay home for an entire weekend and eat nothing but pancakes and maple syrup all day long, you may feel the results on Monday and Tuesday. Once you feel tired, weak and a bit sick on Monday, you realize that you made a choice that you may not want to make again, and can prevent future suffering of that nature. Therefore, some suffering can be avoided, through the actions we take today. Yoga is about seeing things clearly enough to take the most appropriate actions at any moment.
We typically see the world through a haze of distortion created by our past experiences, conclusions, and understanding. Yoga practice is one method of sorting out the reality of the situation from how we are interpreting and ‘putting our spin on’ it.
A recent article in the New Yorker Magazine explained how when people experience a traumatic incident, some of them display ‘Resilience” and become stronger and happy people, while some are traumatized and may sink into depression or trouble. The difference is how people perceive the traumatic event: was it an opportunity for growth that other good things may have come from (connection with community, spiritual growth, important lessons?) or was it an unfortunate incident that magnifies our deficits, weakness and leaves us feeling hopeless and alone? The same incident can have either outcome, depending upon how you experience and see it.
Likewise, certain tendencies and circumstances are set in place by our ancestors, culture, the time and place we were born. The extent to which these factors manifest can be mitigated by our own behavior. If you look at cultural factors, like diet, we can choose to adopt the dietary habits we have inherited and habituated to as children, or we can choose to adopt other habits, times to eat, things to eat that serve us differently. For instance, I grew up in Minnesota, with an affinity for coffee and soft bready pastries. I still drink coffee, (although I do choose organic coffee with grass-fed butter these days), but as far as the pastries, I’ve changed my habits because I didn’t find they served me. I’ve also shifted from eating a large dinner, as I did in childhood, to a bigger lunch and less food in the evening. On a day to day basis, I feel better and wake up more refreshed. How this will serve me on a long term basis is not certain, but I am guessing that feeling well on each day will lead to a more positive long term result.
On a deeper level, we carry with us family imprints and cultural traditions so ingrained that we don’t see them, and it can take great attention to even notice they exist, like a fish doesn’t notice that it’s surrounded by water, and we don’t normally think much about living in air. We find great comfort in the known and familiar, and this is indeed hard to shift even when we may know better. This is why I might find myself once in a great while eating a cinnamon roll, which provides the pleasurable moment of eating a cinnamon roll, but also ties a thread back to my Scandinavian background and all the familiarity of my past. This is a small and inconsequential example, but when the examples are multiplied and more complex, we can find ourselves in a web of cultural familiarity that is invisibly making choices for us—sweeping us along in a current of ritual and habit— for better or worse.
Again: yoga to the rescue. It’s one tool that can provide a mirror to us. Even more effective is finding a teacher you trust and connect with, who can see your tendencies themselves, and choose the best moments to reveal them to you.
In the sixties, the Beatles retreated to Rishikesh to take themselves out of their environment and habits, as well as away from their fame and the personalities that they’d both created an inhabited, to “find themselves”. Their experience in India is documented by a young man on a similar journey, who published photos and an article in the journal Namarupa in 2007. If you have been to India, you can imagine how foreign to the Beatles the India of 1969 must have seemed, and how wondrous to be in a new, different place. What a relief from the pressure of being “the Beatles”! Getting out of our environment often makes us feel refreshed, free, and notice small details around us, and about ourselves. Isn’t it true that travel relieves some of the pressure of being “you” (and sometimes results in strange vacation-only romances which could never survive back home, but that’s a side effect and another blog post!)
All of these strategies: daily yoga practice, retreats and intensive study, deliberately leaving your familiar environment and continuing your practice and process of awareness, and finding teachers and mentors who may see somethings about you more clearly than you see them yourself may be useful in the new year! How will you get clarity on who you are and what step to take next?