It was the only time I ever saw Swami Veda look discouraged. “When I first came to the United States, I hoped my students would attain enlightenment. Now I’m happy if they at least develop emotional balance,” he confessed.
Enlightenment is a tall order, the spiritual equivalent of medaling in the Olympics. Nevertheless my teacher, Swami Rama of the Himalayas, insisted it was within our reach. “You can do it; you will do it—do it now!” But unlike India’s sadhus, who devote themselves full time to inner work under the personal tutelage of a watchful spiritual master, most of us are struggling to make a living, raise a family, and save for retirement. We don’t usually spend whatever free time we can muster sitting in high states of meditation. You’re more likely to find us vegging out in front of the television.
Getting by in the material world takes a lot of energy, so it’s easy to understand why we slip back into our culture’s more usual mode of relaxing and recharging: punching buttons on the remote. We try to keep up our meditation practice, but it can all too easily slide over onto the back burner of our lives.
Swami Rama was a practical man who recognized that not all of us are as highly motivated as his fellow sadhus. He wisely advised us to walk the spiritual path one step at a time. But we can’t take a single step if we’re not balanced.
I spent much of my life at ashrams and yoga centers. These are wonderful communities that attract some of the best people you’ll ever meet. They are also often havens of resentment, malicious gossip, and infighting. (No wonder Swami Veda felt discouraged!) It doesn’t matter how sincere and idealistic an organization is, even if it’s an ecological or educational or spiritual group. Put more than two people together in the same room long enough, and they’ll start to disagree—often vehemently. How can we achieve peace on Earth when even basically decent people can’t get along?
The root cause of these problems is not hard to find. Just put one person alone in a room long enough, and conflict emerges. “I can’t stand my mother, but she’s my mother and I should love her.” “Should I get a degree in pharmacology which I hate but would pay the bills, or in art history which I love but I’d starve?” “Should I buy the red shoes or the brown ones?” We’re constantly at war with ourselves. One part of us wants one thing, another part wants something else. It’s unpleasant enough arguing with others; it’s really self-defeating when we argue with ourselves. It’s hard to imagine how we can end conflict in the world when we can barely deal with the conflicts inside ourselves.
The Yoga Sutra describes distractedness as one of the primary obstacles to spiritual growth. And what is more distracting than conflict?
We think the opposite of conflict is peace, but lasting peace in the world at large (or even in our closest relationships) is probably impossible to maintain. What we can attain is emotional balance. By calmly studying our vasanas, the urges, inclinations, desires and prejudices that drive our reactions, we begin to get a grip on ourselves. We feel less conflicted. We’re less inclined to allow disagreements with others to metastasize into self-righteous fury. Our feelings no longer control us; rather, we learn to consciously direct our emotional responses in a more constructive manner. This is why the Yoga Sutra encourages us to practice svadhyaya, self-study.
Be honest with yourself. Are you still upset about being bullied as a child? About being betrayed by a partner? About a friend who borrowed money and never paid you back? Are you characteristically anxious, or hot-tempered, or depressed, or irritable? Then you are out of balance. Vasanas from your past, perhaps even from your past lives, are undermining your peace of mind.
In higher forms of meditation, the mind becomes as still and clear as a freshwater lake with no waves on the surface and no currents roiling in its depths. The surface of the lake reflects the bustle going on all around it without distortion as long as it remains motionless, like a mirror or like a mind in perfect balance.
Most of us can’t maintain this state of emotional equilibrium for long. There are too many thrashing fish (maybe even a Loch Ness monster or two) in our subconscious, just waiting to rise to the surface of our awareness. There are gale-force gusts of emotion that prevent us from experiencing the world with clarity and compassion. A lot of our spiritual work entails discharging the energy of these vasanas. When we can relax with the person who used to bully us in school, or see an old lover with their new partner without falling apart, we are making progress in our spiritual lives. We are no longer at the mercy of our karma. As Swami Rama explained, moksha (enlightenment) means “freedom”—specifically freedom from karma. Our karma with the person who used to make us lose our balance is cancelled.
In my early twenties I studied with a Buddhist monk who was not much older than me. It was not what Jamspal taught that impressed me, but how unbelievably balanced he was. In his childhood Chinese soldiers had invaded Tibet. The temples in his region were destroyed, his spiritual mentors were hauled off to a state prison where many of them died, and members of his family were murdered. Needless to say, as a young boy he was severely traumatized. But Jamspal truly cherished the teachings his gurus had imparted. He meditated every day on loving kindness and consciously cultivated emotional serenity. Eventually he was able to forgive the Chinese and genuinely wish the best for them. I’ve had serious problems in my life, but nothing matching the magnitude of what Jamspal went through. He showed me it really is possible to release the charges of negative emotion that lie buried (or sered!) in our unconscious—not with tears or outbursts of anger that only amplify their power—but through the power of meditation and self-insight.
I remember learning to ride a bicycle when I was eight years old. At first my father trotted along behind me holding onto the back of the bike to keep it from tipping over as I pedaled furiously. Eventually I glanced back and saw my father was no longer there—I was riding all by myself. That moment was exhilarating. I was perfectly balanced on the bike and free to steer anywhere I wanted. Fear of falling was gone—I was in control. I felt light as air and incredibly free.
To be balanced is the best feeling in the world. To be so centered in the Self that nothing can ever knock you off your balance is to be enlightened.
We all know what happens when the body gets out of balance. If the nervous system isn’t in tune with itself, or our last meal is having a heated argument with our digestive system, illness ensues. If things get unbalanced enough, the body is no longer viable. Bad news for us; good news for the funeral industry.
Success in yoga demands balance at every level. We must eat enough food to sustain our metabolism, but not so much that it creates lethargy or disease. We must get enough exercise to maintain our cardiovascular system, but not so much that we run ourselves into an early grave. (Recent studies have shown that exercising too avidly can be as disastrous as not exercising at all.)
In our hatha yoga classes we learn the headstand and the tree pose (standing on one leg with hands joined above the head). It’s difficult to stay balanced in these positions when the mind wanders, so they are as much concentration exercises as physical poses. Physical and mental balance go hand in hand.
The classical meditation poses are designed specifically to keep the spine vertically aligned. You can easily see why by slumping forward, then sitting up straight in a relaxed—not rigid—manner. The moment you sit up straight, you enter a balanced and attentive state. In many cultures slumping or hunching over are associated with submissiveness, laziness, or poor health. When the back is straight, kundalini (the energy of consciousness) can flow freely throughout the nervous system. You feel enlivened and intensely aware.
Swami Rama taught us that the single most valuable practice for attaining balance is to activate sushumna. This entails bringing not just the body but the breath into balance. By focusing your full awareness on the bridge between your nostrils, you cause the spongy tissues inside your nose to readjust themselves. This allows you to breathe slowly and evenly through both nostrils at the same time. This very simple practice has an astonishing effect on the brain, bringing its right and left hemispheres into synchronization and stilling the thought process. This very enjoyable state of equipoise feels like finally coming home to yourself. You are now in a state of mental and emotional balance.
Moksha—enlightenment—is a state of freedom from all imbalances. The world continues to twirl in its usual crazy course, and your body still eventually sickens and dies, but you remain balanced in your highest and best self. Spiritual masters balance on the head of a pin with the angels.
Swami Veda wished those of us on the spiritual path would all develop emotional balance. After that, it’s just one more step to enlightened awareness.
Linda Johnsen is author of Daughters of the Goddess: The Women Saints of India, Lost Masters: The Sages of Ancient Greece, and six other books.
This article was originally published in "Transformation, The Journal of Meditation and Mind/body Medicine." Please mention the above and indication that it is being reprinted by the permission of The American Meditation Institute (americanmeditation.org).
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