Last Wednesday, we discussed a passage titled “Three Great Forces,” which were identified as anger, lust and laziness. I agreed with Neil that there were other ‘great forces’ left out of this passage – particularly fear (which I’ve written about more in another blog entry as well). Swami Sivananda has said that fear is the root cause of all the negative emotions. And at the root of all fear lies a fundamental fear, which is that of death. Fear causes people to do many things that they later regret. So many people, for example, stay in abusive relationships due to the fear of being alone. Fears around financial sustainability abound, and yet so many of the poorest people I have met have television sets and expensive clothing to address the fear of not fitting in without accounting for basic necessities like healthy food. This pattern also has to do with another great force: greed (which is connected to lust). It takes a degree of fearlessness to truly live simply and yet, when we live simply, all our needs stand a higher chance of being fulfilled. As Gandhiji once said,
“There is enough for human need, but not enough for human greed.”
Fear causes us to remain small and limited by the constraints of what we already know. Many people even associate being ‘adult’ with a point at which growth stops. Collectively, fear tends to be conditioned deeply into the western psyche in particular, with the government choosing to respond to the fear of being attacked by terrorists by fighting a war against terror that only serves to attract more of the same treatment. Thus, fear becomes cylical, tending to accelerate deeper and deeper, only becoming increasingly more difficult to root out as fear follows this natural process of intensification.
As Theodore Vail once said,
“Real difficulties can be overcome, It is only the imaginary ones that are unconquerable.”
So much of fear, particularly in the West, is just a quality of an unfocused mind. Many of the people I have met who live in the most dangerous circumstances are also the most fearless – because they are more acutely aware of the brevity of life, it seems, and thus tend to make the most out of every moment. This of course doesn’t mean more work needs to be done to make the world a safer place, but at the same time, it is important to recognize that, beyond proper law enforcement, one of the most sustainable ways of creating a safer world is to reach out to those who cause danger, violence and crime. To teach them how to handle their anger, in particular…
That’s why I feel so grateful to have the opportunity to teach yoga and meditation in juvenile halls (prisons). It’s so amazing to see the transformation that comes about when young people learn how to recognize and thereby control their own anger (instead of letting their anger control them, leading to crime and self-destruction). The gift of awareness is so important in the process of transforming negative emotions. That’s why we always have our youth really identify what anger feels like in their bodies, to notice their heart pounding faster when they get mad. How fast their breathing becomes. The heat on the body. Tension in the forehead. Blood rushing to the head.
It’s important, as Aumi wisely shared, to accept anger as an indicator, particularly when healing victims of abuse.
“In between the poles of expression and suppression lies a third option, of mere observation.”
Being able to observe anger is important, because it also enables one to transmute the strong energy of anger (connected to pitta, or the element of fire in Ayurveda) into a ‘great force’ – for creating change in the world. Fire can burn and harm the body, but it is also what fuels transformation, whether personal or collective. And ahimsa takes a lot of strength and power. As Gandhiji once said,
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”
In order to fully forgive, to fully embody the powerful ‘soul force’ Gandhiji did, one needs to fully accept and feel the emotion of anger pass through the body and mind.
Yoga practices provide an amazing opportunity to work with the sensations in the body and to transform negative emotions like anger, lust and laziness. Backbending poses, for example, are powerful ways to overcome anger, through opening the heart. Inversions help one manage feelings of lust. Many bramacharis, or celibate men with monk-like vows, were able to transmute sexual desire through practicing headstands, shoulderstands and handstands on a regular basis in the times of the ancient Indian rishis, or seers, from whom modern yoga practices stem. For laziness, surya namaskar (sun salutation) sequences help the body get moving. Asanas like halasana (plough pose) and salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand) are specifically designed to help one overcome feelings of laziness. Practice and persistence, of course, are the keys for the success of asanas (and any other yoga or meditation practice for that matter) in helping one overcome the force of negative emotions.
I first learned about Ayurveda (ancient Indian system of medical science) during my yoga teacher training days last year. It was very interesting, and a bit scary, to learn about how intimately connected food is with the emotions. In the Bhagavad Gita Chapter 17, verse 9, it says
“Foods that are bitter, sour, saline, excessively hot, pungent, dry and burning are liked by the rajasic and are productive of pain, grief and disease.”
Rajasic foods and substances include onions, garlic, radishes, coffee, tea, tobacco and any other kind of stimulant. Refined (white) sugar, soft drinks, pungent spices, highly seasoned foods and anything that is excessively hot, bitter, sour or saline is thought to be rajasic. Rajasic foods are believed to increase feelings of anger, lust, greed, violence and selfishness. On a larger scale, these kinds of foods actually lead directly to violence and wars.
The next verse of the Gita says
“That food which is stale, tasteless, putrid, rotten and impure refuse, is the food liked by the tamasic.”
Tamasic foods and substances include meat, fish, all intoxicants (drugs and alcohol), canned, processed and frozen foods, as well as those that are deep-fried. Tamasic foods also include stale, decomposed, unclean, over and unripe fruits. Food that is reheated too many times becomes tamasic. Tamasic foods make people heavy, dull, inert and lazy. They fill the mind with depression, darkness, anger and other ‘great enemies.’
In the fifth verse of this Gita chapter, sattvic foods are described as
“The foods which increase life, purity, strength, health, joy and cheerfulness, which are savory and oleaginous, substantial and agreeable.”
Sattvic foods are fresh and natural, without preservatives and consumed either raw, steamed or lightly cooked. Grains, proteins like nuts, pulses and seeds, dried and fresh fruits and seeded vegetables, as well as natural sweeteners (including honey, molasses, maple syrup and raw cane sugar) are all examples of sattvic foods. Sattvic foods help conquer the great forces while increasing the vitality, energy, health and joy one feels. These foods also keep the mind pure and calm and generate equanimity, inner peace and poise. Sattvic foods are most conducive to the practice of meditation and provide the maximum energy to increase the strength and endurance of those who do even the most strenuous work.
The presence of the great forces, though destructive, must never be written off, as it is only through knowing one’s weaknesses that an individual can transform them into his or her greatest strengths – which, as Harshida Auntie beautifully shared, is possible to do through simply sitting still in silence. In the writings of the Mother, it has been said that,
“You carry in yourself all the obstacles necessary to make your realization perfect. Always you will see that within you the shadow and the light are equal; you have an ability, you have also the negation of this ability. But if you discover a very black hole, a thick shadow, be sure there is somewhere in you a great light. It is up to you to know how to use the one to realize the other.”