Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…..
By Jeanne Heileman, Yoga Teacher Trainer
“To identify consciousness with that which merely reflects consciousness – this is egoism.”
This sutra is listed as one of five obstacles to yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; the other four are misperception, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain and fear of death. This is an easy one, right? Just don’t practice with your pride and ego connected to the poses. So if I can easily move into a pose that others are struggling with, I should just wear some humility and benevolence as I practice the asana and as I leave the class. For me, that was no problem. I figured that I had this obstacle down, that the other ones were more complicated and worth more of a dialogue than this one.
And then through the gift of a student’s struggle I was able to see how complicated, sophisticated and how amazing this obstacle can be for each of us, students and teachers.
A while back, one of my students was struggling in his practice with the fact that he couldn’t do poses that he earlier could do. He was getting upset, angry and feeling like he was getting old and of course that was bruising his pride. I was trying to encourage him to use an element of detachment in his practice, of not needing to get any further. Easy to say when everyone else in the room is younger and able to do the pose that you used to be able to do and now for some reason can’t. What does a yoga teacher who finds this stuff easy know? She doesn’t have this problem. So he naturally got even angrier. I didn’t know what else to do or say that wouldn’t add to the anger so I encouraged him to back off when needed and to focus on his breathing rather than his posture.
Weeks later I was practicing on my own and unexpectedly I couldn’t do an “advanced” pose that I normally find easy to maneuver. My inner monologue of “Why you’re a teacher, you have to be able to do this pose. What’s wrong with you?” began as it sometimes does, which can usually motivate me to go beyond my mental limitations. But this time I discovered the emerging sound of my ego. Wow. And I began to think of my student’s struggle. And I began to see the huge role that ego plays in our practice. I was really humbled by my own mistaken mind and the vastness of this obstacle.
We Need Ego, It’s Not A Bad Thing
First let’s clarify, we need ego. It’s not a bad thing. Webster’s defines ego as:
“…the one of the three divisions of the psyche in psychoanalytic theory that serves as the organized conscious mediator between the persona and the reality especially by functioning both in the perception of and adaptation to reality.”
In other words, ego gives us a sense of healthy identity and helps us rationalize with the reality in our world. Ego helps us deal with our reality so that we can feed ourselves, buy needed clothing and find a place to rest at night. When we can see the separation of our spirit and our body, that the body is a tool to help the spirit serve its purpose then ego is applied in a healthy manner. When the ego is used for selfish reasons, (I want more food than I need to feed my broken heart, I want lots of clothes in the closet that are stylish and make me look good, I want a really large house and a job that shows how important I am) then it can be abused. But when used for the purpose of benefiting others, it’s valuable.
I had always thought of myself as one who wasn’t very ego-centered. (Ha! There’s the oxymoron right there!) I was brought up in a pretty strict Catholic family where thinking for oneself was considered very selfish and frowned upon. We were encouraged to do things for others and put ourselves second or last, certainly never first. I always tried to consider the needs and interests of other friends and family before myself, just like my parents and grandparents. So, I just thought that of all my faults, ego was not one of them.
Then I attended a retreat with Baba Hari Das at Mount Madonna in Northern California. Babaji is a renunciate monk from India who has maintained silence since 1952 and communicates to people by writing on a small, portable chalk board. In his writings and in his discussions during my visit he explained that depression is a version of stroking one’s ego. At this time I was swimming in my own misery of sadness from a relationship that had just ended and other career/life disappointments. To hear that my “misery” was my ego acting up was a shock! How could that be possible? I’m not egotistical! (Ah, oxymoron again.) It was other people who were being unfair to me in my life. I had been very giving in my relationships, in other aspects of my life. I was the victim, not the one in fault. If only other people would act and operate better, then everything would work out OK. (I am so cute when I am at fault!)
Actually, according to Babaji, these thoughts and all others involved with mild depressions are strokes of the ego for they remind us that we exist. While we are dwelling on the wrongs of others we are caressing our precious ego to strengthen our own identity and existence. Once I began to grasp his logic then I began to realize that all my sadness and misery was a form of my ego acting loudly. And then I began to get really humble and embarrassed from how much I had been using my own ego. When I told him about my discovery and how sad and humiliated I was from my mistaken ego, he said/wrote that that too, is a form of stroking one’s ego. All this ego! “How does one get out of the ego circle?” I asked. Babaji wrote wise words, “Self Acceptance.”
Practice Santosha (Contentment) For Self Acceptance
One method of beginning self acceptance is to practice Santosha (contentment) as listed in the Niyamas in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. When we are content with what we have, we instill two of the Yamas: Asteya (non stealing) and Aparigraha (non covetousness.) If I had put more attention to what I did have in my life rather than what I didn’t have etc. etc., I think I might’ve slept better. If we can focus on what we CAN do in our yoga practice rather than what we can’t we might enjoy our practice more. We need to appreciate that we can even TRY to do difficult poses knowing others can’t even walk up a flight of stairs to get to the class. And with this attitude, the ego’s role diminishes. It is not ME succeeding or failing, it is simply me existing in the grey area of trying and being in the moment. This moment the pose happens…or not. The moment changes as does the pose.
Santosha does not mean to be lazy and just accept that I’ve never been flexible so why even try now. Yoga is all about looking for our limitations, glad to find them and then living in them and by living in them, the limitations begin to stretch a bit and we expand as a result. The contentment is necessary as we are faced with our limitations, for we all have them somewhere. There is an element of Tapas (discipline/austerity) in santosha’s contentment, not complacency. Iyengar uses another variable when describing the aspects of an asana: firmness of body, steadiness of mind and benevolence of spirit. Both asana and santosha have some benevolence that keeps the ego at bay.
Separate Yourself From Ego
Another aspect about self acceptance is the ability to separate ourselves from our ego, thus from our actions and our results. Yogarupa Rod Stryker taught a meditation that I found really helpful for this. After sitting and connecting to the breath in order to create a more centered place he guided us to visualize four walls inside our head. Inside each temple (left & right) were two side walls, a floor was set at the roof of the nose and a ceiling at the base of the skull. We were then guided to place ourselves sitting in that little room in whatever shape or form that we took. And as we sat in that room we could look out through our eyes to the world, to our thoughts passing by and all outside aspects of life. We then watched as a witness, detached and inside the building of our body, observing life go by as we remained unaffected and remained the same inside.
If we can apply this witnessing attitude to our practice, then ego can be decreased. If we can maintain an element of detachment to our efforts, to the practice and the desired outcome, then ego again decreases. Most of our frustration is the result of the attachment of our identity to our efforts. My student couldn’t do a pose and he spiraled into the depths of frustration thinking that he was getting old, was a looser, bla, bla, bla. I am a teacher and should do a pose and if I can’t then I must be a terrible teacher and bla, bla, bla. We sometimes identify ourselves by our poses just as we identify ourselves by our cars, our jobs, our social status and relationships. This becomes a huge obstacle because it’s not real. We get caught up in the unreal and therefore never have a chance to see what’s true, our Higher Self and Higher Truth. We are liars if we say we’ve transcended the attachment to material objects but still attain a desire to controlling the actions of our body. Our body is just as much an illusion as the material goods. Everything changes through time, except perhaps the Witness inside of ourselves which remains unchanged. Everything can serve as a tool that when used benevolently, bring us to a greater union with ourselves.
Our ego is reduced when we follow the guidelines set in a passage from the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna tells Arjuna,
“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of the work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.” (2:47-48)
If we treat our yoga practice like a map of successes and failures then we are lying. We need to work hard at our practice (again there’s tapas’s discipline element) and then give it up. And we don’t just give up the beautiful poses that we CAN do that everyone else will rave about and shower us with compliments. That’s actually kind of easy. But can we give up our efforts of years of trying to get up into hand stand without actually succeeding, especially when it seems that everyone else can do the pose? We are usually too busy feeling like a failure. And we’ve missed the mark. Simply trying is winning and there’s really nothing to show for any of the blood, sweat and tears in our practice until we have a still and controlled mind. For yoga’s aim is a controlled mind that allows us to see what is real, which is beyond the success/failure of the asana. Like the Witness.
Yoga Poses Are Tools To Clear The Clutter
Most of us want to grow in our yoga practice. And usually if we keep at it we see results. But we have to remember that each day we age a little bit more and at some point, our bodies will probably loose the yoga poses. It’s inevitable, no matter how hard you try. And what if that was the point after all? From what I understand, the poses are simply tools to clear the clutter from our minds and help one sit in meditation and meditation is the tool for spiritual growth. As we get older, we may be wiser and have less clutter in our mind, thus not need so many poses. And we may find it easier to sit still for a longer period of time, thus not need the poses for preparation. Yoga is one-pointed mind; it is a control of the movement in the mind. It is not doing wheel pose or taking a leg behind your head.
As yoga is growing in popularity, as any product, it is becoming more lucrative and competitive. Yoga studios are popping up everywhere, more stores are offering the latest and best yoga products, more teachers are promoting their services and some preaching that their method is the best to practice. Students want to practice more and harder. Even teachers are pushing themselves to be skilled practitioners in order to impress their students, their friends and/or themselves. The desire to improve in our practice, to master something in our life is a wonderful application of tapas’ discipline. Yet as we practice, students and teachers alike, I think we need to keep checking in with ourselves. Am I bringing my ego to the mat? Am I doing my practice for me or for others? If we are practicing in order to get a better body, to be cool or to get on the cover of Yoga Journal, then we may set ourselves up for an unpleasant feeling if for any reason the goal is not achieved. Instead, could we practice to still our minds for a few moments and try to connect with the Witness living within us? Can we combine the discipline of tapas with the benevolence of santosha’s contentment? Could we accept ourselves simply as we are? And no matter what, can we just be in the moment?
Patanjali sums this up in Sutra 1:33, “Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by:
1. cultivating friendliness toward the happy (those who can do the poses I can’t),
2. compassion for the unhappy (those struggling in the posse I can do),
3. delight in the virtuous (those who find this stuff easy and don’t seem to have any problems), and
4. indifference toward the wicked (those who seem to always be loudly frustrated in the struggle.)
As you might begin to see, the ego is a huge subject and a wonderful obstacle. It can be your own humble teacher on your journey to not only see your True Self, but to Accept this Self.
By Jeanne Heileman, Yoga Teacher Trainer