Clinging to the Past (Rāga)

Excessive attachment is based on the assumption that it will contribute to everlasting happiness. (Desikachar 2:7)

You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need. (Jagger/Richards, 1969)

I meet up every few months or so with an ex-lover to catch up on life over a few drinks. Despite our love and affection, as well as physical attraction, the timing of various events in our lives, and our diverging needs and long-term goals resulted in us never settling into a long term, traditional relationship. Over the course of the past five years, I’ve watched as he matured from confused bachelorhood to fiancé, husband, homeowner, and in all likelihood, a father in the next few years.

I was merely happy to see him happy and to have the opportunity to continue our friendship. I listened as our conversations turned to discussions about the struggles that all new marriages encounter. City vs. suburbs. House vs. condo. Kids now or kids later? In-laws. Expectations. Lack of sex. Money issues. Insecurities. I was always happy to provide a sympathetic ear and encouragement. I had long ago put away the idea that our relationship would be romantic, because I knew how important it was to my friend to have a wife, a traditional home and a family – all things that we would never share.

When we flirt, I am reminded of how things once were. When we talk openly about how much and how deeply we care about each other and the deep and lasting impact we’ve had on each other’s lives, it is lovely and intimate, but bittersweet.

Lately, I worry. I wonder if we are slipping into a pattern that can come to no good. I wonder if I will have to let go of our friendship in order to be a real friend to him.

Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for someone else is to let them go.

Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for ourselves is to allow ourselves to let go.


We struggle as we cling to hold onto moments and memories, desperate to relive past events or reignite old feelings. We suffer when we realize that the tighter we grasp, the more we try to make things the way they were – or the way they ought to be – the more happiness leaks out from in between our fingers.

Things cannot be as they once were; they can only be what they will be. This is not a fatalistic view of the world; it’s an accepting and peaceful understanding that allows us to enjoy the present moment and appreciate what we have now. It also doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to want or to desire the people and things we love and enjoy. But the tendency we all share to place great importance on a particular outcome or fulfillment of a particular desire causes us to behave in ways that aren’t helpful, and can be potentially hurtful or abusive.

This is living from a place of fear – fear of change, fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of regret.

There will always be people in our lives that we think upon with both pleasure and regret of what once was; or what never really was, but could have been. There will always be moments that are singular in terms of the love or joy or pure connection that they represent. There may never be another moment or lover or experience exactly like that one, and if we search our entire lives for another that is the same, or try to force current circumstances in an attempt to repeat a moment, we’ll miss out on new, different but completely genuine experiences. Our clinging to the possibility of reliving the past or repeating an old pattern denies our loved ones – and ourselves – of the opportunity to grow as human beings and walk the path we are meant to follow.

Memory (Smṛti)

When a mental modification of an object previously experienced and not forgotten comes back to consciousness, that is memory. (Satchidananda 1:11)


Put Your Records On” by Hryck. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


The most vivid and enduring early memory that I have is of the morning that an ambulance arrived at my home to take away my grandmother. She had been suffering for some time from lung cancer, and finally found herself unable to breathe, even with the assistance of the large oxygen tank stationed next to her bed. That was the last time she slept in her own bed at our home, and I distinctly remember lying in my darkened bedroom (I was not allowed to leave my bedroom as this all took place), watching the shadowy figures across the hallway enter, remove her, and drive away. I remember her gasping for air and repeatedly asking for Jesus to help her while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. I have seen and heard that memory in exactly that way for over thirty years.

Except that it could have been the middle of the night, and not the morning. It could have been that I chose to stay in my bed, rather than to have been told to stay there. I don’t remember anyone else who was present in the house at that time other than her and I, although I am quite certain that other people were there. I don’t remember how long it took for the ambulance to arrive, but in my mind, it seems like it was a very, very long time. I don’t even remember how I felt, whether I was afraid or sad or indifferent, and I don’t remember what happened afterward. Unless it was corroborated by another person who was in attendance, it is possible that the memory could be completely distorted, or even entirely fabricated, a uniquely personal experience that exists only in my mind, made real by years of repetition.

To be clear, the event in question did take place. The point is that memories are exactly what are described in the Sutra above – they are mental modifications of a previous experience. Not the exact experience, but a modification. They are like records (for those of you that remember records!) that in some instances are played over and over until they are warped and the sounds they emit can be very different than the original recording. Depending on the quality of the recording (whether we accurately perceive the experience at the time, or put our own filter on it), the memory might already be very different than what actually happened.

The original and accurate recording is: People get sick and sometimes they die from their illnesses.

But what do we hear? What meanings do our memories take on and how do they alter the perception of current experiences?

People we love get sick and our life changes, often for the worse.

The people we love will always leave us.

Illness is something to be ashamed of and hidden away.

Faith is useless, as a cure or as a comfort.

You get the picture. Our memories can crystallize into absolute beliefs about life and the behaviours of other people, even about ourselves. The truth is that my grandmother didn’t want to leave, didn’t choose to leave, but it was an inevitable outcome of her declining health. Our relationship was much more than one distorted memory of one catastrophic event. It’s difficult to remember all of the other wonderful, loving moments because they are less vivid, or perhaps they’ve just received less airtime.

We should be basing the core beliefs of our lives on the positive memories, however subtle they might be. We should be seeking the truth of all of our experiences, and understanding why we sometimes misinterpret what we see and hear, and why we sometimes tell ourselves unkind untruths after the event.

The people we love get sick, and our life changes because we have an opportunity to exercise loving kindness and compassion.

The people we love will leave us, but they will leave behind the best of themselves, and make us better people for having known them.

Illness is inevitable, it is something we will all experience in some form or another, and is nothing to be ashamed of.

Faith is sometimes all we have – faith in ourselves, in each other and in the Divine spirit we all share.

The (Not So) Hidden Message (Nidrā)

Inquiry into dreams and sleep and our experiences during or around these states can help to clarify some of our problems. (Desikachar 1:38)


"Message in a Bottle" by Infomastern is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Message in a Bottle” by Infomastern is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


If you’re like me, you know far too many people who have sleep issues. You may be suffering from sleep issues yourself. They may be temporary or chronic, brought on by stress, weather fluctuations or a change in your living environment.

We may be unable to sleep, or we might be using sleep as place to hide, seeking relief from feelings or issues we can’t handle. We might have restless sleep, or we might be unconsciously taking out our stress on our bodies, by grinding our teeth or contorting our limbs, waking up stiff and sore. These are physical reminders of our encounters with shadows that we cannot recall upon waking.

It seems that healthy sleep habits are hard to come by in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, the 80 hour work week, and the mobile device that we often leave near our beds, sometimes with ringers still engaged. We leave the TV or the radio on, perhaps as some kind of distracting noise that will block out the thoughts that arise upon closing our eyes.

But eventually, sleep comes, and with it, the strange messages our bodies and minds compel us to acknowledge. We see people we recognize, but they often don’t behave in expected ways. We encounter shifting landscapes, some of which are familiar, others not, which might represent actual places, but could also represent metaphorical or psychological places.

I rarely remember my dreams in the daylight, but I do recall a vivid dream I had about two years ago. Our group at the ashram had been asked to write down our dreams and share and discuss them, and I was a little embarrassed to recount a dream where I had acted in a less-than-charitable manner toward others, in a way that I wouldn’t in real life.

In the dream, an unknown younger woman was getting into a car with some people I recognized as work colleagues, and I recalled that I grabbed her and pulled her out of the car quite violently, telling her that she would not be going with them. It was the violence and the anger that I felt as I was physically removing this other woman (someone who was clearly younger and less experienced than I), that shocked me the most. My initial interpretation of the dream was that I was jealous of this young woman; it wasn’t until after the discussion with the group that I considered the possibility that I was trying to save her.

What are your dreams trying to tell you about your waking life? Maybe you should pay attention.

The Power of Imagination (Vikalpa)

Fantasy or imagination is a thought pattern that has verbal expression and knowledge, but for which there is no such object or reality in existence. (Bharati 1:9)


Why not stop and paint the flowers? "Flower Painter" by howardignatius is licensed under  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Why not stop and paint the flowers? “Flower Painter” by howardignatius is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


A powerful imagination is a wonderful thing to possess…until it’s not.

Used wisely it can produce a masterpiece – perhaps a feast of colour for the eyes or breathtaking prose. It can stop your heart, or start it, make you tremble, unsettle your stomach or make you weep with joy or pain. It can forever alter your perception of the world you thought you knew, or draw you into a comforting embrace. It can produce unspeakably beautiful or ugly things, make you laugh or make you angry.

Looking back, it’s probably fair to say that I was a pretty imaginative kid. I remember pecking out story after story on an old typewriter dug out from the bowels of a closet. No one had to force me to sit at the piano and play. I remember making up dances and silly plays on a regular basis and begging to perform them for guests, who when I was allowed to indulge my desire, were gracious and kind in their reviews. Anyone who knows me now probably couldn’t imagine me as an interpretive dancer, but it is true!

Somewhere along the way, many of us are told that we aren’t artists. Or that if we want to be an artist, we’ll never be able to make a living at it, and it’s a ridiculous thing to study or pursue if we want to have a “real” life.

“Real”: productive, successful, lucrative, normal.

We’re told we’re not good enough to make art. Or that we aren’t good enough at a certain kind of art. My sister received a degree in visual arts at university, and so she was the “visual artist” in our family (which, of course, she never pursued as a career). I was the “musician”, but it was never encouraged as a realistic life-long pursuit.

We start off believing that we can produce anything our imagination can conceive. Let’s write a play! Let’s write a book! Let’s draw animals! We are completely unafraid of judgment or criticism. It’s all just play. But eventually, we become afraid of what other people will think, and it’s largely because of the experiences we collect over time, of being told that we cannot do something. It may be true that we might not draw very well, but it might also be true that we do draw well, but we’ve been told that we shouldn’t, and eventually that “shouldn’t” becomes a “can’t”.

How many times have you said that you can’t draw or paint or write? Or perhaps you’re a person who believes that you are tone deaf? I recently read a book written by a man who learned to play the cello during his forties, and he wrote that it’s been proven that just about every person who is “tone deaf” can be taught to identify and sing notes correctly. But if both a student and a teacher believe in the concept of “tone deafness”, this process will never work.

The ashram I visited a few years ago (and more recently, since writing this piece) places a heavy emphasis on the arts, as they are of a Saraswati lineage. One of the sessions the visitors in my group were asked to participate in required us to draw pictures with crayons on large sheets of paper. At first, I felt anxious. “I can’t draw,” I thought, “so this is going to be a challenge”. Some of the other participants were in tears, angry even, at the thought of showing their drawings to other people. But as the session went on, I felt more and more energized and excited by the idea of drawing and using colour to express myself on paper. I never expected to have such a response, and since that time, I’ve been interested deeply in these artistic, imaginative aspects of myself that have been left dormant for a very long time.  I may never technically be a great “artist” or even a mediocre artist – but it allowed be to reconnect with that playful and creative side of my nature, and to channel it positively into an outlet that makes me feel more balanced and settled.

So what is the point of this rambling about lost art? It is this: A person with a powerful imagination who is denied the opportunity to pursue it in a positive way, like art, will channel that imagination into negative pursuits. I’m not talking about criminal behaviour (although I suppose that is one avenue for creative energy), I’m talking about self-delusion (this is about yoga, after all). The powerful imagination that can create a story for others to read and enjoy can also create internal stories about the world, stories that may have no basis in reality. If we stifle opportunities to let our imaginative minds play, they’ll find other things to do – things that might not be what we expect, or worse, things of which we aren’t even aware.

The Poisonous Fog (Viparyaya)

Incorrect knowledge or illusion is false knowledge formed by perceiving a thing as being other than what it really is. (Bharati 1:8)


"Sun through the fog" by regexman is licensed under CC by 2.0.

Sun through the fog” by regexman is licensed under CC by 2.0.


As I mentioned in a previous post, when we fail to question the validity of a belief, in particular, a belief based on incorrect knowledge, it can expand and begin to taint our perception of other situations in our lives. If in life, we consistently view ourselves as victims – even as a victim that is always able to overcome adversity – we mentally prepare ourselves to see every situation we encounter as an opportunity for conflict or disappointment, and every person we meet as someone who can potentially abandon or wound us in some way. I remember admitting to a close friend that I often considered how I should behave or express myself during close interpersonal encounters, given that it could be the last time I spend with that person. I should have expected his shock at that very intimate, and what he saw as a kind of “tragic” belief, but for me it seemed like completely normal behaviour. Looking back on that conversation, I can now see how it was an incorrect view of the world that I had formed based completely on false knowledge gathered from very early experiences in my life. The belief was a coping mechanism that was developed early to protect me, but one that served no purpose in present situations. I was no longer under the stress that caused that belief to arise, and yet I was still operating and responding in the same fashion. No wonder my friend was so confused by my behaviour!

Fighting shadows is exhausting, and serves no purpose. The shadows are the ripple effects of unexamined traumatic incidents that will continue to stalk us until we ask the question: Is this really true? Tara Brach calls it the “invisible poisonous gas” that we breathe every day. Unless we find a way to stop the process, it gradually weakens us and distorts our perception so thoroughly that we don’t have any lucid moments where we aren’t looking through the filter of our beliefs.

Learning to stop and question ourselves gently, and with self-compassion, is critical to finding out what is true. It’s not necessarily wrong to hold these incorrect beliefs if that is what is required to survive on a short term basis. But to go beyond pure survival, and become fully functioning human beings, with loving relationships and lives filled with purpose, we must question whether these beliefs still serve a purpose or are in fact holding us back in critical areas. All it takes is one moment to ask the question: Is this really true? Then ask the next question: If not, what is really true? Are we falling into a pattern of an old belief, or are we accurately assessing what is in front of us? Are we too attached to believing that an event or a person must be or act in a certain way? Are we really listening to what the other person is saying, or are we lost in our own thoughts and drawing our own conclusions based on past experience?

This type of behaviour causes unnecessary suffering, but suffering can be avoided. I began to notice that when I practiced yoga, when I meditated, when I engaged in my art, whether it was writing or sculpture, or in something else that settled my mind, I was better able to see through the incorrect beliefs that my mind wanted to throw out to explain the situations I was encountering in my daily life. When I fell out of practice, ironically during the most stressful or busy times, my mind was less clear, and the negative “coping” beliefs would begin to cloud my judgment. I suspect this is what happens to many people. It takes dedication and commitment to strengthen practice to replace the negative coping beliefs with positive ones, and to learn that practice is essential during times of emotional stress to promote the clear thinking that is necessary not just to survive, but to thrive.

The Truth is in the Eye of the Beholder (Pramāṇa)

The characteristics of an object appear differently, depending upon the different mental states of the observer. (Desikachar 4:15)

Real, but not true.

I mentioned this phrase in a previous post. So often we believe things that are not true, but which to us feel very real. We do so not on the basis of what we know firsthand to be correct, but on the basis of information we are given by others. This outside “knowledge” of what is “true” can become so embedded that it can change our mental state and distort our own perceptions of a situation. Thus, we can feel something as very real, even if it is very far from the actual truth. If a child is told consistently that she is smart, stupid, pretty, ugly, sporty, awkward, she will ultimately believe any of those things about herself – possibly for the rest of her life – unless there is some other kind of intervening element that confronts the embedded belief. A traumatic event can demonstrate a distorted absolute “truth” about the world (bad things will happen at any moment; people will abandon you at any time) which can then be adopted and used a lens through which the world is viewed.

It might sound odd, but I grew up believing quite honestly that I did not have any friends. When I was a child, an older person in my life bluntly told me that anyone that appeared to be my friend was only pretending to do so, either out of pity or perhaps as some sort of elaborately constructed practical joke. That premise sounds ridiculous as I sit here, at 40 years old, typing it out on my computer, and yet there is still an element of it that knots my stomach. I believed it then, completely – what small child wouldn’t believe the words of an older, wiser person – and in my worst, most stress-filled moments, I still believe it today. It becomes a “go-to” or default belief that is triggered by certain events (entering a room of people; dealing with personal disagreements; social disappointments).

The point of revealing that very personal belief isn’t to elicit sympathy in the reader (if there are any!). The point is that at any moment in our lives, when that voice speaks, telling us absolute beliefs about ourselves or our relationships or any other situation in our lives, we need to question its validity. We need to question if the voice belongs to us or someone else. If we don’t question its validity, it gets stronger and spreads into other areas when we least expect it. It begins to manifest itself and become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, as though it is a living thing, seeking out evidence of its own existence. There is a reason these beliefs are called “personal demons”.

When the voice speaks, ask it one simple, but powerful, question: “Is this really true?” The person who told me the “truth” about myself, was in fact describing her own belief about the world and about herself.

I’d like to end this post by saying that the truth will set you free (cliché-alert!), but the reality is that this is part of practice. I was elated the first time I realized the source of my belief, and was able to question it and label it as untrue – I was cured! About a month later, it appeared again, and I was utterly frustrated, until I learned that this is an ongoing practice, not a one-time epiphany. The voice never really goes away, but it becomes easier to recognize it, understand it for what it is (“ah, it’s you!), and watch it fade away, like a ghost.

Constantly Spinning (Vṛtti-s)

Each [activity of the mind] can be beneficial and each can cause problems. (Desikachar 1:5)


A busy place, indeed. "Toronto Yonge-Dundas Square" szeke is licensed under CC by 2.0

A busy place, indeed. “Toronto Yonge-Dundas Square” by szeke is licensed under CC by 2.0


Toronto is a big, active, noisy city. It is constantly changing, evidenced by the number of cranes visible in the sky, and the number of streets under construction. On any given weekend, a multitude of options exist to entertain its guests and inhabitants.

Toronto is a lot like my heart-mind; it is part of who I am, and there is a lot of activity, all of the time. Most of the time, I love being here, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I enjoy the opportunity for sensory and intellectual stimulation, and I find it energizing and inspiring. When I think about living anywhere else, I question whether I would become bored with my surroundings, or feel isolated from other people. In Toronto, I can almost instantaneously find a distraction to occupy my mind.

However, it can sometimes be too much to digest. There are days when I walk down the same downtown streets of my neighbourhood that I may have loved previously and find them dirty and crowded. The air is full of the smells of last night’s hot dog vendor, and the unfortunate gift left behind by one of his inebriated customers. The sounds of truck engines and heavy construction equipment; blaring music from a car radio; a wailing siren; a streetcar squealing as it turns a corner; horns honking at cars blocking an intersection. The sounds of my neighbourhood never stop, and I’ve become so used to them that I always wake up at 3:00 a.m., whether noisy club kids from the 905 are stumbling past my building or not.

Thought and activity are necessary parts of life; there is no amount of mediation or practice that will turn them off completely, and anyone who claims to have done so must be delusional (or perhaps fully enlightened? Nah, probably not.). But the goal of practice shouldn’t be to shut out every external stimulus and cease all worldly activity completely. That would be impractical and impossible, not to mention unhealthy. Of course, thoughts and activities of the heart-mind can be beneficial and essential. But when thoughts become obsessive; when we crave or identify ourselves with material objects or people or certain activities, we often end up unhappy and worse yet, not always understanding why we are unhappy. Why should someone who has access to practically everything be unhappy?

I have a friend who often tells me how bored he is with Toronto. He says there is nothing new to be experienced, he has done and seen everything there is to do. He travels farther and farther away from home for longer periods of time not because he is curious, but because he seems never to be satisfied with where he is and what he has. There is always a new gadget, a new car, a new lover, a new drug. Sometimes I am afraid that I will end up like him, that I will become overstimulated and indifferent. My somewhat naïve approach to life might occasionally make me feel awkward, but I would be afraid to completely lose my appreciation for the simple things.

What is truly important in life, and what is just distraction? Do we seek distraction to avoid looking at the important things, out of fear of disappointment or pain? Do we cling to images of ourselves (or others) instead of removing the mask and seeing who is underneath?

I observe the city and all it has to offer – the beautiful and the ugly – and I say that while I contribute to its existence as one small cell of an amazing, living, growing, shifting organism, that it does not define my existence. My “home” is within, and the more I come to know and appreciate myself, I can learn to truly enjoy everything that Toronto and world has to offer without relying on it as a distraction.

Who are you, really? (Saṁyoga)

Pain is caused by false identification of the experiencer with the object of experience. (Prahabavananda/Isherwood 2.17)

How many of us identify ourselves through our life’s work? Or through our relationships (or lack of relationships) with others? Or by other attributes?

I am a lawyer/musician/stay-at-home parent.

I am single/married/divorced.

I am beautiful/ugly/old/young/rich/poor.

I am a Liberal/Conservative/NDP.

I think you get the picture.

No doubt, these can be helpful descriptive terms when operating in the real world. It would be difficult to introduce yourself on a first date as “the pure inner light of awareness.” It also might end up being your last date.

But when we tie ourselves to these terms, whether they are positive or negative, or even neutral, we experience suffering. A very astute friend of mine once said that he felt as though he was holding an outdated (or perhaps incorrect) image of himself in his mind, and that this identification of himself with these beliefs was resulting in behaviour that no longer made sense to him. He was holding himself to a standard of behaviour that he no longer believed was important, ultimately leaving him feeling confused and conflicted. Once he realized this, he was able to reflect upon and began to work to resolve his inner conflict. His actions better aligned with his true beliefs, with who he really was.

We often hear stories about individuals who pour themselves wholeheartedly into their professional lives, but upon retirement (if they ever retire), have no other outlet for their time or energy. Similar stories emerge about stay-at-home parents whose children are grown. Too much identification of oneself with anything can be a life-limiting habit.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade wishing that I could find a (paid!) career that would ignite my passion and become the focus of my life. I’ve been deeply jealous of others who live and breathe their life’s work, whatever that might be. But I’m starting to slowly realize that my efforts and anxiety in this area may have been misguided. Why?

Because my attachment to the type of work I do, and the related anxiety and obsessiveness in attempting to steer my efforts, is false. I am not my career. I am not my friends. I am not my romantic relationships, or my home, or anything really, other than myself. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, and one that I struggle with daily, but the truth is that one’s essence isn’t defined by what’s “out there”. The way I conceive of it is like this: What if all of those things changed or disappeared? It’s quite conceivable that one could lose a job, a loved one, a home, or all of those things at once.  What would remain? What is permanent? If we’re so attached to things that are guaranteed to change, is it any wonder that we barely understand ourselves? Or that we sometimes feel as though we’re adrift, or subject to the throes of every wave in the ocean?

I was asked recently to draw a picture of my essence. The picture I drew was of a large and expanding plant with red and orange flowers – a symbol, in my mind, of vibrancy and growth. If I know myself, and if I am willing to accept that everything else in my life undoubtedly will change, and if I can be patient as the big picture reveals itself, suffering diminishes. My career will re-define itself over time; the essence of myself that I bring to whatever emerges is the constant factor.

Suffering’s Doorway (Duḥkha)

The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided. (Iyengar 2:16)

Maybe it is true that we cannot know ourselves well until we have experienced suffering. Suffering tests our limits of compassion and patience for ourselves and for others. Until we understand what causes suffering, and discover ways to eliminate these causes, our suffering will continue, repeating its painful sequence over and over throughout the course of a lifetime.

A close friend and I used to joke quite frequently that we didn’t require therapy because we don’t need anyone to tell us what our problems are – we already know about all of our problems. Then we’d laugh and clink glasses. Until the next time we required friendly “therapy”.

And then one day, a lover who was very close to my heart wrote me a message explaining to me that he didn’t think he could continue with our relationship because he never knew which version of me would appear: the calm, confident version of me, or the version that was suffering. He felt responsible and helpless to respond to the victimized version of me. His words shocked me, and yet, they were terribly familiar, because they reflected a pattern of suffering in my life that had grown so ingrained, it was rooted into almost every aspect of my daily existence, my work, and my relationships. I felt totally powerless and realized that because I had been ignoring the difficult task of examining the source of my suffering (and the associated behaviour), I had no tools at my disposal for digging into this massive, intertwining, parasitic knot clinging to the core of my existence.

So much for thinking I could do it on my own.

I won’t lie to you, using suffering as an opportunity to examine your own life is difficult and messy and painful. But the patterned responses we’ve developed to cope with suffering, like a dirty band-aid clinging to your blistered heel, they won’t fix the problem until we re-learn how to walk in a balanced way that doesn’t create so much injurious pressure. Insanity truly is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.

Luckily, I found the right therapist at the right time who has been able to assist me in sorting through the true sources of my own suffering. They’re the same things that cause everyone’s suffering, and the same things that Patanjali identified (surprise!) thousands of years ago: forgetting or ignoring the true nature of things; past experiences clouding our judgment and tainting the present experience, even if it is completely different; irrational clinging or aversion to particular people, events or objects.

There is a wonderful teacher who I adore named Tara Brach who often uses the phase (as do others): Real, but not True. Unless we use suffering as an opportunity to examine its causes, we risk bringing that suffering back to the table in everything we do, every circumstance, every relationship. It could grow larger and stronger, until it feels like it is wrapping itself around every part of our lives.

The solution?

Practice. (Of course!). Practice that invites the self-inquiry necessary to break a habitual pattern. Like most parasitic plants and creatures, suffering tends to dissolve when it is brought into the light.


Note 1: I needed a guide to help me learn how to do this, a compassionate, competent person who is experienced in providing counsel and teaching the skills necessary to do this in a safe environment. There’s no shame in seeking professional help in the same way that one would engage a doctor, lawyer or plumber (very apt) in getting to the root of the issue.

Note 2: Tara Brach is an amazing teacher, speaker and human being. She is based in D.C., but she makes her weekly dharma talks available online at Youtube.

Note 3:  For the three people out there who read this blog, I’ll be taking a bit of a break from posting over the next two weeks – because I’m visiting Yasodhara Ashram in B.C.! I’m very excited to be going back, and looking forward to having more time to reflect on the concepts I’m just starting to explore with this project.

Space to change (Pariṇāma)

Study of the silent moments between rising and restraining subliminal impressions is the transformation of consciousness towards restraint. (Iyengar 3:9)

True transformation requires a safe space.

True transformation requires a safe space. “Chrysalids” by Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Stephen Cope wrote a book based on his own personal transformation from a city-dwelling psychotherapist into an ashram-dwelling yogi, teacher and author, and founder of the Institute for Extraordinary Living*. He described how necessary it is to find a safe place to allow a personal transformation to occur – a “transformational space”.  This could be an ashram or another type of spiritual community, or a non-spiritual place such as a university.

Of course, transformation can place outside of these types of environments, but having such a space would allow for those necessary moments of reflection and observation, possibly with the assistance of a mentor.  Transformation without such reflection could lead to a much different result than one intended.  Haven’t we all experienced the sensation of jumping blindly out of a frying pan directly into the flame?

I have a long history of initiating transformational changes in my life – life-altering changes in education, career, relationships. I can also be extremely impatient when it comes to making change, wanting to move quickly once a decision has been made.  I have become less impulsive over the years, but there is still a voice in my head that cries out whenever discomfort with the current situation occurs – “Get out now, while you still can!” I have jumped out of the window more than once without knowing if there is anything below to break my fall, and I’ve tasted the pavement on a few occasions.  Sometimes I am left bruised and battered, and sometimes I have regretted losing what I’ve left behind.

Although I’ve become a more deliberate person, I’ve rarely used a transformational space to just stop for a moment and consider carefully where I’ve been, where I would like to be, and what changes are really necessary in order to transform.  It doesn’t help that for most of my life, I’ve been unable to quiet my mind enough to understand fully what I need, and have always been looking for the next great thing, the next achievement, the next stimulating event or person. I’ve been operating largely under the pretext that the secret to a successful and fulfilling life is to cram as much of everything into it as possible.

Initially, I thought the translation of pariṇāma as “transformation” meant change on a dramatically perceptible level – as Billy Joel said, closed the shop, sold the house, bought a ticket to the west coast.  So, when I read one interpretation of the concept as “the transformation of consciousness towards restraint”, I was intrigued. What does this mean?

For me, I think it means stepping back and determining the source of my discomfort with a situation before immediately attempting to change it, which I have historically done in a dramatic, swift and permanent fashion. Does the discomfort arise because of my own past experiences and the way they impact my perception of the situation? If the facts of the situation viewed on its own terms still raises a need for change, what is really required? The transformation isn’t the external change in career or location or partner; the transformation is the subtle but profound change in the inner dialogue that occurs to assess the situation and to act intentionally and compassionately.


*Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, (2000), Bantam Books.

Also, check out this blog post by Bob Weisenberg at the Elephant Journal about how Cope’s books have had a profound impact on his life. I felt exactly the same way.