Modern Yoga has been growing at a phenomenal rate over the last few years. I still am amazed by how much the industry has expanded since I started teaching in 2005. With this growth there are more and more of us practitioners who have been doing yoga for a long time. We have moved through the phase of simple asana. We have tried being vegetarian, vegan, raw vegan, giving up coffee, going back on coffee, meditating, stopping meditating and feeling guilty about it, tried Reiki, massage, not to mention vows of poverty, chastity, and six trips to India. And you know what I see? For the most part, we are still confused.
And we are still avoiding the necessary compassion that will free us. All the "things" of yoga can conspire to help us avoid the compassion we so desperately need.
But why would we avoid compassion? Compassion is one of our spiritual watchwords isn't it? Aren't we accruing heap tons of compassion just by going to yoga class and speaking spiritually? Don't we just get compassion for doing all this stuff?
No, no we don't. The journey to compassion is deep, it is long, and it requires getting to the point where we realize that all the other stuff that we have been doing in terms of poses, diets, bandhas, and sutras has only brought us so far. If we are really honest with ourselves we will see that deep inside we are still not satisfied. We are still searching for something. This truth can be very difficult to realize, so much so that we subconsciously try to avoid it in any way we can. If you can truly be brought to your knees by telling this truth, then the road to compassion can begin.
The Tibetan Buddhist leader Chogyam Trungpa wrote a whole book called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism addressing this same subject. Spiritual materialism, as I see it, is using anything from teachings, to objects, to actions, to even thoughts to hold us out of the uncomfortable places we must visit on the road to compassion. It's the uncomfortable places that burn away the layers of our own delusions. It's the hard places where we begin to honestly, ruthlessly, and ultimately compassionately look at ourselves. I will illustrate what I have learned so far on this road in the paragraphs to follow. I also make no claims to be some sort of master at this stuff. I only speak what I have learned so far.
I have been doing some kind of spiritual practice for almost 20 years but only in the last 3 years have I begun to crack the surface of what that actually means. When I began this deeper work I really hated it. I hated that I could not hide anymore behind my "spiritual talk", or my smile, or my practice, or my relationships. I hated that there wasn't enough money, or sex, or travel, or meditating, or yoga, or approval that would remove the painful spaces I was trying so hard to evade. I began to see myself with greater clarity and more holistically. I could see that in addition to being loving, sweet, caring, and kind I could be ruthless, cold, and manipulative. I began to see that in addition to being a good hearted man, I had the capacity to use people and that I had used them, to disregard my own feelings and the feelings of others, and to be narcissistically preoccupied with my life and myself. I began to see that I could use spiritual teachings and New Age doublespeak to reinforce my feelings of victimhood so I didn't have to take real responsibility for my decisions. I have to say; it really sucked. But after the sucking part, it felt like an enormous relief. Now at least I didn't have to hide and more importantly I knew what I was doing. I could see more clearly. And with that realization I came to a proverbial fork in the road: I could hate myself or I could find some compassion for myself.
To be honest, hating myself actually felt more comfortable and seemed easier at first. You know why? Because when we hate ourselves we can still evade real responsibility. If we hate what we see, it doesn't really have to change. We can say, "I can be such a jerk, I hate when I do that" and still stop short of making a different choice. We become preoccupied with our self-hatred as a way of still holding ourselves out of the place we need to be. After all if we hate ourselves, then no one can really hold us accountable right? We're already punishing ourselves already so we never really have to change nor do we ever truly need to be vulnerable.
In compassion however, we accept real responsibility for what we find, what we do, and what we see. We realize we are simple, flawed, and tender human beings and that's ok. When we have compassion for ourselves, we can see why we behave in hurtful ways. We can see the motivations, the pain, the suffering in our past that has caused us to believe that we needed to act in these hurtful ways in the first place. Then we can accept total responsibility for our choices. Responsibility says "I will not continue to evade myself by lying to myself or hiding from my choices. I will look at myself honestly and openly neither blaming nor absolving myself. I will see the truth for what it is." And with that compassion helps us to stop the cycle of suffering, and that my friends is the most compassionate thing we can do.
In compassion we see the heart of our own tenderness and vulnerability and begin to see it in everyone else. Compassion exposes our hearts and lays us bare. We sit naked before the truth and embrace it. We tell the truth to ourselves and we hold our pain like a small, frightened child and comfort it. We begin to clean and dress our wounds so that they can heal. Self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others then comes naturally. And most importantly, we don't careen mindlessly through life causing more pain for others and ourselves.
It's such a beautiful thing to realize that everything you were running from for your whole life was chasing you down not to annihilate you, but to set you free! What looked like monsters chasing you were really your saviors holding the keys to your shackles yelling, "Hey stop! We've got the keys!!"
When you're ready get really real, lay yourself out there and see clearly. Look for true teachers to take you on the journey, look for teachers who understand and have been through this process. A teacher will act as a guide to let you know when you are on and off track. But above all, trust your gut. And what the hell, do all of the material ideas from yoga as much as you want there's nothing wrong with them. Just remember they are the tip of the tip of the iceberg. If you're going to do this journey, do it all the way, you are worth nothing less.