Insights into the teachings of yoga’s ancient wisdom texts and their relevance to life in the modern world.
One of life’s great challenges, when you’re 8-years old, is to keep yourself entertained when you’re the only child at an adult party. Such was the challenge for Anton, the young son of a couple we know who brought him along for a social gathering at our home a few years ago.
Anton amused himself for most of the evening by hiding under our bed and making spooky ghost noises whenever someone walked in to drop off a coat or get something from their handbag. Eventually, curiosity about what the grown-ups were up to took precedence over haunting the bedroom and Anton ventured out to the living room.
I had just taken some vegetables, a cutting board, and a short sharp knife out to the table to prep some supplemental munchies when Anton appeared. He looked at the table, looked at the knife, picked up the knife, looked at the knife, looked at me, and, with all the seriousness an 8-year old can summon, said;
“Do you want to see me face my fears?”
My mind silently voiced a predictably emphatic reaction: “No, I most certainly do NOT want to see you face your fears: put the knife down!”
My intelligence sent a more nuanced reply to my mouth: “Perhaps another time, Anton. Right now I have to slice these vegetables. May I please have that knife?”
Anton complied and headed back in the direction of the bedroom.
The one fear we all share
I actually envied Anton; he was still young enough to experience the world as a place of wonder and just old enough to have a glimmer of awareness about his own mortality. And his willingness to face his fears gave him one up on a lot of adults; individually and collectively we avoid facing our fears as much as possible. If nothing else, social life invites us to participate in a sophisticated complicity of diversion from the one fear we all share: the fear of death.
All fears resolve into the fear of death, whether it’s fear of public speaking, fear of heights, fear of unemployment, fear of sharp objects, or fear of children holding sharp objects, it is fear of death that lies at the foundation of all fears.
We fear death because we think that what happens to our bodies happens to us, because we don’t want to loose all the things we have in this life, because we don’t want to be separated from the people we love, and because death is painful and we don’t want to experience pain.
In other words, we fear death due to attachments and aversions. Attachments, aversions, and fear of death are three of the five obstacles to yoga Patanjali catalogs in his Yoga-sutras.
The others are ignorance – forgetfulness of one’s true nature – and egoism – identifying with an illusory nature. The illusory nature we identify with is expressed through a set of temporary material senses that are designed to like some things and dislike others. What we dislike the most is when our senses break down to the point of being unable to support our ability to experience anything through them. We call this ultimate breakdown of the senses ‘death’.
Yoga is the process of becoming fearless
Our true nature, which we have forgotten, is to be eternal. Yoga is the process of remembering our true nature. Hence, the process of yoga is the process of becoming deathless and therefore becoming fearless. The first lesson of yoga is that we are neither these temporary bodies that we inhabit nor are we our minds that are filled with so many attachments and aversions; we are eternal spiritual beings with an eternal relationship to one Supreme Being and, through that One Supreme Being, to all other beings.
The Upanishads – ancient books that describe the philosophical conclusions of yogic knowledge – expand on this idea:
“Among all the innumerable and eternal conscious beings there is one eternal conscious being who provides shelter for all the others.”
And in one of the concluding verses of the Bhagavad-gita – a succinct commentary on the essence of the Upanishads – Krishna instructs his friend and disciple Arjuna to “Relinquish all varieties of illusory obligations and just take shelter of Me.”
The essential adverse reaction to our actions is continuing in samsara, the cycle of birth and death. Karma actually means actions that produce more births and, along with them, more deaths for the living being. The process of yoga is the process of getting off the life-and-death merry-go-round.
A death-defying discipline
What makes our yoga practice a death-defying discipline rather than just another diversionary tactic is the quality of our consciousness when we practice: when we connect our breath, movements, and poses to specific thoughts and emotions then we can immediately elevate our practice to the level of yoga.
For example, by thinking of each inhale as an expression of gratitude for the life force that flows into our bodies and each exhale an offering of that life force back to its source, we can cultivate a consciousness of our connection to the Supreme Consciousness.
In yoga, the consciousness we act in is more important than the actions themselves. Offering our practice in a mood of gratitude and surrender triggers the transformational aspect of yoga that propels us back to our true nature, beyond the cycle of birth and death, and beyond the reach of fear.
How do you face your fears?
What works for you? How does your yoga practice help you to face the one fear we all share? Leave your thoughts and insights in the comments below.