From Russia With Love

My first opportunity to learn a second language came when I was in Junior High School, what we now call Middle School. Back then, Latin, Spanish, French, and German were the standard choices and perhaps they still are. By the will of providence, my school district offered the rare opportunity to take Russian. I have both a penchant for novelty and a tendency to make my life more difficult than it needs to be so choosing Russian was the obvious choice.

In addition to Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and our 45th President, Russia has also given us Leo Tolstoy. In his later life, Tolstoy became both a spiritual ascetic and a political activist bent on putting an end to politics. Basing his position on the premise that the evil of violent force was the foundation of every nation’s existence, Tolstoy considered the existence of government in any form to be inimical to any prospects for personal and social happiness.

Obviously, yoga is antithetical to violence since non-violence is its first ethical imperative. But yoga also shares something of Tolstoy’s anarchistic philosophy insofar as the idea of nationalism is concerned. Yoga rejects nationalism, regarding it as one component of our illusory misidentification of the body as the self.

You can’t step into the same river twice

Because I was born in America I may think that I’m an American. As such, I may further subscribe to the notion that America is an exceptional nation with a specific culture that’s connected to a particular ethnicity, which is my ethnicity and not somebody else’s, that America has a reason for being that’s connected to a particular conception of religion, etc.

Yoga thinks that this is all bunk. The technical term is ‘upadi’, temporary material designations that have nothing to do with the eternal identity of the individual consciousness that inhabits one body today and will inhabit another body tomorrow.

Just as we can’t step into the same river twice, we can’t breath into the same body twice. By the time we finish a cycle of breath our bodies have changed; cells that were here a minute ago are gone and new cells that weren’t here a minute ago have appeared. At every moment our bodies are changing, our minds are changing, our intelligence is fluctuating, and our personalities are developing. However, we, who witness all of these changes, remain unchanged, constant as the Northern Star.

The great curse of youth

To experience our selves as an immeasurable quanta of pure eternal consciousness rather than as a temporary complex of biological machinery is the ultimate goal of yoga. In his yoga-sutras, Patanjali tells us that one arrives at this perfection of yoga only when our practice is steady and sustained over a long period of time. Steadiness in practice requires determination and patience.

Impatience is the great curse of youth. In my experience, one of the great ironies of getting older has been that as the time I have left in this world decreases my level of patience increases. Perhaps I’ve simply grown accustomed to the fact that things take time. It’s an interesting mix: a sense of urgency about completing the mission of my human life on the one hand and relative equanimity about the crazy state of the world on the other. Somehow it adds up to a kind of peaceful perseverance in both my spiritual practice and my social activity.

Yogis are spiritual warriors by nature: on a spiritual level we fight the forces of illusion, on a material level we fight the forces of injustice. Our aim is to harmonize our eternal nature with our temporary situation so that our actions serve to elevate consciousness, our own and everyone else’s.

It’s helpful, of course, to have powerful allies in our fight against illusion and injustice. Which brings us back to Tolstoy, who said,

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”

Patience is the recognition that time is the all-consuming destroyer of all. And time will destroy our illusions if we see time as a relentless ally on whose currents we can flow toward our true and eternal selves.

The way of the world

The way of the spiritual warrior is to understand time as a manifestation of divine energy, to practice patience, and to patiently practice. The key to having a patient practice is consciously cultivating our love for all beings, even those we think of as our enemies.

Like all political upheavals, the current brouhaha about Trump and Russia will come to a head and then fade into the oblivion of history. The dark days will be followed by brighter days, only to be followed by darker days again. Such is the way of the world.

However bright or dark our days may be, making a conscious effort to act from a position of love, even when we’re not feeling it, is part of a spiritual practice. This is because a spiritual warrior knows that, ultimately, love conquers all, even unconquerable time. Or, as Tolstoy put it,

“Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.”

And there you have it: from Russia, with love. Dosvedanya.

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Feel free to offer an opinion

How do you feel about patience and time? What are your thoughts on nationalism and government and how they relate to spiritual life and our prospects for happiness? Please contribute to the conversation by leaving a question, comment or a suggestion about how we can act from a position of love, even during our darkest hours.