“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”Albert Einstein
I started writing this post back in April about a week after my Yoga Course in India. I decided not to run off like a bull at a gate and travel straight away as per my tendency, as I wanted some time for reflection on the previous month of learning, so stayed up the road in Bagsu, McLeod Ganj, home of the Dali Lama and the Tibetan exile community in India. Then and now, every day I feel like I am growing more and realising more about myself and why I act and think and feel the way I do. I spent many of my days there hiking in the inviting calmness of the hills. A few of them were with a new friend whose view of the world I have great respect for and I enjoyed our philosophical debates mainly about attachment and illusion, a lot. It’s amazing what you can learn from other cultures and other ways of thinking. Walking and hiking of any type or length, always gives my mind space to file and organise, bringing further insight into the world we live in and my place in it.
Self-restraint and control is an interesting concept to observe within oneself, and observing the inner conversation that happens. It’s fulfilling to identify when you successful abstain from something small be it buying something unnecessary, or not having dessert. But is it fulfilling to restrain from all desires as per the Niyama Santosha (Contentment) or from forming attachments to things and people as per the Yama Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)?
The desires of the body attempt to control every element of our lives, from how productive we are to how we form relationships. In both these situations, the desires can come from aspirations, drive, ease, convenience, circumstance, distraction, confusion, compromise and most of the time all decisions and desires come with conditions attached. Eventually, when these conditions or expectations are never met, the dream, the job, the hobby, the relationship, ends. These expectations are the predefined result that we want, which creates attachment to the outcome of our desires. It is this which makes having desires so difficult. Wouldn’t life be easier if you never wanted anything (as a true yogi should) apart from basic needs… Seems impossible in today’s society…
The disposable nature of western society: money, relationships, convenience, possessions, hobbies, is incredible! And incredible in a bad way, like the amount of plastic that is in our oceans, incredible! So to be able to take pause and identify your true reason for doing anything and to counter it with what you actually want is a skill I am trying to train. I’ve started small by replacing hollow lazy desires with things I should do for the betterment of me and my environment. To make a conscious choice, a mindful choice, each time, rather than drifting on autopilot letting bodily desires control how I spend each day. I am trying not to be that remote control car, driven by my monkey brain (read the Chimp Paradox- it’s fascinating) to a destination that frustrates me. Which in all, I think is a desire in its self, but I believe as it’s in pursuit of Santosha on the whole, so it’s fine.
In yogic philosophy, there is an understanding that everything you see, feel, do, say and have is an illusion. It is what your tainted egotistical consciousness gives you, it is not the truth. It is said, that all you have is you. Even time is an illusion. But I knew that already as the brilliant writer and author Douglas Adams said, “Time is an illusion, lunchtime undoubtedly so” in A Hitchhikers guide to the Galaxy- also a recommended read! In this supposed maze of illusion we live, we give so little attention to the only part of our lives that truly matters, our inner self. That little voice in our head, we ignore it, a lot. You may be thinking a life of no desire sounds like no fun, and it does, so starting with just living more in line with our true self, that little voice, is a great place to start. To find contentment, to not want anything more than what we have, is a mindset and a choice. One that could be achieved by reducing those small daily desires.
When I abstain from something, which I do a lot, as a vegetarian (as of this year), as being wheat free (as of terrible tropical stomach illness in 2012, as limiting caffeine and alcohol (out of having a bad relationship with both), it’s my choice to either gain contentment from this abstinence or suffering, and it all comes down to perspective. The contentment I feel from doing what I can to reduce the killing of animals, outweigh the desire for taste, the happiness from my good health also outweighs the desire for taste (although I do slip up) and the contentment I feel in myself when I choose a clear head instead of an anxiety-filled buzz or a fun blurry haze, makes me feel great! And the more you do, the stronger you get- then it becomes a habit. Like my morning yoga Asana practice. Evey morning my monkey brain complains, tired hungry, aching, but now, I’ve developed an override, while it is complaining, I am walked to get my mat, and setting up for practice. I neither want to do my practice or am attached to the results of the practice. The mental results of calmed anxiety used to be the dominating motivation and that is what I used to overpower my monkey brain for years with a 75% success rate, but now it’s moved beyond choice and it has mostly become an instinctive habit. Whether I then choose 15mins or 2 hours, whether I do Asana, Pranayama, Meditation, or just go for a long walk, that is my choice.
Now when it comes to my relationship history, which consists of a lot of false starts and some face planting at the first hurdle, if anything makes it past the 3 month post, I am convinced they are the one and I am in love, no matter how ‘chill’ and “lets see what happens” I am. Now things hopefully will be different next time now I am more aware, as writing that unfortunately, the true sentence makes me feel slightly sick. I habitually created solid attachments, despite telling myself the contrary, while also telling myself this person made me happy so I am not interested in my own dreams anymore. Insane, the delusions of blind focused desire were, turning me into someone I didn’t recognise. This type of habit-forming- is clearly bad- but I still firmly believe “that when you know, you know”, but knowing where the knowledge comes from and if it’s true knowing or tainted confused illusion ego knowing, is most certainly another thing altogether.
Illusion is everywhere, everyone presents only part of the truth. Its funny to converse with people that try to live a yogic philosophy, and when posed with a problem, the response is, don’t worry, it is an Illusion! When you see everything as an illusion of your mind, there are lot fewer stresses. Like, if someone is going to judge me for not wearing make-up that is a reflection of them, and me being confident and comfortable in my own skin, rather than judge myself based on society’s measures of beauty, is a reflection of me. However, illusion creates attachment, and attachment creates more illusion. That, in turn, creates insecurity and conditions we hold ourselves to, hold our friends to, our bodies to and our jobs to.
Let’s think about levels of physical attractiveness as an illusion: which was created many hundreds of years ago by ‘society’, and has become ingrained into our subconscious. It is not like neanderthal women were thinking, “Oh he has a bit too much back hair for my liking”. If they thought that, we would have never existed as a species! Men and women were judged on abilities to survive and multiply with higher skills in surviving. Yes we have evolved beyond this to be top of the food table, but to deeply think about levels of physical attractiveness as an illusion and as a foundation for so many different facets of superficial attachment, and judgement, you do feel much less self-conscious and insecure, assuming you have these feelings in the first place.
So here I find myself thinking about what I learnt in my yoga teacher training course about non-attachment. Non-attachment to things, to money, to people, to goals, generally all fun and pleasant things etc. I think that developing this skill would essentially be a form of prevention from emotional pain, which is true to B.K.S Iyengar’s interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra Chapter 2, 15 where to become wise is when you realise “that all things that appear pleasant are coated with sorrow” and “a wise man keeps aloof from them”.
Parinama-tapa-samskara-duhkaih guna-vritti-virodhat ca duhkham Eva sarvam vivekkinah (II. 15)
However, I think you would never endeavour to do anything wholeheartedly if you were not attached to the outcome in some way, even if it’s just a generic positive outcome. So it’s interesting how this, Aparigraha, the 5th Yama in the first of Patanjali’s 8 fold path to yoga, essentially links to many of the other Yamas including the 4th which is often interpreted as celibacy. So I find myself now thinking, what if, I decided, no more will my body decide anything for me. For example, I will never again enter into a relationship solely for the reason of fulfilling a ‘desire’.
The practice of yoga it I’d said strips away the illusions that shield us from connection with our true Self, with others, and with life itself. To practise true Santosa, it takes immense strength. To let go of fears, plans, ego and hopes and replace solely with short-term intentions, can we truly be connected. When we accept and see everyone in our lives as they truly are, and not as our illusion of them, we find contentment in our relationships. To remain open and choose not to feel pain when before it would be earth-shattering, do we get to see a glimpse of our universal self and understand what it is to be truly open and unified in body, mind and spirit.