Yoga practice

Yoga practice

Damascus House Talk: 4 August 1988


You know about yoga practice – in this part of the world sometimes it’s thought of as physically advantageous. But it’s not just that. The mind can be made brilliant by yoga, a whole organism can be energized by yoga. But that will not necessarily solve the problems of life. If you’re brilliantly successful, and charming, attractive, lucky and rich – you’ll be hated and envied.  I may be very fit, energetic and successful – but if my marriage is breaking up, if my son has joined a criminal gang, if my daughter is onto hard drugs, then however fit I am, however relaxed I am, it won’t solve the problems.

One of the doctrines of yoga is that we should try to go beyond simply seeking to perfect our body and mind within the limits of the present circumstances. We should prepare for the changes of life and also to try to learn the lessons which life is trying to teach us, so that we can make a jump when the time comes.

Someone will say, “Oh I’m pretty well off, I don’t need these things.” Our teacher used to say, “Learn to swim before you fall in the water. Now is the time.” When we’re reasonably secure and comfortable, now is the time to learn to swim – not when we’re desperate, when some tragedy overwhelms us, when we’re confined in the prison of sickness or in an actual prison. It’s very difficult to start then.  If we’d learned to swim before we fell in the water, then we can save ourselves.

A famous teacher in India, he made a good remark once. He said, “You know, sometimes some devotees of mine, they bring some young relative with them who has some interest in seeing a yoga teacher. Sometimes these young people say to me, ‘Well, look, I’ve just got a good job. We just got married and opportunities are very good. Who’s going to need yoga?’  I say to them, ‘Come back in 10 years.’ and a lot of them do. Something has happened then. The rosy state is ‘hope’; everything’s going to be all right. Then gradually we find that it isn’t. Then we need to try to adapt to that.

One of the fundamental principles is this, and we take a modern example as my teacher did – we have a car and it takes you from here to here. Then you want to park it, but you don’t know how to shut off the engine. You’re parking the car, you’re leaving the car outside your house, and the whole time the engine’s running. This is the state of a man with his mind. He uses his mind for a purpose. He can achieve the purpose or, if he fails, he can go round and he can try other things.  When the purpose is finished, he can’t stop. We can control, by relaxation, by getting drunk, the passing thoughts for the moment – but we haven’t controlled the depths of the mind, the dynamic impulses which are seeking come out all the time.

We could say, “Well, why think meaningless thoughts? You can’t help it.”  Say, someone we know well, someone who’s very important to us is on an air journey.  Then we hear there’s been a crash. We don’t know if it’s that plane. There’s no use worrying, and yet we can’t stop the mind, can’t lay it down.  It goes on and on and on. We can’t make a gap; the current of thought goes on like a man in a fever.

One teacher compares the life of the ordinary people to someone in a fever.  When one’s in a fever you feel that you must move – then, “Oh, it’s bliss”, but only just for a minute. Then you’ve got to move again. Well, if you’ve seen people in fevers, and I’ve seen a lot of them and been in them, it’s very intense, the joy, you have the cool below you.  But it’s momentary, because the cause of the suffering hasn’t been removed. In the old days, it was no joke, you had to live through fevers. There were things they could do, but it was all external. Now you have an advantage, there are antibiotics. But that’s not the true answer. The true answer is to have an inner vitality. You will get fever, but it’ll be thrown off quickly.

Well, taking this medical example, which is given in some of the ancient texts – if we build up a spiritual reserve in ourselves, then we can meet the fevers of life when they come. If we haven’t built up a spiritual reserve in ourselves, then we shall be prostrated. Somebody who is not built up with good health, when the fever comes they’re absolutely shattered, and quite often it kills them.

The teacher said, “Before you fall in the water, learn how to control, pacify, tranquilize the mind, and how to energize the mind.” Most of us are very active in our thinking but, actually, we don’t get very much done. Drunken people are very energetic, aren’t they, very decisive?  They look very energetic but, actually, their things don’t get done. They think they’re brilliant, but they’re really rather stupid, because the faculty of judgment has been impaired by the alcohol.  Our teacher’s point was to exercise what’s called the inner organ, the mind. An important part of it is how to tranquilize and pacify it. Not an inertia, not by dulling it, but to be able voluntarily to put it down, to shut off the engine of the car when it’s parked and to put it down.

What keeps us in a fever? Now, this example is given from the theatre. If you’ve ever been in a theatre before the footlights are lit up, how drab the stage looks, and then suddenly the lights go on. Then all the tawdry little jewels, well, not jewels – they’re bits of glass, aren’t they – and the tinsel on the stage suddenly begin to sparkle. Well, in the same way, when we look at life, the footlights of our interest make the things sparkle, but that is entirely false. There’s very little there lighting them up. We must be able to enjoy the play, but know what is happening, that our vitality and interest is making the world sparkle, making it attractive. “I get this, I get that.”

When we get it, we see other people who’ve got it, and maybe we’re disappointed, so “The next one will be better. I made a little mistake there, the next one will be better.”  Now, it doesn’t mean not to take part in life, but it means to take part with the intense interest that we have in a game.  We try very hard, but we know the things we win are just tokens and we can put them down.  The bad loser can’t – he’s furious with his loss. The bad winner can’t – he’s delighted when he’s won. He’s won nothing, but he’s pleased when he’s won.

These are little examples, and I give a couple of them, unfamiliar ones to us. In this country now, in this generation, pride is regarded as a vice.  But in some countries, in some classes, pride is regarded as the great achiever. All great achievements were based on pride. Now, among the proudest were the royal houses of India. They’re extraordinarily courageous because the pride of the house would never permit one to back down.

I knew in India the headmaster of an important school where the rajas and maharajas used to send their sons.  He told me some quite interesting stories about these boys, who’d come when they were 12 or 14. One came, and in his first week in school, he did a thoroughly careless and bad piece of work. His form master reprimanded him in front of the class. He said, “That’s a thoroughly shoddy piece of work. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” The headmaster told me that the boy came to ask for an interview with the headmaster, so he saw him.

The boy said, “Sir.  Of course, the school doesn’t understand, but we of the royal house of Tehari are never reprimanded in front of others. Never. Sir, if I had done a bad piece of work, you can give me any punishment, but not in front of others. Sir, if you tell me to put my hand in that fire now, I’ll do it.”  The headmaster told me that he would have done it. “Sir, if you tell me do it, I’ll do it, but we are never reprimanded in front of others.”

I said, “What did you say?” He replied, “Well, I said to him, your father has sent you here to learn just this thing. You’re so brave, but now you’ve got to be brave enough to be reprimanded in front of others.”  Now, we would not mind being reprimanded in front of others if we’ve done a bad piece of work; but to him, it was like a sword, and he had to learn.

I just give this example because one can feel that one’s own particular prejudices and sticking points are natural and right. Then if you become aware of how completely different it can be with others, it can make us begin to see clearly the prejudices and the dynamics of our own mind. These examples are worth knowing. We can conceal things to some extent from ourselves.

There’s another instance – which was told me by the former chief justice of India, who happened to be a neighbour – again, from the same civilization.  He said, “A very derogatory remark was made about one of the great rajas, by another one.  This raja, whom I don’t want to name, he was saying to me, ‘I’ve heard what this other man has been saying about me. I’m absolutely indifferent. If a dog barks, have I got to turn my head every time? What the other may say is nothing to me, less than nothing.’  I said, ‘Well, that’s more than I should’ve expected, your Royal Highness.’  But then he said, ‘I must say he has behaved as no gentleman would behave.’”  In other words, although he thought, “No, I’m completely indifferent”, this was only his posture.  But actually it had gone very deeply into him.

Now, our teacher said we can’t find out, without meditation, what in fact are the driving forces of our character and behaviour. We think we know – but it’s generally a great surprise to us, isn’t it, when somebody says, or we overhear somebody saying, “Oh, I knew he’d say that. He always says that.”  Perhaps somebody says to me, “Of course, you always do that.” “No, I don’t!”  We don’t know.

In the old Chinese texts, the short sentences are often repeated. It’s a feature of their style, a particular kind of Chinese writing. “Silent, silent, he sits there in the cold. Now, say, what is the nature of this. Speak, speak.” I asked a young Chinese, a brilliant fellow, “In the old texts that I read sometimes, the words are repeated, very often, like ‘ speak, speak’. The Indians and the Japanese don’t do that, but it seems to be a feature of the Chinese style. Is that right? Do you still do it?” He said, “No, we don’t. No, we don’t.” This was a lesson to me too. He was unconscious of it, but he made me aware of it.

We can come out with all sorts of impressive things. It’s a Chinese sutra; it’s in Chinese; it’s a translation into Chinese from the Sanskrit. I can read this in Chinese and I can read the original in Sanskrit! That’s impressive, isn’t it?  But what the sutra is actually saying is “Book learning is no good.”

We can learn things from books and they can be a help to study. One of the great teachers says, “If you’ve got very restless mind, you might need to do a lot of service to people, physical service – do physical service. If you’ve got a bad mind, you may have to do a terrible lot of study.” It doesn’t follow that everybody who does study has necessarily got a bad mind; but if you’ve got a bad mind, you may have to do a lot of study. These studies have kept me out of a good deal of mischief.

There’s some benefit, but books are theoretical, they’re theoretical – beautiful, stimulating, encouraging, inspiring, but, in the end, theoretical. A hundred years ago, Clerk Maxwell demonstrated the certainty that there were radio waves in the air and we can now study and know that they’re there. This room is full of it, but it’s theoretical. (Then we can switch on the radio and hear its practical reality.) Yoga is telling us that there’s divine inspiration. If we come into touch with that in meditation, we can become aware of ourselves and, finally, we can receive inspiration in ourselves.

The Gita, which is the classic my teacher mainly taught, has many verses on action, how to perform action. Well, I think, “You just do things.  You sweep the floor, you polish the furniture, you write a book, etc.” But there are ways of doing these things, quite different ways of doing them.

There’s a saying from one country in Europe, which I will not name, which says, “If you don’t misuse your power a bit, there’s no point in having it.” If I’m the editor of a magazine, well, people submit articles and you accept and print the good ones and reject the bad ones. It’s not too difficult to know which are good and which are bad. If I don’t know, if I haven’t got the qualifications, I can ask somebody: “Look, there’s this article, do you know anything about this?” “Oh, yes. This man, yes, he’s won a literary price, he’s quite well-known.”  So you put that one in there.  “That one?” “No, it’s got a lot of irrelevant passages there and grammatical mistakes. That’s bad.”  Anyone can do that. You’re a rubber stamp, aren’t you? Put in the good ones, put out the bad ones. You’ve got power, but there’s no fun in that. “I think that one, yes”, or “He may be very famous, he may have won a literary prize, but his article has got to please me – and I can be difficult. Then I count, I matter – of course, the magazine will go to pot, but I will have mattered.”

Now, the Gita says this strand is present in their own action. They’re thinking, “How am I doing; what will happen if it goes wrong; what can I get out if it goes right; how long have I got to be here doing this blasted chore – they always leave it to me; how can I boss this, change it?”  It’s never just the action; there are all these little thoughts with the action – and that distorts the action.

Now, the best Western illustration I know of this, is for those who play golf.  When beginners are going to swing the golf club, and before they’ve hit the ball, they’re looking to see where it’s gone, so they nearly always miss it. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it’s universal.  This is an example of the action and the desire for the result. While those two are joined, the desire for the result distorts the action. We can see this physically, which is why the golf illustration is so good.

We all know this situation. If I’m typing, I may touch type very well, and somebody comes and stands over me. I don’t know who it is, it might be the boss, might be my office enemy. Might be all sorts of things, but then it’s just as if I’m typing through porridge.  I’m thinking, “What are you up to? You’re standing there like that, not saying anything.”

The Gita meditation of action is to separate the action, to be able to discard those things. One of the traditional stories is that sometimes in India a businessman will retire. He may be very prosperous, but he’ll retire. He hands over the business when he’s 50 or 55 to his sons and he retires. Sometimes they humble themselves by becoming the sexton or the keeper of a small temple somewhere. A businessman did this.  There was a temple in a grove outside the town and he thought he would polish it – some stone can be polished brilliantly.

So this man polished the small temple. There was a superstition that, if you came on certain days of the year, and you kept silence when you came into the grove, and you just went into the temple, and you recited some chant, that you would get a wish. People occasionally used to come with their donation to the temple.  Well, he worked hard at polishing his temple and it began to shine, but to his annoyance, nobody noticed it. They just took it for granted. Nobody said, “We saw him.” Nobody said, “You’re making a good job of cleaning this up beautifully.” No, nothing at all like that. He thought, “I want a bit of appreciation for what I’m doing. I want them to see me working.”

He was in a grove, so he couldn’t see people coming. Then he noticed there were some birds who’d nested just outside the grove and when people came, the birds flew off. He thought, “Now I’ll know when people are coming.” The next time there was a big party, one of the best times to realize a few people are coming. He went, not right in front of the door, that would be too obvious, but a little way down there, and he polished like mad. He thought, “They’re bound to see this.” Of course, they had the rule of silence while they were in the grove, so he sprinted along a little side path so that he’d be near them when they came out of the grove to hear what they said.

Then he overheard this conversation: one of them said, “Did you see that old boy there polishing away like mad? Wonderful devotee he must be.” The other one said, “Well, he must have known we were coming.” “He couldn’t have known we were coming. It’s in a grove, he couldn’t have seen us.” “He must’ve known we were coming somehow, because how could he possibly keep that up? That wasn’t polishing, that was ham acting.”

The old boy was furious and he kept thinking, “Ham acting, ham acting, ham acting. These lazy swine, they do nothing, and they leave me polishing away, and they call it ham acting.”  Well, then he lost heart.  But then he started again and while he was polishing, he didn’t notice the visitors coming or going. Then one day some young people came, and one said, “Sir, my cousin who was a stonemason told me this stone is very difficult to polish, but you’ve made this wonderful shining temple. I thought it was easy somehow, but it’s tremendous work you’ve been doing. Can we help you?” They joined and came regularly to polish.  One day, one of them said to him, “Sir, you’re old and we’re young, but we get tired of polishing, and you don’t seem to get tired. Can you tell us why?”

He said, “Well, what are you thinking about when you’re polishing?” The young one replied, “Well, I’m thinking that I’ve got about an hour, so I’ll do this strip along there and I should finish that in the hour. Then that’ll be for this week and then next week I’ll do the strip above it.” The old man said, “Well, if you think like that, you’ll get tired. I don’t say it’s bad, but you’ll get tired.”  “Well, what are you thinking of when you’re polishing?”  The man said, “I’m seeing God in this piece of stone. As I polish it, it begins to shine and I begin to see divinity, I begin to see God shining. When I look carefully, I begin to see a reflection.” “Anything more?”  He said, “Well, sometimes that reflection seems as though it’s the reflection of God.”

This is one of the traditional stories, how action changes. First of all, our actions may be well-directed and well-meant, but they’re connected with a desire for results also. “I want some appreciation.” Then he gives that up. Then he begins to give up the idea, “I’ve got this much more to do”, and he begins to look at what he’s actually doing.

Children love to wave a cloth for a long time, they just enjoy the pattern – it’s cloth waving. It’s the same thing for polishing with a cloth. There’s a beauty there, but we grown-ups miss that. All I think is “Blast, now I have 10 minutes.” He begins to see this, then he begins to see something shining. The perceptions begin to change. Well, there are examples like this but they are theoretical. Our teacher said that when we’re performing the actions, first of all, we should be able to drop the idea of the results. The actions are performed.

You can say, “Well, if you don’t have an idea for results, you won’t type correctly.”  People say, “Unless you’ve got a desire for results, unless you’re frightened of what the boss will say or anxious for what you’re going to get out of it, you won’t type it correctly. How can you just type without a feeling for results?  If there’s a mistake, it doesn’t matter what the results are.”  No, not so. If I typed it full of mistakes, I haven’t typed it – that’s not typing.

If we think back to when we were children, the first time we put a finger on the key of a typewriter – the character appeared by magic. We were fascinated when we were children. Now it’s computers. After a little time, all that goes. Now it’s a chore, the perception has been lost. Something’s gone wrong.  In the Chekhof play, “What’s happened to us? We were so full of life and joy and energy, and now we’re so dull and bored and boring. What’s going on?”  If we practice meditation, the teachers tell us something will spring up. An inspiration will spring up, which will find joy in me, for everyday things of life – not only in great and wonderful scenery, or beautiful concerts, wonderful paintings, when pulling off some big deal, or in scoring off somebody; not only in those things.  There’s something in scouring the rust off a rusty pipe.  It begins to go.

Now, how then to perform the actual meditation? Well, for people who are not in a meditation school, the basic practice is to drop the thoughts. One of the methods that’s given is to half shut the eyes. You can try it now if you like. Sit up reasonably straight and half shut the eyes. Now feel you’re on a hilltop and that you’ve got a cloth full of little pebbles in your lap.  Thoughts come up, “what we had for breakfast; someone I met yesterday; a row I had; a very pleasant surprise I had; a bus I missed…”  As those thoughts come up, feel you’re taking a little pebble and you’re throwing it down the hill with the thought – throwing away the thought. Just try for a little bit.

It takes an athlete 8 or 10 minutes to warm up before he can get going on his speciality. The meditators say it takes 8 or 10 minutes for the mind to begin to calm down.  When we sit on top of the hill, there’s a sort of instinct, as a matter of fact, to throw things down, to see them tumbling down the hill away. Perhaps this is a reference to the relief that we get when we can sit on an inner hill, so to say, and drop the thoughts.

Now, we need the ability to make this gap: “I’m in the middle of this illness or fever”, anticipating, “What will I do if she says that?”, remembering, “Oh, I should have said that in class. Then next time I will.”, “What’s going to happen? What is happening now somewhere else?” – to be able to make a gap.  One example is of a man who was a habitual smoker, a very heavy smoker. He tried all sorts of ways of trying to stop and he failed. He asked a teacher of meditation, “I know I shouldn’t be coming here for a thing like this, but is there anything for somebody like me?” The teacher said, “Well, you can do it if you want to.”

The man said, “Oh, I’ve tried with will-power, of course. I do it for a time and then I think, ‘I must have a cigarette’, and then I get it. Oh, it’s a lovely feeling. Can you help me to stop without going through that?” The teacher said, “Yes. You must learn to control your mind.” He said, “Oh, don’t tell me that. No. Just tell me what to do.” The teacher said to him, “Well, you must do this over a period. First of all, you can have a cigarette when you want one, but you must understand what you’re doing. You don’t know. You must understand what you’re doing. You say this is such a great joy, well, you can have a cigarette. When you decide to have a cigarette, take off your watch, put it in front of you and wait for five minutes – then you can have your cigarette. You mustn’t do anything else for that five minutes, just think of this cigarette you’re going to enjoy. Then at the end of it, you have your cigarette, but you mustn’t do anything else. You mustn’t listen to the radio; you mustn’t talk to people, you mustn’t look out the window; you mustn’t read a book or anything like that. You just sit there and have your cigarette. Now, do that for a few weeks.”

The man came to him later and said, “Well, I’m doing it. Yes. I’m not frustrated and I find that I’m stubbing out the cigarette halfway through.”  The teacher said, “You’re beginning to become conscious that it isn’t this great joy that you think it is. That’s the footlights with which you’re illuminating it. This seems such a great thing. Now, extend your time. Wait for an hour. You can have your cigarette, but wait for an hour.” And after a time the desire was taken away, he lost this compulsive urge. Well, this is what my teacher called a vulgar example because it’s not a spiritual thing. But it can be a hint to us to become aware that the vices we have, which we think are so delightful, in fact, they’re often just mechanically repetitive and that we’re only half-conscious of them. He says to learn to wait, to make the gap. Not to do these things just repetitively or mechanically, but consciously. In that way, the mind can be controlled from some of the compulsive addictions that it has. Well, the Gita says that we must learn to be able to act without having anticipations, fears, desire for results. We must be able to do pure action, then the action will begin to change.



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