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Why can I not find peace?

Awakening to the here and now

Suffering is part of our human experience. Usually when we start going to a yoga class, we are looking to heal a physical or mental pain or feel more calm and less worried. What are the tools that yoga can offer to help you feel more at ease?

Often, we think a change in our external situation can relieve the discomfort we feel, things need to be fixed and then we will feel better, but what if the situation cannot be altered? We work on ourselves and our relationship to the suffering we're experiencing.

In the ancient yogic texts, we are given five potential causes of suffering or obstacles that prevent us from reaching a place of peace. They are called kleshas which is Sanskrit for obstacle, or pain or distress. They are:

  • Avidya - Ignorance

  • Asmita - Egoism

  • Raga - Attachment

  • Dvesha - Avoidance

  • Abhinivesha - Fear

Avidya, which we have been exploring this term, leads onto the other four kleshas and can be understood as the trunk of the tree and the others the branches. It means, misconception, misunderstanding, or not seeing things clearly, thinking that we will feel like this forever, or that things should be different from what they are.

Repeating the phrase 'this too shall pass' reminds us that all experiences are temporary. Whilst we weather a storm of emotions, using the tools of yoga such as breath-awareness, feeling sensation (where in your body are you feeling discomfort and can you ease the holding), noticing your thoughts and cultivating a stable mind with kinder, non-judgemental awareness and having compassion for your experience can all help.

If I take the side-plank as an example of suffering albeit a minor one! The thoughts in my head head might be:

  • I hate this - judgemental

  • I'm bad at this - egotistical

  • I don't want to do this - avoidance

  • What if I collapse? - fear

  • I wonder where I can get those leggings? - distraction

But by using a pose to safely explore the edges of discomfort you can then observe your reactions like lightbulbs in your head and adapt to other situations you might find yourself in.

An alternative response to plank might be:

  • Poor me finding this so hard - compassion.

  • Well done to me for giving it a go - kindness (Ahisma).

  • Focus on the sensation of breath.

  • Accept it is hard for you, and if you need to come out this your reality.

  • Release where you are tense - lessen the discomfort.

By avoiding things we dislike or that cause us suffering we are limiting ourselves and our ability to cope. It is better to engage and be present than to avoid.

There is a story of an American, Steve Young who wanted to train to become a Buddhist monk in the Japanese mountains in 1969. The initial process was one of small humiliations. At the start the abbot refused him entry into the monastery but eventually persuaded by Young he was allowed to stay on the condition that he performed menial tasks such as sweeping the hallways and cleaning the dishes. Finally, he was allowed to begin a solo retreat, the first real step in his proper training, only to discover this entailed living in a tiny unheated hut and conducting a thrice-daily ritual of dousing himself with several gallons of melted snow. It was so cold the water would freeze as it touched the floor.

Faced with such physical distress most of us would naturally avoid paying attention to how awful it is, focussing on anything else other than the cause of the pain. But Young was to discover this was the wrong strategy, only by concentrating on the sensation of intense cold did the experience become less agonising. It slowly dawned on him this was the purpose of his learning, to be focussed on what was happening by not resisting it the discomfort lessened.

Now while I do not advocate you expose yourself to a painful experience like this, you might notice when you're bored or doing something you don't like how you reach for a distraction to avoid it. Something Mary Oliver called 'the intimate interrupter' when the 'self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels' promising an easier life if only you'd redirect your attention away from what you are faced with. When we surrender to a painful experience, we confront our limitations in an imperfect world and our lack of power within it.

Young's discovery on the mountain was only by resigning himself to the truth of his situation did the feelings of suffering lessen. If you stop fighting the facts and allow yourself to surrender, taking the path of least resistance the suffering lessens its hold on you. Avidya, clearing the lens to see more clearly the way things are and accept this is the way it is for now.



With acknowledgements to Oliver Burkeman and his book 'Four Thousand Weeks'

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