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Consider What Is Useful October 19, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.
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“Now I’m allowing myself to lose my inner peace and happiness. This is a much greater loss than losing a portion of my material wealth. Furthermore, such occurrences are commonplace. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. In worldly matters I will do what needs to be done, but never at the cost of losing the pristine nature of my mind. I must adhere to the higher virtues of my heart.”

— commentary on Yoga Sūtra 2.33 from The Practice of the Yoga Sutra: Sadhana Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Over the past several months I have focused on the practice of “cultivating opposites” a time or two. It is a practice that comes up in Eastern philosophies like Yoga, Buddhism, and Daoism. It can be a tricky practice for the Western mind, because we don’t always have a true understanding of what is actually opposite and how the practice can be useful or helpful. And being useful or helpful is the key.

In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path is comprised of 8 methods or areas of practice, which flow into one another: Understanding (or View), Thought (or Intention or Resolve), Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration (or Meditation). Each area is preceded by a single adjective emphasizing why it is important to practice. Now, it would make sense (for obvious reasons) if the adjective used in English was “Noble” – and perhaps there are teachers who use that, but I’ve never seen or heard that. Instead, I have heard “Right,” “Skillful,” and “Wholesome” – making other ways of thinking, speaking, and acting “wrong,” “unskillful,” and “unwholesome.”

Sometimes, however, it is hard to wrap our heads around the idea that our regular, every day, “normal” way of being is wrong, unskillful, and unwholesome. Sometimes those adjectives just add another layer of shame to a lived experience that others have already deemed shameful. And I’m not sure we need more mortification – in fact, I’m positive we don’t; because I see too much pain and suffering coming from people’s shame and embarrassment. Also, we live in a world where people are sometimes described as shameful just for existing – which, let’s be honest, is beyond not helpful.

And there it is again: the idea that something is valuable because it is helpful (as opposed to not helpful), useful (as opposed to not useful). In the Yoga Sūtras, as well as in stories about the Buddha teaching, there are explanations about why something is useful. Even the legend about the origin of the written Tao Te Ching declares that the teaching is valuable because of how it can be used. So, what happens if we think of the path as Useful Understanding, Useful Intention, Useful Speech, Useful Action, Useful Livelihood, Useful Effort, Useful Mindfulness, and Useful Concentration – with the understanding that these are the things we use to alleviate suffering?

“Definitions anchor us in principles. This is not a light point: If we don’t do the basic work of defining the kind of people we want to be in language that is stable and consistent, we can’t work toward stable, consistent goals.”


— quoted from How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, PhD

In Yoga Sūtra 2.33, Patanjali specifically instructs that when we are not able (for any reason) to practice the ethical components of the practice (the yamās and niyamās), then “thoughts of an opposite kind must be cultivated.” He then goes on to explain the benefits of practicing the five “external restraints” or universal commandments (yamās) and the five “internal observations (niyamās). Great teachers of Yoga Philosophy offer practical commentary about how certain ways of thinking, speaking, and acting are not useful. Specifically, they articulate cause and effect by pointing out what comes from the not useful. Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati (Swami J), within the Himalayan tradition of Yoga, offers what is essentially a mantra for each opposite, “[B]y reminding oneself that [while] such behaviors, words, or thinking will only bring personal misery and suffering, the ensuing letting go process allows…”

  • “… a natural demeanor towards which others drop any feelings of hostility or ill-will.” (YS 2.35)
  • “… a natural flow of goodness or positive fruits to come.” (YS 2.36)
  • “… a natural flow of material and non-material positive benefits to come, those which will help on the journey of life.” (YS 2.37)
  • “… a natural flow of energy that can be used in positive ways.” (YS 2.38)
  • “… there to be a natural awareness of the breadth of the mind-field, revealing the content we typically call past and future.” (YS 2.39)
  • “… a natural flow towards the inner reality of the divine to come and also brings purification of the subtle mental essence (sattva), a pleasantness, goodness and gladness of feeling, a one-pointedness with intentness, the conquest or mastery over the senses, and a fitness, qualification, or capability for self-realization.” (YS 2.40 – 41)
  • “… a natural flow of contentment, clarity, cheerfulness, and high-mindedness to come.” (YS 2.42)
  • “… the deep impressions or samskaras to naturally purify and reduce their potency.” (YS 2.43)
  • “… a natural contact, communion with the higher reality or force towards which one is drawn.” (YS 2.44)
  • “… a natural flow towards the deep absorption or perfected state of samadhi.” (YS 2.45)

Similar to the reminder offered by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (see top of post) Swami J also offers a “mantra” for all twenty-seven occasions when you might engage in unhelpful thoughts, words, and deeds:

“Mind, this is not useful; this is going to bring me nothing but more suffering, and lead me into greater ignorance of truth. Mind, you need to let go of this.”

– Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati (Swami J)

Please join me on the virtual mat today (Monday, October 19th) at 5:30 PM for a 75-minute virtual yoga practice on Zoom.

This is a 75-minute Common Ground Meditation Center practice that, in the spirit of generosity (dana), is freely given and freely received. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

If you are able to support the center and its teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” my other practices, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible, class purchases are not necessarily deductible.)

There is no playlist for the Common Ground practices.

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

Mother Teresa (born August 26, 1910; baptized August 27, 1910; awarded Nobel Peace Prize October 17, 1979; Feast Day is September 5th (d. 1997); beatified by Pope John Paul II today in 2003