Monday, March 15, 2010

Is your being content?

Santosha, the second niyama, means contentment. Contentment is different than happiness. It does not preclude happiness, but contentment is more a state of being than a state of mind. States of mind come and go (believe me, I go through hundreds of them per day). States of being, on the other hand, create space and a foundation for our everyday lives. A solid foundation gives us the space to accept all the states of mind and body that enter our lives without completely throwing us off kilter.

Santosha, for me, relates to beginner's mind because both create space for all possibilities to arise. Many judges like to hire new law clerks every year; many of them say it is because they like to have the fresh perspective. A newly-minted law school graduate is similar to the Psych 101 student who tries to diagnose everyone over Thanksgiving vacation. We have answers for everything, yet we truly know almost nothing about the law and how it works every day. That is our greatest strength (at least in my opinion), when we get past our gut reactions based on what we learned in law school. Socrates said that he knew absolutely nothing. He would have discussions with people, and from those discussions, his teachings arose. It was this clearing of the mind, acceptance that we cannot claim to truly know anything, that made him so great. His teachings remain the bedrocks of western civilization.

I had a slip-up recently where I thought I knew more than I did. I know a little bit more than nothing about certain things in the law (not many). At work, we were dealing with one of them. I got way ahead of myself, and sort of made myself look a bit dumb for having missed the obvious. So, I went back and read a little more, came back to beginner's mind, and the final product was far better than my gut reaction. But I had to go back to the beginning. Too often, lawyers become "experts" in a field and never go back to see what has changed. If we miss something early in our careers, it's gone forever. I'm never surprised when students representing clients change the legal landscape at the Supreme Court. Not only are they open to all the possibilities, but they have nothing to lose. That's the beginner's mind state of being, the reason judges like to have us around, even when we may ask very simple questions. We are open to either side being "right," so we look at both sides equally.

My first yoga teaching experience focused on foundations and new beginnings. Not only was I a beginner, but there were people in the class who had never before stepped on a yoga mat. There were also people in the class with longstanding yoga experience. I was actually more worried about them; would they think the class was too easy? Too simple? Too basic? Nope - they gave me great feedback, and it was because they were grateful to be able to be in that space again. We too often forget the basics and try to stick our legs behind our heads without grounding through the feet. That's when we hurt ourselves. Going back to the basics, back to our foundation, reminds us where we started.

So, what does all of this have to do with contentment? Should we be content never advancing? Sitting on our couch all day? Not necessarily. Contentment is that foundation. When our basic state of being is contentment, we can try new adventures, and if they do not meet our full expectations, we are still content, we still have our foundation. If our adventures go above and beyond our expectations, that feeling eventually wears off. If our foundational state of being is contentment, we protect ourselves from the sugar-like crash after our exciting high. Instead of expecting particular results in life, we are content with whatever happens. 

I had quite a reminder of this today. My garbage disposal broke again (this makes three times). I called and was promised that it would be fixed today. I got home, and it was not fixed. My first reaction was to be really, really upset. I went and talked to the the apartment manager who apologized profusely - she had put the wrong apartment number on the work order. Interestingly, the guy whose apartment number she wrote had the same garbage disposal issue. Go figure. I guess he needed it more than me. I remembered santosha, and while I'm still bummed that I cannot do my dishes because my sink is clogged, I know that in the grand scheme of life it does not matter. Plus, this was the result of a mistake - what if people did not understand when I make mistakes? I am, after all, a beginner, in law, in yoga teaching, in so many areas.

Santosha, as a teaching, provides us the same space and opportunities as beginner's mind. We strive to be our best, whatever that means, and we accept that whatever happens, happens. With that mindset, my first yoga teaching experience was great. I made mistakes, of course. But I had a great time, and from what people have said, they also enjoyed the class. So, whether I'm researching the law or teaching yoga, learning to focus on santosha, coming back to that state of being has helped calm my states of mind. By no means do I not get excited when "good" things happen, or upset when "bad" things happen. Instead, santosha helps us waver less and know that we can remain content, with an open mind to new possibilities, no matter what life throws at us. 

Wishing you all a feeling of santosha.

Namaste and Blessings!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saucha - A pure personal path

Tomorrow I teach my first yoga class. I am excited and nervous and not sure what to expect. But one thing is for sure - tomorrow I must find my own voice. Tomorrow, my path takes root, and all of this study becomes personal. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and it is a perfect segue into beginning a discussion about the niyamas, the second limb of yoga.

The five yamas, which I have previously discussed, are a guide for how to interact with others. They are ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (moderation of the senses), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The niyamas, by contrast, are guideposts for how to interact with ourselves. The five niyamas are: aaucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvarapranidhana (self-surrender). 

Saucha means purity. We must be internally pure before going forward on the rest of the path. In Ayurvedic medicine (ancient Indian medicine), this means cleaning the insides of the body, including the nose (neti pot), the eyes, etc. These are daily rituals, providing physical purity prior to spiritual purity. The idea of purity being the first step to personal spirituality is not unique to yoga. Jewish women participate in a mikvah, a ritual bath, each month, and native american cultures use sweat lodges. But why is it so important?

Only when we are clean, both internally and externally, can we begin to move forward. It allows us to shed all the gunk that is stopping us from moving forward. It is why people do spring cleaning - at the time of rebirth, we crave cleaning out the old. Snakes and birds shed and molt in order to prepare for moving forward. And the great Phoenix literally burns to ashes and is reborn from them. There is no doubt in my mind that this shedding, this cleansing, this purification is vital to being able to take the next step, to move forward on the path. 

Spiritual purification also allows us to find our own path. For much of my life I have taken as gospel whatever people say (though I tend to be argumentative, I have a need to agree, be taught by those I believe are "more advanced" than I am). When I read a book, I agree with it. Why? Because it sounds right. When I read legal briefs and arguments, I often find both sides equally convincing. I am certainly able to determine which is "more right," but it is more agreeable to, well agree. When it comes to my teachers, whether as a child, in law school, in yoga, or just in life, I want to absorb all that they have to say. Without often questioning, I just accept, and when teachings conflict, I get confused. These past few years, but more powerfully these past few months, I have been questioning my teachers more and more. I have read and disagreed the first time through. I have pushed back with my own thoughts. And I have been lost and confused. It's scary to begin to disagree with your teachers. It's scary to not know which argument is right. The Buddha said that we should not believe him because he says so, but we should try out his teachings and decide for ourselves. 

I have finally begun to find my own path. What it took was clearing out the old gunk - in this case, other peoples' journeys and paths and ideas. I have learned from them, and will continue to learn from them, but they need not define me. At some point, I had to find my own way. This is, after all, the greatest thing about being a Westerner in the 21st century. We have access to literally thousands of paths, ideas, and ways of seeing the world. There is no forced dogma on how we must live our lives. Instead, we can take a little Jesus, mix him with some Buddha, and top it off with some Islam, all with the background of Judaism. Why not? We can learn from them all. This is both amazing and scary. What do we do with all the information we obtain? How do we reconcile it? This is where purity comes in.

We have to be pure and open in order to accept that which will make us strong and let go of that which makes us weak. A teaching may not speak to us, and that is okay. Our inner purity gives us the strength and courage to know how to do what is right for ourselves. The greatest example of this happened to me in a law firm. I was once asked to do something with which I did not agree for ethical reasons. I wrote a memo to the two most senior female partners at the firm telling them I could not finish the assignment as they had asked me to do it. I thought I could lose my job. Instead, they clarified, gave me more information, and everything worked out perfectly. Purity is important wherever you are - from a law firm to a yoga mat. Your own path, your own strength guide you in each moment of your life. 

Tomorrow's first class is the moment where I test that purity for the first time on the mat - sharing my story with others. I have to follow my own path. Tomorrow is the day I begin to share it more personally (as opposed to sitting in my living room writing about it). I am so grateful, everyday, for the amazing teachers who have helped get me here. I know that as I venture out, I will be coming back more and more. But these past few months have given me the strength to do the venturing, to find my own voice, and to begin to share it. This is just the beginning. Purification is a daily ritual. 

Thank you for being a part of the learning. Of course, I have learned more from your comments than anything I have written. Most importantly, I have been reminded that we are all in this together; we can help each other clear out the old gunk, throw ideas around, and find that which speaks most truly to us. Thank you.

Namaste and Blessings.