Sunday, March 22, 2009

58/81 Part 2: Desire and Results

The niyamas contain a seeming contradiction.  On the one hand we're supposed to practice contentment.  But then we're also supposed to have zeal in practice.  The zeal springs from desire.  But it seems that to the extent we desire something, we aren't content.  Hence, a contradiction.

Gate's suggests that the way out of this seeming contradiction is by divorcing tapas from results.  When we see something lacking in ourselves, we look for a way to fill it, and this is the typical wellspring of desire: we desire a particular result.  The trick with tapas is simply to desire the practice, or the process, itself without necessarily linking the process to any result.

On a mundane level, I've seen this at work many times.  For example, I don't think its a coincidence that I tweaked my back on the same day that I reached my goal for the year of seeing the ballet bar in the first backbend.  I'm not sure if it was the cause, but I know that I probably pushed myself too hard because I was determined to meet my goal for the year.  Even if the little injury wasn't a direct result, its timing is too perfect for me not to take it as a warning not to push too hard for some objective goal.

A woman at our studio, whose practice is otherwise very strong, has done the same thing repeatedly.  She was determined to do well in the asana competition last summer and pushed herself really hard.  As a result, she injured her back a week before the competition and had to withdraw.  Recently, she became determined to lock out her kicking leg in Standing Bow.  And I think she made it.  And at the same time, she otherwise blew her practice to hell, got worn out, and now seems to be taking a break.  Again, attachment to a particular result was the enemy.

But, if you become zealous about engaging in the practice itself, its perfectly possible to keep up the desire to practice, and also to stay content.   In an odd way, I think that on this level desire and contentment become one.  And that's how it feels when the practice is going well. 

 In an odd way, I think that's how it feels when people start to behave charitably toward others.  When you start helping others, you shouldn't be doing it to make yourself feel good.  But the act of helping others tends to make the helper feel better, to become content, and that in turn drives the person to want to help more.  And again, I think its important to realize here that its the process of helping itself that is satisfying.  If you decided to behave selflessly to make yourself feel better, I think you would defeat the goal from the outset.

Taking this even to the next level.  I used to torture the nuns in catechism with all sorts of logical puzzles about the nature of God.  One I especially liked was my proof that if there was a God, he could not have created the universe.  The idea was that creation necessarily involved desire.  And that a perfect being could not possible desire anything.  Hence, no creation and we don't exist (or God the creator doesn't).  Pretty clever for a ten year old.  But I think Gates here may show the way out of this conundrum, by suggesting that there are ways that desire and contentment can go hand in hand.  (Please don't tell the nuns.)


crisitunity said...

I have thought over this problem a lot, that of goals and yoga, because having a goal in yoga seems to oppose the point completely. Yet I find myself making small and large goals in yoga all the time. I try not to go after them as destructively as the woman you described. But it's the nature of Westerners to be goal-focused rather than journey-focused.

I also remember feeling the way you explained here, as if there was a contradictory message in there, when I read about contentment. I guess that the point of yoga is something other than improvement? But any insight into oneself would be improvement, wouldn't it?

Duffy Pratt said...

One of the hard things to grasp, especially for us Westerners, is the idea that contentment is not a goal in yoga. Instead, its a practice, like purity/cleanliness, and like zeal. So, instead of contentment being something that happens to you when things are going well, the niyamas seem to be saying that contentment is something that you can choose to do.

I've been able to see the point of this in some minor ways. Suppose the woman in front of me on the express line has 30 plus items, then a bunch of coupons, needs to go back to switch out some item, and then presents a check. I can be angry, impatient, frustrated -- and for me that tends to be a natural reaction. But I can also simply let it go and be content.

On the mat, there have been several times when I've changed the course of a bad class simply by deciding that everything was OK as it was. It doesn't work every time, but I'm getting more tuned into the possibility.