Jivamukti Focus of the Month, Nov 2014: Soul Power, by Sharon Gannon


fom_nov_v1_0hanam esham kleshavad uktam
The greatest obstacle to the practice is one’s own prejudices 
based on one’s own preferences ~ Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (PYS IV.28)

Yoga is the practice of getting happy. Not ordinary happiness, but deep and lasting happiness that is unshaken by the ups and downs of life. Through yoga we wake up, slowly and over time, and as each bit of the veil of ignorance that keeps us from knowing our true selves falls, we see more and more clearly what is, and with that we gain power to choose to live life aligned with the flow of Divine will. Those of us on this path face both tremendous challenges and tremendous opportunities at this time. Our culture of materialism, exploitation and utter disregard for the well-being of other animals, all of nature and the Earth herself is inching us ever closer to a breaking point, while at the same time we are undergoing a huge shift in consciousness. To navigate through this tumultuous time and emerge into the light, we must dissolve a crippling prejudice that has put many of us to sleep for thousands of years, distorted our minds and coerced us into viewing slavery, exploitation and the mass murder of other animals as normal. The root of that prejudice is the lie that animals don’t have souls.

In the sutra above, Patanjali identifies prejudice as the greatest obstacle to yoga. Prejudice is always based on misperception, which comes from ignorance. Ignorance arises from being told a lie and believing it and then continuing to tell yourself and others that lie—deepening your belief in it to such an extent that it affects how you see yourself and the others whom you are prejudiced against, resulting in a distortion of the truth. Prejudice is a mental affliction that pollutes the mind with deception. To rid yourself of prejudice, you must destroy the lie at the root. Only knowledge can burn prejudice at its root and reveal the truth.

Many religious traditions maintain that non-human animals do not have souls, or that they do not have the kind of souls that enable one to connect to God. Patanjali tells us that if we look deeply we will see the truth. In fact, you don’t even have to look that deeply to see that other animals have souls. If they are breathing and the heart is beating, this is evidence that a soul is present. To be alive is to have a soul. All living beings, regardless of the color of their skin, hair, feathers, scales or fur, and whether or not they walk on two legs or four or none at all, are persons—they have souls.

This is evident in our language: the word anima is the root for the word animal, and it means “soul, that which animates.” Thus, by definition, all animals have souls, whether human or non-human. Every living being has a soul. When someone dies, the soul leaves the body, and that is the only time that we can justifiably point at someone and say they don’t have a soul. It is the same no matter what kind of person you are: you may be a human, a cat, a dog, a cow, a bird or a fish person, but regardless, all living beings have souls; if they didn’t they would be dead.

It is also evident in countless stories of animals behaving in ways that go far beyond the rigid notions of animal behavior that culture and science have limited them to, ways that in many cases display more humanity than many humans display. For example, dolphins caring for their dying friends, dogs who forego food themselves in order to have enough to feed their families, octopuses who decorate their dens, birds who use words to express regret, and many more. If these animals were nothing more than automatons whose behavior is dictated entirely by their genes, how could they demonstrate such connectedness with others and the world around them?

Jivamukti means liberation for the soul—all souls, not just human souls. To reach liberation, we must rid ourselves of prejudice. Asana and meditation practice can help. Bhakti can help. Being vegan can help. But no practice will be effective unless we are willing to open our minds and hearts to see beyond the “reality” presented to us by culture. When we reach liberation, we will find that there is actually no difference between individuals of any species. We are all one—we are all one Divine soul.

-Sharon Gannon

Jivamukti Focus of the Month, October, 2014: Serene Intelligence, by Sharon Gannon


IMG_0139.PNG
Mayy eva mana adhatsva / mayi buddhim nivesaya /
nivasisyasi mayy eva / ata urdhvam na samsayah Keep your mind on me alone, your intellect on me; thus you will dwell in me from now on.

Bhagavad Gita XII.8

In this age of struggle, known as the Kali Yuga, it can be very difficult to maintain a serene mind. Conflict between nations, conflict at work, conflict with enemies, conflict with friends, conflict at home, and even conflict within oneself can disturb one’s mind and destroy one’s happiness. It is common to be suspicious of someone who is happy and calm, thinking they must be ignorant, uneducated, living in a bubble or even mentally ill, and that to be an intelligent, caring human being one must be disturbed and filled with anxiety, and further that if you seek solace in spiritual practices you are an escapist living in denial and burying your head in the sand.

Buddhim or buddhi means “intelligence.” The highest and most important aspect of the intellect is its ability to grasp and understand the truth. Many people focus their minds on relative truth, that which is bound by the transient comings and goings of temporary existence, while the spiritual practitioner aims to comprehend or dwell in absolute truth. Absolute truth is knowledge of the supreme Self or God. Krishna in this verse from the Gita tells Arjuna that if he is able to focus his intelligence on Him, on God, then without a doubt (samsayah), he will gain access to the heart of God. God is Love. God is Great. With great love all is possible. To know God is to love God, and this is the yogi’s purpose. To realize that purpose one must devote their whole being to that aim. As Patanjali advises, Ishwara pranidhanad va (PYS 1.23), and for those who do, success will be guaranteed absolutely (va).

Chitta means the “content of the mind”—the mind’s intelligence—and prasad means “blessed.” A blessed mind is a serene mind. Because so much of the anxiety we experience seems to us to be caused by other people—they make us mad, they act in deceitful ways, they are unfair, they are unkind, and on and on—Patanjali tells us in chapter 1.33 of the Yoga Sutra that chitta prasadanam, or serenity, is our mind’s innate state. Hey, that’s good news! We should have faith in that truth and do all we can to protect that blessed condition from defilement. Patanjali gives some advice as to how to accomplish that: be happy for those who are happy, compassionate for those who are unhappy, delighted for those
who are virtuous and indifferent to those who are wicked. If we choose to ignore this advice, we will become entrenched in our own negative emotions and be unable to remember God or devote ourselves to His service. Our intelligence will be consumed by anxiety, and we will be unable to enjoy anything in this world or in any other.

Finding fault with others is a sure way to disturb your mind and destroy your intelligence. When judgment of others arises, strive to let it go. Let God take care of things. If you remember that He is the supreme doer, you will be able to surrender and let go of your ego’s tendency to try to control the outcome of a situation. Your job is to protect the serenity of your mind. As my teacher Shri Brahmananda would say, “mind, your own business!” Follow the dictates of the yamas and relate to others with kindness, truthfulness, caring, respect and generosity. Rid your mind of the diseases of pride, envy, anger, laziness, lust, greed and gluttony. No one is saying that this is an easy task and that we can accomplish this alone, so to provide help in times of need we would be wise to contemplate the practical suggestions given to us by holy beings and do our best to put them into practice. Help is available in the form of satsang, and satsang can appear in the form of holy teachings written by holy beings, like the Bhagavad Gita, and the Yoga Sutra as well as contemporary teachers, like Shyamdas.

Another meaning of intelligence that I found in the dictionary is “secret information.” I think Shyamdas thought of intelligence like this when he spoke about the importance of protecting the most secret information, your devotional bhav: “The age of struggle has arrived and can destroy everyone’s intelligence. Be careful! This Kali Yuga can swindle you, so secure your devotional mind, guarding it like you would a precious jewel. Safeguard your bhava.” (Shiksha Patra 29.1, translated by Shyamdas and Vallabhdas). The Path of Grace outlines practical means to protect one’s chitta prasadanam: only eat prasad, food that has first been offered to God, and even water should be offered before drinking; keep good association (satsang); listen to accounts of Shri Krishna’s lilas; sing His praises and always chant the refuge mantra, Shri Krishna Sharanam Mama.

As you can see, there are many sources of holy advice. It seems like if we were able to incorporate at least some of these precious jewels offered by blessed beings into our daily lives, we could experience a little serenity during these difficult times. I certainly hope so!

—Sharon Gannon

Jivamukti Focus of the Month, January 2014: Fed Up


atha yoga-anushasanam
Now this is yoga as I have perceived it in the natural world.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (PYS 1.1)
Anyone who is engaged in serious yoga practice has come to yoga for the same reason—we’re fed up! That means we’ve had enough.

Atha means “now.” But it’s more than just “now”; it means now in terms of “hereafter,” or “going forward.” The importance of that nuance is that it implies that whatever has been happening will now, hereafter, be different. So in his first sutra, Patanjali is speaking directly to those of us who are fed up with things as they are. Everyone has a different story about the shape that being fed up takes for them—a miserable job, a life on drugs, a troubled relationship, etc. But fundamentally it’s the same for everyone who comes to yoga—at a certain point in life we take inventory of how much is really great and how much is suffering, and we come to the conclusion that it’s mostly suffering—even if the suffering is relatively mild, like “things are fine but I know there’s more to life.” Most people are not there; they’re not quite willing to let go of the old model. Some even like their suffering and identify with it. They’re not at that point where they’re fed up enough to say, “okay, what else is there? I’ll search high and low to get it.” But for those who are, Patanjali grabs us and says, “you’re ready to hear this stuff.” That’s the good news of that first word atha.

The word shasanam can be understood as a set of rules, a discipline applied to us from the outside, a set of instructions for what we’re supposed to do next. But when we put the word anu, which literally means “atom,” in front of it, it means the instructions or ways to act that come from the inside. For example—“I’m thirsty, so I’ll go get a drink of water.” It’s that simple: we don’t think of it as a rule that when you’re thirsty you have to go drink water, or when you’re hungry you eat, we just do it. In this sutra, Patanjali is telling us that yoga is one of these things that comes naturally. It flows from us, through us, and basically if we could just get out of the way, then it would be free to manifest in our lives. And that’s the practice of yoga—the practice of getting out of the way.

Of course it’s very difficult to let go of the parts of us that disable the natural flow of wisdom and purity, because they’ve become enculturated and neuroticized. They are the ways we cope with the world, our No. 1 defenses: they are how hard we’ve got it and how impenetrable our problems are. But Patanjali is saying that these are the parts of us that are unnatural, that have been inflicted upon us, and we could take them off like we take off a set of clothes. But it’s not so easy. One hundred percent of what restricts us is in our minds and has been concretized in our bodies in different ways. So yoga practice is meant to point out to us where that energy is stuck, whether in our minds, our shoulders or our hips. In this way, yoga is often referred to as a discipline. But it’s important to understand that it’s not the kind of discipline that’s forced on us from the outside, or in the case of teachers, it’s not a discipline that we’re forcing on others. It’s a discipline that’s naturally arising. As we move through our difficulties in the practice, whatever they are, we understand that the encounter with difficulty is a blessed moment and an opportunity. It is not a fail, but a chance to reflect on what separates us from each other, the nature of suffering in our lives, the role that prejudices and fixations play in our lives, etc., and just let them go. It can happen very quickly, in just an instant, but it can also take some time; it’s not easy to shed a carefully constructed armor. The great teacher Dharma Mittra likes to say, “Get mad and do it!” Get fed up! But don’t do it because a teacher tells you to do it or because it’s a rule; do it for your own reasons, because you’re fed up with the way things have been and you want them to change. Do it because you want to do it. Do it to get rid of a cruel dictator—your identification with your mind. Do it as your personal revolution. Atha…

— David Life

Jivamukti Focus of the Month, May 2013: Back to the Future


When our hearts are full of joy and compassion there is no room for anger, fear, blame, resentment, victimhood or any of the other negative emotions that afflict us. None of us want to be angry. None of us think that jealousy or resentment toward others is a good thing. When we see those emotions in ourselves, we don’t like it-for one thing, it makes us feel bad, both emotionally and physically-yet we find it very hard to let negative emotions go.

The practice of backbending can help. Backbends provide entry into the anahata (heart) chakra, located at the center of the chest. Anahata chakra is associated with our karmic relationships with others whom we feel have hurt us. When we bend backwards, we access our heart center and allow the experience of those relationships to come to the surface. That can be very scary, because it forces us to see that the source of negativity is within us, not in the others whom we usually feel have wronged us-we can only see things outside of us that we already have within us; nothing exists in the world except as a projection of our own minds. How we have treated others in our past creates the way others are treating us now. For that reason it is unwise to blame others for our suffering. Instead we should forgive and move forward, aligning with the power of love. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have decided to go with love; hate is just too heavy a burden to bear.” Backbends also stimulate the thymus gland, located behind the sternum and just under the throat. The thymus plays a significant role in our immune system, which can be suppressed when we dwell in dark emotions. Stimulating that gland can help keep our immune system working effectively and contribute to better health. Our physical, psychological and spiritual health is intertwined.

One obstacle to backbending is the fear of falling-which is actually the fear of death. The fear of falling is considered instinctual and so difficult to overcome. Fear is a safety measure-it alerts us to danger and triggers physiological reactions designed to protect us. The psoas muscle, which runs from the front of the spine through the pelvis and attaches to the femur bone in the thigh, is primarily responsible for hip flexion-bending forward. Fear causes the psoas to contract, closing the front of the body and protecting the internal organs. When fear becomes habitual, as it is for most of us in our culture, the psoas loses flexibility and makes bending backward scary and very difficult. But with the intelligent, regular practice of backbends over time, the psoas lengthens, our hearts are released of negative emotions and we experience less and less fear.

Backbends must be approached carefully. Before we begin, we must warm up the spine, which can be done with surya namaskar. Strengthening the legs is also essential for safe backbending. Practicing a series of standing asanas will bring much needed grounding and awareness into the legs. It is also a good idea to stretch the back of the body first through forward bends, which can help avoid cramps or other back pain, although doing backbends before forward bends can be safe with sufficient warm up. This is especially so if an inversion like shirshasana, pincha mayurasana or adho mukha vrikshasana is done at the start of the backbend series. A backbending sequence should always start with gentler backbending asanas, such as bhujangasana or shalabhasana, and progress through medium-difficult asanas, such as dhanurasana or ushtrasana, with the most extreme backbends, such as kapotasana or urdhva dhanurasana at the end of the sequence. It is also important not to alternate backbends and forward bends as part of a sequence. Because backbending pulls the spine into the body, while forward bending draws the spine towards the outer surface of the body, it is gentler and safer to group all backbends together separately from all forward bends, which should also be grouped together.

Essential to developing intelligence in backbends is to never hold your breath while practicing. Breathing should be strong, calm and continuous. Also maintaining an elevated intention in your mind while you are practicing will yield positive results. An example of an elevated intention while in a backbend might be to let go of anger towards another by focusing on that other person and with the inhale say, “blessing and love to” and with the exhale say the person’s name. It is best to do this silently.

Backbends take us into our future. As they open our heart, we begin to forgive others and let go of seeing ourselves as victims. We can through forgiveness dissolve the hurts that have kept us from our true nature, which is love. It is not possible to simultaneously play the victim and be a realized enlightened being. The choice is ours. With practice, we develop tremendous strength that enables us to move forward in life with a sense of adventure, fearlessly, with joy, confidence, compassion and love-the path to enlightenment.

-Sharon Gannon

Sickness, Disease, and Death – Jivamukti Focus of the Month, March 2013


Much of what we think of as “me” are actually organisms that we normally would consider “not me.” The human body contains billions of microorganisms. Non-human cells in the human gut are estimated to outnumber human cells by ten-to-one in healthy adults. More than 500 different species of bacteria exist in our bodies, making up more than 100 trillion cells. Because our bodies are made of only some several trillion human cells, we are outnumbered and surrounded by the “others.” These microorganisms interact directly with our immune systems to produce overall health or lack thereof.

We have been led to believe that sickness, disease and death are individual experiences brought upon us from outside conditions combined with vulnerability. In fact, however, it is actually a state of disharmony in the inner biosphere and its relationship to the larger world around us that creates a feeling of “ill at ease,” or “lack of ease,” that we call sickness, disease and death. A new approach to healing must first address the confusion of “self” and “other” and our role and responsibility in the interconnected web of existence. This approach would correlate sickness, disease and death of the human body as a condition reflective of the general state of the entire population of microorganisms that we call our body and their interaction with the environment surrounding us. You could call it the Green Medicine Movement, or you could call it Yoga.

When our immune system gets confused about who is self and who is other, it can turn on the few human cells that we have as if they were the invaders. Whether we are the invaders or they are is not really the question. Autoimmune disorders are one of the plagues of our time and the question is how to create health.

There is no way to stop autoimmunity. It is known that stress can tend to exacerbate symptoms. Most treatment of autoimmune diseases is aimed at lessening the severity of symptoms and replacing the missing hormones when a gland is destroyed. If the immune system becomes hyperactive, immunosuppressive drugs are administered. Approximately half of all persons afflicted with autoimmune diseases do experience periods of spontaneous remission. The remissions are not due to treatment, but to a shift in the underlying conditions.

We are all confused about who is self and who is other-whether we are talking about a bacteria or a god, in relation to me. Yoga addresses this confusion directly and practically. This approach is practical in that you can experience sitting in the driver’s seat of the bus called “you.” Yoga practice re-integrates and harmonizes all aspects of our body/mind vehicle. Vegan conscious diet promotes a healthy, sustainable interaction with the world that nourishes us. Without the confusion of self/not self, the need to eliminate all others disappears. When we let go of a struggle to eliminate or kill all those seen as other because they threaten our existence, and we accept all as Self, then sickness, disease and death are conquered. Those “others” are you. Ask yourself, “Who gets sick?” “Who gets diseased?” “Who dies?” “Who am I?” The simple answer is, “I AM”, and that is the starting point of true healing that comes from the experience of the universal community of existence that is beyond body and mind while in a body and mind.

-David Life

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