The Yamas versus the Pandemic and the Climate Crisis
By M. G. Satchidananda
The yamas or social restraints are non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, and greedlessness.
-Yoga Sutras: II.30
The yamas are the first stage or limb prescribed in Classical Yoga’s eight stages, astanga, for the fulfilment of dharma, social order, and every individual’s potential, or svadharma. The challenges of the pandemic and climate change, indeed every event in life is an opportunity to apply these social restraints, and so fulfil their purpose, to find wisdom.
The term yama is also the name of the Lord of Death, which reminds us of Yoga’s purpose: the death of the five causes of suffering: ignorance of our true identity, which in turns gives rise to egoism, attachment, aversion and fear of death. (Yoga Sutra II.3).
Ignorance is seeing the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasurable and the non-self as the Self. – Yoga Sutra II.5.
This is the fundamental error to which human nature is prone. It involves the mistaken sense of identity with what we are not. We say: “I am tired” or “I am angry, worried or depressed.” We approach the truth, however, when we say: “my body is tired,” or “my mind is filled with thoughts of worry or feelings of anger”. Our current cultural context, the media, our language syntax and our education system all foster this fundamental error, which hides our true identity, the Self. The Self is the eternal witness, the Seer, a constant, pure One Being, infinite, all pervasive, immanent and transcendent.. Everything else is changing and will therefore be lost one day. By clinging to the impermanent, to what changes, we ignore the Real, and we suffer. All desire is painful for it creates an insatiable need to have something or to be something which we are not. Even when we fulfill desires there will always be more desires, as well as the desire not to lose what we have, hence more suffering.
Everyone in the world today is suffering from the effects of the pandemic of the Covid-19 virus because of this fundamental ignorance. Unless, however, one steps back and views it from the perspective of one’s true Self. This suffering manifests as fear, anger, doubt, frustration, and depression. But suffering is a great teacher from which anyone can learn, to the extent that one is sincere. If one seeks only temporary relief, for example, in distraction or in intoxicants, one learns nothing except perhaps that one must go deeper to find the ultimate cause of the suffering. As suffering conceals the truth, that is, what always is, who I truly am, and what is the source of joy, a sincere seeker will seek and apply wisdom teachings. As concealment, suffering obliges us to seek, and in doing so it is one of the five activities of the Lord’s Dance within each of us, through which we can receive grace: creation, preservation, dissolution, concealment and revelation.
Yamas are very important observances which facilitate both Self-realization and transformation of our human nature. By following the yamas, the practitioner’s mind is tamed and becomes a conduit for the unfettered experience of higher consciousness, from the Divine, the True Self. This goal is expressed in the following:
Yoga is the cessation of identifying with the fluctuations arising within consciousness. Then the seer abides in his own true nature. - Yoga Sutras: 1.2-1.3
In the state of divine union, Samadhi, the yogic sages have unanimously stated that all life is one. If we are to achieve that realization, we must affirm that oneness and unity by being kind, compassionate and respectful to all living beings in thought, word and actions.
Ahimsa is far more than non-harming, far more than the Biblical injunction: ‘Thou shalt not kill’. To live in ahimsa, it is important to develop an attitude of perfect harmlessness with positive love and respect for all life, not just in our actions, but in our thoughts and words as well. With perfection of ahimsa one realizes the unity and oneness of all life and attains universal love, peace and harmony. With perfect practice of ahimsa one rises above anger, hatred, fear, envy and attachment. Consequently, our consciousness becomes purified. By cultivating the opposite of himsa, forgiveness, we can turn away such feelings, which harm not only others, but ultimately ourselves.
The practice of ahimsa requires one to refrain from causing or wishing harm, distress or pain to any living being, including ourselves and the world we live in. It also requires one to dissuade others from harmful or violent actions, to intercede to prevent himsa or harm to others, in action, word or even thought. We should not only refrain from harming any living beings, but in all its manifestations – there can be violence in the way you close a door, cut someone off on the freeway, call out a name, or in the sour mood you inflict upon others.
How is the individual to practice ahimsa in daily life?
At some point in a person’s spiritual development, ahimsa becomes an expression of the inner feeling of unity with everything. Reverence for life becomes effortless. Until then, however, one must observe oneself and one’s personal behavior, seeing the inter-connectedness between ourselves and others locally and globally, as well as the consequences of one’s thoughts, words and deeds.
a. our thoughts. Our thoughts are powerful. Together with our vital body’s emotions they determine our words and our actions. If we have positive thoughts and emotions, such as enthusiasm, love, sympathy, confidence, we can inspire and uplift others. But if we have negative thoughts and emotions such as anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, pride, we harm others around us. Even if we do not mean to intentionally harm others, our coldness and indifference does so. On a practical level, instead of thinking critically of others we can choose to bless them, to wish them well. By loving others however, we increase not only our own level of energy, but that of others around us as well. Ahimsa is really a positive expression of love at this level.
b. our words. What we choose to say, or not say has consequences. Our words can harm others, particularly when expressed with a negative emotion, such as anger. And they harm ourselves by creating confusion in the mind. By being silent, speaking only what is necessary, after reflection, only what is edifying for others, we can bring peace not only to others, but to ourselves. When we are with others, we can be most helpful and loving by giving to them our full attention, as a good, sympathetic listener. Our greatest gift to others is the gift of our consciousness; and we can give this by being fully present. We can avoid giving offense or instilling resentment in others by not giving unwanted advice. When we are fully present and conscious, others around us also become more present and conscious. Bliss arises spontaneously as a consequence.
c. our actions. All of our actions have moral consequences. For example, how does your work effect the environment? As we are all interdependent, we are causing himsa to the environment when we add to the effect of greenhouse gases by our consumption of meat, or the use of the automobile, or our generating of a demand for forms of energy which contribute to global warming, Ignorance of these effects is no excuse. We are responsible whether we realize it or not. And the cumulative effect is very great. In our modern materialistic culture, the predominant values of consumption, competition, individualism and aggressiveness are responsible for the economic, environmental, health, political, and social crises we all face. Even a small effort to change our consumptive, selfish habits and to replace these values with those of ahimsa will have a significant effect. We must all learn to simplify, to conserve, to recycle, to consume locally grown whole foodstuffs, and to avoid creating a demand for products whose production unnecessarily harms the environment. During the pandemic we can avoid harming others by wearing masks and practicing social distancing. The first and foremost action we must all do if we are practicing ahimsa is to become vegetarian.
Harming others is ultimately harming oneself. Ahimsa begins with oneself, including ones’ body mind: purifying it of egoism, delusion and negative habits. It then includes those in one’s immediate social environment: family, friends, co-workers, and the animal friends for whom we are responsible. If we cannot always be compassionate, we can at least avoid deliberately harming others. We need to cultivate a universal sense of responsibility for one another and the planet we share.
Truthfulness, satya, implies not only the avoidance of lying, but also the avoidance of exaggeration, deceit, pretension, evasiveness, joking, and hypocrisy. Otherwise, we deceive ourselves, postpone the working out of actual karma, and create or reinforce new karmic consequences. By leaving aside all fiction, all imaginary or unreal things, in mind, speech and action, one quickly discovers what is truth, Sat, the absolute Reality. To speak only what is true is very revealing. So much of what is spoken is so unnecessary, so trivial and unreal. To cultivate silence, or to speak only what is edifying after reflection, brings great clarity to our minds and relationships.
The Siddhas have characterized our human condition: “We are dreaming with our eyes open.” When we allow our consciousness to be absorbed in the movements of the mind, and forget to observe the underlying reality, Sat, we are lost in our day dreams.
Satya, therefore, involves observing it as the background of consciousness behind everything, and secondly, referring to it to correct all disturbances. This is the cure for disorder.
Satya can be developed first by the yogin by being present in each situation. To cultivate this, one must slow down, take a deep breath, and then tune in to how it all is in this present moment. Doing one thing at a time, with full Witness consciousness also brings one into the realization of Sat.
Aside from cultivating beingness, or awareness in the present moment, satya can be developed with the help of vivek or discernment. Patanjali tells us in verse II.26 that discernment is the method for removing ignorance (avidya). He advises us to distinguish moment to moment, for increasing periods, what is permanent from what is transitory, the Real from the relatively unreal, the Self as distinct from the body-mind-personality, the source of bliss or unconditional joy, from the causes of suffering (klesahs) such as attachments and aversions.
Discernment also includes actions and choices which are informed by science with regards to the environment, the pandemic, and your health. Ignorance of the scientific process has resulted in widespread disbelief in the climate crisis and the risk of contagion from the Covid-19 virus, promoted by conspiracy theories and social media. A conspiracy theory can be defined as a theory that rejects the standard explanation for an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot. Conspiracy theories seek to create mistrust of established authority and power. All institutions and individuals associated with “the system” are suspects: politicians, media, experts, scientists, healthcare institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and doctors. Such claims take advantage of widespread ignorance of how science arrives at facts, what constitutes high standards of journalism, as well as a contagion of fear that our institutions which support science and high standards of journalism, are themselves corrupted.
Asteya: not stealing
Yoga asks us to transform our human nature by observing the social restraint, or yama known as asteya, which according to the oldest sanskrit commentary on the Yoga-sutras means “the unauthorized appropriation of things belonging to another person.” As we shall see, asteya or stealing harms not only others, but also the one who steals. While we commonly associate stealing with the material property of other individuals, as in robbery, not paying a personal debt, tax evasion, or fraud, it also involves the theft of such intangibles as another’s time, identity, intellectual property, reputation, liberty, rights, and even theft from future generations of an unpolluted environment and non-renewable resources because of habitual over consumption.
Every thought, word and action has a consequence, according to the law of karma. Stealing engulfs our mind with dark thoughts including desire, fear, and guilt. It closes our heart, strengthens egoistic tendencies, and blinds us to the unity that we share with those from whom we steal. It is a manifestation of fear and weakness in the face of desire. By indulging it we give up our power of self-control and increases the hold that negative forces may have upon us. By stealing repeatedly, it becomes a habit, and as such we lose our freedom. Sooner or later, we will also have to repay the debt that we incur when we steal, and not just the principle. There will be interest charges added to the karmic debt of stealing. While the time when we must repay our debts will depend upon how much good karma we may have incurred, for example, through acts of charity or kindness, or other mitigating factors, all debts must eventually be paid.
The successful cultivation of asteya can occur with practice of the following:
1. remembering that the Divine loves you, and that because of this, everything that occurs in your life is designed to bring you home to the Divine embrace, to the realization of and communion with that perfect Love.
Because of this love, you will receive what you need, with necessary effort, and therefore, there is no need to covet what belongs to another, let alone allow yourself to act upon the desire, and steal what does not belong to you.
2. by returning to the source of one’s being in profound meditation every day, transcending the play of the “stains” of egoism, karma and maya.
3. by cultivating charity, the opposite of stealing, giving without any expectation of a reward. In so doing we come to know what is love and become its channel.
As with all negative tendencies in our human nature, we can cultivate the opposite. In this case, to give, rather than to take what belongs to others by right or justice.
4. by regularly repeating the affirmation: “I am an instrument of Divine Love. I give to others as I am able, seeing the Divine in everyone, enjoying the play which brings us to the embrace of the Divine.”
5. by monitoring the performance of our political leaders and the corporations we support through our purchases and investments. As planetary citizens it is our duty to do whatever we can to prevent organized theft.
6. by cultivating voluntary simplicity. This includes purchasing only what one truly needs, recycling, conservation, and focusing on the sublime purpose of life, Self-realization, through the practice of spiritual disciplines.
Brahmacharya : chastity or moving towards the Absolute.
Yoga asks us to transform our human nature by observing the social restraint, or yama known as brahmacharya. The word “char” means “moving” and the word “brahma” refers to “the Absolute,” so “brahmacharya” refers to one who is moving towards the Absolute. This involves turning one’s consciousness inwards, towards one’s true Self, and away from the distractions of the five senses. It is consistent with the Siddhas’ mahavakya, or great saying: “the jiva (individual soul) is becoming Siva (the absolute Being, Consciousness, Bliss).”
“Brahmacharya” is often defined as celibacy, which involves sexual abstinence in the physical, emotional or vital, as well as mental planes, or “chastity” which is a more positive term, referring to the virtue of mastery over sexual desire. While complete abstinence is required for the renunciant, for persons in the world, brahmacharya requires that one develop a mastery over the mind and vital, conserve sexual and sensual energy, and that one seek to identify with Brahman, the higher Self, Truth, the Witness. It requires that one see “Brahma,” the underlying, changeless reality, in the midst of all changes, dramas, and the ups and downs of karma. This absolute reality is featureless, and transcendent. To perceive it, one must first go deep within during meditation, to the silent, still ground of being, and then begin to bring the perception of That into daily life. So, “Brahmacharya,” involves seeing deeply into everything That which always is. It is not merely avoiding sensuality, the encouragement of desires and fantasies. It is really all about being present, with all of life’s experiences, seeing the One. The doorway to brahmacharya is mental silence. And such a mental silence is what occurs in the state of Self-realization or Samadhi. Therefore, brahmacharya is both a vehicle and the destination, a means and an end, in the purifying process of Yoga. As with the other yamas is only fully realized when one transcends the egoistic perspective, masters the vital and mental body’s habitual programming, and becomes established as in instrument of one’s true Self, the Divine.
In today’s hedonistic culture, the ideal of sexual abstinence and purity will strike most people as not only odd, but also impossible. It is neither. However, it may be necessary for the individual who wishes to practice it to reflect deeply upon the values and expectations of contemporary culture, as well as the nature of sexuality. To succeed in fulfilling this ideal one must take a wholistic approach and apply it patiently and persistently.
Aparigraha: greedlessness, is the opposite of “parigraha” which means “grasping at,” and whose root is “graha” or grasping.
This gives us a sense of how it feels to reach for something and then claim possession of it. In a subsequent verse of the Yoga Sutras, (II.39) Patanjali reveals enigmatically: “When one is established in greedlessness, illuminated knowledge of the how and why of one’s birth comes.” This is because as we give up greed or attachment, we begin to identify more and more with the Self. From the Self’s perspective, which ranges beyond time and place, knowledge of previous births and tendencies becomes accessible. We are no longer tied down to the limited current set of ego-based desires. The storehouse of deep-seated habitual tendencies in the subconscious becomes accessible. It is important to see them with detachment to realize the niyamas of purity and contentement. Many who do not, remain slaves to deep seated fears and desires.
Greedlessness includes not fantasizing over material possessions, nor coveting things belonging to others. Often people fantasize that if they could only become suddenly rich, by winning the lottery or marrying wealth, or winning big in the stock market, they would find lasting happiness. This is pure folly. Indulging in such fantasy simply distracts one from the inner source of lasting joy.
We are all guilty of both over-consumption and waste. In effect, we are habitually stealing the limited resources on this planet from not only future generations, but from the impoverished who cannot afford to pay for the basic necessities of life
When one has a real need that must be met, greedlessness does not mean that you make no efforts to fulfill them. But one does so without worrying about what will happen if one fails. Worry only creates confusion and robs one of the energy needed to do make required efforts. One does so with full faith in the guidance of one’s higher Self. One sees life’s challenges as opportunities to cultivate patience, overcome laziness, become courageous, and develop equanimity in the face of both disaster and success.
Greedlessness does not require one to become an ascetic, to possess nothing, although the practice of asceticism, radical non-attachment, is a powerful means to Self-realization. One can practice greedlessness as a householder, by combining dispassion and social engagement in an integral, or positive greedlessness that permits one to fulfill external obligations to one’s family, friends and community. Rather than giving up things, one cultivates generosity towards all others. One reaches out to others compassionately, seeking nothing in return. One shares with others and participates in the game of life, evolving consciously. As one finds joy and contentment in service to others, greedliness dissolves, strengthening the process of self-transformation.
Instead of being a “consumer,” one can become a conscious conservationist by purchasing only things that one really needs, that are well made, locally grown or produced, which will serve their purpose for a long time, and which are environmentally friendly. With regards to food, one can choose what is locally grown or produced. This produce may cost more to purchase, but it will cost less to the environment, and it will contribute to the local economy and to resolving the energy crisis.
To invest one’s time and energy supporting the good life that is a simple life is consistent with dharma, that which brings the realization of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. May the crises which we face collectively motivate us to free ourselves from greed, and to share, to find inner contentment, and to protect our Earth from those forces which are destroying it. For our sake, and for the sake of future generations.
We are all beset with obstacles and problems as we turn towards the divine, to reach our highest potential. It is necessary to be constantly examining your thoughts, words and actions with awareness and discrimination - you will then come to an understanding of why problems and obstacles occur, and by which means they can be avoided. By turning the attention within (Self-awareness) to observe the inner obstacles, thoughts and feelings, the obstructions will be revealed. You will realize what agitates the mind and veils the truth.
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