Monday, November 29, 2010

Contentment (Samtosha)

We are all seeking to invite more joy and peace into our lives every day.  This can seem like a challenge when life is full of ups and downs, but every obstacle in life presents an opportunity to practice being at peace with things just as they are.  In yoga, we call this samtosha, which translates into contentment.  When we can ground ourselves in faith and love and accept everything as it is, the sting of life’s worries loses its effect and we can step into a constant state of peace.   I believe there are three essential keys to attaining the peace and joy that accompany contentment.  They are (1) recognizing our blessings, (2) focusing our attention on the unchanging spiritual realm, and (3) having faith in the Divine.

Recognizing Our Blessing

We cultivate contentment by being grateful for what each and every day has to offer.  That is, contentment begins with being thankful for all of our talents, gifts, and possessions without making comparisons or feeling we need anything extra to make us happy.  We are already whole, perfect and complete; all that may be missing is our realization of this truth. 
A great way to help ourselves realize this truth is to carry a gratitude token.  The token can be in the form of a rock, keychain, bracelet or any item with special significance.  We can incorporate this token into our practice by carrying it on a daily basis and whenever we come across it, allowing that item to be a reminder to think of three blessings in our lives.   This practice allows us to recognize the blessings in our lives throughout the day.  Ultimately, the need for the token dissolves and we find ourselves naturally shifting our mind to gratitude throughout the day.
Another great gratitude practice is to keep a journal and write down 5 new things that we can be grateful for each day.  On the “bad” days, we can review the many blessings of our lives and then allow ourselves to shift our focus to the good and add to the list of blessings, even in the midst of our struggle.  The purpose of thinking of 5 new things every day is to to go beyond the usual realm of gratitude and bring awareness to the small blessings and the blessings in disguise.  For example, we may start out by being grateful for our education and after a while, find gratitude for  the lessons learned in a past romantic relationship.  There are blessings all around us, we just have to take the time to look.  In doing so, we give ourselves the gift of peace and contentment.
Focusing Attention on the Unchanging Spiritual Realm

Releasing ourselves from the bondage of the material world and focusing  on spiritual improvement can also bring peace and contentment no matter what is happening.  When we know that we are loved by God and nurtured by family, friends, and community, we can simply be ourselves and be satisfied with whatever may come.    Therefore, its important to make time for prayer, meditation and/or reading inspirational texts daily.  Even if we don’t feel like there is enough time to pray or meditate every day in the morning and every night before bed, we can simply say a grace before eating.  If that doesn’t work, we can get creative.  For example,praying or listening to an enlightened message on the way to work, using one 15-minute break at work to meditate or pray, or replacing ½ hour of television with spiritual time can all have a huge impact.  Regardless of what we do or when we do it, investing time in shifting attention from this temporary world of form to the permanent realm of the soul is guaranteed to give a return on investment in the form of peace and contentment. 
The true aim of yoga is to create a space to connect with something greater than ourselves (God, the Universe, our higher wisdom, Allah, Buddha, Krishna, our ancestors, etc.).  Yoga can be cultivate more faith and contentment on and off the mat by incorporating physical asanas (poses), breathing techniques, and meditative prayer into the practice.   We start the practice off with a regular asana practice with a mix of poses (some easy, some hard).  As we practice the poses, we can focus on being content with our body and our ability--focus on the strength, flexibility and balance we exhibit, rather than how we wish the pose looked or felt.  We finish the  practice with shoulder stand or headstand and then lying in savasana (final relaxation pose) for about 3 minutes.  While in savasana, we take some time to reflect on 3 blessings in our lives and then relax in gratitude.  After savasana, we find a comfortable seated position with our spine tall and shoulders relaxed.  We practice alternate nostril breathing for about 10 times on each side.  Then, we sit and breathe comfortably with the eyes closed, spine straight, and attention focused on the area between the eyebrows.    Then we can begin a simple meditation prayer--reciting an affirmation, a bible verse or an inspiring quote from your favorite author.  I like to use a quote from Ernest Holmes, the founder of Science of Mind, that I was introduced to at the Center for Spiritual Living Dallas: "There’s only one Life. This Life is God’s Life. This Life is Perfect. This Life is my life, NOW."  We say this phrase to ourselves silently and repeatedly.  Each time, allow the words to remind us that God is all around us and everything is working in divine order.

Having Faith

Cultivating faith in the Divine allows a greater experience of contentment.  Life has many "highs" and "lows" but it is our faith that allows us to weather the storm in peace.  We all know that flowers bloom in the spring and leaves descend in the fall.  In fact, everyone welcomes the changes of the seasons because we know it is a natural part of life and we have faith that spring will follow winter and fall will follow summer.   (At least I know that’s what gets me through the hot summers and cold winters of Texas and allows me to enjoy those seasons too because they're temporary.)    
When there are changes in the economy, however, people strongly resist the change and become scared, depressed and insecure.  This is because we have misplaced faith in the economy as the source of our good.  The true source of our good is God.  When we firmly believe that God will provide, we are unshaken by the economy because we know that the ups and downs of the economy do not affect our good.
Further, when we have faith and know that we are always with God and God loves us as we are, we have less of a tendency to allow our jobs and sources of income to define our value in the world.  When we recognize that we are all individual expressions of God, losing a job doesn't cause us to have an identity crisis. When we identify ourselves as an expression of God, neither a change in our job nor a change in the economy can cause us to question who we are.  When we have faith in the Divine, all changes are like changes in seasons, they have no effect on our stability or our identity, they are simply facts of life.    
Once established in gratitude and the spiritual realm, faith automatically begin to increase.  As faith increases, so does contentment.  The true key to joy, peace and contentment is recognizing that God is all there is, God is the source of our good, and God is greater than anything this material world can throw at us.  Peace be with you!

Ronda Jyoti Litwin, RYT

Additional resources:   

  • The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical PracticeIf you want to find out more about the yogic definition of samtosha (contentment) and  how that concept fits into yogic philosophy, this is a great book.  It introduces you to the first two steps on the 8-limbed path to yoga, the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances).  Samtosha is one of the niyamas
  • The Secret (Extended Edition)This movie is a great way to begin to anchor yourself in God as your source.  It also discusses beautiful gratitude practices.
  • The Center for Spiritual LivingThis is a wonderful place to anchor yourself in the spiritual realm, regardless of your spiritual or religious background.  You will learn all kinds of tools to help you grow into contentment.  The link is to The Center for Spiritual Living Dallas but if you live elsewhere there are other Centers for Spiritual Living, Religious Science, Science of Mind and Unity Churches throughout the world. 
  • Contentment: A Way to True Happiness:    Society may tell us to keep looking for the next purchase, person, job or feeling to fill the void, but, as the authors point out, "contentment comes from the inside." In addition to the examples Johnson and Ruhl draw from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Taoist and other traditions, they present an extended discussion of the themes of spiritual blindness and insight into King Lear to illustrate the inward and outward examination necessary for growth. Their contemplative strategies for achieving happiness take into account the pace and complexity of modern life, and are not merely a call to simplify and reduce.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fear as a Catalyst for Transformation

We all experience fear.  Every time we experience fear, we are given an amazing opportunity to make a conscious decision about what to do next.  We can allow ourselves to be consumed by fear, ignore it and shift our attention to positive thoughts, or address the root cause of the fear.  

Embracing Fear

Shifting the focus to positive emotions is a great survival technique, but facing your fears provides a powerful opportunity for healing and freedom.  This is because our fears are likes stains on our hearts.  Ignoring them and simply shifting our attention to positive emotions is just as ineffective as trying to cover a foul odor with perfume.  However, when we address our fears head-on we eliminate the stench of fear so that all that remains is the sweet smell of positive emotions.

As we continue to do the work to clean our heart, we are able to allow our hearts to shine more brightly with divine joy. By looking at your fears, you shine light on your false belief that you are separate from God or separate from anything in this Universe.  As the Buddha taught, our fear is great, but greater yet is the truth of our essential connectedness. As you recognize this truth, you are able to transcend fear and step into more joy and more peace.

Transforming Fear

So, what can you do to address your fears?  I recommend two techniques.  The first is balancing the energy at the base of your spine. The second is doing "The Work" by Byron Katie.

Balancing Energy Along the Spine

The mind and body are connected.  Whenever you have a mental issue, try to bring your awareness to areas in your body that feel tense, disconnected or different than usual.  Likewise, whenever you have a physical injury or illness, it is important to look at your thoughts and emotions.  Over time, you will be able to notice correlations. This correction is the basis for the energy centers along the spine (chakras).  Energy circulates through our body just as blood circulates.  Although energy is not visible to the eye, it is a tangible power that greatly effects the body and mind.  One of the major channels of energy is along the spine.  This is why yoga focuses on the energy centers along the spine.  These energy centers along the spine are connected to specific aspects of your personality.

The energy center at the base of your spine (moolahara chakra) is associated with fear and the feeling of being grounded.  When your energy does not flow through this area of the body properly, you will experience fear.  You can learn more about this energy center and the six other energy centers of the body by reading Chakras for Beginners: A Guide to Balancing Your Chakra Energies (For Beginners (Llewellyn's)) or Chakra Clearing (Book & CD)

These energy centers of chakras can be balanced through yoga postures (asanas) and focused relaxation practices (meditation).  The yoga postures that can help clear fear are arm balancing  poses like handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and hip opening poses like pigeon (eka pada kapotasana).  The arm balancing poses can cause you to face your fear of falling and once you have faced your fear on a physical level you can use that same courage to face your fears on an emotional level.  The hip opening poses open your hips and allow energy to freely flow at the base of the spine.  As your hips are open, you are also able to relax the spine closer toward the ground in sitting poses and thus, feel more grounded.  Poses that combine the fear of balancing poses with grounding effects of hip-openers like crane pose (bakasana), are especially helpful in clearing fear.  You can even use DVDs such as Kundalini Yoga - A Journey through the Chakras or Chakra Balancing Yoga to help guide you through a yoga practice specifically designed to balance the flow of energy along the spine.

The focus, relaxation and meditation practices that can help balance the energy along the spine are vocal vibrations (chanting) and visualization.  Regardless of which technique is used, you should begin by closing the eyes, taking a deep breath and bringing your awareness to the base of the spine.  With the energy focused on this area, you can begin to visualize the color red and chant the sound "LAM" (pronounced "Lom" as in "Mom")  The color red and the vibrations created by chanting "LAM" help to activate and balance the energy in this energy center.  These meditation practices can be greatly accentuated by meditation CDs such as Tibetan Chakra Meditations and Chakra Suite

Byron Katie's "The Work"

In addition to the yoga practices descirbed above, it is important to practice your yoga off the mat and in the real world.  Practical tools like those described in Byron Katie's "The Work" provide a straightforward method for facing your fears head-on.  In this technique, Katie invites you to ask yourself four questions about each of your beliefs or thoughts:
  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it's true?
  3. How do you react/what happens when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?
After you have explored your fear through the four questions above, your are ready to turn the statement around to three opposite statemens and find three genuine, specific examples of how each "turnaruond" is true in your life.  For example, the statement "She doesn't like me" turns around to (1) "She does like me,"  (2) "I don't like me," (3) "I don't like her."  You can learn more about this technique in Byron Katie's book,  Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life


The next time you feel fear, take a little time to give that fear the love and attention it deserves.  Love your fear and learn to use it as a tool for transformation.  When that becomes your journey, there truly is nothing to fear, not even fear itself.