Sunday, November 4, 2012

Peace Through Complete Surrender

Photo credit: Christian Michael,
Yogis have their own version of The Ten Commandments: the yamas and the niyamas are the “do’s” and “don’ts” of the yogic path.  Yama means “abstinence” and niyama means “observance.”  From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as translated and presented by Sri Swami Satchidananda, Sutra 2.30 reads: “Yama consists of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greed.” Sutra 2.32: “Niyama consists of purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books and worship of God, or self-surrender.”

Right now in my practice I am very focused on Isvara pranidhana, the fifth and final niyama, considered by many to be the ultimate realization of the yogic path.  It is a surrendering of the self and all actions to God; this idea of surrender to God seems very religious, and that is because the Sanskrit word Isvara does actually mean God, or in some translations, “Lord” or “Supreme Being.”  The word points to a recognition of a life force or power that is greater than us in the scope of our individual existence, some greater force that encompasses us and includes our being within a larger whole.  If we are not religious, we may prefer to think of this niyama simply as self-surrender.  Even if our interest in religious faith is merely intellectual, it is interesting to draw the parallel between this niyama and all of the well-known faiths of the world: for example, the very word Islam means “surrender to God,” and in Judaism, the central prayer, called the Shema, contains these words: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” words which Christians also revere since Jesus declared them to be the greatest commandment.  So then Yoga, along with these Abrahamic faiths, tells us that surrender is the path to the highest spiritual development.  

Expanding upon Isvara pranidhanam, Sutra 45 in Book Two of the Yoga Sutras reads, “By total surrender to God, Samadhi is attained.”  In the commentary we read that the easiest and quickest way to Samadhi or enlightened consciousness is to dedicate ourselves wholly to God, converting all of the energy we expend, all our thoughts and actions, to God’s service.  The teaching says that when we do this, we will be at peace because we will no longer be worried about the outcomes of our efforts, clinging to our possessions, anxiously hoarding rewards for ourselves.  Perhaps even more importantly for our peace, we'll no longer be resisting what is, or striving to swim upstream, against the flow of that greater whole which surrounds us. "Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life," writes Eckhart Tolle in Practicing The Power of Now.  We keep moving, but when we surrender we align our movement with God's movement.  In The Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says, “Do everything in My Name. Then you will get peace and joy.” This is also what Jesus was getting at when he said, “None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up everything he has” (Luke 14:33).  With that renunciation comes perfect peace, bliss, or Samadhi. 

We read that Isvara pranidhanam is an easy path, which also reminds me of what Jesus taught, because he said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).  However, we recognize that the simplest truths so often cause us to trip right over them, falling over ourselves.  It is damned hard for most of us to let go of our efforts, our cherished labors and the fruits thereof.  A powerful recent example of this is what happened with the New York Marathon in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  The marathon was cancelled and tens of thousands of people had to let go of the anticipated cherished outcome of all of that training effort.  But-- in total surrender to God, there are no wasted efforts. God takes in everything that we do. We can adopt the attitude of surrendering every effort to something greater than ourselves, knowing that outcomes are not for us to control or hang onto.  This is in fact spiritual truth which is constantly proven out in our everyday lives; with our senses we discover how everything around us is impermanent: our possessions, our homes, and even our bodies.  It all passes away.  We should not take this to mean that nothing matters or counts; it’s just that we cannot cling to anything.  The marathoners can be at peace knowing that their efforts were not wasted, but the outcome of those efforts ultimately had to be surrendered, just like everything else in this life.  There is comfort in knowing just how meaningful that surrender can be. 

It is the same for us on our yoga mats.  We expend a great deal of effort in our yoga practice, day after day, month after month, year after year.  We work hard to master our asana, to deepen our meditation, to reach greater awareness—and, as we repeatedly discover, we can’t control the outcomes.  Sometimes we fall out of our postures, we get sick, we don’t meditate as long or as often as we would like—but in surrender we find peace.  When we take child’s pose or savasana, we let go of the effort, and it becomes a gift rather than a struggle.  In that moment of surrender, grace pervades us.  In that moment, we begin to see how Isvara pranidhana truly is the easiest way to peace.  

Let’s see if the next time we practice, we can experience a glimmer of that peace and bliss when we simply let go, turning our efforts over to God or the Universe.  Below are two beautiful pieces of music I like to use in my practice, to remind me of Isvara pranidhana. In the beautiful words of Snatam Kaur, “May you never forget God, not even for a moment, worshipping forever, the Lord of the Universe.” 

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