I had something scary happen to me when I was driving at night recently. I had attended a class for my yoga teacher training and when we came out of the class, the temperature had dropped considerably and there was a thin coating of ice on my windshield. It was dark, and I couldn’t really tell the thickness of the ice from looking at it briefly, but I was cold and wanted to get into my car and get home to my kids and my to-do list, and I figured my windshield defroster would take care of it pretty quickly. So I got in and started the car and turned on the defroster, and then tried the windshield wipers. That didn’t do the trick so I figured I’d try the windshield sprayer along with the wipers, and that worked… for about 30 seconds, just long enough for me to get out of the parking lot and onto the road. Then, surprise, surprise, the water from the sprayer froze on the windshield and I couldn’t see out, again. I thought, well, anytime now the defroster will create enough heat to melt this little bit of ice, but it didn’t… so I just kept squirting the washer fluid onto the windshield and using the wipers, and I could see for a couple of seconds, but what then happened is that the ice started to thicken. Not good! No bueno at all, to be driving in the dark on a two-lane highway in Putnam County with an icy windshield.
As you may have gathered, it turns out that my defroster is a little on the slow side. Fortunately there was next to no traffic going in my direction and I could go kind of slow and eventually the heat from the defroster did work and I could see. Still—that was a scary experience, and I could have avoided it had I only used the ice scraper that was sitting on the floor of the passenger side of my car. You may ask, “wasn’t that rather impatient and shortsighted of you? Didn’t you just come from a yoga class where you cultivate qualities like patience, presence and focus?” I would answer you, “As a matter fact, yes it was impatient and shortsighted! What state of mind must I have been in to have made a decision like that? A hurried state of mind, no doubt. And at the same time, what a happy accident! What a great metaphor to use for the way the condition of our minds dictates our vision!" When we experience an unfocused, agitated state of mind, this has a negative impact on our clarity, our spiritual visual acuity. When our minds are unclear, we really can’t see well, or at all! Those of you who wear glasses can also relate very well to this metaphor. When you are sitting outside at a football game in the winter, for example, and you bend down and blow on your hot chocolate to cool it off, your glasses fog up! Among other things, changes in temperature and humidity cause your glasses to cloud up. This happens to me a lot, too.
So, from a spiritual perspective, what do we do about that? What do we use as the defroster in our spiritual practice? What can do we do to clear our windshields, to defog our glasses, so we can really see what’s going on, so we can see clearly to walk our path to the Divine?
In yoga, we talk about creating heat (tapas) with our practice for the purpose of unclouding our vision, and allowing the true Seer within us to emerge. We use all of our physical and mental training to defrost our windshield, our filter of perception, so we can begin to see ourselves, the world, and even to see God. The yogic teachings tell us that the entire purpose of this natural world around us is to allow our souls to see themselves, and to allow God to be seen. We get to that place through engaging in spiritual practice and purifying our minds. I’m going to read you two scriptures that use this same metaphor for attaining spiritual visual acuity, one from the Yoga Sutras and one from the New Testament of the Bible:
Sutra 1.41 from The Yoga Sutras: Just as the naturally pure crystal assumes shapes and colors of objects placed near it, so the Yogi’s mind, with its totally weakened modifications, becomes clear and balanced and attains the state devoid of differentiation between knower, knowable and knowledge. This culmination of meditation is Samadhi.
1 Corinthians 13:12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face; now I know in part; but then I shall know even also as I am (King James translation).
For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection [of reality as in a riddle or enigma], but then [when perfection comes] we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood [by God] (Amplified Bible translation).
Upon reading Sutra 1.41 and taking notes in class on the idea of yoga practice culminating in mental clarity, I looked up this Bible verse which describes a similar transformation for students on a disciplined spiritual path. We know that our current mental and spiritual vision is dimmed and we struggle with this impairment. Nonetheless, we keep going in our practice, believing that we can eventually reach the apex of clarity. We develop faith that through our practice, the Seer within us will emerge and perceive reality uncolored by our clouded mental patterns.
There is a reason I immediately thought of this spiritual lesson when I had that experience in my car. It didn’t just come from me, so I can’t take all of the credit. The yoga teacher I have studied under for the longest amount of time has spoken in class about trying to see through a fogged up mirror or windshield, and how in our practice we create the heat that will clear away all of that fog so that each time we practice, we are removing more and more of the fog. When she has used this example, in the more trying postures or moments of the class, she reminds us of what we are really doing, working to clear up that glass so we can really see. In my own practice, this lesson holds true.
Though I have experienced many calm and clear moments, I generally have some anxiety that clouds my perception. I firmly believe that some of the thinking patterns left over from early conditioning have caused the one lingering health problem I have (nerve damage). I committed to a regular yoga practice motivated a great deal by a desire to heal my nervous system and my mind.
I agree with the yogic philosophy which says that we need a healthy mind and body to develop spiritually. The one caveat I would add is that many people who become ill make use of that illness precisely for spiritual growth, and I fall into that category. Ideally, we would all be working towards our mental clarity and spiritual growth before our negative patterns encouraged or nourished illness, but in reality illness often precedes the deeper spiritual quest. Some of us need that extra push to get going. So I am very thankful that my particular disability does not physically impede me from yoga or meditation practice, and I have compassion for all those who cannot undertake a physical practice due to illness, praying that they are nonetheless able to become spiritually refined in the midst of their suffering.
I used to try and meditate without combining it with any physical practice. I do adapt well to sitting meditation and I had some success with it. I was really able to do this regularly when I had a baby who napped, and then a young toddler and a younger baby who napped at the same time. I was so preoccupied with raising my “Irish twins” at that point that I didn’t have any other pursuits, so if they were sleeping for two and a half hours, I would take an hour of that time to do sitting meditation. I felt comparatively clear then, even in the midst of the chaos of very little ones in the house. As they got older and stopped sleeping during the day, and as we added more and more pursuits to my life and our family life, I was finding very little time for sitting meditation, and when I did find the time, I wanted that time to really count. I found that either practicing yoga in a class or at home before even just ten minutes of sitting mediation was a great help, and brought me clarity along with many other physical benefits I wasn’t seeing before.
I find that through a challenging yoga sequence, my mind gets very quiet and focused. I link to my body and my breath and nothing else gets in the way, and this is the action that really starts removing the fog from that glass. At the end of a home practice or yoga class, I experience a body filled with much less nervous energy and more ease and balance. My mind is much clearer, and whatever thoughts or disturbances I brought in at the beginning of the practice have dissipated by the end. Very often, I feel like I still need a fairly active practice to achieve this, but sometimes even some slow and gentle asana sequences will get me where I like to be for meditation readiness, or simply for relaxation and improved clarity.
Through yoga, I find that I am able to get closer to what I call my “higher Self,” which is probably very close to the idea of the Sanskrit word, Purusa (source of consciousness/perceiver). I also feel closer to my ishta devata, Jesus or God. No matter what it is I am facing in my life, if I stick to yoga practice, meditation and prayer, my mind opens up to equanimity and my heart opens up to compassion. My hope is that I can become disciplined enough to experience more and more of this in my life. Eventually when I teach, I want to bring to students exactly this kind of optimism, wherein they know that the physical and mental effort they expend on their mat and cushion will lead to a brighter path, clearer vision, a greatly enhanced and more accurate view of themselves and reality.
I do believe as the ancient yogis did, and as people of other faith traditions do, that we have a soul within us, a part of us which is purely spiritual, sometimes called the atman. As I understand it, the purusa and the atman are two different aspects of the soul; the atman is the universal soul, the part of us connected to the whole universe, while the purusa is our consciousness. One of my seminary classmates who is also a yoga teacher told me to think of it as pure consciousness, and I also used to hear this at the end of yoga classes when we did guided meditations; the teacher would say, “pure awareness, pure consciousness,” and I didn’t know the term purusa at the time. Now, upon reading Sutra 1.41, I think of the purusa as the individual pure consciousness which perceives divine consciousness, transcending the mind and allowing us to see with our spirit; it can only do this when we weaken the modifications of the mind. When this happens, we can see “face to face” and know God as God knows us, just like we read in 1 Corinthians 13:12. To get there, we devote ourselves to purifying the mind so that it does not get in the way of our purusa, starting with our body, the vehicle housing the mind and spirit. I want to do this through yoga practice, and learn to help others who are on that path as well.
Why is it necessary to train the mind to attain spiritual vision? This quote from the book, The Heart of Yoga gives a precise answer: “…our purusa sees an object through the mind. If the mind is colored, we cannot see clearly. If the mind is very clear, then it is almost as if it does not exist. We see the object exactly as it is. The problems we have to deal with in life arise from the way the consequences of our actions have settled in our mind; that is, they arise from our samskara (mental conditioning). We are not able to distinguish the colored image that exists in the mind from the real object” (Desikachar, 116).
Ultimately I want to see, and I would like to help others to see as well, just as my yoga teachers, pastors, and all other teachers have encouraged me. I know that I can’t give to someone else what I don’t first possess myself, but even if I can’t impart clarity to others, I can at least point them in the direction of it. Again, in The Heart of Yoga, we read, “A yogi or yogini has not seen something others can never see; rather, he or she sees what others do not yet see” (Desikachar, 123). Speaking to his own students, the yogis of their particular culture and time, Jesus said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, in order that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8:10). Through our dedicated spiritual practice we begin to unlock the parables, defrost the windshields and defog our glasses, attaining that spiritual visual acuity that makes true perception possible.