Tag Archives: spirituality

The symbol of the lotus

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lotus-587335_1280Back in the summer, I visited Kew Gardens for the first time.  One of the -very many- fascinating things I learned there was that the lotus flower, although in appearance quite similar to the water lily (which is a much more common sight here in England!), is in fact closely related to the plane tree, which grows to up to 50 metres high!

An aquatic perennial with large showy flowers, the sacred lotus has long been considered a close relative of water lilies. However, lotus flowers differ markedly from those of water lilies, most notably through the obconical (ice-cream cone-shaped) receptacle in the centre, into which numerous free carpels are sunken. Recent molecular research has shown that the closest living relatives of the sacred lotus are the plane trees (Platanus spp., Platanaceae) and members of the protea family (Proteaceae). Their isolated phylogenetic position indicates that both Nelumboand Platanus may be living fossils (the only survivors of an ancient and formerly much more diverse group).

                  ~  http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Nelumbo-nucifera.htm

The lotus flower is held as a sacred symbol by yogis, as well as by  Buddhists and Hindus.  Its rhizomes grow from the mud at the bottom of a lake and rise up above the surface of the water, so that its stalks may be as much as 1 or 2 metres tall.  In yoga, each chakra is symbolized by a lotus flower, of different colours and with different numbers of petals for each chakra.  For Sahasrara, the crown chakra, the lotus is said to have thousand petals, although this may also be interpreted as meaning an infinite number (Swami Satyananda Saraswati, ‘Kundalini Tantra’ (1984), p 189). 

The symbol of the lotus flower is highly relevant to those of us working through our chakras.  Just as the seed germinates in the mud at the bottom of the lake, we begin in the dark, and in the earth of our base chakra (Mooladhara).  We then strive to ascend through the different chakras, through our energy system, developing and growing along the way, just as the stalk of the lotus ascends through the water, until we reach the air above the water, coming into the light of the sun, and into our true potential in the higher energy centres.  The element of the air is found at the heart centre, Anahata, and this is where we first start to really change as a result of our yoga and meditation practice.  Anahata is the centre of our energy system, and acts as a transitional point between the lower chakras (Mooladhara, Swadisthana and Manipura) and the higher chakras (Vishuddhi, Ajna, Bindu and Sahasrara).  At the heart we find it easier to truly commit to our yoga practice, and as Swami Radhananda says,
‘If you really set your heart on your higher goal in life, your commitment can lift you out of the merry-go-round of the first three Cakras’ 
Swami Radhananda (2010) ‘Living the Practice’
And so we reach up to the light through our yoga practice, just as the lotus flower reaches up to the surface of the water, and finally blooms in all its beauty.  If we persevere and commit to our practice, it will lift us up to our true potential. 

 

True giving

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Think about the last time you gave someone something – your time, your friendship, a smile, or a gift of some kind.  If you are totally honest with yourself, did you truly give without expectation of return?  So often we give to others as if we are entering into an unspoken contract with them; we are thinking ‘I’ll cook you dinner this week, then it will be your turn’, or ‘I’m looking after your child, so when I need someone to do the same for me, I know you’ll offer’.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with this per se – reciprocity has been the foundation of our economics for centuries – it is a world apart from true giving.  Of course it is reasonable to expect that if we smile at someone, they will smile and be friendly back.  If they don’t, we may not smile so readily ourselves the next time we see them.  But sometimes we must give for the sake of giving.  When we donate to a good cause, we are not expecting any benefit to ourselves, at least in the short term.  We give because someone or something else’s plight has touched our hearts.  We give because we care, because we have allowed something external to ourselves into our hearts.

When we offer our help, our companionship and our time to our friends and neighbours, we may well find that they reciprocate.  But when they don’t, that can be fine too.  We help because we want to help.  Because we can empathise with their situation, and with their needs.  When we truly give, we give selflessly, and without thought of ourselves.  We are in touch with our more spiritual selves, with our sense of compassion,  as we open our hearts to those around us, and make their needs greater than our own.

Opening the heart

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heart-1213481_1280Many times in my previous posts, I’ve written about the need for us to stay with our difficult emotions, rather than to run away and hide from them.  When we run away, or try to ignore our more challenging feelings, we make them even bigger than they really are.  If we take respite in our usual mental processes, making ourselves right and the whole world wrong, the effort of holding on so tightly to our own beliefs can be literally exhausting.  If we run away and pretend  everything is fine, those same feelings will usually surface again the next time we feel pushed and squeezed by the circumstances of our lives.

Sometimes our feelings are just so huge that they cannot be ignored, and we cannot run away.  At these times, we find that very shaky, insecure being we actually are behind the solid walls we like to create –  the persona we like to present to the world.  We become more truly ourselves.  It takes real courage to face this part of ourselves head on.  But if you imagine that all your dammed-up emotions are like a fortress, then a crisis can be quite liberating – although it certainly won’t feel like it at the time.

When everything feels wrong, when we cannot feel good about ourselves, it’s time to allow what seems like a disaster to open us up, to soften us and to chip away at those fortress walls.  As Pema Chodron writes, in ‘When Things Fall  Apart’,

“It’ s a kind of testing, the kind of testing that spiritual warriors need in order to awaken their hearts.”

We find the softness deep in our hearts.  We start to dissolve the barriers we have built up over the years. We learn to truly experience our own suffering, both large and small, and so develop more empathy for the trials of others.  We begin to tune in to the true quality of our heart chakra, Anahata.  We find compassion for others as well as for ourselves.  We develop maitri, or loving-kindness. We welcome the opportunities we encounter to grow – embracing our disappointments, our sadness, our anger.  The good news is we don’t need to go out of our way to find these opportunities – we will all find that plenty come our way!

 

An abundance of turquoise cars!

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Have you ever noticed that  you see more and more of the things your mind dwells on?  When we were planning a house move, I saw ‘For Sale’ signs everywhere we went, but as soon as we were no longer looking, I just stopped even noticing them.

My son and I often play a game when we are travelling in the car, where we count  cars of certain colours.  We started off counting cars in colours that were easy to spot, maybe silver, blue or black.  But then he started suggesting more unusual colours, which we thought we would be lucky to see.  On one occasion, within half a mile of our home, he suddenly said he would look for turquoise cars and that I would spot pink!  Well, I didn’t see the pink car that day, but he did see turquoise around the very next corner!  For the next few days, he would say that he would spot turquoise – and it was amazing just how many turquoise cars there were!  I started noticing them even when I was driving on my own – and one day I was able to tell him that I had seen five turquoise cars, just on one roundabout! We moved on to lime green (dark green was too easy!) – not quite the same results, but still more than I would ever have expected.

So the things we are concerned with, the  things our mind dwells on, are what we tend to notice in our lives. So if our expectations of life are  more and more stress, bad luck and unhappiness, that is what we tend to encounter.  We will notice the bad things, and the happy events will fail to cheer us up as much as they could.  On the other hand, if we anticipate  that our lives will be generally happy, then that will be our experience.  We will notice the good, and weather the bad times more easily.  We cultivate a more optimistic state of mind.  We see the best of our situation, and magnify it by the power of our attention.  I would rather magnify the good than the bad.  

But we  all have genuinely horrible days, dreadful days where it all goes wrong.  At such times, it can be truly too difficult to see anything good in our lives.  It can seem as if we will never smile again.

At these times, the best we can do – and this can be hard in itself – is to avoid magnifying the bad and making it even worse.  Just trying to stay with the bad feelings, without spinning off in all directions, thinking we know how it is all going to work out.  We don’t.  One of the hardest – and bravest – things we will ever have to do is to stay with our negative emotions without trying to smother them.  However bad it seems, just knowing that it will get easier, without us trying to find a way out.  Making sure we don’t block out the sunshine with our own personal raincloud.  Remembering we don’t know it all.  Remembering that we probably have felt this way before, even if we don’t think it was this bad.  It most likely was, and we most likely will get over it this time, in just the same way.

And in the worst of times, remembering the best of times.  Not blocking out what happiness is still there for us.  Just keeping that awareness in the corner of our minds, and, if we can, maintaining those practices which make us feel  good.  Not to run away from the difficult feelings, but to learn from them.  Pema Chodron writes movingly in her book ‘When Things Fall Apart’, about how our emotions soften us and help us develop spiritually.  We learn to stop building up our armour against the slings and arrows of life, but to let them open us up to life in its entirety.  If we only take notice of the ‘good’, then we will never see that which we label as ‘bad’ as anything other than an interruption in the charmed life we believe is our right.  Not much growth going on there.  But if we can learn from the whole pattern of our lives, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, then we will surely continue to grow, day by day.

Saying yes to life

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The other day, when I was parking my car to do some shopping, I noticed another driver waiting for me to reverse into my space.  Sometimes, I’ll be the first to admit, I can be slow to park, especially if it’s a tight space, but on this occasion, I parked quickly and easily.  And yet, those few seconds in which I was parking had held up another driver to the extent that her face was all grumpy and tight-looking.  As soon as I was in the space, she shot me a filthy look and zoomed off in search of another space, closer to the supermarket entrance.

This small encounter got me thinking about what sort of day this lady was going to have, if someone parking –  in a car park! – could upset her so greatly. To be fair, she may already have been having a bad day, before I cost her valuable time.  I don’t want to judge.  But it’s worth noticing when we get so worked up about such small things, and how we can cause ourselves to have a bad day.  Maybe we could make our day better if we tried to snap out of the frame of mind which is judging everything to be less than satisfactory.  Maybe we could notice the good things as well as the bad.   Maybe we could avoid labelling the minor events of our lives as good and bad  – just saying yes instead of no  to all those small details of life.

In yoga, we have the terms raga (attachment) and dwesha (aversion).  To attain a steady state of mind we need to learn to transcend these two – by not being so attached to the way we want things to be, and to stop saying a  big  ‘no!’ when things are not the way we want.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a couple of posts inspired by the spring season, which came early and hot this year.  Now we appear to have gone back to winter, with cold, wet weather, storms and gales.  Whilst so many of us do feel better in glorious sunshine, we have to flow with what is.   We can enjoy the ‘good’ times while they last, but not rail against the ‘bad’ times.  We wouldn’t appreciate the sunshine as much if we didn’t have the rain, and we wouldn’t live in a green and leafy country.  We wouldn’t appreciate the days everything seems to go ‘our way’, if we didn’t have days when everything goes ‘wrong’.  But the lesson of non-attachment (vairagya) is to moderate our responses to what we perceive as good and bad, right and wrong.  To flow through our lives with less resistance to what is.  To rejoice in the sunshine, but to accept the rain without complaint.

We might habitually say ‘no’ on the inside to traffic jams, bad weather, meeting moody people, interruptions to our practice, phone calls when we’ve had a much needed early night, bills……the list goes on!!

What things do you find yourself saying a big ‘no’  to in your life?  How would it feel if you tried saying ‘yes’ instead?

Family life and spiritual development

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walk-familysunset Unless you are a nun or a monk living remotely from others, you will have the additional challenge of developing or maintaining your spiritual practice alongside many personal, social and work commitments.  Some teachers have suggested that this is so difficult to do that most serious aspirants will find themselves shedding relationships along the way. For those of us who wish to develop or maintain a spiritual practice as well as our existing commitments to our families and friends, the going might be tough, but it is possible.

In my last post, I wrote about the challenge of finding time to maintain or to begin a yoga or meditation practice within the context of family life.  Today, I want to look more deeply at how our daily lives can feed into our practice.

The mindfulness practice discussed previously is a powerful way to make every moment rich with potential for spiritual awareness. Think of the wonder a small child displays about his or her world. The freshness, the newness of their eyes.  A walk with a toddler can take so long, as they pause to examine a leaf, a twig, or a stone every few steps. Going that same route alone, we tend to be focused on our destination, barely noticing our surroundings. Yet how much richer our experience would be if we took the time to really look around us as we walk, to develop an appreciation for our neighbourhood, for the beauty of nature, and to take time to smile at those we meet along the way. The world becomes a much friendlier and lovelier place!

Jesus said that people would need to become like small children to enter the kingdom of heaven. If we pause to consider what this means, I think it touches on this innocence and sense of wonder that our children have. We need to become more open to the inherent joy and beauty of our lives.  And on the days that this joy is hard to come by, how often do you find that happiness in the company of your child?  In their unconditional love for you, their parent?  That simplicity of a child’s outlook, when a cuddle with a loved one puts so much right – we can really learn from that!

But I think another way we can learn from our children is in the way they live in the moment. Toddlers and young children are known for their tantrums and fluctuating emotions. I’m not suggesting that we start to follow their example and throw our own tantrums – although many of us do display our own adult versions at times!  Very young children may still be learning to cope with their strong feelings, but they don’t usually bottle them up and repress them in the way they might when they get older.  They really feel them!  They really show them! They’re upset – they cry.  They’re angry or frustrated – they shout or hit.  But the main difference between a young child and an older child or an adult, is that they then tend to let that emotion pass – the energy of the emotion subsides, and they will generally return to their more sunny selves.  What a lesson!  Children just are more present in the moment than us.  They may act out their feelings, but then they let them go.  If the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is taken in the sense of being in touch with our own spirit through our presence and our awareness, then children are winning hands down.

The sad thing is that as we teach our children to cope with their feelings, we could inadvertently be teaching them to store them up, to suppress them, and then their emotions may stop coming out in that same instant, cleansing way it did when they were small.  Somehow we need to find balance in the way we help our children cope with their feelings – to encourage them to show their feelings, albeit in slightly less dramatic ways than a toddler tantrum.  We need to be clear with our children that all their feelings are acceptable, even though some actions are not.  We must not make it seem as though sadness or anger, for example, are not allowed – they’re very much real emotions, even if, from our adult perspective, the feeling seems out of proportion to the cause.  We will encourage our children to share their feelings with us, if we extend ourselves, every time we can manage, with empathy and concern; if we genuinely listen to what they are saying and wonder why they are saying it. Remembering that we do not have all the answers, and just because we might not like what our child is saying, doesn’t make it wrong. Honouring our child’s individuality, and his or her right to their own feelings. Loving the fact that they are not a little extension of ourselves, but have their own unique spirit.  And helping them to maintain – and ourselves to rediscover – that presence they had when they first came into the world.

What other ways have you found yourself learning from your child?  In what ways do you think your practice actually grows with your family, despite having less time for asana or meditation practice?  Leave a reply – I’d love to hear your experience!

The gift of the present

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How many times during the day are you truly in the present moment? How many times are you mindful of your actions, your breath, your body, your thought processes?

For many of us, it is very few.  We may move through our day on auto-pilot, dwelling on something from earlier, the day before, or last week.  We may be busily planning into the future – what we are going to do when we finish work, at the weekend, or when our holidays arrive.  Sometimes, we need to process earlier events, and sometimes we need to plan future events in order to move our lives forwards, but all the time??

To be in the moment is to be fully in the present, and this is a true gift.  The present moment is the moment in which we can change everything;  it is the time when we yoke together our body and our mind.  All else is the mind moving forwards and back in time, being coloured by our attitudes, our beliefs, our hopes and our fears.  If we rush through life towards the next goal, we are missing so much of the joy of life.  We are not noticing the good things in every day – yes, every day.  We may be missing the miracle of our breathing, of our ability to move and stretch our body, the fact that we have clothing, a home, loving family and friends – and we have all this right now. On our darkest days, these are the things that might bring a smile to our faces, and give us the courage to carry on.  On our best days, these are the things that embody us, and keep our feet on the ground as our spirit soars.

On my first Jin Shin Jyutsu training, led by an inspirational teacher and healer, we were asked one morning how many conscious breaths we had taken since waking.  Life can be such a rush, particularly when attending an intensive training course, that many of us had woken up, got ready and rushed to class.  We then remedied that with a group practice of the 36 breaths – closing the eyes and focusing completely on each of 36 breaths.  This is a practice I often repeat when I need to bring myself back to the present, and one which you can adapt if you find 36 too much to begin with.  9 breaths repeated 4 times through the day, or even just one set of 9 breaths in the morning, or whenever you need to bring yourself back to the moment, can make a big difference.

If you practise yoga, you will be used to tuning in to your body in asana practice, feeling the sensations that arise and the stillness within as you move into each posture.  If you practise other exercises, you may find that they also help you to focus on your body, and to calm your mind.  Any exercise or activity can be practised with more awareness, more mindfully, to bring you into the present.  Whether you are walking, cooking, gardening, washing up, or cleaning the house, you can bring this attention to your actions and to your senses, bringing you fully into the moment, and helping you to become aware of the pleasure inherent in even mundane activities.  And bringing you into the gift of the present.