FOUR FLAVORS OF LOVE, PART III: DEVELOPING JOY
Teacher and Yoke Quarterly Contributing Editor Aaron Dias returns with the third of her four-part installment on the Yoga Sutras. In this issue, she helps us discover how to be a champion for others and for ourselves.
Anne Hathaway has been smiling at me from screens and pages for all of my adult life. But I didn't know true and lasting joy until I the day I started smiling back.
When I went to college with the famous actress, "posting" something meant taking a piece of paper in your hand and pinning it to a literal wall with a thumb tack. Then we called her Annie and she wasn't quite as famous. They posted casting notices for a semester's worth of student-produced theater on a single Saturday, around midnight. No actor who had auditioned would go to bed before making the late night pilgrimage to the Student Center, each carrying a silent prayer that she might read her own name on that wall, that she might receive that unmistakable blessing from her peers, that singular opportunity to do a thing none of us could do alone: to collaborate on a play.
A student production meant hours and hours and hours of hard work--studying, memorizing, researching, rehearsing, ripping away the layers of oneself to find something real and fresh--not for school credit or money, of course, but for the possibility of a deep experience, wide exposure and, oh holy glory, for the praise. Even though it meant scant sleep and minimal socializing, I was proud of my decision to become a Philosophy major and maintain my devotion to theater on the side. I was proud of my decision to go to a Liberal Arts college instead of a performance conservatory, even though many people were surprised or disappointed by the choice. I rarely experienced jealousy back then. My life was rich and full and challenging and engaging and I trusted completely that I was in the right place at the right time.
One Saturday night, early in the Fall term, Annie and I were at a party in a friend's dorm room, counting down the minutes until midnight. We ran out of the noisy, smoky fete together, approached the board uncertain, and then squealed and squeezed one another mid-air once we came close enough to see. Each of us had earned the lead in our respective pet project. Equally vindicated, mutually victorious, harmoniously celebratory, we made an effervescent ascent back up to the party. We cheersed bad beer but it might as well have been the finest Champagne. It felt good.
Fast forward a few years and I was lost. For my whole life I had shown promise as a student, actor and writer. Now I was barely paying rent at crappy jobs, half-heartedly auditioning for plays and films, scribbling promises in my journal to write more and then not opening the pages again for months. I pretended bohemian sophistication and ease as I distracted myself with social engagements and romantic adventures. I discovered that no amount of admiring men could prove to me my value. No amount of clinking glasses at night could convince me that the day had yielded something worth celebrating. I discovered that, without the patience, hard work and true fruits of the harvest, a festival lacks meat and meaning.
Meanwhile, Annie's acting career began to really blossom. She was showing up on red carpets in designer dresses. I was clutching my magnum of Yellow Tail on the cold walk back from the bulletproof liquor store. She was getting sophisticated, challenging and nuanced roles in fantastic films. I was starving my creative self with mindless jobs. She was winning acclaim and awards. I assumed that everyone who had ever known me was shaking their head, wondering what had gone wrong. She was beaming and singing and dancing on lit stages. I felt unseen, disconnected, a grand scream growing inside of me.
The scream wasn't a, "Help me! I don't know how to do this!" That would have been too honest. That might have brought me the humility and heartbreak space that invite outside assistance. No, my scream was a proud and raging denial. It was, "I know! I'm not an idiot!" I felt certain that I was a terrible disappointment and I wanted to save myself the ultimate embarrassment of being failure AND a fool. So I carried with me always the deepest self-disdain. I hated myself the most, so that no one else could.
I was miserably struggling to do the impossible--to catch up to someone else on her unique path--when I stumbled across the existence of my very own.
JOY FOR VIRTUE : THE THIRD FLAVOR OF LOVE
This is the third of our four-part series inspired by sutra 1.33 of Master Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Here is the famous sutra in Sanksrit.
maitri karuna mudita upeksanam
sukha dukha punya apunya
visayanam bhavantah citta prasadanam
My favorite translator of the text is Mukunda Stiles. Here is how he renders it: "By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward happiness, compassion toward suffering, delight toward virtue, and equanimity toward vice, thoughts become purified and the obstacles to self-knowledge are lessened."
Friendliness, compassion, delight and equanimity are four different ways to meet your fellow humans with respect and care--in other words, four different flavors of love. Sometimes you meet happiness, sometimes suffering; sometimes you meet people who are committing good acts, sometimes you meet people committing negative acts. As you move through your day it is hard to say what kind of situation you will encounter, but Patanjali says that it is always possible to meet it with love if you can cultivate these four responses.
And not only is it possible, it is necessary if we want to experience the inner well being required for reaching the goals of yoga. Otherwise, the thoughts that have been growing out of false beliefs will lead us into delusion, and negative emotions will close us off from evolving.
In Part III we focus on mudita for punya: when you see a virtuous person, or a person enjoying success, respond with joy and celebration.
When I felt like a failure, seeing Annie's success made me jealous. Seeing the world value her highly brought up a fear that I was not valued enough.
Most often when I encounter punya, I do feel delight. When I hear a great song or see a beautiful work of art, or learn of a brave or generous deed, I rejoice. I say, "Hell yes!" Or in yoga language: "Jai!," which translates to, "Victory!" Victory to punya! Victory to that person who made this world a better place! Victory to the goodness of humans! Jai jai jai!
But at other times I can't appreciate the great person or their contribution because I'm too caught up in the regret that I didn't contribute it. So instead of celebration, I experience jealousy, a greedy grasping at more greatness for myself.
Punya disturbs us when we want some aspect of another person's goodness: their good qualities, their good name or their good status. Back in Part I we looked at how many of us have a grabby and covetous response to seeing another person's sukha, or pleasure. Seeing Annie's punya triggered a similar knee-jerk reaction, but instead of craving her pleasant experiences, I wanted her place in the world.
And in Part II we saw how pushing away dukha, the suffering of another being, just creates more suffering for ourselves. Refusing the more challenging aspects of being alive actually closes us off from the wisdom and healing that we really desire. Yet, through the lens of jealousy, I didn't see Annie as a person who deserved compassion. As is often the case with people who achieve fame, it became difficult to register her as a normal person who sometimes suffers. And when I did catch wind of challenges befalling her, I felt hard against the news. As if, because she had so much punya, she deserved to experience some difficulty in her life. Where's the love or the logic there?
When I felt so bereft of value and saw Annie seeming so full of it, I couldn't do my other yoga practices properly. When I objectified her by naming her "rival," I stopped treating her like a person deserving friendship and compassion.
I wanted to be recognized and respected by others. That on its own is a perfectly healthy instinct. I was born into an amazing world made up of diverse and interconnected individuals. To be concerned about how I fit into the whole, to feel driven to add value to it, that comes from an essential and beautiful place. But when four false beliefs got grafted onto this drive, a natural instinct morphed into a gnarly neurosis. Jealousy was born.
False belief #1. That receiving positive feedback is what makes us valuable.
In Part I we were driving ourselves nuts in an endless search for pleasure. Here we have graduated into a more social tier of being but we are still stuck in suffering. Now we have an insatiable longing for praise.
It wasn't the fact that Anne Hathaway was adding more value to the world that bothered me, it was that others perceived her to be. In the moments of jealousy I wasn't asking, "Am I adding value to the world?" I was asking, "Am I impressing people?" How many roles I was chosen for and were they the best and the biggest? Does it seem like I'm better than others? I had developed an addiction to external validation.
American performing artist, Lady Gaga and Australian model and social media star, Essena O'Neill, have both recently commented on the suffering that chasing after praise creates. It surprised many people to hear how these enviable women failed to find satisfaction "winning" in a world of surface images. Famous or not, we all have our own ways of obsessing over image. If you're wondering what yours are, just think about what you boast about loudly when you go home for the holidays or what you post about proudly on social media. The more addicted we become to pats on the back, to getting our "likes" and hearts and shares, the more obstacles we create to a calm mind and kind relationships.
To receive negative feedback with grace and honesty and integrity is a skill that every successful person must develop. Ask anyone whom you admire for their story and it certainly won't be one of endless praise and zero criticism. But when I am oriented toward receiving maximum praise I cannot receive the benefits of hearing critiques. Anything that smells less than rosy prompts me to either throw it back at the person who delivered it, or to drink it in completely and become mired in self-doubt.
Addiction to positive feedback strips us of the art of listening. When I am too busy doing whatever I think might garner approval, I can't have an actual dialogue with the person right in front of me. If I never take a quiet rest away from my attempt to impress those around me, I end up exhausting them and even making them feel undervalued and unheard.
And then there is no time to become attuned to the subtle instruments of inner knowing, the ones that had steered me so well for most of my life. The inner compass nudges knowledge instead of printing out detailed instructions. It doesn't say, "You are a 30% worse person than your average peer! Become a dentist to increase your score!" It might indicate hotter or colder, as you pursue being the best you. If you can learn its nuanced language you might hear whether you are a little too stuck here or a little too loose there in your unique unfolding. If you listen, it might say, this brings you pain, try something else. Oh, but this brings you joy! Go deeper...
False belief #2. That someone else receiving validation takes some away from me.
The second false belief is that someone else receiving validation automatically takes some away from me. I was acting as if Annie's honor and renown meant that there was less for me. I was already starved for praise, but the false sense that I had to compete for it transformed me from a pathetic beggar into a fiendish thief.
When we were in college my peace was never disturbed by my friend's success because I felt confident that there were enough roles to go around. If Annie's name hadn't been on the board that Fall night, it would have dampened my joy. But in the years of uncertainty that followed, I lost that collaborative spirit. The fear of "not enough" took me from a sense of WE to a selfish prioritizing of ME.
False belief #3. That I am separate from others.
This takes us to the false belief that I can stand outside of the world, which is a deep theme throughout all the Yoga Sutras. Anytime that I think of ME as entity outside of WE, I have fallen under the delusion of separateness. The most famous sutra is Sutra I.2, Yogas citta vritti narodaha. "Yoga is the stilling of the whirling thoughts." And later in Book 4, sutras 4 and 5, Patanjali tells us that all manufactured thoughts come from one single thought--that I am separate. Trace back any false and disturbing citta to its very source and you will find this idea of separateness.
If we take the perspective of wholeness instead of separateness, all the falsehoods unravel. It makes jealousy seems absurd. From the perspective of "the Whole," what Nisargadatta here calls, "Life," it makes no sense to have "Aaron" steal goodness from "Annie." Life actually contains both beings and both are equally valid, worthy and important to the whole. So stealing goodness from one and moving it to the other is shifting furniture around the room at best and the recipe for unnecessary conflict, confusion and suffering at worst.
Asking, "How can I have the most punya?" means asking, "How can I best take care of this world?" And that means asking, "How can I best take care of my fellow humans?" Because my world is made up of all of you. You are all my family, all my responsibility, all my teachers and students, all my home and all my adventure. You are my world, People. So if I want to have a world full of punya, a world full of goodness and virtue, then I better learn how to love you all.
Enter false belief #4. That an individual human being is a replaceable object.
Loving everyone requires the realization that everyone is different. This points to yet another false belief: that I am a replaceable object. I was acting as if Annie's gifts and virtues could make my own less relevant. Before I could uproot jealousy I would have to see that, while we are not separate, neither are we the same, and no single individual can take away the inherent value of another.
This delusion wasn't with us in Parts I and II. Then we were obsessed with the body--sukha and dukha, pleasure and pain--and there was no doubt that the individual embodied experience was valid. But once we discovered society and turned our gaze out to it, once we began comparing ourselves to others, we became subject to the illusion that all of us is the same.
Under the influence of jealousy I had created a false and vacuous self--one that I thought my society would like--and became fixated on maintaining this image, fluffing this profile, propping up this projection called "Aaron." I acted as if the success of my image was what mattered most of all and my superiority could be measured by stacking people into worst, better and best. Sometimes I believed myself to be high up on my imaginary graph, and sometimes desperately low. Contemporary Western psychology calls one a superiority complex and the other an inferiority complex, depending on the imagined position upon this invented graph, but it’s really just two ends of the same delusion of replaceability.
No wonder I was so unhappy. I had created a world of boxes, blacks and whites. Instead of a world of shades and hues and notes and harmonies, I had made us all nodes on a graph. In truth the world is co-created by endless interactions among countless unique parts. In truth there can be no such thing as having the "most"punya, because punya derives from being most real, the most authentic, the most YOU version of you.
Each of us has her own tools, passions, areas of expertise, talents and propensities. Each has her own story of bravery and becoming, each her own precious corner of the world to take care of, each her own profound calling and purpose. No one could possibly do a better job at being me. And it is absurd to think that I could possibly compete with you at being you and living your life.
A truly successful person is not someone who we can evaluate by bank accounts, fame, Instagram photos or Facebook statuses. You are a truly successful person when you own your immeasurable qualities and quirks and callings and allow them to all work together like a singular symphony. You are virtuous when you respond in trustful harmony to your world when it begs you for that divine one-of-a-kind music that is a human you.
Mudita for punya. Those who unabashedly own their fabulousness naturally evoke a joyous response. What a gift they bring to to us all, being so present and so aligned with their inner truth. The others are imitating success, creating more obstacles to their own peace and wholeness and well being. And those people deserve our deepest karuna, compassion, because we have all tried to imitate success and now we know that it only leads to suffering.
THE SOLUTION : TAKE DELIGHT IN VIRTUE
I was called to be a yoga teacher for years before I dared to answer. The yoga studio was a rare place where I felt free from the suffocation of self-loathing and the twisted tension of jealousy. I found a deep sense of mudita every moment that I spent there. Unprompted and often, people told me I should become a yoga teacher--close friends and strangers alike would randomly reveal the premonition that it was for me. I shook my head and pushed aside the idea every time.
My inner compass was sending me flashes of mudita to light up the path that that would take me home to myself. But in those days, my list of potential careers included "Acclaimed Author," "Famous Actress," and "Esteemed Professor." Could I get approval by doing something so "out there" as teaching yoga? What would happen if I turned away from the activites for which I had received validation in the past? I was shaking my head because I wasn't sure where on the scale from SHITTY JOB to AMAZING JOB "yoga teacher" went.
I found my calling when I was able to stop caring about everyone else's expectations of me and just follow that inner joy. And, for a bit, I thought I might have beat jealousy. But those false beliefs were still planted deep. When I transitioned from excited, open yoga student to insecure, novice yoga teacher, the place that had been refuge became my own personal war zone. Anytime that I attended another teacher's class I wouldn't be in my practice at all. Instead of focusing on my drishti, I would be wondering if the other yogis in the room preferred this teacher, instead of listening to my breath I would be desperately straining to discover what was missing from my own offerings, instead of ease and wholeness, a terror was growing.
I became especially competitive with one popular teacher. When I was still in training I loved taking her classes. She had such a calming, kind and playful presence. Her sequences were intelligent and creative and had always left me feeling fantastic. Not anymore. A competitive attitude turned my supple student's palm into a professional's stiff fist.
I was preventing myself from receiving the gifts of the teachers around me, no matter how wonderful their offerings. When would I be satisfied? Did I think that one day I would be THE BEST yoga teacher ever? That I would arrive right at "the top" one day, with everyone who once inspired me now my supplicants?
Just stop reading for a moment and try to imagine being "the best" at whatever you do, with no one else performing at your level.
It doesn't feel like a Champagne moment, to me. It feels cold, lonely, uninspiring and damn unlikely to boot. But by the logic of these false beliefs, I would be a great success if one day I was rolling my eyes at the Dalai Lama, thinking, "That guy's not so great."
One December my "rival" gave me a lovely, delicate mala as a holiday present. (I hadn't gotten her anything.) She brought it back all the way from India. (I had never been to yoga's birthplace.) It didn't feel like a gift at all. It felt like inexorable evidence of her superiority. When she gave it to me, the mala felt hot in my hands, a reminder of how far I was from the goal of yoga. I put it around the neck of my Buddha statue when I got home, hoping that he could cultivate enough mudita for us both.
I had followed an inner delight and a deep sense of purpose to this career. But the question that had started as, "How can I best help the students?" had devolved into, "How can I be the most popular teacher?" As so often happens, something born of true love had been hijacked by the sneaky ego.
Sutra I.33 is showing us four ways to get back to the original, unadulterated love at the source of all we do. Maitri and karuna taught us to see ourselves in other beings and wish them all more happiness and less suffering. They teach: I am everyone. In the final part of our series, upeksha will teach us how to own our nothingness and say: I am no one. But mudita, has a special and equally vital lesson to share. How to say: I am someone! And that someone is just right.
The four false beliefs started to uproot themselves and move up to the surface when I learned how to embrace fullness, possibility, diversity, happenstance, nuance, collaboration, freedom and individuality in my own daily life. Rather than wondering if it would make me better than anyone else, I started diving deeply into exactly what I felt called to study. Rather than trying to reproduce the yoga practices precisely as they had been administered by others, I started to create my own daily rituals that felt good. I took cues from my child self and incorporated lots of singing and sketching and dancing and time in nature, to compliment my meditation and asana. Instead of looking outside of myself for all the answers, I began looking within and asking, "How does it feel?"
I finally started writing everyday, not because I wanted praise for what I wrote, but because it helped me organize my own thoughts and prompted spontaneous realizations that aided my own life. As I began to work from joy and inner necessity instead of a craving for outer rewards, the insights came stronger, the clarity came deeper and I began to get the sense that I was a host or a conduit for my life's work, instead of its maker.
Having an audience was extremely helpful of course. Instead of competing with everyone in my world, or asking them to like me, I started to orient myself toward creating value for them. I listened eagerly for feedback but I took the positive and the negative with equal hunger, as they both satisfied my deep desire to have an honest and meaningful exchange. I was learning how to be in communion with the world, in conversation with my students, in collaboration with the other amazing teachers in my community and beyond.
Around this time, I got the urge to lead a long-form meditation workshop. I had no model for how to prepare it or teach it. I was stepping way out on a limb yet somehow I didn't feel nervous at all. In the end it was the most popular and well-received workshop that I had ever taught and the smoothest to create. The course felt like it had been preparing itself without my even being aware, like it had been growing underground and, with just a little bit of light and water, it emerged on its own, fully mature and vibrant and right.
I had struck on what my teacher Adyashanti calls one's "vitality source." Joseph Campbell famously called it "following your bliss." We might call it mudita, taking delight in the opportunity to dance the world into being. It ushered in a whole new relationship to my work and a whole new stage of my career. One that felt so much more intuitive, creative and fluid. I didn't have to do so much stressing or manipulating to produce content anymore and I didn't twist myself up in such knots trying to figure out if my offering was acceptable or not.
Don't get me wrong. I still work hard, I still struggle, I still face big doubts, I still make huge mistakes. But that fear that I might not have value can't shout louder than the humming embrace from my world. I don't get so hung up by the fear that I am not good enough. If I lose a sense of mudita, it means that I must re-dedicate myself to the truths that have revealed themselves to me, and to the sadhanas that helped reveal them.
Now, when I get lost, I take a deep breath and return to a posture of earnest listening. Eventually I hear my way home again, guided by the joyful sound of a million moments of living, re-routed to the celebration at the center of me.
THE SADHANAS: practices for uprooting false beliefs and developing mudita
1. mudita meditation > Think of someone whose work in the world is a gift to mankind, someone who has made our lives here better. Someone who makes you think, "Wow! I’m so grateful that person came along and did their work.” Sit with that feeling of joy and gratitude. That’s mudita. Practice cultivating this for other people, working your way toward someone with whom you feel competitive.
2. work with your fifth and sixth chakras > The fifth, vishuddha chakra, is at your throat and is your center or self-expression, the home of your true and authentic voice. When it is out of balance one feels disconnected with the Truth, directionless and incapable of communicating clearly. The sixth is the ajna chakra, found at the third eye. It is your center of intuition, of innate wisdom. When this is clogged or out of balance we are confused and constantly looking outside of us for an authority figure to tell us what to do.
3. mantra > “So hum” or “I am.” Get in touch with the feeling of simply Being, of I-am-ness
4. visualization > Think of your "rival." Now picture that person as a fellow superhero who works side-by-side with you, sharing a mutual mission to promote the well-being of your shared world. You both have your unique superpowers and instead of competing, imagine that you bolster one another, complement one another and form one big fierce field of awesome. See you both walking side by side in slow motion, like total badasses, ready to fight the real enemies out there: fear, ignorance and hatred.
5. call the child-teacher > Sit quietly and take a few full, even breaths. Then call your child self to you. Ask him or her what you you need to know. Listen.
6. spend time indulging in how delightful this world is, just appreciating this blessed moment
For the last session of that workshop series, I felt inspired to take the mala from the Buddha's neck. As I sat with the last lingering student at the end of the night, listening to her account of how the meditation workshop had helped her, my fingers were sliding the mala back and forth on my wrist, admiring the cool, smoothness of the little glass beads, feeling the sweet, secret clink they made when they touched. Then, without warning, the integrity of the sensation gave way. I looked down to see that the thread had snapped neat and clean without losing a bead.
They say that when a mala breaks, a cycle has ended. I wasn't thinking some profound thought at that moment. My attention wasn't on my own thoughts, or on the image that I was projecting, but on this unique person right in front of me as she told me her singular story. I was serving the world that I had been given, fully immersed in the entirety of this moment which would never come again.
The broken mala sits on my altar now, a reminder that I am on a path that is wild and mine, roaming and centered, connected and unique, authentic and adaptive. It is a symbol of how, with love and patience, I made my life into a thing that no one else could stick a grade on, pass judgement on, or take away. The mala is a celebration of one of many moments that found me in just the right place at the right time. When I see it I know I can always come home to me. And it feels good.
I still have jealous feelings arise sometimes. But there is a space that follows. Before, a bead of envy felt an inevitable beginning to delusion, then suffering, then disappointment and back again, around and around and around. The yoga practice opened the window for a more logical and loving choice. It broke the chain so I might run my fingers across a different shape. Increasingly I am able to choose mudita. Whether I am taking an amazing yoga class, listening to a student's brave story or smiling back at Annie's beautiful grin from a billboard, I keep coming back to what a delight it is, what a privilege it is, to be here.
ABOUT Aaron dias
Aaron is a yoga teacher and Contributing Editor for Yoke Quarterly. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.