Tag Archives: ego

A Well-Rounded 90 minute Practice

1 Oct

Spritz Fritz

Let me tell you a true story about egoism, disgrace, and a bottle of perfume. It was the late 1990s, I was fresh out of law school and I had just spent the longest year of my life working as an articling student at a downtown law firm. It was a good year in some ways: the money was outstanding, I learned lots, and my parents were brimming over with pride. The experience was also pivotal because it confirmed a growing suspicion that the legal profession was not for me. Call it negative research, if you will. And so I walked away from the firm’s job offer, applied for unemployment insurance and broke my parents’ hearts.

The thing is, while I had some clarity on what I didn’t want, I still hadn’t figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t unlike that feeling you get when you’ve left Mr. or Mrs. Wrong but you don’t have much faith that Mr. or Mrs. Right will come along. It was a groundless and edgy time. In the meantime, my rent was due and I started to have anxiety-filled dreams about the mountain of student debt I incurred to become a lawyer.

Around this time, a friend’s mother took pity on my situation and offered me a job to tide me over while I plotted the next step on my career path. She was an upper level manager at a swanky department store and the job she offered me was almost too good to be true; it would’ve paid more money for less work than my legal job, but there was a major catch: the department store was located in the same commercial complex as my former law firm and the job would have had me standing in a conspicuous location holding a bottle of perfume while my former colleagues walked by. I could just imagine their pitying looks. “Poor thing,” they would say to each other as soon as they were out of earshot, “she couldn’t cut it as a lawyer. Just look at her now.”

The perceived tumble from lawyer to perfume spritz girl was too much for me to handle. My poor, fragile ego couldn’t deal with the shame, the disgrace, the loss of face, and so I turned down the job. What happened next? Well, pride goeth before the fall, as they say. I don’t mind admitting that I spent another six months or so broke and in a minor funk. I lost touch with my yoga practice, sat in front of the TV for days at a time, and had nothing to show for the time off but a pile of bills and a few extra pounds. In the end, I took another lawyering job out of necessity and spent another five or six years figuring out what I already knew—that I wanted more from my life than financial security and an impressive title.

In hindsight, the perfume spritz incident was a stark lesson in something Master Patanjali calls egoism (asmita). In book II, sutra 3 of the Yoga Sutras, he says egoism is one of the five major obstacles to true happiness and freedom. The others are ignorance of who we really are (avidya), excessive craving (raga), excessive aversion (dvesha), and fear of death (abhinivesah). He implies in this list that our ignorance of who we really are causes us to over-identify with our ego selves and that misidentification causes us to chase our selfish, petty desires, on the one hand, and cower from anything that challenges our ego identities on the other hand, especially the death of the body.

One of my teachers says we spend the first part of our lives acquiring our ego identities and the remainder of our lives defending them at any cost—even when it hurts us and the people we love. Does this mean we should abandon our egos and adopt an egoless existence? Good luck—that’s like asking the mind to stop thinking—it’s next to impossible. As yogis, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate beautiful, graceful egos, in the same way we build strong, flexible bodies and elevated minds. Let’s make our egos our allies, rather than our enemies, and use them to assist our movement towards greater happiness and freedom. And don’t forget that when push comes to shove, you are not your mind, you are not your body and you are so, so much more than your job.

A 60 minute Balancing Practice

26 Nov

Blindness, Yoga and the Magic Eye

It was within the first year of my yoga practice that I lost the vision in my left eye. Awakening one morning to the sound of the dreaded alarm clock, I was truly alarmed to discover a dark curtain obscuring my view. “It’s a rare disease;” said the retinal specialist, “we don’t know what causes it, but it could be stress-related.” How ironic, I thought I was impervious to stress, always turning a blind eye to the pressures that came along with the life of a newly minted lawyer. Now I really had a blind eye, and that changed everything.

Feeling dejected, I left my job, apartment and life in the city, and moved-in with my parents to convalesce. There, I mostly slept my days away until my concerned mother came home with an armload of books-on-tape from the local library, including some on yoga and meditation. Not long after that, I attended my first yoga retreat with her encouragement. I went seeking stress relief, but found something much greater, in the form of a teacher who would open my eyes to the depth and beauty of this life. Lying on my mat after toppling out of headstand one day, I had a Road to Damascus moment when he said: “Sometimes it takes a good catastrophe to wake you up.” My ego was bruised but I was grateful for the wake-up call.

One model for the step-by-step awakening of human consciousness tells us the sense of sight is linked to the ego identity and the strong impulse to establish one’s name, fame and fortune. Certainly, the ego-self is very interested in appearances—constantly striving to keep up with the Jones’—and it’s all too easily seduced by the glittering surfaces of things. Just try a yoga class in a mirrored room to feel where the attention goes.

“I shut my eyes in order to see,” proclaimed visionary French painter, Paul Gauguin. Like Gauguin, us yogis understand that a conventional outlook can obscure more profound ways of seeing. Like aspirants in many spiritual traditions, we train ourselves to look beyond superficial appearances so we can access deeper insights. In other words, we actively try to cultivate an enlightened point of view. This enlightened perception is symbolized by the third eye (also called the inner eye, the eye of wisdom, ajna chakra, and the seat of the inner guru) and this perception is said to be extra-sensory because it transcends the five senses.

One of the training tools we use to refine the way we see is the technique of drishti, or yogic gazing. Students of Ashtanga Yoga are taught to direct their gaze to one of nine points in each asana: (1) third-eye; (2) tip of nose; (3) navel; (4) hand; (5) big toes; (6) thumbs; (7) far right; (8) far left; and (9) infinity. The gaze is soft—you never stare—because you’re actually looking into, or beyond, the prescribed physical points. Drishti is not only an effective way to keep the mind from wandering, but it’s also a metaphor for continually fixing your attention on the subtle inner essence that underlies all form.

Yogic gazing is a little like looking at one of those Magic Eye images. If you know how to look, you can see the three-dimensional image in the two-dimensional jumble. Sure, single-pointed concentration is required, but it’s not enough on its own; you need to relax into it and be patient while maintaining your faith that there’s more than meets the eye. In a moment, something shifts and the meaningless becomes meaningful. The funny thing is, once you’ve seen the magic it’s hard to fathom how you missed it.

In the course of every life there is a deep magic at work—call it God, call it the ancestors, call it karma or the universe, whatever you please, really. The important thing is that you care enough to look for it. After all, they say enlightenment is just a shift in perception away.

Here’s a beautiful Sanskrit chant, along with my teacher’s translation, that sheds some light on the subject:

Om, guru Brahma, guru Vishnu, guru devo Maheshvara
Guru sak shat, param brahma, tas mayi shri guruvay namaha
(Guru Stotram)

Our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; the trials, illnesses, calamities and the death of the body is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby, and a guru that is beyond the beyond. May I have the good sense to see and recognize the guru, the remover of darkness.

Image courtesy of MagicEye3Ds. Can you see the hidden image? Contact me if you need a hint.