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When Negative Feelings Arise . . . Has Yoga Failed?

No one wants to talk about the bad times. Negative emotions are not yogic. When anger, jealousy, sadness or anxiety surfaces, most yogis feel ill at ease. Yoga has let them down, or they have let down yoga. Yogis are supposed to radiate equanimity from a place of abundant heart, and anything that does not fit that picture so often gets concealed, just like a blemish beneath a thick coating of make-up, marring what would otherwise be a flawless complexion.

But suffering happens. Negative thoughts and emotions arise like stormy weather, triggered by many different life circumstances: grief, relationship breakdown, work problems, difficult memories, stress, insecurity. In fact, in both the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the entire Buddhist tradition, dukkha (suffering) is understood as defining ordinary mind. This vision is not pessimistic; it is realistic. It is a factor both of the egocentricity of ordinary mind and the impermanence of all things.

Everything in this manifestation is impermanent. Change is the only constant. Ordinary mind resists this reality, and the subtle but pervasive discontent that ensues is the essence of dukkha. The Hindu tradition calls these shifting forms of experience lila or divine play. The lila flows from Shakti or primal energy. It is governed by the law of karma (which is nothing more than Newton’s third law of motion), characterized by the oscillation of pairs of opposites, and experienced as a vast multi-dimensional web of opposing forces. Ever since Shiva–the One absolute–became Shiva/Shakti so that material existence as we know it could happen, duality, or the play of opposites, has defined this manifestation.

Think about it. Summer and winter, day and night, male and female, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow . . . nothing makes sense without its opposite, down to the most minute atomic structures, positive and negative charges, up quarks and down quarks. Enlightened mind totally accepts this basic fact and is not perturbed by change, by time circling things round to their opposite. Enlightened mind can experience both pleasure and pain as they arise, without clinging to one or the other, because enlightened mind is one with the totality, one with Shiva, in whom these pairs of opposites dissolve. In contrast, ordinary mind wants only what feels positive to its particular point of view. It clings to pleasure and joy and fears pain and sorrow.

Very often the spiritual seeker is of the (erroneous) belief that enlightenment means the end of all pain, problems and misfortune in this life. But that is not the case. Enlightenment means a change of perspective. Ramesh put it very succinctly: “From the point of view of the individual, problems never cease. From the point of view of totality, problems can never arise.” It is ego-identity itself that causes affliction to arise from the experience of duality. For it is only from an egocentric perspective that these opposites become positive or negative. A virus brings pain and death, bad for the victim, but great for the virus.

The divine lila embraces the entire gamut. Enlightenment changes nothing actual in the world. But when self-identity begins to loosen, the perspective shifts. Pain is still there, an experience . . . but it is no longer understood as originating in or controlled by the “me”.

Many in the yoga community hold this erroneous belief too. It may not be clearly articulated, but the understanding is there. Yogis are not supposed to have pain in their lives. The many benefits of yoga practice are supposed to eradicate the negative side of every polarity. If you do yoga, you are supposed to be happy, carefree, serene, healthy and beautiful, in a state, more or less, of perpetual bliss.

But as anyone who has practised yoga for a long time knows well, life continues to happen. Yoga practice does not make you forever immune to loss, sorrow and pain. As the Buddha pointed out, birth itself brings illness, old age and death, all in due course. If the experience of affliction arises in your life– if sickness, loneliness, grief or despair is there in any form–do not feel you are a failure at yoga. Just as the skies bring sunshine or rain, so do situations arise triggering the extremes of dukkha.

Like the great drama it is, the divine lila has its modes, tragic as well as comic. It will always be so. Thinking it should be otherwise only sets you up for endless frustration and disappointment. Thinking you can corner for yourself all the good stuff–and if it is not happening you are doing something wrong–is not only false, but directly contrary to true spiritual development. It reinforces rather than dissolves egocentricity.

Here in California, where I am for the summer, this myth reigns supreme. I see it all around me, the sense of individual entitlement, the sense that life in this world is perfectible (if only you work hard enough, if only you make enough money, or in the yogic corollary, if only you practise regularly and radiate that positive vib).

However, if your happiness depends upon anything in the world being a certain way, it is by definition precarious. True peace and harmony in life remain constant no matter what arises. They do not depend upon the flow of life. Think about it . . . fear, resentment, worry, regret and guilt are all essentially different forms of wishing things were otherwise, which is another way of saying all different forms of resisting the cosmic will.

Surrender to the cosmic will, or ishwara pranidhana, is central to the yogic path. Practice can certainly help foster this state, but not if you approach it like a business deal. . . . (You put in ‘x’ amount of practice, you expect a return of ‘y’ in terms of benefits). Expect nothing from your practice. Do your asana, your sitting meditation, your japa, whatever you do, and allow yourself through these tools to surrender into the stillness, silence and spaciousness of What Is.

It has been my experience that out of these traditional practices self-boundaries do indeed loosen. Not always, maybe not even often. But the cosmic matrix does tend to emerge more prominently and the “me” to dissolve into it. This is the gift of long-term practice, and it can carry over into life experiences too. I feel it in my life like being in two realities at once. It is as if one foot is rooted in the pain, and that experience is very real indeed! But the other is anchored in a place where no boundaries exist, and the pain belongs to the ever–shifting lila.

For me, these realities coexist. It is my belief too that as long as we remain embodied, the body/mind retains something of its individual perspective, even for the enlightened sage. The lila depends upon this. In the moment, the sage can enjoy the mango. In the moment, tears might come as well. The life stories of Jesus exemplify this truth most profoundly. But the moment shifts, and the sage knows that subsuming it all is the One Eternal Presence, the indivisible face of Lord Shiva. Jesus said the same thing with different words. He said that the Father was with him always, that he and the Father were One.

These two realities, the absolute and the relative, purusha and prakriti, Shiva and Shakti comprise the manifestation. The body/mind belongs to prakriti manifest, to the realm of Shiva/Shakti. So in your own life, do not fear what Shakti brings to you. Her gifts can lead you to Shiva.

Let me make this clear too: I am not suggesting passivity in response to what arises. You participate in the lila! By all means, do whatever feels right in every moment. Then watch what happens and surrender to it. It is the cosmic will. Likewise, do not think you need to cover the blemishes in shame. They are the shifting forms, by definition limited, bound by time. Beneath each blemish is a reality forever flawless, forever perfect. Beneath the shifting forms, your eternal nature remains constant, which is one with the absolute, one with Lord Shiva.

Om Namah Shivaya!

One thought on “When Negative Feelings Arise . . . Has Yoga Failed?”

  1. Ah Marianne, I so love your pieces you send out always very cosmic and in tune with my thoughts I just love connecting with what powerful words you write always so relevant to whats going on in my life its such strange synchronicity. It is so true when we enter the world of yoga and spirituality that you start to find a beautiful inner peace you find the connection of mind body spirit and it feels so wonderful and bang you think your ego demons are gone and they resurface and knocks you back I’ve experienced that alot past few weeks and iv been so annoyed with myself I thought id left those nasty feelings in my old matetial world before yoga… reading your beautiful article made me realise its normal all normal.. ying yang black white happy sad… positive negative and you made me realise I just need to surrender and go with what my spirit brings everyday.. thank you for your powerful words you always connect just at the right and light valerie

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