I’ve spent my share of time on a therapist’s couch untangling knots in my brain. It was time well spent, a worthwhile if expensive self-exploration. But nothing a therapist ever said was as helpful to me as seven simple verses from the two-thousand year old Yoga Sutras.
I’m referring to the verses describing seven tools to manage yourself when you’re upset or deflated. My rendition of them (interpolated from my three favorite translators) is in italics below, followed in normal type by a brief editorial.
Next time the occasion arises, give one or two a try. It’ll cost you a tiny fraction of the time or money you’d ever spend with a modern head-doctor…. even less, come to think of it, than going to a movie or buying yourself a drink.
Patanjali’s seven “oars” for rowing through hard times
1. Adopt this attitude:
friendliness, when people around you are fortunate,
compassion when they’re unfortunate,
joy when they are virtuous, and
equanimity when they’re not.
This sutra is a relationship GPS: consult it when an interaction knocks you off course. When our knee-jerk reaction to friends, family, associates, strangers (or ourselves!) veers away from these four qualities it’s actually possible to intentionally steer ourselves back toward them. And when we do, even temporarily, in very small measure, it may bring us incrementally closer to our own more productive center.
2. or pause after exhaling.
This is the pause that refreshes, to quote the old Coke ad. And cigarette smokers will tell you the long, smooth exhalations are some of the best parts of a good smoke. Try it, but without the nicotine: blow out slowly and smoothly through pursed lips, and then wait for just a tiny sec before inhaling. See if your perspective doesn’t change after a few breaths. Pausing after exhaling can also add magic to an asana practice, as described in this post.
3. or watch each new sensation as it arises in you.
This simple precept lies at the root of relaxation techniques like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s popular Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or even Eckhart Tolle’s “now”-power. Whatever your experience is in this instant, don’t get swept up in it; just observe it. The itch on your nose, the touch of keys on your fingertips, the liquid flavor of the sip of coffee, or the spark of a thought in your mind,…focus your attention on that particular sensation and nothing else. And then wait for the next experience, and then the one after that. And then reflect: during those brief instants of observation, did anything happen to your upset?
4. or imagine light within you – focus on luminous thoughts.
Translators express this one variously as either holding luminous thoughts or imagining a light within you. Try either one. If your mind hews to it naturally, simply imagining a golden light within you may change your inner state. And even if this doesn’t come naturally at first, if you try it again later you may find that it gets easier and more helpful with practice.
5. or reflect on someone who possesses deep equanimity.
If you know anyone who is truly calm, hold them in your thoughts when you’re not. It may reduce the chop in your own waves. If you don’t personally know someone who stays unruffled, a favorite author, artist, fictional or sacred character may fulfill the same purpose.
6. or think of your experience in deep sleep or dreams.
This is the only one of the seven “oars” that seems to me to have a short handle, and I struggle to grasp it. But here’s how it might work. The body’s repose in sleep naturally nourishes and replenishes us (this is always true in some measure, even during a “bad” night’s sleep.) Perhaps this sutra says we’ll be calmed by reflecting on the unconscious stillness that comes to our body or mind during sleep. It’s worth trying…
7. or meditate in any way that works for you.
What could be simpler: if you can find a form of meditation that works for you, do it when you’re upset! This one really speaks to me, since there are various forms of meditation that didn’t work for me lying in the dust behind me. Having finally found some that do work, I can attest to the truth of the recommendation to meditate, and to the wisdom of leaving it open-ended.
For my money, these brief bullet points are useful than any book I’ve seen lately self-help section at my local Barnes and Noble. Let me know if you try them, and if none of them works, not even a tiny bit, I’ll eat crow.
Source: Yoga Sutras, book 1, verses 33-39