Jesus said, “Seek, and ye shall find” (Matthew 7:7).
Sri Swami Satchidananda (Sri Gurudev) has often remarked that all people share a common desire—to be happy—but attempt to fulfill that desire in myriad ways. One way of expressing that goal from a spiritual point of view would be to be peace with ourselves and with the world around us. Such a profound goal seems to require great effort. Many of us pursue our spiritual happiness with the same “just do it” mentality with which we’ve learned to pursue school, jobs and recreation. We end up struggling with ourselves and trying to force change, as if we must battle for personal growth by conquering our wrong thinking and bad habits. Unfortunately, fighting to bring change is not such a good way to find peace.
Happiness is the altar of God within you.
That lasting inner joy is the only important thing to strive for in life.
By perseverance it can be gained. —Paramahansa Yogananda
Another spiritual tradition suggests that the source of all unhappiness is selfishness, and the way to peace is to renounce our desires. This is a deep truth. However, it is necessary to learn how to develop renunciation and selflessness step by step. Otherwise, we may worsen the tendency to fight with the patterns of behavior we wish to change rather than help ourselves grow out of them mindfully. How many of us, for example, upon suffering the ill effects of eating or drinking too much of the wrong things, have vowed to ourselves (in a moment of temporary dispassion), to never do that again. Then, we watch ourselves making the same mistake over and over. When we are under stress and fatigue, or when our emotional buttons get pushed, our willpower may fade, and self-discipline disappears. Though we may know that change is needed, we may not know how to overcome patterns of behavior that are compulsive and deeply rooted. I remember once thinking that the only bad habit I ever gave up was making vows I couldn’t keep.
Lasting growth comes from transformation deep within oneself. Transformation requires bringing compassionate attention to the root causes of our unhealthy ways. By cultivating the ability to witness our own minds in meditation, we can become less identified with our thoughts and feelings and better able to analyze them without shame or frustration. As we look deeply into compulsive behaviors, we can begin to understand that—as much as we may not like them—they are fulfilling some need. We may see how we use food and drink as a reward or an escape in response to some difficulty we experience or the pain we want to block out. Pain is a message to us, a call for healing attention, and if we can learn to bring awareness to our suffering and understand it, it will begin to transform. Then we won’t need to escape into some form of pleasure that brings temporary relief.
Sri Gurudev has taught us to grow out of negative thoughts and behaviors by replacing them with more positive ones. Taking time after work to exercise and relax, taking a sauna or getting a massage can be excellent replacements for other ways of relieving stress and recovering from a hard day. The most effective way to let go of undesirable foods may well be to find healthy ones that we can enjoy instead. Spending time in good company, with like-minded people that are supportive of our efforts, can help us break away from relationships that contribute to or support behaviors we want to change. The fresh energy of a new hobby, habit or friendship can be very helpful in interrupting unproductive patterns. The company of others making the same kind of efforts also is a powerful reinforcement that focuses our energy on a positive step verses a negative one.
Another beautiful example of a compassionate effort to grow is illustrated in the practice of Hatha Yoga. When we encounter the limit of our capacity in a specific pose, we combine our effort to move further with an effort to soften around the resistance, we attempt to let go in tiny increments. If we push through the tightness in the body because we want to be further than we are, the body revolts by contracting and resisting in an effort to protect itself. Likewise the psyche may revolt when our efforts to change disregard where we are now. When we accept and understand where we stand now, we can set realistic goals for ourselves and step mindfully forward without strain. We can develop our willpower a little bit at a time and build confidence, rather than failing in an attempt to reach goals that are too big a stretch. In this way, our growth is born of a compassion for our bodies and minds that is in harmony with our natural tendency to be loving and with our ultimate goal to be at peace.
(by Swami Ramananda, from the February, 2006 IYTA Newsletter)