Sunday, January 25, 2009
Tapas, Staying on Task!
During the muggy Ohio summers when I was growing up, I would watch a soap opera here and there. It was cool in the air conditioning in front of the TV. Maybe I had already been to the pool, or I was just hanging around the house eating frozen Eskimo Pies. And even though I thought they were cheesy, due to my young age, I couldn’t help but look to daytime dramas to learn about adult life (however ill-advised that is). I remember the shots that indicated that the character (usually female) was going into fantasy or dream-state. The shot would zoom in on her face and get blurry or wavy, fading into the fantasy scene. This is where she would imagine something wonderful like a romantic scene with a hot guy, or where she would imagine something terrible like her man cheating on her. Then the fantasy would fade back to the one who was dreaming. Real life is a little like that. I find myself going into fantasies, and then wanting to stay on task and do the work of my life without deluding myself.
The five aspects of Niyama, or personal observances, are just that: personal. They govern the realm that other people don’t necessarily know about. Tapas, the third observance, is discipline.
“The word discipline means to learn—not control, subjugate, imitate, and conform. Discipline means to learn. From the word discipline comes “disciple,” one who is willing to learn from the master, to learn. But here there is neither a disciple nor a master but only the act of learning all the time. And that requires great deal of attention, a great deal of energy, so that you are watching this and thus, you create no illusions. It is easy to create illusions; they come when you are pursuing, demanding, wanting, an experience. Desire creates illusions.”
-by J. Krishnamurti, Total Freedom, p. 287
When I see that I’m lost in thought, I bring attention to my breath, the room I’m in, or I focus on the lips of the person who’s talking to me. I try to bring myself to the task at hand, whether it’s listening, walking, or doing my laundry. It is not easy to stay present. It is easy to go off into fantasy or illusion, as the Krishnamurti quote points out. And it is an easy road to self-gratification to imagine something wanted, even to the point of neglecting what is truly there. But, in the long term it’s easy to see the pitfalls of this habit. If I am spending time in fantasy, I am not using this time to do all the small things necessary to live my life fully.
Fantasy can be dangerous because it leaves a memory and it can affect how you relate with others, and harm relationships because these thoughts are probably not true. The only way you can know what is going on with someone else is to ask questions, listen to answers, and watch behavior. Even if something feels true, it might not be. I am reminded of Meryl Streep’s character in the movie Doubt who did things based on her “certainty” rather than facts. Experiences of certainty and power are seductive but should always be tempered with feedback from the world. This requires that someone looks, asks questions, and listens, bringing learning into important decisions.
In terms of the yoga practice, there are certain poses that a seasoned practitioner might have done hundreds or thousands of times. Tapas is what makes it possible to continue to learn in the face of repetition. The discipline is to remain aware. So if the yoga practice ever gets boring, or you find yourself thinking about other things, like a soap opera fantasy during practice, it is useful to see what is happening—awareness is dull. During practice if you are breathing well and feeling the pose through all the cells of the body and adjusting accordingly, and noticing the pose building, and seeing when it begins to fail—awareness is sharp.
It’s good to realize that experience includes times when we’re sharp and times when we’re dull. And when we can learn to identify our mental states, we can to begin to work with our selves. Tapas or discipline helps us stay with it. Don’t take the easy path of illusions. Take the path of learning.
When I see that I’ve been daydreaming I can to shift my attention to awareness of the present moment, and let things unfold from there, instead of trying to control experience with my imagination.