Buddhism, Meditation, and Yoga
Buddhism teaches us that life is suffering. Buddhism first seeks to bring our focus inward, and then to direct our awareness away from ourselves. When we practice meditation, we begin by sitting still and calming our mind. From the lightness of spirit that arises during this practice of gentle acceptance, we eventually begin to feel our heart. The mental shift to loving-kindness that we get when meditating cultivates the habits of compassion for ourselves and others. We are asked to stay with our emotions in an observant, yet, non-judgmental way. Eventually, we begin to accept who we are, blemishes and all.
Building on this habit of self-acceptance, we come to recognize other people’s inner-selves, too, and feel encouraged to be kind to them as well. Once we have reached this state of being, in which we consciously and compassionately no longer seek to hold on to people and things, we are in possession of powerful benevolent energy. This enables us to relate wisely, passionately, and unconsciously with ourselves, each other, our family and friends, and the world around us.
The Buddhist teachings encourage us to embrace ourselves as we are, rather than blindly seeking false connections outside of ourselves. As human beings, we naturally possess this ‘awakened heart,’ but we lose it as we leave childhood. With adulthood come a number of emotions that cloud our awareness: jealousy, anger, greed, and hatred.
Meditation done in the Buddhist manner teaches techniques that make known to us that none of these emotions are fixed. As we continue to practice, we learn how to watch our varied emotions come and go while we remain as a calm observer of them. Through the practice of meditation, we learn how to remain in the present, to keep our awareness on what is in the now, for example, rather than on what we are thinking about that may or may not come to pass. When we have learned to be accepting of the present, we begin to see it without the lens of grouchiness and begin to radiate loving-kindness to all things around us.
Our focus on the present eventually overrides our concern that the agenda we have may not be met. We are no longer attached to the outcome of situations. Rather we are focused on the experience of life as it happens to us. Once we have achieved this goal, we are in a position to experience true equanimity. In a state of true equanimity, we have balance of body and mind, heart and mind, inner vision and outer awareness, giving and receiving, without losing our inner focus as the world races in its frenetic pace around us.
A Brief Story about the Journey of the Buddha
According to the annals of history, we know that Buddha engaged in extreme asceticism and yoga practices. He experienced both sleep and food deprivation, lengthy breath retention, and he was known to stand on one leg for hours. In the end he found all of these practices unsatisfactory.
His realization was that by denying yourself, you end up creating an even stronger craving for whatever it is that you are denying. In a way, he reasoned that by acting as if he didn’t have a body or that having a body at all was ultimately a bad thing. He decided that it was somehow equivalent to indulging in the bodies desires.
The Buddha also realized that no matter how hard you may try to ignore your body, it will still work very hard to make itself known to you. He and his cohorts went to great lengths to try to escape all forms of desire. In that process they locked out the possibility of any genuine emotions or feelings. Because they were evading desire by blocking out feelings, they inadvertently blocked any potential avenue for happiness. In addition, they were so sick from malnutrition that it was hard to find joy.
Upon becoming aware of this, the Buddha no longer believed that denial was the answer, and that we must come to terms with the state of our existence. In this vein of thought, he decided to quit denying and to begin accepting. He understood that to open up to the true nature of human experience, one must replace punishing asceticism with compassion. In going against the grain of his peers, he began to eat a little and began to become healthier. It was through this action of eating that he found the “Goldilocks effect” – not too little, not too much.
Content with his new-found truth, he seated himself under a tree and waited and watched. While he sat waiting under this tree, attractive women tried to seduce him, and army appeared from over the horizon and fired arrows at him. As if that were not enough, storms blew up suddenly and rained only over him but not those around him. Somehow, during all of these trials, the Buddha realized that these things were happening only in his own mind. The realization that the mind can create its own world and its own problems was what brought him to a new level of awareness. In this moment, he became the Buddha, or Bodhi, which means “awake.”
In this awakened state, the Buddha was able to develop a mindfulness practice that led him to observe his own thoughts and how they constantly fluctuate. Emotions transform into other emotions, and this is absolutely normal. The shifting of emotions is neither bad, nor good.
When the Buddha learned to implement compassion in his mindfulness practice, he found he was able utilize his body as a mechanism not just for getting past the mental desire and craving, but also for propagating helpful states such as being gracious, sincere, and content. After he had seen forty nights sitting under the tree, the Buddha got up and began interacting with the world again.
Yoga as Practiced by the Buddha
About 150 years after the Buddha achieved this state of awakening, Patanjali wrote down the Buddha’s Yoga Sutra. Many people think that yoga is most affiliated with Hinduism, but it is more closely associated with Sankhya, which is one of the ancient Indian darsanas, or “ways to see.”
Sankhya tries to describe the nature of existence by separating it into things which are unchanging (Purusha), and matter (Prakriti). Sankhya teaches that the disassociation of these two states is the source of suffering and that we may be delivered from suffering by thought repression, withdrawal of our senses, and being in command of our body. This allows us to know our “true Self” and is known as the state of yoga.
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is an eight-limbed path: yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption).
As it is practiced today in Western countries, yoga focuses predominately on asanas, or postures. These asanas are physical postures that are intended to purify the body and develop physical stability. They also help to develop stamina in order to remain immobile for long durations.
The Sanskrit word “yuj,” means to bind together or to yoke. Yuj is often translated to mean the word “union,” and it is the origin of our word “yoga.” Yoga is a form of a relationship between body and self. Asanas, or postures in yoga are a reminder to us that nothing stands on its own. There is always more.
A very common practice in the west is Hatha yoga, which is a physically challenging form of yoga that is intended to align bones, muscles, and skin. The word “hatha” means forceful, and this assertive form of yoga asanas is designed to realign the body so that energy is no longer stuck. It focuses on breath & energy and is designed to create a sort of flow that will soothe and strengthen you while redirecting the mind to feel soothed and be quiet.
Yoga seeks to reach a form of balance which is noticeable by the end of a practice. When people feel this balance they become more aware while remaining relaxed. This potentially explains the popularity of yoga in the West where everything constantly seems out of balance.
Whether the mind or the body becomes clear first is immaterial. The focus is on the process and the experience rather than the end goal. By focusing on process, which is a moving target, we end up finding our end goal of balance without ever having pursued or reached for it.
Yoga provides us with specific techniques to ground ourselves to the earth. Asana means “ground,” or “seat” and it refers to how we are connected to the earth at all times. An alternative translation of “asana” can be “to sit with” – as in the meditation practice of “sitting with one’s self.” This refers to the idea that one can be aware of what is happening at an emotional and physical level without engaging with it. By observing our physical body, we then begin to see how the body reflects the mind. We may notice, for example, tightness in a shoulder, or an uncomfortableness with being still.
Buddhism, Meditation, and Yoga
Buddhism, meditation, and yoga are very closely intertwined. Certainly you can practice yoga or meditation without subscribing to the philosophy of Buddhism. However, in order to practice either of the two, you also exercise many parts of the philosophy of Buddhism.