Heating Up and Steeping for Time.

I’ve been searching for a tea kettle for a while now.

It seems like this should be a very easy task, but thus far it hasn’t been. I can find kettles that have decent reviews, but are not appealing or are so modern they will look silly in my kitchen. I can locate kettles that look gorgeous, but are priced outrageously. I can see kettles that are medium priced and lovely, but are glass and likely to shatter. Many kettles seem to suffer from rusting, flaking, or peeling, and longevity is an issue.

It all makes me wonder why it is so challenging to find the perfect tea kettle, and why I am so intent on the perfect tea kettle.

At the bottom, a tea kettle is only a mechanism to  heat water. I could do this in the microwave. I could use a pot on the stove. Yet, there seems to be a need for a kettle to heat the water the right way.

Making tea is complicated, like making life.

The tea kettle is but one component of making tea, but it’s an important one. The water needs to be sufficiently hot, but not so hot that it causes the tea to become bitter, or so over-boiled that it takes on the taste of the pot. Without the appropriately heated water, you simply cannot make good tea.

Similarly, in our day to day lives, we need to generate a certain amount of tapas (heat, energy) in order to create change or accomplishment. Without this heat, we can easily become like still water – stagnating, flat, taking on the flavors of our routine.

Sources of tapas, like a good tea kettle, aren’t always easy to find. Sometimes I know that I need to move or change or do, but I am inert. I see that my routines aren’t serving me, and my plans are in need of either revision or action if I am to help them unfold, but I fall right back into the same pattern. I literally get up at the same time, go to bed at the same time, attend the same yoga classes, socialize (or not) with the same people. Even where I’m not happy with these patterns, sometimes I get stuck in the phase of looking for a source of tapas to heat things up and get them rolling/roiling.

Other times, the source of tapas comes suddenly or unexpectedly. The big pile of work that needs to be done is there, and I know it. But, I find myself pushing it to the edges of my desk and my mind and instead surfing the net or flipping TV channels (often at the same time while I try to go to sleep). And then an announcement of a deadline arrives, and it’s soon! Somewhere in my head I knew it was coming, but I had been avoiding it. Suddenly there is fire under the kettle and things heat right up. The challenge then becomes preventing the pot from boiling over.

But, even when I do manage (sometimes through my own efforts and sometimes through external factors that seem largely out of my control) to get the molecules moving, there remains the challenge of not becoming so focused on the end that the process is lost.

When making a good cup of tea, the “end” is an empty cup. But, along the way, time is needed to steep the tea, carefully and slowly and with attention. Otherwise, it’s gone and all that is left is a bad taste in the  mouth, vague dissatisfaction, and the sense of a job poorly done.

In my life, it can be this way too. The catalyst strikes, energy to get the task done builds, and I’m underway. If I don’t catch myself there and turn things down a little, it’s pretty easy for me to rush through what I am doing. And then I either make a mistake, do a poor job, or miss the whole experience.

Sometimes this results in “little bads.” For example, in a rush this week, I poured icy water into my sinuses. That is not cool (actually, it was cold, but you see what I mean), but it wasn’t a big deal. Sometimes it results in “big bads,” like the wrong life path taken, or a bridge burned that can’t be rebuilt. I hope you’ll excuse me if I don’t give you an example of my big bads, but maybe you can think of some in your own life.

Perhaps, lately, this tea kettle is a metaphor for a bunch of other things going on, or not going on, in my life, and I’m fretting about selecting one because I don’t want to be pushed into action – my routine is comfortable. But, ultimately, change is one of the only certainties in this existence. Eventually, you have to heat the water. And for that, you need a kettle.

Me and My Yama

So, if you watched a lot of Sesame Street in the past, you probably get that little joke.  If not, here is a fun video to watch, but it has nothing to do with this post except that it amuses me (and the protagonist and said lama are, in fact, practicing some of what I will discuss below):

In Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, the first two limbs are yamas and niyamas.  Yamas are basically our ethical code, how we should behave in interactions with others.  Niyamas are necessary personal observances to maintain the path.  Each of these are part of yoga that can be observed in our daily lives, on and off the mat.

Yamas: Universal Moral Code

Ahimsa — Non-harming.  This can include avoiding harm to self, others, and the world around us.  Harm could mean something physical, psychological, emotional, etc.  Some yogis practice vegetarianism or veganism as a part of ahimsa, while others do not.

Satya —Non-lying.  Satya is about maintaining an intent to not deceive.  This does not always mean we will be correct in information we give, but honest mistakes are a different thing than intentionally misleading someone.  Satya does not suggest that we be brutal in our interactions with others, as the principle of ahimsa is primary.  Sometimes we may need to present a different truth, or present a truth in a different way to avoid violating satya while also maintaining ahimsa.

Asteya —Non-stealing.  This could be about physical objects (i.e. don’t steal from Target), monetary units (don’t cheat on your taxes) or even less concrete things like time (don’t be late for all your meetings, thereby stealing the time of others).  In an academic setting, always much on my mind, this also is about not stealing the ideas or words of another (plagiarism).

Bramacharya — Sexual responsibility and restraint.  In the  most restrictive sense, this yama could be about celibacy.  But, for most of us, it’s more about treating each other with sexual respect.  Don’t objectify others.  Don’t guilt/push/connive others into sexual activity.  Behave in such a way that all sexual thoughts and acts are mutually uplifting (thanks for this phrasing, Beth) for all involved.

Aparaigraha — Non-grasping, non-coveting.  To some degree, coveting what we don’t have or what others has seems to be a natural part of our animal natures, but it’s not something we have to give into.  We can cultivate a sense of contentment with what we have that reduces our greed and allows us to be truly happy for what others have, without feeling the desire to possess it ourselves.

Niyamas: Personal Observances

Sauca — Cleanliness/purity.  Sauca refers to the idea that we should maintain physical and emotional cleanliness.  We should maintain a clean and healthy body, both inside and out.  This can be promoted by eating a healthy diet, utilizing pranayama and asana to remove toxins, engaging in external cleanliness habits, and working toward removing the “ick” of jealousy, anger, greed, pride, etc. from our minds.

Santosa — Contentment.  As you can see, the yamas and niyamas are intertwined with one another.  Santosa is much related to aparigraha.  Can we be content with what we have and where we are?  Can we accept this moment for itself and not yearn for something more or different, the past or the future.  Can we find ease even in the midst of difficulty, accepting that everything passes?

Tapas — Turning up the heat.  It’s easy to get passive in life and in our yoga practice – to fall into patterns and habits and fail to challenge them.  Tapas relates to utilizing our energies well to push our practices a little further.  This might be through more vigorous or regular asana.  It could be through a daily 5 a.m. meditation.  It might be a process of fasting that energizes.  Establishing what is tapas will be different for each individual, as it is relative to the current pattern.

Svadhyaya — Self-study.  For some people, self study comes more easily.  For many, however, it is quite difficult.  Svadhyaya involves turning a light on the self and engaging in analysis of one’s own patterns in thought, behavior, emotion, etc. Svadhyaya includes examining both our “positive” qualities and our limitations and challenges.  Through understanding and accepting where we are, we create room for change.

Isvara pranidhana — Surrender to a higher power.  Taken literally, this niyama could be said to mean “laying it all at the feet of God.”  That might be a perfect way to see it for you, or maybe it isn’t.  But, that’s ok.  This niyama does not specify what god or what divine we should be giving up our efforts to.  That leaves room for each of us (perhaps in the process of svadhyaya?) to determine what “greater” being/principle/? we see as divine to which we can devote our actions.

So, there you have a very brief summary of the yamas and niyamas of yoga.  They can be practiced every day, any time, anywhere.   You don’t have to “twist into a pretzel” (my extended family/friend network understanding of yoga) or worship a certain god to do these things.  Looking at them, you can see the underlying tenets of behavior for pretty much all religions or moral codes, and it’s hard to find fault with any of these ideas, even if you don’t see yourself as a yogi at all.   You can do yoga 24 hours a day!  Sweetness!



Stealing from Yourself – Redux

This is a post from one year ago (September 2009).  Since we are having week in teacher training, now seemed like a good time to run it again!

During class this morning, Erik, the instructor, focused our attention on the yama of Asteya.  Asteya is the principle of non-stealing.  Now, there are obvious implications to this form of self-restraint.  We should not steal others’ belongings; we should not steal others’ ideas; we should not take more than we need.  But, my thoughts went to the less obvious forms of stealing that we engage in and should avoid.  We should not steal attention or admiration due to jealousy.  We should not steal the self-esteem of others by belittling or degrading them.  We should not steal the good name of others through libel or slander.  And, we should not steal from ourselves.

What do we steal from ourselves?  Well, I know that, in my case, sometimes I steal from myself the opportunity to change or grow.  W.E.B. Du Bois is quoted as saying:

The most important thing to remember is this: To be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.

But, do most of us do this?  I suspect we do not.  When we are very little, and the world of opportunity seems open before us, we allow ourselves to change and grow with every moment.  As we get older, we start to learn the expectations that others have of us (based on factors like gender, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, family role, etc.) and begin to let those expectations box us into a narrow range of possibility.

Over time, having learned to believe that our possibilities are limited, we begin to stop even trying anything new.  But, once we do this, we fall into a rut of being, where the self cannot grow.  Growth requires change, and risk taking. This stealing of opportunity and growth from ourselves may sometimes be about relatively minor things – we refuse to try new food, because we already “know” that we won’t like it – or major life choices – we don’t apply for a job that we desire, because we are certain that we will not be hired.  We may not acknowledge to ourselves why we aren’t taking these risks, and come up with excuses for remaining the same (“I don’t have time to take that art class,”  “yoga classes are too expensive,” “I don’t have enough patience to get a degree”), but often the underlying reason is a fear of failure, because we have learned to box ourselves and our opportunities in, and believe that we cannot succeed outside of that box.

Image from yogaguru.info

After my yoga practice today, I reflected that I often steal from myself the opportunity to grow in my practice by assuming that I cannot succeed at a particular pose.  This was true of wheel pose when I first began yoga.  I wouldn’t even try it, because it seemed impossible.  Now, having prodded myself into taking the risk, I still feel remnants of the “I can’t” belief every time the pose comes up in class.    More recently, I struggled with forcing myself to give inversions a try.  I practiced yoga for a few years before I ever tried to get into handstand or headstand, even with the help of a wall.  While I’m still working on those poses, and still feel some degree of fear about them, I also have learned that I love inversions.  If I had continued to steal that opportunity from myself, I never would have realized this.  Now I need to work on arm balance… I have a tendency to immediately go mentally to a “I’m not strong enough” place when arm balance poses appear in the practice.  But, I know that I have to give myself this opportunity or I’ll never know what may happen, so I’m working on pushing those negative and constraining thoughts away.

What opportunities do you steal from yourself by assuming you cannot succeed?