Last week my teacher at the Iyengar Institute mentioned a concept new to me: the eight limbs of yoga. Buddhist practice has so many numbered constructs – the four thises, the five thats – it’s hard to keep track of them all. When he named the eight limbs that Patanjali outlined in the Yoga Sutras, I recognized many of them by name. I’d just never heard them organized this way. Apparently there is a particular hierarchical order, similar to Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs.
The eight limbs of yoga are often represented as a tree (see below). The lower branches, the yamas and the niyamas, which guide moral behavior, are the foundation of the whole structure. The five yamas refer to conduct toward others; they counsel refraining from doing harm through stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or taking what is not freely given. The five niyamas refer to self-discipline; they advocate for cleanliness, contentment, tapas, self-study, and surrender to God – or, for people who are allergic to the concept of God, celebration of the spiritual. Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy, therefore there’s no dogma, no insistence on faith or belief. That’s why Buddhism has no commandments but rather guidelines for ethical behavior.
(A word about tapas, in the Buddhist sense rather than referring to Spanish-style small plates of delicious food. Tapas is an important concept – the word is translated variously as austerity, discipline, and “zeal for yoga.” I like this explanation: “Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness.” In tantric practice, tapas is associated with “sitting in the fire” and expanding your tolerance for impatience, frustration, imperfection, and all the other obstacles that inevitably occur on the path to serenity.)
After the yamas and the niyamas, higher on the tree of yoga you find asana and pranayama, which are the practices we associate with yoga classes – postures and breathing practices. Above them are three limbs related to meditation: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (focus), and dhyana (state of meditation). Finally, at the top of the tree is samadhi, bliss, union with the divine. My teacher brought up the eight limbs of yoga to introduce the theme of grounding oneself in the basics. Before you get to bliss, you have to learn to focus. In order to learn to focus, you have to practice the asanas and the breathing. In order to maintain the physical practice, it helps to be grounded in ethical behavior and self-discipline. That’s easier said than done. For the contemporary urban person, it’s pretty easy to find a class or a structure within which to study yoga postures, breathwork, and various forms of meditation. But where do you get instruction, guidance, and support for ethical behavior and self-discipline? Throughout much of time and throughout much of the world, organized religion has provided those services. That’s the strong appeal of membership in a church, a synagogue, a mosque: to have consistent access to a community and to teachers who have spiritual authority. Organized religion can offer comfort by providing answers to the timeless questions of what to do, how to behave, what to believe. The shadow side of organized religion is the potential for rigidity, fundamentalism, and intolerance of difference or questioning. Most people in my world live outside the culture of organized religion, even those who are deeply committed to spiritual practice.
I know from personal experience and from my therapy practice how valuable and yet how elusive the Buddhist concepts of svadyaya and santosha can be – self-study and contentment. Cultivating a spiritual practice requires a considerable amount of initiative, self-awareness, and willingness to take an honest and compassionate look at yourself. I like the phrase that comes from the recovery movement’s 12 Steps: “taking a searching moral inventory.” The dilemma that comes up when conducting such an inventory is that inevitably you bump into all your imperfections, your failings, your mistakes. It’s all too easy to get stuck there, identified only with your deficits, and to live with a constant barrage of harsh self-judgments and the feeling of never being _______ enough. Good enough, thin enough, successful enough…fill in the blank. Never enough. Arriving at a place of contentment and self-acceptance is the central spiritual challenge for most people: finding a way to hold one’s full humanity – all of who you are, your ups and downs, your triumphs and challenges, your joys and your sorrows, your assets and your imperfections – with kindness and compassion. Everyone struggles with this. It’s not easy for anyone.
I remember reading that when the Dalai Lama first started teaching in the United States, he was astonished and sad to learn how many Americans he encountered on the spiritual path live with a crippling self-hatred. Among the Buddha’s most beautiful teachings is the notion that compassion begins with oneself: “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” The kicker is that if you live with a huge amount of self-judgment, being unable to summon self-acceptance or self-compassion can be one more thing to be down on yourself about.
Three things have helped me grow compassion for myself. Daily meditation practice has been an important foundation in my life for 25 years now, but something major shifted the first time I did a 10-day vipassana retreat at Insight Meditation Society in western Massachusetts. Sitting in silence hour after hour, day after day, I was forced to pay attention to the harsh critical judge in my head constantly blasting his criticisms through a loudspeaker, loudly announcing everything that was wrong with me and everyone around me. It was so painful that I had to realize that this voice came only from inside me (though traces of it sounded very familiar from my hyper-critical father) and it motivated me to learn the skills it takes to turn down the volume on that cruel broadcast and to replace the messages with more soul-nourishing words. Mindfulness retreats generally include instruction in metta, where one practices prayers of lovingkindness and compassion for yourself and others: “May I be peaceful. May I be healthy. May I be happy.” Self-compassion can be learned. It takes practice.
Years of therapy also helped me come to terms with myself, my resources, my limitations, my family heritage, my cultural imprints, my hopes, and my fears. In my training to become a therapist, nothing was more effective and revelatory than the hard long work I did on myself in individual and group therapy, along with clinical supervision from my teachers and colleagues.
I’m also a reader, so in addition to meditation and psychotherapy my svadyaya, my self-study, has always included books by spiritual teachers and seekers and thinkers. Many books have had a profound impact on me, but five of them resonate so strongly that I share them with therapy clients all the time. They have practically become the textbooks that accompany the careful, compassionate inner work that I do with people.
Taming Your Gremlin by Richard Carson came to me from the realm of life coaching. Carson introduces the extremely useful concept of the gremlin, that voice inside you that knows you so well and knows how to speak to you so persuasively and protectively and is absolutely expert at spoiling your fun. It’s a short, breezy, light-hearted but smart book that offers guidance on identifying and dealing with gremlins, mostly by not engaging or arguing with them but by taking some breaths and doing something different.
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach directly addresses the struggle to win free of the harsh internal voices insisting that you’re not good enough. I met Brach when she co-facilitated that life-changing vipassana retreat with Jack Kornfield (another important teacher of mine), and I appreciate how much she draws from her own personal experience in humorous, honest, and self-forgiving ways. Often when I need to summon the voice of self-compassion, it’s her soothing voice that I hear (largely thanks to the CD, Embracing Difficult Emotions, that came with Radical Acceptance).
The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs is the best psychology book I know of that speaks directly to gay men. Downs charts three stages of gay men’s emotional development: working through toxic shame around being gay; working through toxic shame around imperfection; and arriving at authenticity. The key concept that made sense to me is how Downs describes the second stage as revolving around seeking validation from others, which is something we all do. The ultimate goal of authenticity arrives when the validation comes from within. But that can be a long journey. And when you’re seeking external validation, Downs points out, if you’re not being actively validated, it can feel like you’re being actively invalidated – which is simultaneously enraging and, you know, not nice, so it has to be hidden: thus, the Velvet Rage. How to identify these phenomena as they occur in your life and to manage them compassionately is the gist and the gift of his book.
A therapy client turned me on to David Richo’s How To Be an Adult. At first I was put off by the title of this slim volume because it sounded so Mickey Mouse, so simplistic to the point of being insulting. But it lives up to its subtitle: “A Handbook for Psychological and Spiritual Integration.” Richo addresses core issues such as fear, anger, guilt, and intimacy with remarkable succinctness and tremendous wisdom. He often organizes his brief chapters around lists and charts. The one that distinguishes anger from drama is so simple and clear yet surprisingly true that you have to laugh.
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown grew out of her social research on the subject of vulnerability (the subject of her famous TED talk). Her writing contains all the warmth and humor and self-revealing genuineness of her speaking voice. And she’s especially good at addressing the issue of shame, describing what it is, and sharing a pathway to acquiring what she calls “shame resilience,” a way to greet harsh self-judgments sensibly and effectively.
I don’t consider any of these books to be sacred texts to swear by. Nothing requires you to read and believe every word of them. Nor are they the only books that deeply resonate with me; I could just as easily talk about Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, Byron Katie’s Loving What Is, or Pema Chodron’s teaching tape Getting Unstuck. To me the value of these books and these teachings is that they offer a vocabulary for identifying and understanding the emotional, spiritual, and psychological challenges that we all face as human beings. They provide a valuable, non-dogmatic road map for the journey to self-knowledge, self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. Svadyaya and santosha.
For some people, reading books provides fantastic spiritual nourishment all by itself. For others, it helps to share books with other people, individually or in groups. As I mentioned, key concepts from these various books have provided fuel for many fruitful sessions with me and my therapy clients. If any of these topics resonate with you or sound like something you would like support to address and understand, please know that I am available as a resource to you.