Is That All There Is?
tad-vairāgyād-api doṣa-bīja-kṣaye kaivalyam 3.50
By finding detachment from the most awesome of powers, and all of the siddhis (super powers) that can be achieved through Samyama (Intense concentration), one finally achieves Kaivalya (freedom). (YS3.50)
Fire is a powerful force. In its controlled forms it is essential for life, but when out of control its potential for destruction is vast. Smokey the Bear’s famous line, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” provides a consistent reminder of the personal responsibility that is required when interacting with such a powerful element.
A few years ago I was biking home from teaching an evening class. It was April, spring had sprung, and the air was filled with the scents of night blooming flowers. As I neared my house, I caught the smell of a fire, not the comforting smell of wood smoke, but a sharp, acrid, smoky smell like burnt electronics. When I got to my block, there were four fire trucks in the street and I began to rapidly consider if I had left a candle or incense burning. A clothes dryer in the house to the rear of mine had ignited, and while it did not burn the house down, the structure was uninhabitable for months and required a complete renovation. I am still awed by the speed at which the fire got out of control, the damage it caused in such short time, and the amount of energy and manpower required to put it out. After the flames were out I toured the house with the firemen while it was still swelteringly hot inside. Everything was covered in black soot and ash. Nothing was salvageable. Everything was destroyed.
Is that all there is to a fire? Destruction? Ashes? Is that the only way to see it? If you’re the insurance company, yes. If your life savings was invested in your home, probably. Maybe if you’re Peggy Lee you break out the booze and have a ball. It can be hard to see beyond the destruction. It can be hard to believe there is a silver lining. It can be hard to see any useful purpose for all of that destruction. It can be easy to see the ash and think that is all there is.
In The Journey Home, Radhanath Swami tells a story of his days as a devotional seeker looking for his divine path. His attempt to gain entry to a temple dedicated to Shiva during a sacred festival was blocked by guards enforcing a rule of no foreigners allowed. Mimicking holy men by covering his body in the ashes from a sacrificial fire, he ultimately did gain access to that temple. On one hand, he created a disguise by putting on the “costume” of a devotee to Shiva. The ashes provided anonymity, giving the appearance of the ash being all there is, obscuring the markers of foreignness. On the other hand, the act of covering one’s body in ashes was seen as a demonstration of high devotion, radical enough for the guards to recognize the sincerity of his desire to enter the temple.
Fire is often used as an offering. The ancient Rishis thought the rising smoke would attract the attention of the divine. In Sanskrit, the ashes from a sacred fire are called vibhuti. They are sometimes used as Radhadnath Swami did, covering the whole body, and often they are used to just make markings on the forehead. This can serve as a physical reminder of the transient nature of the physical, the potential for all material things to be reduced to ash and dust, and encourage a shift of focus towards the divine, that which is intransient and ever-lasting. The presence of the ashes asks the question: is that all there is? The presence of the yogi answers: no, there is a spirit that cannot be touched by the flames. Another translation or application of this word is in the third chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Vibhutipada, in which he enumerates many super powers that can be attained through the practice of yoga. In this context Vibhuti can mean the “incarnation of power.”
The Vibhutipada provides a long series of objects for us to meditate on, consider, discern their true nature, and then set aside in search of a deeper truth. Many of the siddhis, or super powers, that can be attained, like levitation or the strength of an elephant, sound incredibly awesome. Maybe you could be a super hero fighting for justice with these powers! Yet no matter how much power we attain, we cannot escape the cycle of death and rebirth. Freedom from that cycle can only be achieved by setting aside the temptations of all these powers. By finding detachment from the most awesome of powers, and all of the siddhis (super powers) that can be achieved through Samyama (intense concentration), one finally achieves Kaivalya (freedom). (YS3.50)
In this Sutra Patanjali reminds us of the responsibility of power. I am reminded of a moment in my teacher training with Michelle when we were examining the depictions of gurus above the altar and I asked why there was a picture of Cate Blanchett as Galadriel from Lord of the Rings. Michele said it was because of the moment when she is offered the one ring of power, and though is tempted by the desire to possess it, turns it down. Galadriel says that she would use that power for good, righting wrongs, but it would not stop there and would ultimately turn her good intentions bad. This is the danger of power. Like fire, it can be used to great benefit, but when it gets out of control can be destructive. As Lord Acton reminds us, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” As yogis, we seek to find power not in things, actions, or titles, which is ego-based power, but rather in our capacity to connect to and align with the source of all things, making a shift from the physical to the spirit.
It is easy to dismiss this Sutra as irrelevant to our lives because we may feel that we do not have super powers. (I am still working on astral projection myself!) However, as a student’s t-shirt reminded me recently, “calm is a superpower.” Feeding your family is a superpower. Taking out the trash, smiling, showing up on your mat are all superpowers. As we move along in our practice, we may find that we start getting better at our lives. Those situations that once derailed us no longer have as great an effect. Physically, on our mats, we may find that we have developed more power in the asana. Maybe your pranayama or mediation practice has become super steady and consistent. I am personally invested in an intensive handstand practice which I find very rewarding; however, it is physically taxing and requires constant upkeep and practice to maintain. I could easily devote my entire practice to handstands to the detriment of all other parts of my practice, and herein lies the trap. These powers can begin to dominate our practice and pull us away from the true goal of freedom. We then have to ask is that all there is to yoga? Handstands? While the power of a handstand can be seductive, we have to ask, is it power or ashes? Vibhuti or vibhuti? In the asking we must remember that the line that separates having it all and losing it all is as thin as a flame.
That house behind mine that had the fire has been rebuilt and new tenants live in it now. You would never know just by looking at the outside that there was a fire in it once. It can certainly be said that all of the fire fighters, insurance adjusters and construction workers have superpowers in order to have achieved this. But now it is all done. No more excitement. It is just a regular house again with regular people living in it. Like all things in this physical world, that event was temporary, and all of our power, super or otherwise, is also temporary. All that is created will be destroyed. We should seek to identify that which cannot be created nor destroyed, the eternal atman, and by doing so release our attachments to this physical illusion of maya.
This month I invite you to examine the areas in your practice that have been successes. Maybe it’s a meditation practice, or maybe your Adho Mukha Svanasana is awesome. Ask yourself if these successes have become limitations. Do you find that you have a tendency to gravitate towards those things at which you are successful and steer away from areas that are more challenging? Is there a challenging asana that you like to practice but depletes your energy momentarily afterward? Chaturanga Dandasana can be really exhilarating, but can also make for sore wrists and exhausted yogis. Explore variations with props that can make it more accessible and require less power to occupy it. Blocks can be placed beneath the shoulders, or a strap can be placed around the forearms. By conserving some of energy in Chaturanga, we will have more to devote to other areas of the practice. In this way, we avoid “burning out” in our practice by over doing it and find steadiness and consistency in our practice.
Written by Michael Quintana
“Would you become a pilgrim on the road of love? The first condition is that you make yourself humble as dust and ashes.” –Rumi
“The most common way that people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” – Alice Walker
Is that all there is? by Peggy Lee
Powerful (feat Jussie smollett and Alicia Keys) by Empire Cast
Bolo Bolo Sabmila Bola Om Nama Shivaya or any chants to Lord Shiva
Chaturanga Dandasana with props
Kapalabhati to stoke the internal fires
Watch “Sanjay’s Super Team”
Read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. I recommend the translation by Swami Prabhavandana and Christopher Isherwood “How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali”