“Yoga is restraining the changes of “mind-stuff.”
(Patanjali; Yoga Sutras 1:2)
I know well the “changes of mind-stuff” — the constant waves of thought and feeling.
I know from prayer and meditation the unchanging silence beyond that, too.
And yet, the changes persist.
I remember in 1973, after I’d been meditating twice a day for about 2 years, I was driving a cab in New York City during the summer. It was July. Unbearably hot. No air-conditioning in the cab. Downtown traffic could be awful. As a new cabbie, I didn’t really know the ropes. I thought that you just drive around where it’s crowded and people get in and out all day. I didn’t realize that even in NYC, certain times of day are busier than others. Certain places are busier than others, too.
Cabbies used to stop at the “Belmore Cafeteria” (is it even there anymore?) in the mornings. I went there around 10 one morning; the place was packed. I couldn’t understand how so many cabbies could take so much time off from cruising for fares. I also couldn’t understand how they could afford the “Belmore Cafeteria,” which was very price-y compared to a coffee shop or luncheonette. But I somehow realized that these guys (no women, as I remember) knew the business so well, that they knew when and where to put their time and effort. In the morning, after people were at work, before the shopping started, before lunch hours, there just wasn’t anywhere near as many people looking for a cab. An experienced cabbie could take some time, go to the “Belmore,” relax a bit and shmooze with other cabbies he knew.
For me, the heat, the traffic, the endless driving around, the long times with no fare, or being beaten out for a fare by another cabbie, were terribly frustrating.
I used to come home utterly exhausted and angry. It helped knowing that this was only temporary, but it didn’t make it any less enervating.
Why, I wondered, was I unable to coast through the frustration effortlessly? Wasn’t I meditating? Doing asanas? Even going away on meditation weekends?
It was my first glimpse of the “other half of yoga.”
Certainly, one “half” (figuratively speaking, of course) — and the more crucial — was the silence and peace I experienced in meditation. It was the experiential “discovery” of how peaceful I could potentially be. There was no consistent way to do that, without a reliable technique of meditation. Mine was “TM.” Still is.
But the “other half” is what I was doing with my mind and heart outside of meditation. I couldn’t do anything that would produce that kind of silence and peace, but I could do things to disturb it.
There weren’t “spontaneous” improvements in my behavior. I can understand how there could be: there have been times when my mind was so consciously saturated with peacefulness and clarity after meditating or praying, that nothing disturbed me. That’s how I was told I would feel from meditating, but I can’t say that it’s been completely consistent.
Meditation showed me how peaceful I could be. It showed me that annoyance and frustration didn’t have to be the only ways I could react.
Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said, “Be flexible like a reed, not rigid like a cedar.” (Ta’anit 20a)
What I had to learn was that if meditation wasn’t spontaneously changing my behavior, I had to modify my own reactions to things. That’s what “Take it as it comes” came to mean to me. I was causing my own frustration and anger by not “taking it as it comes.”
The ordinary peace of mind I give myself by handling things calmly can’t be compared to the peace in meditation. But until I’m permeated by that peace, my next best choice is to remain as calm as possible in the common swirl of life. Believe me — it takes some learning (never ends, either).
Of course, this doesn’t mean an outward show of equanimity covering turbulent thoughts and feelings. That’s simply insincere and ultimately useless. It even creates greater emotional pressures, and uses up a lot of energy to maintain the facade.
No. “Choosing to remain calm” means choosing to change my attitudes and actions, as the situation requires.
It’s how I harmonize myself with my own higher peace. It’s the “other half of yoga” for me.
In the endeavor to live in harmony with the Source of life, “halachah” (Jewish law), both as it relates to ritual and to “derech eretz” (the ways of living daily life) and aggadah (teachings in the form of stories) can be of immense help.
“When Rabban Gamliel asked [Rabbi Akiva] who’d rescued him from the sea, Rabbi Akiva replied: ‘…When each wave came surging towards me, I said ‘Yes’ [lit.: bowed my head]…’.” (Yevamoth 121a)
Say Yes to the waves in your life