by Karina Guthrie.
“And the day came when the risk to remain in a tight bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” – Anais Nin
One of the more beautiful things we experience in life is the sense of our own mysteriousness. This mystery is what compels us to explore the world and to express our longing for connection through both art and science. It’s the very same mystery that has fuelled people’s belief in God throughout the ages.
Although people’s belief in God has taken unique forms at different times and across disparate cultures the curiosity we each have about the mysteriousness of life is a thread that connects us all. We’ve all had the sense that there’s something bigger and more profound out there than our own small lives and the sense that ‘that thing’ is waiting patiently to be discovered.
God, however, is a tricky word, so closely connected with traditional religion that in the age of ‘spiritual but not religious’ it can be an uncomfortable topic. Interesting then, that despite the unmistakably spiritual feel of many a yoga class, one of the big appeals of yoga is that it is non-denominational in nature. One of it’s big claims is that there’s space under its umbrella for anyone who’s interested in exploring their connection with the universe, and inside this umbrella we should feel free to call that mystery by whatever name we choose.
In the ancient literature on yoga, now many thousands of years old, ‘something bigger’ is identified as a state of collective consciousness. Thus, for yoga, God is not the character we commonly understand ‘him’ to be, but rather, the universal intelligence that is responsible for the rising of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon, the rising and falling of the tide, the growth of trees and flowers and the birth and death of sentient beings.
The edgy bit for us is not so much this as the fact that yoga doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t just ask us to acknowledge universal consciousness. It asks us to surrender to it; to turn each of our actions into an offering to something bigger than ourselves.
Essentially, then, what yoga asks us to do is cultivate is a deep, trusting relationship with the universe. This is the practice of Isvara Pranidhana; ‘surrender to the divine’ or ‘surrender to a loving principle of connection’ or, if you like, ‘surrender to God’.
But at this point there is often another hurdle. When we hear the word ‘surrender’ some of us will contract because surrender can also be edgy. In popular culture it is a sign of defeat, even of weakness and, let’s face it, we all want to feel that we are the masters of our own destiny.
Within the framework of yoga, however, surrender means something different.
It’s the act of trading a grain of sand and receiving the universe in return. So why is it so hard?
Ego is important. A healthy sense of self is what allows us to navigate successfully through each day. The issue is not that we have an ego, but that we cannot see beyond it because the ego is what makes us feel separate. For there to be a ‘me’, there must be a ‘you’. For there to be a ‘self’, there must be an ‘other’. For as long as we see ourself through the lens of the ego all we see is separateness – ‘my’ experience, ‘my’ wants, ‘my’ pain. Ego gives us the experience of being human but it also stands as the barrier between our human experience and our spiritual one.
Interestingly, one of the theories put forward by modern science is that the individuality of consciousness most of us experience most of the time is actually the product of universal consciousness being filtered through our individual nervous systems. Read that line again. It puts a different spin on things, right?
It’s a bit like looking at an Escher print. At first glance all you see is black ducks flying across a white sky. Then your perspective shifts slightly and suddenly you’re looking at white fish swimming through black water. Once you’ve seen the fish you’ll see them every time you glance at the print. Spiritual teachers say that the unity underlying the apparent diversity of the universe is like that – palpable, obvious and undeniable. This trick is to learn to refocus our gaze.
To move beyond ourselves is not an act of will or force. It is the simple act of sifting through the layers of our smallness (our stressors, our default coping strategies, our go-to emotional responses) until the mind quiets enough that we can soften to the moment. There are a thousand seemingly mundane ways to do this.
Start by finding the beauty in the quotidian parts of your day – the divinity of a sunset, the morning light over the hills, the unfurling of a flower, the laugh of someone you care for, a cup of tea. Each of these is profound simply because of its ‘everydayness’ and because it has the power, in an instant, to trip you into presence. Surrender, by this measure, is an ‘opening to what is’, an opportunity to see that if you were to “tug on a single thing in nature, you’d find it attached to the rest of the world”.
One of the lovely things about this is that it makes our journey into universal consciousness more accessible. That accessibility is actually built into the fabric of yoga’s teachings in a concept called Ishta Devata; a recognition that each of us has our own personal relationship with, and taste of, the divine that serves as our means for deep connection with life. That thing does not need to conform with anyone else’s idea of the divine, the path does not have to be well trodden. It just needs to be authentic. Whatever calls you into presence, whatever lights you up, whatever your experience of sacred is, follow it. We don’t all need to worship the same way, we don’t actually need to worship at all.
Each small act of presence is a doorway. We step through and see that we are not isolated egos floating in space, but part of the vast matrix of energy and consciousness that we call life.
One of my favourite writers on yoga is a guy called Michael Stone. In his book Yoga for a World Out of Balance he puts this idea into beautiful perspective. He asks, ‘Where does sound end and your ear begin? Where do these words end and your mind begin? Where do thoughts begin and end in the mind?’. Think about it – it’s just a slight perspective shift, but the shift is a fundamental one. It opens us to the fact that our consciousness has no hard and definable boundaries. Rather, it is vast beyond measure.
You are, and have always been, awareness experiencing itself.