It’s really the age-old question of life isn’t it?
Once we’ve met our basic needs, our mind will eventually wonder how we can live happily ever after, without pain and suffering.
And it’s a noble quest, fraught with mountains, hills, thunderstorms, hailstorms, rainbows, bluebird skies, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcano eruptions, and all manner of other disasters explained and unexplained, mixed in with some joy here and there.
It’s certainly a life-long journey. It takes practice and consciousness to live without suffering.
Suffering is our reality. And that’s not a pessimistic or even practical view of life.
It’s the law of humanity as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Buddha’s Dhammapada.
AND. We can transcend that law.
We’re human, and so we suffer. But also, we have the capacity to do our work and move beyond it.
But it’s hard. And it’s daunting and it requires a strong body and mind.
We need tools to help us along the path.
Tools like yoga.
Yoga’s tool box
How does yoga help us transcend the reality of suffering?
Yogis have been talking about it for years (like thousands), but scientific research is starting to catch up.
Yoga can help end suffering by helping us strengthen our connection between body, mind, and Soul. The practice of yoga teaches us first and foremost about our body. This is one of my personal favorite parts about teaching. To teach someone how to feel and use a muscles they never even knew they had is transformative. The light bulb goes on and the student gets curious…”what else have I never felt”?
Through exploring the matter of our bodies, yoga asana practice reminds us how to FEEL.
Once we know how to feel our bodies, we can venture into thoughts and emotions more safely, because we know we’re equipped with a strong mind and intellect.
Yoga practice teaches you how to breathe. The breath helps you regulate your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system; these two systems together comprise your autonomic nervous system, which can both be controlled and work on its own without conscious effort.
The science validates the yoga tool box
Scientists have known for a while that the nervous system is the main controller of communication throughout our body. Consider the often used example of putting your hand on a hot stove – nerve endings in your fingers send a signal back to your brain which sends another signal to your body to remove your hand from the hot stove. This system of communication is essential for us to function in the world around us. Interestingly, there are no pain receptors in the brain. The brain can’t be in pain, but the brain can send signals through it’s channels to other parts of the body to experience pain.
It’s easy to confuse the brain and the mind. The mind is not the brain, and the brain is not the mind. The brain is like the library and the mind is the librarian, whizzing around pulling up reference books from past stored memories, judgements, learning, and sensory experiences in our life. You can imagine that you have one harried librarian running around your brain!
What researches have more recently discovered is the ability of the brain to change physically and chemically. This is called neuroplasticity and why we have apple and brain training games like Lumosity. In other words, you can change the way your brain functions by creating new neural pathways throughout your body.
Great news! How do you do that? Practice. Practicing a new yoga posture, a new breathing pattern, a math equation, or any number of games that force you to focus and concentrate can help you forge a new pathway. Just know that it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s like developing a new habit, and we all know how hard habits can be to make (and break!).
How trauma leads to suffering
By using the tools of yoga, we can better get to know our true selves. We can better feel our bodies. We can start to focus. We can find happiness and move beyond suffering in daily life. No one said it was easy, but it can be done. When we are able to establish a strong connection with our Self, our Spirit, our Source, we begin to think about the world differently. This connection can be considered a connection between use of the limbic, or emotional, brain and the neocortex, which houses our ability to think logically, rationally, creatively, consciously and learn new abilities.
Can you imagine what it would be like to live a life without rational thought? Maybe you’ve experienced this before in your own life.
When that connection between the limbic brain and the neocortex starts to misfire because of trauma that has significantly affected the brain physically and chemically, it becomes THAT MUCH HARDER to rediscover the connection. In fact, the connection is broken. It’s like you’re trying to turn on the light, and the cord continues to be plugged in and unplugged at all random hours of the day and night. Annoying, right?
So what is this trauma that causes disconnection and suffering? Trauma can be anything, but it specifically contributes to ripping that plug out of the wall and creating a disconnection to your Self. Without that, you feel lost in the world, and you suffer.
The good news is, there is hope. Yoga offers tools to help us recreate the connection and make sure that the ghost that happens to be unplugging the plug never comes back (or at least only visits sparingly). A yoga practice, among other tools, can help us rediscover our Selves, reconnect with our Selves, and thus reconnect with others.
What happens when we lose compassion for those who suffer?
As is true in all facets of life, the power of neuroplasticity can be used for evil as well. If one is unable to find positive support and help in the form of tools to help recreate a strong connection to Self, brainwashing can easily occur. This is how people get swept up into cults, or even a cycle of bad relationships. This is why the battered struggles to leave the batterer. This is why we have terrorists.
You may have seen plenty of articles online already about the compassion we must have for all human beings. You may have read about how it only takes one person to change the world for the better.
So you may have already heard that we need to have compassion for the suicide bombers in Paris and the “enemy.” They are in pain. Pain leads to violence. Violence breeds fear. Fear is a byproduct of disconnection.
The evolved human brain cannot inflict pain upon other human beings. The recognized Self understands we all have the right to live with our varying opinions, religions, beliefs, and ways of peaceful being. The traumatized brain can’t make this connection, because the brain can’t connect to our Self that knows the divine truth.
Finding compassion for those who suffer
Let me share with you my own reaction to the events that unfolded in Paris last week.
I was sad that it happened but at first I didn’t really think much about it. I was in the US. The attacks were in Paris. I love Paris and I’ve been there a few times, so I could kind of imagine the chaos, but it was too far away for me to feel much of an emotional connection. It became a little closer to home when I realized there were a few people I knew who were there, but once I learned they were safe, it was just another Friday evening.
I briefly felt a bit of exasperation about how the world was turning to shit. I was angry that people would do such a terrible thing, but again, I didn’t think much of it. Perhaps you had a similar experience.
When 9/11 happened, I was in seventh grade. I was old enough to know what was going on, but not emotionally developed enough to really understand. As I got older and went to college, I met people who lost parents, people who were in NYC on that day. Their stories are horrifying to hear, but because I was in Ohio, I was too far away to really feel the pain. The only part that really connected me personally to 9/11 was the fact that the fourth plane turned around in Cleveland airspace. That was creepy, but we didn’t see the direct results of it.
This past weekend, I went to my advanced teacher training program where we discussed many different perspectives around what happened, including the perspective of compassion and why it was important to have compassion for the enemy. For a split second, my mind didn’t really understand. That was until I learned more about trauma. The entire weekend training was aptly dedicated to learning about trauma-sensitive yoga.
The simple fact is that people who are in pain deserve to live just as much as the next person. They may be challenging, but when someone is challenging, they are suffering. We need to support them, be there for them, and encourage them to find help.
A different perspective
I read this article today. I encourage you to read it, but I warn you, it’s long and it’s hard to read. It’s about the mothers of sons and daughters who have left Western countries to go fight for ISIS. All of the sons have died. All of the sons had absent fathers, drug addictions, learning disabilities, mental problems, and had experienced immense amounts of trauma in their lives. They were in pain, and they found help and “hope” from people who brainwashed them to believe that the best thing they could do in their life was to kill others in the name of Allah.
You know what? If you really think about it, everything in this world could be considered brainwashing.
If you want to argue with me that yoga is brainwashing someone into believing that they can find happiness and connect with their true Self, fine. I won’t argue with you. It’s the same as trying to convert someone to any religion. The Christian missionaries do it. The jihadists do it. The Mormons do it. The mindfulness people do it. The politicians do it. We’re all trying to get people on “our side.”
But that’s the real joke of it. There is no side. We’re all searching for the same thing. Peace.
Evil brainwashing is when people who are in pain are convinced that hurting others is the way to find peace. At least in yoga, all we’re trying to do is help you find peace with your Self. Yoga is non-violent. Peace is non-violent.
Finding inner peace
When you find peace within your Self, you exude peace to the rest of the world.
That’s how we end violence. We start with compassion for ourselves so that we can extend it to all other human beings. We help those in pain. We pursue peace.
Yoga can help us get there as can many other tools.
But we have to start with ourselves.
One person at a time.
It’s going to be a long hard, road.
But peace is worth the internal struggle.