Friday, August 26, 2011
Dedicating the merits of your practice
This one goes out to all the yogis and wannabe yogis and folks who feel ridiculously blessed (or challenged which is also a form of blessing) and simply don't know what to do with themselves. There is a practice in many 21st century American yoga studios of "dedicating the merits of your practice." You can dedicate merits to someone, a cause, an affirmation, even a Deity. As best I can tell, this idea comes out of the Hindu practice of asceticism (and it was picked up by Buddhists later in a very similar manner). Ascetics--usually of the Brahmin class but not necessarily so--were individuals who dedicated themselves to doing tasks of great difficulty. Often these tasks were physical in nature, for instance, the Goddess Uma seduced and captivated Lord Shiva by standing on one toe and surviving on nothing but dried leaves for over a year--how's that for unconditional devotion?! Occasionally the tasks were more specific and intellectual or spiritual in nature--chastity for eons was another popular form of ascetic practice.
Behind these traditions lie two powerful principles: the first is that the physical body and the sensations it experiences are largely illusory and the second is that through an understanding of the first principle an individual can pierce through the veil of the unreal and discover powers within him or herself that have the ability to manifest real change in the physical realm. Now, on some level if you have ever exercised in your life to lose weight, increase muscle tone, or repair an injury you already believe these things because your physical self imposed some kind of limitation (impossible weight gain or an injury), you agreed that through effort and work you could positively impact that limitation, pierce through it and go beyond it, and once successful you discovered that your efforts did indeed cause physical change. In traditional Hindu parlance the act of effort is known as karma--yes, karma comes from the sanskrit root kr which means to "act or do" and it is where we get such words as create, and what is generated by this effort is tapas or heat. Again, physical exercise is a really great place to look at this because it is grounded and we have all experienced it--what happens when you make a physical effort? You get hot and sweaty. Well, as it turns out most major religions believe that a similar phenomena happens on a spiritual/energetic/soul level when you engage in certain ascetic or devotional practices. This tapas in turn creates a kind of merit--in our words today it says that you give a damn about something greater than yourself, and this merit in turn carries a kind of power. And, as a favorite comic book hero was told, Power can be used for good or evil.
So…back to dedicating the merits of your practice. Now in today's world most of us are not standing on one toe and eating dried leaves BUT I talk to people all day who are willing to follow the example of the Hanged Man tarot card and make efforts to secure what they want/need/desire. Not spending money can be an effort, not eating the cookie can be an effort, being nice to your brother when he is super difficult can be an effort. Yoga teachers talk about dedicating the merit of your practice because yoga is an effort--on multiple levels at the same time. If you are feeling blessed, loved and illuminated by the universe then give back--to your family and friends, to your favorite charity, to strangers you have never met. Blessings are meant to be shared, not clutched close to your vest in miserly desperation. If you are feeling stuck or challenged ask yourself: am I making an effort here? Be honest. Can you make more of an effort? Be honest. What is your practice around the people, situations, and life areas that cause you the most difficulty, pain, anger, and stress? What might a sustainable practice that could improve these feelings look like? And then, don't make the effort with the expectation of the reward. Make the effort because you care about more than your own situation--dedicate the merits of your efforts to someone or something that really needs it. All I can say is that you'll be surprised at the results and it worked for child birth--but that's another story.