First Niyama: Saucha

“There are so many great quotes on the value of a clean space that I can’t choose one!”
       ~ Eric Parker

If you’ve never heard of Jocko Willink, you should look him up. He is a master of routines and living an effective and efficient life. If you’ve never met me, let’s just say I’m often the opposite. Willink wakes up at 4:30 every morning. I wake up kinda whenever I feel like it (read 9:00). Willink works out daily. I work out…sometimes? Willink does two hours of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu every day. I…well, I don’t.

Want to know another difference between Jocko and I? He led the most decorated SEAL team in the Iraq war. He is a bestselling author, runs an extremely popular podcast, and leads a successful consulting firm.

How much of the difference between us is in simple discipline? This is something that I have been trying (often unsuccessfully) to improve in myself. This week we are beginning the second part of the eightfold path: Niyama. Like the Yama, it has five parts, and we will start with Saucha. Amanda explained to me:

“First Niyama – SAUCHA: purity. This refers to the cleanliness of your space, body, and mind, so energy can flow freely inside of you and around you.”

The reason I bring up discipline when dealing with Saucha is because, in my personal life, I find that Saucha requires a lot of discipline. Even before I knew about the term, I have been trying in many ways to follow its prescription. I try to be a minimalist. I try to make my bed every morning and keep a clean space around me. I try to meditate. I do this all because I recognize the cognitive benefits.

But often I fail at these things, for the simple reason that I lack discipline. Each year my wife and I create individual goal lists; things to accomplish within a set time. This year, I am going to create goals for that list which help in my practice of Saucha. I will try to keep a clean mind, and a clean space, and a clean body. I owe it to myself to gain the discipline to do good things for myself, and this seems to be a good place to begin.

Several of my goals for 2018 will revolve around the practice of Saucha. I hope you will all help keep me accountable!

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First Yama: Ahimsa

“Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.”
    ~ Steven Pinker

Last night my wife and I were out walking our dog, Cj. It’s the beginning of winter, so we were both bundled up in our warmest coats and gloves and boots. As we were walking, a teenage girl walked past us in the other direction, head bowed and shivering. Glancing down, we saw that she was barefoot, her toes red and raw. We turned around to chase her down and offer help. She asked to borrow a phone and called a friend.

It was 30° outside and she was dancing from foot to foot on the frozen concrete. This wouldn’t do. We led her back to our house a couple of blocks away, slipped a cup of hot tea into her frozen hands, gave her a pair of socks, and waited while she tried to figure out her situation, calling half a dozen friends and relatives.

Over the course of her conversations, the story unfolded. Her little brother’s schedule had changed and she had forgotten to pick him up. Her mother had become very angry and they had fought. She said that she didn’t want to be there anymore, and at that, her mother had slapped her (we could see that blood covered her sleeve where she had held a gushing nose), and pushed her out the door, shoeless and in only a light long-sleeve shirt.

I am not a violent man. I don’t actually understand violence well. I value all life. As an atheist, I see this life as all there is, so everything within it holds significant value. Of course there are atheists who don’t share the same belief. Violence, many would say, is an innate part of our being. Something we all struggle against, or embrace.

The first part of the eightfold path of the yogi is called Yama, and as Amanda puts it, “These are self-regulating ethical principles regarding how we treat others.” It is broken into five parts. We will discuss each of the five parts over the weeks, but let’s begin with the first. It is called Ahimsa. I’ll let Amanda explain it:

“First Yama – AHIMSA: nonharming, nonviolence. ‘A’ in Sanskrit is not, himsa literally means harming, injuring, violence. This is basically the Golden Rule…treat all life as you wish to be treated. With respect.”

I’ve been thinking about the girl from my story all day. A mother is supposed to be the one who cares about you the most. But to have that same person be the one who physically harms you seems to me to be a betrayal of everything family should stand for.

What scares me even more is that mother probably never in her life thought of herself to be the type of woman who would hit her child. Until she did. And then everything changed for both of them. Could I, who claim to not be a violent man, ever hit a child? That mother, I am sure, would have never resorted to violence, until she did. Humans can do such horrible things to one another. Is it something that is hidden deep within all of us? The thought frightens me. I am taking this time of considering Ahimsa to remind myself to be ever vigilant against such things. I don’t ever want to become a violent person.

In the spirit of honesty, we did something that worries me. After she left, we called the police to inform them of what had happened. We had been told that if the mother had been petty, she could have implicated us in a kidnapping conspiracy. So we wanted it on record what had actually happened, to cover our own butts.

But almost immediately afterward, we feared we had made a mistake. What if we had harmed this girl by calling the police? What if they found her and took her back to her mother? That was their job, after all. An underage kid wandering around at night? She had told us she was going to a nearby store where he aunt was going to pick her up. What if the police arrived first to take her home? I am afraid that in trying to protect ourselves we may have harmed her.

So maybe Ahimsa is more difficult than I had originally thought. Maybe just avoiding physical violence is not enough. Maybe we have to sacrifice a little bit of our security to make sure something bad doesn’t happen to the people we are trying to protect. Maybe we need to try a little bit harder, and think with a little more compassion. I am certainly going to try.

The girl turned out ok, I hope. We gave her a pair of wool socks and shoes and she walked out of our lives into the hands of a caring aunt. I hope that there are those around her who are practicing Ahimsa, offering her peace and compassion, and maybe she can begin healing.

A Beginning

“No, I think the fourth one is Pranayama, and it’s the life force extension through breath control.”

Huh?

I had just wandered into the dining room during our yearly friendsgiving dinner. Overhearing my friends Amanda and Josie speaking in what sounded to me like an alien language, my mind immediately began the shutdown process. I am a skeptic, after all, and proud of it. Spirituality goes against to my entire way of thinking.

But then I stopped that shutdown process. My wife and I have been talking a lot lately about what it takes to be a good listener and how carefully considering the ideas of people who are opposed to our own often leads to growth. So I listened.

That first conversation between Amanda and Josie produced nothing I could understand. They were, after all, both learned in the subject, and I was hearing these terms for the first time. But, wanting to put an effort into my friendships, a few days later I pulled Amanda aside.

“What were you and Josie talking about last Thursday? Something about limbs and breathing and other stuff?”

Amanda, who is probably the most enthusiastically spiritual person I know, lit up with the chance to talk about something so important to her. “We were talking about the eightfold path of the yogi! It’s called Ashtanga!” And then she was off again, offering explanations for each section and delightedly answering whatever questions arose in my mind. I came away a little more informed; a little more clear, and a lot more interested.

As an atheist, I don’t believe in the divine. I think that there is an explanation for everything in this universe, whether the human mind can comprehend it or not. I do try to be open-minded, though, and am making steps toward accepting that there are benefits that come with sacred beliefs and practices. For example, the good that comes with daily meditation has been proven in countless studies, the community built within churches is psychologically healthy, and we’ve all been envious of the the fit and healthy lives of yogis on Instagram.

But what about the actual teachings behind these spiritual practices? With a background in Christianity, I am well-versed in the doctrines of the West and spent much of my life seeking the values therein. However, when it comes to the teachings of the Eastern religions, I am a blank slate. So when Amanda, a practicing yogi in her own right, offered to send our little group of friends a weekly teaching on the eightfold path, I eagerly jumped at the chance.

And so we come to this project. Each week Amanda will send another step in the eightfold path, the Ashtanga. And each week I will attempt to apply the Ashtanga to my own life. I will seek to glean what may be gleaned from the teachings and, if necessary, discard that which has little value to my life. I will do my best to keep an open mind, to avoid judgement when a precept goes against my preconceived ideas of reason, and to accept where I need to change and grow.

I hope you’ll enjoy my thoughts as a Yogi teaches a Skeptic.