Facing Difficulties

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati

How can we develop a strong, stable and calm mind under difficult circumstances? How can we face life so as to live a full and happy existence? How can we make the most of our time here on the planet? These questions have been around for a long time, and as a result philosophies such as yoga have arisen. Yoga has been developed by the great sages and seers of the past as a gift to humankind, to help us manage our lives better and to grow into higher awareness of the purpose of our existence.

Yoga teaches us that we can take our lives into our own hands and, using its techniques and methods, guide ourselves into greater inner strength so as to face life, with a greater capacity to respond to the problems that arise with creativity, spontaneity and skill. Yoga teaches us to develop core strength and tremendous, dynamic inner peace; a strong inner core, like a flexible steel rod in our spines, and a responsive outer layer that is appropriate to the moment.

Yoga is defined by Patanjali as a movement away from old conditioned patterns of being so as to expand our awareness into an increasingly broader, more subtle, stronger, more awake and aware state of being. Limited and limiting patterns of perception and understanding keep us trapped in old and painful states of existence. After a period of prolonged and sincere in-depth study, penultimately we can free ourselves from many of these patterns so as to achieve higher states and, ultimately, achieve total freedom.

To achieve inner freedom, strength and peace, and the ability to face problems, there are a number of principles that we need to learn and integrate into our being. These facilitate the transition and transformation of our being from the old constricted state to a higher and freer state. These principles can be described as grounding, alignment and pulsation.

Grounding means the development of a stable base within ourselves that we can rest on under both difficult and easy circumstances. Alignment means aligning ourselves with a higher purpose, or a broader vision, a deeper understanding, and with a deeper awareness of the wonderful things that lie within us. Pulsation is the principle of life force, prana.

A primary characteristic of prana is pulsation, a wave. This can be seen especially in the breath, the gross manifestation of prana. Pulsation has to be allowed to move and to express within our body at the gross level and at the subtle level in order for health to develop and for holistic health of body-mind and consciousness. If there is no pulsation there is no contraction, limitation. When there is pulsation, life can grow in you.

Identifying with consciousness

Yoga and the tantras, and the various esoteric traditions, define the human being as consciousness and energy. The human dilemma is that we are trapped in identifying with limited patterns of energy. We think we are the body, we think we are the mind. This identification is problematic because the life process and its various energetic manifestations are constantly changing. It is, therefore, very hard to find a stable place within yourself to rest with all the changes going on. Sometimes good thoughts, feelings and experiences arise within us and sometimes difficult things come up, but there is constant change. Strength arises from identification with the unchanging principle within.

In yogic practice we are attempting to identify with consciousness, to realize that we are consciousness. Consciousness is the unchanging principle. There is a little practice you can develop that will help you become more identified with your true inner being. If you suddenly realize that you are not identifying with your unchanging principle, just keep your eyes open, you don't have to close the eyes, but simply try to find a place in yourself where there is no change, where you are constant. In the yoga tradition, and in all the great traditions, we are taught that this place is in our consciousness. So, initially, begin to identify with your awareness. The awareness is unchanging, it is constant, but what we observe is continuously changing. You are the unchanging principle, you are consciousness. In fact you are both consciousness and energy, but our job is to go back and re-identify with the consciousness and then to come back into matter, into life.

Swamiji has said that we have to go back and manage the mind through the Patanjali system. We try to find an identification with consciousness and then we have to express that through our day to day actions, through service and through relationships with people and inanimate objects, with life in its totality. Once we have established who we are, then we can start to really examine with greater discrimination the various forces within.

Just notice where your attention is right now. Most people will identify their attention as being on an external object. But please don't forget yourself in the equation. Don't put all your awareness on the external, spread it evenly onto the object and onto yourself. Develop a mutually expanded awareness. If your awareness is in your eyes right now, that's good, because you're reading what I have written. Keep as much awareness in your eyes as you need to read this, and drop the rest of it down into your body. Feel your body. How is it? Put your awareness there. As you become aware of your body and your legs, you'll find that your legs press down into the earth. This is a universal principle called gravity. It is an energetic process of grounding. As you press down, you then have an opportunity to experience a second force. The first force is a downward force. This is the first energetic principle, gravity. As a result of pressing down, there is an upward force in the body which creates balance. If you bring your attention or consciousness into these two forces, you will find that by pressing down you can extend your spinal cord a little more, which will allow you to balance yourself.

So consciousness is the principle that we need to apply to be able to feel these forces in us. A downward force, a downward energy and an upward energy. When we are unconscious we forget, we do not remember, and what happens then is that old patterns that have been ingrained in our nervous system over time, perhaps since birth and maybe before that, take over. The old patterns of body, the old patterns of breath, the old patterns of thought, the old patterns of emotion, the old attitudes, will arise at some time during the day or night. Just notice these in yourself now as you are sitting here comfortably relaxing. At the same time feel that the downward force allows you to ground yourself (if you remember to do so) and the upward force allows you to align yourself (if you can remember to do so). When we are aware of these two forces in us, we can better manage the various old patterns from the subconscious which arise in us. But when we are unconscious of them they take over. And when we are conscious we have the opportunity to change, and that is what we have to try to develop.

How do we do this? In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1:12:14) it is beautifully said: "We can stop the vrittis and develop a one-pointed, stable mind by constant practice and repetition performed with devotion and dispassion." This means that we need to learn to let go of our sensorial attachments and develop a constant practice. A constant practice of what? Patanjali says that we can meditate on anything which grounds us in the process of developing our higher awareness, and which grounds us in aligning ourselves with the witness, the seer.


The problem is that we have to remember to stay grounded. We need to remember that memory is one of the greatest gifts we have. Patanjali also says later on (1:20) that the establishment of a higher awareness takes place through faith, courage, a certain energetic capacity, memory and a higher intelligence that grows from the practice of meditation. The memory component is essential to our higher development. We need to develop a strong disciplined mind that can remember to hold onto the practices and the dharma under difficult circumstances. We need to remember to witness and to remember to hold onto the experience of the witness in order to get through the transformative stages of yoga, which can be quite difficult.

What is memory? Memory is a shakti, an energy. It is a force that allows you to hold in your body-mind tissues an experience, an idea or an understanding. If our energy diminishes, for example, if we are stressed or depressed, we tend to lose our memory. The energy becomes unstable, and as soon as we redevelop our energy we regain the capacity to hold on to an idea without losing it, without falling back into an old unconscious habit pattern.

So once we develop this awareness, once we start to look into our energies, we need to be able to hold the memory of what we are doing. We need to be able to go in and navigate through the difficult waters, through the difficult processes of the energies we are trying to deal with. For that there are many branches of the yogic sciences and other philosophies available. There are different sciences that allow us to have the knowledge we need in order to manage the inner experience, to discriminate about what is going on within, and then how to regulate ourselves so as to modify our inner experience in a certain direction. For example, the study of the elements in the tantric science of tattwa shuddhi, or the elements of Samkhya, which define the components of the human being, can teach us how to regulate ourselves.

Tantra and Samkhya are sciences which tell us that the human body is composed of earth, water, fire, air, space and other elements. They teach us to go inside ourselves and examine the energetic pattern that is arising at the moment. They give us methods by which we can discriminate about what is going on. We learn to ask ourselves, in a disciplined way, "Is this experience that is arising now governed by the earth element, by the water element, by the fire element or by the air element?" For example, anxiety and fear are related to the air element. Passion, anger and hatred are related to fire. Attachments, the stickiness of life, grief, and when we cry, are related to the water element.

So if fear arises, the old way of looking at it is was to see it as a scary thing. But when we start to go deeper into ourselves through meditation and we understand that this is related to a deeper element within the subtle and causal body, then we can control this fear through the breath or some other yoga practice. Perhaps we will use a mantra, like the Mahamrityunjaya mantra, which is designed to alleviate suffering of all kinds. There are many yogic methods which we can use as antidotes for imbalances in our system through a process of self-regulation. An awareness of the chakras in the spinal cord, for example, stretches our awareness from being stuck and contracted in a head trip, stretching it down through the spine into the whole body. If we can hold our awareness of the chakras then we will have somewhere to rest in ourself that will allow us to get outside the contracted state.

We can learn to face the difficulties of life both within and outside ourselves through the development of a sincere practice, a sincere study of different yogic branches so as to embody that knowledge. Embodiment means the holding of that knowledge and remembering it in our tissues as a living experience; having faith that it can support us during difficult times. Grounding ourselves and aligning ourselves with this kind of knowledge has the capacity to awaken a more subtle level of experience, which allows us to go outside the old contracted state. This precious jewel of embodiment of yoga and spiritual understanding takes time and patient effort, but in the long term it is well worth it.