“There are different kinds of happiness, and the deep happiness of well-being comes from caring for yourself and loving the world. It comes from offering what’s good in you to others, giving your gifts to a world that needs it. These kinds of happiness are the important kinds—the happiness of generosity, the happiness of your own integrity, and the happiness of an inner well-being that comes from tending the mind and heart so that what’s beautiful in you can come forth.” Jack Kornfield (interview by Marie Scarles, Tricycle Magazine, May 8, 2017).
From the time we began living in communities to the present day, all of us have to deal with the constant tension of balancing what is good and healthy for us against what is good and healthy for others. Freud wrote a book about this dilemma called “Civilization and its Discontents.” He argued that in order to enjoy the benefits of living in a civilized society we have to give up a measure of freedom, which a part of our personality usually resents.
The two polarities of caring for the self and caring for others do not necessarily contradict one another. In fact, most research proves that societies that look after their poor and sick have lower rates of crime and greater overall happiness; and caring for others has psychological benefits.
The early teachers of Buddhism emphasized practice for personal liberation, but as the teachings spread they shifted into what is known as Mahayana Buddhism or the “greater vehicle.” The Mahayana belief was that as long as others are suffering no one can be completely free. No one can ever truly be an “outsider” because there is no outside in a world where everything is interconnected.
The traditional yoga teachings contained two “limbs” of practice meant to provide guidance about this balance. The first limb, known as the “yamas,” contains recommendations about “playing well with others.” The five yamas are secular and can overlay most other spiritual systems without conflict. They are:
- Ahimsa— not-harming
- Asteya— not taking anything that is not offered (not stealing)
- Satya— honesty
- Aparigraha— not taking more than you need, not being greedy
- Brahmacarya— the wise use of sexual energy
The niyamas are self-care or self-directed practices, and there are also five of these:
- Sauca—cleanliness/hygiene and discretion about what is taken in to the body and mind
- Santosha—the cultivation of contentment
- Tapas—the drive to create and work and DO things, self-discipline
- Svadyaya—Self-study, education, enrichment, learning
- Ishvara Pranidana—the ability to surrender, to let go of control, to trust in a wisdom that transcends the ego.
The last three niyamas grouped together are described as Kriya yoga, and operate like the Serenity Prayer :
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, (Ishvara Pranidana)
Courage to change the things I can, (Tapas)
And the wisdom to know the difference. (Svadyaya)
The yamas are helpful when we are looking for a touchstone for integrity and generosity, and the niyamas reflect the care and attention to inner life that is needed so that”what is beautiful in you can come forth.”
I know I am not sharing anything you don’t already know, but there is something about this framework that I find relatable and helpful. However, there is nothing simple about enacting and embodying a stricture like “not-harming.” (I highly recommend Michael Stone’s Embodying Ethics Course for a much more considered and comprehensive view of the yamas). On the whole I find the yamas and niyamas are principles to aspire to and a useful compass for times when I feel lost and uncertain. I often fail to live up to them, but they are not meant to be judgments, only aspirations.
Traditionally, you wouldn’t even start a yoga practice until you had a good handle on the ethical limbs, and had made peace with your parents. These days I think many of us come to yoga hoping to escape from situations or jobs that take us out of our integrity. I think that’s why so many people are anxious to become yoga teachers. Many of us flee the corporate or bureaucratic worlds only to discover that what we are running from replays itself in the yoga community too. As Jon Kabat Zinn said, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
In any case we’re all striving to be a little happier, a little more at ease and to make a meaningful contribution. Yoga has a lot to say about caring for ourselves AND loving the world. In the end, they turn out to be the same thing.
Wishing you deep happiness,