Clinging to Past Pleasure
Wherever you will be attached, there you will go.
One of the most powerful causes of suffering is pining for wonderful things that have occurred in our past. This form of duhkha (suffering as opportunity) afflicts all of us as human beings, and is one of the hardest to be overcome, especially in its subtlety in our personal lives and ubiquitousness in our culture.
At this point in this blog series on Nicolai Bachman’s novel commentary, The Path of the Yoga Sutras, I have been asked if I copy and paste the list at the beginning of each new post. I must admit: I TYPE this list at the beginning of each blog post for one obvious reason: to commit all these sutras to memory. The ultimate goal of this blog series was to be able to deliver these messages to my yoga students when teaching. I was always “that teacher” who never really got into the traditional side of yoga, including learning Sanskrit names of both poses and sutras. In my first yoga teacher training, I knew them when I needed to know them for the test we had to take, and I wasn’t empowered by it. To be frank, I took that test when the first non-iPhone smart phones came out, and my teacher left the room during one of the tests. I was a student athlete during this time, and I studied for my university classes instead of yoga teacher training, and when my teacher left the room for the two-hour test, out came my phone, and in I went to my browser researching the Sanskrit terms for poses and sutras. I made sure to purposely answer some questions wrong so it didn’t look too suspicious!
I bring this up because my second yoga teacher training was much different. I am the kind of learner that genuinely enjoys learning, so I don’t need the pressure of a test to be motivated to commit interesting things to memory. I have also learned, in my post-collegiate years, that I learn from writing things down, and NOT being tested on them. I recall my first essay ever from fourth grade. I wrote about tigers from books I had read about them. I digested all the information and exhaled it out onto the longest receipt paper out of anyone in my class (why my teacher had us all write out essays on receipt paper is beyond me). I still distinctly see my work lining the wall of my elementary school glued to bright fuschia construction paper. Every fact I knew about tigers, especially Siberian tigers, was on that long, toilet-paper-like strip of paper, and I remember the awe I was filled with when I learned tiger stripes are all unique, no two are alike, just like the swirls of our fingerprints.
I remember that from over twenty years ago.
The only thing I remember from my college tests less than ten years ago was a funny question one of my professors asked about who should be NFL MVP on a nutrition test.
I got it right. It was a Ravens player. That’s the only test question I recall from college. Good thing I went to a private school.
Today, I feel empowered to learn these things because I actually have a driving interest and curiosity. I actually want to know what the ancient yogis had to say about life, and their beautiful language interests me.
That’s the reason I chose to write this blog series at all, and it is also the reason I write out the entire list of sutras I have covered thus far every single entry. It helps me to remember all the sutras, and I hope it works as a great resource for you if I use one during the post and forget to define it. It’s meant to be a resource for me as well as for you.
Here are all the sutras listed in order that I have covered so far:
Part I: Key Principles
- Atha: Readiness and Commitment
- Citta: Heart-Mind Field of Consciousness
- Purusa: Pure Inner Light of Awareness
- Drsya: Ever-Changing Mother Nature
- Viveka: Keen Discernment
- Abhyasa: Diligent, Focused Practice
- Vairagya: Nonattachment to Sensory Objects
- Yoga as Nirodha: Silencing the Heart-Mind
- Isvara: The Source of Knowledge
- Karma and Samskara: Action and its Imprint
- Parinama: Transformation
Part II: Understanding Suffering
- Duhkha: Suffering as Opportunity
- Samyoga: False Identification of the Seer with the Seen
- Vrrti-s: Activity of the Heart-Mind
- Pramana: Correct Evaluation
- Viparyaya: Misperception
- Vikalpa: Imagination
- Nidra: Sleep
- Smrti: Memory
- Antaraya-s: Obstacles that Distract
- Klesa-s: Mental-Emotional Afflictions
- Avidya: Lack of Awareness
- Asmita: Distorted Sense of Self
This list now brings us to raga, or clinging to past pleasures, which can be one of the hardest klesa-s to overcome.
Bachman writes, “Raga is one of the most powerful causes of suffering and, therefore, one of the most difficult causes to weaken and overcome.”
Literally translated, raga can mean “coloring”, meaning an intense experience can color, or leave a stain, on your psyche. This sutra is controlled by attachment to past experiences, and specifically the desire for those experiences to happen again. Suffering comes from this when we desire to have these experiences again and they do not or cannot ever happen again. This can be due to a sensory or emotional experience that created an attachment.
The ancients have a wonderful way of describing the human emotional experience that it far different than that of modern psychology. It isn’t necessarily better: the difference in languaging around it sets a new tone for the same idea: “When we experience a pleasurable event, a memory is created-one that colors our heart-mind by making us desire that experience again. Each time we repeat the event, the memory is strengthened. The more intense the pleasure, the stronger the memory. This memory can create a habit or addiction, a ‘pleasurable stain’ that remains and influences future action.”
Habits and attachments are much stronger than we tend to realize. Habits govern our daily lives: from brushing our teeth to how we brush off an annoying cowoker, from how timely we wash our dishes to how timely we respond with a “thank you” after receiving a gift or compliment. Habits create the foundation of our lives and are literally the thread that holds it all together.
By the way, “sutra” means “thread” in Sanskrit. In my first yoga teacher training, my teacher explained the sutras as the “threads that hold life together.”
The root of this klesa is fear: fear of not ever experiencing that kind of joy, excitement, or happiness again.
When considered, this idea seems preposterous because life is so full of experiences, but how often do we find ourselves melancholy over an experience we once had many years ago that we wish we could have again, right now? The pain comes from desiring to a point of not accepting the fact that we do not have that experience right now.
In my own personal experience, I can relate this to when I used to run track and field. I always said that once high school was over I was going to commit myself to college only and not do a sport. Well, I tried that when I went to Scotland to study at the University of Aberdeen, and quickly realized I was very unhappy. Sprinting was an extreme source of joy for me. I truly felt elated, light, and whole when I got to sprint. I made the decision to run track and field there, but was dissatisfied with their practice schedule. The team only met twice per week. A far cry from the athletic system here in the United States.
I also realized I missed the education system from back home, too. The Brits had this odd method for notetaking: they would write notes in a notebook that was spiral-bound at the top instead of the side, and once they reached the end of the notebook, they would tear the page out very conspicuously during class, and then transfer the torn page into a binder. Also, the pages were a couple inches longer than notebooks back in the United States.
I found the page-tearing technique so insanely distracting, especially when multiple people would tear their pages out at the nearly the same time. Sometimes the pages would be shorn off their notebooks in succession, making the lecture halls at Aberdeen sound like a kind of leafy orchestra. Oftentimes it was so loud it would drown out what the professor was saying. I this type of notetaking was ugly and undignified, so much I pined for the cleaner, quieter methods I learned in school back home in Minnesota, where notes were neatly kept within the confines of notebooks where I felt they belonged.
These two things made me really miss how I was taught to do both schooling and track and field. This didn’t, however, make me miss out on seeing much of the country and getting to do interesting things (like spelunking and going in a glider airplane over the rolling hills of northern Scotland). My desire to go back to what I knew caused me to transfer back to the United States. And, when I was back in the United States, my suffering continued, because once back home, I ached for the ambience of Scotland once again because I thought the culture was so great and better than what I grew up with.
My raga behavior continued because I decided that I missed track and field so much, I had to get back on a team in the States to relive my glory days from high school. I likened this time in my life to dragon-chasing, I was in constant pursuit of the success I had experienced in high school and decided it was time to pursue a new career I hadn’t previously considered: professional sprinting. Sprinting was the one thing that made me feel alive. I loved the hard work it took to become great at it. I loved the feeling of having a strong body that could move fast. I loved the resting potential my body carried with it everywhere: looking at me most people couldn’t tell I was fast, but I was fast as hell, and I loved moving that way.
When I sprinted, my heart and soul literally sang. Sprinting feels like flight, something that I always wished I could do since childhood. The colors of the world were brighter, I felt at ease when I got to go to track practice. Track meets made me so nervous I was always on the verge of throwing up, especially when in the starting blocks. Sprinting was my favorite thing because I felt vital and purposeful when I did it, and I never boasted about it. For years sprinting was a constant exploration of how fast could I go? What did a faster 200 meter dash feel like? I know what it feels like at 25 seconds, what does it feel like at 23? 22? 21? What steps do I need to take to get there?
Sprinting was not only a way of life, it was a quest of the heart for me.
While in Aberdeen, my intention was to pursue a career of writing historical fiction novels. My degree track there was English and history. Moving back to the states, I changed completely and went for track and field and exercise physiology, literally in that order. My determination to get that “high and flying” feeling I had when at my sprinting prime caused me to spectacularly injure myself, and, even when I transferred to a Division 1A school (University of Miami) and walked onto the team, I was in such hot pursuit of my goal that I put my physical health and well-being to the side in order to train. I still suffer from knee pain from those decisions. Regular yoga and proper weight training keeps at bay, and sprinting is long in my past these days.
The pursuit of raga in my life really stirred up a lot of suffering for me, yet conversely, it helped me gain a lot of experience, knowledge, an excellent degree, and I made lifelong friends on my track team at UM. It wasn’t a total loss of time, energy, and money, however I did spend many years feeling very hurt and disconnected from my inner-self because I didn’t make my ultimate goal of becoming a professional sprinter and representing the United States in the Olympics.
I held on to both the feelings of failure around that attempt at going pro in a very competitive sport and let it define me for quite a long time (this would be an example of the klesa dvesa which is coming up next-it means clinging to past suffering). What made this a raga klesa was that I was mostly suffering from the fact that I was forever cut off from the physical sensations of both a top-speed sprint and what it felt like to win races again. It truly tore a hole in my soul I thought I would never recover from.
Of course, I did recover from it, and I even recovered from it enough to be able to tell my story about this klesa from a space of detachment and clarity. Looking back on that experience, I can see now, too, how some experiences can cause us to experience both raga and dvesa simultaneously. My life was so enmeshed with track and field, my passion for it also caused its demise, for which I am forever grateful.
The beauty of this sutra is a reminder to remain unattached. This doesn’t mean apathy, or not caring or having no passion for things, but the kind of detachment that means you are still connected to the light-being that exists within you. That no matter what external thing you think may define you-a sport, a position, an object, money, a car, a home, a certain piece of jewelry, a certain career path, the list is endless-this thing is NOT actually you.
One of my yoga teachers would say in class, “Whatever you can observe, is not who you are.”
This includes thoughts, emotions, hands, feet, heartbeats, trees, shoes, the sun…
The feeling I had when I made the decision to quit track was extreme heartbreak and grief. It was something I had identified with for so long, I truly felt lost when I realized I had to give it up. At that point in my life, track and field was costing me my peace, freedom, and relationships with people. It was even costing me a lot of money since I was train instead of work and I had massive student debt to pay; since I walked on to the team injured at UM, I was never well enough to get fast enough to earn the scholarship I knew was there for me, so student loans were my only route to completing my degree. I was constantly unhappy, and the only decision-making I had was this: in my own head, I would ask myself, “Will this decision help me become a better sprinter? Will doing this thing help me become an Olympic champion?” If the answer I perceived was “yes” to both, then I did that thing, and oftentimes it cost me friendships and romantic relationships, and even extra hours at my jobs so I could live more comfortably.
I felt that track and field gave my life it’s one and only purpose and meaning. Yoga taught me that my life is so much more. The Awakened Practice weekend immersion module at greenmonkey yoga helped me release my attachment to those experiences and move forward in a more empowered way, a detached way, and helped me realize my failures were good things, because they made me so much stronger today, and that the fact that I failed trying to accomplish something huge was not actually a failure at all. I was set up to be able to do new things with the open path ahead of me.
Now I see the power in looking back on not just my Scotland and track and field memories with fondness and love, but I can take a step back and realize desire is in and of itself a choice I have. I can choose to be grateful for those experiences and leave them where they are, in my past, because my present is an awesome place to be.
By letting go of track and field I have been able to have the most amazing experiences of my life, namely meeting my boyfriend, Al, whom I otherwise never would have met if I hadn’t have gotten injured and had to quit. That to me is worth quitting the sport I used to live for so passionately.
My present is exactly where I am meant to be.
Joy exists in my present life.
I do not need track and field or European schools or fancy degrees or anything else to define joy for me, because joy is innate not only in me, but in all of us.
Focusing on the experiences of the past keep us in the past and takes us out of enjoying right now, which is the only time and place life happens.
Smile fondly on your past, be grateful it happened, let it go, and go seize your day.
The need to re-experience an enjoyable event is a source of suffering.
Past experiences can color present and future thoughts, words, and deeds.
If I cannot have what I want, I will let go of it and move on.