One my teachers recently said during a talk: “Whether the problem is big or small, it’s in your head.” From a person of lessor wisdom, it might have seemed like an empty sentiment, but from him, I could recognize it as truth.
We are the source of our own problems. Still, coming to recognize this, especially in a lived way more than an intellectual observation, is difficult. We create many obstacles against change in our lives in order to maintain the status quo. Yet sometimes our certainty that change is necessary is enough for us to build tapas: a transformative force.
Some people translate tapas as austerity. My preferred translation is closer to the literal one, which is "heat." Tapas is the transformative heat generated by the yoga practice. It is created through your intention combined with your action. Tapasya is the practice of generating tapas. This article is not about a specific sadhana or practice, but about the effect of such practices in our lives.
Classical yogic scriptures describe the effect of tapas as that of purification. So it’s natural to wonder: what is it that is impure?
It isn’t your essential nature, that is impure. It is eternally complete and perfect. But, just as a dirty mirror can distort images, so too can obscurations give the impression that we are one thing, when really we are another.
We are born into a condition of primal confusion. As we grow, we quickly come to identify ourselves with conditions, attributes, and roles that are not our essential selves. One of the first questions we ask new people we meet is: what do you do?
Naturally, we don’t answer with ‘revel in the divine essence of existence.” We say instead that we are a doctor or an aesthetician or an accountant or a clerk.
Avidya, ignorance of our own true nature, is the root cause of all suffering. We identify ourselves with impermanent, transient things, which by their nature will be lost. In so doing, we cause ourselves pain. The ultimate goal of the development of tapas is to burn through or purify avidya.
How do you Break the Patterns?
Some might claim to know a mantra, pose or meditation practice that can burst the ties of avidya in one five-minute application. I don’t. The only way I know to recondition oneself is through work.
However, that doesn’t mean that the effort must be unpleasant. It is a joy to be committed to a worthy project. And such a joyous effort has the potential to withstand many more challenges than the sheer force of will.
You must have faith in yourself. You must believe that is possible for you to do what you wish to do. You must maintain that faith even when things are difficult, when you fail to meet your own expectations in some regard, and when you encounter hurtles.
This faith is not pride or vanity. It is what Shantideva calls confidence.
How Much Discipline is Required?
Enough to last a lifetime. There is no easy route, no automated method by which no energy is required from us. That said, there are many yogic paths, and choosing one compatible with your nature, interests, and inclinations will be a significant help.
Discipline is the choice to do what we most deeply desire, even in the face of distraction and torpor. It is not an act of violence or punishment but rather an ever-increasing devotion to our own real joy.
How Difficult can This be?
This is the real work of yoga that does not get discussed. I am skeptical of anyone who claims to execute their practice effortlessly. It becomes easier, but in my experience, it has not yet become easy. Most of the teachers I find most trustworthy often speak of how difficult it is or can be to practice, and how easy it can be to convince ourselves for one reason or another that we can’t.
It is a commitment that must be renewed every day.
The reward for such determination is glimpses of experience beyond duality. Those glimpses grow in duration and impact, and they correspond with a decrease in the intensity and duration of delusions such as anger, jealousy, and attachment.
Such momentary experiences affirm the faith and confidence with which we practice, but our faith and confidence must be strong enough not to depend on them. Such delusions limit our experience of joy and our ability to perceive things as they are. Through tapas, we are able to clear them away, a little at a time.
This is the ajapa-japa mantra, the mantra we repeat continually with our breath, and that we come to know through, one moment at a time, through the development of tapas.