Karmacology: Mindful Living, Sacred Practice

Sauca: Purity of Body and Mind, Part 2

We begin from the recognition that all beings cherish happiness and do not want suffering. It then becomes both morally wrong and pragmatically unwise to pursue only one's own happiness oblivious to the feelings and aspirations of all others who surround us as members of the same human family. The wiser course is to think of others when pursuing our own happiness.
-- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dali Lama

The first Niyama of the Yoga Sutras, Sauca, observes that when you clear the mind and the senses, you can develop focus, concentration and the joyful awareness needed to realize the inner self. Almost every translation of the sutras are in agreement on this point. However, the preceding sutra -- which introduces the concept of Sauca -- is controversial.

The most common translation is, "From purity comes indifference for the body and non-attachment to others," but there are many other interpretations of this same line. Some see this teaching as ascetic, describing a path of abstinence and austerity. This view treats the body as "worldly," profane and undeserving of attention, while also advising cutting off contact with people who may be impure and hinder your progress. Personally, this view seems restrictive, and even punitive, where certain thoughts are considered toxic and where the eating of impure foods -- such as onions or mushrooms or garlic -- may be considered a "sin."

Yet there is another perspective which emphasizes inclusion rather than exclusion, abundance instead of austerity, and service instead of solitude. This view of Sauca is complemented by the thought, "grass does not struggle to grow." In this light, "purity" is not avoidance of the negative, but rather a focus or concentration on the positive.

The body and its senses should not be neglected; it is through the body and senses that we experience life. But the body becomes a trap when it becomes an obsession.

Most of us know people who starve themselves, take metabolism-boosting diet aids, gulp down "thermogenic" drinks, or even justify smoking in pursuit of their idealized body weight. I once knew a body-builder who seemed to spend half his life in constant recovery or rehabilitation for injuries sustained in pursuit of muscles that he had no functional need for. In these examples, each person is creating self-inflicted injury or toxicity within their body because of their obsession. They are attached to an idealized vision of themselves, and so create suffering by living in a body that doesn't match their ideal.

The flip-side is just as restrictive. Someone who stands in front of a mirror and sees themselves as heavier than they want to be may say, "I'm too fat to go to the beach," or "I'm too fat to dance," or "I'm too fat to try yoga." Similarly, someone who has experienced ill health may live in fear that illness will strike again, and so withdraws from the very things they love: the man who stops his fishing trips after his heart attack, imagining another crisis catching him on a lake far from help; or the woman who will no longer travel out of fear that she will loose her medication and not be able to replace it in a foreign country. These people have withdrawn from the experience of life out of a different, fearful obsession with the body.

Our obsessions become a kind of tunnel-vision. The body is the vehicle for our journey through the experience of life. It should be well cared for, meticulously maintained, fueled with only healthy food, and exercised to build our maximum functional strength and endurance. But if we focus only on the vehicle, then we miss the beautiful experience of the landscape passing by.

This alternative understanding of Sauca could replace the word "indifference" with "non-attachment" to the body. We have goals for our body and our health, and work hard towards those goals through diet, exercise and practice. But when we give up our attachment to our idealized self, we become concerned more about how we feel, and what we have the physical ability, opportunity and energy to do, than how we look or what may go wrong. We are a work in progress, and our intention should be focused on vitality and abundant life. In this view, the body is profound instead of profane.

The alternative view of "non-attachment to others" is also a matter of perspective, best illustrated if we add the phrase, "for purposes of self-gratification." The concept of Sauca then becomes not avoidance of other people, but rather not using other people to stroke our own egos.

The focus here is our motivations. In the Karmic sense, why do we take the actions that we take? If we are motivated primarily by seeking the praise of others, we may find the ego-building rewards are shallow and transitory. If our actions -- or lack of action -- are dictated by the fear of how others will see us, what we do will ring false and lack passion.

The actor steps on stage and asks, "What's my motivation?" It is a question we should all ask ourselves. Are we doing what we do to impress the boss, win admiration from co-workers, get approval from our parents? Why am I writing this blog? Is it so my friends will think I'm smart, or strangers will think me wise?*

There is nothing wrong with enjoying praise for a job well done, or receiving recognition for our actions. However, if our actions are only motivated by the awards and applause then we are creating the mechanism for disappointment.

And again, the flip-side is also true. How many times do we not do what we know we should, out of fear of how we'll be seen? Do we not go to the gym out of fear of being seen as weak or flabby? Do we stand silently by instead of defending a friend because of the trouble it might cause us? Do we go along with the crowd against our better judgement?

Yesterday a friend related the story of how she once served on the board of her local YMCA because she thought that this was something upwardly mobile professionals did to be recognized by their peers. But she did not go to the Y herself, and had no children, and so no real passion in what she was doing. The service was for appearances rather than for the service itself, and so was hollow.

An idealized vision of Sauca could be seen like this: actions motivated by purity, growth, striving towards enlightenment and coming closer to God should not need reinforcement in the way of praise.

But a more pragmatic, Karmic and "everyday" version is just as true. If we are acting out of selfishness, then our intentions do not have pure origins. But if we live the Golden Rule and treat others as we would wish to be treated, if we act with compassion, consideration and appreciation of others, then we are living the principle of purity. As we no longer turn to other people for self-gratification, we begin to experience self-realization, the freedom of non-attachment and the joy of Sauca.

* Nothing so grandiose, although admittedly self-serving. I'm simply collecting thoughts here so I won't have to think so hard twice. :-)