Karmacology: Mindful Living, Sacred Practice

Tapas: The Way of Disciplined Effort

He who cannot obey himself will be commanded. This is the nature of living creatures.
-- Friedrich Nietzche

The previous discussion of Santosa included mention of our modern versions of the five kleshas. A klesha is literally an affliction, just as we would describe blindness or a spinal problem as an affliction. In the yogic tradition, the five afflictions are avidyā, asmitā, rāga, dwesha and abhinivesha. These can be translated as ignorance, egotism, attraction, aversion, and fear.

The way to overcome these afflictions, we are told, is through Tapas. In Sanskrit, Tapas means "heat," but in the context of the niyamas -- or observations -- of the Yoga Sutras it is usually translated as "disciplined effort." Tapas implies self-discipline in restraining our desires, controlling our senses, and focusing our actions towards pursuing a higher purpose in life. Through disciplined effort, we can "burn off" the negative aspects of life and clear a path towards happiness.

In the sixth teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, it is explained this way:
When a man disciplines his diet
and diversions, his physical actions,
his sleeping and waking,
discipline destroys his sorrow.
-- The Bhagavad Gita

Effort equals action, and action is the root of Karma. Action is both the rush through traffic to make the three o'clock meeting and the act of restraint to keep your cool and not descend into road rage. This first layer of Tapas, then, is Karmic: our choice of correct effort. The next step is the addition of discipline.

Disciplined effort can also be thought of as "doing what must be done," plus one other dimension: consistency. Often our best intentions guide us to go to the gym, eat healthier, put down the cigarettes or turn off the TV. We often start the new year with an abundance of actionable resolutions and great intentions. But old habits die hard, and it is consistency which allows us to overcome our habitual inertia and turn our intent into practice.

Consistency replaces old habits with new ones. It is putting the cigarettes in the trash and never picking up another, ever. It is being mindful of the food we put in our bodies at every meal. It is repurposing a piece of every day for practice, prayer, exercise, or whatever brings your personal life closer to a pursuit of your higher purpose.

Now let's add that subtle third layer, because this is where the transforming "burn" of Tapas comes in. It is not enough to be consistent in your correct efforts; your discipline must carry your actions through the difficult times as well. A friend just failed in his third attempt to stop smoking. "I had a stressful weekend," he explained.

The transcendent power of Tapas comes when we no longer allow any excuse or justification to stop us from doing what must be done. When the going gets tough is when we discover and forge our resiliency.

The single thread that weaves its way through all of these layers of Tapas, however, is Love. It is Karmic Action taken because it is the right thing to do, not born of fear, guilt, or aversion. This is such a delicate concept that my words could never express it as eloquently as does this quote:

Perhaps one of the most clear examples of the practice of tapas is marriage. Marriage requires commitment, consistency and love. Without any of these three things, marriage does not work. When these qualities are present however, we can celebrate the good days and hang on through the bad ones.

Tapas requires the same things. When we bring a commitment born of love to our consistent practice of yoga, we are practicing the niyama of tapas. It is with this spirit of abiding in the midst of difficulty which is at the heart of tapas.
-- Judith Hanson Lasater