or, a yogi's case for minimalism.
I've been thinking about this post since I began downsizing, minimizing, purging, whatever the right verb is; but it's a difficult one for me to write. I think my struggle is bound in the discovery that releasing all this stuff, which is bringing up patterns of past programming and current behavior, as well as showing me things (and people and attitudes) it's time for me to release. This practice feels like a kind of spiritual one. I had no expectation that would happen.
I want to acknowledge this is tricky ground I'm treading on. Those of us who were raised in any kind of religious or spiritual tradition probably have thoughts or feelings about the relationship between people of faith and the wealth that they amass: the relationship between our practice of faith, belief, or morality, and our practice of consumerism. I am not going to write an essay about how your personal spiritual practice is your own private slot machine, if only you are earnest enough.
Instead, I want to explore the questions of whether or not this call I'm answering is perhaps rooted in a spiritual place inside my life.
In November of last year, one of my teachers taught me the first two verses of the Sri Sukta. She translated the verses for us, and pointed us in the direction of a teacher who would be able to share more of it if we were interested, specifically because it could be a spiritual practice for us interested in our spiritual practice as an aid to cultivate good and banish the dark, evil forces in our world (which feel like they're growing stronger than ever). A week later, my teachers' teacher initiated me into this practice. Our world needs the healing and power of the divine feminine, he said. I was all over this practice: the idea of a mantra practice that will help me and help me help the world? A practice invoking the divine feminine as a tool of healing and transformation, micro and macro? Where do I sign?
I got my printout of the Sanskrit and English transliteration, and downloaded a recording of instruction and recitation onto my phone, and every morning I sat and s-l-o-w-l-y learned the first 4-5 verses. I did my best, and I enjoyed it, but it was challenging.
Then, in February, I went to India.
The first two weeks I was there, staying at an ashram in Khajuraho, I was in the community that had given me the tools to begin learning it, that had taught it to my teachers, and they chanted it every day at the same time, as I'd been instructed, three times through with the final couplet added on only at the end. Every day I brought my folded little printout into the temple and sat and chanted. When I left the ashram, I kept practicing, for myself, for my community, for the world.
This slokam has a lot to do with Lakshmi. There's a lot of language about really resplendent qualities and objects: moons, suns, blessings and gifts, riches, lotuses, (also cows, which are hard to consider so blessings, but think agrarian), healing plants, auspicious behaviors, beneficent presence: the translation of it is really quite lovely. Now. You don't have to look far on the interwebs to see language that tells you that Lakshmi is the goddess you pray to if you're seeking prosperity. I believe in the blessings of God, and sometimes those are financial blessings, too. I got no problem with that. Still, I get a little wary of spiritual practices we tie to our bank account: I remember prosperity doctrines from the tradition I was raised in, that can assert that if you don't have the job/house/man*/blessing you want, it's because your faith isn't pure or true enough, because Gawd knows your heart and your heart isn't clear and you haven't earned it or don't deserve it. So when I see brightly colored websites or videos promising riches and blessings we can't imagine if we chant to Lakshmi, I start to get flashbacks. But that isn't the attitude I brought to the practice. I listened to this podcast that re-contextualized Lakshmi for me, and then it seemed perfectly obvious to me that as I moved deeper into the Sri Sukta, I'd start eliminating those things from my life that are distractions from my priorities.
It has been so compelling to consider this practice, of letting go of unnecessary items and creating space in my home, in my life, in my heart, to be a spiritual one. I hadn't considered that it could/would be, but of course it is. It makes a lot of sense that it is. Not in a kind of ascetic sense, wherein I believe that God wants me to take a vow of poverty and relinquish everything I own, though that is a part of the path, a part of some folks' path, and I'm not saying I'm closed to it. It's more that the Divine hasn't been able to fill up my life because I've been keeping too much baggage in the way. So if I let go of all this stuff that I've been clinging to (by which I don't just mean old yearbooks and holey sweaters, but also outmoded ways of self-identifying, or relationships that are a hindrance to my growth), She can pour more of herself into me and my life.
I've also learned how important a pratyahara practice is for me. It's hard for me to be still and quiet, but it's important. It's not necessarily that I consider myself an introvert or a houthouse orchid, that I need to be particularly tender with myself. But when the nature of work is outpouring, it's vital to have a practice that is investing: for as much prana is going out, the same amount has to go in. Otherwise, we find ourselves slowly but surely in a deficit situation.
Everything we take in requires some capacity of energy to ingest and digest. Agni is the biological fire or heat energy that governs metabolism, says Dr. Lad. Our agni doesn't just take in what we eat: it also has to contend with what we listen to, what we watch, who we talk with, all of what comes in. What, then, are we asking our agni to digest? Are we feeding it enough to keep it strong, or are we taxing it by over-saturating our internal fire with too much, too fast?
We have the eight limbs of yoga, right, thanks to the Sutras: yamas (external restraints), niyamas (internal observances), asana (posture), pranayama (breath retention), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (complete absorption of consciousness in the Self). The first four use the external tool of the body, the last three are deeply internal and involve the individual consciousness connecting with the Absolute. Pratyahara is a kind of gatekeeper between the two. Pranayama works as a buddy with it, I find: not only does pranayama affect the physical body in a profound way, but it also can affect the mind quite powerfully and directly. Pratyahara is the practice by which we take ourselves so far inward that we begin to connect to absorption with the Self.
It's important for each of us to recognize, what in our life is a tool for connection with the Divine, and what is a distraction for connection with the Divine. Practicing minimalism is teaching me is to evaluate what my priorities are, what I value, what I want to have around and what I don't, and to eliminate those things/people/practices that are distractions on the path. Not only is it possible that extra stuff in my life is unnecessary or wasteful, it's also getting in the way of the meaningful connection that I'm seeking with God.
When I came home from India, I spent a lot of time being frustrated because I felt crowded. Isn't that funny: Yeah, I felt a little short on space sometimes in a city of 22 million people, but in my own, climate-controlled, clean house, I got twitchy and angry about it. The desire for more space is what led me to start purging. It occurs to me now I am making space for my spiritual practice, and making space as spiritual practice, and not just eliminating old, worn out, or surplus goods.
There is so much language in the tradition of cleanliness and elimination, of discernment. Clearing out and clearing away allows us to really see, to see more clearly and see more truly. The brilliant thing about existence is that it allows us to experience the Divine-as-Created-Thing-or--Person. But we often forget the temporary nature of that divine created thing. We confuse the object with the Divine.
So what if my desire for minimalism is a spiritual practice to eliminate all the places where I fail to see the Divine, to highlight the Divine-as-Created-Thing in my own life, and to prioritize that so I can move deeper toward Them?
I don't seek to create a kind of monastic existence, but maybe I can remember that my home and the life I am constructing are both a kind of divine practice.
*because it is always single women who are looking for a man in the context of this dialogue. It's not my experience that non-hetero-identified people get preached at this way. But then, the church has its own special, historical brand of totally crappy behavior when it comes to those folks.