The Raja of Heaven

Everyone who does Ashtanga Yoga has heard, at one time or another, Guruji’s famous refrain, “Take practice, all is coming”.

The essential meaning behind it was that all of our questions will be answered from within when our mind gets quiet. When we used to come to Guruji with questions, he would say, “Yes, tell me, what are your doubts?” indicating that when we don’t doubt, but instead focus inwardly, our questions will dissolve. Perhaps, from a Vedantic point of view, it’s not so much that the answers are within, because self-knowledge is not an answer, but rather it’s an absence of questioning. What remains when the questions fall away? Just awareness.

The phrase “take practice, all is coming”, has become one of those lines that, frankly, I can get tired of hearing because it sounds like a throw-away line when used at the wrong time. For example, people sometimes say it when they don’t feel like addressing an issue that may really be a problem. Sometimes teachers say it when they don’t know how to answer to someone’s question. The problem with parroting the phrases of our teachers is that we don’t speak our own voice, or we take what they were saying metaphorically as a literalism. There were occasions when I was asking Guruji too many questions, and he would say to me, “Practice, all is coming!”, but he basically was saying “Alright already, you’re making me tired with your questions, shut up!”

This morning, however, I was listening to a talk by Jack Kornfeld while I was making some coffee, and he said something that made me think about Guruji’s saying in a new way. “What we practice”, he said, “is who we become next.”

This is essentially the same as Guruji’s saying, yet the change in context from “all is coming” to “who we become” struck a chord in me. It was a change from looking for a result (the all that might one day be coming) to immediacy: what we practice, that’s who we become.

So, who do we want to become? Do we want to become an asana? Do we want to become a bandha? If that is all our practice is, then that is all we get. However, if we can remember that yoga is essentially a practice of mind, of awareness, then we can become a manifestation of attention and presence. That constant practice of awareness will then, hopefully, become the foundation of all our thoughts and actions. Our practice is, literally, and under all circumstances, who we become next. But it is up to us to decide what that is.

In the Chandogya Upanishad, it says that within the wheel of life, our heart is the hub of our existence. However, we get caught in the spokes that extend out from the hub, as the wheel of life spins. Though love and happiness are essentially that which we all yearn to move towards, somehow, instead of seeking happiness in our center, we begin to seek it out in the spokes, thinking that we will find happiness from attainments like fame, position, power, knowledge, money, a partner, job or house, or the perfectly executed piece of art. All of these attainments, which we think will make us happy, always fall short of our expectations because they are all just the spokes spinning around, always moving away from us again after we think we have caught hold of them. What if we flipped these two around? What if we lived in the hub, instead of in the spokes? What if the hub was our purpose, and the spokes were simply an expression of our purpose?

Our activity should be an expression of our hub. Knowing our purpose, and meditating on our purpose, should be the impetus for how we act in the world. This is the basis for the three, important questions that I learned in ninth grade from my English teacher, Mrs. Bendetson:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What am I doing here (or what is my inner purpose?)
  3. How can I bring that out into the world?

Yoga students used to come to Guruji to ask for things all the time: to learn new postures, to learn advanced practices, to be given more things to do, to want to know how long it would take before their problems would go away, when the world would be a better place, what they should eat, or when they would become spiritually awakened. Guruji was clear that all of these desires existed in the spokes – they were not the hub; they were not practice for the sake of centering oneself in one’s essential existence.

These past few months, I have been reading the Bible, as I prepared for my Bar Mitzvah, and many of the stories that I have been reading are taking on new meanings for me. One example is from Matthew, 6:33, from the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you as well.” It struck me that Guruji”s short phrase, and his simple command in English, was exactly the same idea. “Take practice,” he said in response to our desire for fleeting things, like learning new postures, or wanting to understand difficult philosophical ideas, “all is coming.” It was his way of telling us to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven within, the Kingdom of Self-knowledge – for knowing who we are is the answer to all superficial questions, and the remedy for all suffering. It is the remedy for the illusion of a separate self. Ashtanga Yoga is also called Raja Yoga, and Raja means “king”. Who is the king that is attained in Raja Yoga? Perhaps it is the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of pure being.

If we seek first for the “all else”—the spokes—then maybe our petty desires will be fulfilled, but that will last only for a short time. One desire, by nature, always leads to another sprouting in its place. But if we seek first the hub of our heart, the hub of our purpose, by undertaking a spiritual practice, what will happen? Maybe, little by little, our petty desires will be burned away, until perhaps the only desire left is to love more, to live better, to have a kind and caring heart, to listen and be responsive, and not grasping of the people and world around us.