On November 8th, in Portland, Maine, after 7 months of dedicated study and practice, 22 radiant yogis graduated from the Ashaya Yoga® 200-Hour Teacher Training. I am so proud of them and know that this world is brighter and better place because of all of the work they did on themselves.
I want to share with you the teachings from the final morning sadhana practice in Portland that flowed with such elegance and deep meaning for me.
The essence of yoga is love. Love is accessed in the heart. But the heart is so tender and vulnerable that it quickly protects itself against pain and closes down. Although it’s safer to live with a protected heart, the protected heart isolates us from others and, more importantly, from our own self. This is the pain that increases pain and suffering. We need to learn how to open our heart in order to experience the flow of grace. Grace is always flowing whether we are open to it or not. Living with an open and vulnerable heart is also painful since we feel everything more fully – both pain and joy. But this is the pain that heals the pain.
Yoga is the practice of learning how to “tenderize” the heart such that we know how much to open up and how much to maintain our boundaries. In Tantra we learn that in order to unbind ourselves we need to bind ourselves. That is, we need to create healthy self-boundaries and know our limits in order to maintain and sustain our freedom.
We live in a universe of “cosmic forgiveness”. The universe is constantly forgiving you. Forgiveness is its nature. But it’s difficult to get to forgiveness due to the pain of betrayal and tightly held resentment. These strong emotions protect the heart from pain. But as mentioned previously this is the pain that leads to more pain. There is no greater wall around the heart than the feeling of betrayal and resentment. Betrayal on the deepest level is a right of passage for the soul.
My first major betrayal was finding out that my guru, my spiritual teacher of 13 years, lied about having sex with several female disciples. The trauma specialists who came in afterwards to help the community heal, told us that this experience was similar to sex in the clergy. Even worse than incest, when your spiritual teacher betrays you, it’s as if God betrayed you. Just to make sure I learned my lesson, I had to go through the experience of betrayal again with the second community that I was part of. Although the circumstance was different, it was a right of passage for me.
However, the second time I went through the process with my eyes and ears wide open. I learned so much about myself and about life. I have become a better person. I know who I am now. I’ve never had so much passion and inspiration to serve the light of consciousness in myself and in the hearts of others. I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t lived through what I lived through. I have more compassion and I’ve cultivated deeper levels of self-acceptance and forgiveness.
Now to the essence of the teachings: There are three levels or stages in the process of opening your heart.
- The first stage is self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is your capacity to turn toward yourself, to really look within and see what is actually happening. This first stage brings you out of denial and resistance to knowing the truth. You see yourself and understand that the only way in is through. Lack of self-acceptance or self-judgment keeps you isolated and separated from yourself and everyone else. It’s like standing outside the wall of your heart without the password that opens the door. This is the first step toward healing the heart. You must agree to look at yourself authentically, objectively, and without criticism. Once you get tired of the pain of non-acceptance, self-acceptance will come as a great relief, a great feeling of freedom.
- But self-acceptance is not enough. Stage two is self-compassion. Self-compassion is your capacity to hold yourself with empathy. Empathy is your ability to hold space and make whatever you are feeling, no matter how intense the pain is, okay. This allows you to feel your feelings without judgment. What you can feel you can heal. Allowing yourself to fall apart, let go, and shed a tear, moves the Shakti (life force) in such a way that disassembles your protective wall and mental constructs of fear. Tears are liquid sunshine and they rejuvenate and illuminate. After a good cry, you will often feel clearer. Tears bring insight and clarity. Tears originate from the water element, which knows how to soften and go around obstacles. Water will carry you back to the source, the ocean of consciousness. Self-compassion brings you closer to your heart that loosens the wall of separation. True compassion is your capacity to sit with your own darkness and be okay. Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun, teaches that compassion for another is dependent on your ability to sit with your own darkness.
- At the very core of your being is the third stage – self-forgiveness. When you forgive, you are really saying to yourself, “I trust myself again.” When you trust yourself, you allow yourself to feel safe, to feel okay. You are okay with yourself just as you are. When that happens, you relax. Self-forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person. It has to do with you releasing the burden of carrying around resentment in your heart. Resentment is a corrosive agent to the heart and is very damaging. It can leave deep scars of hate on the heart. But when you accept yourself and have compassion, these scars begin to disappear and heal.
It’s not easy to forgive. Forgiveness takes a process of sorting through the layers of negative emotion that cover it up. You have to be willing to walk through many layers of feelings, including – shame, betrayal, anger, loss, confusion, grief, and fear, before you get to authentic forgiveness. I always tell my students that if you can’t forgive yet, can you forgive yourself for not being able to forgive right now? It has to start somewhere. The deepest definition of forgiveness is your ability to forgive the unforgiveable. Until you do that, you are holding some amount of resentment or fear. Your forgiveness is not pure.
Forgiveness always has a balance of openness and boundary. You have to surrender to a bigger energy and trust more by letting go of something tightly clutched, like resentment. We all cling to resentment for good reasons, i.e., in order to stay safe you protect the heart by holding the armor of resentment. Even if you think you are getting back at the other person with your resentment, it has no effect on the other person. It’s a weight that you carry on your shoulders alone.
Forgiveness with boundary sounds like this, “I let this person back into my heart but I will never allow myself to be mistreated again.” “I choose to hold a healthy self-boundary even as I open my heart again.” Forgiveness is not about condoning poor behavior. It’s about not putting anyone, including yourself, out of your heart. You may forgive, but you never have to forget. Remember that self-forgiveness is an act of kindness toward yourself.
Forgiveness is not saying that you will trust the other person again. No, they may not be worthy of your trust. But you can say that you forgive in order to re-establish a bond with your own heart, that you are willing to trust yourself again. You can only trust others to the extent that you trust yourself. If the other person betrays your trust or makes a mistake, you can accept that because within your own self-trust you are strong. You may feel hurt and all of the other emotions that come when you feel betrayed. But you are able to tap into the resiliency of your heart to bounce back. You don’t stay hurt as long.
These three threads of light, self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness, form a braid called self-love. And love is the secret password that opens the heart.
May you practice self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness in order to free yourself of the burden of resentment, and return home to your heart where you recognize that you are already whole and complete just as you are!