I’ve been really cranky lately. Irritable, tired, short-fused, impatient, or as it was called in my childhood home, owly. I don’t know the origin of that Sockmanism or why owls got such a bad rap early on. But while everyone is entitled to the occasional day of being in a Way, I’ve had too many of them lately to just let it slide. Peace of mind has given way to a piece of my mind a little too often.
I could blame this on a whole host of external happenings, circumstances and situations. I’ve been really, really, really busy. Too busy. I’m not sleeping well. It’s been a special spell from the Universe of “oh you want that?? … NO.” But I’ve been doing this practice long enough to know that what’s really wrong is on the inside, not the outside. I’m out of balance, my priorities are off,and I’m not mustering the energy to right the ship of incorrect perception and bad attitude I’ve been cruising around in. I’m doing my practice every day, but it’s clearly not enough. Time to return to the basics. Time to focus on how I am moving through the external world as a means to course correct the internal journey.
Yoga Sutra I.33 The Keys to Peace. This is often called the “locks and keys” sutra, as it offers both four primary challenges and the associated solutions for experiencing peace. First and foremost, this sutra is the reminder I mentioned above: you and you alone are responsible for your equanimity. You are responsible for the energy you bring into every room, every interaction, every conversation. Regardless of external circumstances, your state of mind is a choice. And that choice is not only yours to make, but shapes the day, week and life you are building in every moment.
And so we offer the four locks, which are types of people or potential interactions in the world: One who is suffering; One who is happy; One who is engaging in right action; One who is engaging in wrong/inappropriate action.
The truth is that we know the right answer in each of these situations, we always do. But exploring what gets in the way of that right action can be helpful in diagnosing where our inner work has gathered itself up, owly, waiting in the corner for our attention.
One who is suffering. Ideally, we always respond to suffering with compassion. But is that always the case? Likely not. What is your response when the suffering is self-inflicted? When do you have judgement about the sufferer’s choices or overall situation? Where are you critical instead of kind? Is your response different when the suffering is far away instead of nearby (emotionally or geographically)? How about when someone is suffering because of a choice they’ve made about which you’d previously advised them otherwise? Compassion is obviously the right answer always, but it’s helpful to consciously re-orient around regular and consistent doses of active compassion to others (and, likely, self) especially in this busy season. It is simple. But it requires mindfulness and getting out of one’s own internal spin cycle. Directive: be present and share unconditional kindness and compassion with those who are in pain.
One who is happy. Of course our immediate response to another’s happiness or success should be celebration, right? We want others to be happy, we want to celebrate the happiness around us, but are we always whole-hearted in that support? It’s not always so easy as it sounds. Do you ever respond to another’s good fortune with “must be nice” instead of “I’m so happy for you?” Where does your inner critic get in the way of co-celebrating, whether in the form of judge-and-jurying what another does or doesn’t deserve or general disapproval of what they are so happy about? Where does jealousy or your own unhappiness obstruct the flow of joy for another? This is a big one, and for some people, even more difficult than the first lock because it requires us to step outside of ourselves even further to see the bigger picture. Another’s happiness adds to the collective higher vibration that we all seek to both embody and experience. More joy in the world is never a bad thing. Further, when we actively celebrate with another, we recognize that their happiness does not take away from our own. Their success isn’t pulling from some limited success supply well and if they’ve got it, then there’s nothing left for us. Directive: see the big picture and celebrate the happiness of others with your whole heart.
One who is engaging in right action. It’s always humbling to share this particular sutra, and the third lock might be the stickiest one of all. Right action is what we all aspire to! If more of us were consistently engaging in right action, the world would be an infinitely better place. So, what’s the problem? Why would our response ever be anything other than delight and encouragement? What is your response when someone sticks to a strict diet at a holiday gathering or drives the speed limit even when you are running late? Do you ever point and call “do-gooder” or “holier-than-thou” when someone is a positive force in the world (maybe more so that you)? Where does jealousy play into that? Where do you cast judgement that another person is doing what they are doing to impress others? As usual, digging deeper is required, as it’s not just about the delight and active encouragement of another’s noble deed, it’s doing a few more of them ourselves. Directive: actively support good work in the world– both others’ and your own.
One who is engaging in wrong or inappropriate action. In the years I’ve taught the sutras, this is the lock people seem to struggle with the most. In contrast to number 3, why would we or how could we support wrong action? The answer is that it’s not so much about supporting wrong action as it’s holding our own center. It’s not that injustice is okay and the evils of the world are insurmountable so why bother. Rather, we can do our best good, we can fight our best fight, we can shine most brightly when we come from a place of compassion, whole-heartedness and truth. Feelings of irritation, disappointment and anger only serve to upset our own peace and put us at odds with the other person– which perpetuates the problem. It’s so easy to be judgmental, righteous, reactive in the face of wrong action. But it’s not actually helping much when we do so. What makes your viewpoint the only one? What is the bigger picture you can’t see? Directive: take a deep breath and lean into discernment, stay steady and respond instead of react.
Last December, I shared a four-week series on living the philosophy of yoga as a survival guide to the holidays. The evening I offered this teaching, I also shared metta meditation- the meditation of lovingkindness- as it’s one of the best techniques I know to generate equanimity of mind toward self and others. It’s a 14-minute recording, and if you also are struggling with the busyness, the humans or life in general at the moment, it’s a salve to the soul. You’re welcome to download it here.
Through the holiday season as you have your own moments of crankiness or dis-ease, this meditation and the locks and keys sutra give us a great toolkit for staying on course. Our ability to truly lean into compassion, which at its root means to be with, is what will save us. May we all be happy. May we all be peaceful. May we all be filled with lovingkindness.