Where There’s Smoke...
The Yogic concept of Tapas is about action and transformation. It means “heat” in Sanskrit, and instructs us to generate our internal fire, and call on the will-power of the solar plexus chakra to consciously get things done. Imagine focusing sunlight through a magnifying glass to intensify the heat and start a fire. So too, by focusing our Tapas, we can light our own fire and burn through obstacles.. It’s not just about taking action, it’s about taking the “right” action, and moving towards your true self.
What does it look like when we are not utilizing our Tapas? In Charlotte Kasl’s book, If the Buddha Got Stuck, she describes the qualities of people who are stuck. They have difficulty mobilizing to take action. They may appear very busy, but they are spinning their wheels at unrewarding tasks, while watching others move towards their dreams. When they think about making a change, their mind immediately goes into negative thinking -- all the reasons it won’t work, the risks of failure, how hard it would be. This leads to a sense of overwhelm, with their lives, and even the state of the world. Their lives can be chaotic, as they have trouble sticking to a plan, budgeting and organizing. Rather they move from one calamity to another, often ruled by impulsivity and emotion. In the midst of these crises, they lack tools to calm themselves or ask for support. Rather, they might engage in compulsive or addictive behavior to distract them from the issue. All this leads to exhaustion, due to lack of self-care and healthy limit-setting -- which in itself makes it difficult to mobilize.
When we find ourselves stuck, all is not lost! The first thing to do is explore where you feel stuck. Observe how you feel (bored, scared, exhausted, afraid, unfulfilled) without judgement. Think about what you long for-- your unrealized dreams or hopes. Really listen to yourself.
At the same time, you can begin to practice self-discipline in small ways. In order for any muscle to get stronger, we must exercise it. So practice forsaking momentary pleasures to reap future rewards, in order to burn off habits that are not in alignment with your values. In Walter Mischel’s famous “marshmallow study,” 4 year olds were given a marshmallow and told they could have two if they waited for a few minutes till the researcher came back. Fourteen years later, the ones who were able to delay gratification were more socially competent, personally effective, self-assertive and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were self-reliant and confident, and didn’t give up in the face of difficulties. If we didn’t learn how to delay gratification for long term gains in our youth, we can start practicing now. Just make sure your chosen disciplines are safe, possible, and timely for you in your current life situation, not penance or some type of punishment. Some things might come to us easily, and other habits are harder to develop, for a variety of reasons related to our physical and emotional make-up, as well as our upbringing and conditioning. A later analysis of the Marshmallow study, and a second round of observations based on a larger group with more diverse backgrounds, showed that a child’s ability to delay gratification was also dependent on their social and economic background. (“Why rich kids are so good at the marshmallow test” by Jessica Calarco, June 1, 2018 in the Atlantic). This is a good reminder to be kind with ourselves and others on the path because of the many and varied factors that come into play.
We can also practice the self-discipline of staying with whatever the moment contains. If we suspend judgement and disconnect from assumptions about right and wrong, we can be right here, connected to the richness of the moment. This is akin to sitting in the fire to experience the transformation. Charlotte Kasl distinguishes between “controlled burns” and “wildfires.” Controlled burns are when we start our own fires-- taking action, making changes, inviting in transformation. Wildfires are when the universe starts them for us -- an unexpected loss or sickness, when our life feels turned upside down. When a wildfire hits and we feel overwhelmed, powerless and out of control, if we open ourselves up to the fire, our character is shaped and a new strength is born. (Charlotte Kasl). “We can either break down or break open.” (Charlene Western). Whether we started the fire or the universe did, we must stay in the fire until we reap the blessing. If we don’t numb out or distract ourselves we will emerge burned, but blessed. One good technique for staying with uncomfortable feelings is to say to yourself “Just one more minute.” We can stay with anything for just one more minute.
To start our own controlled burn, make small daily changes that will bring more spark and flow into your life. These small steps can often lead to something bigger as you get into the flow. Look at your daily habits and ask yourself, “What am I practicing for?” If we want to get good at playing the violin we have to practice each day in order to assimilate good habits and new knowledge. We may be “practicing” habits we have not deliberately chosen. If we get intentional with what we want to create in our lives, and take small steps in that direction, we are inviting what we want to come to us.
There are some important things to remember as we begin to work with our Tapas. (Charlotte Kasl). Don’t demand perfection. It is better to do something fairly well over the long haul than to be perfect for a short time and then quit all together. Make realistic goals and set yourself up for success by creating an environment in your home and in yourself that is conducive to what you want. Start with whatever is easiest and work your way up from there! It is often helpful when you are stuck to change the setting -- maybe work in a coffee shop instead of at home or reorganize your home office. Set aside a certain amount of time each day to work on your project, to avoid overwhelm. Do what you can, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment that you worked as long as you said you would, no matter what the progress on that particular day. It is helpful to put this on your calendar so the time isn’t encroached upon.
If you feel resistance to moving forward, just acknowledge that and don’t beat yourself up about it -- remember, we are not demanding perfection. And then take the next step anyway, anxiety and all. Most things get easier with repetition. Then, for good measure, take one extra step in order to expand the boundaries of your perceived capacity and ability. Do just a bit more than you set out to do, all the while remembering the bigger picture. It’s not so much about what you do, but as how you do it. It’s about becoming-- so stay open and curious with the process, and embrace the heat.
* (For further reading, check out If the Buddha Got Stuck by Charlotte Kasl, Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by this insightful work.)