May 20, 2012

I Feel So Unheard It Hurts! (Yoga in the Gita Series)

Welcome to Part 11 of our Yoga In The Gita Sunday series!

Last week Braja Sorensen wrote how there is nothing to fear from relationships, or from what we are confronted with from the heart. Today, we explore the secret of listening…

The world is full of whole nations, communities, and individual people who feel utterly unheard. The world is, therefore, also filled with achy hearts, conflict, and war. Consequently, divisive forces govern and true connection, or yoga, is sadly missing from most of our lives.

Despite being raised by pacifists, my generation grew up in a time in which fears of mass extermination through thermonuclear warfare ran rampant. As the American and Russian presidents were competing with their nuclear warhead arsenals, my teenage peers and I entertained fantasies of instigating a revolutionary change.

After plowing my way through many books, it was the Bhagavad Gita that offered me a path to being effective in creating peace.

It is not a coincidence that the Bhagavad Gita, a book of peace, opens up on a field of war.

In the yoga tradition, this war in the Gita is a symbol for the predominant state that has governed human existence: that of conflict. This time in history, or kali yuga, is characterized by our inner and outer battles. We are at war with others because we are at war with ourselves. The irony is that most of these conflicts spring from a desperate need to be at peace.

When we experience unresolved conflict within ourselves, we will unwittingly engage in conflict with others.

The Bhagavad Gita highlights our tendency towards conflict as unavoidable. There is a yogic principle that states that all unavoidable situations in life are the ripest opportunities in which to practice yoga. In this sense, the conflicts we face in our lives become of utmost value to us. Not that we deliberately feed or instigate conflict, but that when we find ourselves in the midst of it, as Arjuna did, we use it to deepen our yoga practice.


Yoga is the practice of being able to squeeze value out of unavoidable conflicts that appear in our life.

Conflict has value because it confronts us with all the parts of us we are least conscious of: the ones that we always bring into our disagreements with others.

The problem is that we identify so strongly with these parts, that we forget their temporary nature. We forget how fleeting they are. Like Arjuna, we feel that they define our very existence. This is why lessening the grip on our views can spark a whole existential crisis!

Suddenly, getting our views across becomes a cause we are even willing to die for. For, who are we without these opinions, these perspectives, and these ideas of who we are and who we aren’t? We feel like we will either be killed by our opponent, or kill them. This is the extreme Arjuna was faced with. As a warrior about to face a battle, he wanted to avoid any imminent destruction.

Avoidance is a common life strategy based on fear.

We fear a kind of destruction, so we avoid conflict. And yet we need destruction to grow spiritually: the destruction of our mistaken identity. When we mistake ourselves to be anything but that which honors a loving connection with all life in the universe (including those we are in conflict with), we are not practicing yoga.

In Eastern traditions there is a powerful aphorism, which declares that only to the degree that we become willing to face annihilation will we ever discover the indestructible core within us. This is one of the primary messages in the Gita, hence the dramatic battlefield setting. The Gita is telling us: You are already in a battle zone, now what are you going to do about it? Be afraid, or face it?

Every time we become willing to face the battlefield of our lives, we are simultaneously giving ourselves the opportunity to face all the obstacles within us that prevent us from practicing yoga. The way we each respond to conflict in our lives is very telling. It is like an indicator of where we need to focus our awareness to experience peace.

The Gita tells us that peace is hiding inside the folds of our own inner conflicts. The first step in being a yoga teacher then, or a facilitator of peace, is to listen to the conflicts of others without judging them, as Krishna did for Arjuna. Not listening is a subtle form of violence. Which can, in turn, beckon expressions of outer violence.

The whole Bhagavad Gita begins with an act of listening. This act of total receptivity and attention is one of the greatest gifts we can offer anyone, and ourselves: to really listen to another person. Listening is a revolutionary act of peace.

Yoga means opening ourselves up to really listening to another person.

Photography by Elizabeth Alexander

In the yoga tradition of the Gita, listening is called sravanam, and it is the very first in a sequence of nine processes designed to connect us with our spiritual essence.

Although yoga students typically connect sravanam to hearing from a teacher, this ancient text for peace begins with one friend listening to another friend, who is in distress. It is a listening between equals.

Thus, we practice the act of listening with those who are closest to us first: those in our immediate social circles. Ironically, these are the people who are often the most difficult for us to hear.

Becoming receptive to what another has to share begins to breech the distance between us and them. This heartfelt hearing becomes an offering of peace. The focus then shifts from the forces that divide us, to the forces that unite us. The most powerful forces of unification are those that move our hearts toward love. In yoga this is called bhakti, and Krishna first mentions bhakti in the seventh chapter of the Gita.

It is very significant that Krishna introduces Arjuna to bhakti by using it to characterize one who has not only gathered knowledge with their intellect, but also realized it within their hearts. This person, Krishna tells Arjuna, is exceptional!

Yoga is the knowledge we realize in our hearts, and not merely grasp with our minds.

Realized knowledge is lasting knowledge. It is also knowledge that informs peaceful actions in a world where everyone is quarreling. One of the most powerful acts of peace we can perform is to listen to those in distress, as Krishna did with Arjuna. For it is only to the extent that we hear another person that we will know how to respond. This knowledge of how to bring peace to others is within us, if only we listen.

Dialogue in which sravanam is practiced is dialogue in which knowledge reveals itself within our hearts. The effect is one of feeling loved.

There is a verse in the Gita in which Krishna specifically describes the uplifting quality of a deep, heartfelt dialog between two people. He calls it ramanti, or a feeling of rapturous love. Such conversations revolve around the impetus for all love: to move closer to Divinity. Identifying himself as Divinity, Krishna then declares:

“For them, who are constantly absorbed in yoga, who offer loving service with natural affection, I offer that yoga of discernment by which they come close to me.” (Graham M.Schweig translation 10.9)

Every time we enter into heartfelt dialogue with another soul, we are moving closer and closer to their divine core. Such conscious, gentle movements are the very connections that constitute yoga. For the yoga of this age is not practiced in isolation, but within our dialogues with other souls.

Yoga is entering into heartfelt dialogue with another person.

Today’s yoga is most effectively practiced within community, or sanga. Sanga begins when two people really connect with each other through really hearing each other. Such exchanges are very valuable in yoga! These dialogues – like the one Krishna had with Arjuna – become the flames that illuminate the road to love, the inroads to our own hearts and ultimately, the secrets of bhakti.

Like the Cherokee proverb that tells of two wolves living within us, the yoga tradition informs us that, after all is said and done, there are only two types of choices we can make in life: choices that take us deeper into love (yoga), and choices that ostracize us from love (viyoga).The wolf we feed the most will grow the strongest.

To feed the love in our lives, the Gita proposes that we feed bhakti.

Sometimes those proposals come as secrets. Because secrets are often whispered, we need to learn to really listen so that we may hear them.

Arjuna’s attentiveness to Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad Gita, and his heartfelt receptivity, moved Krishna to reveal secrets of yoga to him: ways to feel at peace within oneself, even in the midst of a war ground. Krishna calls himself “The King of Secrets” in the Bhagavad Gita, and his most secret-of-all-secrets is on the nature of bhakti.

Yes, Krishna’s hardest to hear secret is on love. Love is the nature of bhakti yoga.

And Krishna engages this theme of secrecy to build up Arjuna’s receptivity to the divine nature of the love he wants to talk about:

“Hear still further the greatest secret of all, my supreme message: ‘You are so much loved by me! Therefore I shall speak for your well being.” (Graham M.Schweig translation 18.64)

When a listener’s heart is being tended to, they can hear even the softest of songs. The song, or gita, we are listening to here is flowing directly from Krishna’s heart to his friends, and ultimately, to all of our hearts. The message is simple: We are all loved.
Yoga is realizing we are loved!

When the often complex tapestry of our communications with others is tightly threaded with this message of love, listening becomes easier, responding becomes easier, and therefore connecting becomes easier.

Even the grizzly bears in our lives soften their growls and suddenly we are all taking deep breaths again! This connection is yoga. Bhakti is its heart.

We find bhakti tucked into the dialogues between our own heart and the hearts of others, just as Arjuna did, if only we practice deep listening: sravanam.

According to the Gita, this is the secret formula for peace in this age. And it all begins with something as simple as listening.

But don’t tell anyone: it’s a secret!


For earlier posts in this series, see the Elephant Journal author pages for Catherine Ghosh & Braja Sorensen
For continued posts in the series, see Yoga in the Gita.

Yoga In The Gita

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