The story of the phoenix is one of transformation.
As the tale goes, the phoenix is a mythical fire-bird with brilliant plumage and a gold and scarlet tail. At the end of her 500-year lifespan, she builds a nest with twigs, which then ignites, burning the nest and phoenix to ashes. What appears as a tumultuous end is really only the beginning.
From the ashes arises a new, young phoenix to live again.
Like the phoenix, we also have the potential to use fire as a means to transform. The word “tapas” as found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, literally means “to heat.” This implies that to change old, unhelpful habits into new, positive ones, we must be willing to face the heat of discomfort.
For example, when we are trying to improve our strength and flexibility through yoga asana, we can literally feel the burn of transformation. The same is true when we’re challenging old, unhelpful belief systems, habits, and long standing patterns of behavior.
Just like a muscle, the mind can be transformed by stretching and strengthening its capacity.
Reinforced habits in the mind take up residency in the brain’s circuitry. Neurologists claim, “the neurons that fire together, wire together.” Our habits become living entities in our minds, guiding our thoughts, words, and actions until we accept them as absolute truths about ourselves and the world around us.
It’s up to us to challenge these old habits and harmful belief systems in order to align with what is authentically truthful, compassionate, and just.
In the US for example, shopping is a national pastime. We rarely question the amount of shopping we do because it’s something we’ve always done. Even when we purchase more than we need, or forget about the product shortly after purchase, we continue to shop.
Media messaging and advertising have reinforced the notion that shopping makes everything better—various products will make us more beautiful, cooler, happier. Falling under this illusory happiness, we purchase items at the expense of our personal well being—not to mention our bank accounts.As a result, shopping conflicts with establishing inner happiness and, often times, supports practices we don’t believe in.
Consider the affects of recreational shopping on other people, animals, and the environment. Clothing is often made by sweatshop laborers, beauty products are often tested on animals, and the remnants of all our products often end up in landfills, become litter in our communities, or accumulate in the world’s oceans.
Changing our shopping habits can be at the forefront of personal development and global well being, which brings us back to the heat of transformation.
Even when we want to change, the question is, can we make it through that feeling of mental discomfort to do so? Entrenched habits trick us into letting them stay tucked away in our neural circuitry, bringing forth just the right thoughts and behaviors to allow us to settle back into the ease of the old habits taking up residence in our minds.
Many of us have avoided the truth in order to live blissfully in ignorance.
I see this state of mind reflected in the world today. It’s easier to live on autopilot, letting our habits take us wherever they want than it is to challenge them. It’s up to us to decide what we need versus what we desire. If having what we desire is procured at the cost of reinforcing habits that are harmful toward ourselves, other people, animals, and the environment, maybe we should start an inner revolution!
What if we were brave?
What if we decided to burn down that little house of neural circuitry in our brains to reinforce positive habits that bring forth greater personal and global well being?
What if we walked through the flames of mental discomfort because we knew at the end of the day great transformation would take place, bringing forth happiness and freedom to each of us, other people, animals, and the environment?
Using the kriya yoga method in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras—introspection (svadhyaya), mindful reinforcement of positive thoughts and behaviors (tapas), as well as humility and faith (ishwarapranidhana), we can eventually build new neural circuits and habits that encourage us to do more good and less harm toward ourselves and in the world.
Reinforcing new, positive habits can be as awkward as brushing our teeth with the opposite hand.
But with time and consistent yoga practice it becomes easier.
First, introspect—check in with the currently held belief systems that are dominant in your culture. Have you accepted them as truth? Do those belief systems suppress compassion so that desires can be fulfilled?
Lastly, have faith there’s something in the universe that is greater than you. Let your actions be in reverence to the highest will.
Transformation rarely happens overnight, so try implementing and mastering one new, positive behavior at a time. Instead of shopping for entertainment, try taking a walk in nature. Observe how old habits and harmful belief systems react to new, positive ones. Do you feel the heat of discomfort? If so, remember, this is the gift of rebirth.
Like the phoenix, you’re transforming, bringing forth happiness and freedom to your own life and the world around you!
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Jess Sheppard / Editor: Catherine Monkman