I remember watching the Olympics as a child—I would sit crisscross applesauce in front of the television with my eyes glued to the screen.
I was absolutely in awe of the performances.
The figure skaters: How they would glide forwards and backwards gracefully around the ice, then execute their stunts—salchow, lutz jump, axel jump, waltz jump, toe loop.
The gymnasts: How they would walk, run, swing, flip, and twist around the floor, beam, vault, and bar, performing their tricks.
The runners: How they would sprint around the track, sometimes leaping over hurdles.
While I never myself aspired to train for the Olympics, I always admired the athletes’ commitment and determination, and I always felt that in some way I could channel those same qualities into whatever I pursued throughout my life.
As I reached my teenage years, I approached everything with intensity. Academics and sports were two areas where I devoted most of my time.
At first, my extraordinary efforts were rewarded. I received high grades in almost all of my classes. I maintained a reasonable status on my athletic teams. And I gained admission into a handful of great private colleges and public universities. I thought I was doing everything that I was supposed to be doing.
I thought I was on my way to being a great success in life.
But after a while, I started to notice how my intensity was having a negative effect on my life. With regards to exercise, I was so committed that I actually lost too much weight. With regards to school, I was so devoted that I lost appreciation for my social life.
Nevertheless, my energy levels never faded. It seemed that as soon as I lost my appetite for one activity, such as academics or sports, the intensity appeared in another area of my life. I’d find one subject, such as music or dating or writing, and I’d become entirely fixated on that one thing, shielding out everything else around me.
Most recently, I applied this intensity to my spiritual aspirations. I read every spiritual book that I could acquire. I attended every meditation retreat that I could afford. I practiced at least an hour of meditation every day, and often I would practice more than one hour per day. I practiced mindfulness. I practiced Qigong. And I tried to squeeze a yoga class into my schedule each day.
I was working myself to an early grave trying to maintain these activities, along with least 40 hours between two jobs each week—yet the whole point of these mindfulness practices was to find more peace and enjoyment in my life!
My first pivotal moment came when I was reading The Teachings of Don Juan, an autobiographical book by Carlos Castaneda, the enigmatic anthropology student. In one chapter of this book, Don Juan tells Castaneda that discovering the answer, the secret, and the meaning of life is a process of “not doing.”
I began to realize that spirituality is not something we can achieve. But I had always associated spirituality with achievement.
I was persevering, silently thinking to myself: I want to accomplish enlightenment. I want to gain awakening. I want to generate truth. I want to create illumination. I want to reach samadhi. I want to attain self-realization. I want to ascertain God.
But I came to understand that spirituality is not like anything else in life. Spirituality, no matter what term you employ to indicate the outcome, is not something you can achieve. Spirituality is something that happens to you.
So I started an experiment: Anytime I found myself using the words accomplish, gain, generate, create, reach, attain, ascertain, or achieve, I reminded myself to instead use words like wait, allow, embrace, tolerate, and accept. This went well for awhile, until I ran into another roadblock—which resulted in a second pivotal moment.
I went to the opposite extreme. I became too lazy. I became too patient, too accepting, too tolerant, and too embracing. I thought to myself, “Since spirituality has nothing to do with achievement, I’ll just not try.” So for a little while, I renounced yoga, meditation, and Qigong.
Not only did I forgo my practices, I allowed other people to impose their philosophical views on me, thinking that I just needed to accept everything. And I allowed other people to impose their schedules and agendas upon my own. It was as if I lost my grit.
I eventually realized this approach wasn’t quite right either. I needed to rekindle my mojo. I needed to refresh my outlook yet again.
My second pivotal moment came when I was reading the Yoga Sutras, a book of aphorisms by the ancient sage Patanjali. In a section of this book, Patanjali writes that there are two core principles in yoga—abhyasa, meaning practice, and vairagya, meaning non-attachment. Through the combination of these two principles, spiritual mastery occurs.
On one hand, abhyasa indicates that we should maintain a steady and consistent effort in meditation and mindfulness in order to improve tranquility in our actions, speech, and thoughts.
On the other, vairagya indicates that we need to let go of our attachments, aversions, desires, fears, and overall false identities that veil us from knowing our true self.
So really, spirituality is not a process of exercising one of these principles over the other, but rather a process of implementing both of them evenly. You can imagine that practice and non-attachment are two weights that should balance evenly on either side of a pendulum. On one side, you can envision the words, “Never give up!” And on the other side, you can envision the words, “Always let go!”
With this newfound understanding, my life began to improve dramatically. I maintained my spiritual practices, but I allowed certain things to simply be. I tried to maintain a regular schedule of meditation, for instance, but I didn’t get irritated if someone interrupted my practice or if I had to skip a practice because someone needed my help. In other words, I remained committed without the militaristic intensity.
If there is one thing I have learned over the course of my life so far, it would be this: balance.
So as I remember back to those days when I sat as a child, eyes glued to the Olympic athletes on television as they ran, jumped, and skated, I finally understand how they did it. It took lots of practice and just as much non-attachment—total balance between the two.
Author: Henry Bond
Image: Oliver Astrologo/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron