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I’ve been returning to some foundational teachings and I’m really excited to share this week’s sermon with you. It looks deeply at the inner battle that happens within us all and explores some important questions:

  • Who do I take myself to be?
  • How do I deal with anxiety and grief?
  • How do I get out of my own way?
  • How can I be a friend to myself?

The Inner Battle: Reflections on the Bhagavad Gita

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  • Have you ever gotten in your own way?
  • As you examine what’s happening in your life right now, are there any attachments that are holding you back?
  • What would it feel like to take action without any selfish attachment to the outcome?
  • How do you understand the concept of True Self?
  • How do you understand the concept of ego self?
  • What’s the relationship between True Self and ego self? Can they be friends?

SERMON TRANSCRIPT

In the Yoga Church Community Hub, we’ve been studying the Bhagavad Gita, which is an ancient Hindu scripture that offers important teachings on the practice of yoga. It tells the story of a warrior named Arjuna on the eve of a great battle. In the first chapter, Arjuna asks his charioteer Krishna, who unbeknownst to him, is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, to drive into the middle of the battlefield. The scripture tells us that:

Arjuna, standing between the two armies, saw fathers and grandfathers, teachers, uncles, and brothers, sons and grandsons, in-laws and friends. Seeing his kinsmen established in opposition, Arjuna was overcome by sorrow. (Bhagavad Gita 1.26-27)

As he realizes who he’s supposed to fight, Arjuna’s emotions shift. He says:

O, Krishna, my limbs fail me, my mouth is parched, my body is shaking and my hair stands on end…My skin is burning, I can’t keep standing and my mind seems to be reeling. (Bhagavad Gita 1.29-30)

Reading this description, I can’t help but think of a panic attack. Arjuna is overcome with grief and anxiety at the prospect of going to war against his own family. And at the end of the first chapter, he lays down his weapons prepared to quit. Throughout the rest of the text, Krishna encourages and councils Arjuna. He calls him to his dharma and asks him to fight.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bhagavad Gita, you might be surprised to know that Krishna, a divine being, is rallying Arjuna to war.

Ravi Ravindra, a modern day commentator who I’ve learned a lot from, asks us to remember how metaphor works. He wrote:

Once a major metaphor is chosen, all the accompanying and related accouterments are necessarily elaborated…. If the journey of the soul is expressed as climbing a mountain then ice picks may be necessary, but not boat paddles. If, on the other hand, the major metaphor is that of an ocean crossing, then paddles are necessary and not ice picks.

The major metaphor of the Bhagavad Gita is war and therefore the accouterments of war are elaborated. Ravindra (and every other spiritual teacher I read) asks us not to take these “accouterments” literally. He asks us to understand that the battle that stands before the warrior Arjuna is the battle that stands before every single one of us—it’s the inner battle between different parts of ourselves.

I don’t know about you, but my journey of healing and transformation has sometimes felt like a battle. It’s been long and hard. And, as harsh as it sounds, sometimes it has felt like I’ve had to kill off parts of myself—parts that were causing me and my community harm.

Here’s a question. A big one. Have you ever gotten in your own way? Has some memory of the past, or some deep seated conditioning from your family or culture, caused you to do something or say something before you’ve even realized what was happening?

The answer, of course, is yes. We’ve all done things we regret. We all want to change some aspect of our personality. We all have that one habit we’ve been trying to change for decades. The war between relatives taking place in the Bhagavad Gita is a metaphor for the inner battle happening inside each one of us.

And it’s an epic battle. It’s about our sense of identity. It’s about our actions and our attachments. It’s about our understanding of the cosmos and society and our role in the world.

In the 6th chapter, Krishna tells Arjuna:

You experience the true yogic state when you let go [of] attachment to sense objects and the desire for the fruits of your efforts. (Bhagavad Gita 6.4)

This is a teaching that plays on repeat throughout the early chapters of the Bhagavad Gita. We can’t find freedom while living in a state of attachment. If our actions are bound up in what will happen as a result—in what we’ll gain or how we’ll be recognized—we’re bound in selfish desire.

I realize this idea—releasing attachment to the fruit of your action—is deeply counter cultural. And part of you might be arguing with me right now. But let’s remember that we’re reading a spiritual text—one that’s more than 5,000 years old. A text that comes from a time and place wildly different than 21st century America where I’m writing this sermon. But, I’ll bet its message felt counter cultural even back then. In many ways, we humans are wired to be selfish. We have deeply ingrained survival instincts. And, of course, (at least for those us of living in cultures like mine) we’re wildly conditioned toward individualism and selfishness. So when we hear a teaching that tells us to let go of our desire for the fruits of our efforts, something deep inside us starts to protest.

And this—our ego screaming out to “protect” us—is the inner battle. Like Arjuna, each one of us has to decide whether or not we want to fight. We can decide to let the current of culture take us where it will. We can decide to be carried forward by the inertia of our habits. Or we can decide to make a harder choice. We can turn around and swim upstream. Let’s remember that we’re studying a spiritual text. And spiritual practice has never been about taking the easy path.

A key question in the practice of yoga is: Who do you take yourself to be? The teachings of yoga remind us that who we are is so much more than we realize. In the opening section of the Yoga Sutras of Patanajali we read:

Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence. When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness. Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.

These are sutras I’ve shared many times before. They offer a fundamental teaching. Who do you take yourself to be? Are you the good mood you experienced yesterday? Are you the anxious mind you’ve been feeling today? Are you the award you won last week? Are you the rejection you got last month? Are you the diagnosis your doctor just explained to you? Are you the race you just ran? Are you the life of the party? Are you the serious one that always gets things done? I could go on and on with questions. We all have complex identities. We take ourselves to be a lot of things.

Our minds spin and spin and spin. We take our histories and our pain, our experiences and our accomplishments, all our memories and our dreams, our habits of behavior and feeling and thought… We take all these things and we weave our sense of identity. And, according to yoga, we get lost in the fabric.

Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence. When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness. Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.

According to the teachings of yoga, our essential nature—True Self—is unbounded consciousness. I invite you to say this out loud: The truth of my being is unbounded consciousness.

What does your ego self say in response to this teaching? When you  say it out loud—the truth of my being is unbounded consciousness—what arises within you? What do you feel?

The 6th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita begins with an exploration of relationship. What’s the relationship between your ego self and your True Self? Are they friends or are they enemies? The text tells us:

You can rise up through the efforts of your own mind; or in the same manner, draw yourself down, for you are your own friend or enemy. As you gain control of your mind, with the help of your higher Self, then your mind and ego become your allies. But the uncontrolled mind behaves as an enemy. With a self-disciplined mind, you experience a state of constant serenity, correctly identifying with your highest Self who remains unaffected in heat or cold, pleasure or pain, praise or blame. (Bhagavad Gita 6.5-7)

I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea that we can be our own worst enemy. It happens all the time. Have you ever set a goal for yourself at breakfast that you broke by lunch? Our senses can pull us in a million directions. In the Katha Upanishad we’re told that our undisciplined senses can run hither and thither like wild horses. (1.3.5-6) But, before we get lost in thinking there’s no hope for us. Let’s return to the teaching we just read. Our True Self and our ego self don’t have to be enemies. In his commentary on these verses Ravi Ravindra wrote:

The real question is how to engage in purposive action without self-interest, and more importantly, without egotism, that is, how to be a self without being selfish and how to find a centered self without becoming self-centered. Neither the pure Atman (Self) alone, which is identical to Brahman, nor the little self (the ego) alone will do in the manifest world. At any level, a combination of the two in right relationship is needed.

We live in the material world. We have jobs and families and responsibilities. We need our ego to function. It’s an important part of our being. We can’t fulfill our life’s purpose without it. But, if we’re interested in living with spiritual awareness, we can practice remembering that we’re not just an ego. In Ravindra’s commentary he uses the Sanskrit words Atman and Brahman. These two words take us back to the unbounded consciousness. Brahman is the absolute principle. The vastness. The totality. Atman is the True Self, which in its highest form, is identical to Brahman. We are embodied beings. We are alive in this world. We have senses and a mind. We can think and act. And, there is the spark of vastness within us. We are the totality. We are all of it.

So, the question becomes, how do we live in right relationship with ourselves? How can we be our own friend rather than our own enemy? This question, of course, brings us to our practice. The practice of meditation is a bridge. It’s a link. It’s where the ego self and the True Self can talk to each other.

In her book “Bringing Yoga to Life,” Donna Farhi explores this idea. She wrote:

The aim of any system of meditation or spiritual attunement is to master [the] movement of awareness. … [Through our practice, we train] ourselves to stay with rather than run from all that we experience. When we choose to stay with our practice despite the inevitable highs and lows in our lives, we are actively choosing to focus our awareness on that part of us that is unchanging. With each practice session, we start to identify with this steady part of ourselves. When we’re feeling sad, we practice anyway. When we’re happy and excited, we practice anyway. When we’re in the depths of grief, we practice anyway. When we have a thousand things to do, we practice anyway. We do not practice to rid ourselves of these feelings or to suppress them. Neither do we practice out of stoic denial. When we practice through thick and thin, happy and unhappy times, we are saying, “Sadness is moving through me, but sadness is not who I am; excitement is moving through me, but excitement is not who I am; grief is moving through me, but grief is not only who I am.” When we practice anyway, we make room to fully experience all our feelings while at the same time not allowing those feelings to paralyze or solidify into our identity.

In other words, it’s possible to hold space for the ever changing experiences of our ego self while remaining rooted in the vastness of our True Self. This is spiritual living in the world. It takes discipline and effort. But when we commit to this practice, our entire perspective changes. We’re not so controlled by the ever shifting whims of our senses and our thought patterns. We can say: “Anxiety (or whatever is real for you) is passing through, but anxiety is not who I am.” We can come to our practice over and over again. We can listen inward.

We can allow the ego self to be shaped by the True Self.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna invites Arjuna to take up the battle of life. He calls him to his dharma and asks him to fight. As he encourages and counsels Arjuna, he’s encouraging and counseling us. He’s calling us to live in right relationship with ourselves. He’s calling us to be our own friend.

COMMUNITY COMMENTS

We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation. What did this week’s sermon and reflection questions spark in you?

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