Welcome to the Yoga Church Sunday Sermons.
December 30th, 2018 | Happy New Year!
With a New Year comes new goals, new commitments, and new dreams.
And I want to hear all about yours! But first, I want to invite you into a conversation about identity.
This week’s sermon is designed to support you before you dive into the hard work of making changes in your life. It’s designed to help you think about the strange question of “Who sets your goals?” (It’s a good one, based on the first teachings of the Yoga Sutras.)
And once you’ve had a chance to watch it, I would love to hear what you’re dreaming about and hoping for in 2019! Please add your voice in the comments below.
Who sets your goals?
The first story of the New Year is celebration—champagne, confetti, and midnight kisses.
The second story of the New Year is action.
Often the first action is removing all trace of the holiday season. We feel ready to get back to normal routine. Or better yet, we feel ready to begin a new and improved routine. At the New Year we often focus on what we need to do… On the habits we need to change. We plan to exercise more. Eat better. Stop smoking. Go to bed on time. You name it. January 1st—or maybe January 2nd—is a day of goal setting.
And this is good. Setting goals to move toward health and well-being is always good.
But it’s important in the practice of goal setting to remember what a goal is. It’s an objective. It’s something to be achieved. This New Year you’ll set a goal for yourself. And you’ll take the initial steps to move toward that goal. And ultimately you’ll either succeed or you’ll fail. These are the only options with a goal. Either you meet the goal—in which case it’s no longer a goal but an achievement. Or you don’t—because you gave it up, changed it, or simply failed.
Now, let me pause and state something really obvious. Before you can succeed or fail at a goal, you have to work toward it. And before you can work toward a goal, you have to set a goal. I know you understand these steps. But I’m naming them in order to call your attention to an earlier step. A more complicated step. Before you can set a goal, you have to figure out who’s setting the goal. I know that sounds a little weird. You’re probably thinking: “I am. I’m setting the goal.”
Well, who are you?
I’m really not trying to be a smart ass here. I’m really asking who you are.
The practice of yoga begins with the question: “Who do you take yourself to be?” This is a question of identification. As a human being you have a sense of identity. More than likely you identify with a race, a gender, a nationality. You might also identify with a political party or a religion. All month long I’ve been asking you to notice how you identify with the holidays you celebrate. You might also really identify with the type of work you do or whether or not you have children. All of these things are real and they contribute to who you are and how you understand yourself. But can they ever fully answer the question: “Who am I?”
The Yoga Sutras begin with a teaching about our identity. We’re told that our True Identity is Pure Awareness or Unbounded Consciousness. I know this can be a hard concept to understand. So, let’s do this for a minute. Think about the world you live in. Think about everything I just said you might identify with. Think about your body, your emotions, your thoughts. According to the tradition of yoga all of these things are real. I mean feel your body for a moment. It’s real. But it’s changing.
You know this to be true, right? I mean one of the main reasons we set goals is because we want to influence the direction of change in our lives. We want our bodies to move toward health not disease.
But coming back to questions of identity—of True Identity—the sutras teach us that there is an aspect of our Being that exists beyond the reality of change. Deep within us all is an animating spark that illumines our consciousness and allows us to experience existence. It’s a hard thing to capture in language. But no matter what we call it, the Yoga Sutras teach us that unfortunately we don’t identify with it. We identify with whatever passing thought is moving through our mind.
The first four sutras read: “And now the teaching on yoga begins. 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.”
I want you to think about this. “Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.” Think about the way you use language. All the time we say things like “I’m hungry. I’m angry. I’m anxious. I’m lost.” These are I-AM statements. And through them we’re fusing our identity with whatever we’re feeling or thinking. What would happen to our understanding of identity if we named passing emotions not as who we are but as what’s present in the moment. What if instead of saying “I’m anxious,” we said “anxiety feels really strong right now?”
Language is powerful. And it influences our self-understanding. So I’m asking you to notice the language you use as you describe your hopes and goals for the New Year. As you think about changes you want to make pay attention to how you’re speaking to yourself. Pay attention to how you understand yourself.
We often use the New Year as a reset button. You think “I’m going to make these 3 changes and then I’m going to be really happy.” But in doing this, you’ve made your happiness contingent on some imagined future version of yourself. But the thing is, you’re so much bigger than your imagination. You’re so much more than your goals.
Please understand, I still think you should set goals. I just want you to begin your practice of goal setting with a deep understanding that you already have all you need within you. That your True Identity is already who you are. It’s not about becoming something “better.” It’s about getting rid of the habits and behaviors that keep you disconnected from your True Self. It’s about transforming the thought patterns that keep your identity fused with your difficult emotions.
As you work to set resolutions, goals, dreams, important words, and intentions for 2019, I invite you to begin with the question: Who am I? And to contemplate your own understanding of your True Nature. Take the time to do some honest self reflection and figure out the habits of thought, feeling, and behavior that keep your essential nature hidden from you and work to do them less. Figure out the habits of thought, feeling, and behavior that support your connection to your highest Self and work to do them more.
Let’s begin the New Year rooted in the belief that all we need is always, already within us.
- What do you identify with in your life?
- Who do you take yourself to be?
- Even though language is limited, how would you describe your True Self, your Essential Nature? What tools or tradition do you rely upon to help you answer this question?
- What habits of thought, feeling, and behavior keep your essential nature hidden from you?
- What habits of thought, feeling, and behavior support your connection to your highest Self?
Want to keep exploring this topic? Be sure to download the free journal pages that accompany this sermon. Click here to download yours!
We all benefit from the wisdom of spiritual community. And community means more than one voice, so please add yours to the conversation.