We’re all walking a path, the path between the moment of our birth and the unknown moment of our death. This path—the path of our life—is full of change. Some changes are so small that we’re not even aware of them. Some changes are so big that they transform absolutely everything about our life and being. Some changes are accompanied by celebration. Others by deep grief.
Change is inescapable. It’s an absolute part of being alive. There is nothing we can do to stop the flow of change, which, is a reality that can leave us feeling utterly out of control. But as you’ve heard me say many times over (quoting my teacher), while we can’t stop the flow of change, we can influence the direction of change in our lives.
Which leads me to ask: As you move through the river of change, who are you becoming?
Are you moving in the direction of oneness and inner freedom (which can feel like ease and clarity)? Are you moving in the direction of stuckness and inner suffering (which can feel like attachment and fear)? The only honest answer for most of us here is probably it depends! Because everything is always changing, including our thoughts, our feelings, and our behavior. Over the course of any given day or hour or minute we can move back and forth between clarity and confusion, between grasping and releasing, between ease and fear.
In our practice of yoga we’re always working to move toward clarity and away from confusion. Toward releasing and away from grasping. Toward ease and away from fear. But it isn’t easy. And the path isn’t without its complications.
In the first chapter of the Yoga Sutra, our ancient teacher Patanjali named 9 blocks that get in the way. Nine obstacles that keep us from reaching the state of yoga—the state of inner freedom.
Before I share this list of obstacles with you, I invite you to bring to mind a current goal you’re working toward. Maybe you’re trying to establish a new routine so you can move in the direction of balance. Maybe you’re trying to complete a big project at work that’s going to solve a problem for your community. Maybe you’re trying to move through something painful in your personal life that’s slowly leading you toward self-forgiveness and compassion. … Notice what’s coming up for you. What direction are you trying to move in?
As you reflect on this, I invite you to examine what feels hard about it. Are there any obstacles making it difficult to move in the direction you want to go? Do you feel anything happening in your own body or mind that’s making it difficult to move in the direction you want to go?
As you continue to reflect on these questions, listen to our ancient teacher’s list of obstacles. Notice if any of them feel relevant to your situation:
Yoga Sutra 1.31 tells us that these obstacles, which distract and disperse our attention, show up in our body, in our mind, and in our breath. These obstacles (the symptoms of these obstacles) manifest as discouragement, depression, and pain in the mind. They manifest as agitation and restlessness in the body. They manifest as irregular and disturbed breathing.
Think about this list of symptoms. The obstacles being listed here (sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, indulgence, confusion, groundlessness, and instability) are physical and mental. They’re internal. And I’m sure you’re familiar with all of them.
The 1st obstacle, sickness or disease, is something we’ve all experienced. We know what it feels like to be sick in our body, our mind, our breath. The causes of sickness are complex. We can become sick because of bad choices that we ourselves made. We can become sick because of environmental factors completely outside of our control. We can become sick because of some mysterious reason we’ll never understand. Sometimes sickness is short lived and nothing more than an inconvenience. Sometimes sickness is life ending. And, oddly in this conversation about obstacles, sometimes sickness is an obstacle to our inner freedom and sometimes it’s not.
I had the great honor of offering spiritual care to a woman dying of brain cancer. We spent two years in conversation about things like life, death, healing, and love. I was deeply humbled as I watched her accept the reality of her disease with grace. Her sickness was not an obstacle to her inner freedom. After years of practice, she was able to meet her death in peace.
Which brings me to the main questions of this sermon: What stands in the way of your inner freedom? What keeps your mind, body, and breath in a state of agitation rather than a state of peace?
As we continue to examine this list of obstacles, let us be kind to ourselves. Let us remember that we live in a beautiful and complicated world. Let us remember the gift of embodiment, the gift of thought, the gift of sensory experience, the gift of breath.
And… Let us remember the inner freedom that we seek. We’ve come to this study and practice out of some sort of desire and some sort of faith. We’ve come to these ancient teachers who tell us that inner freedom is not only possible, but an inherent part of who we are.
These ancient teachers were human themselves and they understood, firsthand, the predicament we’re in. They understood the obstacles of sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, indulgence, confusion, groundlessness, and instability. But they knew, also firsthand, that we don’t have to be trapped by these obstacles.
After sickness, the 2nd obstacle is apathy. The Sanskrit word being used here speaks to mental dullness or idleness. This obstacle is describing a state of mind that’s missing fire. If we’re trying to move in a particular direction—if we’re trying to influence the direction of change in our lives—we’ve got to have some fire, some ability to put forth effort.
The 3rd obstacle is doubt, which can be linked with apathy. When the mind is full of doubt, it’s easy to convince ourselves that our goal is actually impossible and therefore we shouldn’t even try. We become idle and apathetic. Do you believe that transformation is possible? Do you have trust in the teachings we’re studying? Do you have faith that inner freedom is a state of being that you are capable of experiencing?
I find doubt to be a really interesting obstacle, because honestly, I think a little bit of doubt is healthy. It can help keep you safe. There are a lot of people in this world that claim to have absolute truth to offer you and they don’t want you to have any doubt about what they’re saying. Some healthy skepticism in this complicated world is useful. Doubt becomes an obstacle to our inner freedom when we lose faith in the wise voice of our inner teacher.
The 4th obstacle is carelessness, which can be understood as impulsivity or negligence. Have you ever made a rash decision that you later regretted? Or taken hasty action before you actually understood the situation and therefore made the problem worse? Carelessness is the opposite of intention. The reason we’re constantly asking the question: “What’s real now?” is because we want to keep our awareness grounded in the reality of the present moment. We want to pause, for at least a breath, so we can respond to whatever’s happening within or around us with intention rather than carelessness.
The 5th obstacle is sloth, often referred to as laziness. We all understand (and probably have some judgements about) laziness. This Sanskrit word can also be translated as lethargy. My teacher translates it as lack of energy. He says it’s connected to feeling disheartened or small. As a person who’s struggled with depression, I understand the roadblock of this obstacle. It can be really hard to connect with any sense of inner freedom when you can’t even peel yourself off the couch.
The 6th obstacle is indulgence, or lack of restraint. This is about craving and the inability to abstain from choices that damage our senses. While I disagree with the moralism that deems sensual pleasure as sin, I do understand that there are healthy and unhealthy ways of engaging our senses. How do we experience sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch? How do we keep our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin healthy, which in turn impacts the health of our mind? Inner freedom can absolutely include sensory pleasure, but it doesn’t include compulsion.
The 7th obstacle is confusion. It’s a lack of clear seeing. It’s distorted perception or misapprehension. We’re all quite capable of deluding ourselves and justifying our actions. But if we’re serious about moving in the direction of inner freedom, we have to get really honest. We have to practice self-awareness. We have to pay attention to our own apathy, carelessness, laziness, and over indulgence. Inner freedom isn’t about hiding from truth. It’s about clearing away all the obstacles that keep us separated from the larger truth of our being.
The last two obstacles are about stability, or rather, about a lack of stability. The 8th obstacle is the inability to build a foundation of practice. It’s the feeling of never quite getting anywhere, of spinning in circles without ever making progress. The last obstacle is about losing the foundation of practice once you get it. You finally make some progress, but then you fall right back in the opposite direction.
The obstacles being listed here are things we’re all familiar with. We could sit in a circle and share stories of our own experiences of sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, indulgence, confusion, groundlessness, and instability. These are things we know. And we know the symptoms of these obstacles. We know the feeling of a mind that’s disheartened, depressed, in pain. We know the feeling of a body that’s filled with agitation, that can’t find stillness. We know the feeling of irregular and disturbed breathing. We know the feeling of constriction in the heart. And we know the yearning for inner freedom.
In Yoga Sutra 1.32, our ancient teacher tells us that if we want to prevent or eliminate the obstacles and their symptoms, the recommended practice is sustained focus on one truth—on one single reality. And in sutras 1.33-39 he gives us a list of ideas. As we work to move beyond obstacles and focus our mind—as we work toward inner freedom—the ancient sage Patanjali tells us to meditate on our attitudes toward other people, on our breath, on our senses, on our inner Light, on our teachers who model freedom, on our dreams, or on any other longing of the heart.
I find such compassion for the diversity of this list. Patanjali understood that we’re all different creatures and that we’re at different stages and in different situations. In this teaching he’s giving us a vast toolbox of practice. He’s inviting us into deep exploration of the world and our inner being. Over the coming weeks we’ll explore the whole list of practices.
In the meantime, I invite you to ponder the list of obstacles. As you move through the actions of daily life—as you work to influence the direction of change in your life—pay attention. Where do you feel stuck? Where do you feel constriction in your breath? Where do you feel restlessness in your body? Where do you feel pain in your mind? When you feel the presence of these symptoms, pause, and remember the teachings. What obstacle is currently present? And what action do you need to take in response?
The answer is within you.
Turn your attention toward the stability of the earth. And the vastness of the sky. Turn your attention toward the spaciousness always and already present within your heart. Listen inward, listen for the wise voice of your inner teacher.
Remember, inner freedom is not only possible, it’s an inherent part of who we are.