Today’s sermon dives into the final niyama, which asks us to explore our relationship with the Mystery we most often call God.

I know this topic can be tricky. It can be difficult and loaded with painful baggage.

And so I offer you this sermon, which I hope will arrive in your heart as an open invitation.

Yoga Sutra 2.45 Ishvara Pranidhana (& Mystery)


      • How do you understand your place in the vastness of the cosmos?

      • How do you understand your place within the complicated and beautiful world in which you live?

      • What’s the larger vision of Being that you’re dedicated to?

      • How can faith be central in our lives without falling into superstition, spiritual bypassing, or fundamentalist zeal?

      • Who is God? Who are you?

      • How do you approach God? How does God approach you?

      • Where do you find refuge?

How to approach the yama-s & niyama-s:

This practice is based on Yoga Sutra 2.33 & 34, which outline the practice of pratipaksa-bhavanam. We’re told that when negative feelings/thoughts (anything counter to the yama-s and niyama-s) restrict us, the opposite should be cultivated. This is done through the practice of meditative awareness.

When negative feelings/thoughts are present meditate on the following questions (through sitting meditation or journaling):

  • Am I acting on this negativity? Causing (wittingly or unwittingly) someone else to act on this negativity? Or condoning (wittingly or unwittingly) someone else who’s acting on this negativity?
  • Can I identify the underlying cause of the negative feeling/thought?
    • Greed, anger, delusion, ignorance of True Self, ego, attachment, aversion, fear?
  • Is the negative feeling/thought slight, moderate, or intense?
  • What fruit will come from this feeling/thought? Or from any actions arising from it?
  • Does it support clarity or ignorance?
  • Does it lead to joy or suffering?

This reflection is the practice of Cultivating the Opposite (pratipaksa bhavanam).

Sermon Transcript

If we gathered 10 people, or 100 people, or 1000 people, and asked them each to explain the Mystery that we call God, we’d get 10 answers, or 100, or 1000. There’s no correct answer to this question. Divine Mystery is something we can feel. It’s something we can experience. But it’s not something we can define. We can do our best to describe our spiritual knowings. But our words will always fall short. We can’t define something that’s larger than our ability to see.

One of my favorite places to stand is in front of the Pacific Ocean. And being from the Pacific Northwest, I’m talking about the often cold and rocky beaches of northern Oregon and southern Washington. These aren’t the kind of beaches where people swim or sunbathe or surf or boat, which might cause you to wonder why it’s one of my favorite places. But for me, standing in front of the ocean is an exercise in perspective. The ocean is mighty and huge and mysterious. It could swallow me whole without a second thought and my body would never be found. The size and the power and the terror of it renders me silent.

And the vastness of one ocean is nothing compared to the reality that I live on a planet that’s hurtling through space. Standing in the expanse of the universe is beyond an exercise in perspective. I can sometimes see the moon as it circles the earth. And everyday I get to see the sun as the earth circles it. I can ponder the other planets circling our sun with us and every so often I can see Mars or Venus. But when I start to ponder the fact that our sun—which feels so significant and massive and powerful—is just one sun among hundreds of millions of suns that fill our galaxy and that our galaxy is just one galaxy among billions of galaxies, my mind starts to constrict. The scale of it is just too big.

I am but one life, standing at the edge of one ocean, on one planet, in one galaxy. The ocean is bigger than me. And the galaxy is bigger than the ocean. And these two measurements feel somewhat ridiculous compared to all the measurements we could make regarding the known and unknown aspects of the universe in which we live.

And Divine Mystery? It’s not even on the scale.

In the Hebrew Bible we’re told that we can’t see the face of God and live. In the Bhagavad Gita we get to stand witness as Krishna reveals his full self to Arjuna in a wild and terrifying vision—a vision that Arjuna could barely handle before he had to beg Krishna to return to his mortal form. The fullness of God is beyond our everyday eyes.

But our physical vision isn’t the only way we can see. Every religious tradition exclaims the grandeur of God, yes, but we’re also told that a deeper vision is possible. Our scriptures are the attempts of seers and sages to describe their inner spiritual knowings. And rooted in their inspiration, I stand in front of the ocean and contemplate the depths of the sea. I stand beneath the stars and contemplate the far reaches of the universe. I chant to the rising sun and ask for guidance. I sit in meditative prayer and rest in the stillness of my heart. I seek the Truth of my Being. This body of mine—this life of mine—is small within the grand scale of the cosmos. And yet, deep in the cave of my heart I sense the grand scale of the cosmos opening wide within me. This is a feeling—an internal knowing. And while it’s not a definition of God, it does offer a light on my path.

Trying to live in our complicated and beautiful world with any intention requires the kind of light that can help us see past our limited vision. It requires the kind of light that can cut through our cloudy vision—that can cut through our ego and our attachments, that can cut through our aversions and our fears. If our mind is overflowing with negative conditioning, unresolved emotional baggage, and overwhelming anxiety about the future, we can’t see clearly.

Divine Mystery permeates the known of our everyday lives. As Arjuna said in the midst of his Divinely given vision, “I behold thee without end or middle or beginning.” Divine Mystery is always and already—it is without end or middle or beginning. And yet, without the ability to see clearly, the eyes of our heart remain closed. Lost in the desires of the ego self, we remain blind to the Mystery at our Center.

The final limb on the 8-limb path of practice is called samadhi—it’s the state of yoga, the state of a crystal clear mind. Samadhi is a state of union. It’s a state of being that exists beyond separation. In order to reach this state, we put forth effort to concentrate the mind in one direction (abhyasa) and we work to release the grip of sensory craving (vairagya).

But in Yoga Sutra 2.45, which describes the final niyama, we’re told that the perfection of samadhi comes from trustful surrender to Ishvara. Which begs the question: Who’s Ishvara?

The answer to this question isn’t a quick one. It’s wrapped up in 1000’s of years of history and tradition and debate. Scholar Edwin F. Bryant tells us that Ishvara “refers in the oldest [Vedic] texts to a personal but unnamed god.” My teacher, Gary Kraftsow, writes that:

“Although Isvara is the Sanskrit equivalent of the word ‘God,’ it is not personalized. The ancient teachers of Yoga were not offering a theological testament on the Godhead, but rather a depth-psychological analysis of the transformational potential inherent in opening the human heart and mind to the Divine.

In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, Isvara is described not as the Creator God of the traditional religious doctrines, but as a being without suffering or the seeds of suffering. In fact, it is for this reason that the traditional religious schools of Hinduism rejected Yoga philosophically…

In this context, Isvara represents that living symbol of the Divine that is in our hearts. For the Christian, it could be Jesus; for the Muslim, Allah; for the Hindu, Krishna; for the Buddhist, Buddha; and for the atheist, it could represent whatever is of highest value.”

In other words, the practice of yoga isn’t trying to define God for you. Our ancient teacher, Patanjali, wasn’t laying out a religion that yoga practitioners must join and follow. But he was asking us to trustfully surrender to something higher and bigger than ourselves. In this teaching Patanjali is asking us to step away from our small self—from our ego and personality with its likes, dislikes, attachments, and fears. If we can trustfully surrender to something higher than ourselves, if we can dedicate our lives to something bigger than the limited vision of our ego-self, we might just discover the truth of our highest Self.

Ishvara pranidhana, trustful surrender to the God of our understanding, isn’t magic. Just like everything else, it’s a practice. It’s an orientation to the world. Donna Farhi writes:

“The first step in this practice is attuning ourselves to perceive a larger perspective. By setting aside enough time to get quiet and clear, we can begin to differentiate between the cluttered thoughts of our ordinary mind and the resonant intelligence that comes through as intuition. Rather than trying to unravel the mystery, we start to embody the mystery of life. When we embody the mystery, we begin to experience meaning where before we experienced numbness. When we drink a glass of water, we taste it; when a cool breeze brushes our bare skin, we feel it; and when a stranger speaks to us, we listen. Everything and anything can become a sign of this intelligence.

Eventually we are spontaneously drawn to look at the purpose of our life with a new eye. One starts to ask, How can my life be useful to others? Living the answer is neither spiritual insurance nor a guarantee against hardship, but it is insurance against living a meaningless life.”

I am but one life, standing at the edge of one ocean, on one planet, in one galaxy. I am small. But I believe in a Mystery that is big. As you examine your life and dedicate yourself to practice I invite you again and again to the question: Who am I becoming? I invite you to ponder your place in the vastness of the cosmos, to ponder your role within the complicated and beautiful world in which we live.

I invite you to the courageous work of articulating the larger vision of Being that you’re dedicated to.


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One Comment

  1. Donalee March 5, 2022 at 4:27 am - Reply

    Thank you for a beautiful sermon, Summer! I hit pause and “rewound” a few times to the beautiful way you expressed many of these enormous and complex (and moving) ideas…

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