For many years I co-led a yoga and meditation retreat with a friend. The retreat was called Open Heart, Quiet Mind and it was offered at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. My friend taught yoga and I led guided meditations on the metta bhavana, the meditation on the development of loving-kindness.
The retreats initially began on Friday evening and ended on Sunday afternoon. They were so popular the next retreat was fully booked at the end of each retreat. After sensing the rhythm of the retreats for several years, we decided to extend the timing of them and so we started Thursday evenings and ended Sunday afternoons so that we would have an extra full day to meditate and practice yoga.
With the combination of yoga and meditation, participants relaxed and looked inward and a community was established. Throughout the retreat we thought about an intention, something we wanted to consider during and after the retreat. The intentions came as a result of the yoga, meditation, silence, cooking together and having spaciousness from the usual routine of daily life.
Towards the end of the retreat we shared our intentions, with each person listening quietly as individuals described their intentions. The intentions spanned a range of topics from exercise, meditation, diet, communication, music practice to making amends with estranged friends and family members. Although each person’s intention was different, the common thread was that they came from the heart.
Although we did not lead people to make intentions based on ethical disciplines of yoga, most of them did fall into five ethical categories. So, eventually, when leading meditation at the yoga retreats, I spoke about these steps to freedom.
Just as the practice of yoga releases tension in the body, these five steps will release blocks to the flow of the heart and release unconditional love. When we love, we are free from the restrictions of ill will.
Here is a list of five ways to open the heart:
1. Ahimsa – nonharm – the practice of compassion and unconditional love for ourselves, for all human beings and all sentient beings
We can practice ahimsa with each word we speak, each action we take and each thought we think. Ahimsa is the foundation for vegetarianism.
Of course we don’t always reach our ideals so an important aspect of this practice is to be gentle and accepting of ourselves when our practice falls short of the ideal.
As a way of practicing ahimsa we might ponder the following queries:
- In what ways am I critical of myself and others?
- Recall a time when I blamed myself for an outcome of an action. What could I have done differently, if anything?
- In what ways have I allowed others to be critical, cruel, unloving to me? What will I do to become free from this situation?
- How can I be more loving and accepting of myself and others?
2. Satya – truth – the practice of being true in our thoughts, words and actions
To practice satya, we are fearless in understanding the truth and this is reflected in what we think, how we communicate and how we behave. We are also fearless when listening to others, to understand their truth. We recognize that the foundation of truth is ahimsa.
As a way of practicing satya, we might ponder the following:
- In what ways am I true to myself?
- When do my actions conflict with honoring the truth?
- With whom am I truthful and which people “not so much”?
- Reflect on relationships that are not based on truth and consider whether it is time to communicate with the person in an honest and kind way.
- How can I be more true to myself and to others?
3. Asteya – not stealing – being free from desiring what belongs to others
Desire and craving what we do not have means that we feel insufficient, as though we lack something. This practice means that we respect the property of others, return what we borrow, act in a courteous way with others (respecting their energy and time) and to be at peace within ourselves.
We might practice asteya by reflecting on the following:
- With whom do I feel “lesser than” or jealous? What is beneath this feeling and how can I change this sense of lack?
- What material things of others do I desire?
- When do I feel at ease and grateful for how things are? How can I develop this sense of ease?
- How does generosity fit with asteya?
4. Aparigraha – letting go – freedom from collecting possessions
We desire to possess many things including material objects, thoughts and ideas, and even people. We cling to things – homes, cars, technological toys, books, adventures, partners, travel and pets. We feel secure when we have our “stuff”.
To practice letting go:
- Consider times when you released your attachment to something or someone.
- Consider what you cling to. In what, who and where is your sense of security based?
- Which possessions are you most tied to? Which can you easily let go?
- Make a list of your possessions and consider a giving away 10%- 25% of them! What is your felt sense as you consider this idea?
5. Santosha – contentment – being at peace no matter what our situation is
We may be in a partnership or single, live in an apartment or a home, drive a Subaru or a Lamborghini, work in a cubicle or the corner office with the view, we may be twenty or seventy, have a high school education or a Doctorate, healthy or ill, intellectual or not, artistic or not – whatever our circumstances, we are content and at peace.
Being at peace means that when we work with, or know, or hear of someone who seems to “have it all” or “have it easy”, we are centered and at peace with the understanding that we lack nothing.
Some ideas to ponder when working with santosha include:
- When I find myself feeling jealous of someone’s conditions, how do I feel in my body and what emotions arise?
- Consider a time you were filled with negativity, how did you react? How could you respond to move towards contentment?
Patanjali (150 BCE) is the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, an important collection of aphorisms on yoga practice based on reflection, meditation and ethics.
He wrote: “Peace can be reached through meditation on the knowledge which dreams give. Peace can also be reached through concentration upon that which is dearest to the heart.”