Cultivating a Tranquil Mind

Tranquil Mind blog image

Two friends, Vicki and Naomi walk to their cars after having had dinner together. They work together and have known each other since kindergarten. Naomi wanted to get together to share her good news. Not only had she received a promotion and a substantial raise, but she had just gotten engaged. Vicki tried to be happy for her friend, but inside she was consumed with envy and resentment. Her mind was racing with thoughts about how unfair life had been to her.

This is an example of just one of the situations that Yoga Sutra I.33 speaks to, as it addresses how to maintain a stable, tranquil mind in relationships. This Sutra is translated: “A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous, and impartiality towards wrong-doers.”1

Vicki, in the example above, is seeing the happiness of her friend through the lens of what she feels she is missing in her own life. Her thinking has become negative, and she is suffering, as a result. This Sutra advises us, instead, to see the happiness of others as just that. By being friendly towards those who are happy we share in their positive experience. Our minds remain tranquil.

Actually each of the four situations mentioned in this Sutra share a common thread. What keeps a person’s mind ensnared in negativity is seeing other people’s lives through the lens of one’s own life, experiences, or values.

Let’s look at another example. Jean is 26 and recently divorced after an abusive marriage. As a result she asked to move into her parents’ home with her 1 year old. Neither her father nor mother liked the man Jean had married. They told her it was her choice to marry him, and now she has to live with the consequences. Without their help or a job, Jean and her baby are living in a shelter. Jean is obviously suffering from her failed, abusive marriage and lack of resources. Yet, anger and blame cloud her parents’ minds and close their hearts to her suffering. Sutra 1.33 advises us to cultivate compassion, a sympathetic consciousness, of another’s suffering. Our mind, then, remains stable and calm.

When faced with someone doing things that are wrong or harmful, this Sutra advises impartiality toward someone acting poorly. Many of us might stop at this and ask if this means ignoring someone’s harmful behavior.

I don’t think so. Yoga is about cultivating responsible, thoughtful action based upon seeing clearly what is in front of us. This part of the Sutra, I believe, directs us to withhold judgment about behavior because we cannot know the whole story behind it.

In Ferguson, Missouri this week, protests have turned violent following the shooting and death of Michael Brown, a young, unarmed, African-American man, by a white policeman. His death is being investigated, and the violence in response has been condemned.

Yet, we do not know the whole story. We can be disturbed and angry judging the behavior of the white policeman. We can condemn the behavior of African-American crowds angry over another case of police violence seemingly based on race. But, to be impartial means we don’t take events personally. We have to take more into account than just our own ideas and beliefs. And, we need “to understand that there are compulsions…which cause them [wrong-doers] to act as they do.” For that we need sympathy and understanding as well.

1Translation from The Wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, by Ravi Ravindra


Choosing Peace

Finding Peace blog image

Each one has to find peace within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.”
      – Mahatma Gandhi

As I prepared for teaching my Wise Women class, I came across a short article, “An Inner Choice,” I had printed out in 2010 from the online site the “Daily OM.” The first line was in large type and immediately brought me up short: “There cannot be peace in the world until we have it in our own hearts and minds, our own families and neighborhoods.” It grabbed my attention because I, as I know many others, had been struggling with the news of war and violence, the images of children dying, the anguished voices of loss and hopelessness. If you are attentive to all this, it is hard to feel peaceful inside, and easy to feel powerless.

This article, however, was a realistic reminder that how we live our own lives – whether it is with anxiety or calm – has an influence beyond just ourselves. Because this is a choice we can make, we are not powerless. When we feel the turmoil of the world’s chaos and conflict, we need to look within ourselves. We need to ask ourselves: What is our own sense of peacefulness?

We all experience busy minds and conflicting emotions. It is in our nature as humans. The difference between those who experience peace and those who do not has to do with how we invest our energy, not who we are. As the article explained, those people who feel at peace do not invest their energy in disturbing and disquieting thoughts and feelings. Instead, they allow the thoughts and feelings to “rise and fall like the waves of the ocean without disturbing the deeper waters of peacefulness within.”

The Yoga Sutra defines yoga as the ability to stop the mind’s busyness and distraction so it can be still or silent. In yoga we have tools, such as postures, breathing techniques, chant, gestures, meditation, to help us calm the mind and emotions by creating space.

As we begin to create space in our bodies, minds and emotions, we also can pay attention to those things in our lives that create obstacles to feeling at peace. How is our diet? Do we get enough rest? Do we have too many commitments or commitments that feel burdensome? Do we have habits that create uneasiness or agitation? This self-observation or svadhyaya can bring awareness to these obstacles so we can seek positive change, giving us more space in our lives.

With a feeling of space, the turmoil of our minds and emotions can recede, and, in its place we can glimpse, if not connect to, the peace within ourselves. This peace is available to all of us. It is within us already. Even if we are distracted by the ruffled waters at the surface of our lives and in the world, we can set an intention to work toward getting in touch with our own peaceful center. This is the real power we have.

Taking Time to …

Forest greenery

About a month ago my husband, Jim, and I had a talk about, well, about having fun. It wasn’t that we weren’t doing things together. We were good about working together on projects and supporting one another in our individual interests. What we weren’t doing was taking time to do things we enjoyed.

So we decided not to make appointments or plan other things on Thursdays. Instead we would choose something to do we could enjoy together. For example, one week we visited Hershey Gardens and lunched in Hershey. Another week we drove to Pine Grove Furnace and explored the State Park, taking a long hike, and lunching in Carlisle. This Thursday we went biking on the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail and had an ice cream cone before driving home from Lewisburg.

We don’t have lives as busy as many of you, especially those of you with children and grandchildren you care for. But, I have to tell you that we have enjoyed our days off, and I can imagine that taking an hour or two even once month would be enjoyable as well as healthful.

As you can see from our plans, our outings have taken us to places where we can enjoy nature. The beautiful mild summer days we have had certainly have encouraged all of us to spend some time outside. Personally, I know that this time outside, in nature is important to my well-being.

I came across the concept of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” in a recent article in Oprah magazine. This idea, which is hugely popular in Japan, refers to an immersion in nature, especially in forests. In fact, getting out into the woods is considered a kind of preventative medicine.

The Japanese first began studying the health effects of immersing yourself in a forest environment, and since then other studies have supported its positive effects on health as well. These studies have observed “that forest environments promote lower cortisol concentrations, lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, better immune system functioning and greater parasympathetic nerve activity” (Source: In other words, your stress response is reduced and your immune response increased.

I know days will come when “forest bathing” is not practical. We will wake up to a rainy or cold Thursday. And, then, winter will challenge us unless we take up cross-country skiing. But we will find new activities and places to enjoy on Thursdays. After all, we dedicated this day to doing something enjoyable together.

I have to admit, however, I will miss the comfortably warm days of summer that encourage our days hiking in woods, biking through fields, and just spending time in nature, which is also our home, as well as preventative medicine.

You can find an interesting article on “forest bathing” in the online edition of Outside magazine.

Avoiding Future Suffering

Man with sander

Last week I watched my husband limping with back and leg pain after spending hours sanding our floors. Clearly, bending over with the sander was aggravating a pre-existing back injury. Rather than avoiding the activity creating his pain, he worked, bent over with the sander, a good part of the next day. Our floors looked great once he finished. But it took several days for the physical pain this work caused to diminish.

The suffering of day one did not make him avoid what had caused that suffering on day two. But, we all do things like that. We continue saying “yes” to projects even though we know our days are full. Somewhere in the back of the mind is a voice reminding us stress and fatigue will result, but we still add just one more thing to an already full calendar.

Patanjali,s Yoga Sutras say there are three kinds of suffering. Suffering due to change, suffering that comes from things we long for or are greatly attached to, and suffering that comes from not being able to override our patterns even when
they are harming us. Here are some examples I notice in everyday life.

Parinama – Change is constant. The seasons change from hot to warm to chilly to cold. We change as we grow from children to householders to “seniors.” Our closest friend moves across the country. A family member gets sick and dies. A beloved pet is lost. Our business grows, and then closes. Yesterday was sunny, today is cloudy. Everything changes but we may not recognize it if the transition is slow. But sometimes the change is so quick that we cannot comprehend it, let alone adjust to it. We want to hang on to what is familiar, but as the reality doesn’t allow
that, we grieve and suffer.

Tapa – Wanting what we want and keeping what gives us pleasure. Dreams of something we want to own or achieve can be pleasurable or painful. When the desire for a house, a relationship, or recognition is strong yet not achievable, we can feel frustrated, angry, sad, miserable. In another example, we may love our job and identify so strongly with our occupation that when we retire we mourn the loss of who we were rather than living a new life. In either case, desiring something we cannot have or being attached to something that changes or disappears, we
experience pain.

Samskara – Deep conditioning or imprint, habit. Have you ever seen someone with an oxygen tank who can’t resist lighting a cigarette, or someone who has had a triple by-pass salivating over a Big Mac and French fries? Certain unconscious patterns of behavior cultivated over a long period of time may result in
problems, ill-health, and suffering.

Our experiences create impressions in our mind. The more the experience is repeated or the more profound, the deeper the impression. We may not be aware that these engrained ways of seeing ourselves or the world cause us to think and act a certain way. Even with the knowledge of what will cause our suffering, the patterns are so deeply rooted that we often fail in our attempts to reduce that very suffering.

Avoid future suffering
Our goal, then, is to be able to discriminate between what is real and what is the mind’s tendency to vacillate, create desires, and identify with things that have the potential to create suffering. So, how, we might ask, shall we do this?

Prepare for the negative aspects of suffering. If there is a hurricane coming, you prepare for it. Those who ignore warnings suffer the most, unfortunately. Often our desire to do something, whether it is to sand floors or to stay in our home during a storm, overrides our awareness that we are creating more potential for suffering.

Here is where yoga practice can help. We learn as we move, breathe and meditate, where the lines are between feeling comfort and discomfort. We grow in awareness, not only of our bodies, but of our thoughts and patterns as well. With greater consciousness, our ability to discern between what is helpful and what will cause suffering grows.

We can’t control everything, especially not Nature. But, with mindfulness we can make better choices to prepare for or avoid the effects of suffering. The floors may have to be sanded, but we can hire someone. And, we can’t control Mother Nature but we can board up the house and get the kids and dog in the car and leave.

Finding a Path through Grief

Yoga and Grief book cover

I wanted to share a new yoga resource with you. Gloria Drayer, a wonderful yoga teacher and friend, has co-written a book entitled, Yoga and Grief, a compassionate journey toward healing. This book is an insightful guide, explaining different yoga techniques and how they can support you as you experience and move through loss.

One of the first things I noticed about the book was the gentle, comforting language used. Nowhere do we hear what we must do to assuage our grief. Everywhere we are encouraged to use what works for us, to respect our own needs, to allow ourselves what time we need to heal, despite outside pressure to move on.

Most likely, the writers’ own experience and wisdom has guided their supportive tone. Both Gloria and Kathleen came to write this book out of their own experiences of loss: Gloria as she cared for her mother in her last year of life and Kathleen as she faced a major health crisis in her own life. Both talk about using the techniques of yoga described in this book to help them through their own journeys.

The writers explain that the suffering of loss unbalances our entire system. By using techniques of yoga we can rebalance the energy of our bodies and minds to find, over time, a sense of calm and peace.

This book is remarkable in its breadth, clarity, and accessibility. Strategies offered include breathing techniques, gentle yoga postures, meditation, chant, and the use of ritual. For each of these techniques, several options are offered for their use. For example, in the chapter on yoga postures, there is a practice that can be done in a chair, another done standing, another on the floor, a longer practice, as well as suggestions for rest, so that anyone can find something appropriate.

In each chapter, the writers explain the benefits of each technique and offer easy to follow instructions to perform it. To help follow instructions for yoga postures and breathing practices, clear black and white photos supplement the instructions, which are written accurately and simply. To support learning of the chant and meditation, Gloria has recordings of the chants and guided meditations given in the book on her two websites.

I highly recommend Yoga and Grief, a compassionate journey toward healing, whether you are dealing with grief right now or not. We all experience losses in our lives, be it the loss of a loved one, the death of a pet, the loss of health, the loss of a relationship, or a job or home, and most of us help others close to us with their losses. To understand the techniques of yoga and how they can support us can be invaluable when we need help. Gloria and Kathleen have created a remarkable resource. It is a gift to those needing a path through grief.

Visit or to learn how to order the printed book or e-book edition of Yoga and Grief, a compassionate journey toward healing.

What Weeds Teach Us


I don’t know about your garden, but weeds have beset mine. The tall ones grasp the earth with such intensity that it seems impossible to uproot them, even with a shovel, which also shows you how long I have ignored them. The groundsels prickle my hands when I try to pull them. Garlic mustard, buttonweed, and thistle all seem intent on camping here for the summer, along with their other unnamed friends. Both rain and sun encourage weeds more than they do marigolds or lettuce or basil or peppers. “Why is that?”, I ask myself.

I bemoan the garden’s appearance, probably as it reflects a certain casualness in my approach to gardening. Or perhaps, it is because I have an image in my mind of the well-tended, beautiful garden I had imagined last March, and the reality falls short.

When I blame myself for the weeds in the garden, I am dispirited and my motivation sinks. The truth is, weeds in the garden are no reflection on me, or the garden, or them. Weeds are part of the gardening process. If I accept them as part of the gardening process, I bypass the self-criticism and get to work pulling them, coming that much closer to transforming my unkempt garden to a beautiful one.

It is the same with weeds in our minds. From time to time, most of us have negative thoughts popping into our heads. And, often these thoughts attack our self-worth and raise fears about our ability to deal with some aspect of our life. They can be thoughts like: “I can’t do anything right;” “My boss doesn’t like me;” “I will never get through the day;” “I don’t have time to take care of myself;” “I am too old to learn new things.” I am sure you could add a few to this list. Often we forget that we are most vulnerable to the growth of these weeds in our minds when we are doing too much, dealing with stress, resting too little, and eating poorly.

My work with my yoga teacher and my yoga practice help me to gain perspective. I come to see these thoughts and fears as being in the nature of things. With the practice of breath and movement, I relax, creating space in my body and mind. With a sense of spaciousness in me and around me, my fear lessens. I become aware how lack of rest or doing too much creates fertile soil for the weeds in my mind to grow. I gain a sense of perspective, and I can begin to accept that those thoughts are just in the nature of things. Then, the garden of my mind has room for flowers to blossom.

A Lesson on Mistakes

Yoga class image

The lesson came in the first class of the first day of my Vedic Chant Training in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our teacher was reviewing chants we had studied over the past two years. We were directed to chant them without looking at our chant papers – in other words, we had to chant from memory.

Of course, mistakes were made. And, I realized that every time I heard myself make a mistake, I was thrown off and found it difficult to join back in the chant.

As we finished each chant, our teacher Sonia Nelson asked us what we noticed. I raised my hand and explained that every mistake I made so threw me off I found it difficult to regain my place in the chant.

She related her own experience with mistakes as she was learning. She explained that she had been clear about wanting to learn to chant well. In the process of studying, she came to realize that mistakes were her teachers. The mistakes she made chanting identified for her what she needed to work on and refine to reach her objective.

Her advice to me was priceless. She told me I needed to change my negative associations with mistakes. I needed to replace my old samskaras or habitual way of thinking about mistakes with new, positive samskaras.

When the awareness of a mistake comes up in chanting, she suggested pressing a finger and imagining sending the “mistake,” like a text, to a text box. Later I could return to the text box and work on refining that problem area I had identified. For me, this sounded like a plausible and positive way to deal with mistakes, perhaps even those I might make in other areas of my life.

Rather than getting bogged down with self-criticism when I make a mistake, I can identify it, put it away for the moment so I focus on what is going on in my life at that moment. In a way this becomes an act of acceptance. I made a mistake, but I can still address what needs my attention in the moment, and come back to deal with it thoughtfully and take whatever action is needed.

We are human. We all make mistakes. Looking at our mistakes as opportunities to learn and refine our actions can be so much more helpful and supportive in our lives than self-criticism and negativity.

What do you think? Could this lesson be of help to you?