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Expectations are the Ground of Suffering

A good friend and yoga colleague who is known by many in the Brussels yoga community, Katariina Bastos suffered a brain haemorrhage nearly two weeks ago. She is being cared for in hospital for the foreseeable future and there is good hope for her recovery.*

Katariina was the first person to enthusiastically embrace my project for a small yoga centre in Ixelles, offering her Saturday morning classes and lots of moral and practical support from the beginning. She embodies the best of what yoga represents as a life practice, and whenever she can she supports yoga trainings, retreats, and functions organised by other teachers as well.

Practising yoga and living a healthy lifestyle-as Katariina does with great joy-doesn’t confer any magical protection. The human body has limitations and, as the Buddha taught, some form of illness is inevitable as long as we’re still alive. The real fruits of yoga begin at the edges of physical wellness–when things go wrong and life becomes unpredictable.

Attachments and expectations are the greatest cause of our suffering, and acceptance and present-moment awareness are the fast track to relieving it. Our practice of meditation supports a deep surrender to the eternal source that flows through the vagaries of life. This is the greatest yoga and is available to true practitioners whether or not we can wiggle our toes.

Life will sometimes force us to completely re-evaluate who we think we are and what we do. As with my own injuries leading to a fractured pelvis a couple of years ago, no doubt Katerina’s experience will provoke an adjustment in her life. The important thing is to recognise that this doesn’t affect the essence of who we are and what we do. Nothing is lost: its all just change. 

We must get away from the pervasive notion that yoga is about physical practice. As long as we measure people by their physical condition there will be a sense of imperfection. The true effects of yoga are impossible to determine from the outside: there is no way of knowing who is enlightened and who is not, as human behaviour can be manipulated to appear a certain way. This is entirely a personal path, needing no social approbation.

The bodies and minds of many great yogis and teachers experienced diseases that took nothing away from their connection to source or their inspiration to others—notably, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj (inter alia) had cancer; Be Here Now author Ram Dass had a stroke, my dear guru Swami Veda had severe kidney and respiratory problems, and Thich Nhat Hahn, my beloved Thây, suffered a stroke following several periods of poor health.

Thich Nhat Hanh in February 2019 – Image by Plumvillage.org

With each of them, their teaching continued until the very end; more than four years after his stroke, Thây is still teaching by the example his daily life and practice back in his ancestral land of Viet Nam.

Photo by Jitendra Arya – Wikimedia Commons

Nisargadatta practiced and taught what his own guru taught him: keep your awareness on “I am”—before it becomes “I am this or that”—which is our true nature and earliest experience of self. This is both the goal of yoga and, paradoxically, already and always available to us—there is no need to master complex postures to get here, nor any need to post to social media about it. It’s no unique achievement, simply the pure awareness of Self.

In her book, My Stroke of Insight, Dr Jill Bolte Taylor describes her own experience of a stroke, viewed both through her eyes as a brain scientist and as a patient who experienced sublime blissful states due to having been temporarily disconnected from her rational left brain (summarised here in her Ted Talk from 2008). She fully recovered, and it radically transformed her way of researching and understanding the human mind.

Dr Bolte Taylor’s experience describes the state of “I am” in which the perception of unity—love—is primordial and there is no label getting in the way. We move towards this state in meditation, by letting go of the parasitic thoughts that naturally inhabit our everyday mind.

There’s no way of knowing what Katariina has experienced until she is able to tell us about it herself. I very much look forward to that conversation with her, just as I look forward to another walk in the forest together as soon as she is able. 

The practice of Mauna, or Silence, allows us to get in touch with the our “I am” state as we glide through the day without the habitual labeling or naming of ourselves or things around us. Without the need for speech, we can connect with Katariina–and others–on this level at any time.

Today is a particularly special New Moon in the Hindu tradition, known as Mauni Amavasya, literally meaning the no-moon day of silence. Every year, spiritual practitioners refrain from speaking, and many also use this day to fast. It’s a lovely purification ritual that is completed by a dip in the river Ganges (which is happening on this auspicious day at the Kumbha Mela in Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad).

Silently or otherwise, please join me in wishing her a speedy and full recovery, and sending love and courage to her family.

With much love and light,
Susan

If you would like to support Katariina’s family and help them ease some of the inevitable stresses of her healing process, please click here.