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Ishvarapranidhana — Embracing What Is Beyond Our Control

Ishvarapranidhana — Embracing What Is Beyond Our Control

We conclude our exploration of the ethical principles of Yoga with the final niyama, ishvarapranidhana or “learning to embrace those aspects of life beyond our control.” As with our previous principles, we’ll look at ishvarapranidhana in both the direct and subtle forms in which it can be understood, as well as concrete ways we can apply it on the mat and in our lives.

The Literal Meaning of Ishvarapranidhana

The final, and some would say culminating, ethical guideline is another case where starting with the literal roots of the term can greatly amplify our understanding. Often translated as “surrender to the Divine” or “worship of God,” a closer look at the Sanskrit offers a much clearer and richer ideal.

Starting with the suffix, the word pranidhana literally means “to place in front” and suggests the constant focus we give to something we choose to set before ourselves. Depending on context, it can mean devotion, zeal, contemplation or even “respectful conduct” – that is, in the form of paying full attention to or prioritizing something that deserves our focus. The root ishvara is a little more involved. It is generally translated as “God” or “the Divine,” but in the context of the Vedic culture in which Yoga evolved it has a distinct meaning that is arguably different from what those terms might suggest here in the West.

To begin, the initial meaning of ishvara was “master” or “lord” – that is, the person who governs or controls a given situation. Over time, it grew to have deeper meaning, particularly in a spiritual/religious context. In Indian culture, it has long been understood that any image or idea we have of God is going to be colored by our human assumptions and attachments and thus far from “complete.” For this reason, in addition to the many forms of the divine such as Siva, Vishnu, Krishna, etc., Indian culture uses the term ishvara to refer to that greater sense of the Divine that is beyond human definition or even comprehension. In this sense, the word ishvara is clearly ecumenical and “above” any given religion. Indeed, when we put this together with the original meanings of the term, you can see that ishvara is perhaps closer to “governing force of the universe,” and is in fact very similar to the Chinese concept of “the Tao.”

With this understanding of the roots, putting the components together, the term ishvarapranidhana can be understood as the ideal of staying mindful of the greater force behind life – a force beyond our power and even comprehension. Seen this way, especially when we contrast it with our normal approach to our world, this can also readily be understood as: “remembering the Big Picture” or even “embracing the Tao” or “yielding to what is beyond our control.” To better understand this, let’s take a moment to compare it with the usual human outlook on life.

Ishvarapranidhana vs. “Normal” Life

As discussed previously, the core purpose of all our yam as and niyamas is avoidance of the pain we cause ourselves through our conventional way of approaching life. Even in the far more religious/spiritual age in which Yoga evolved, the Yogis realized our natural tendency is to judge things – even things far beyond our understanding – and to struggle to change things that are very much beyond our control. Our basic disposition is to look at situations and evaluate them as good or bad, in spite of the fact that we truly have no idea of their ultimate outcome, let alone whether that will serve us. This alone can create great “dis-ease,” but of course that is heightened when we then struggle to change them, and even more so if we “fail.” This cycle of judgment and struggle ultimately can define our entire lives – from work to personal relationships to world-view.

In ishvarapranidhana, we are learning to stay aware of the limitations of both our perception and our power, watching for when we fall into assumption or presumption and reminding ourselves of the “bigger picture” when we do. In this way we are able to maintain our peace, remembering that things may not be nearly as negative as we assume and that our moments of inability to affect change are not necessarily signs of “failure.” We also get better at remembering those moments do not necessarily mean a negative outcome and can maintain our peace both when we succeed and when we do not. In that way, ultimately we are able to experience what the Gita describes as the goal of Yoga: to maintain peace “in victory and in defeat, in praise and in blame….” Or, to use an expression more familiar to us in the west, you may notice a strong similarity between ishvarapranidhana and “The Serenity Prayer,” which actually was derived from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference….” Through the practice of ishvarapranidhana was can get better at seeing the difference between the two and redirecting ourselves when we fall into “wrestling with things beyond our control.”

Ishvarapranidhana vs. “Complacency”

This quote leads us to another aspect of ishvarapranidhana it can be helpful to understand, which is that just like non-coveting or contentment it should not be misconstrued as advocating complacency or resignation. Obviously, for all the things beyond our control, there is much we can influence, most notably our mindset and attitude. True manifestation of ishvarapranidhana means staying aware of the fact that while many of the events of life are beyond our comprehension and control, we still have our purposefulness and will and can choose to focus on what we can control (i.e., our attitude and focus) rather than wasting energy on what we cannot.

In this sense, to be at peace with what we cannot change is by no means to imply we shouldn’t make an effort where we can and support others in doing the same. The key is to maintain our equanimity and perspective so we are equally joyous and content when our efforts succeed and when they do not. To go back to the original words of Epictetus: “Of all existing things, some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid….” Epictetus reminds us we do indeed control our will and thoughts – a control the Yogis would say is both our greatest power and our greatest responsibility. In this sense, true ishvarapranidhana means embracing both what we cannot impact and what we can with equal clarity, passion, and faith.

Ishvarapranidhana On the Mat & In Our Lives

To conclude again with a brief look at the practical applications of ishvarapranidhana, we can once more with asana. The physical nature of our practice makes it a valuable opportunity for examining the balance mentioned above between controlling what we can and relinquishing what we cannot. Because asana has a “quantitative” element to it – that is, we can gauge parts of our practice based on the degree to which we can move toward a concrete goal – it is a natural avenue for applying will and control. At the same time, because that movement is governed by our bodies which ultimately are very much beyond our control, it is also a powerful context for exploring peace and acceptance of what “is.” Perhaps even more importantly, because focus on physical goals tends to ultimately bring frustration or friction, asana is a powerful reminder to stay in touch with what truly defines our physical limits and to shift instead to focusing on what we can control, which as Epictetus reminds us are our thoughts, impulses, and intentions. In this way, by keeping these principles “in front of us,” we are embodying the true spirit of ishvarapranidhana.

Beyond the mat, a valuable way of summarizing ishvarapranidhana can once again be found by returning to the full passage from which the Serenity Prayer was derived. In the opening lines of The Manual, Epictetus writes:

“Of all existing things, some are in our power, and others are not in our power. In our power are thought, impulse, will to get and will to avoid, and, in a word, everything which is our own doing. Things not in our power include the body, property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Things in our power are by nature free, unhindered, untrammeled; things not?in our power are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, dependent on others. Remember then that if you imagine that what is naturally slavish is free, and what is naturally another’s is your own, you will be hampered, you will mourn, you will be put to confusion, you will blame gods and men; but if you think that only your own belongs to you, and that what is another’s is indeed another’s, no one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you…. ”

Again, you’ll note Epictetus stresses the fact even our bodies – let alone our circumstances – are not under our control. Likewise, we cannot control the actions of others – importantly even those who love us and would happily do what we want. When we find ourselves worrying or feeling anger or frustration over our short-comings or challenges, Epictetus reminds us to remember the only things we really can control are our thoughts and the feelings that arise from them. As a result, any time we experience the symptoms he describes – mourning, confusion, blaming others, or even just blaming “life” – that is always grounds for looking at how we are thinking about a person or situation. Again, this doesn’t mean we do not act, but we need to realize the pain does not come from the situation itself but rather our view and in turn we need to focus on our thoughts and not merely our actions or the actions of those around us.

To conclude with a final thought, it’s worth noting that, much like our other principles, most of us are better at applying this awareness in some areas of our lives than others. That is, we may be very patient with co-workers but constantly struggle with wanting to “fix” what we perceive to be problems in family members or loved ones, or we may take great responsibility for our own health but then make the mistake of blaming others for what we think of as “bad” choices. Through self-study, we can become more aware of those areas where we might benefit from improving our balance. Applied regularly, ishvarapranidhana can help us see and shift those areas where we are fighting things beyond our control and focus instead on what is within our power, ultimately returning to the peace and ease that the Yogis remind us is our true nature. Or, again, as Epictetus puts it: “No one will ever put compulsion or hindrance on you, you will blame none, you will accuse none, you will do nothing against your will, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy, for no harm can touch you….”