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Six Steps to Awakening a Yogic Heart
by Leza Lowitz
Editor's Note: For many yoga practitioners, yoga goes well beyond the 6'x2' mat of a 6:00pm -7:30pm Tuesday night yoga class. The author of this article has an amazing and interesting history with yoga. As you get to know her (she's an instructor, book author and yoga studio owner in Tokyo, Japan), you will see what a wonderful journey she's embarked upon thus far. Her journey is inspirational, encouraging and uplifting. In this piece, she discusses finding the ancient Mahayana Buddhism from the Lotus Sutra as a road map for her life. "These 'Six Perfections' are innate human qualities that form a blueprint for living a virtuous life and transcending one’s karma."
I first studied Tibetan Buddhism in college decades ago, inspired (and intimidated) by the lengthy vows (18 root and 46 secondary) that Mahayana disciples took to release themselves from the cycles of karma (samsara) and dedicate their lives to attaining enlightenment (nirvana) so that they could help others on the Bodhisattva path.
Though I knew I’d probably never go to live in a monastery, I began to try to practice what Charlotte Jocko Beck calls “Everyday Zen.” That meant sitting in meditation, and when not “sitting,” attempting to see the world not through the mind and thoughts (theory and intellect) but through experience (sensation and essence); through what Buddhists call “non-conceptual awareness,” a meditative state of receptivity, and trying to become a better person.
I saw how meditation opened a window into the possibilities that arose when my body, mind and spirit were less fragmented, more integrated, and I actually started to feel connected to others rather than separate and lonely.
I started to write about my experiences in essays and poems. My previous book, Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By was structured around the eight limbs of yoga practice (Raja Yoga), which was a springboard for a personal and artistic inquiry into the physical, philosophical and spiritual dimensions of yoga and life. With time and a deepening of practice, my exploration of the yoga postures (asana) moved to the meditative aspects of yoga, and like many others, I sought to embrace a quieter, more inward-focused life. Paradoxically, as my attention turned inward, it turned outward to my community and my responsibility to live more peaceably, to serve others and to try not to harm the planet.
But I needed a blueprint. I wanted a roadmap. And it turns out, there was one, an ancient one that had served other for centuries and also served me well--the six paramitas, or perfections, of Mahayana Buddhism from the Lotus Sutra. These “Six Perfections” are innate human qualities that form a blueprint for living a virtuous life and transcending one’s karma. Though simple, it contains enough wisdom--and challenge--to make following it a lifetime journey. And an ideal complement to the practice of yoga.
People sometimes ask writers, “why did you write that book?” and the answer is often, “the book wrote me.” For me, this has never been truer than with Yoga Heart, in which both the writing and the theme (the Six Perfections) became my daily practice. I wrote it because I had to learn what I was trying to live.
Instead of experiencing the world through a filter of habits and conditioning, I started to sense the vibrancy of what was in front of me, moment to moment, a bit freer of the veil of conditioning. Eventually, no longer addicted to the drama of struggle, I learned to let go and step out of my own way. The next step was seeing my life as a gift and trying to find ways to use the good fortune I’d been given to live in a land of plenty and peace, to help others whenever and however I could.
To this end, I wanted to use my thoughts, meditation and yoga practice to change myself for the better, and to direct my energy towards helping others. But I didn’t want to be a hypocrite or an evangelist. As charted in Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By, I tried to follow the eight limbs of yoga practice in my everyday life, attempting not to harm other beings and to live with honesty, generosity and compassion. Over the years, I often failed, was lazy, or simply forgot how.
Twenty-five years after sitting in that college classroom, I was led to reconnect with the six paramitas of Mahayana Buddhism from the Lotus Sutra through my teachers at YSI. These “Six Perfections” are innate human qualities that form a blueprint for living a virtuous life and transcending one’s karma. They remind us that when we’re born into this world, we join a web of interconnectedness with our fellow creatures, nature, the ecosystem and the atmosphere. These treasures are Dana Paramita (Giving/Generosity), Shila Paramita (Kindness), Kshanti Paramita (Patience), Virya Paramita (Joyful Effort), Dhyana Parmita (Stillness) and Prajna Paramita (Wisdom). They’re called perfections because we’re constantly led to practice these virtues until we “perfect” our human lives. Traditionally, the six treasures are cultivated by Bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who vow to help others attain enlightenment and keep doing so until all beings everywhere are free from suffering. Each builds on another.
Awakening the Yoga Heart
The six paramitas form the underlying inquiry of my practice now: What does it mean to be generous--to give time, energy, money, resources, praise, attention, support, love? What does it mean to receive? Can we accept generosity graciously and humbly? As for kindness, how can we be truly kind to others and to ourselves? In fact, an alternate translation of the second perfection, Shila Paramita, is “ethics” or “morality.” This means watching your thoughts, words and deeds vigorously. How do we cultivate patience? My teacher Geshe Michael Roach beautifully defines patience as a lack of anger. Can we catch ourselves before we react in anger to a challenging situation? Can we take a deep breath instead and see the person in front of us as no different from ourselves, indeed, as one? That’s patience. Of course, patience is also slowing down, taking time to wait, being okay with not knowing what will happen next, even enjoying a luminal state where anything can arise.
And what of joy? Can we discover true joy--not by consuming, possessing, or achieving, but simply by honoring the beauty and richness of the moment, feeling contentment and satisfaction with things as they are, no matter how imperfect? Can we approach our daily work with true joy and passion, no matter how humble or tiring? Then what of stillness? Can we embrace the stillness, just being rather than constantly doing? Can we allow time for prayer, meditation, being in nature, being alone with our own thoughts?
What is true wisdom, in the Buddhist sense? How do we come to understand the concept of emptiness and potentiality, and how can it help us live a better life? Can we see our neighbor as ourselves, the world and everyone in it as truly One? Can we see that the labels we attach to what we experience come from ourselves, and change the labels? Can we see our world and everything in it as nothing less than miraculous and divine?
These practices can take lifetimes, but simply being committed to living with the consciousness of inter-connectedness and to taking compassionate action can transform one’s life forever. As my teacher explained, the prophecy “heaven is at hand” from The Gospels of Thomas is not an apocalyptic vision, but a view that “heaven” can exist here on earth by seeing the sacred in your world and making the world a better place for others.
The best we can do is seek happiness so we can help others find happiness. That is yoga, and that is true perfection. That is the awakened heart. Waking up to this.
The above is adapted from the author’s newest book, Yoga Heart: Lines on the Six Perfections, Stone Bridge Press, 2011.
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About the Author
Leza Lowitz is an award-winning writer and yoga instructor based in Tokyo. She has published over 17 books, including Yoga Heart: Lines on the Six Perfections and Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By, a #1 bestseller on amazon. Other work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Shambhala Sun, Yoga Journal and the Best Buddhist Writing of 2011.
She owns the popular Sun and Moon Yoga studio in Tokyo. She can be reached at www.lezalowitz.com.