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Black sheep, white sheep, or just asleep?

Maybe you’re neither white nor black, good nor bad. Maybe you’re not even a sheep.

Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached. From then on the sadhaka (practitioner) is undisturbed by dualities.

–– Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, II.47-48, translation by B.K.S. Iyengar


Of all of the dualities – hot and cold, pain and pleasure, self and other  –  the one that has disturbed me most is good and bad.

Give or take a few baby years before I knew the rules, I have lived my whole life between these poles.

Did I get up early? A tick in the Good column.

Did I sleep in? A tick in the Bad column.

And so the day went.

Did I do my practice? Do my work? Cleave to duty?

Or did I daydream and lollygag, do the SuDoku with breakfast, surf the Internet, waste time?

Was I thin? Good!

Had I gained a pound? Bad!

Then about a month ago I read and wrote about The Willpower Instinct, a new book by Kelly McGonigal on the science of self-control.

Among the book’s many surprising conclusions, this one stood out: there is no better way to scuttle your plans than to believe that achieving your willpower goal makes you good, and failing makes you bad.

In fact, as soon as an action becomes a test of character, all is lost.

If, for example, doing my asana practice means I’m good, human nature makes the practice less appealing, no matter how much I love the poses, and how many times I experience the well being that follows.

Our dear, rebellious souls do not want to be “good,” perhaps because we believe that being “good” is likely to be dull, boring and no fun, while being “bad” is likely to be exciting and adventurous.

So we make plans for ourselves and then rebel against the plans we’ve made, a continuous process of tripping over our own intentions.

The good news, for me at least, is that my disturbing pair of opposites recently fell apart.

I didn’t have an epiphany in headstand, or feel a jolt of realization run through my triangle pose. But practice makes me happy. The more years I practice, the happier I get. And happiness brings with it clarity and mental space.

In a recent clear and spacious moment, I realized that “good” and “bad” exist only within a frame of mind that judges.

In that frame of mind, they are two sides of the same coin. No matter which side I’m on, I’m equally bound by the internal critic with the clipboard, ticking off good and bad actions, and my self is divided in two.

Now I have a third option: awake.

When I find myself in the land of opposites, I know I’m asleep. When I put good and bad aside, and think “no judgment,” I’m awake.

“No judgment” doesn’t mean no observation, or no discernment. Surprisingly, it seems to mean seeing more clearly.

Experience says that this clarity won’t last forever, and I’ll fall asleep again, only to wake up with a start and realize I’ve been dozing.

So now I’m hatching a new plan for staying awake. If I don’t follow it, I won’t be bad, just asleep. And if I do, I won’t be good, just awake.


Image courtesy of Ionics, via Flickr.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Weaken the Afflictions to Bring Harmony Into Your Life

Release Your Grip by Practicing Non-Grasping

Smack in the Middle of the Mandala: It’s a Good Place to Sit

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • anita July 18, 2012, 8:39 am

    I am reading this book as well and loved that section. My take is that I try and remember my larger goals rather than focus on rewarding myself for being “good”. Home practice, business tasks, family obligations – it has application for all. If only I could apply it consistently!

    Enjoyed your post.

    • Eve July 18, 2012, 2:11 pm

      Ah yes, Anita, there’s the issue, isn’t it?
      I seem to be consistently inconsistent. I’m trying to learn how to do the behavior I want to do, even though it doesn’t necessarily happen at the moment I wanted it to happen in my ideal life. Perhaps pranayama practice first thing in the morning one day, then the next day, when I have to be somewhere early, doing it later in the afternoon, but still doing it.

  • YogaSpy June 5, 2012, 4:44 pm

    I can relate. Maybe all humans (those with consciences, anyway) can. The human condition.

    One of my teachers on the simple, elegant “awake” way of being: non-human Momo, adopted Black Lab. With Momo, every walk is a fascinating, up-tempo, thrillingly aromatic experience, and any “bad” experience (yappy terriers, fellow alpha females, a reprimand not to eat that apple core) instantly makes way for the next moment. She has no regrets or hangups. At age 13 she sprints and swims, acts like a puppy, and keeps up with dogs half her age. Every day is a new day.

    • Eve June 5, 2012, 10:35 pm

      Hey Yoga Spy,
      The poet Jane Kenyon once described her dog as “the designated optimist.” It’s good of them to do that work for us, isn’t it?

  • June June 5, 2012, 12:28 pm

    Very well put. I certainly recognize this pattern in myself. Thanks for the wake up call. Some times when I become awake to something, like a busy mind or procrastinating, I label automatically ‘bad’. Thanks for the reminder to be awake and remember equanimity and continue with the plan.

    • Eve June 5, 2012, 12:39 pm

      Hi June,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, the tendency to label ourselves certainly seems to be almost automatic – I think we have to congratulate ourselves every time we catch it.