Ishvara Pranidhana ~
surrender to God
"I wanna spread the news
Our final topic for this year is also the last Niyama, one of the ethical precepts in our yoga practice. According to Wikipedia, that vast and definitive tome of yoga knowledge, Ishvara pranidhana is "In it's simplest form, a combination of the words Ishvara, meaning Lord, God, Supreme Being or Life Force, and Pranidhana, meaning attention to, love for, surrender to, faith in, or reunion with. "Attentiveness" and "Surrender" are both close English approximations. A close literal English translation of Ishvara-Pranidhana would give "Attentiveness to God" or "Surrender to God."
Donna Farhi, a well known and respected Yoga scholar, in her book "Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit', says that the practice of Ishvara pranidhana requires that we take time to contemplate and be open to an intelligence larger than ourselves (ourselves being our small I or personal ego) and that, 'ultimately, Ishvara pranidhana means surrendering our personal will to this intelligence so that we can fulfill our destiny'.
I have often said, in the past nine years, that only since I started The Samarya Center did I really and truly understand and believe in the presence of God in my life. I have seen again and again how, when we trust in God, or the Universe, or the supreme, or the divine, whatever we might name it, and when we work for the greater good of all beings, that we are nurtured and supported in every way. I have seen this in myself, in my students, in our community and in The Samarya Center itself. There has been a divine mystery constantly unfolding that has helped us to weather storms and increase our ability to offer goodness to a world so much in need. In truth, I became so trusting in this mysterious presence, that in some ways, I stopped working for it or worrying about it at all, both within The Samarya Center and within my own life.
I have not always been that way. In fact, I have been quite the opposite. I have always been a person who has been fortunate enough to get many of the things I wanted, and always through, what I believed to be hard work and direct action. It never really occurred to me that this too was God's presence, but I have certainly been grateful that whatever spirit I was born with was one that had this great ability to get things done. It also never occurred to me that this ability was a gift from God, and that I could use it for something bigger than myself; I was always too busy using it to get things for me. I remember being in high school, and like all the good upper middle class suburban kids those days, loving the Grateful Dead. On one of their tours, they were playing Madison Square Garden, close to my parent's home, and before I was able to get a ticket, the show sold out. At about fifteen years old, I decided that I didn't need to buy a ticket, I would just get on the guest list. So I found out where the band was staying, asked myself which band member might get the least attention from fans (I won't tell you which one I decided that was), and called him up from his hotel lobby. We chatted for about five minutes, then he asked me if I was going to the show. I told him I didn't have a ticket and he asked me if I wanted to be on the guest list. Just like that. Later, when I was playing in bands, I decided I wanted my band to be in the annual and prestigious South by Southwest music conference. Knowing competition was stiff, I booked a flight to Austin, found out who the promoter was, got a lunch meeting with her, and talked my way into a Friday night slot. Later, a similar effort helped my band play our beloved Seattle Bumbershoot festival. And after that, without being a yoga teacher, or having had any experience at all in business, I decided to open a wellness center based on yoga in the Central District. This was perhaps the first time that I consciously decided that I could use my gift for action and results to actually help others, rather than for my own self-serving. I decided to apply for non-profit status, and through more perseverance and determination, was soon granted a 501 c 3. Then it seemed smart to create a teacher training so that I could share what I knew and believed in with others. It didn't even occur to me then that most people who start yoga teacher trainings have most likely been trained at being yoga teachers themselves. I was used to this hard work, and I was used to it paying off. And God had already started showing up. For real.
The Samarya Center started to become this incredible place of healing, community and outreach. I had never planned exactly that, but I began to see that God was ever more present in my life when I offered my gift of fire to serve a greater good. Soon, all of these amazing people, dedicated to love, inclusion and social justice started showing up. I had never thought of that. Frankly, I didn't even know people like that before The Samarya Center came into being. More and more it seemed that I just had to trust in God, and that whatever this universal and divine source was, its direction would guide me, all of us, into the future. I didn't have to do anything but trust. Then all of a sudden, things changed. Just before the holiday party, we found ourselves in a pretty serious financial situation that demanded immediate action and a plan. I felt paralyzed, scared and let down. We were doing great things. We were changing the world. We were mending hearts and uplifting lives. Why weren't we being taken care of?
The other night I was watching Barbara Walters interviewing Oprah. As much as Oprah is a part of our common cultural experience, I sometimes forget how amazing she is. Here is this person, from very harsh beginnings, who has become one of the most influential and richest people in the world. And not only is she rich, creative, and talented, she is also larger, black and a woman. And, she uses her money and her status to help others less fortunate than she. And she's constantly thinking of ways she can do more. In her interview she referenced a previous interview she did with Barbara Walters in the eighties (and by the way, they both look a lot better now!), where she stated that she believed she was meant to do great things. She talked about the incredible backlash she received from the media and the community. Who is this person saying she is so great? Why isn't she more humble? Who does she think she is? How can she say that God meant for her to do great things? What about the rest of us?
Oprah and Barbara didn't have to laugh at the irony of it all. Oprah clearly is great and she does great things. She told Barbara that she often thinks of the refrain from the Bill Withers song, "Use me until you use me up," and uses that very phrase in her prayers to God every day. Here is a person who recognizes her considerable gifts and guidance, and uses them to uplift others. She said that her faith in God guides and supports every thing she does, but I think we could also agree that Oprah works really, really hard. In her efforts to bring about positive change for others, Oprah has both joy and humility, not to mention an ever flowing stream of creativity and money.
See, that's the funny thing about Ishvara Pranidhana. We can surrender to God, we can ask God to use us, but we have to work too. In Yoga, it is the balance between Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana, also known in its totality as Kriya Yoga, and our topics of the last three months. We have to put in the effort, evaluate and assess the results of our efforts, and at some point let go our own holding. That's the surrender part. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is famously counseled to relinquish the fruits of his actions. In a commentary I love by Mahatma Ghandi, he explains this paradox. It's not that we completely don't care whether our work bears fruit, we do want to see the benefits of our efforts as they are directed towards important change. It's just that our attachment is not about what we, specifically, individually, receive from our actions, or what that return might look like.
We started this year with the topic of Ahimsa, and in that newsletter I shared the beginning of my journey toward parenthood. Over the year, I shared with you, my beloved community, my struggles, my losses and my own letting go. I guess in that case, I did do the work, and I also let go. I didn't just leave it up to God, but I also didn't blame or think God wrong when my plans didn't turn out as I wished. It's fitting to me, that our final topic of this year is surrender to God, as if it had always been the plan to start with the intention and end with the letting go. We have a longing, and that longing may remain as part of our call to action, and may even remain if our work doesn't produce the desired result. But we trust too, that there is some divine mystery about our reason for being, the path of our lives, and how we worked towards fulfilling our own purpose, using the unique gifts we each were given. We trust that our gifts will truly serve in ways perhaps yet unimagined by us.
I think again about Oprah's words, quoting Bill Withers. "Use me until you use me up." To me, this really is what this dedication, attentiveness, or faith in God is really all about. We can allow ourselves to be the vessels for God's work, and we can add our own work to it. We claim our power, we channel our gifts without apology, we turn down the voices of the naysayers, and we attune more deeply to whatever we understand to be the presence of God in our lives, whatever we want to call it or however we experience it. We each have the capacity for that, and we certainly don't have to be "great," or "famous." We only have to open ourselves to our own purpose, and work to be the very best we can at that. It is in this opening that we find fulfillment in our lives, and fulfill our own dharma. Although I am particularly inspired when I see famous people like Oprah, Bono, Michael Franti, Bill Gates, Sean Penn, to name just a few, who use their considerable platform of fame and money to offer all they possibly can to help alleviate suffering, particularly in a world where we so highly value the vapid and self-serving, especially among the rich and famous, I also know that we can do this by being the best parent, the kindest person, the most dedicated learner, the most humble and inspiring teacher, whatever we feel truly is our life's work and calling. We use every gift we have, we let God "use us," and we offer that to contribute goodness to our fellow beings and to the world.
For my part, work has definitely kicked back in to the equation. As soon as I realized we needed some very creative thinking to keep our great center thriving, I started to brainstorm all of the possibilities. One thing that came to me was that maybe I could somehow meet Michael Franti, a Samarya Center musical favorite, who is also a yogi and social activist, and tell him about our little gem in the Central District. I told my staff I would meet him and get us on his radar. For the first time since my previous forays into the world of music and rock stardom, I wanted to meet this person not for me, but because I truly believed that somehow meeting him might plant a seed that could help The Samarya Center and all of the people it serves. So I wrote to a bunch of people, explored and used all my resources, including trust, and ended up meeting him. Next time you see Michael Franti, don't be surprised if you see him wearing an "unfold" tee-shirt.
The Samarya Center continues to be a manifestation of this powerful combination of effort and surrender. I have learned, again, that it's not just work, and it's not just trust, but it is the magical alchemy between the two that allow us to channel God's presence and to create the changes we wish to see, in ourselves, in our communities and in the world. In this season of gift giving, consider that truly embracing and embodying the gift of yourself, your unique talents and skills, your openness to mystery, and your attention to divine presence, might be the very greatest gift of all.
~ with much love and light in this holiday season and always ~ molly
Not familiar with Michael Franti's music?
Click here for a very Samarya-esque introduction.