A meditation student asked me recently about a practice suggested in a text we are studying. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, if you haven't already bumped into this text, is a spectacularly concise and direct teaching of the various means to stumble your way awake. It was pulled together about 1,800 years ago or so, and is thought to be a compilation of all of the wisdom of the path of yogic meditation known at that time. Patanjali outlines practices that can assist in awakening, with a particular emphasis on and detailed instruction for seated meditation. The original text consists of 4 books, a mere 196 statements formed by lists of terms alone. It is short, therefore easy to commit to memory for the mostly non-literate folks who would have been the audience back when. If you want to explore further, there are lots of translations with commentaries to be had. My personal favorite is The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali by Chip Hartranft, published by Shambhala Classics, 2003.
The student happened to be asking about one suggested practice, tapas in the Sanskrit, usually translated as "austerities" or as Georg Feuerstein puts it, "self-challenge." The literal translation of the term is "heat." The student was asking about the burning away of impurities, when this should be applied, how to know what to do exactly, and for how long to do it. Here's my response:
What a terrific question, so much potential. This is a big question.
Practicing austerities is a lens for the strong-hearted. Remember that any action we are now taking, as the "self" we believe ourselves to be, is simply to see through this belief in self, and how tangled up that belief is with our own suffering. Some actions toward this way of seeing we can take lightly, and gain immediate, maybe even joyful insight via them. I wish for you that all of your realization is revealed in this manner!
Some patterns we carry may be particularly sticky, and may need special focus. This is where taking a particular vow can help us see what we need to see. This takes courage. Many people who have had a quick peek at such patterns, quickly shut the lid on them and go back to business as usual.
For those who take it up, this can feel like tough work, because we've been hiding for a long time from whatever mistaken belief that we're needing to see. There's somehow a strong sense of myself that is bound to the misbelief. Here's where the burning comes in. In holding true Self, in integrity, up against a false pattern, it can feel literally, physically like you're burning, as you're directly seeing what's been heretofore hidden from sight. It's not a necessity, it doesn't always happen, but it can.
Can you think of a time when you "burned with shame" or were "on fire with anger?" There was a mistaken belief in self behind this. Were you aware at that time to consider what that might be? When you are at the stage where you are willing to face what is difficult and painful, if you were able to feel in your body what that felt like, you might have noticed an intense burning. Another take on this idea of burning is that we must start with a kind of burning desire to see truth, and that it is this intensity that drives us into seeing what for most is too difficult to bear, and carries us on when the road gets really rough.
When to practice in such a way, for what situations? Sometimes it's utterly clear to you where you're stuck. There's something that causes frustration, despair, anger, righteousness and there's some clarity about the mistaken belief that is causing the difficulty. So we can take up a change, to actively face the source so that we can see how it feels to live that out. At other times, it helps to talk to someone about this feeling of stuckness. We may be so stuck that we can't see what we're stuck about! This is one of the primary purposes of a teacher. A good one will be able to efficiently and effectively bring you face-to-face with what you need to face, and in fact what you long to face, in order to be able to live more clearly. These themes are all somehow implicated in the yamas and niyamas (external and internal-facing disciplines.) You can always walk stuckness back to these, plus the attitudes and intentions captured in the obstacles to practice named in sutras 1.30 and 2.34.
You will always know when to stop "holding" a vow. It becomes unnecessary. True action flows naturally, without a need to rein yourself in a particular direction. You will still appear to be living out the vow to others, but that's of no consequence. You are living the truth without regard for appearances or even any attention to what your mind might have to say to you about any of it.
I stay away from any notion of shortcoming or impurity, because there can be an idea of self-blame in that. Difficult patterns and actions arising in you, you came by innocently. You can test this by asking yourself, would you choose this for yourself if you actually had the choice? Ultimately, since there's no "you" to own impurities, there's no one to blame, yes? If you can see patterns in yourself blamelessly in this way, just as you can see them blamelessly in others, I find it's possible for them to dissolve more easily. This is not always possible in every moment, but if you can begin to see the truth of this when it is possible for you, it can carry you through some tough times, and ultimately seep into your entire world view.
This all can sound like so much philosophy, without a specific example to work out. If you are interested in working with this practice, you'll want to identify a particular area of your behavior or attitude that brings up the most fear or anger or righteousness. This is a potential area for the application of tapas. The practice is to face yourself directly in a situation that calls up these reactions, and to look at what is held as an absolute fact that is nonetheless intolerable. Look at how you are attached to this belief, look at how it shores you up as a limited, contracted and separate self. Look at how this attachment is the source of so much suffering in you. Is there a different way to see this situation that allows you to be fully identified with the undivided whole that includes the situation? When the answer is yes, when you experience the peace of freedom that comes when the old belief no longer has any hold over you, you are enjoying awakeness. The house you have built and re-built and weatherized tightly against all that was feared for so long, that house called "me", is burned to the ground and fresh, sweet air is blowing straight through. Who needed that old tumble-down anyway, so much work to maintain the damn thing!
Thank you very much for the question. A deep bow to you in your unfolding realization.