16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Be Full of Yourself
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 07/10/2011
Despite the fact that I enjoy sitting and eating more than almost anything,
Despite the fact that I like to sleep a lot,
Despite the fact that my only non-negotiable requirement for a college was that they have no physical education requirement,
Despite those things, I do yoga. I’ve done yoga for almost 20 years.
Who else in this room has ever tried to do yoga? It’s sort of ridiculous, isn’t it?
For those of you in the dark about yoga, a brief lesson: yoga originated in India, and they have evidence of it going back about 5000 years, which makes it the precursor to the Hindu religion with which it is often conflated and also the precursor to pretty much any other documented tradition that we have around today. Although yoga is not meant to serve as a religion, it has over the course of time been entwined with what can be taken to be a religious-type practice or a certain worldview.
Classical yoga, based on some teachings that were written somewhere between the first century BC and five centuries AD, comes with a list of things that you should do – cultivate contentment, purity, stuff like that - and another list of things you shouldn’t do – pretty much the regular stuff like steal, injure, lie, etc. There is also a recommendation for breathing exercises, meditation, and the asanas, which are the yoga postures that you may or may not be familiar with as what most Americans think of as yoga. We heard a description of a couple of them, like Tree and Eagle, in our reading this morning.
I take my yoga class from a perky, 30-year-old former dancer with a professed desire to always see if her body can move in some new way. This is good for me because I am the opposite of that. In fact, for easily the first fifteen years I did yoga, I spent most of the class waiting for it to be over. The way I looked at it, you had to do the crazy uncomfortable poses to get to that yoga feeling that you get afterwards, that bendy sort of airy, light feeling that everyone gets after yoga no matter how lame or lazy they might be. That’s what I was there for, that after-feeling, and if I had to endure something akin to exercise in order to get there, well, then, that’s what I was willing to do.
Back to that in a minute.
My super-active, adorable yoga teacher starts her classes with a lesson each week. Most of her lessons are something like my sermons – she takes something from the yoga tradition, and something from her personal experience, and mixes them together somehow to give us something to think about. And a few weeks ago, she wanted to talk about the yogic teaching of asteya, which is one of those “don’t” rules that I mentioned before. Asteya is Sanscrit, and has several translations, the most common of which is non-stealing – so, don’t steal from others is one of the yoga rules. But another translation of asteya is non-coveting. As in, don’t covet what others have and you don’t.
There’s another tradition that has a lesson about coveting in it, and it goes like this: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” That’s in Exodus 20:17. Commandment number ten, out of just ten commandments.
So here we have two separate, ancient traditions – actually both around 5000 years old – which both take the time out of a limited number of rules to tell folks not to covet. Really? Of all the destructive behavior in the world to make a rule about, we’re talking about coveting? Why? Why choose that one?
At a basic level, I guess it’s easy to see why coveting might be frowned upon, since it is probably the root of a lot of other problematic behavior like lying and stealing and adultery and that sort of thing. But my cute and perky yoga teacher didn’t want to talk about that.
She wanted to talk about coveting on the yoga mat. She wanted to talk about a phenomenon that is particularly real in yoga, where you’re asked to do something hard, something that doesn’t come naturally to your body at all. You find it difficult to do, and you look over to the person next to you and see that they are doing it just fine, and you covet their ability to do it. You envy your neighbor, and covet her ability to do the pose better than you.
In this situation, coveting someone else’s ability to do yoga can’t really lead to stealing or lying or adultery. So why is it still discouraged in yoga? My yoga teacher said that the reason coveting is to be avoided is because it is a waste of time, and it is a waste of time because it is unnecessary.
When you covet someone’s ability to do yoga, you are creating this binary world where you can’t do something, and another person can. The assumption therein is that you are lacking, worse than, less than. The assumption is that there is one way to be, and you are not it. The assumption is that there is a goal to be reached and you have not done so. It’s very, very easy to think this way in yoga. I do it whenever someone suggests standing on our hands.
But imagine if none of that, none of that “this is better and this is worse,” is true.
Believe me, in yoga, there are poses that I know I will never be able to do. I have tight shoulders and weak hips and I can’t in any way crouch down with my heels on the floor. My knees literally point in a different direction than my toes. That’s pretty weird. But here’s the thing – even though I KNOW in my head that I can’t do certain poses, and that I have very clear, documented yoga deficiencies….after 20 years, despite these “truths” that I still believe about myself, there is also another truth: Oftentimes I CAN do the poses, the very poses that I know I can’t do. And lately, in yoga, it is this paradox in which I dwell. Despite the fact that I know I can’t do certain things, sometimes I can do them anyway.
Remember in our reading, how Claire said she felt completely at ease in the pose, but looked utterly unlike herself at the same time? How do you come home to something that is utterly foreign to you? It boggles the everyday mind, but that is the grand metaphor of yoga, the truth that yoga teases out – maybe you are much, much more than you think. Maybe you are filled with potential beyond your reckoning. And maybe even your weaknesses, the things about yourself that you have labeled as useless, are an important part of that potential, an important part of the equation that is you and your whole self.
This is in the end why coveting the things and abilities of others is unnecessary, why it is, for many traditions, a sin. Not because it leads to a crime, but because it distracts you from realizing your own full potential. It locks you into the shallowest possible worldview, where you adopt someone else’s path as your own and then judge yourself as lacking because you aren’t that other person. Instead of asking what might be possible for you, you get stuck wishing for something someone else is working on. You hitch your life to someone else’s star. And in the process, your star gets ignored. The totality that is you, in all your glorious goodness and badness, gets ignored.
The person who covets is locked in a dualistic world where you either have something or you don’t, where you are good or bad at something, where you’re on the path to achieve or you aren’t. But what if true reality were not dualistic like that? What if reality was more like yoga, where even though you aren’t something, sometimes you also…are?
To mess with that dualistic, inaccurate world view you might be carrying around just a little bit more, I invite you to consider your weaknesses – your own, personal, private, maybe painful weaknesses. Now, in regular life, weaknesses are something to be overcome, right? Weaknesses are a drag, to you and to others. They’re a bad thing. If you could bring your weak aspects up to the performance level of your strong parts, then you would be perfect, right? The assumption is that it would be best if you could leave those weaknesses behind.
But consider this: How can you separate your weaknesses from your strengths? In fact, aren’t your weaknesses in fact born out of your strengths? In yoga, people complain of having tight muscles that keep them from bending. But tight muscles means strong muscles, and strong is what you want in yoga. Conversely, a lot of flexible people, the ones we all covet, aren’t strong, and their lack of strength is the very thing that makes them so bendy – but their weakness also leads to injury and unreliability in their poses. So which is the right way to be, then, strong or flexible? How can you even evaluate it, if having too much of one gift means that you are lacking in another, equally necessary, gift?
Think of your greatest strength, in your everyday life. What are you best at? And now, think of at least one weakness you have that derives straight from that strength. I bet you can think of at least one if not a lot more.
Here are some examples:
Do you have an incredible ability to focus on what you are doing in the moment to the exclusion of everything else? Well, I bet it’s possible you aren’t always on time for things, then.
Do you have the ability to see the whole picture in a given situation, and see how all the parts work together? Then it might be hard for you when you need to read the fine print on things.
Can you easily spend hours in intensive research and study, and create substantive analysis of data? Then, is it hard for you to connect with the people in your life?
Do you just want everyone to be happy, and you’re good at making them that way? Then maybe it’s hard for you to ever say no.
The yoga paradox of being sometimes able to do things you know you can’t do is a window into a world where who you are isn’t divided up into good and bad, with the bad parts to be removed over time and with the grace of God. The yoga paradox lets you look into an alternate perspective where the parts of you that you labeled good and the parts of you that you labeled bad are really just all together, all mashed up, in a way that signifies you. And yogic transformation doesn’t come by ceasing to be the mixed up, dark side and light side, down side and upside person that you are. Transformation comes when you take that whole package, the bad and the good, the tight shoulders that are strong and the flexible hips that are weak, and you accept it, and you see what it can do next.
And then you learn that you aren’t good, or bad – you’re you. You are a particular you that the world needs to be whole. You are the Word that God uttered containing a partial thought of Himself. And your job is not so much to get rid of the parts of you that you don’t like, the parts of you that make you altogether different from your neighbor with the house and the wife and the male and female servants and the ox and the donkey. Because you come to realize that if you get rid of those things that make you different from him, all you’ll be is a lesser version of him. What you want to be is a fuller version of you.
You don’t need to spend your time dividing up the world and your own heart into categories of good and bad and better and worse and worthy and unworthy. Make the practice of asteya, non-coveting, your own practice. When you do, you’ll focus on what matters: your unique ability to grow in a way that no-one else can grow. You’ll grow into your own potential, and your holy ability to be a beacon in this world that needs you will grow along with you.
The divine within me greets the divine within you. Namaste.