“Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson had a strong belief, eloquently and persuasively written about, that man has a moral compass and that ultimately, the measure of a man’s life is in how well he develops and lives by that moral compass.
I’ve recently had my interest in Emerson renewed by reading a wonderful essay about him by the poet Mary Oliver, in which she says: “That we are spirits that have descended into our bodies, of this Emerson was sure. That each man was utterly important and limitless, an ‘infinitude’, of this he was also sure. And it was a faith that leads not to stasis but to activity, to the creation of the moral person from the indecisive person.”
Emerson’s confidence was in the ‘laws of morals’, that these laws produced sure results, as sure as when you plant a carrot seed you end up with a carrot, not a pumpkin. In his view, it is important to give one’s energy into the world from a clear place of personal values, to stand up for justice and to fight against injustice when detected. If you don’t know what deeper values motivate you, how can you act decisively?
In his book, ‘The Mindful Leader‘, Michael Bunting speaks about how values-based leadership creates a clear context for action and that “wholesome values or principles are not about restrictions or harsh rules to follow. Rather, they are a wonderful container for the development of mindfulness.” Acting from this place of values “cultivates healthy states of mind, along with a sense of happiness.”
The ancient text of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali has at its foundation the Yamas and the Niyamas, which are 10 basic guidelines for living a healthy and morally-founded life. They are in many ways quite similar to the 10 Commandments of the Christian bible.
The first five of these are known as the ‘Yamas’, and outline disciplines for living considerately and compassionately in the day-to-day physical and external world. It is our duty as responsible citizens to uphold these. They include non-violence (ahimsa), non-stealing (asteya), truthfulness (satya), non-grasping (aparigraha), and sexual containment (brahmacharya). Looked at as a simple list, one can see that all of these foundational behaviours contribute to a society that is fair, considerate, honest, and grounded. Wouldn’t it be great if every person alive abided by this code? And what would it take to truly apply each of these disciplines on more than a surface level?
The second five of Yoga’s moral code are known as the ’Niyamas’, and are more internal disciplines. I think of them as our duty to our own heart, our sense of divinity or higher purpose. These include purity/cleanliness (saucha), contentment (santosha), energetic engagement (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and surrender to a higher source/god (ishvara pranidhana). The Niyamas point the way to what it means to be our best as a human being, to live a life motivated by love and truth, faith and beauty.
In this current age of super-fast everything, from food to communication, it is easy to lose sight of the power we each have to create our own world, and to add our best into the world around us. As Emerson expressed in many ways, what we bring forth is based on what we put into our minds, hearts and bodies. We reap what we sow. The essence of yoga and the mindful space created by its practices is a deepening into our heart, a conviction of the absolute practicality of living from what matters most. What is the highest view you have on the facts of life? What is your prayer? What code guides you?
In the weeks to come we’ll have a closer look at these 10 moral disciplines, one by one, unpacking the wisdom of the ancients into our busy modern world. Stay tuned!