There's a concept in yoga called tapas and it isn't referring to delicious Spanish dinners.
[Aside: if you're ever going to Barcelona, hit me up for restaurants recs. Stephen and I went to Spain in November of 2015 and have wanted to return ever since. :)]
Croquetas y aceitunas y jamon ibérico aside (now I'm hungry), tapas in Sanskrit is often translated as self discipline. The root wordtap is often translated as "to burn"—so it's a self-discipline with an element of heat. My teacher described it as the concept of accepting suffering or pain in the name of self purification.
Think: purifying gold in a fire.
If you've ever pushed your body to the extreme, you're likely familiar with tapas in a physical sense. Think of sitting back in chair pose and holding and holding. Your quads and glutes may start shaking. And you're about ready to die when the yoga teacher says: "Hold for three more breaths." And, somehow, you summon the discipline to do it, though your legs feel like they're on fire. You accept and endure the pain because you know, ultimately, you are strengthening your legs.
Note: this is very different from acute pain indicative of an injury. It's never advisable to hold a yoga pose (or, I'd say, any exercise) when you feel injurious pain. Simply stop. (I've found if I'm feeling injurious pain in yoga postures, it likely means I'm doing the pose incorrectly so I stop and come out of the pose entirely.)
On the physical side, I think we can all distinguish actual injurious pain from what I call purifying pain, the pain it takes tapas to endure. We know, for example, that when we're holding a plank, the shaking and intense heat we feel in our core isn't truly hurting us, it's strengthening us.
However, when it comes to mental and emotional pain, this can be trickier to accept. It seems we're conditioned to avoid any discomfort in our mental and emotional lives at all costs.
Feeling sad, anxious, depressed, jealous, angry, agitated, or, I don't know, bored? Drink some alcohol, binge watch some Netflix, take a pill, scroll through Instagram, play video games, eat a pint of ice cream.
To be clear: I'm not scolding you for doing these things. I watched all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls in a crazy short time frame and can put away pints of ice cream at record speeds. As an angsty teen, I remember retreating to the basement, watching seasons of Full House on DVD (pre-Netflix, you guys!), and eating boxes of Nutty Buddy bars. [I'm linking those as a future gift idea for me. Jk. :)]
My point isn't we should judge ourselves and feel bad about ourselves for doing these behaviors (please don't!), only that it's worth noticing if we've been conditioned to always take the edge off of mental and emotional pain.
Can you see how always taking the edge off with a distracting or numbing behavior could be the equivalent of lowering your knees the second you start shaking in plank? Or standing up the second you start feeling it in your quads in chair pose? The concept of tapasreminds us:
The edge is where the growth happens.
I am certainly not advocating for a pain-filled lifestyle; I am advocating for a growth-based lifestyle. Sometimes, mental or emotional pain is the perfect indicator to get the hell out of a situation just like sometimes physical, injurious pain is the indicator to stop doing what you're doing.
But sometimes, we need the self discipline to face things, to accept pain and suffering in order to get through situations—rather than simply avoid them or distract ourselves from them.
"If you want the moon, do not hide from the night.
If you want a rose, do not run from the thorns.
If you want love, do not hide from yourself."
You cannot selectively dull specific emotions. If you're participating in numbing or dulling behaviors to avoid emotional pain, you're numbing/dulling your potential for experiencing positive emotions as well. And—perhaps more importantly—you might be delaying your own growth. You might be avoiding the very fire that could purify you.
I am no expert; I'm obviously a long way from "purified." But I'll tell you one thing: Nutty Buddy Bars never solved any of my problems. Nor did alcohol. Nor did Instagram.
I never felt lasting transformation in my life until I started reckoning with things I'd spent years running away from. I have no sophisticated approach for dealing with emotional discomfort. My version of accepting suffering looks like this: I try to follow a line from Thich Nhat Hanh's book How to Sit when I feel the urge to metaphorically flee:
"Don't just do something, sit there."
I try to sit with my pain. I try to feel it. In stillness and silence, alone, for as long as I need to.
It can hurt. And this process can span days or weeks or months. Letting go of things you spent your whole life clinging to can be painful—but, at this point, I trust I can decipher injurious pain from strengthening pain. I understand my dedication to tapas—to accepting pain as help for purification—is an integral part of the healing process.
One does not purify gold in the microwave. One puts gold ore into the crucible, the crucible into the furnace.
And I promise you: there is joy on the other side of acceptance, if you'd only stop running away from the fire you may need to past through in order to find your true self.
Do not hide from the night.
Do not run from the thorns.
Do not hide from yourself.
with Love and with Light,
p.s. "If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?" —Rumi
p.p.s. "Accept whatever comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny, for what could more aptly fit your needs?"—Marcus Aurelius
p.p.p.s. "For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn't understand growth, it would look like complete destruction."—Cynthia Occelli