“Open yourself to transformation. You will be transformed.” The Buddha
Tapas is the third personal observance or niyama; following Saucha (purity) and Santosha (contentment/acceptance/serenity), we come to self-discipline. It is translated as heat, dedication, zeal, ardor, passion, enthusiasm, burning and transformation. It is the transformation, but it is also a willingness to be transformed. It is the willingness to die a little bit to who we are, right now, in order to let the new be born.
It is not always pleasant. There is a moment of panic when you walk into any new situation; a yoga studio, if you haven’t done anything with your body other than feed it and clean it for ten years, if not outright abuse it and overwork it, can start all sorts of anxiety scenarios off in our heads. There is the real possibility of flying not up into an arm balance but face down into the floorboards, removing not fear but layers of skin. There will be moments a plenty in your practice where your legs are screaming holy hell at you and your arms tremble not with the pleasant qualities of satisfaction and strength and vibrancy but just goddanged fatigue. Your hamstrings may feel drawn and quartered. Your gut, in the fifth round of core work, may prompt you to wimper. If your yoga teacher tells you to smile into it and feel gratitude for the body that you have, you may start a chorus of explitives in your head, not beatitudes. There will be moments when you feel you will die if you do not drink water in the next three seconds. A good yoga teacher will point that out, and remind you you will not; that it is your mind screaming at you, not your body, that water won’t actually affect you for 20 minutes after you drink it and will actually just serve as a way to break your concentration. And you will pant and scream holy fucks in your brain, you will hate the yoga teacher, you will wonder how a minute could possibly last so very long. And you will not die. Surprisingly.
We bring ourselves to the practice like an offering. We express or tap into an inherent desire to be changed and become in some way more alive. Tapas is a cultivation of the yearning in us to a fever pitch.
We learn, differently: rather than accepting teachings or wisdom we put ourselves to the test and see what comes out of it. Knowledge becomes wisdom when it is lived personal experience. Wisdom becomes part of our essence and structure rather than an abstraction of the mind. Integrity, strength, perseverance, courage, patience, virtues become character traits rather than ideals. They become who we are.
Life isn’t changed, this way; we are.
Tapas is, to me, a form of dedication and prayer. You dedicate, donate, give all to the reason you practice, to the yearning. Perhaps it is easiest to say you dedicate yourself and each practice to god. By giving yourself over to that greater thing, you become the greater thing. A little. A little more like it than the person you were yesterday, anyway. Your essence is less self and more fire, more god. When you look for god, says the poet, god is in the look of your eyes. You yourself become enlarged.
Another poet saint says it differently: do not look for the answers, he says, you could not understand them now. Your being is not ready to hold them. Do not seek the answers, but the questions, live in them. Live the questions.
Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. Tapas is the question, the why, the what’s the point, the burning energy. It is the way we spin straw into gold, hammer lead into precious, burnished, honey colored fire informed molten and wizened power.
Tapas is dedication or zeal for the very process, the questions. It is impossible to say, some days, what the point of it all is. Why we should bother doing anything. We can’t very well know the outcome, or whether there is an ultimate bend of goodness to the world, or a heaven or a god or even a point to going to work each day, growing older, being born and borning children of our own.
But we can choose to live as if the questions mattered.
As if our choices, our hours, our bodies themselves were forming cauldrons and catalysts and catharsis toward something more.
Because this is true: change. It is inevitable and constant. Thus we either deny it, struggle against it, fear aging and dying and the day after day horarium of toil. Or we surrender to it entirely, form ourselves with it, iron our discipline and desire to a form that can enliven the change and be the change and contribute to the roiling on of life. We reform our bodies into things that can hold and withstand the answers.
Anais Nin wrote, in one of her diaries, that she felt she was preparing for a great love. She threw open windows and aired the house, she threw open closet doors and pulled out the richest fabrics, tableclothes, silver. She was drawn to fresh flowers, poignant scents, richly made and delicately served foods. Cool drinks of water. She had her best wines ready by the time Henry Miller came around.
She intuitively knew that to welcome a great, passionate love, she had to open, everywhere.
She may or may not have known that what she was really preparing was her heart. What she was opening was not windows but her eyes.
I have felt it: there is a layer of pentness, congealed and stagnant energy, bloat and dis-ease and lethargy. You burn through that layer, often around the hips, other times bound up around the heart, sometimes a layer of gray and brown and haze around the eyes or the brain like migraine, or pessimism. Some people’s joints swell. Some people’s blood sugar turns acrid. The veins clot and your very thoughts have to plow through layers of wet concrete just to break the surface of your mind.
You sweat and burn.
And you lay on the mat, afterwards, burnt and spent.
Something in your center made more pure. Shining loud. Trembling under the fire and left naked.
Everything unnecessary has fallen away. That silence is deafening.
The sadhus in India burn themselves alive. In winter, they sit in the snowy mountains for hours at a time, naked but for a loincloth and the ashes on their bodies. A bucket of water is positioned to drip a steady stream on them. For hours. In the summer months, they surround themselves with five fires, another in a metal container on their head. They sit in the fire and bake. Everyday. For three hours. For 45 days in a row.
There is no need for our own practices and austerities to be so daunting. But they raise an interesting question. Why would anyone do such a thing? What is the point of such self control and sensory overload?
Is there anything to be learned from this tradition, at all? What ridiculous things we do, over here across the ocean, mad as bees to feel better or cleaned or alive…what is the point of running 20 miles or 50? Why do we eat and over eat? What’s the purpose of spending 30 or 40 years at a job or preening ourselves from adolescence on for some romance? What is the point of marriage, or sex, or intoxication, or watching television? We not only watch television, but watch it for large chunks of our lives. We spend money to get the best television. We work 30 or 40 years to pay for the best television so that we can watch an imaginary person preened to a peak for a romance that is unreal and leaves us feeling shoddy about ourselves. What is the point of prayer? Why would we bother buying a yoga mat and showing up in a small room that smells of incense once a week?
Just what in the hell are we putting ourselves through this for?
I think it is an effort to be a little more alive, a little less dead to our own living. I think it is a practice of paying attention to what is possible.
I think it is practicing, so that our acts become essential, not dross. So that our food becomes nuturance and celebration, our sex takes on meaning, our relationships become sacred and informing. Running marathons proves nothing so much as the fact that we can start in one place and end up in another.
Tapas is a practice of remembering what aliveness and passion are. Discipline is remembering what we really want, or at least dreaming toward something. Tapas is the choice to find a better way and making ourselves respond.