I had the honor of leading a beautiful Thanksgiving practice to a beautiful group of students last week, and want to share some of the resources that helped me to design the class.
There is an ancient yogic philosophy of “the four desires” which holds that we seek four main things throughout our lives:
- To understand our dharma: our life’s calling, or our purpose here on earth. How are we meant to spend our time? Where do our specific strengths and visions meet the worlds’ needs.
- To have artha: the means toward this dharma. This includes good health, money, help from others and from community resources, physical space, safety, and comfort.
- To enjoy kama: life’s sensual pleasures–the joyful objects of the five senses–and love itself. . Art, beauty, friendship, sexual intimacy, delicious food, music…
- and to achieve moksha: our connection with that which is greater than ourselves, our spiritual connections, our ability to feel faith and to find a sense of surrender. This is often translated as liberation, or bliss.
We had a yoga class of 75 minutes to ponder and cultivate gratitude for each of these four categories (and to work with the deeper practice of gratitude for life itself, no matter what’s delivered–more on this in the next blog post!). Perhaps you can carve out 75 minutes to meditate on or journal about these four desires, perhaps not. Either way, I offer this exercise for you to make your own. The more time the better, and, better some than not at all!
Begin by pondering the ways in which you sense your dharma. There are certainly plenty of us who aren’t sure about our dharma–for some of us it takes years, decades, maybe lifetimes to feel a clear sense of calling. If you’re someone with a clear sense of life’s purpose, find gratitude for the gifts you have to offer the world, and also for this helpful and rare clarity about those gifts. This clarity helps you jump into the work without doubt or stagnation (or, with a little of those things, but not enough to stop you). If you’re someone who feels more muddled about your calling, cultivate thanks for any clues that have woven themselves in and out of your life–any understanding about what you enjoy or don’t enjoy, any clarity about your skills and unique gifts, any feedback from others about how you make impact in the world. All is coming.
Next, spend some time thinking about artha
in your life. What people, resources and comforts surround you? I think of things as small as my washing machine and as large as the business that employs me. I think of my father, tutoring me all through grade school, and my mother, telling me that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I also think of my income, my office, my home. There’s often a misconception that it is somehow not yogic / holy / spiritual / okay to seek or enjoy money, or the things that money can buy. But how could we possibly expect to find our life’s purpose if we are worried about where to find our next meal, or how to pay for our child’s medicine? Maslow’s hierachy of needs
can be viewed as a more Western and more psychological view of these soul’s four desires–neither of these models believes that we can exclude the worldly in efforts to attain the other-worldly: all is intertwined.
Now, think of kama
: what is beautiful and inspirational in your life? What love do you savor? Allow the faces and voices of each of your loved ones swell in your heart. Allow your heart center to really feel grateful for this love. In many ways, as Mr. Rogers
reminds us, those who love us have “loved us into being.” What do you love to taste with your tongue, feel with your body, hear with your ears? Again, the misconception exists–perhaps even more so around sensual pleasures–that we mustn’t distract ourselves with pleasure or sentimentality if we are to attain a spiritual or wholesome life. But most branches of yoga have held over the years that to ignore these senses and the experiences they bring–whether pleasurable or difficult–is to shun the very fabric our human existence, to know only parts of ourselves instead of knowing ourselves in wholeness.
Lastly, ponder moksha. We all know someone–maybe it is, or has been, ourselves–who loves their work and / or roles in life, who has plenty of means, and who has love and beauty all around them, but who remains unsatisfied. There’s a deeper itch. Those things alone make for a comfortable life, but not necessarily a deeply meaningful life. We can attain the blessings of a clear dharma, adequate artha, and enjoyable kama, and still sense that there is much more to be explored. This sense of being a part of a larger tapestry, of having impact and being impacted by others, of belonging to community, is essential. On a larger scale, it is equally important to feel a sense of connection with the Divine–no matter what you call it. It gets exhausting to be the only one putting work in–we feel much healthier and more deeply fulfilled when we put in our work and then rest in faith and surrender (or ishvara).
A great book I recommend about the four desires is titled just that, The Four Desires, by modern yogi and teacher Rod Stryker. I love the book not only for it’s information and lovely writing but also for it’s many experiential exercises. Stryker walks us through deeply meaningful assignments–usually in the form of writing or meditation–which help us to find clarity about our four desires and about what may be blocking them.
There are many known practices for cultivating gratitude: taking time to journal about all that you are grateful for from time to time, pondering at the end of each day what blessed you in the previous twenty-four hours, going on a “gratitude walk,” noting that which you are thankful for all around you, and so on. This practice of weaving the four desires into our yoga asana class on Thanksgiving morning was just one more way for us to organize our thoughts about gratitude. While the particular poses and flows encouraged us to find a physical expression of thanks for each of the four categories of blessings, to find humility, and to practice surrender, the meditation practice alone will ripple it’s effects throughout your life with some dedication and time.