Tapas: Austerity

According to Wikipedia, the Sanskrit word tapsaya means heat. Wikipedia goes on to say “In the yogic tradition, tapasya may be translated as “essential energy”, referring to a focused effort leading towards bodily purification and spiritual enlightenment. It is one of the Niyamas (observances of self-control) described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Tapasya implies a self-discipline or austerity willingly expended both in restraining physical urges and in actively pursuing a higher purpose in life. Through tapas, a yogi or spiritual seeker can “burn off” or prevent accumulation of negative energies, clearing a path toward spiritual evolution.”

As funny as it might seem, I think that austerity is one of my favorite concepts in life. Generally considered by those of us in the West to mean “severity or plainness: severity of discipline, regime, expression, or design”, it can also be considered to be “the trait of great self-denial (especially refraining from worldly pleasures).”

My understanding of austerity doesn’t involve harshness or severity, rather it involves continuous decision making (what doesn’t?) towards a goal. As I understand it, Tapas requires a series of constant decisions leading one towards a life with less stuff: emotional, physical, spiritual…. The more austere, the cleaner we can make our lives, the closer we will be to understanding who we (at our essential selves) are.

I don’t think that this means that we should rush out and get rid of everything we own, start practicing yoga and meditating for five hours a day, and eschew relationships. Rather, I think it means letting go of the unnecessary things that we surround ourselves with.

For me, I think that this is less of a physical or object practice and more of a spiritual and emotional practice. Because I have spent so much of the past few years moving from place to place, I have whittled most of my material things down to (what I consider) the essentials. On the flip side of that, I have found myself clinging to emotional baggage.

My form of tapas (for now) will involve letting go of my knee jerk emotional reactions–why get fussed about things that don’t warrant that much emotion? Instead, I will practice accepting emotions as they come in. Just because I feel hurt or upset doesn’t mean that I should react with anger or total detachment. Rather, I will practice sitting with that hurt feeling, trying to understand where in ME it comes from. Instead of putting responsibility for my emotions on others, I will practice tracing their path through me.

If I can understand where my emotions come from (and why), I will be able to better moderate them. If I can better moderate my emotions, I will be more able to serve myself, my loved ones, and my community. And at the end of the day, that is what matters to me.