Dharma and the Nine Distractions


 “Inside everyone 

is a great shout of joy 

waiting to be born.”

 ~ David Whyte, Winter of Listening


Dharma & Passion

It’s difficult to find an exact translation for Dharma in the English language. The French come close with, raison d’être which means, “the most important reason for someone’s existence.” To my students, I describe Dharma this way: we are each unique, specific expressions of the life force, and thus, we each have a gift to share with the world. Our Dharma is the gift itself but also the duty to discover and nurture it. This process does involve contemplation, but mostly, it grows in the heart. It must be felt inside and nurtured through love to be truly manifested. For this reason, I believe the English word that comes closest to dharma is “passion”.

The Nine Distractions

Whatever language you use, discovering your dharma, is not easy. Though experts from most disciplines extol passion as the key to success, they all acknowledge that the path is filled with obstacles. Google “success” and you’ll find a plethora of self-help books, online questionnaires, motivational seminars, life coaching solicitations all promising to help you to “discover the truth of what moves you”. 

patanjaliThousands of years ago, ancient yogis also sought strategies for navigating the journey to self-truth. Around 600 BC, Patanjali, the great compiler, summarized prior yogic thought on this subject in his Yoga Sutras. He elucidates nine distractions (antarayas) to the process of self-discovery. Much like the screaming sirens of Greek mythology, these temptations constantly threaten to pull us off course.

Antaraya means “to come between; obstacles”. Unpacking the word we see anta is means between, ara is moving towards, and ya equals yeah.”  

In The Yogi’s Roadmap, Bhavani Silvia Maki translates the Sutra I:29, “Tataha pratyak-cetana adhigamah api antaraya-abhavah ca’’ to mean: “Then the understanding of your soul, the Self happens, and there will be an absence of obstacles, that is, obstacles in your path will vanish.” In the next sutra, the nine are named as: Ilness (Vyadhi), Apathy (Styana), Doubt (Samśaya), Negligence (Pramada),  Sloth (Alasya), Imbalance (Avirati), Delusion (Bhranti-darshana), Self-depreciation (Alabdha- bhūmikatva), and Instability (Anavasthitatvani).

Disarming the Distractions

That which continues to oppose our path serve us too in the end, by testing and strengthening our resolve to live our dharma. ~ Aadil Palkhivala

After listing the “nasty” nine, Patanjali provides their antidote. First, we inoculate ourselves with the meditationpractice of concentration (Tat Pratisedhartham Eka Tattvabhyasah, Yoga Sutra I.32 ). Approaching self-study (svadhyaya) from a place of stillness provides greater clarity (viveka) so we can see where and when we might fall prey to the distractions. Stillness allows us to use the Nine as a yardstick to measure our own psychological and physiological habits (samskaras).

He then advises four specific attitudes to fortify this state of clarity; friendliness (Maitri), compassion (Karuna), delight in the virtuous ((Mudita) and disregard towards the wicked, equinimity (Upeksanam). These four foster a serene mind more immune to outside stimuli  (Sukha Duhkha Punyapunya Visayanam Bhavanatas Citta Prasadanam I.34). Armed with this clarity, we are able to take an honest look at ourselves and learn from the antarayas.

Discovering Dharma Practice

“The inner obstacles that disperse the mind are: illness, apathy, doubt, negligence, sloth, imbalance, delusion, self-depreciation, and instability.”  ~ Yoga Sutra 1.30, Patanjali

Now we’re ready to put Patanjali’s valuable insight into practical application. To begin this Discovering Dharma Practice come to a place and time amenable to “settling into stillness”. After finding your spot, you might find it helpful to practice a one-pointed focus technique (tratakam) such as watching your breath, reciting a positive affirmation (mantra) or a visual point. After a few minutes, turn your attention to one of the four fortifications (friendliness, compassion, joy, and disregard for the wicked). Complete this first step by reciting Om, which Patanjali says helps to disarm the distractions.

Now consider the antayaras in order. You might want to bring this list and a journal with you. You’ll definitely want to bring with you the four fortifications so you can assess how they can help you with each.

Distraction #1 – Illness – Take a look at your energy, your mental and physical health. Do you feel like you’re more tired than others? Do you find yourself distracted with health concerns? Do you put your mental and physical health as a priority in your daily life? Patanjali wisely knows that health concerns are a huge distraction to clarity.  Set an intention to take positive and specific steps to generate a Healthy Living Plan. This might mean consulting a professional, purchasing a healthy living book or starting a health journal. Meditate on those times in your life when you did feel healthy mentally and physically. What practices contributed to that feeling? Conversely, can you pinpoint what might have caused your current illnesses?

Distraction #2 – Apathy – Look at how you feel throughout the day. Do you find yourself procrastinating? Are you restless or lack of enthusiasm for any one thing. Are your habits self-defeating? Do you not care about the results of your actions? Ask yourself to consider a time when you did feel energized by something. This could be an experience or place where you felt time stood still. You were completely absorbed in that activity. What qualities were present here? Were you in an athletic endeavor? Engaged in work? With others? Look at the event as if it were an interesting story about someone else. What do you see? 

Distraction #3 – Doubt – Are you unsure of yourself or the reality that you might have a unique gift? Do you doubt your ability to be passionate? As in the previous distraction, consider a time when you did feel passion. It can be anything:  playing with your pet, watching a movie or just relaxing outside. The idea is to see that you do have the capacity for passion. You might also consider those in your life who you see as passionate. What qualities do they have? Are you jealous of them? This might be a signal of doubt of yourself? Can you maintain joy (Mudita) towards them? This is a sign that you’ve conquered this distraction.

Distraction #4 – Negligence – Do you do things that you know are wrong, not good for you? Or, on the other hand, avoid doing something you know you should do? Are you chronically avoiding responsibilities? Don’t meet deadlines? Are you late frequently? Are you careless about your eating or drinking habits? Again, consider what small steps you could take to remedy one of these issues. Keep it small and specific.

Distraction #5 – Sloth – Do you have a heaviness in the body? You may do a lot of things, but when it comes to doing little asanas, postures or exercise, you simply don’t. This laziness can creep up in any aspect of life while doing anything. One is intentionally not doing and another is heaviness or laziness in the body that takes over you. What have you committed to in your life? Do you avoid commitment? You’ll find that taking steps in the first four will greatly affect #5. Once you feel healthier by committing to a plan or lifestyle change, your energy will return. However, remind yourself that the first step is always the hardest. What could you do to give yourself that extra push?

Distraction #6 – Imbalance, worldliness – Do you feel overwhelmed by the pull of the senses and thus fail to maintain balance in the midst of the worldly life? Again, each of these distractions begins to fall away as the ones before are disarmed. Once you embrace a healthier more optimistic mental and physical state, that in itself becomes rewarding. Until then, making note of the specific pitfalls in your own day, in your home. What habits do you have that do not support your healthy plan? How could you set up your home, your day in a way that sabotages your unhealthy habits?

Distraction #7  – Delusion – Do you experience an error in understanding or judgment? Does your mind accept a mistaken point of view? The problem is people often live out the roles others want them to fill. The only way you can build a happy life is from a foundation of your own nature, your own values, your own interests.

Distraction #8 – Self-depreciation – Are you experiencing a failure to gain ground? Are you plateauing? Why is this happening? Is it that the prerequisites weren’t met, a strong foundation wasn’t built? Perhaps further effort is required? Do you lack the confidence to feel you really can achieve the goal? Do you sell yourself short?

Distraction #9 – Instability – Do you achieve a level of attainment but have difficulty maintaining it? Is your practice inconsistent or is there an unsteadiness of the foundation? Here we again use self-study to look at ourselves. Perhaps we have started a course that involves our passion but we didn’t do the groundwork to make sure we had the skills. Maybe we gave up before we were able to reach our expectations. Yoga Sutra 1.12 reminds that practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagyabyam) are important in bringing about clarity. We need to honestly assess if we did build a solid foundation for our dharma to manifest and if we did support it with consistent practice. Or did we give up too soon?

The journey to discover our passion is challenging but essential to our happiness. It is our Dharma, our duty. Thankfully, Patanjali provided us a practical, succinct guidebook for navigating the journey. In the Sutras, he reminds us that there is no quick fix, no magic potion or practice. To see our dharma requires self-study, honesty, effort, and trust. That process is Yoga.

Debbi Murphy
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By Debbi Murphy

Studying the Mind-Body connection is Debbi Murphy’s life work. She earned a masters in psychology and a doctorate in exercise science from the University of Missouri and was known as that community’s fitness expert. Seeking deeper meaning, she pursued the study of yoga. She worked with teachers such as John Friend, Richard Freeman, Shiva Rea, and Seane Corn and found her true home in Erich Schiffmann’s teacher training & philosophical approach to the yogic life. In 2001, Shanti Yoga Studio & School came to life. Shanti hosts weekly classes, monthly workshops & advanced training. The teacher training emerges out of hundreds of hours of study and practice and emphasizes the transformative power of yoga. Through more than 30 years of practice, Debbi embodies the personal empowerment of yoga as well as the evolving dynamic art and science of yoga. Debbi’s passion for teaching and modeling the yogic life has inspired Shanti’s expansion to several locations in Idaho and she leads teacher trainings and retreats throughout the US, Ecuador and Mexico. While she has studied with many master teachers, Debbi knows her greatest lessons are learned from her students. All her classes are grounded in sound biomechanics, mind-body-spirit integration, and her heart lies in the transitory nature of the beautiful flow in the vinyasa tradition. Debbi grounds herself in McCall and Boise Idaho with her husband Mike and she is currently enveloped in the love of her first grandbaby, Lily.

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