Ganesha is often called the Remover of Obstacles, but if you look deeper into his story, you will see that he can also put obstacles in your path. So a more accurate title might be Manager of Obstacles. Some yogis even call Ganesha the Revealer of Possibilities. And isn’t this closer to the truth of the human experience? Obstacles, inevitably, are part of our lives. They cannot be removed; only managed and with self-compassion, turned into opportunities for growth, learning and new possibilities.
At the heart of much of Buddhist and yoga teaching is the age-old struggle with the vicissitudes of life. Their teachings remind us of this truth: that change is inevitable. Suffering (dukha) comes from attachment to faulty thinking (avidya) that we can control change and remove obstacles. In these illuminating teachings, we can learn the infinite ways to emancipate ourselves from our suffering.
Another icon yogis used to personify this lesson is Akhilandeshvari, Goddess Always Broken (or Goddess of Surrender to Change). As you see in the picture, Akhilandeshvari’s ride is a crocodile, an ancient symbol for primal instincts, FEAR. The crocodile’s modus operandi is to ambush and then stun her prey with a whirling spin before going in for the kill.
Akhilandeshvari doesn’t just face fear, she actually RIDES it….and with a serene smile of surrender and acceptance. She recognizes that she is “always broken” and that it is her unique cracks that allow her light to shine so brightly (see picture)….and for this reason she is also called the Diamond goddess. She is the embodiment of “Obstacles are Opportunities”.
All this is easier said than done. And yet, our yogic icons continue to give us clues as to how we can ride serenely above the whirling vicissitudes of life! Ganesha, famous for his sense of humor, an appetite for life’s gifts (note his big belly!) is also renowned for his sense of righteousness, duty, kindness and forgiveness. In the story of competing against his brother, we see how he manages obstacles to meet a challenge presented to him by his beloved parents Shiva & Parvati.
Like most parents, Shiva & Parvati used games & challenges to teach skills to their children. One day when they needed to help their two boys burn off some energy, they challenged them to race around the world three times. The winner would receive a magical fruit that would yield supreme wisdom and immortality. Kartikeya, the elder, faster brother, dashed off on his plush peacock ride (vahana), while the more portly Ganesha just stood there, thinking. His ride was a simple rat. Obviously he couldn’t outrace his brother; so he folded in his big soft ears, turning inward to listen to his own truth before reacting. He realized his skills were his intelligence, creativity and devotion. He rose, circled his parents three times and said, “you are my world, I choose to circle you three times.” Of course, he won. The lesson he teaches is that obstacles can be overcome by tapping into our own unique resources. Like Ganesha, Akhilandeshavari also taps into her own unique resources; her ability to embrace change with compassion and love for herself. She is the embodiment of liberation through change. By yielding to the destruction of old habits, of ego and of fear of change (Abhinivesha), we can flow more fully into our own Truth (dharma).
Science also supports the importance of these characteristics. For my doctoral dissertation, I studied behavior change models, focusing especially on habits (samskaras). Using Prochaska’s Transtheoretical model of the five stages of behavior change, I investigated how we can most easily manage change, how we can best affect our own habits. The Transtheoretical Model postulates that all behavior change requires navigation through steps (kramas). To sail through these stages toward the goal of maintenance of a habit, one needs to know where they are in the process (self-study, svadhyaya) because each stage requires specific “tools” to move forward to the next. For example, if you’re in the first stage, precontemplation, you need to be convinced that you should move forward. You need to see the pros of the change and the cons of not changing. Once you’ve been convinced “theoretically”, you move to the contemplation stage. Here you no longer need convincing, but you need to have specific tools to push you past inertia (mental inertia is styana and physical is alasya). The jump from Contemplation stage to Action (you’ve begun the desired habit change) is usually the hardest, just as Ganesha did when he went inward to find his true path. It requires changing the environment to make it easier to keep the habit and more difficult not to keep the habit. It requires a supportive social network. It takes specific and unique personal knowledge on how to implement the change. Time is not spent on the “why, but on the “how. As you move towards the fourth stage, Maintenance, many of these same tools apply. Your environment needs to be supportive to the behavior and not supportive of the unwanted behavior. The fifth stage you ask? In my research, it was Relapse. Sorry. Not a happy ending it seems. But it is actually a recognition, a surrendering that we are in a continuous “whirling dervish”, we’re always on the crocodile. We are always in transition. With awareness, a relapse is not a failure, rather, we get better at riding change with a serene smile and can spend more time in the maintenance stage. Here we become the Revealer of Possibilities for ourselves, just as Ganesha did when he circled his whole world three times over!
In future blogs posts, look for more specifics on how to use the Transtheoretical Model as well as Ancient Yoga Wisdom to help manage your obstacles.
Debbi leads yoga retreats world wide and is also director of Shanti Yoga School in McCall, Idaho. You can find out more information about Debbi, her retreats and teacher training at: debbimurphy.com and shantiyogastudio.org.