Stages on the Path

by Ian Szydlowski-Alvarez |
March, 2020
maitrī-karuṇā-mudita-upekṣāṇāṁsukha-duḥkha-puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁbhāvanātaścitta-prasādanam (PYS 1.33)

To preserve the innate serenity of the mind, a yogin should be happy for those who are happy, be compassionate toward those who are unhappy, be delighted for those who are virtuous, and be indifferent toward the wicked.

Jivamukti Yoga Chant Book, page 14

As we embark on our spiritual journey, we might speculate on what is the final destination, if any, on our path? We have heard the accounts of the enlightenment of the Buddha. Perhaps we have read of the sudden satori of a Zen monk, or the ecstatic rapture of Saints or Sages. We could challenge ourselves to reach that summit, thinking that we, too then, will become fully enlightened. “Suddenly, we will be like so and so – a  Guru.” The age we live in is full of desires of achievement and golden parachutes. Often these things are just outside of our every day, “ordinary” experience. These stories can remain distant to us, even the examples of holy people can remain static or lifeless if we do not go deeper inside. The yoga practices can help us do that.


Maybe we have seen a particular asana that we want to accomplish or we have set a series of poses as an objective for our practice. Often we place particular importance on postures, especially when they are overly challenging to us. “I will be a good yogi or yogini when I have mastered this or that practice or this or that meditative state.” However, as the wise Tibetan Lama, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, once stated: “It would be foolish to begin with more advanced subjects before we are familiar with the starting point.”


So what could be the starting point on our path to enlightenment?


Where can we begin to lay a firm foundation? To find our footing and develop a working process toward being on the path, every day every moment, and not just on our mat. Using a mode of experiencing our world which cultivates what Patanjali describes in this verse as citta-prasādanam; Serenity of mind.  Only through loving-kindness or friendliness and compassion can we become an instrument. Only with loving-kindness and compassion, like the wings of a dove, can we fly free. Free, we become a transformer of energy, not only a receiver of energy. In this process, we find that our path can become extra-ordinary and mutually beneficial to the Earth.


How can we learn to connect to ourselves, and how do we relate to others? How can we begin to purify our relationships? The first step, according to the Tibetan teachings of the Lam Rim (tr. stages of the path) is to generate Bodhicitta, meaning the awakened mind.. (The groundwork of the Lam Rim came from a careful application of the Lord Buddha’s teachings, many of which had long since vanished by that time in the 11th century, some 1600 years after his death) This Bodhicitta was to be the light on our perilous spiritual path.


Bodhicitta begins by merely reflecting on our relationships. Typically we might cherish ourselves and place extra importance and hold ourselves very dear indeed. We may reflect that we don’t always feel that way about others at all. We need to understand this imbalance and distinction to be able to begin to flip it around.


If we learn to replace ourselves with others in this picture, we can start to see our similarities and with time we can purify our relationships. Do we truly feel happy for those who are happy? Do we feel delighted for the virtuous, indifferent to the wicked? Generating Bodhicitta was seen as the swiftest means to Samadhi or Samatwam – equanimity. Only with Bodhicitta would we be able to see others as we see ourselves, becoming a beacon in the darkness for them. We would know what they needed in times of sorrow and in times of fear, and we would be able to cultivate an intimate knowledge and a deep heart-to-heart connection with all.


Bodhicitta teaches us that one of the most significant obstacles to our liberation is the survival instinct that often place our own interests before those of others. This self-cherishing action called Atma-Sneha is similar to the second obstacle (Klesha) that Patanjali talks about in Yoga Sutra 2.3: Asmita, which translates literally to “I-ness.” The false narrative that places “me” as more important  than others.


This pervasive illusion of self-importance stems from ignorance of “who we really are.” Once we begin to purify our relationships, we start to remember that who we are is interwoven with the warp and woof of the universe herself. As Alan Watts once said, ” When we realize this, we become full of energy.”


No one wants even the slightest bit of suffering. If we reflect carefully on our actions, we might see that when we ‘give’ happiness to others, it has the potential to lead us to our highest fulfillment. May the happiness of others be our joy, and may the sorrow of others be our sorrow. Giving joy to others and taking sadness away allows loving-kindness and compassion to arise and emerge spontaneously from our hearts.


Another way to explain Bodhicitta would be to call it the way of the Jivanmukta – that we strive to be the one who achieves liberation in this life. May we continue on this beautiful path by and for the mutual benefit of Earth and all her creatures.

Teaching Tips

  1. Teach Tadasana as the working basis of all poses. Integrate knowledge of Samatwam;in the Gita Krishna tells Arjuna “Samatvam yoga uchyate,” (ch.2-48)- Yoga is Equanimity. For example, if students press into the outer edges of their feet equally, how does this lift the inner arches, inner thighs. Allow them to experience how to participate in the energy to give as a way to be able to receive. Can this information reflect in other poses, not just symmetrical poses but also asymmetrical poses like Trikonasana?
  2. Have students work on changing their perspective, finding equanimity, through even breathing, especially in poses during twisting or inversion practice.
  3. Integrate the principles from the art of sequencing that moves from more simple to more complex poses or actions. Building up step by step can inform the student if they view different poses differently. Like for example, do they place more importance on poses that they find difficult? Can they learn to balance their view and their approach?
  4. Start the class by having students visualize a person that they are close to, that have supported them on their path. Let them set their intention by not only sending these beings love and compassion but have them startthis intention by offering to remove any suffering or obstacles that they might be facing. You can say that for beings to be able to receive our love, it is often essential to begin by removing obstacles first. Later as the class continues, have them offer to remove suffering or obstacles to a stranger or a neutral person, also sending these beings loving- kindness. Culminate in doing the same for a being who is unhelpful or even harmful to you or others. Have them inquire how they feel after each offering; do they feel different, can they generate equanimity to each?
  5. Alternately they can integrate loving-kindness meditation to practice sending and removing to ride on the breath. On the Inhale, may they remove obstacles and suffering, on the Exhale, send love and kindness.
  6. Teach students the difference between Mindful Meditation (teaching tips 1-3) as opposed to Analytical Meditation (teaching tips 4-5) and how these can work together to generate stability in our meditative states. Can these practices reflect in choices that we make off of the mat, for example by adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet?EXTRA STUDY:
  7. Teaching Loving-Kindness meditations, practice, and teach the different traditional ways to generate Bodhicitta: some of these are Tonglen, Seven Point Mind Training, Exchanging Self and Others, learning the Law of Karma, or lastly, the Seven Causes and Effects. Each practice leads the practitioner to set the foundation.