There is a beautiful story in the Katha Upanishad about staying true to our intention. It’s kinda funny to read it around Christmas time. It makes me think, “All I want for Christmas is to know the Truth.”
The hero of the story is Nachiketa, who as only a boy is already a great yogi. He feels compassion for his father, who is suffering from poverty and its common affliction, unfulfilled desire. As was custom in those days, the father sought assistance by propitiating the gods. The boy sees that his father has not the material possessions to make an acceptable sacrifice, and offers himself.
Nachiketa does not do so out of misery or depression; he is content in his life and values his abilities. He is, however, seeking knowledge more than worldly pleasure. So he offers himself fully to this pursuit. This is lesson one: through selfless service and simple acts of generosity (Karma Yoga) in the mundane world, we can learn about spiritual life.
Nachiketa thus finds himself just a boy in the abode of Yama, the God of Death. Yama is no Father Christmas, and this is not the Santa’s village… But the yogi shows no fear or dread, and in fact does not meet any cause for it. Yama proves to be a gracious host, even apologizing for not being in upon the students unexpected arrival.
This is lesson two: when the student is worthy, the teacher will appear. Many of us feel may feel at times that life is pretty bleak, without much hope for something or someone who can lift us out our suffering. But this odd turn of events is an example to us how the ideal teacher will inevitably appear to the worthy student perhaps in a very different form than what we expect.
If we look around, we may find all the inspiration we need is already there waiting for us to receive. Meanwhile, we don’t expect the plump bearded guy to drop down our chimney, we call to him through our practice.
When the teacher appears, Nachiketa proves his skill as a master student. He shows profound respect and devotion to Yama, and says “I can have no greater teacher than you.” He reflects purely the light of teacher.
He does not ask Yama to prove himself wiser than Indra or any other god, or listen selectively to Yama and then sign on with the next guru. Nachiketa is not demanding a service for his payment, or remuneration for his effort. He does not mistake more information for more knowledge. He does not resist or avoid the teacher, but invites in wisdom with an open heart and is persistent in his mindful inquiry. He engages the teacher fully. This is lesson three.
But not without the teacher putting him to the test. The all-knowing Yama sizes up our hero by granting him 3 boons (wishes). Be careful, what you ask for, you just might get it!
First, Nachiketa asks that his father not be angry upon his return, but will receive his prodigal son with love. Note here the significance of attending to our karmicly weighted relationships (parents, spouse, children). The second request is to know the way to get to heaven, where this is no fear, no old age, no death, etc.
Yama grants these two wishes, including ‘the knowledge which is stored in the heart…’ Nachiketa presses onward and asks to be taught the truth about death. To this Yama replies:
“Ask for … elephants, horses, gold and herds of cattle, a vast territory on Earth and a long life…. Or anything more desirable, ask for that…
Be the ruler of a great kingdom, and I will give you the utmost capacity to enjoy the pleasures of life…
Ask for beautiful women of loveliness rarely seen on Earth, riding in chariots, skilled in music, to attend to you..
But Nachiketa, don’t ask me about the secret of Death.”
Somehow Nachkiketa remains steady, considers these options with intelligence, but keeps his firm determination in pursuit of Truth. He has a sankalpa, an intention, which empowers him even in the face of Death. He replies boldly:
“All of these things are not everlasting and only decay the vigour of man’s faculties.”
Yama is pleased at his students perseverance, and reveals the higher lessons of the story: Learn to discriminate between the pleasant and the joyful, choose the perennial joy over the passing pleasure, and make sure that even the joyful does not lure you away from your pursuit of the Truth.
The story goes on with Yama elucidating the Knowledge of the Spirit, which dwells in the heart of every living being. Nachiketa is illumined, rewarded for sticking with his intention.
The story reminds me that in my spiritual journey I must not to let a warm resting spot keep me from the trek up toward higher ground. If I always make the best of my situation, that I am living life to the fullest. Meanwhile, I know that what I acquire will come and go: stuff, experiences, even people. And at death, I will be left with my Self only.
So I keep the big picture in mind, perhaps enjoying a warm spot by the fire, but also enjoying the strapping on of those boots and heading back up the trail. I remain aware of the trap of getting caught up in wanting things, expecting things, not getting things, etc.
Is yoga just about feeling good?… My answer is that yoga is first about feeling, and then see one’s self experience all the many things that we are capable of feeling (practice and ALL is coming…) and about letting a lot of things go in order to simply being.
We all know that Christmas isn’t supposed to be about all drama and stuff, but about the spirit of celebration. The yoga is in applying that knowledge. Maybe we were put to the ‘test’ this holiday season. Maybe we learned about the value of choosing the joyful and staying true to our Selves.
Now we can let the holiday season go, but take with us the spirit of celebration and our best intention into the New Year.