Calming the Inner Storm
In these troubled times, stress is inevitable. Or is it? When we understand life from a yogic point of view, we can make a different choice.
By Irene Petryszak
A piercing siren split the air. A tornado had touched ground 20 miles away just as Swami Rama arrived at the Topeka, Kansas, home of Elmer and Alyce Green in the late summer of 1970. The radio announcer was advising people to get to the nearest tornado shelter immediately. For the Greens it was a small crawl space under their house, but its entryway through a trapdoor in the hall closet was jam-packed with umbrellas, ski boots, and vacuum cleaner attachments. Elmer frantically cleared away the clutter, while Alyce shouted for Swamiji to hurry downstairs and crawl under the house.
Cheerfully, Swamiji answered that he would come in a minute. As he slowly started down the stairs—tall, majestic, and dressed in a flowing white robe, with a shawl draped over his broad shoulders—Alyce kept urging him to come quickly into the shelter. But he flatly refused, saying, “Troubles may come and go, troubles may take us by surprise, but why is it that we should have to fear?”
Sitting down on the corner sofa in the living room, Swamiji gracefully positioned his long legs into lotus pose, folded his arms across his chest, and sat still. He told his new assistant, Doug Boyd, to go jump into the cellar if he wished, declaring, “I shall remain here in full view of the reality.” Struck by Swamiji’s calm demeanor, Doug began to wonder if the safest place might be right beside this fearless yogi. But before he could decide what to do, the siren stopped. Swamiji smiled and said again, “Why is it that we should have to fear?”
This is a question we all need to ask ourselves—whether we’re reeling from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, worrying about the next terrorist attack, or struggling through illness, grief, or despair.
I took his question to heart when I first read this story in the book Swami by Doug Boyd 27 years ago. I had just moved to the Himalayan Institute to attend its graduate program in Eastern studies. I was in the middle of a divorce, living in a community of strangers, and realizing that I didn’t know as much about yoga as I had thought. Feeling lonely and scared, some part of me was hoping that all I had to do was be around Swamiji and poof!—like magic—all my problems would disappear. A little hatha, a little meditation, a balanced diet, an occasional glance from my teacher, and everything would be right in my world.
But as the months went by, I learned that a teacher can only point us in the right direction. The rest is up to us. Swamiji constantly encouraged his students to go within to find our own truth, telling us, “Meditation gives you that which nothing else gives you. It introduces you to yourself.”
He inspired us to be fearless, explaining that, according to the Yoga Sutras, fear is rooted in avidya, or ignorance, and the way to uproot fear is through self-exploration, by getting to know ourselves on all levels of our being—body, breath, mind, and spirit. We should learn to examine our thoughts, he would say, to see how our thinking has created our habits, and observe which habits are helpful to us and which are harmful. This is the path of self-realization, the path of true freedom.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to get to know myself. I knew there were layers upon layers of unresolved issues lurking within—monsters of the deep—and I figured if I didn’t see them I wouldn’t have to deal with them. But this kind of thinking only gave my inner demons greater power and strength. The more I ignored them, the bigger they became. It was only by turning my attention inward and acknowledging them—and accepting who I really was, not who I wished to be—that I was able to confront my darkest fears. When I stopped running and faced my inner demons squarely, they lost their control over me.
This didn’t happen overnight, though. It was an ongoing process—some days much harder than others. Inspired by Swamiji’s example during the tornado, whenever my inner storm seemed about to swallow me whole, and I wanted nothing more than to pack up and run screaming into the hills, I would post a handwritten sign inside my door: be still. If I feel the same way in three months, I would tell myself, I can leave. Surprisingly, it worked. The simple note reminded me not to react to the emotional upheavals that surfaced on a daily basis.
From Chaos to Calm
Five years into my rural ashram life, I moved to New York City for a while. Urban living presented a whole new set of challenges. One day when I went into the subway for my morning commute downtown, I was amazed to see the usually quiet station crammed with commuters. As the next train whooshed in, I saw why. It was so crowded that only one or two people were able to shove their way in. The same thing happened with the next four trains. People were getting so angry that I feared there would be a violent outbreak. When the fifth train came just as packed as the others, I felt an overwhelming urge to smash something.
Realizing I was becoming part of the mob mentality, I elbowed my way back to the stairs, separating myself from the crowd, and took stock. I observed that my breath had become shallow, jagged, and rapid, creating even more anxiety as I worried how I’d ever get to work. What to do?
The answer came: Be still.
I began to slow my breath and make it diaphragmatic. As my breath calmed, my mind calmed, and I could clearly see that if I stayed at the station, I would have a long wait in the company of angry, frustrated people. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I could simply cross over to the other side of the tracks, where only a few people were waiting, take the train going uptown until I reached a station where there were no crowds on the other side, and then catch the downtown train. So that’s what I did.
Feeling calm and relaxed in the near-empty uptown train, I reached a stop where I could switch directions. About 10 minutes later, as we pulled in to my usual station, I saw the same mob of angry people trying to fight their way in.
This experience had a profound effect on me. It made me see that the calm witnessing I had been practicing on an internal level could also be applied to external situations. When we take the time to be still, we can access a clear, calm, and tranquil mind, which expands our awareness and allows us to see and act in a wiser way. Rather than succumbing to our fear and anger and anxiety, we can choose to be still in times of trouble.
True stillness—the level of stillness that Swamiji had in the face of an oncoming tornado—is, of course, more than just quieting the body, breath, and mind. It comes from going deep within ourselves to connect with our true essential nature, which is eternal and divine. As the Bible says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
When we are able to experience the immortal part of our being through the stillness of meditation, we begin to see that there is a higher order to the universe and trust that it will guide us wisely. Resting in the lap of divine awareness, we can sit still—like Swamiji, “in full view of the reality”—living life fully and consciously, without fear.
Irene (Aradhana) Petryszak serves on the faculty of the Himalayan Institute, where she has practiced and studied yoga for over 25 years.