In Buddhism, 'nirvana' is a state of perfect peace and happiness.
It is the highest state of consciousness that one can attain. A state of enlightenment. A transcendental state where there is no suffering, no desire, no sense of self. A sentient being is released from the cycles of birth and death.
The eight stages of how to reach Nirvana can be grouped as follows: wisdom (true understanding and intention), ethical conduct (true speech, action and livelihood) and meditation (true effort, mindfulness and concentration).
In many spiritual practices and religions, nirvana is the highest goal. On rare occasions, heaven itself can be attained during one’s lifetime, as in case of the Buddha, and a few other spiritual seekers.
Today, terms like nirvana and enlightenment are often used as promotional phrases in the burgeoning wellness industry, to sell online courses, teacher trainings, herbal teas, bumper stickers and expensive meditation pillows. In this day and age, when everything is moving so fast, there is an expectation for self-enquiry and spiritual work to also be quickly attainable and conveniently packaged. There are many courses that promise self-love, happiness, and inner peace, in only a few days, or even hours.
The truth is, that for most of us to reach the state of nirvana it takes time. Maybe even a couple of life times. There are no short cuts or detours available. We cannot avoid looking at our shadows and undesirable emotions, while expecting only happiness and bliss, all the time. We need to face the obstacles on our path again and again, until we learn a lesson and can move on.
In my experience, the most important step is to keep showing up, with the right intentions and an open heart. It is important to view our spiritual practice as a long and winding path that guides us up that stairway towards nirvana. All practices require time to grow, like planting a seed and patiently watching it bloom.
As a yoga teacher for more than 15 years now, I’ve heard many excuses from students why not to practice: I’m not flexible. The commute is too long. It is too cold, too warm or rainy. I had a big dinner last night. I have not practiced in 6 months. My neighbor told me that he didn’t like it.
Granted, Ashtanga Yoga is a demanding practice, but like any spiritual practice, Ashtanga is designed to move us outside of our comfort zone, and summon all of the emotions and patterns which we have been skillfully hiding. We just need to show up and deal with our messy selves.
When I started to practice Ashtanga yoga I promised my teacher that I would continue showing up on the mat every day, for one entire year. It sounded easy, but after a few weeks I regretted that promise. Winter came and there was nothing worse than getting up from my warm bed, commuting 30 minutes in the snow and cold wind, still dark outside, to reach the Shala, and my cold mat.
To make it easier, to trick myself into practicing, I told myself ‘ok, just wake up, go to the shala, chant, and if you’re still tired, just do savasana.’ This agreement made my quest more tolerable. There were so many days when I arrived with the intention to chant and sleep on my mat, but it was cold, and my body felt better if I moved around a bit. Slowly, I was creating a habit of waking up and doing my practice every day. Slowly, my eating and life habits also changed. People I used to spend time with and places I frequented changed as well. Gently, without any big announcements, the world around me changed to support my practice. Now, my yoga practice is just something I do. No fanfares or angelic choirs if I make it to the mat. Just peace.
It is like teaching your child to brush their teeth. You need at least a year (at least in my kid’s case), to remind them every single morning and evening to brush. Most of the time it requires you standing there in the bathroom to guide them through the process, otherwise they just wet the toothbrush and suck the water.
So instead of making up excuses why not to practice, make them in to reasons why to practice. Remind yourself daily for the privilege you have to engage in this spiritual practice. Keep showing up, day after day, then year after year. Be compassionate and patient with whatever arises in you. Make your spiritual practice a priority, and make choices that support your spiritual growth. Wherever you are, it is a perfect place to start.
Join Irena Bartolec this October 25-November 2, at a truly unique retreat in a Yoga centre in the Nepali countryside, where we will dive deep into Ashtanga Yoga and learn more about Buddhism.