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Tapas: Strengthening through Adversity

Tapas is associated with heat and fire. While we often think of fire as destructive, it can also be a creative, strengthening force. Metal can be strengthened by being heated and then cooled through the process of tempering. Similarly, we are often made stronger by the process of going through something difficult and coming out the other side.

A forest fire is destructive, but it also burns off dead trees and returns their nutrients to the soil, clears space for new growth and cracks open cones that do not release their seeds until they are burned. Likewise, while being in the midst of difficulty can feel like being in the middle of a raging fire, we often come out the other side recognizing what is truly important (as if the crisis has burned the unimportant stuff away) and ready for new beginnings.

I have never been a fan of the maxim, “Everything happens for a reason.” It may very well be true but I have always balked at it. When I see something really tragic happen, I have rarely felt comforted by the idea that there was a reason for it. That said, I can often look back at difficult things that have happened and see good things that have emerged from them. Something very tragic happened with my brother about 14 year ago. I won’t go into the details, but it was devastating to him and my family. I am not at the point where I can say that what happened was worth the good things that came out of it, but I am able to appreciate the good things that emerged. My brother found a spiritual path that helped him, and we were brought together as a family. Personally, I became less prone to judge and more compassionate toward people going through difficulty.

I don’t think many of us would say that it was worth having this global pandemic to teach us some lessons (maybe some of you are more spiritually mature than I am and are at that place, but I am not there), but there is no denying that there are lessons available. We have been forced to look at who we are when we are stripped of our usual routines and activities. Likely we have taken the time to recognize who is important to us. Some of us may have learned to slow down. Some of us may have learned new skills and to be more adaptable. As fewer people have been travelling, our planet has been given a bit of a respite from pollutants. There are definitely lessons and new skills that we can hold onto.

There are many traditions, including yoga, that encourage us to purposely place ourselves in difficult situations. Some Indian ascetics practice extreme austerities, such as meditating outside in the cold for hours, wearing very little, or, in the heat of summer, sitting amongst bonfires, even holding a small pot of fire on their heads. Many of those who follow stoicism recommend practices that create discomfort, such as bathing in cold water. What is with these people? Are they masochists? No. I am sure they don’t really enjoy these activities, but they are willing to do them as the practice of staying steady in the middle of adversity allows us to come out stronger and more capable in the end. As the Greek stoic philosopher Seneca said, “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, but because we do not dare, things are difficult.” When we do something difficult, we then know we can do it and we lose some of our fear.

The idea of purposely creating and working through difficulty can be equated to the idea of a controlled burn. A controlled burn is where a forest fire is set intentionally to burn off debris in order to prevent a future destructive fire, to destroy invasive plants and/or to return nutrients to the soil through the ashes. The space opened up by a fire can also allow young plants and trees, which were otherwise overshadowed by bigger trees, to grow and flourish. Likewise, through creating and overcoming small challenges, we can prepare ourselves for, and perhaps even avoid, larger difficulties, and we can learn and grow.

If you wish to practice with tapas, I would urge you to choose something safe but challenging and tackle it. If you practice yoga, perhaps do some poses that you usually avoid or challenge yourself to hold a difficult pose like chair for a little longer than usual. Of course, keep ahimsa, non-harming, foremost in your mind. If the pose hurts, we stop, but if it is a bit uncomfortable but safe, see if you can stay with it, practice being with the discomfort, find ways to manage it through taking slow, steady breaths, focusing the eyes on a point or telling yourself that by working hard, you are getting stronger, whatever works for you. Practice on the mat so that you can carry your experience into your life.

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