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Season 3 - Episode 36

2.58 Be Like the Steady Tortoise

25 min - Talk


Cultivate a tortoise-like steadiness in your breath and your awareness. James unpacks verse 2.58 of the Gita, reminding us of the story of the The Tortoise and the Hare. He interprets Pratyahara as meaning to bring oneself back toward the heart and turn the sense experiences back to it's Source.
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Apr 15, 2016
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So continue with the 58th verse, and the 58th verse we get this really very beautiful and quite striking image. So here's the verse. So Krishna continues, tasya pragya pratishthita, that person's pragya is well established. He's continuing to develop this definition or this explanation, description of the established wise one. When he says, yada, when? When that person, sadhava shaha, on all sides, samharate, brings together, draws in, indriyani, his or her senses, indriyatebhyaha, from the artha, from the objects of the senses, either like kurmaha, like a tortoise, angani, draws in its limbs on all sides, then such a person can be described as having well established wisdom, can be described as a wise yogin. Beautiful, I think.

So when we're able to draw in our senses from their objects, like a tortoise draws in its limbs, then we can move towards this state of being an established wise one. So when does the tortoise draw in its limbs? Generally, when it's appropriate. That's the answer. In cases of danger and when it needs to rest. But this tortoise doesn't go drawing its limbs in for no reason. But when it needs to, it doesn't hesitate. The tortoise is also kind of famous for a few different things. It's slow and steady, yeah? The tortoise is famed for the long steady quality of its breath cycle, and consequently, its long life.

So in yoga, there's quite a lot of emphasis on this. It's the idea that are you the span of life? If you can have a long life, this is a beautiful gift. Because when we're alive, we have the opportunity to grow, to evolve into what we really are. This is one of the reasons that many sages cultivate pranayama, the extension of the life force. So they've got more time to experiment, more time to research into what they really are. And Ayurveda, you may have heard of this, is the science of a long, healthy, balanced life. So the tortoise is kind of a great archetype for that. Because the tortoise knows how to stay steady in the face of difficulty.

What does the tortoise do? It doesn't go crazy, it draws in the limbs, settles down. So like in the previous verse, in difficulties, be steady. Also the tortoise knows when it's time to rest. They say, what does it mean to be wise? Eat when you need to eat, sleep when you need to sleep, stop when you need to stop, go when you need to go. In our world today, sometimes we're encouraged to go, go, go, go, go. Even when our body and even sometimes our rather recalcitrant mind is screaming, stop.

We say, no, no, go. You've got to keep going. You've got to work hard if you want to get anywhere. And we can lose balance with our natural rhythm. The tortoise represents kind of the epitome of being easefully and gracefully established in harmony with one's natural rhythm. So when it's time to slow down, the wise one slows down. When it's time to stop and just pause or even retire for a moment or two, the wise one knows that's okay.

When it's time to be very engaged and active, similarly, the wise one doesn't hang about, doesn't dither around, but gets on with it. This is one of the things we can read into this verse. But also, how many limbs does a tortoise withdraw in? Now the word, I should also mention here, the word limb in Sanskrit, unga, ungarni, it also means members or part, members of a group. So when it says the tortoise draws in its limbs, it doesn't just mean it's four legs.

It means all six things it draws in. Its four legs, its head and neck, and its tail. It's very beautiful if you ever see tortoises. If you pick up a small tortoise the way it gently draws its limbs in. Then once it feels, okay, this person's not going to do any harm, it might take them out.

They draw them in so readily, so smoothly, but all these six draw in. So what's the symbolism or the significance of six? Five senses and the manas, that processing, cognizing part of our mental apparatus that links our sensory experience to the subtle realms of our intelligence. So the idea is the senses, they're tremendously powerful tools. And like all tremendously powerful tools, one can hurt oneself with them if we don't use them with respect and skillfulness.

So in the yogic system, there is a principle called pratyahara, which you may have heard of. And this is one of Patanjali's eight limbs, one of the ashtangani, the eight limbs of Patanjali in yoga. So in the yoga sutra, in chapter two, during this section in which Patanjali is elaborating the way of yoga practice, he gives us this map, if you like, or this guide of the eight limbs of practice, the eight constituent members, mutually supportive, that will work together for the cultivation of yoga. And some of you may be very familiar with these, but I'll just enumerate them briefly. They are yama and niyama.

Yam is a verb which can be taken in different ways. Sometimes people translate yama as a restraint, a niyama as an observance. But I feel this isn't really doing great service to Patanjali, because yama is a verb that's quite a wide reach. So I prefer to think of yama as yam is to harness, it's to channel the energy. So the yama and the niyama are principles of behavior, the way we act in relation to ourselves and to others, to foster harmony, to foster integration.

And then we have asana. Asana literally means seat, and this is the seat of our awareness. Sometimes people think of asana and they just think, oh, it's the physical body. But that's just the beginning. So this body is the seat of our souls, the seat of our spirits, the seat of our consciousness.

And so asana, Patanjali's definition is so beautiful, so succinct. Stirasukam asanam. Asana is steady and easy. So the idea of yogasana is that state in which our awareness sits, steady and easy and full recognition of itself. Then we have pranayama, this extension of prana, the vital energy, the life force. So working or inviting a refinement of our vital energy so we can use it more skillfully, get more for less if you like, not leak it, not waste it, but let that energy be very supportive so we can actually see more, get more, learn more quickly from our different interactions. These four, yamaniyama, asana, pranayama, they're considered the external limbs.

Pratyahara is sometimes, this is the fifth, is sometimes grouped with those four. And some people say there are five external limbs, but some people consider pratyahara as kind of the bridge between the external limbs and the last three which are the internal limbs and these are dharana, dhyana and samadhi. So dharana basically means to confine the awareness to one point or one sphere, we might say. In other words, concentration. When that concentrated awareness is maintained so it becomes a steady flow of concentrated awareness, it then becomes what they call in Sanskrit dhyana, which means meditation or the meditative flow of awareness. And when the meditative flow of awareness is sustained for a period without break, then it becomes samadhi, which I would refer to as integrated awareness, integrated balanced awareness.

So pratyahara, the fifth of these eight, is sometimes referred to as the bridge. And sometimes people translate pratyahara as sense withdrawal or withdrawal of the senses. But I think this can be a bit misleading because, okay, I'm going to withdraw my senses and so on. I'm going to shut them down. I'm going to deny them. And that's not what pratyahara means. In the 58th verse here, we have the second word, samharati.

So the root here is hara, which gives us hara. So a name of Shiva, hara. A name of Vishnu, hari. It's the one that takes things away. So hara means to take away. And this represents, in the names of Shiva and Vishnu, the power of consciousness, which Shiva and Vishnu represent, to transform, to change. Sometimes people talk about hara, Shiva, as the destroyer. But this is not a negative destruction. This is the transformation, the restructuring, the destructuring and the restructuring that can occur in the light of present-centered awareness.

So har to take away. But samhar, samharati, this means, basically, the sam prefix shifts the meaning. So rather than taking away, it means to bring back, to bring together. So here in this verse, samharati, when we bring together the sense experiences and their source, just like when the tortoise spreads out its limbs, it reaches them out. When it draws them in, it brings them towards the heart. So the idea pratyahara, here we have the r, same root, but it's got two prefixes, r and prati.

So pratyahara means to not just bring together, but to bring back towards the self, towards the heart, you might say. So pratyahara doesn't mean to withdraw the senses. What it means is to turn the sense experience back to its source. So it doesn't mean you try and deny your senses. It means when you are having a sense experience, turn it back to the enabling, animating power of consciousness that is its source.

So for example, let's say you're having a displeasing experience. For example, you might be somewhere that's a little bit hot or stuffy, that's an elevator or an aeroplane on a very hot runway, something like this, you're in a hot place. If you focus on the unpleasant heat, what's likely to happen? You get hot and bothered, you get agitated. If you have, however, a steady presence, not to feel into the discomfort of the heat, but rather to observe yourself noticing it, then, rather than becoming overly identified with the transient experience of displeasing warmth, you can use this as an opportunity to tune in to your animating consciousness, something subtler that underlies this unpleasant experience which, after all, is transient and is bound to change and probably will change as soon as you notice yourself noticing it and reacting to it.

Similarly, let's say you're having a very beautiful experience, you're tasting something quite wonderful, you might have just bitten in to a peach straight from the tree in the Mediterranean, or your friend really knows how to work that raw cacao into that beautiful paste that just melts on your mouth, something that you really like the flavour of, peaches, chocolate, whatever it might be. You're tasting it, and now this could easily develop into a situation where I want more of this. But, if you notice yourself enjoying it, what is allowing you to enjoy it is your power of consciousness. So, Krishna is saying, So when, in relation to the objects that your senses allow you to experience, you turn it back to the heart, back to the source, which is allowing you to experience that, then you start to resemble that great master of the art of a long, peaceful, steady life, the tortoise. And so, he's holding up the tortoise. It's quite a role model.

Now, before we leave the realm of the tortoise, you might know the story of the tortoise and the hare, you might have heard that story, and it gives us the adage that slow and steady wins the race. So, there are many versions of this story, so here's one that I became exposed to, and so the idea is, tortoise and hare are in a contest, they're in a race. And at the beginning of the race, hare is so cocky. I'm racing against this slow-coach tortoise. He thinks he's got it in the bag, but it's a long race, a long course.

For tortoise to even get to the end, there's no doubt, it'll take him at least a week. Hare, who can bound so athletically across large sections of path or all at once, feels very confident. The race begins, and tortoise goes bounding off beyond the horizon, while tortoise is still doing his warm-up exercise. He's still just coming out of his shell. Anyway, they start the race in the morning, and come noon time, hare is so far off, he thinks, well, I must be at least four days ahead of tortoise.

So, let me just kick back now. There's a beautiful, big, ancient tree with huge, shady boughs. And hare thinks, yes, siesta time. And he has a little pack with him, he's prepared for the race. Well, this is a long race.

He's got some gold in his pockets, if he needs to buy anything along the way. He's got his little kangaroo pack. No, no, what's it called? Camel, he's got his little camel pack. He's got his refreshment in case there are some dry stretches along the way.

He has a little sip of his water, leans back against the beautiful and huge trunk of the tree, enjoys the shade, and then he dozes off. And in the afternoon heat, he starts dreaming of all sorts of fanciful, wonderful pleasures. He's also in his dreams. He dreams of beautiful lady hairs. And then something really rather remarkable happens.

He awakens from his afternoon slumber, and he's not sure, is he still dreaming? There, standing in front of him. And really, well, if we're going to tell the whole story, she's dressed rather provocatively as well, there is a really rather becoming lady hair. And she is looking at him as if like, what are you waiting for? What are you doing sleeping?

You know, come with me. And he's like, no, she's definitely there. And she's like, come on. He's like, who are you? He says, don't you know?

I'm the answer to your dreams, stupid. And he's like, what are you waiting for? It's party time tonight. I've come to pick you up. All the girls are waiting in town.

We're going to dance, beautiful food, a lovely drink. I'm waiting for you, because we're here. You can really kick it on the dance floor, boy. And so, hair thinks, I'm supposed to be in a race here, but here that tours. I'm at least three and a half days ahead.

So why not? Yeah. OK. Well, she is gorgeous. And off he goes with lady hair.

And he's paying close attention, or trying to, to the way she leads him off, down these alleys and byways, because he needs to get back on course if he's going to win the race. Anyway, she leads him into this town. And sure enough, there's a big carnival, a big party going on. And she leads him into, sometimes people call them like the club. Yeah, like there's music and entertainments and food and drink.

And they start to have some fine food and also some fine liquor and wines. And she keeps beautiful lady hair with the provocative dress, keeps plying him with all these intoxicants. And hair, once he was, when he first arrived, I thought, no, I've got to remember that. I've got that race to get back to. But once the drinks start flowing, he doesn't really notice it's happening, but he's becoming more and more anesthetized, more and more numb.

He's kind of getting lost in a stupor. And he's trying to pay attention, but he's actually lost in the mire of stupor faction. And lady hair, plying him with more drink. And now he's kind of really not very attentive at all. And then she spikes his drink.

There's something that knocks him out into a coma. And then with her friends, they take him away somewhere far away, put him in a little dark room. And once they've liberated him of all his gold and his fine clothes, they leave him. And who knows how long he's lost in the stupor of this drugged coma. Who knows?

But quite some time until he wakes up. He doesn't recognize where he is because he was actually out of it when he was taken there. And then he said, oh, he remembers. Oh, that was in the race. Oh, I got distracted.

Oh, how I got distracted. And he's thinking, he's not quite sure of all the ways he did get distracted, but the ones he can remember is thinking, oh, no, what did I do? And his head is hurting and he's feeling really rather dehydrated. He scrambles around, manages to find some water, and he says, I must find the course. But he doesn't recognize where he is.

So he runs around in circles, trying to find his way out of this maze. And then he does. He comes back to a place that he recognizes was off the main course, and he manages to find his way back to the track. And what does he see on the racetrack? He sees tortoise footsteps, yeah?

He thinks so. He doesn't feel so cocky anymore. And he's really feeling rather depleted, but using the energy he can muster, he sets off in pursuit, only to find the tortoise happily, serenely, just beyond the finish line. So what's the story about the hare? The hare, it bounds, flits in so many different directions.

If you observe hares and rabbits in the wild, as soon as another large animal approaches or a human being approaches, the hare just jumps off right away. It doesn't wait to really appraise the situation and determine if a hazard is truly there. Contrast with the tortoise. I really had better dromelands in. Oh, actually no danger.

But the hare symbolizes the reactive mind. And the reactive mind is a prisoner of its conditioning. And so hare, he'd been dreaming about all these pleasures. So when they were offered to him, he just bounded after them. And so he actually self-sabotaged because he wanted to win the race.

The tortoise, however, in his steady approach, there's far less potential for him to miss the point. But if we allow ourselves to be trapped in the reactive ways, then it's very easy to go around in circles like the hare did when he woke up. It takes a long while to climb out of that mire. However, if we find, if we look at our own life, we think, well, that's what I've been doing rather a lot. No problem, because what happens?

Hare, having had this visceral learning experience, then at the end he bows down to the tortoise, oh, there I was at the start of the race making fun of you, feeling all cocky, but now I see. You really know how to run a race. Please, take me as your student. I don't know what to do. Give me your shelter.

So this might be a remix or a slightly different version than you're familiar with, but I think it illustrates well this idea, is when it's time to slow down, the tortoise doesn't hesitate. When it's time to be alert, the tortoise doesn't hesitate. The tortoise is not a reactive, fearful creature. It's always steadily present, and if it needs to protect itself, it does. But the idea, cultivate that tortoise-like steadiness in your breath and your awareness.

So when the breath is strong but subtle, it nourishes the whole of the system and gives us more vitality and more courage, more strength to face the unexpected with greater presence. So may we learn to learn from Mother Nature. So full of magnificent archetypes of the art of living, including the tortoise.


Kate M
2 people like this.
Such rich symbolism here with the tortoise...
Caroline S
1 person likes this.
Vivid storytelling and a great lesson, to be more of a tortoise than a hare and even if we are not quite there that lessons can be learned along the way for a steady, long, healthy life..

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