the story of your life

(creating a vocabulary of the self)

swami radhananda

On the day I started to write about language I received two letters — one very inspirational, and the other full of blame. I am always amazed at the timing of events like this, how these letters show me clearly the power of language — and its extreme range of both positive and negative impact. In yoga we want to learn how to bring the mind to its natural, balanced state, in order to hear the inner voice of wisdom. A statue of Kuanyin, with her hands at her heart in namaste, is a reminder on my desk as I write. She encourages a message of stillness and compassion.

We live in a world of words — from our own constant chatter to the outside, instant, up-to-the-minute, round-the-globe news chatter. Language often comes with a warning: “This may be disturbing to some people” — detailed descriptions of child abuse, the daily killing of war, and the politicians’ slippery words that make reasonable discourse impossible. There are so many ways for words to disturb and hurt that we need to cultivate other words of power that bring harmony and peace.

Speech is an integral part of the process of spiritual development. People who have traveled the path before us have left instructions about how to achieve a greater understanding of what it means to be human. Their teachings have been put into sacred texts, making them widely available. We recognize the depth in these sacred texts, chants and mantras even if the words are foreign or seem beyond our understanding at first. They carry within them a sacred meaning that can be awakened through practices and training.

Just as we study the ancient texts looking for wisdom, we can study the texts of our lives. Through reflection we discover the potential for our own words to become sacred. Words have the power to tell and retell our personal stories. Recently in a workshop two of these stories stood out to me. One woman wrote about her life as a child in the war — reliving the painful experiences but also seeing how she was a survivor. She recognized an inner strength that could propel her forward in her spiritual quest. By putting the old story on paper she could see how her life had changed, and she could update her self-image from victim to survivor. She was amazed at the help she had received over the years. She found room in her mind for gratitude.

Another man had a fear of groups from a terrifying childhood experience, and held onto that fear for years, unable to make the changes he wanted. He wrote the story of the young boy as if it had happened to someone else. He asked a group of his peers to hear the story he had written and through this process his mind could release the old story. The group was able to hear and support the young boy and understand more compassionately the man.

Affirming an experience through reflection, writing and speaking brings the words forward and dissolves the emotions that surround an event. This gives your mind — the interpreter — another way to understand the experience. The mind has a tendency to hold onto stories. Emotions and emotional words are the glue that holds onto an old image that keeps us stuck and contaminates relationships, careers and personal growth. Released from emotional interpretation, the mind can change its mind, allowing you to mature as you use different language to describe yourself and your life.

When we can reflect, tell stories, use our voice and ask questions, we can move away from old habits of speech that are emotionally embedded in the present and insert a new vocabulary that more clearly embodies who we are. The gift of a yoga practice is that we can see how we grow from ignorance to wisdom with the challenges and choices life brings. We need to know what we are practising, whether it is staying stuck or stretching toward our potential. We have a choice.

Expressions of deep yearning and knowing often come out as poetry and there is a subtle beauty and a resonance when ordinary words become the vehicle for finer feelings. Letting the heart speak requires suspending the analysis, keeping the silence and waiting for the response. Self-inquiry, the ability to ask questions and dialogue with the inner voice of knowing, brings a new way of expressing who we are. Through practice we can find the wisdom within. The ancient texts support our questing, but our own questions are the spark that takes us deeper into our own wisdom.

practice: studying the text of your life

  1. Come to a quiet reflective place, using a mantra of
    your choice.
  2. Write a story about an incident in your life from an early time. Distance yourself as if you were writing about someone else. Make it come to life.
  3. Ask someone to listen to your story. Saying the words aloud brings more awareness of their power.

Swami Radhananda is president and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram in British Columbia, Canada.

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