We have quite a lineup of events this week, starting with Fat Tuesday today, Ash Wednesday tomorrow, and St. Valentine’s Day on Thursday (not to mention President’s Day next Monday!). Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, marks the end of Carnival, a season that begins on the Feast of the Epiphany—a time of merry making and role playing, parties, masked balls, enormous and festive meals with plenty of meat, wine, sweets, and fatty food. Fat Tuesday is the last hurrah of Carnival. Our responsibility on this day is to be as gluttonous as possible, eat up the rest of the meat, drink the wine, and make desserts to use up the rest of the rich foodstuffs before the beginning of Lent. Carnival probably owes its origins to the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, and perhaps to the older Greek festival of Dionysia. After tonight the fun is over for a while with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent tomorrow. Lent continues until Holy Thursday on March 28th. Traditionally during Lent, no parties or celebrations were held and people refrained from eating rich foods, including meat, dairy products, fats and sugars. The 40 days of Lent commemorate the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and being tested by Satan. It marks a time of purification, self-denial, and turning inward to prepare for a spiritual rebirth on Easter Sunday. Although I never observed Lent growing up with my family, I have been fascinated by it since I started practicing yoga and every year make a point to give up something during that time that I have great attachment to, but at the same time recognize as something that doesn’t really serve me. It is an exercise in self-discipline. My experience is that when I practice good self-discipline, I feel better about myself. It’s a simple concept: self-discipline builds self-esteem.
In yoga terminology, self-discipline is known as “Tapas” which means to burn or heat. In sutra II.42 Patanjali says, “Kaya indriya siddhi ashuddhi kshayat tapasah”—The fire of self-discipline removes impurities and brings mastery to the body and the sense organs. Tapas is sometimes translated as austerity or mortification, which suggests suffering and self denial and a basic attitude that the Body is the enemy of the Spirit. The sutra talks about bringing mastery to the body and the sense organs. This could be interpreted as a state of physical and sensory detachment. Like Shiva seated in Meditation on Mt. Kailas, or the more tantric perspective of Shiva in Divine Union with Shakti. Shiva represents Consciousness and Shakti represents Energy as it playfully unfolds into the manifest Universe. One manifestation of Shakti is our physical body (kaya), and another is our sense organs (indriyas). In the tantric way of looking at things both Shiva and Shakti are Divine, so the body is also Divine, truly the “temple of the Spirit.” With tapas we clean our bodily temple and quite literally “come to our senses” by cleansing the windows of perception to cultivate “viveka”, or discernment. Purifying the body and the senses facilitates a state called Saucha, or cleanliness. In sutra II.41 Patanjali says “Sattwa suddhi saumanasya ekagrya indriya jaya atma darshana yogyatvani cha”--Harmony, cheerfulness, one-pointedness, mastery of the senses, and a glimpse of the Soul are the fruits of Saucha. The challenge during a time of intensive self-discipline is to maintain a loving relationship with the body and senses. That brings up the subject of Valentine’s Day. Maybe this year we could celebrate Valentine’s Day with a Valentine to ourselves as well as to our Beloved, which brings up the question, “Will I still love myself if I give up chocolate for Lent?”