Let It Shine
Visoka va jyotismati
Every year during the first week of December, the students at my children's school participate in a special ritual to mark the shorter days as we approach the darkest time of the year. A large spiral of evergreen boughs with a lit candle at the center is arranged in the dark auditorium. Each child is handed a shiny cored apple that holds a single unlit candle. One by one, in quiet darkness, the children walk the spiral to the center to light their own candles from the candle at the center. On the walk back out of the spiral, each child chooses a spot along the path of branches to place his or her lit candle. By the time all of the children have taken their turn, the entire spiral is alight with candles twinkling in the darkness. The unspoken symbolism of this annual tradition is that particularly at the darkest time of the year, it's important to take time to go quietly inward, to connect with our inner light, and then carry its spark into the world to share with others. It's a deeply moving ritual to watch and a beautiful link, in my mind, to one of my favorites of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, I.36: Or, the light within which is free from all suffering and sorrow.
Yoga Sutra I.36 is one of the many choices Patanjali offers in the first chapter to help you quiet a restless, agitated mind and attain a level of stability and clarity. The Sanskrit word va means "or," indicating that this sutra is one option among many. If it resonates with you, it's there for your support. If it doesn't, there are several other tools in this chapter that you might choose instead, such as inquiring into your dreams, lengthening your exhalation, adopting certain attitudes, seeking the counsel of someone more experienced, or meditating on an object of your choosing. What is noteworthy about sutra I.36 is that it does not contain any specific instructions. Instead it simply offers the image of jyotismati, or our inner light, free from sorrow or grief (visoka)—and purposely leaves the way open for the application of the sutra to vary according to each person's individual needs and beliefs.
For one person, simply entertaining the possibility of this light within that is free from suffering could be enough; someone else might find it helpful to meditate on this image or incorporate it into an existing practice. Depending on your personal beliefs, this sutra might evoke and support your connection with God or a higher power. In short, the ways this sutra can support you are many, and by offering just the image without any instruction, Patanjali does not limit its potential power or resonance.
Commentators on the Yoga Sutra have described this light as a great brightness or radiance in the heart, from which the true Self shines forth. The light has also been described as a tiny spark on the tip of a thread in the darkest recesses of a cave within the heart. For me, the image of the thread with a bit of light at the tip has always symbolized that no matter how far removed or disconnected you may feel from the light, and no matter what your circumstances, the spark of that light always lies within, free from grief, from pain, from sorrow and affliction. Even when you've forgotten about the light or doubt its existence, it's there—and remembering and reflecting on that can be can be a great source of support and comfort in difficult moments. You might think of following that thread to the light at the tip as a way of finding your way home again when you're unsure of your way and all around you seems dark.
The end of the year can be an important time for reflecting on the importance of cultivating and nurturing your inner light. Just as the ritual at my children's school suggests, if you take the time to travel to that quiet place within you, you will find your own light and with it a sense of hope, wonder, joy and clarity. When you connect with that light, you can cultivate it, bring it forth into your everyday life, and share it with the world around you.
This sharing need not be any specific outward action or display and in fact might be quite subtle. You might share your light with others by cultivating or deepening your sense of wonder, joy, or compassion, thus affecting your way of being in the world. Sharing your light might mean deciding to volunteer, calling up an old friend, or simply inspiring others through the quiet reflection or inspiration behind your actions and deeds in the world, whether it's offering quiet support to another in need or a smile to a stranger. However your deepening connection with your inner light manifests, when you cultivate it, you will come to know this source of inner support that's always there to help you find a greater sense of peace and ease, even in the darkest of times.
Ignite Your Spark
Try this short practice for connecting with your inner light:
In a quiet place, sit comfortably with your hands resting in your lap, palms open. Begin by taking several relaxed, easeful breaths. Begin to visualize the light within your heart. As an image comes to mind, continue to breathe comfortably and focus your attention on that light within. When the mind wanders, as it inevitably does, gently bring your focus back to the inner light, without judgment. If you have trouble visualizing this image or keeping your focus there, you may want to softly speak or chant the words of the sutra, or even a translation of its meaning in your own words, such as "my inner light shines."
Once the image of the light feels strong and clear, add a simple movement or gesture to the visualization. As you inhale, open your palms outward. As you exhale, place your palms over your heart. Repeat this three times and then sit quietly for a few moments or minutes, continuing your relaxed breaths.
When you feel ready, repeat the gesture of inhaling as you extend your palms outward, and exhaling as you bring the hands back to your heart (or place on another part of your body, if you wish), focusing for three breaths on bringing the light into each of these areas: somewhere in your own body in need of support, your mind, your relationships, and your community.
Sit quietly again for a few moments, breathing comfortably, until you are ready to open your eyes. Remember that this resource of light and joy, clarity, and deep peace is always there within you.
Kate Holcombe is the founder and president of the nonprofit Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco.