“Why on earth are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.”
Instant Karma, John Lennon
During these lovely days of late spring my mind has turned to flowers. A beautiful garden brings joy to the heart and quiet to the mind. One distinctive symbol of yoga is a flower, the lotus. Nelumbo nucifera, the most sacred plant in India, is richly symbolic and at the center of much lore.
The ancient Egyptians, Indians, Tibetans and others have depicted the lotus for thousands of years. It has many names in many languages, perhaps owing to its many uses in Ayurveda, (the science of longevity and sister science to yoga), Traditional Chinese Medicine and Japanese Macrobiotics. Its qualities are sweet, astringent and cooling, and it has many values in herbal medicine. All of its parts are edible and quite nutritious. Science has studied and continues to study it. And as is often the case in human history, a plant that is highly utilitarian becomes symbolic and the subject of allegory.
Unlike other flowers that live in water, the lotus symbolizes yoga by its flexibility. It grows in all types of soil: sand or clay, acid or alkaline. The lotus pose, or padmasana, is also symbolic of yoga. Many people associate the word yoga with the image of a person sitting with the knees folded in and both feet in the lap. The lotus flower is used in yoga as symbols of the various chakras, too.
In an ancient text, the Bhagavad Gita, the lotus is mentioned in a simile during a discourse between God and man on learning to live in the world while not allowing oneself to become attached to its objects.
“Offering actions to God and abandoning attachment, one is not tainted by sin,
As the lotus leaf is untouched by water.”
Bhagavad Gita, 5:10
In yogic lore, the entire flowering lotus plant is compared with the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. Each offers insight to the human condition and is associated with five corresponding states of mind as drawn from Ayurveda.
Beginning at its base, the lotus root is firmly planted in the mud, the earth element. Earth suggests stability and survival, literally holding it in place and nourishing it with minerals. Earth is the heaviest, coldest, darkest and most solid of the elements. We say someone is “stuck in the mud” when there is stubbornness.
The stem of the lotus plant rises through water. We associate fluidity with the instability of emotions, the stirring of feelings and the shifting tides of passion. This realm threatens to shake the plant loose, unearthing it from its safe place.
Continuing up the plant we find the leaf. It is living in the realm of fire and untouched by the ever-changing water of emotions. It is the effect of the element fire, i.e. the sun, which creates the green color via photosynthesis. Fire radiates both warmth and light. We say a person is “bright” or shows “the fire in the eyes” when they are cheerful.
The flower and its very large seedpod open to the element of air. In this realm, reaching skyward, there is less rudimentary attachment, less uncontrolled emotion and more exalted feelings such as nurturance, compassion and selflessness. The lotus scent derives here and is said to be heady or otherworldly.
It is the fifth element, ether, which bestows upon the lotus its spiritual quality of beauty. Ether is the lightest element and where a flower’s essence originates. From this realm a flower mysteriously reaches out beyond itself, allures bees and humans, and draws us toward it.
The lotus plant must have the first four elements to flourish. Yet, paradoxically, the most brilliant symbol is that the flower and leaves remain as it were, above it all; unaffected by the elements. Growing through mud, troubled waters, parching sun, and blowing air it rises and blooms beyond them. The true yogi learns to live like a lotus, both in the elements of the world, yet impervious to their impact.
Everyday people live in the world and strive for its pleasures and comforts. A chosen few live in monasteries, renouncing the world for the inner, spiritual realm. But, yoga teaches that we can both enjoy the world and give up our attachments to its charms. After all, you can’t take with you.
“How much better to get wisdom than gold; to get insight rather than silver?”
Yoga does not promote escapism. It teaches us to learn to live as a lotus: in the mud, seeing the world for what it is, not allowing the misery, grief, etc. to affect us. We work to transform the challenges of each day, consciously releasing pain and suffering, learning to live in the world, yet remaining above it. Freedom is not elusive. It is here, now.
Questions helpful in this self-study:
What am I attached to?
Am I easily annoyed or swayed?
Can I sway with the elements yet remain unmoved?
Am I able to rise above an otherwise disturbing situation and remain calm?
Do I offer abundant nurturing and nourishment to others?
Am I brave enough to face my duties and my conflicts rather than escape from the world?
Do I remain unshaken by emotions that emerge from my subconscious, releasing them in a constructive way as needed?
Copyright Cynthia Gran 2015