There is a train that speeds past the front end of the Villa de Zoysa property in south western Sri Lanka several times over the day and night. Over the three occasions that I have stayed at Villa de Zoysa, each time for a two-week retreat, I have not ever worked out what the exact timetable of this train is. Of course there is one, but I must say that I have noted anything from a 10minute interval in the morning, to long stretches for hours and hours of silence over another morning.
When one first arrives at the palatial heritage home, that once belonged to current villa owner Devinda’s grandparents, this train is rather unsettling. First, its imminent arrival is sounded by a clanging bell as the guard on duty at the road crossing for the tracks begins to lower a boom to halt any crossing. Immediately following that a rumble of vibration begins, accompanied by an intermittent, choot choot! This vibration becomes so powerful by the time the train passes that you can at times feel it in the marrow of your bone. Your brains shake in your skull, just enough to rouse you from the haze of humidity that pervades the landscape.
If the passing train is in your line of sight you can catch glimpses of Sri Lankans hanging off the entranceways of the carriages in a wash of bright garments, going about their lives like any contemporary urban society, and yet arranged in this way on the ageing train with the foreground of coconut palms and frangipani trees, they appear etched in a snapshot from yesteryear.
This cadence of daily interruption of the train is hard to explain because the actual audio is perfectly meshed into the continuous soundscape of everyday life in Boossa village and the home grounds. It is roaringly loud and abrasive. It interrupts your speech, and it disrupts a yoga class momentarily, but it seems perfectly fitting. One may even come to consider it charming.
The first time I ever stayed at Villa de Zoysa in 2016, I can remember being startled in the middle of the night as the train sped by. New to the villa and the distinctive train pattern, I woke with a shock. I felt annoyed by this interruption and opened my eyes to check the time, cursing the train and feeling dejected at having broken sleep. With open eyes I saw that the moonlight crept through the lattice window blinds and the soft cover of my mosquito netting added a gossamer sheath over my vision. My irritation started to dissipate as I recognised the beauty of this moment, and the interplay between moonlight, patterns and the tropical atmosphere. I let myself breathe in the night air and appreciate the gift of being awake to experience it. As my eyes focused more I noticed the room was full of fireflies. They fluttered soundlessly, illuminated as if by some cosmic, otherworldly source. I was brought to tears by the magic of their light.
This to me is a metaphor for one of the biggest lessons I have been grappling with in my yoga practice and life over the past few years. It is a lesson in the fifth of the five Niyamas, or principles by which to live a human life as written in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (ancient texts in yogic philosophy). These principles go hand in hand with the five Yamas, the five principles of ethical behaviour. Together they are not like commandments, they are more like guidelines, or pillars constituting a framework for a full and flourishing life. The fifth Niyama, Ishvara prandhana, is considered to be the binding principle, the one the pervades and substantiates all previous ones. Simply translated from Sanskrit it means, ‘surrender’.
Ishvara Prandhana has a few different aspects to it, but the foremost meaning of ’surrender’ is a call to offer your practice up to the universe, the great higher source that pervades and binds all of life (God / Lightness / Intelligence - whatever you choose to call it). It calls upon us to let go of our ego, our thinking mind, our ambitions and self-centredness, and to humbly return to the yoga mat day in, day out, as an offering to something beyond us. It calls on us to let go and loose ourselves in a particular posture, to fully inhabit our yoga with mindfulness.
It also calls upon us to let the subconscious mind, the uncontrollable mind come to the fore. To surrender is to give up your control and manipulation of yourself in your environment. It calls on us to therefore trust that if we aren’t fully in control, we’ll slip into the fruitful darkness behind the thinking mind and ego, and that this letting go process is safe. To surrender is to trust that things will be OK.
Traditionally, this principle was considered the easiest to implement, the most obvious and achievable one for a yoga practitioner. I feel that in our modern world it is the most challenging, much more so than any advanced posture. This is because we live in a world where nothing is a mystery. We hardly ever need to trust that things will work out OK, because we can check Google first. No restaurant menu card is a surprise, no holiday booking a leap of faith, no first date a glimpse into the face of a complete stranger, no journey a venture into the unknown. We have an expectation of hyper-control over our lives and we are choosing to operate with concretised, pre-determined outcomes of occurrences in the everyday, big and small.
Moreover, its a lot easier for us to plan, work hard, push ourselves, force a goal, sweat, strain and push, than it is to simply let go and flow with the passing water stream. This is because we live in a time of ‘my plan’. Hyper-egoism and singularity. We are ambitious and self-centred. The idea of dedication and humbling devotion to an abstract external source is totally bizarre to us. Most importantly, it chaffs against our skeptical minds. We take ourselves and our ambitions far too seriously to ‘let go’.
Ishvara Prandhana and the Yoga Sutras are not calling on us to lack ambition, to not strive for goals and achieve them. In fact the third of the Niyamas, Tapas (‘the purifying action of fire’), is all about effort and goal setting and the will to achieve stuff. The Niyamas are intended to mesh together, and so indeed it calls on us to plan and live a full life, to reach for our goals and work for them, but through this fifth principle, it reminds us that sometimes life has a bigger plan in store for us and we need to recognise that and let ourselves be taken up by the bigger plan. ‘My plan’, becomes ‘The Plan’. It is a process of surrendering to the outcome.
This wonderfully simple concept of ‘my plan’ in contrast to ‘The Plan’ arises from a conversation I had with a close friend some years back. She and her long-term boyfriend had recently discovered that they were pregnant. Unexpected and shocking news for a 20-something millennial couple who were in the throws of saving for a series of cross-continental backpacking and adventure missions. Neither felt ready for kids, or desired kids at that time. And yet, life offered up ‘The Plan’, and so my beautiful friend graciously shifted mountains in her life and future conception of herself to make way for a glorious gift. Surrender.
This experience in Sri Lanka when I am awoken in irritation, and then instead of stewing in negativity, I choose to lean into the beauty of the present moment, as it is, only to be gifted with supreme beauty, to me is a small lesson in surrendering. In the bigger picture, I’m learning to recognise when its time to let go of my egoistic planning and ambitions. As I move through life with mistakes and triumphs, I’m learning to recognise when the idea I hold up of myself in the future is in fact a limiting caricature. I’m learning to choose a thing, to devote myself to it and then to lean into the fullness of experience, and trust the outcome. Fireflies don’t appear when you’re fighting The Plan.