Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Four Primitive Urges October 11, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:25 pm
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Many yogis, including Swami Rama, talk about the four primitive urges, also known as the four fountains. Every animal experiences these urges, and humans aren’t exempt! These are the basic needs that every creature wants to have fulfilled. Almost any problem you may experience can be related back to one of the four primitive urges at the root level.

  • Food

Who doesn’t need food? The desire for food naturally occurs in the body when we become hungry, but sometimes the urge to eat can begin in the mind, when we use food for more than just physical nourishment. Food can be comforting, calming, soothing; it can help us procrastinate, it can get us excited, or even make us sick. The next time you reach for a candy bar, consider whether you’re truly hungry or whether you’re trying to fill some other emotional need. As a yogi, one’s food intake shouldn’t be more or less than what the body needs for fuel, so both overeating and starving yourself should be, well, off the table. Also, your diet shouldn’t pollute your body or agitate or your nervous system (hello, coffee!). We’re all guilty of indulging now and then, but in general, following the guidelines for a sattvic diet will help to keep the primitive urge for food in check.

  • Sex

Although the need for sex is a physical need, the desire for sex typically begins in the mind and travels to the body. For example, you might be in a perfectly normal mood but then happen to see a sexy scene in a movie, which stimulates the mind and which in turn arouses the body. The body was just fine; it was the mind that got you worked up. As yogis, we try to keep a balanced state of mind in relation to sex, following the yamas and niyamas to use sexuality appropriately and enjoy it in a healthy way.

  • Sleep

Every living creature needs sleep, but we can definitely get too much of a good thing! Laziness is said to be the greatest of the sins that undermine progress, not just in yoga, but in whatever you do in life. Laziness is covered under the yamas and niyamas, as well as in the nine obstacles to mental clarity, the Gunas (as tamas), and is mentioned often in the Bhagavad Gita as an obstacle to performing your duty or dharma, which of course is a major part of yogic philosophy, so laziness is clearly a major issue! The Bhagavad Gita also says that yoga is not for those who sleep too much or sleep too little – in yoga, we seek to find a balance, not depriving ourselves of the sleep we need to do our work and function in the world, but not giving in to laziness and lethargy either.

  • Self-Preservation

The instinct for self-preservation is where our “fight or flight” response comes from. In essence, this urge is rooted in fear: at the base level, fear of death, which is included among the kleshas as an obstacle to achieving enlightenment. On a figurative level, self-preservation includes fear of losing something we have, and fear that we won’t get what we want or need. Among the many things we try to preserve are our physical body, attractiveness, social standing – anything that contributes to our mental concept of ourselves and how we want others to perceive us. Trying to preserve these things is a natural instinct, but in yoga we work to remove our attachment to the things of the physical world, because only the inner true Self stays unchanging.

We need the four primitive urges to survive, but as we seek spiritually, we must recognize how they influence us and keep the urges working in appropriate ways, not limiting us or holding us back, but only pushing us forward to achieve our potential.

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Yoga vs. Emotions September 27, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:17 pm
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In the yoga sutras, Patanjali tells us that when negative thoughts arise, positive ones should be thought of instead. Patanjali is trying to help us break the negative cycles of emotion that we all get caught in from time to time, but of course this instruction is easier said than done! This month, we’ll spend some time examining yogic strategies to overcome negative emotions.

First, let’s take a minute to consider the dominant emotions in our lives. This will be different for everyone. What strong emotions do you feel frequently? Are there any well-worn emotional paths in your mind that you find yourself going down over and over again? What emotions typically come up for you when faced with stress or unexpected difficulties – how do you react to such situations? When strong emotions come up, how do you cope with them? These questions may be difficult to answer, but spend a few minutes thinking it over. Be honest, too – don’t just think about how you wish you reacted or what you’d like to be, but think about who you actually are. It’s all in the interest of greater self-knowledge!

For me, the dominant emotions in my life tend to be anger, fear/worry, joy, and love. (Don’t forget to include the positive emotions too!) I’ll often experience all of these emotions in a short period of time: for example, walking home from work, I might worry over a future event, fearing an adverse reaction, and then invent a scenario where the worst happens and get angry at the imagined poor treatment. I do this all time (seriously, I’ve concocted whole tearful deathbed conversations when no one in my family is deathly ill and had arguments with the schoolteachers of children I don’t even have yet). When I catch myself at it, I try to turn my mind around. Pretty soon, I’m looking up at the blue sky and feeling joy about what a beautiful day it is, and then I arrive at home, where my husband is waiting to greet me, and I feel a powerful surge of love (that is, before he sends me out to mow the lawn). Of course I often experience other emotions, both positive and negative (like sadness, laziness, compassion, laughter, nervousness, relief, or many others), but these tend to be the ones that dominate my life.

When stress and unexpected difficulties arise, my instinct is usually to go on the defensive. I have to work really hard to push this instinct down, because I can come off as nasty and abrasive. I’m trying to learn to keep calm and focus on communicating about the problem – often it’s not as bad as it seemed at first! Sometimes problems come up that we can’t do anything about, and in those instances, it’s best to find a way to let go and let what happens happen. For example, my train is often late. A year or two ago when faced with a late train I would’ve been manic, worrying about being late to work or making up missed time, stressing out about getting home late. Lately, though, I find myself just sort of shrugging. The train’s late – nothing I can do to make it go faster, so why worry? The other day when my train was late I noticed a woman getting visibly upset, talking on her cell phone, obviously worrying. It made me glad I don’t put myself through that anymore – I don’t need any extra stress in my life!

When strong negative emotions come up, my usual instinct is to push them down or hide them. I don’t want to be perceived as an “angry person”, so I just won’t acknowledge that I’m angry! Yep, that really works well. I can’t do anything to move past the emotion if I don’t acknowledge I’m experiencing it. Or I might explode – doesn’t the other person see how stressed I am? Neither reaction is a productive way to handle the emotion. Deep breathing and cultivating a better consciousness of my emotions helps me to catch these strong negative emotions before I have an instinctive reaction, which allows me to choose how I handle the situation rather than letting my instincts choose for me.

What are your dominant emotions, and how do you handle them?

 

The Parakarmas, part 2: celebrating the good, staying impartial to the bad September 1, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:19 pm
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The parakarmas, discussed in Sutra I.33, are four attitudes that, if we practice them, will help us in our relationships with other people. Swami Satchidananda says that if you’re going to remember just one of the yoga sutras, it should be this one, for the power it has to help us keep a serene mind.

The sutra reads as follows:

By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind retains its undisturbed calmness. (page 54)

Nischala Devi translates it just a little differently, with a little less judgment on the “wicked”:

To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes: kindness to those who are happy, compassion for those who are less fortunate, honor for those who embody noble qualities, and equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values. (page 77)

Yesterday we discussed the first two parakarmas (friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy). The last two are a little trickier.

  • Delight in the virtuous / honor for the noble

This attitude can be summed up as “celebrating the good in others”. I have a friend who goes to Nicaragua every year to volunteer in an orphanage for disabled children. I know a woman who overcame great personal hardship to raise her son, her daughter who has a serious heart condition, and her youngest child, a small boy who also has a serious health problems whom she adopted from China. I know a perfectly ordinary guy with a job and a kid who feels so passionately about cancer research that he organizes a huge fundraiser every year as a volunteer, putting in hours of his time and energy to help others. Everybody knows someone like this, and we all wonder how on earth such people exist: come on, can they really be that nice? But we’re just looking at the whole picture, without the benefit of the context of the little moments that brought that person here. In each individual moment, that person was just trying to make the best choice she could, the same way that we all do. The sum of those choices may be a larger-than-life story that doesn’t seem real, but at the center is a regular, fallible person doing their best. Don’t envy that person (because you don’t know what he had to go through to become who he is), and don’t gossip or try to pull that person down. Instead, admire him, or use her as an example for your own conduct. Such people deserve our respect for all the love and goodwill and service they put into the world, and they deserve to be celebrated – we need more of them!

  • Disregard toward the wicked / equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values

Devi’s translation is a little more politically correct than Satchidananda’s, but it comes to the same thing: don’t let it upset you. (Don’t let the bastards get you down!) There will always be people who seem wicked or wrong, people who have values different from our own. Some people are just like that; maybe you or I used to be like that too. Maybe it’s something as simple as someone driving like a jerk on the highway – we don’t know what made that person act that way, so all we can do is hope he’ll do better tomorrow. Or maybe it’s someone you must interact with (a distant relative, a coworker) whose views are just totally different from yours: these are the most difficult people, because what do you say? Nothing you can do will convince this person to change his mind. If you want to preserve your own serenity, the best course of action is just to let it go: don’t get angry, don’t argue, and don’t let it upset you. Be as polite as possible, and when the situation has passed, put that person out of your mind. Don’t spend the next two days arguing about it in your head – that’s not going to change the other person, but it does change you. Why choose to get upset and keep rehashing angry words? Let it go.

N & J described this attitude as “remaining impartial to the faults and imperfections of others”. I like this rephrasing a lot because it reminds us to keep this attitude not just with nasty Uncle Larry or with Susan in marketing, but also with the people closest to us. I’m not perfect and I’m never going to be, but it’s easy to forget that my friends and loved ones aren’t perfect either. I may have high expectations for them – and we often expect the best from the people we love, don’t we? – but they have faults and imperfections too, and they make mistakes. If we can remain impartial when those mistakes happen, we’ll be able to be kinder to the person in that moment, and we’ll be better able to preserve our own calmness of mind without getting angry or disappointed.

 

The Parakarmas, part 1: friendliness and compassion August 31, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:19 pm
Tags: , , ,

The parakarmas, discussed in Sutra I.33, are four attitudes that, if we practice them, will help us in our relationships with other people. Swami Satchidananda says that if you’re going to remember just one of the yoga sutras, it should be this one, for the power it has to help us keep a serene mind.

The sutra reads as follows:

By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind retains its undisturbed calmness. (page 54)

Nischala Devi translates it just a little differently, with a little less judgment on the “wicked”:

To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes: kindness to those who are happy, compassion for those who are less fortunate, honor for those who embody noble qualities, and equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values. (page 77)

Let’s take a look at each attitude in turn.

  • Friendliness/kindness toward the happy

Why wouldn’t we be happy to see other people being happy? Maybe the other person has something we don’t have and we’re jealous, or maybe we’ve just had a bad day and the happy person’s good spirits get on our nerves. But feeling jealous or annoyed won’t do anything to the other person – all it does it disturb you. You can’t have a calm mind or a peaceful heart when you’re full of jealousy. For your own sake, then, when you see a happy person, cultivate a feeling of friendliness towards him or her. Even if you’re having a bad day, don’t get annoyed; think to yourself, “I’ve been happy like that before, and I will be again.”

  • Compassion for the unhappy/those who are less fortunate

I don’t like to talk about politics, but I feel like this is a very hot topic in the USA right now. Many, many people in our country are suffering under a poor economy, have lost their jobs, can’t find work, can’t afford their homes, can’t support their families, can’t afford medical care. And yet with so many suffering, our political leaders talk about how not enough Americans are paying income tax and how we should raise taxes on those people while preserving tax cuts for the very rich. This is more than wrong-headed thinking; it’s not compassionate. I found Warren Buffett’s recent article in the New York Times to be a really interesting example of compassion.

Swami Satchidananda points out that there’s often an impulse to blame the suffering person: he must have done something to deserve this. If you’re homeless, just get a job! That girl shouldn’t have been having sex, so of course she’s in trouble now that she has a baby. But if we are truly practicing yoga, we must live in the present moment. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past; this person is suffering now and deserves our compassion. As yogis, we must also strive to understand others, to truly put ourselves in their shoes. There may be all kind of circumstances that prevent someone from finding a job (including a bad economy!), and without knowing that specific person’s story, we can’t judge. Imagine how you yourself would feel in that situation and how you would want to be treated. All we can do is to treat people compassionately, with mercy, and work to help and serve as best we can.

Swami Satchidananda also reminds us that the purpose of these attitudes, these parakarmas, is to preserve your own serenity. Being cruel to others hurts you too! But if you know that you were compassionate, that you tried to help, your own mind is set at ease. If nothing else, living with compassion eases your own heart.

Tomorrow: the other two parakarmas!

 

Dealing with ups and downs August 30, 2011

I’ve been trying for a while to wrap my head around a concept mentioned in Eknath Easwaran’s book Passage Meditation, and I think I’ve finally figured it out. Mr. Easwaran  talks about excitement and emotional ups and downs, and how a true yogi will work to eliminate these. Of course we all want to get rid of the lows we experience in our moods, but getting rid of the highs too will help us to be more balanced, calm, and peaceful. Mr. Easwaran explains it as follows:

You will find excitement played up everywhere today… and everywhere today you will find depressed people. Hardly anyone sees a connection. Hardly anyone realizes that the old truth “What goes up must come down” applies to the mind too…. In other words, excitement makes us vulnerable to depression. When I say this, you may think that I am trying to wrap a wet blanket around you. But actually, when we reduce the pendulum swings of the mind, we enter a calm state of awareness that allows us to enjoy the present moment most fully…. Learn to prevent low moods altogether by repeating your mantram when you first feel yourself becoming excited…. bring yourself back to the present moment so you can avoid disappointment if future events take an unexpected turn…. free yourself from the tyranny of strong likes and dislikes – all those preferences, aversions, fixed opinions, and habits that make us soar when things go our way and crash when they do not.” (86-87)

That was a long quote, condensed down from a much longer passage, but I thought Mr. Easwaran explains his point well. Also, thinking about strong attachments and aversions is part of our assignment this month, so this passage is interesting in that light as well. I read this passage probably two months ago now, but set it aside at the time because we were busy moving. It’s been in the back of my mind since then.

I tend to get excited easily, about big things and silly things both. I just like things. Getting excited about stuff seems like a part of who I am. Do I need to give that up to make spiritual progress? I can see Mr. Easwaran’s point about the high highs making us vulnerable to the low lows – I definitely have my low lows, probably more than a more stoic person might have. For example, my husband is much more even keeled than I am – he plugs along pretty contentedly while I bounce around, up and down. That’s not to say he doesn’t have low moments like anyone else, but it takes a lot to shake him up, whereas I can go from the heights of joy to the depths of self-loathing in the space of ten minutes. I’ve worked really hard to get a semblance of control over that, but maybe if I work on controlling my up times too, I’ll be more balanced overall. But when I think about this, something in me gets upset – I like liking things, and I like who I am. Swami Satchidananda would say that “who I am” is just a construct built by my ego and I should let go of it anyway, but still, I wasn’t sure how to feel about this or what to do.

However, I think that, from Mr. Easwaran’s perspective, he would acknowledge a difference between “excitement” and “enthusiasm”. Excitement gets you all juiced up for something that could never come close to what you’ve built it up to be, so you feel let down afterwards. Then you go seeking more and bigger things to get excited about, but none of them ever truly fulfill you. Enthusiasm, I think, is different. When you’re enthusiastic about something, you know what it is and what you’ll get from it, so you can feel happy and pumped up about it without feeling let down afterwards. I think that what I am is (for the most part, anyway) enthusiastic, not excitable.

Here’s a classic example. I love using my EZ Pass to go through toll plazas on the highway. I’ve had my EZ Pass for at least five years, yet I still yell “Go EZ Pass!” as I coast past the toll booth. It never fails to delight me. And that’s not the sort of excitement Mr. Easwaran is talking about, that’s taking genuine joy in my world. I get excited when I go out for a nice dinner with my husband, but afterwards I don’t feel sad that it’s over; instead I spend the train ride home talking about what a nice time we had and how good the food was and how happy I am. I dance to the theme song for Doctor Who every time the credits roll (every. single. time.) because I always love that show no matter what happens. If we go out for a walk in the park, I get all excited like a puppy and start chanting “The park the park the park!” but I’m still happy the whole way home afterwards. I even get excited when it rains because it means I get to wear my yellow raincoat.

These are all things I feel genuinely enthusiastic and happy about. They’re not going to disappoint me later; they are experiences that I find satisfying in my everyday life. I could certainly do a better job of controlling mood swings, and doing so would help not just me but my husband and family. But I don’t think I need to change my core, my enthusiastic personality. Part of the point of yoga is being fully present in the moment, and if I’m doing the Doctor Who dance or singing about my EZ Pass, I can pretty much guarantee that I’m right there in the present moment.

 

Nine Obstacles to Mental Clarity August 24, 2011

Filed under: yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:25 pm
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Today we’ll talk about the nine obstacles to mental clarity. These are also obstacles to practicing yoga or to succeeding in anything else that requires hard work and practice. The nine obstacles are:

  1. Lack of effort
  2. Fatigue or disease
  3. Dullness, inertia (tamas)
  4. Doubt
  5. Carelessness
  6. Laziness
  7. Inability to turn the mind inward
  8. Distorted thinking
  9. Lack of perseverance

The first and last obstacles are of particular interest. Lack of effort is in many ways the most powerful obstacle and the key to all of them: if you don’t put any effort into your practice, you can’t possibly make progress. In addition, a lack of effort opens the door for the other obstacles to come in: if you’re working hard, you’ll be focused on your work, but if you’re not putting in any effort, you’re more likely to become lazy and careless. If you can avoid experiencing a lack of effort – if you strive to put your best effort into all you do – it will be easier to avoid the other obstacles as well.

The last obstacle, lack of perseverance, is also important. J defined “perseverance” as “practicing for an extended period of time without break”. While this concept can be applied to an individual practice or yoga class (powering through a full hour instead of copping out after 20 minutes), it shouldn’t be understood to mean practicing for hours and hours on end, day after day, which wouldn’t be healthy. Instead think about perseverance as the willpower to go do the work regularly, to do it without break, every day if you can. Practicing yoga once a month at random won’t help you very much, but if you practice every Tuesday or twice a week or every morning, you’ll see yourself making progress. Lack of perseverance goes hand in hand with lack of effort: to get anything accomplished you need to show up and try!

Another of the obstacles I want to talk about is laziness. In our lecture J gave us a definition for laziness that’s stuck with me: “laziness” is “the inability to take action even though there’s a longing for action in the mind”. Most of us have experienced this. You know you should go clean the bathroom but you think you’ll just sit down for a minute, and oh, Pawn Stars is on and you haven’t seen this one. Or it’s some movie, like Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, that you’ve seen a dozen times and don’t really care about seeing again, but you get sucked in and you stay on the couch even through the commercials and there goes your whole Saturday afternoon. You know you don’t really care about the movie, and that if you did care you could rent it or get it on Netflix with no commercials, but you sit there anyway. In class, we asked J, how do you fight laziness? And he said, um, get up. So even the big sage guy doesn’t have a magical answer. You know you need to get up, so turn off the TV, let Ferris go about his crazy day, and get back to your own life.

To me, the thing that seems so insidious about the nine obstacles is the way they feed on each other. Say you’re feeling lazy, so you shorten your yoga practice or do it carelessly, maybe you skip it entirely – there’s lack of effort and lack of perseverance. Let it go and a pattern develops: the longer you sit around, the easier it is to keep sitting around, and inertia sets in. Soon you begin to doubt your purpose, whether there’s any point to this yoga stuff, even though you know you feel better and stronger when you do yoga. And without your regular practice you lose the ability you’d been building to focus and turn the mind inward, becoming even more distracted by what’s on TV. The nine obstacles draw you in, drag you down, and keep you there.

That’s an overblown worst-case scenario, but we all deal with these obstacles every day, not just in yoga but in our jobs and other work, and over time they can keep us from achieving our goals. However, by identifying the obstacles and knowing their tricks, we can fight against them. The next time I’m tempted to watch just one more episode of Pawn Stars, I’ll remember: this is laziness! I don’t want to be lazy! And I’ll turn off the TV.

So what do the nine obstacles look like in your life? Which one is hardest for you, and what do you do to fight it?

 

A missed meditation August 8, 2011

Filed under: meditation,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 2:45 pm
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This weekend, I missed my regular meditation practice. I managed to meditate 40 days in a row – every day even while I was packing, moving, and hosting out-of-town guests – but I missed this Saturday. It wasn’t on purpose. Some friends were stopping by first thing in the morning, so I got up early, got myself showered and dressed, had some breakfast and made muffins to offer to my friends. My only rule for meditation is that I meditate before I leave the house in the morning, so I planned to meditate after my friends left. But then they ran late getting to my house, then they left later than we’d planned, and I knew I had to leave to go visit my parents, and I just grabbed my things and ran out the door. Completely forgot about my meditation. I didn’t realize until much later in the day, when I was heading home from my parents’ house, and I felt too tired and dispirited to try to meditate then. I felt like a company with a worker’s comp injury, changing the sign from “40 days with no injuries” back down to zero. Total failure.

In his book Passage Meditation, Eknath Easwaran advocates for meditation every day. He states that the only failure in meditation is the failure to meditate faithfully, and he quotes a Hindu proverb that says “Miss one morning, and you need seven to make it up.” He also quotes St. John of the Cross: “He who interrupts the course of his spiritual exercises and prayer is like a man who allows a bird to escape from his hand; he can hardly catch it again.” (pages 61-62) Mr. Easwaran advocates for putting meditation first above everything else, whether you’re on a jet, in a sickbed, or best by personal anxieties and problems.

Of course, knowing me, I started to make myself feel guilty about missing my practice. Clearly I’m not putting my meditation first if I could forget it so easily! 40 days in a row, and I ruined my record; now I’ll practically have to start over at the beginning. But in the grand scheme of things, missing one practice is not the end of the world. I do try to follow Mr. Easwaran’s good advice, but he also advocates for a full half an hour of meditation practice every day. I do five minutes and feel pleased that I managed to fit it in. And Mr. Easwaran also writes that we should be gentle in dealing with the mind during meditation. He writes that the mind “actually wants you to become angry and start scolding, because then it won’t have to return” to the meditation practice (page 45). He’s right – if I keep feeling upset and angry that I missed a practice, that’s going to carry over the next time I sit down to meditate. Instead, I need to be gentle and understanding with myself. I just forgot. It happens. Sure, I could have gotten up extra early to make sure to do meditation before my friends came, but I was tired from being out late the night before. (And why was I out late the night before? Yoga class!)

I’m doing the best I can, and it doesn’t matter how many days in a row I meditate, just like it doesn’t matter how many days in a row I floss. If I floss most days but skip it one night when I’m particularly tired, that doesn’t set me back to the point before I started flossing. And there’s no point to counting the days, really, it just makes me feel worse when I miss. In 2010 I flossed every day for 109 days in a row (see, I get weird about counting stuff like this) and then I ran out of dental floss and forgot to buy more, and I was really upset, but you know what? I bought more the next day, and that was in April of 2010, and I’m still flossing almost every night. I didn’t get a cavity because I missed that one time, and missing that one time didn’t mean that it was over for me and flossing. It’s the same way with meditation. I just need to stop counting, because counting the days when I do a thing puts more emphasis on the times when I miss, and in fact counting becomes almost like a good luck charm, like I’m doing the thing just so I won’t screw up my count. Better to do the thing every day because it’s right to do it every day.

Of course, it’s one thing to think these healthy thoughts to myself, and something else to really believe it. My head will say, here are 114 reasons why it’s okay, and my heart will whisper, you say all that, but we both know I’m really a jackass. I just have to keep working to believe it and keep telling myself the healthy things until I do believe them. I go on self-induced guilt trips all the time: Saturday’s was meditation, Sunday’s was chipping my brand-new manicure, and I’m sure I’ve got another one coming up any time now. And I hate guilt trips. The real truth (satya!) is that if I keep working hard and doing my best, I will make progress, and little failures are only that: little. It’s my overall hard work and attitude that really matter.