According to Wikipedia, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, the founding member of The Confessing Church, a widely influential writer, his “The Cost of Discipline” being considered a modern classic. He was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazi’s in 1943 and was executed in 1945. He (36) also found the time to marry a 17 year-old while being held captive by the Nazis.

During WWII he wrote a letter to a homesick soldier serving in Italy in which we find the quote alluded to by Elizabeth Strout in her book, “Abide With Me”:

“…But surely it is the mark of a grown-up man, as compared to a callow youth, that he finds his center of gravity wherever he happens to be at the moment, and however he longs for the object of his desire, it cannot prevent him from staying his post and doing his duty?” Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 74)

Like Elizabeth Strout, I suspect that indeed Bonhoeffer spent many of his final days feeling out of balance, it would be hard to imagine that newly married life in a concentration camp was an easy place in which to find equilibrium of any kind.

Human society, to say the least, makes maintaining a mental gravitational center more of a challenge. It is through our interaction with our fellow humans that the majority of our physical and mental suffering arises.

Bonhoeffer’s remarks about a grown-up’s ability to hold true to a mental center of gravity by staying in the present moment, without letting his mind tug and pull him away, regardless of the heartfelt desire to be elsewhere, is the very essence of the science of Yoga.

The mastery of emotions, being in and remaining in the present moment, and the discipline to diligently focus on the task at hand are all Yogic aphorisms.

His remarks also speak eloquently to the three essential elements of balance, both physical and mental.

“The three essential elements of balance are alignment, strength, and attention. Alignment of the body with gravity is crucial, it makes balance physically possible. Strength gives us the power to create, hold, and adjust alignment. And attention continually monitors alignment so we know how to correct it from one moment to the next.” Roger Cole, Plumb Perfect, The Yoga Journal August 2007

Roger Cole neatly sums up what it takes to remain physically balanced.  I believe that those same three elements can be extrapolated out to equally apply as essential elements for mental balance.

Imagine your mind as a seesaw continually tottering between raga (that which rests on pleasure) and dvesha (that which rests on pain/suffering).  We humans have a tendency to cling tightly to our pleasures and to have deep aversions towards that which brings us pain and suffering.

To the mind of Patanjali neither pain or pleasure was worthy of cultivation, he would rather a yogi cultivate a condition in which mental activity is controlled, the mind resting in equanimity at the plumb center of the seesaw.

It is only natural for a soldier stationed far away from home and family, caught up in a truly horrible war to long to be back among the comforts of home, family and his loved ones.

Anywhere but where he actually is, and Italy during WWII must have been horrible indeed, my grandfather was also stationed there and he absolutely refused any requests to learn more about his service and experience. He didn’t want to “re-live it” and I wasn’t about to make him just to satisfy my curiosity.

While I certainly thank our soldiers for their service, I think I would prefer to look at the broad concepts of what Bonhoeffer expressed to this poor soldier instead. This post would definitely get sucked down a “fox hole” if I do not.

The callow youth is inexperienced, they jump the gun, act rashly, are subject to over the top emotional responses, love hard, hate hard, and think that they know all there is to know. Youth typically lives at either end of the seesaw.

The grown-up, one hopes, has gained mastery over his emotions through years of experience. He still has emotions certainly but he no longer allows them to control his thoughts and actions. Age seasons us, making us more reasoned and sensible, we have a more even hand. Being a grown-up means inching your way toward the center of the seesaw, a more balanced approach to life.

You don’t let your intense longing for home or your distinct hatred for this war distract you, for those thoughts left unchecked are disruptive, harmful and debilitating. You simply say to yourself that it is what is and its going to be what its going to be. 

Our likes and dislikes represent a simplified but a practical way of looking at what motivates our behavior. We seldom sit in neutral.  Our experience is pretty much always colored by our attractions and aversions. Neutrality only starts to be realized when balance comes to play, leading to equanimity—a calm sense of indifference.

This approach to life experience predisposes a certain level of emotional control, no doubt this is why Elizabeth Strout has her pastor say, “… because sometimes Bonhoeffer has this tone like he knows everything.”

Patanjali often comes off this way as well, he seemingly had little interest in teaching unqualified disciples about emotional control. Emotions are an integral part of human experience, a subject well worth exploring at a later date.

Back to our soldier.

I imagine the circumstances of his experience at that point were mostly out of his control and to dwell on those thoughts would only bring him even more angst.

I believe that what is key to finding your own personal mental center of gravity would mean gaining the ability to control that which is in your ability to control and letting go of that which is not yours to control.

So what Bonhoeffer is telling this homesick soldier is essentially this:

You miss your home, you want to kiss your wife, you are cold and hungry, you hate this war, but tonight you “man up” as you have guard duty so you stand at attention and do exactly that. The lives of your fellow soldiers depends on your ability to focus on staying at your post and doing your duty.

You align your mind to the task at hand be it standing guard straight and tall, balancing on one foot, or consistently letting go of extraneous thoughts during meditation.

Developing strength will give you the power to create, hold and adjust your alignment so that you can remain strong and steadfast in your purpose.  This remains true whether you need to remain— standing guard, standing on one leg, or sitting in meditation.

If you have ever paid close attention to your posture during meditation you will notice that your body has a tendency to literally lean into your thoughts.

So attention is also key because it allows us to monitor and observe and gives us the ability to keep moving our body’s and our mind’s back into a balanced alignment.

This way the soldier notices the suspicious moving shadow, you notice that your tree pose is listing to the left, or that you need to let go of yet another disruptive thought.

 

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