Tapas & Distress Tolerance
Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books,
and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, II.1, trans. Swami Satchidananda
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, there is an entire module of skills dedicated to the “ability to tolerate and survive crises without making things worse” (Linehan, 2015, p.313). Known as “distress tolerance,” this skill helps us come to terms with the unavoidable pain of life, and to recognize how our “efforts to escape pain and distress will interfere with our efforts to establish desired changes” (Linehan, 2015, p.313). As a student and teacher of Yoga, this skill reminds me of Swami Satchidananda’s translation of tapas. Of course, the other 9 translations of the Yoga Sutras on my bookshelf probably have their own take on the meaning of tapas, but for me, fumbling through my own pandemic experience, the above translation seems to have the most resonance right now. When I pair this with the concept of distress tolerance, I come up with a few spiritual instructions, or upadesha, that seem particularly relevant.
According to Marsha Linehan, the first thing is to “survive the crisis situation without making them worse” (Linehan, 2015, p.313). My immediate next thought is, “Well, how am I making things worse?” What are those maladaptive patterns of behavior and rumination that I engage in, day in and day out, that are simply not helpful, or rather in DBT language, are not “effective.” These patterns most likely have their roots in me not “accepting reality as it is in this moment” (Linehan, 2015, p.313). This is the second component of distress tolerance. Radical acceptance, rather than being paralyzing, creates the conditions to move forward. It is not passivity, or against change, but a way to build a “life worth living even with painful events in it” (Linehan, 2015, pp.342-343). Finally, these two help a person “become free” from the demands of all kinds of intense emotions, cravings, and addictive behavior (Linehan, 2015, p.321).
In the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali recommends abhyasa and vairagya – constant practice and interior freedom. Our practices, in some way, should lead us toward freedom, or moksha, otherwise they are simply not effective. They should help us effectively engage with reality, rather than being an elaborate escape from it. That’s why a yogin studies spiritual books (svadhyaya) – to glean the wisdom of the tradition, and learn skillful ways of refining their approach.
Lastly, it seems to me that practicing “surrender to the Supreme Being” facilitates these three dimensions of distress tolerance. Resting in the unconditional love of God can create a shift in perspective, at least temporarily, that allows for the possibility of not to making things worse, accepting reality as it is, and moving toward interior freedom. Ultimately, I think ishvara pranidhana is what makes tapas possible – at least as Swami Satchidananda describes it. Albert Einstein is attributed with the quote, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Ishvara pranidhana, informed by svadhyaya, leads to true tapas – a divinely-inspired distress tolerance that allows us not only to tolerate and survive a crisis, put somehow, mysteriously, discover the grace of God in completely unexpected places.
Linehan, Marsha. (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets. New York, NY.
Satchidananda, S. (1999). The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (7th ed.). Integral Yoga Publications.