40 days

Why 40 days is important, across the board

I’ve been asked a couple of questions recently which, while not the same, are related. Related in the commonality that they both, annoyingly, don’t have an absolute answer. Sorry about that but it’s probably best to declare it up front. I’ll answer the one which I’ve spent a longer time pondering: why do I/we tend to practice in cycles of 40 days?

40 days is one of those funny anomalies which crop up throughout spirituality, particulary in religious texts. The yogis were known to undertake certain practices for 40 days, there are 40 days of lent, Ramadan is 40 days, it’s in the Torah several times (most familiar probably, Noah and the flood lasted for 40 days). I can’t say I’ve gone much further than skimming over the top layer of the major religions but I’d bet my toilet roll on the fact that you’ll find it time and again.

I love it when I find a connection like this, no matter where or what we came from there are threads which bind us together. Direct from source. My philosophy teacher, Bill Mahoney, spoke about certain religious texts coming direct from source. We can’t know really where they truly came from but they are remarkable in their familiarity, not in their difference. Ram Dass too catalogues the instances where these texts repeat themselves almost word for word. I truly find that a miracle.

Anyway, I digress. Fast forward to now and we humans love a pattern. You’ll find school half terms are about 6 weeks, I tend to teach in cycles of 6 weeks. That’s 42 days, so close enough. Even more remarkably, neuroscientists have found that in order to build a new neural pathway in the brain, we need to repeat an action for about a month. The yogis would call these pathways samskaras, they were way ahead as usual. That’s why you’ll find any habit building programme, or breaking for that matter, is about a month. That’s how long it takes to create something new.

Personally, I’ve been teaching and practicing in this way for about 3 years now and I’ve noticed a few things about my reactions. And, when all is said and done, any spiritual practice is something like a grand experiment; where we tweak the variables and see what happens to our body, mind, spirit and the relationship between them.

Firstly, 40 days feels doable. It’s not like making a new year’s resolution and thinking: well this is my life now. That’s kind of depressing, linear and uninspiring. Secondly, 40 days also feels long enough to really dive in. To explore the nuances from lots of different angles, lenses and to unpack the lot.

There’s a fairly typical emotional trajectory over the 40 days:
First: excitement and overenthusiasm
Second: familiarity, apathy and insight
Third: boredom and tuning out
Fourth: ready to be finished and some grief

Then it’s a question of how I track my responses. Do I keep going regardless? Do I change it? Do I bail out? Do I find more insight?

The answer is yes. To all of them. At different times.

And finally, what I find the most amazing part of the whole process is the space in between. I deliberately take time before I leap into another sadhana. I call this my sadhana savasana. And just like the savasana we take at the end of a yoga asana practice, my sadhana savansana is where the real magic happens. That’s where the teachings reveal themselves, they drip in while I’m going about my day and we learn to trust and believe where they are leading them. It’s like sitting up and chanting OM at the end of class, the next deity is sat right by me ready to lead me through when the time is right. You see, the practices are never seperate. They weave and dance with each other, one leads to the other like a spiral through our lives. Leading us back to the beginning. To what we knew all along: everything is held in everything. Like the seed ready to burst fourth. All life is there.

At the end of it all, 40 days is one of those interesting things which seems to be interwoven into our psyche and transcends culture, creed or religion. Something which yokes us to our shared humanity. And I for one could use more of that.

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