Sunday, January 10, 2010

Setting The Whirlwind Aside

At the start of every yoga class I teach, I take a few minutes to encourage my students to become present. How funny that sounds! As if we weren't present to begin with! Yet it is clear to every one of us that doing nothing but sitting with our attention focused on breath and physical alignment is an intense and real change from simply plopping down on the mat. There is certainly an illusion that we are in the room, as we fuss over the padding under us, listen to conversations of others, wonder about the class to come, go over the details of earlier activities or worry about what will come after class. Once the breathing settles, the rush of interpretations continue inside each of us. Feelings and judgments about even the smallest things can demand attention for a bit until we regain our awareness of the breath. How many times does the mind wander to analyze something, explain something, or make judgments or tell a story? We can learn to let all that go; not necessarily stop it, but stop feeling the urgency of it, and exist in a fuller sense that is not ruled by the whirlwind of the mind.

Meditation may seem strange at first. A friend of mine once expressed this as, "I really am supposed to just sit and do nothing, think nothing? And this is supposed to make me feel good?" One of the keys to freedom from suffering is basically to stop defining our self, and let go of the misunderstanding that constant input and output equates to being present. It can be startling how much concentration it takes at first to stay with a focus on the breath. One practice is to count ten inhales, and if the mind wanders at all, start over. You can feel the mind like a dog on a leash, trying to dash here and there, restrained by the leash, until it learns, like the dog, that it is okay to just be right there. At that point, you don't need the leash to hold the mind still through 10 breaths. If numbers don't work for you, just think "In" as you inhale, and "Out" as you exhale. You might try letting the dog off the leash and see if you can maintain your focus on the breath while also being aware of the mind dashing this way and that. A practice that can help here is that of naming or labeling the thoughts and feelings that come up. We can use our mind's powerful observational skills to help release the hold that mind's urgent activity has on our sense of self.

So long as our sense of self is attached to the way our mind runs, our concept of our self clings to this and that, and we are unable to feel authentic. Activities are not in and of themselves bad for us, it is the mindless quality with which we do them, and our inability to set them aside, their urgency that essentially denies us openness to our self. We block out, we fill up, we manipulate and we unconsciously turn our selves off, using ever more frantic and constant messaging, e-chat, emails, meetings, news outlets, gossip, earphones, cable stations and yes, even blogging. It may seem that this protects us from something. Perhaps these mechanisms help us stave off the risks of feelings or circumstances, yet keep us unaware and disengaged from directly experiencing our self.

This is a typical human trap. We can chase happiness by ignoring who we really are, imagine we avoid risks by ignoring our own patterns and behaviors, and continue to overwhelm our senses, stimulating a hollow feeling of self-importance and deep doubts about the reality of our self. Our certainties and self definitions can be undone in a half second, we can feel our very self is undermined, and spiral into despair.

When I wake up in the morning, I give myself a few minutes. The first thing I do is notice that I am breathing. My awareness simply finds my breath. I allow myself to notice the quality of air on my skin, the warmth of the blankets, anything at all. I encourage myself to be vivid, even if it means noticing that my eyes are glued shut with sleepiness and one hip is uncomfortable. I do not judge my condition, just take it in. I have learned that I do not need to have judgmental feelings about myself or the day or my condition. This has been liberating, regardless of whether I'm well or fighting a cold, sleeping late or getting up very early.

In meditation the same quality of noticing is my starting place. Allowing my mind to find its focus on the breath: its texture, depth, all the little effects on the rest of my body. In a way this is a profoundly comforting way of accepting who I actually am in that moment. I also allow my thoughts to come and go. Sometimes I get lost in a sequence of thinking, surprising myself as I return to awareness of the breath, and realize that I was gone for a while. It is this that offers the opportunity to see who I am, what distracts me, perhaps exposing my anxieties and interpretations, and really getting to know myself as the operator I am in the world. Sometimes insights arise that my thinking mind could not configure without this open space.

Being present in the moment is the first effect of meditation. This has a ripple effect of giving me the chance to find real balance, ease, and openness with the person I am, making choices about where I turn my attention and use my energies. It is a bit like being in the eye of the hurricane where there is great stillness and you can observe and even appreciate the whirling chaos and power of the winds around you, yet not be swept away.

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