Sunday, November 18, 2012

Seeking the Nature of Reactivity: Can I See My Self?

Relationships are complex and intangible. I can stand next to someone and some sort of a relationship forms. We arrange ourselves spatially, use eye contact cues and follow rules of engagement that change constantly.

In one recent class I was teaching, I suddenly proposed: “What if you simply stopped judging the people you love? What if a person who loves you could look you in the eye and say, I completely accept you? What if that person was a co-worker, or a person next to you on the subway, or in this class?” It was shocking to imagine anyone, even a person who loves me, gazing at anyone else, even me, without judgment. In that moment my students’ eyes were fixed on me and their minds were full of reactions to me and my words. Maybe they picked up on the fact that even I, “the teacher,” was shaken awake to imagine this.

Our very nature is a reactive one. Stilling the waves of the mind, as Patanjali states in the second verse of his yoga sutras, means watching that reactive nature with awareness but not being subjected to its every wave. Can we actually function among others, doing our daily tasks without falling victim to our own stories and in essence blinding ourselves to reality? Reality is, in this case, the understanding that we are connected rather than separate in the realm of all living beings. Of course as long as we continue to think of ourselves as separate entities, our functioning will remain judgmental and attached.

I find it very hard not to drop into various definitions, or characters, or roles and react again and again from there. The process seems to form layers of story, and each has its point at the time, but they get heavy to carry around after a while. It is a long-term project to put them down, or perhaps it is very quick but has to happen again and again – maybe for each layer. If I have trouble giving this habit up when living in my own body as my own self, imagine how much harder it is for me to give it up when I have just a moment to consider someone else? The tendency to name, buttonhole, identify, define, attach meanings and judge is a very strong tendency!

I begin with the concept of patterns in my mental attitudes, behaviors, and judgments. Pausing to pay attention is my first line of inquiry; I can start with noticing whether I am inhaling or exhaling and that slows me down before my thoughts get hijacked by their attachment to a pattern. It is only with a pause long enough in which I can see the pattern that I can recognize it and make choices. In conversation I might literally press the tip of my tongue on the roof of my mouth before I speak in order to give myself time to notice what’s going on in my judgmental mind. The action doesn’t stop, but I can stop my reaction, and that makes it possible to imagine/see/choose a different course.

Buddhist teacher and author Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche speaks to seeing authentic emotions in a June 4, 2010 essay in the Huffington Post ( “If we're going to understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural, undisguised state. When we're stuck at the level of our habitual dramas, it's like going through the day half awake, barely conscious of the world's brilliance. Some part of us may like this half-asleep state, where nothing is too bright, too energetic, or too unknown. But another part of us can hardly wait to be free, to take a chance, to see what's on the other side of the mountain.”

One of the results of my yoga is that I can no longer see myself as a finite object. It is as though I have been transformed into something much more fluid. I can find old patterns, like the marks left by floods on the walls. There is plenty of evidence there of my past behaviors and reactions. Sometimes I repeat the same knee-jerk behavior, but much more often I see it like that faint stain mark and can let the waters out before they rise to that point again. Every now and then I totally surprise myself with something so wide open that I can hardly find any self there at all, just a sense of space and being. Staying in that essential state takes practice. Usually as soon as I notice it, I am out of it. In fact the separation it takes to see it happening, requires that I return to the witness chair. Asana and meditation, slow walks, silences, all help me with that work of staying comfortable while unattached.

So in starting out to think about seeing myself in order to catch my patterns and see others without judgment, I’ve practiced seeing the patterns and begin to understand that they are not me. Sure there are strings of attachment to the stories I’ve created about my life and the memories and the dreams and the forms of others who were around me, but they are my stories, and not me either. It may be that consciousness is even more vast than self-consciousness. This inquiry absorbs my intense, focused attention and helps me to get out of the picture at the same time.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Words, Meaning & Mind

Words represent the conventions of mind.
We can agree on this.
I give you a word, and you and I will both fill in meanings,
Perhaps similar, perhaps not at all alike.
Sitting quietly, words lapping like waves at low tide.

I watch myself resting.

Look out the window.
I fill my mind with sunlight on the far trees.
This is a familiar scene,
organized against the backdrop of sky.
Shifting my eyes, it becomes a movie.

The hawk that flew in the cold invisible air
 between here and the hillside a month ago
 drifts through my head,
a moment of remembered attention.

The sound of paws on the floor wakes me: here I am.
Wordless, I pat my thigh to inform and invite my blind cat.
He reacts to the hidden actions and possibilities in sounds,
and knows what happens to my lap when I stand up.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Music & Silence

Breathing. This is the sound I hear of oceans and wind, of expansions and contractions. Releasing whispers. Releasing sighs. When I teach, I most often use music as a way of shifting the orientation of my students away from the external world and into their own energy lines and their own bodies, yet music remains external. It is like a prop that helps extend your spine by lifting your hand on a block, the music disappears and reappears when you need it. That is, if it is doing what I hope it is doing. Music can work against the inner rhythms at times, a mood introduced with words or associations that is distinct from the practice. Yet often a person will not even know what the music was during a class, and simply flow along. There is so much going on, after all.

Yet practice in silence is so deeply tuned to the breath in the body, that I begin to wonder how we ever practice with music at all. The sounds of others breathing can be more powerful and supportive than the music, encouragement to deepen, to let it go, and to feel less isolated. Of course sometimes those exotic sighs from across the room will be distracting! Or that particularly vibrant Ujjayi sound will introduce doubts about one's own quiet waves...

I am not one sided on this, and find music in classes can bring flow and sustain effort, ease tension and even tease out humor in a tough moment. But I am not listening to the music as I teach. Truthfully I hear it when it distracts me, when it intrudes into the silence. I feel it settle the students into the closing asana as we prepare for Savasana, and then I want deep quiet for them.