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"Divinely I meditate
I recently finished an MA program, and within 48 hours, I began feeling anxious. I thought, "I ought to be doing something, creating something, or contributing something... acting, doing." It was challenging to feel content with what I had accomplished or graciously bask in its glory. I worried that perhaps I wasn't enough, that maybe I lacked talent, skills, and worth now that I wasn't writing essays concerning the fallout of colonialism, racism, and other forms of oppression. I felt uncomfortable laying out my yoga mat and pretending to teach someone (for practice). It had been so long since I taught a yoga class, perhaps a year and a half. I wondered, "Is this who I am still? Am I just a yoga teacher? Am I worthy even for that role?"
Eventually, my attempts to teach an imaginary student turned into a personal practice which turned into Reiki meditation, a flow of tears, and a moment of mindfulness. Picture it. My hands are in the air, above my head, and I begin saying the Reiki Principles to myself, "Just for today, don't be angry." My hands immediately start coming down as I am not angry, and I feel no radical amount of blockage or energy in that part of my aura/body. So I move towards my throat, "Just for today, do not worry." (Cue the tears). My hands organically come down to rest an inch in front of my heart, "Just for today, be grateful." And they settle there, feeling this pulsing of energy, this warmth, and a need for healing. "Just for today, be true to your way and your being" (more tears), "Be Kind to Yourself and Others." Like a mantra, I repeat these Reiki principles, and I let go. And I let go. And I let go. And here I am.
Living in mindfulness means paying regular, calm attention to the present moment. It means checking in with yourself, the weight you might be carrying around, and the shallowness, or depth, of your breath. It means allowing yourself the time and space to be, feel, and process that which is occurring inside you, in your subconscious, and your heart. It means understanding your emotions and the actions they subconsciously cause.
In the upcoming weeks, we will learn a silly-looking asana (The Lions Yawn), radical forms of pranayama, and nourishing asanas to add to our yoga flows. We will also practice mindfulness throughout. However, to move towards mindfulness, we must first understand what it is and how it is practiced. The Kriya book we have been working with, A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya by Satyananda Saraswati, has multiple lessons on mindfulness that we will, of course, explore. Still, for now, I'd like us to look at the painting above.
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The first thing we see is the intense, yellow light of the winter sun outside -- a sun that dazzles without warmth. Then we notice the old man sitting motionless, having turned away from his table and the book he was studying. Is he thinking? Resting? Meditating? We look to the right and notice the low cellar door, then our eyes are drawn to the spiral staircase, but we have barely registered its first few steps when we notice the fire crackling in the grate and the woman stoking it. Finally, our eyes return to the staircase, but it leads only into darkness. The painting is small, the place it depicts is dark, yet we have a sense of immense space. This is the genius of Rembrandt, who leads us on a visual journey through all the dimensions. We travel the painting widthways left to right, from the daylight pouring into the fragile, almost derisory firelight. There's a dialogue established between the sun that lights but does not warm and the fire that warms but sheds no light. Are these the sun of reason and the fire of passion, two ingredients that combine in philosophy? We travel the painting's height by means of the spiral staircase that links the deep secrets of the cellar to the dark mysteries of the upper floor, and we travel its depth, from the background where the philosopher sits to the surrounding circle of shadows. But the sense of space also derives from the subtle interplay between all that is revealed and all that is hidden, where our imagination is crucial -- what lies on the other side of the window, behind the cellar door, at the top of the stairs? The largest of the worlds hidden from our restless eyes is the philosopher's mind, his inner world. Shadows and darkness, a little light, a little warmth, and a working mind -- is that what our inner selves are like?
Meditation Means Stopping
Stop doing, stop moving, stop twisting and turning. Meditation means withdrawing a little, stepping back from the world. At first, what we feel seems odd. There's an emptiness (no action or distraction) and a fullness (a tumult of thoughts and sensations that we suddenly notice). There's what we lack -- points of reference and things to do -- and, after a little while, there's the calm this lack brings. Things here are not the same as they are 'outside,' where our mind constantly attaches itself to some aim or project, acting or thinking about something in particular, having its attention held by some distraction.
The apparent inaction of the experience of meditating takes a little while to get used to. As in Rembrandt's painting, or when we move from light to shadow, we don't see clearly straight away. We have gone inside ourselves, for real. Our inner world was close by, but we never went there. We tend to hang around outside; in today's world of frantic demands and frenzied connections, our relationship with ourselves often goes untended. We abandon our inner world. The outside world is easier to travel and better signposted. To meditate is often to move through a land without paths. In the room where the philosopher is meditating, there's less light, so you have to open your eyes wider. The same is true inside ourselves. There is less that is obvious or reassuring, so we must open our mind's eye much wider.
We expected -- or hoped -- to find calm and emptiness. We often find ourselves in a huge, rowdy, chaotic bazaar. We aspired to clarity; we find confusion. Sometimes meditation exposes us to anxiety and pain, to things that hurt us and that we have avoided by thinking about something else or busily doing things elsewhere.
It all looked so simple from the outside! We thought it would be enough just to sit down and close our eyes. But no, that's just the start. It's indispensable, but not enough in itself. So what now? Now we have to work. We must learn to look, to remain slightly apart from the world, sitting just like this with closed eyes. We must learn to allow the tumult to settle.
The first thing to accomplish is no more than that, sitting still and quiet for long enough to allow a kind of calm to settle around the chatter of our mind, enough for us to start seeing a bit more clearly. We must not try to achieve it by force or will -- that would only trigger more chaos. We must let it happen, let it come from inside.
Sometimes we have to wait a long time. This process is not something that can be rushed. We would like to speed it up, but no, meditation takes time. In fact, there are days when nothing comes at all, which may come as a bit of a shock and seem out of tune with times that promise us instant, guaranteed results. Zen wisdom has many tales to illustrate this point, such as the one about a student who asks his teacher, 'Master, how long will I have to meditate to attain serenity?' After a long silence, the master replies, Thirty years.' The student looks stricken. 'Er .. that's a very long time. What if I make twice the effort? What if I work really hard, day and night, and don't do anything else?' The teacher remains silent for a very long time and then says, 'Then it will take you fifty years.'
Starting to See More Clearly
So we have stopped, we have sat down, and closed our eyes. Not to sleep, not to rest, but to understand. We need to understand what we feel and put some order into the chaos that is simply the world's echo within ourselves. We must understand that there are two paths: the path of intelligence (acting, intervening, kneading reality with our will, lucidity, and effort) and the path of experience (welcoming naked reality and allowing it to cover, inhabit and imbue us, in a movement of intensely attentive letting go).
Both intelligence and experience keep us in contact with the world, one enabling us to understand it better, the other to feel it better. Each, in its own way, is a perfect path. Neither is superior to the other. We need them both, and we must keep both alive and in working order.
To put it more simply, we can say that the first path is that of philosophical thought, while the second (receiving the world without necessarily understanding it, or understanding it but without words, or beyond words) is that of mindfulness. It is the meditative approach of mindfulness that is the subject of the upcoming blog posts.
Living in Mindfulness
Mindfulness means intensifying our presence in the moment, stilling ourselves to absorb it instead of escaping it or trying to alter it through thought or action.
There is mindfulness in the action of the philosopher who turns for a moment from his work of thinking and enters a different mode of being, digesting and assimilating all that his intelligence has just produced or discovered, preparing himself, perhaps, to go further still, and pausing to be aware.
So mindfulness is not about creating emptiness, nor is it about producing thoughts. It means stopping in order to make contact with the ever-shifting experience that we are having at the time, and to observe the nature of our relationship to that experience, the nature of our presence at that moment. This is what is happening now if, while continuing to read these words attentively, you realize that you are also breathing and having bodily sensations, that there are other objects in your field of vision besides this blog, that there are sounds around you, that there are thoughts calling you away or murmuring assessments and judgments of what you are reading, and so on.
Mindfulness means, just as you are about to erase this email or close this browser tab and move on to the next (perhaps your hand is already poised before you even finish reading these lines), halting your movement and observing, for example, the intention to close the tab, the intention that's already within you. Saying to yourself, 'I'm going to close/turn the page,' rather than doing it without even noticing. Mindfulness means making a tiny space every now and then to see ourselves doing something. You will tell me we don't need to do this in order to erase an email or turn a page. And that is true. On the other hand, it may prove useful at many other times in our lives.
Saraswati, Satyananda. A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya. Yoga Publications Trust, 2013.
André Christophe. Mindfulness: 25 Ways to Live in the Moment Through Art. Replika Press, 2014.
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