March 27, 2019

Daily Wisdom: The shadow is “the person you’d rather not be”

Photo: spatulated

In today’s Daily Wisdom post, spiritual teacher and writer Sally Kempton offers her perspective on shadow work, one of the five principle practices in World Spirituality (called “lighten up.”)

Jung, whose work was influenced by his reading of Eastern sources, called the shadow “the person you’d rather not be”— the opposite of your conscious personality. He coined the term “shadow” to describe qualities that some yogic scriptures categorize as the kleshas (literally, causes of suffering). These are qualities that a key yogic text, the Bhagavad Gita, rather dauntingly describes as “demonic.” In other words, all the selfish, primitive, egoic, violent, lazy, entitled, aspects of yourself. [Read more…]

Daily Wisdom: If you think you’re enlightened, just take a look at your family

Photo Credit: Philip McAllister

Sally Kempton writes in “Your Roots Are Showing”:

Your relatives have the power to push your buttons like no one else. But they can also illuminate your path to personal transformation.

If you think you’re enlightened, go visit your family. Ram Dass, the influential American teacher of spirituality, said that back in the 1970s. For Anne, who called me recently to confess her fear of an upcoming family Christmas, this is more than an ironic quip.

Each Christmas, fifty of her family members—siblings, and step-siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren and assorted step-children—show up en masse at her father’s ranch in Montana, each harboring a personal grievance, grudge or secret rivalry with at least one other family member. Ann’s mother can’t even say hello to Ann’s sister without making a comment about her weight. Even the yogis in the family disagree with one another’s life choices. Ann’s sister-in-law left her teacher and still blogs angrily about him. That teacher happens to be Ann’s teacher, which is just one more complication in the family stew. [Read more…]

Free feeling: Using emotions for liberation

Laughter

Photo Credit: greekadman

 

By Sally Kempton

Practice can change your relationship to emotions, so that instead of being swamped by certain feeling states, you can hold them, contain them, see into their essence, and ultimately, use emotions in the service of your liberation.

Many years ago, I walked into the kitchen of my guru’s ashram, and found him shouting at the cooks. Force- waves of anger were bouncing around the room, almost visible to the naked eye. Then, in mid sentence, he turned, saw us standing there, and smiled. The energy in his eyes went soft. ‘How did you like the show?” he asked. Then, chuckling, he slapped the head cook playfully on the back, and walked away. The cooks giggled, and went back to work, galvanized by the energy he had injected into the afternoon.

That moment changed my understanding about emotions. The clarity and fluidity with which he had shifted from intense anger to good humor was only part of it. More interesting, I felt, was the fact that he had been using anger as a teaching tool. Was he really angry? I don’t know. All I know is that he seemed able to ride the wave of his anger with perfect easiness, and let it pass without a trace.

[Read more…]

Meditation for Life: Awareness, Inquiry, Realignment, and Return to Self

Shiva Meditation

By Sally Kempton

Cross-posted from Patheos.com.

Meditation makes you more self-aware. That’s one of its biggest gifts, even though we don’t always like what we see. When meditation is really working, it has a way of showing you unknown parts of yourself—pockets of your psyche that are beautiful and sublime, but also parts of yourself that are not so tasty. In fact, there will be periods when your life seems to bristle with situations that seem designed to reveal your most embarrassing reactive patterns and unskillful ways of coping. And I’m not even talking about big crises, just about the normal irritations of life.

Maybe you get the flu, or your back goes out, and you realize how cranky you feel when you’re physically uncomfortable. Maybe you notice the impatience in your voice when you talk to your teenager. Or, as happens regularly to a friend of mine, the moment of truth can come from a co-worker asking you pointedly if you would be acting so prickly if you’d meditated today.

The gift of meditation in these situations is that you have resources that can let you shift out of these patterns—sometimes right away.

[Read more…]

A World Spirituality Guide to How to Survive being Home for the Holidays, by Sally Kempton


By Sally Kempton

Your roots are showing.

Your relatives have the power to push your buttons like no one else. But they can also illuminate your path to personal transformation.

If you think you’re enlightened, go visit your family. Ram Dass, the influential American teacher of spirituality, said that back in the 1970s. For Anne, who called me recently to confess her fear of an upcoming family Christmas, this is more than an ironic quip.

Each Christmas, fifty of her family members—siblings, and step-siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren and assorted step-children—show up en masse at her father’s ranch in Montana, each harboring a personal grievance, grudge or secret rivalry with at least one other family member. Ann’s mother can’t even say hello to Ann’s sister without making a comment about her weight. Two of Ann’s cousins are Scientologists, another a Christian who believes that Scientology is a cult. Even the yogis in the family disagree with one another’s life choices. Ann’s sister-in-law left her teacher and still blogs angrily about him. That teacher happens to be Ann’s teacher, which is just one more complication in the family stew.

[Read more…]

Inner Revolution ~ by Sally Kempton

Sally-Kempton-100x100

Feel like all hell is breaking loose? You might be experiencing a radical transformation that could change your life for the better.

Step by Step
These are the seven steps of radical transformation.

The Wake-Up Call
You realize that something needs to change.

Holding Uncertainty
You search for methods to help you change, explore teachings and avenues, all the while being willing to live with the insecurity of being in a process of identity-shifting.

Asking for Help
You approach teachers and mentors, and you strongly appeal to the power of grace itself.

Grace, Insight, and Awakening
Grace opens the situation, creating a breakthrough, inner shift, which may manifest as new gifts or insights.

Honeymoon
Enjoying the new situation, you live in the breakthrough. It may feel like being in love.

The Fall From Grace
You lose touch with the new gifts, experience the consequences of over-confidence, and a sense of dryness or loss of contact with your Source.

Integration
You bring insight to bear on the contractions that have caused you to lose contact with grace, you apply spiritual insights to the nitty-gritty actions of life, and you experience the ripening of your breakthroughs over time. [Read more…]

Fierce Grace: The Boons of Kali ~ by Sally Kempton

(c) August 2011 By vudhikrai

(c) August 2011 by vudhikrai

“You need to find your Kali side,” I told Annie. You may know someone like Annie. She’s a production manager at a local tv station, a single mom with a busy schedule, and a really nice person. She values yoga as a doorway into peace and well-being, teaches it to troubled teens, and always stresses the importance of equanimity and other yogic virtues — non-violence, surrender, contentment, detachment.

But Annie’s approach to yoga is like her approach to life: she is so conflict averse, that its hard for her even to admit that she has negative feelings. She rarely raises her voice, and she once told me that she can’t remember the last time she felt anger. But at this moment, mired in a family conflict that involves missing money, elder abuse, and shady lawyers, Annie senses that her carefully cultivated tendency to seek peace over conflict is not helping her. She’s called me for advice: she wants to be told how to keep a good relationship with her brother and sister, and still stop them from cheating her mother out of her property. In other words, she wants me to give her a prescription for non-violent conflict from the yogic playbook.

Instead, what pops out of my mouth is, “You need to find your Kali side.” [Read more…]

Falling in Love with the Divine: Devotion & Tantra of the Heart — October 14 – 16, 2011

Falling in Love with the Divine:

Devotion and Tantra of the Heart 

Sally Kempton  &  Marc Gafni

For many contemporary spiritual practitioners, devotion is a missing ingredient in their practice. Yet part of what gives practice its juice and excitement is the living relationship with the personal face of the divine—the Being-Intelligence of all that is—by which you are personally addressed, loved, challenged, and held. Devotion, heart practice directed toward a divine other, or the divine other in a beloved, is a secret of inner awakening, and a key to emotional healing and evolutionary transformation. It’s no wonder that some of the greatest sages and teachers of all time, from Rumi to the Hasidic masters, were also followers of the devotional path. [Read more…]

Finding the Vulnerable Heart, Part Two

By Sally Kempton

Originally posted on Patheos.

In Part One of this series, we began to explore vulnerability as a path, and to look at what it takes to feel safely vulnerable. My meditations on vulnerability began during a conversation with a student named Roberta. Roberta had noticed that she often felt over-sensitive, too open to other people and even the pain of the world around her. In the last article, I discussed where vulnerability comes from, and the different types of vulnerability. Mainly, I tried to distinguish between the vulnerability that comes from weak boundaries, and mature vulnerability—based on real inner strength. That kind of vulnerability, what we might call radical vulnerability, is really only possible for someone who has established both strong personal boundaries, and a deep connection to her own core, the Essence, or inner Self. Here are some conclusions, along with a couple of exercises: one for creating energetic boundaries, the second for deepening your relationship with your own vulnerable self. [Read more…]

Spiritual IQ: Is There Such a Thing?

 

by Sally Kempton

Originally posted on Patheos.

Growing up, I thought that the capacity for spirituality was a rare and special gift, like musical genius or natural charm. I knew only one person who seemed to have it: my parents’ friend Ned, an Irish poet who regularly went off to meditate with the Trappists and volunteer at the Catholic Worker’s soup kitchen on New York’s lower east side. People like Ned, I thought, had been born with an ability to experience the mystical underpinnings of things, to feel oneness with others, to be nice all the time. The rest of us were stuck with our basic ordinariness and selfishness, though like piano students stumbling through the scales, we could work at being spiritual, doing our best to act ‘as if’ we actually felt agape, spiritual love, or trying to sense a connection with the sacred. [Read more…]

Finding the Vulnerable Heart, Part One

 

by Sally Kempton

Originally posted on Patheos.

Roberta approaches me during a break in an urban workshop. Retreats and workshops, she explains, leave her feeling so wide-open that she’ll often find herself picking up other people’s energy and moods. She’d left the workshop the night before, gone out on the street, and felt overwhelmed by the Saturday night energy of the city. Not just the cars honking and the music, but the people who passed her by, and even her own boyfriend.

I look at her—tall and blonde and thin—and asked her if in general she feels vulnerable. She burst into tears. “I want to be open,” she said. “But I feel so raw!” Raw, in this case, is another word for vulnerable. And Roberta’s struggle is a real one.

If you’ve done much yoga, meditation, or even deep psychological work, you may have felt something similar. When I was first spending time around my teacher, the energy generated in meditation would sometimes leave me feeling weepy and irritable, hypersensitive, even overwhelmed. No one had ever told me that the first (and many subsequent) stages of opening the heart could feel like exposing a wound, or like taking the lid off of a Pandora’s box of old, unprocessed griefs and fears.

Nor did I realize, until years later, that fielding these feelings of vulnerability is not optional, nor even personal to me, but an actual part of the yogic process. Yoga, after all, is not an escape from life, but a way of taking yourself into life’s pulsing heart. As you do that, you will inevitably meet your own vulnerability. Just as vulnerability and rawness are synonymous, so are vulnerability and openness. In other words, to find your way to true openness of heart, you need to pass through the forest of vulnerability.

[Read more…]

What is My Dharma?

by Sally Kempton

In my late 20s, as a recovering existentialist in the midst of a life-crisis, I came across  he Bhagavad Gita, and read for the first time Krishna’s wordson dharma. You probably remember the situation: the warrior-prince Arjuna, paralyzed by confusion at the prospect of having to kill his kinsmen in a war, begs his friend and teacher, Krishna, for help. Though Krishna’s response touches on every essential aspect of the inner life, from how to meditate to what to expect when we die, the lines that struck me were these: “You are a warrior,” Krishna tells his pupil, “your svadharma, your personal duty, is to fight. Therefore, stand up and do battle. Better your own dharma badly performed than the dharma of another done perfectly.”

Is it possible to read that sentence without asking yourself the question “What is my dharma?” I felt that I’d suddenly found words for a question I’d been trying to formulate my whole life. I made my living as a writer—was that my dharma? I’d just begun serious spiritual practice—was that my dharma? I had a life-long aversion to the conventional rules of society—was that a sign that I was out of line with dharma, or simply that I followed a dharma that was uniquely mine? Was there really, as Krishna’s words seemed to imply, a blueprint for right action, perhaps lodged in my DNA, that could provide my own personal path to truth? Was that the clue to the question that had confused me for most of my life, “What am I really supposed to be doing?”

Years of practice have convinced me that there is such a thing as personal dharma, and that unless we’re in touch with it, we’re out of touch with our real source of strength and guidance. When we are inside our dharma, spiritual growth seems to happen naturally. When we aren’t, we feel stuck and stymied not just in our work and relationships, but in our inner life as well.

[Read more…]

Prayer for Postmoderns: Part 2

Prayer, if you remember to do it, will kindle your sense of the sacred, the sense of being held or taken care of by the universe.

by Sally Kempton

Prayer, as anyone who does it regularly knows, is a path in and of itself. What we saw last week is that the great prayer masters didn’t really care how you pray. The main thing is that you feel connected when you’re praying. Prayer, if you remember to do it, will kindle your sense of the sacred, the sense of being held or taken care of by the universe.

Last week, we talked at length about the Asking Prayer, the prayer of petition. This week, we’ll look at two other forms of prayer, and at the most inward form of prayer. Then we’ll put it all together.

Prayer as Appreciation

Appreciative prayer includes every moment when we say thank you for the beauty in nature, or for the blessings in our life. It also includes every formal traditional prayer, from the Book of Psalms to the thousand names of Allah to the Rig Veda, as well as the highly creative practice of the monk Brother Lawrence, who simply spent the whole day talking to God.

[Read more…]

Prayer for Postmoderns: Part 1

So why would a postmodern yogi pray? For at least three reasons: One, because prayer softens the armor around your heart, and actually helps you receive grace…

by Sally Kempton

Let’s start with full disclosure: I pray for parking spaces. In fact, I pray for a lot of things. Some of my prayers could be called spiritually correct. I pray for deeper love; I pray for enlightenment; I pray for people in trouble. I pray for my actions to be of benefit to all and for an end to human suffering.

But I’ll also pray for a workshop to go well or for answers to a problem I can’t solve. Sometimes I pray for the fun of it, or because I feel bad about something I’ve done and am hoping the universe will extend forgiveness. And, when I’m circling a block in downtown San Francisco or New York City, I pray for a space to open up for me. A lot of the time, it works.

Mostly though, I pray because it’s the most direct practice I know for communicating intimately with the divine. Prayer creates connection, sometimes with almost shocking immediacy, to the grace-flow of the universe. That’s why the great prayer practitioners, like Rumi or Teresa of Avila, tell us that it doesn’t matter what state we’re in, or even what our motive is when we begin prayer—as long as we’re willing to give it a go. “If you can’t pray sincerely, offer your dry, hypocritical prayer,” Rumi writes, “for God in his mercy accepts bad coin.”

[Read more…]

Bust a Groove!

by Sally Kempton

Change is good. Better yet, change is possible. Here are a few strategies for busting out of painful, negative grooves.

When I was in my 20s and taking my first tentative steps along the inner path, I spent a few months working with a Jungian analyst. I went because I felt stuck. I had a novel to write that I couldn’t seem to focus on, a boyfriend who didn’t seem to love me the way I wanted to be loved, and a general feeling of dissatisfaction with myself. The most memorable thing she ever said to me was about the possibility of changing. She said it one afternoon after listening to me going on about all the things that weren’t working in my life.

“You know what your real problem is?” she asked me. “You don’t understand that it’s possible to change.”

I was shocked. “What do you mean?” I said.

“You think that the way you are now is the way you have to be. That isn’t true. You can change all of it. You can change your relationships. You can change the way you do things. You can change the way you feel.”

There is nothing more radical than the moment you realize that it is possible to reinvent your life. I’m not talking about superficial reinvention, like changing your grunge look for all-whites and mala beads, or even about doing something more radical, such as leaving a regular job to work for Doctors without Borders. I’m talking here about reconfiguring mental and emotional attitudes, shifting your vision of life—the kind of inner shift that turns a pessimist into someone capable of seeing the perfection in everything, that lets an angry person channel rage into creative energy, that makes us happier, more peaceful, more in touch with the love and wisdom at our core.

This sort of transformation is the crux of the inner life, the promise of yoga, of meditation, and of the various forms of inner work and self-inquiry we undertake. Yet it’s essential to understand what kind of change we’re really after and also to understand what that level of change requires. We don’t want to limit our own possibilities by expecting too little from our practice. On the other hand, we don’t want to indulge in magical thinking, or in the kind of spiritual bypass that makes us think we can simply meditate our way out of our life issues.

[Read more…]

Finding Your Courage

By Sally Kempton

My understanding about courage was transformed by a conversation with an ex-Special Forces guy I met in the late 1980s.

Scott (a name I’ve given him because I can’t for the life of me remember his real one) had spent 20 years as a covert operative profiled for hyper-dangerous missions. He was a real-life version of a Nelson DeMille character–one of those guys who spent his life sneaking into Soviet embassies in places like Cambodia to steal secret papers. Then the Cold War ended, and he went home to someplace like Pennsylvania. There, he discovered that his formerly hard-drinking parents had gotten sober, joined AA, and wanted Scott to go to Al Anon, the 12-step program for relatives of alcoholics.

“What you have to realize,” he told me, “is that in all my years in the Special Forces, I’d never been physically afraid. I loved danger, and I was really good at it. Guys like me have what the Marine Corps psychologists call throwaway lives, meaning the person doesn’t really care whether they live or die. But when I walked into that meeting, I was so terrified that I couldn’t stay in the room.”

[Read more…]

Too Busy?

By Sally Kempton

I’ve dropped in on a yoga class with a popular teacher in Los Angeles. The room is full of slim blonde yoginis, moving like synchronized swimmers through a vinyasa series. Fifteen minutes into the sequence, the teacher calls the class together to demonstrate some subtle alignment details. Half the women in the room move forward. The rest turn on their cell phones and begin checking their messages.

Those women could have been doctors on call, or moms with young kids at home. But I suspect that they were victims, like so many people I know, of the Internal Busyness Syndrome—the breathless, stress-addicted feeling of having way too much to do and way too little time to do it. Internal Busyness, a complex of internally generated thoughts, beliefs, and bodily responses, can certainly be triggered by an especially busy day or a lot of competing demands. But unlike External Busyness, which is the more straightforward but often unavoidable state of having a lot to do, Internal Busyness doesn’t go away when your tasks are done. That’s why it’s so insidious. External busyness—the admittedly challenging pressure that comes from juggling a demanding job, children, financial worries, health issues, and all the tasks of running your life and household—can be managed. It can even be a yogic pathway, if you know how to practice with it. Internal Busyness, however, manages you.

So when people tell me “I’m so busy I can’t find time to practice,” I always ask them which kind of busyness they’re distressed by: the External or the Internal. One tip-off that you might be suffering from the Internal Busyness Syndrome is this: When you don’t have an immediate task that has to be done, when you have a moment that could be devoted to taking a few quiet breaths or just spacing out, do you ever find yourself still spinning internally, wondering what you’ve forgotten to take care of? That’s Internal Busyness.

[Read more…]

Turning Poison into Nectar: Tantra and the Transformation of the Heart

Sally Kempton and Marc Gafni will guide a practical, hands-on exploration of the essential tantric methodology around transforming negative emotions into liberating energy and finding the gifts in shadow energies.

Thursday, May 5, 2011
6:30 PM – 10:00 PM

Rudramandir – Rasa Room
830 Bancroft Way, Berkeley

 

Sally Kempton's picSally Kempton is a master of the delicate art of integrating enlightened wisdom with daily life. As a mature practitioner of the tantric path of unfolding kundalini, she not only articulates the subtle insight of the tantras, but generates a field of energy through which others are able to access their own inner wisdom and meditative experience. A former swami, she is the author of Meditation for the Love of It, and writes the popular Wisdom column for Yoga Journal. Sally teaches internationally, and is a core teacher in the Integral Spiritual Center. Her workshops present subtle teachings with humor and depth, and create a space that allows deep breakthroughs for many of her students.

 

Dr. Marc Gafni holds his doctorate from Oxford University and has direct lineage in Kabbalah. He is a Rabbi, spiritual artist, teacher, and a leading visionary in the emerging World Spirituality movement. He is a co-founder of iEvolve: The Center for World Spirituality, a scholar at the Integral Institute, and the director of the Integral Spiritual Experience, as well as a lecturer at John F. Kennedy University. The author of seven books, including the national bestseller Soul Prints and Mystery of Love, Gafni’s teaching is marked by a deep transmission of open heart, love and leading edge provocative wisdom. Gafni is considered by many to be a visionary voice in the founding of a new World Spirituality and one of the great mind/heart teachers of the generation.

 


What Do You Do with Difficult People?

By Sally Kempton

Fran’s cottage on the Oregon coast should be the perfect meditative retreat. The only worm in her apple is Larry, her landlord, who lives on the property. Larry is an acerbic critic of just about everything—the government, the art world, drug companies, and Fran. He can’t believe she’s so clueless about simple practical matters. Only an idiot, he tells her, would plant petunias without putting gopher wire around them, and that’s just for starters.

Yes, he’ll bring her groceries from town, and help her diagnose the weird noises in her car. But he also walks into her house uninvited, and doesn’t understand why she minds. After all, they’re neighbors, aren’t they?

It’s not that Larry is a bad guy, and Fran knows him well enough to know that he’s harmless. But nonetheless, she feels crowded. She doesn’t want to move, yet her landlord’s presence hangs over her house like a dark, critical cloud. Worst of all, his irritability magnetizes her own irritation, so she often finds herself talking to him in the same harsh tone he uses with her.

As a conscious person doing her best to follow a spiritual path, Fran feels ashamed of herself for not knowing how to deal with Larry. You might feel that way too, when difficult people show up in your life. Yet the truth is that few of us ever get through life without encountering—often in our intimate personal space—more than one person who is staggeringly difficult for us to handle. Whether it’s a manipulative friend, a prickly co-worker, an absent-hearted lover—some form of relationship stress seems to be part of the package we signed up for when we enrolled ourselves in the school that is life on this planet. If we don’t have a few challenging people in our lives, we’re probably living on a desert island.

So, how do you deal with a situation like Fran’s without moving away, being harsh or wimpy, or putting that person out of your heart? How can you explain to your friend who keeps enlisting you in service of her dramas that you don’t want to be part of her latest scenario of mistrust—yet still remain friends? How do you handle the boss whose tantrums terrorize the whole office, or the co-worker who bursts into tears and accuses you of being abrupt when you’re just trying to get down to business?

More to the point, what do you do when the same sorts of difficult interpersonal situations keep showing up in your life? Chalk it up to karma? Find ways to resolve them through discussion or even pre-emptive action? Or take the truly challenging view – the view held by Jungians and many spiritual teachers–that these people are reflecting your own disowned, or shadow tendencies? In other words, does dealing with difficult people have to begin with finding out what you might need to work on in yourself?

[Read more…]

Meditation for Life: Is It True? Is It Really True? by Sally Kempton

by Sally Kempton

Twenty-five years ago, inspired by Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, I decided to practice absolute truthfulness for one week. I lasted less than two days. On the third day, a man I was trying to impress asked me if I’d read Thoreau, and I heard myself saying, “Yes,” despite the fact that I hadn’t. A few minutes later, I forced myself to confess the lie. Truth is, that wasn’t so hard. What turned out to be harder was looking at why I’d lied. It was deeply humiliating to my ego to recognize that I had such an attachment to looking smart that I couldn’t admit not having read the book. And once I’d started looking into the motive for that lie,  it started a whole process of inquiry that actually hasn’t stopped since.

[Read more…]

Meditation for Life: Awareness and Transformation by Sally Kempton

Meditation will show you where you need to work on yourself, but your very awareness of an unconstructive mood or behavior is actually the first step to changing it.

By Sally Kempton [cross-posted from Patheos.com]

Meditation makes you more self-aware. That’s one of its biggest gifts, even though we don’t always like what we see. When meditation is really working, it has a way of showing you unknown parts of yourself—pockets of your psyche that are beautiful and sublime, but also parts of yourself that are not so tasty. In fact, there will be periods when your life seems to bristle with situations that seem designed to reveal your most embarrassing reactive patterns and unskillful ways of coping. And I’m not even talking about big crises, just about the normal irritations of life.

Maybe you get the flu, or your back goes out, and you realize how cranky you feel when you’re physically uncomfortable. Maybe you notice the impatience in your voice when you talk to your teenager. Or, as happens regularly to a friend of mine, the moment of truth can come from a co-worker asking you pointedly if you would be acting so prickly if you’d meditated today.

The gift of meditation in these situations is that you have resources that can let you shift out of these patterns—sometimes right away.

That’s why an experienced meditator knows that the moment when you see your own stuff is valuable, especially if you can resist the impulse to kick yourself across the room for not having it more together. Not only does it show you where you need to work on yourself, but your very awareness of an unconstructive mood or behavior is actually the first step to changing it. In other words, the awareness that allows you to recognize your state is also the source of the energy that can transform it.

Most of our more disturbing emotions or behaviors come from areas of the psyche where we have chosen to remain unconscious. In Hindi, the word for these unconscious, immature qualities is kacha, meaning “raw” or “unbaked.” (In one of Rumi’s poems, he compares the unripe soul to a chickpea that needs to be softened by cooking so that it will become a tasty morsel!) All of us are partly kacha, and it’s our practice that cooks us, or if you prefer, ripens us.

But the kind of practice that transforms us is not a mechanical accumulation of rituals and focus exercises. It is practice with awareness and practice of awareness that actually changes the texture of our consciousness. Awareness itself, with its clarity, its impersonality, its spaciousness, and its capacity to hold everything within itself, is the fire that will cook or ripen our immature feelings and behaviors. Just holding these feelings non-judgmentally in Awareness—being their witness without either acting on them, trying to suppress them, or getting lost in our stories or beliefs about what is happening—is often enough to change their quality from raw to baked.

This principle holds true for any situation we face, whether internally or externally generated. Because our awareness is a small-scale version of the great Awareness that underlies all that is, when we direct attention non-judgmentally toward something that causes suffering either to ourselves or to others, we are actually bringing that state or mood or behavior into the light of the great Awareness itself.

Awareness not only illumines the dark corners of our psyches but can also transmute the strange energies and raw feelings that dwell there. Then the energy that has been tied up in them is freed to become available for more creative endeavors. We are spiritually ripe, baked, when all our knotted energies and feelings have been freed and re-channeled to manifest as wisdom, power, and love. How this happens is one of the mysteries of Consciousness. What we do know is that the act of turning Awareness toward our inner moods, states, and feelings is the great tactic for setting that alchemy in motion.

Inquire Within

The sages of Vedanta gave the name atma vichara, or self-inquiry, to this act of becoming aware of ourselves.

Vichara is not just thinking about something, nor is it the same as psychological self-analysis. It is a yogic practice or self-reflection in which we hold our attention on inner phenomena in a steady, focused fashion without going into meditation. There are two basic types of vichara. One is the contemplation we do to get in touch with our deeper wisdom, to open the space of revelation, to understand a spiritual teaching, or to touch our Self. The classical inner question “Who am I?” (taught by Ramana Maharshi and others) is an example of this type of vichara.

The other type of self-inquiry is contemplation of what blocks our experience of the Self. When we feel out of sorts, instead of giving way to the feelings or getting lost in the story we are telling ourselves about them, we focus our attention on the feelings themselves. We let ourselves fully experience the feelings. We notice the thoughts that accompany them. We observe the state of our energy, the sensations in our body. At times it can be helpful to trace a feeling back to its source, perhaps to discover the frustrated desire or fear or expectation that may have triggered it. But the most important thing is to keep noticing our inner feelings and the state of our energy until it becomes second nature to notice the symptoms of being off-center.

Only when we can recognize and identify the actual inner sensations of being out of alignment with ourselves can we get back in touch. Without that recognition, we only know that we are uncomfortable, and we have little chance of adjusting our state.

Self-Inquiry in Action

Imagine the following scenario. It is early morning, and you have been up late working on a project that is approaching its deadline. You need to get to the office early to meet with your team to finalize some important loose ends. As you are putting the coffee on the stove, your 10-year-old daughter announces that she feels sick. She has a high fever and a bad cough. She needs a day in bed and a trip to the doctor. You realize that there isn’t anyone you can get to stay with her at such short notice. You will have to stay home and take care of her. Yet if you don’t keep your appointment at the office, your project hasn’t a chance of being completed in time. The thought of what this will mean sends you into a rapid spiral of panic. “Why do things like this always happen to me?” you hear yourself thinking. “My life is so impossible.” Fear, frustration, anger, and despair.

At this moment, you make a crucial yogic choice. Instead of letting yourself careen into acting out of your panic and anger, you consciously pause. You make up your mind to pay attention to your own state and to deal with it before you try to take action.

You take a couple of deep breaths, and then you check in with yourself. You scan your body and notice the rhythm of your breath. You discover that your breathing is choppy—in fact, you are actually holding your breath. You notice a clenched sensation in your diaphragm and stomach muscles and a tightness in your chest. You realize that your heart is also feeling tight and closed and that there are threads of fear shooting through it. Your energy is alternately fluttering and sinking, sometimes rushing through you in waves of panic, sometimes flattening out as depression and a feeling of helplessness. Your thoughts are all about victimization: “It’s so unfair. Why can’t someone besides me take care of things for a change? Why is this always happening?”

This moment of stopping, turning inside, checking yourself out, noticing how you feel, and observing your thoughts without buying into them is a profoundly significant moment of yoga. It will give you the power to act from a more resourceful, skillful place, rather than simply reacting to the difficulties in the situation. Now instead of blocking your discomfort or trying to distract yourself, instead of overriding your emotions and plunging ahead regardless of how your inner energy feels, instead of letting your strong reactions overwhelm you so that you blow up at your daughter or paralyze yourself with resentment or paranoia, you use these feelings as a signal to stop and return to yourself.

Realigning

Once you have recognized your own state, you can begin to work with it. For this you have a number of different options.

The first step, always, is to bring your attention to the breath. The breath automatically connects the ordinary mind to the deeper Self. When you grab hold of the breath and just follow its rhythm for a moment or two, or take a couple of full breaths, it will eventually center you.

For me, the second step in realigning with my deep center is to bring my attention into the heart. Once I have recovered my wits through a few rounds of steady, deliberate breathing, I drop a sort of inner plumb line inside to the area of the middle chest, beneath the breastbone, and I let my attention rest there until I feel the inner heart space relax and expand. When energy is stuck in the head, your thoughts tend to go in circles and you come up with rote, uncreative solutions to your issues. Once your attention moves into the heart, you are automatically in touch with your intuition. You are in one of the essential centers of spiritual wisdom and awareness. Resting in that seat in the heart, you can do whatever other practice is needed. You can ask your inner intuition what is the best thing to do.

But these are just two of your available options. You have others. You might decide that you need to spend some time soothing yourself, perhaps by replacing your agitated thoughts with a more positive thought. You could practice a few moments of mindfulness, ‘sitting’ in the heart and noticing the thoughts, feelings, and inner sensations as they arise. You could ask yourself a question like “Can you let this thought go?” and then breathe it out, or simply wait for a natural recognition that the thoughts and feelings are simply arising and passing through—and that you can let them go.

Another thing you can do is give yourself a teaching. My teacher used to say that the reason we study spiritual texts is so that they’ll come up when we need them and help us coach ourselves into a more resourceful state.

A friend once told me about a practice she used during a particularly difficult season at her university department. She had a hostile colleague who would interrupt her, question her agendas, and generally harass her. She got through it by reminding herself, “You are in the peaceful mind of God.”

A man with a tendency to lose his temper during moments of frustration works with a famous yogic technique called “Practicing the Opposite” from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. When he notices rage surging up inside him, he takes time to become aware of the thoughts associated with the feelings, and then fills his mind with counter-thoughts like “I have great tolerance and respect for these people.” Even though it isn’t always true, holding the positive thought calms his mind enough to make him less reactive.

For me, a line from the Bhagavad Gita, “You have a right to the work alone, but not to its fruits,” often comes up when I’m caught in desire for a particular outcome. Contemplating this resonant, mysterious teaching helps me detach myself from my fears, my wants, and my expectations so that I can act more objectively.

So once you have paused, checked yourself out, and recognized the way it feels to be out of your center, you have many options for beginning to come back to yourself. As you keep working with this threefold process of recognition, self-inquiry, and practice, you learn to navigate your own rough waters and to find the harbors that are always there.

This moment of stopping, turning inside, checking yourself out, noticing how you feel, and observing your thoughts without buying into them is a profoundly significant moment of yoga. It will give you the power to act from a more resourceful, skillful place, rather than simply reacting to the difficulties in the situation. Now instead of blocking your discomfort or trying to distract yourself, instead of overriding your emotions and plunging ahead regardless of how your inner energy feels, instead of letting your strong reactions overwhelm you so that you blow up at your daughter or paralyze yourself with resentment or paranoia, you use these feelings as a signal to stop and return to yourself.

Sally KemptonSally Kempton An internationally known teacher of meditation and spiritual wisdom, Sally Kempton is the author of Meditation for the Love of It and writes a monthly column for Yoga Journal. Follow her on Facebook and visit her website at www.sallykempton.com.