December 8, 2016

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.
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