September 21, 2020

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…]

Why Spirituality Needs Psychology

by Mariana Caplan

Originally posted here on the Huffington Post, 8/13/2011.

Many people get disillusioned on the spiritual path, and it is not because spiritual practices and approaches are not effective — they are. If we sincerely engage spiritual disciplines — whether meditation, contemplation, yoga or prayer — our practices will bear fruits. We will have more experiences, insights, moments of connection with presence, oneness or divinity. The problem is not spiritual technologies and practices. Spiritual teachers do not routinely fall into scandals around power and sexuality because the practices they engage and teach do not work. Spiritual students do not become disillusioned with spiritual life because they are not practicing sincerely enough. If we look closely, we see that these practices do work, and that part of our lives actually are improving.

So why isn’t this making us ultimately happier? Improving our relationships? Diminishing our reactivity? Depression? Anxiety? Through working with hundreds of spiritual teachers and practitioners in the western world, I am convinced that spiritual work alone does not address many of our deepest psychological knots and traumas, nor does it provide tools to address our wounds in relationships that block us from fulfilling our deepest longings, dreams and spiritual possibilities.

We get stuck because we have not integrated the psychological wounds and traumas that live within our bodies and keep repeating themselves again and again through unfulfilling, if not self-destructive, behaviors and dramas in our lives. We engage in spiritual bypassing, hoping against our often-better judgment, that our spiritual practices will remove our unpleasant emotions or help us to transcend our relationship challenges.

[Read more…]

The Problem with Zen Boyfriends

by Mariana Caplan

[adapted from Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path©, Sounds True, 2009]

Some things just don’t want to die. Much to my surprise, a little piece I published over 10 years ago, about a certain type of spiritual guy I found myself dating in my early twenties, set alight a dormant flame throughout the world. Originally published in the anthology “Radical Spirit,” “Zen Boyfriends” was rapidly translated into multiple languages, and I soon learned that Zen boyfriends were found in Italy, Spain, France and even communities in Thailand and other parts of Asia.

More years on the path brought more Zen boyfriends and infinite variations on the theme, not only for myself but from my clients and from readers and seekers everywhere. “Zen Boyfriends” eventually resurrected itself as a musical produced by Oregon musician Mark Steighner, and it was finally updated and reproduced in the San Francisco Bay area by me, with musician Anastasi Mavrides and actress Suraya Keating, to sold out audiences. I hope you enjoy the snippets from the original writing and revised theater production, and please share your stories!

***

At a certain stage in my own spiritual development, I began to attract a new breed of men that over time I came to call “Zen boyfriends.” I use the term “Zen” loosely here, because a man doesn’t have to be a Zen Buddhist to fall into this category. He could be a Tibetan Buddhist, a Sufi, or even a practitioner of some obscure brand of yoga. The more rigid the tradition, the better for this type. What defines a Zen boyfriend is the manner in which he skillfully uses spiritual ideals and practices as an excuse for his terror of, and refusal to be in, any type of real relationship with a woman. He is both too identified with his balls to become a celibate monk, and at the same time too little identified with the wider implications of them to take responsibility for them. The result: a righteous, distant and very intelligent substitute for a real man.

Andrew was a great example of a Zen boyfriend. This is how a typical morning went in our love nest:

At 4:30 a.m. his alarm sounds. “Andrew, your alarm is going off.”

“Press the snooze.”

I oblige. Then at 4:38 it goes off again. “Andrew, get up!”

“I’m too tired.”

By the fourth snooze I was wide awake, while he dozed away like a baby in arms. When he’d finally open his eyes sometime around 5:30, I was undeniably and un-spiritually pissed off. Without even a word or a glance in my direction, he would roll out of bed and head for the bathroom. I would listen with mounting rage as he gargled his Chinese herbs, did an hour of tai chi on the creaky hardwood floor, and then adjusted himself on his zafu to meditate. Often I would get up and meditate as well, but since I didn’t practice the same form of meditation as he did, he said we couldn’t practice together. The argument was always the same:

“Why do you set your alarm if you’re not going to get up?”

[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…]

World Spirituality Retreat – Day 3: Involution & Evolution

by Leyna Roget

Terry Patten is a firecracker of a teacher, and yet every bit of the exuberant knowledge he imparts on us is lined with love. For him, integral living is about formulating a commitment to the social framework of humanity through raw honesty and integrity. Patten leads us in a series of yogic moves to enter into the sacred space of our bodies. Our three body centers (head, heart, center) are the three faces of God through which we can awaken to the ‘I AM-ness’ of the divine and one another. We tap each limb of our body alive and our mind and heart follow.

Patten has such a poignant way of recognizing the mind-body connection as integral to realizing our full life force – individually and collectively. Through ‘involution’ our human, personal experience is accessed and is able to evolve, because really, our ‘involutionary given’ is that we are human AND humanity. With the birth of the cosmos, the big bang (or ‘holy yes’ as Patten puts it, haha) “evolution is a single story line that unites all of human knowledge”. Maybe the big bang knew what it was doing because once we came to be complex forms of life we were able to see the process by which we came to be. So, evolution has become self aware through us, and we are witnesses to our involution of self. Think about the universe having the gift of life, but not realizing it until billions of years later. Now think about your birth and being written a check by the universe, totaling the infinite sum of your worth to the world, and now, to be present means cashing it in yourself for all you have always been worth. OMG.

It wasn’t enough for Patten to be enthusiastic in his delivery, there was a certain amount of tenacity to his urging us to “make a contribution, be a part of that which is a healthy human adaptive response to this moment…anything less than that is unacceptable and you know it in your heart…you have to find a way to validate your own existence”. Amen. What’s the first step to validating our BEING-ness? “Be willing to feel all of it un-buffered, and be seen in it” – in that gritty, scary, revealing, shameful, beautiful, honest, unique you.

Patten gets to the heart of this breathtaking dialogue by asking, “what does it take for us to be real with one another…to touch and be touched…to be trustworthy?” This leads us into a series of group exercises that entreat us play and share in a space of vulnerability, with interpersonal communication anchored in love. We sit intimately close, in circles of four people. Being utterly present, we take rounds to concisely address a single question or statement: How are I feeling? … What is something that will allows others to know me better? … What I’m ashamed of is … The tension I’m living with is … A commitment I’m willing to make right now is… Wow. What a remarkable exercise in letting down your guard and TRULY getting to know people! We connect through these fears, evolutionary questions, and the desire to take our “involution” seriously.

I’ll forever cherish the challenge to take a chance with presence by “being dangerously real” and “listening with a beginners mind”. We are reminded to author and narrate our divine reality. Patten’s invigorating approach to human / humanity wholeness is energizing. What happens matters, what you do matters, in this moment – own it!

Leyna Roget networks with community organizations and businesses to introduce the inspiring stories of Planet Progress and the developing works of iNDIGO PROjECT MEDIA. She captures on and off camera images for Blog posts, Twitter updates, and various other engaging platforms to bring the viewer into the company’s interconnected sphere. Leyna creates new outlets and sustainable community events that invite the public to interact with iPM.

World Spirituality Retreat: Day 3 – Growing Up: Going Deeper to Make a Difference

by Leyna Roget

We’re still at that settling in stage of the retreat, which makes our morning yoga/meditation courtesy of Mike Brabant a refreshing, group energy bonding experience. Not to mention, a little comedy with your down dog never hurts, as we fan out our palms into ‘alien hands’ for stability. Marcy Baruch greets us this morning, appropriately setting the tone for togetherness with her melodic words, “I am the space behind I am…we are the space behind we are”. While we sing to honor many voices, this intimate retreat is as much a challenge to individual purpose, and in so embodies the third principle of world spirituality: growing up.

John Welwood initially coined the term “growing up” in his book Toward a Psychology of Awakening in reference to becoming psychologically whole. Marc Gafni explains, in the model of world spirituality, this description of growing up is more synonymous with our understanding of the awakening or ‘waking up’ stage. Therefore, growing up means the ability to move through higher and higher structures of consciousness in our life. As we age we organize and understand our experience of reality through a lens, our consciousness. For example, a child will have a distinct way of connecting the dots of self and experience in this world, versus an adult. Consciousness as a structure progresses from egocentric (limiting outlook to focus mainly on oneself), to ethnocentric (identification with the needs of a specific group), to world-centric (valuing the needs of humanity). Thanks to Terry Patten’s presentation of the next stage as “cosmocentric” (empathic identification and compassion for ALL that is), I’ve just had my consciousness blown open beyond the constraints of our natural world. Ironically, many religious texts operate from a love for the cosmos perspective, but the authoring person(s) is still bound to their egocentric view so the narrative shows up through a popular ethnocentric lens.

Being a Sustainable Human Presence

Growing up is about being an awakened form of consciousness in this world, “the next expression of the human race, the homo-noetic”. What I appreciate more than anything is how no-nonsense Patten is about telling us grow up, and own up to our call as spiritual practitioners. We must honor a sustainable human presence and be “authentic to the health of the fabric of the whole human system”. Everyone is capable of breaking through to an epic life purpose, as long as they are willing. “It’s about getting right with God and the call to exemplify greatness…When we tune into the profoundly good news of our divine nature, we begin towards oneness, and concurrently discover an urgency to care for humanity with love and activism”. Every person, in their individuality, has the ability to fill in the gaps towards elevating humanity to a functioning system of interconnectedness. This feels like a YAHTZEE kind of moment!

Answering the Call of Ecstatic Love

Living in a cosmocentric consciousness is about more than just being a global citizen. Marc Gafni illustrates this point beautifully with a discussion on the concept of obligation. The Hebrew translation for obligation is “ecstatic love”. This expression of love beyond limits is how we embody the seamless (but not featureless) source code of the world. When we perceive a cosmocentric existence, it is as though we experience the world as living in us. For many in a relationship with power, the message of obligation centers on what is “right” as opposed to what is centered on love and unity. It is the demand for to fulfill an obligation that often discourages authentic action. Gafni suggests that we must reclaim power as an expression of truth and change the dimension of obligation to be innate to our awakened unique self AND evolutionary urgency. It’s quite simple, obligation is created out of genuine need, recognition of a need, ability to meet the need, and seeing oneself as the only one able to meet that need. Therefore, obligation as a stage of developmental consciousness is actually embodied in our essence. Our waking up and growing up to our purpose is really to love ecstatically. Whether you understand your cosmocentric quest as a public or private practitioner, the shift of our internal structures in living in a state of ecstatic love (or obligation), has a dramatic affect towards creating shifts in the lives of others, and the heart of the cosmic source code.

Leyna Roget networks with community organizations and businesses to introduce the inspiring stories of Planet Progress and the developing works of iNDIGO PROjECT MEDIA. She captures on and off camera images for Blog posts, Twitter updates, and various other engaging platforms to bring the viewer into the company’s interconnected sphere. Leyna creates new outlets and sustainable community events that invite the public to interact with iPM.

World Spirituality Retreat: Day 2 – The Body as Context for Oneness

by Leyna Roget

We enter into the psyche this morning with Mariana Caplan to address the concept of unity, accessible through a focus on inward form. “Mind lives in the body” so that when you examine one through the other, with knowledge of aliveness, the body becomes a foundation for spirit. We first tune into the spirit of the group through single articulations of our state of mind in that present moment: transformation…open…receptive… discovering… Many of our words begin to mirror one another’s and Caplan points out, the wonderful thing about spirituality is that often before we can articulate our experience of it, the feeling lands within us. There’s no doubt that spirituality is on all our minds and bursting from our hearts.

More and more, I experience the feeling of spirituality in the observations of external synchronicity and an internal calm-joy. While this is different and at times confusing for everyone, the principle of discernment is presented as a valuable tool in separating truth from untruth along our “spiritual path”. Discernment means continually developing a context within ourselves, through trial and error, that helps us to answer psychological and spiritual (psycho-spiritual) questions, in favor of our growth. When we apply discernment to our journey, we highlight the endlessness of our path and pierce falsity.

Caplan engages John Welwood’s initial concept of “spiritual bypassing” to shed light on how esoteric practices present esoteric results without truly tapping into the traumas or neurosis of the Western psyche. When we exercise spirituality apart from the body, we are likely to spiritually bypass and avoid dealing with psycho-spiritual issues that have been repressed deeply within the body. If we understand our physical parts as contributing to the whole of our form, and the whole of whom we are as part of the pulsating divine force, it becomes more clear how illness and disease can be physical manifestations of a spiritual disconnect.

A series of four interactive meditation exercises are performed with gentle guidance from Caplan, some with partners, as we “drop into the body” to perceive emotional breaks, without breaking ourselves completely open. Prana ( or life force) follows attention so that as we transition from focus on pleasure to discomfort, these respective energies emerge from our cells memory, free to reveal hidden stories of psychological trauma trapped within us. Caplan challenge us to delicately expose and release these emotional wounds while in meditation. We employ non-rejection tantra, which allows our darker spaces to be engaged comfortably before regrouping attention on pleasurable feelings in the body. I experienced some difficulty evoking coherent images of psyche in the meditation, but I solidified the discernment of trusting these embodied ‘feelings’ as authentic to my spiritual self. I grew up with a lot of physical pain. I didn’t know it when I began yoga three years ago, but that was my introduction to embodied spirituality. Caplan explains, it is the postures or asanas that connect us to our body and not the move itself because holding a position is an internally motivated action. We are taking a ‘seat’ within ourselves, and attempting to be comfortable in it. It was during this exercise of psycho-spiritual troubleshooting that I was able to articulate how I felt myself to be fully on the path to de-fragmenting my mind-body connection, and that’s the best place to be!

Leyna Roget networks with community organizations and businesses to introduce the inspiring stories of Planet Progress and the developing works of iNDIGO PROjECT MEDIA. She captures on and off camera images for Blog posts, Twitter updates, and various other engaging platforms to bring the viewer into the company’s interconnected sphere. Leyna creates new outlets and sustainable community events that invite the public to interact with iPM.

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…]

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.