Meditation’s unexpected gift

The ancient yogis used meditation as a route to samadhi, the state of oneness with all things which is the yogic version of enlightenment. In fact, of the eight limbs of yoga according to Patanjali, four of them are steps along this route: pratyahara (withdrawing the senses from distractions around us), dharana (concentration on one object), dhyana (steadfast meditation), and samadhi (a state of oneness).

As I embarked on my own journey with meditation, I naturally set my goal as achieving samadhi. I did realize that this was a long, slow process that would require much practice, but that was my goal—that blissful state of oneness beyond thought, a place where I could just BE free of the chatter of my mind.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that meditation had an entirely different gift in store for me.

As I sit on my mat and focus on my breath, my monkey mind goes chattering off in a hundred different directions at once. I breathe and just watch this noisy parade of thoughts march by—not trying to stop the flow or change the nature of the thoughts—just observing them from a neutral, curious place. I’m slowly learning to not follow any of the thoughts, not grab them, not fight them, not judge them. This process produced two amazing discoveries for me.

First, I am not my thoughts. There is something that is ME that is observing those thoughts. This something—yoga calls it parusa, others may call it the higher self or the soul or the witness consciousness, I call it my curious observer-self—is unswayed by my thoughts. It simply IS.

Second, my thoughts are a jumble of chattering nonsense stemming from a whole crowd of personas that I commonly confuse as being my “self.” This stuff isn’t even coming from something real! And it’s definitely not objective truth that I need to listen to or believe. Who knew? (So much for Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”!)

As someone who has spent so much of her life living in her head, this discovery that my thoughts are not only not ME, but they’re not even “real” is mindblowing. In fact, it’s been amazingly freeing…completely transformative even.

Someday I may reach samadhi if I keep coming back to my mat long enough. Then again, I may not. And, you know, that’s really ok with me. The joyful, amazing freedom I’ve found in discovering my curious observer-self and letting go of my slavery to my thoughts is worth every moment I ever have and ever will spend in meditation.

What a valuable gift!

Second darts

One powerful concept from Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (affiliate link) that I have already made good use of is the concept of second darts. What is a second dart?

Authors Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius describe things that happen to us as the first dart. Our reactions to the first dart become the second darts, and these second darts are the ones that cause the most suffering. These second darts are usually the ways in which we begin to ascribe meaning to the first dart.

For example, let’s say that I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch, and my friend never showed up. Her non-appearance is a first dart; it is what happened. If I go on to tell myself things about this first dart like “she is so irresponsible” or “she must not value our friendship” or “she doesn’t care about me” or “she sure is rude to me,” these would all be second darts. These are all stories and meanings that I am creating in my thoughts to explain to myself why the first dart occurred. And it is these second darts that cause me the real suffering.

Even worse, we sometimes create second darts even when good things happen to us. Perhaps someone compliments us, and we automatically dismiss their praise thinking that they must not be seeing the situation accurately. “Surely if they really knew me, they wouldn’t say anything so nice,” we think. (Goodness knows how often I’ve done that!)

The book provides a good deal of detail about what happens in our brains when we do this. It’s fascinating stuff, but I won’t even try to cover all that here. They go on to talk about how we can change this pattern, which is enormously useful information.

So far, though, I am just noticing these second darts when they occur. Even just the noticing a second dart for what it is gives me enough distance from it to keep it from causing as much suffering. It gives me that space to consider whether it’s really worth holding onto the thought embedded in that second dart. Most of the time (perhaps all of the time?), it’s not.

Watch your thoughts this coming weekend. Where are you creating second darts?

Do you know where your body is?

That sounds like such a silly question. Of course we all know where our bodies are! Except for the rare out-of-body experiences, we are stuck in our bodies all the time in this life.

And yet, most of us spend so much time in our heads that we often aren’t really as aware of what our bodies are doing as you might think we are. How often are you really conscious of your posture? Are you truly sitting properly in this moment? Are your ears in alignment with your shoulders?

The more I practice yoga, the greater my body awareness has become over time. And yet, I will still sometimes practice a posture in front of a mirror and discover that my body is not doing the posture the way I had thought it was.

I may think I’m performing janu sirsasana (head-to-knee pose) with a flat back until I see in the mirror that I am unknowingly curving my spine forward in the attempt to get closer to my legs. I may think I’m keeping both sides of my torso long and flat in trikonasana (triangle pose) until the mirror—or a photograph—shows me how much much my ribs are curving. These are just two recent examples of things I have discovered that told me that my perception of where my body was and where my body really was didn’t match up.

I see this with my students as I teach sometimes too. I may offer verbal cues about a posture to encourage a student to perform it with greater safety, but it becomes clear that the student thinks they are doing exactly what I am telling them when they are not. Sometimes a gentle touch to assist the student can help when words do not, and sometimes it just takes time for the body understanding to grow. I am still growing in my own body awareness after all these years as I continue to show up on the mat.

This increased body awareness is one of the many gifts of yoga as we come to greater awareness of how we are truly holding and moving our bodies and a greater understanding of how we can improve the ways we hold and move our bodies to maximize our strength and alignment. The next time you are on the mat, see if you can bring a heightened level of awareness to your body. Notice how you are holding your body in each posture. Focus on the ways that you are moving. You may be surprised at what you learn!

Quieting the chatter of the mind

The Yoga Sutras are a series of brief sayings (sutra means thread) that were written down by a yogi named Patanjali about 2500 years ago as a means of recording the basics of what the yogis at that time had learned about yoga and the yogic way of life. There are numerous translations from the original Sanskrit into English, and most of these translations come with their own set of commentaries on these short threads of insight.

One of my favorites of these sayings is Yoga Sutra 1.2 in which Patajali gives the definition of yoga. I’ve seen numerous long-winded and eloquent translations of this, but the one that is most meaningful to me is “Yoga is the ability to quiet the chatter of the mind.” What a simple definition, but what a challenging task for each of us to learn!

Although most people think of the physical postures when they think of yoga, it’s all really about learning to quiet the chatter of the mind. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished that I had a switch on the side of my head where I could just turn off my mind for a little while to gain a little peace and quiet—just a moment of stillness away from the rushing whirlwind of thought that barrels through my head every waking minute. So what a gift it is as I grow into my yoga practice to catch glimpses of this ability to quiet the chatter of the mind.

I still have a long way to go, but as I come back to my mat again and again to practice the postures, linking body and mind through the breath, I increasingly catch the spaces between the thoughts. I find more ability to notice them and let them fly on by without engaging any energy in them. I am more and more able to be present in this moment, in this space, in my body. I am able to take that step back and be a witness of my own thoughts.

This freedom from the tyranny of the mental chatter is what keeps me coming back to the mat, coming back to learn the ability to quiet the chatter of the mind.

Counteracting our sitting habits

We have become a very sedentary culture. Most of us spend much of work day sitting, we spend increasing amounts of time sitting in the car in traffic and commuting, and we spend more and more of our leisure time sitting in front of glowing screens. We’ve heard a lot about how this increase in sedentary behavior affects our health in decreased exercise and increased weight, but that’s not the only problem.

Our bodies really weren’t designed to spend this much time in a seated position. Sitting is actually hard on our bodies, and few of us spend the time we do sit in good seated postures. We slouch, we lean forward with rounded shoulders as we sit at the computer, we sit with our spine out of alignment. Not only is this hard on our musculoskeletal system, it also affects our ability to breathe well. We wind up taking shallower breaths that increase our stress levels and deprive our bodies and brains of the oxygen we need.

How can yoga help counteract all of these issues? A yoga practice allows the opportunity to move our bodies in ways that balance out all of the sitting we do. In addition, yoga postures can make us more aware of what proper alignment feels like, so we are more likely to remember to check our alignment as we sit during the day. We also develop a stronger ability to be aware and observant of our bodies, so we are quicker to notice our poor posture or shallow breathing so we can correct it.

The beauty of yoga is that we don’t have to wait for these benefits until we have time to do a full yoga practice on the mat. Yoga is a way of being that we can take with us even into the office. Ana Forrest shares some great ideas of simple exercises that can be done in our office chairs in her article titled How to Exercise While You Sit. Try these out and see how much better you can feel even if you can’t avoid sitting!