mindfulness

Life Is Spiritual Practice

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Lao Tzu said, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Sound advice for any age. And to live this advice, is to live the life of a Sage.

I am living the life of a human striving to live the life advised by the Sage. It isn’t so easy for me to let things flow. Instead I make plans. All too often I make plans for my day ahead just to be thwarted by the unexpected. No matter how precisely I control my life, things happen. Mail isn’t delivered. Traffic makes me late. The line at the bank takes three times longer than I’d expected it would. My dog is sick and must go to the vet. I receive a call that someone close to me has died. The list goes on. Life happens and pushes my plans off the tracks. I think most of us experience life like this. Most of us make plans because making plans helps us to navigate the unknown. Making plans is easier than letting things flow. That’s because by nature, humans believe that if we let things flow we are even more likely to be thrown off the tracks, or even worse, killed.

Darwin capitalized on this fact, that which is fittest – survives. Through our evolution humans have adapted to be on the alert for dangerous surprises that could kill us. Human brains are prone to be cautious and ready for a bad situation, skeptical of new potentially dangerous situations, and attached to the beliefs of what has proven to keep them alive, in order to not get killed. The history of human civilization tells this story on repeat.

And yet we continue to make plans. It’s not that making plans is bad its more that making plans sets us up for disappointment when life has other plans for us. No matter how well any of us knows this we continue to make plans to mediate an implicit and often explicit fear of the unknown and react to life when our plans go awry. We make plans because the mind is fast, capable, and ultimately fallible. Most choices are made in an instant, without second thought or rationalization. Reaction follows when our idea of reality is confronted. Some react to life as victims of a merciless God’s meaningless whims. Others as dominators constantly striving to force their will upon the world. Reacting is the norm and responding a much uncharted territory. Reacting is a symptom of a weak mind.

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I think it is fair to say that we all do our best to not spend our lives in weak minded reactions, yet fear and reacting is the norm. With so many of us walking through life with long to-do lists and little time for anything else, it is no wonder the human population struggles with excess stress and anxiety overall. None of us help an already difficult situation by living busy lifestyles packed with stress and overwhelm, but we all do it. We have evolved to direct our lives in a way which keeps us alive but not in a way that mitigates our fear and reduces our stress.

This is why I continue to turn to my yoga mat. This is why I daily invite others to join me. Not because I want all the people I know to touch their forehead to the sole of their foot while balancing on their hands, but because yoga heals the reactionary mind and the serves its seeking curiosity. Yoga helps us get into the flow by teaching us how to quiet the fluctuations of the mind stuff. Responding, not reacting, is a result of awareness and mindfulness practice and is an example of a strong mind. Yoga trains the mind to be strong.

Weak mind reacts to life happening with fear. Fear of the unknown and the weak mind’s penchant to write stories of why, how, should have, etc. in that fear, is one of the minds common states, Vikalpa. In yoga philosophy the five mental modifications  are named in Yoga Sutra 1:6.

Pramana Viparyaya Vikalpa Nidra Smrtayah

“The five mental modifications are right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep, and memory.”

Writing theater dramas in the mind of situations from the past and how they should, or could have happened is an example of Vikalpa. Day dreaming, fantasizing about future events, or thinking that the elephant in the room does not exist are examples of Vikalpa. Vikalpa is delusional fantasizing and not life enhancing nor healthy for a human mind or spirit and must not be confused with the practice of Sankalpa - meditative visualization, which is life enhancing.  Vikalpa are thoughts and imaginings that are not connected to abiding awareness, rather they are fragmented and demanding to be knit into a valuable whole.

A weak mind learns to choose a response by first being challenged, then exercised, all while held to strict standards and nourished with kindness and love. To sincerely mitigate fear the weak mind must be confronted and its habitual reactive nature opposed. Without opposition toward the habits of the weak mind one cannot effectually move out of reaction and into response. Until a person learns they have a choice to respond to life rather than react they will experience life through the lens of their Vikalpas.

Vikalpas are trains of thought that can and do take our lives off the tracks, but they can also be worked with and resolved. One way to work with Vikalpas is to ask yourself while you are experiencing a Vikalpa, why you want to run away with the fantasy and story you are telling yourself? What is the motivation? What is the pay-off? Another practice is to engage in a dialogue with yourself in which you contemplate the usefulness of your fantasizing and storytelling. A third practice, which can begin the process of disengaging from the bound cycle of Vikalpa, is to ask yourself where the fantasies will lead to. These basic practices bring attention to the mindlessness and destructive nature of Vikalpa. They also bring attention to the weak minds anchors and provide insight into where the weak mind needs additional strengthening.

            Over time, and with effort the mind can be trained to look for the good before looking for that which will kill it. By turning your gaze at the dysfunctional behaviors of your mind you becomes attentive to them and they can no longer act out like criminals with no accountability. Following attention to the negative behaviors of the mind, the mind learns to choose a state of response when life happens, though it may have no choice of the circumstances of experience. This is the practice of the strong mind. A strong mind can experience stillness and peace amidst a torrential world swirling about it. A strong mind knows how to get into the flow of life and let reality be reality. A strong mind is at the heart of Spiritual practice.

Spiritual practice is not fulfilling the obligations of your dogma, it is opening to the flow and getting into life’s current. Spiritual practice is stillness. Spiritual practice is the trust that in yielding, you are receiving. Spiritual practice is a fearless faith that your prayers will always be answered. Spiritual practice is acceptance of all the gifts bestowed upon you in your short magical life, no matter how they present themselves. Spiritual practice is being happy you have what you have, all the time, no matter what it is. Spiritual practice is all abiding awareness of and reverence to the magnanimity and beneficence of the Divine. Life is spiritual practice. Peace is a strong mind’s reward.

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Peace comes through gentle persistence. A gentle and persistent practice of mental confrontation will teach the mind to be strong and respond with spaciousness. Like any muscle training the mind will, overtime, become more capable. Eventually revealing the mind of the sage, consciously surrendering to the current that it cannot control, from the heart, with unconditional love. For peace, surrender is the only practice and so the invitation is, to let life flow.

With Love, Always, In all ways, For Giving, In Joy,

Genevieve

Photos Courtesy: Sue Hunt, Sean Ratliff, and me.

 

 

Crystals and Ruts

            Words have power. Words are a form of energetic vibration which modulate other energetic vibrations. This is what makes mantra so powerful. The repetition of a vibration changes the vibration of the one repeating it.

            Many people are now familiar with Masuro Emoto, the Japanese scientist who studied the powerful vibrational relationship between words and water. He photographed water in crystalline forms after it had been in the company of a word for an extended period. The vibration of the word, even without being spoken, was powerful enough to leave a mark on the crystal. His experiments explored a variety of words, higher vibrating ones such as love and caring as well as lower vibrating ones such as hate, and stupid. The higher vibrating words made more beautiful and elaborate crystals, while the crystals of the lower vibrating words were almost always fragmented and incomplete.

            In one of his books he discussed an experiment completed by school children in Japan. In the experiment, the children put into three jars a generous amount of cooked rice. The jars were sealed and left by the door to the home. Each day, as the children would enter and depart from the home they would greet one jar with kind and caring words, another with cruel and hurtful words, and the third with no words at all. Because the rice had been cooked it began a fermenting process in the jars. The jars that were spoken to kindly took the longest to ferment and grow mold. One would expect that the jars which were spoken to with hurtful words would ferment the quickest, however, that is not true. The rice which got no attention at all fermented rapidly, while the rice that was spoken to with cruelty took a week or so longer to rot. Words have power.

            It is valuable to acknowledge from this experiment that when no energy is given to a thing, whether high in vibration or not, that thing loses vibration rapidly. It is also valuable to recognize that words of lower vibration will increase the rate of decay of an energy that is already compromised.

            The mind is fallible, humans are fallible. Take for example the availability heuristic which is a judgment bias. Quite simply it is a mental shortcut that the mind takes to resolve a problem based on the information that is most available to answer that problem. For instance, recall your assumption that the rice spoken to cruelly would be the quickest to ferment in the argument presented above. Based on the information that was presented to you before the results of the experiment it was an easy leap to decide that the vibration of cruelty would be more harmful than the vibration of indifference. However, your assumption was not evidence that cruelty was more harmful than indifference. Rather, it was just your mind using the information most readily available to it to quickly leap to a judgement. To avoid the failings of the availability heuristic we must ask ourselves how reliable is the information we are working with?

            Words not only enhance and deplete energetic vibrations, they also create illusions and delusions. The availability heuristic is a form of delusion. It is the formulation of a belief based on incomplete or false information. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali these kinds on mental delusions are addressed:

Yoga Sutra 1:9

ŚABDAJNĀNĀNUPĀTĪ VASTU ŚŪNYO VIKALPAH.
An image that arises on hearing mere words without any reality [as its basis] is verbal delusion.

            Verbal delusions and judgment biases are valuable for contemplation because, while the creation of the belief or understanding of the situation is merely a delusion it will leave an impression on the mind, much like the water crystals of Masuro Emoto. The practice of yoga is about so much more that moving the body into strange and interesting shapes. Beyond the impressions of comfort and discomfort, like and dislike, is the opportunity to explore the ruts carved out by the delusions and misconceptions of the human experience. Getting to know the trappings of the mind and the minds ability to liberate itself from those trappings is the great gift of yoga. To know the power of the vibration of the words that move through you and to use those words mindfully, like planting seeds, pulling weeds, and watering a garden.

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The Force is with You

 The mind is fallible. More and more this is being proven by science. Biases and cognitions which enable the mind to think quickly also disable the mind from thinking logically, rationally, and with accuracy. This is not all the time, but probably, most of the time.

            Many spiritual teachings speak to the fallibility of the mind. This is fascinating in many ways as most spiritual schools have been around for centuries and these scientific discoveries that prove the value of their teachings have only come about in recent decades. For example;

Yoga Sutra 1:8 Viparyayo Mithyananam Atadrupa Pratistham

Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based upon its true form.

            A simple explanation of this Sutra is to consider a time when you saw a figure in the dark that looked like a person looming creepily in the shadows. In fear perhaps you recoiled, asked someone else to awake and go look at it, grabbed something to protect yourself with, and then hid. I have done this. Then perhaps you or the someone whom you awoke turned on a light only to find it was a coat hanging just the right way with a hat and shadows dancing to create the illusion of danger. This is an exaggerated example but I think you get the picture.

            In the world of psychology and behavioral economics cognitive biases are the realms of thought that lead to deviations from good and rational judgement, i.e. lead to misconceptions. The list of currently known and confirmed cognitive biases is too long to include here, but is easy enough to research on your own if you are interested. What is interesting about this research is the evidence that it is a part of the neural wiring of the brain to make jumps that lead to error. Even more interesting is the capacity of the brain to become aware of error and reset its course to clarity.

            This is where yoga or any mindfulness practice comes in. A consistent and committed pursuit toward more mindfulness and therefore away from failures or missteps of cognition can and will lead to less misconceptions. Patanjali's sutras recommend eight steps toward this goal.

  1. Yama :  Ways of being with community
  2. Niyama :  Ways of being with self
  3. Hatha Yoga :  Asana
  4. Pranayama :  Breathing exercises, and control of prana
  5. Pratyahara :  Control or withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana :  Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
  7. Dhyana :  Devotion, Meditation
  8. Samadhi :  Union with the Divine/ Ultimate Liberation

            The pursuit of step eight as well as the course set by all eight steps aw a journey away from misconception and disabling cognitive biases is a life long, or even multi-lifelong journey. How many successes you achieve, or how many times you misstep along the way are easy distractions, yet not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to know yourself. To know you are human and therefore fallible and imperfect, and to also know that in the company of your imperfections you are also Divine and perfect. To live in this world of paradox, misconception, and unanswered questions, and to find peace in the midst of torrent that is life. This is the ultimate aim as well as the gift of the work. 

With Love, always, in all ways, for giving, in joy!

Genevieve