Self-Practice as the Foundation for Social Action: How to thrive and sustain personal well being in the field of yoga service.

To be engaged with skillful action in the world requires dedication, perseverance, wisdom and compassion. I’ll describe what I mean by these terms.

Dedication to a cause is a commitment fueled by enthusiasm and a conviction that we can make a difference to a particular person, circumstance or to society.

Perseverance is “persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success”[1] and may be ultimately understood as a reinforcing combination of conviction, a long-term view, patience and determination (firmness of purpose[2]).

Wisdom is the “quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.”[3] Is also Prajñā (Sanskrit) or paññā (Pāli) in Buddhism an understanding, discernment, insight, or cognitive acuity. “Such wisdom is understood to exist in the universal flux of being and can be intuitively experienced through meditation”. [4] Wisdom is required to see deeply into the nature of a problem, as well as to cultivate insight into the appropriate means of facilitating solutions; it is not rash or impulsive but thoughtful and considered.

Compassion emerges from three interrelated qualities:  the wisdom of seeing things as they are; an experiential understanding of interdependence (i.e. the absolute connection between ourselves and others); and a genuine concern for the welfare of all sentient beings.

A delicate balance is required to navigate the demands of social engagement, the active pursuit of relieving the suffering of others, and taking care of ourselves so that we can persevere amidst the challenges presented in the caregiving and social action fields. Without developing some sort of homeostasis in our own approach, we become susceptible to mental exhaustion, physical burn- out, and emotional fatigue. We find ourselves unable to give anymore to anyone. We lose our insight into the nature of self and other, take things personally when they aren’t, project our own issues onto others. We can also cripple our capacity for self-reflection, become inflamed with resentment or anger, or become physical and emotionally ill ourselves.

Neuroscience is catching up with ancient wisdom, discovering that compassion decreases the affects of stress and also increases social connectedness and kindness towards oneself and others. This is important to bear in mind when embarking on a commitment to serving as caregiver in the world; we must remain connected to each other and kind to ourselves or we might discover the effects of putting ourselves last, often referred to as compassion fatigue.

Neglecting our personal needs and practices are often rationalized by thinking we have too much to do or that others are more important— is typically a warning sign of impending collapse. We might take certain vows, or become attached to the idea of functioning as a bodhisattva – the Buddhist ideal of a munificent being who has vowed to return to earth to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings, putting off his or her own enlightenment until there is no suffering to be found in the world. However, a Bodhisattva is a practitioner, not a just a do-er. A Bodhisattva is on a path, specifically the Buddhist path, which includes practice and study in equal measures, as well as a determination to adhere to ethical guidelines (the Noble 8 fold path) aimed at maintaining a spiritual life with morality and integrity. If either practice or study begins to outweigh one another, there is the likelihood that one might become too purely conceptual— or conversely, more identified with expressing ‘love and light’ and less with cultivating and expressing grounded, practical wisdom. If we neglect ethical integrity, we lose sight of the greater good and goals.

But especially if we neglect to maintain a personal practice of contemplation, yoga, meditation and self- inquiry, we loose the opportunity to mine and renew our own direct experiences and keep up with and listen to our present personal needs. We might loose sight of our innate humanness and fallibility, feeling infallible or so driven that we fail to stop and feel. Without this inward exploration and kind consideration, our inner well of goodness can and will eventually go dry.

It is not uncommon among committed caregivers to feel that someone else deserves more than we do – or that someone else’s situation is more dire than our own; in fact, it is a beautiful expression of empathy and caring which keeps us at our best and in pursuit of helping others. But I’d like to suggest a simple change of perspective that might skillfully adjust that perception and create more personal internal health, balance, well -being and clear seeing.

To shift our view, we can begin with an understanding of interdependence. Interdependence is essentially a weave; it binds every being together like the gems in Indra’s great net[5]: Each individual being is a jewel woven into the net that reflects every other jewel, all sparkling and reflecting one another within the net of existence. To see ourselves as less deserving, less important or different than others, is to pluck ourselves out of the net and erroneously place ourselves in a separate category. When this becomes the case, we have fallen into delusion – perceiving ourselves as existing somehow outside the shared web of interdependence and beyond the category of ‘all sentient beings’. In such a case, we no longer recognize things as they are and this imbalance of perspective negatively influences our own capacity for well being and skillful understanding of ourselves and others.

By understanding our rightful place in the interconnected universe, we can begin to take care of ourselves within a new field of vision. Caring for ourselves becomes an act of kindness towards all beings, stripped of the guise of selfishness and opening into a profoundly effective and energizing mode of clear seeing and self-compassion. Taking care of our selves ripples outwardly as we develop a profound understanding of all beings. Through knowing our own mind, body and heart—which practice invites—the door of awareness to all minds, all bodies and every heart is opened. We recognize more deeply that the only differences between ourselves and others lie in the details of our unique story, the story that begins when we are born and distinguishes the self from other that is defined by our past and patterns of association. This story is a necessary component of survival in the world, but is not the whole truth of our being which is the essence that we all possess –a clear, infinite, spacious consciousness unburdened by the self.

Self compassion has been defined by K.D. Neff as “ being open to and moved by ones own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, non- judgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience” Neff, K. D. (2003a). [6]

Once we recognize our own spacious, clear nature, by observing our mind over time (as is taught and practiced in the Buddhist traditions), we clearly see the interdependent nature of all conditioned phenomena. This clear seeing is liberating on many levels; it frees us from the delusion of self and other; it is the ground from which compassion naturally arises; it connects us deeply with our own humanity and that of others; and propels us to take wise action in the world, which is at the fundamental root of compassion.
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.
~ Ranier Maria Rilke

If we maintain the right view of interdependence, we won’t disassociate ourselves from others; we do for ourselves what we would do for others and vice-versa. On the other hand, maintaining a cognitive and emotional distinction between self and other gives rise to pity and sympathy rather than empathy and compassion. Consciously or not, we do sense when someone pities us or feel better than or separate from us. A person who feels pitied won’t be open to compassionate assistance and the organic connection that might be available through the latter is obscured.

In order to cultivate compassion, we begin by developing moment-to- moment awareness, commonly referred to as mindfulness. Mindfulness is being in the present, and allowing what we notice to be gently held without grasping, clinging, disliking or desiring. We become attentive to whatever the present involves, rather than mindlessly wandering in our daydreams, views and commentaries. Mindfulness gives rise to wisdom, because when we see clearly we can make skillful choices about each moment and what it might require. We are no longer reacting but thoughtfully and wisely responding.

This way of being can’t just be approached as an intellectual exercise, however, as it isn’t just conceptual; it has to be practiced. For the theory to come alive and be lived, we must discover it in ourselves through direct experience. Concepts are important to create a foundation, and guidance, but direct experience is the only way to truly know something and not have to rely on blind faith. This inner wisdom grows from our practice of meditation and mindfulness in the world.  As one great enlightened Buddhist teacher, Milarepa illustrated by pulling his pants down to reveal a hard, leathery bottom to his student; truly awakening to our potential, our inner strength, beauty, and brilliance, requires sitting (on a cushion, or the ground) and practicing, not just thinking about the virtues and rewards of practice.

Of course, how we practice and what we practice changes over time if we are deeply listening and attuning to ourselves. Once we have developed a solid foundation– alignment in a yoga practice, and the ability to stay present on breath to focus the mind in meditation—we hold the fundamental tools for practice to become an art rather than a rote repetition of a lesson plan.

How to venture into our own internal depths to mine our own body and mind for the further understanding of others:

If we practice asana with a view of the breath as it occurs naturally, rather than using the tool of Ujjayyii, we not only can change our relationship to breath, but also rejuvenate our posture practice as psycho-spiritual reflection and an opportunity to take greater care of our selves.

At first, it might seem uncomfortable to not manipulate the breath – to elongate it, emphasize the retentions, etc. However, if we reflect on how the breath and the mind are inextricably linked, we can develop a more profound and enlivening experience by listening to our breath as it moves naturally in one pose and how it is in yet another.

Think of a posture as a shape or form, and the breath and mind as the content. Where does the mind/breath go in this particular shape? Just as importantly, where does it not go? Little by little we begin to distinguish where we like to breathe and where we don’t; but we can only witness this if we aren’t continually accentuating breath here or there – making it this long or that short—but by allowing it instead, to be as natural as possible. This I call Meditation in Motion; for in meditation practice, we are (primarily) watching the breath, not fixing or fiddling with it. In yoga asana we are used to moving the breath on purpose, regulating it either with gentleness, or light force, but not usually just letting it be.

Here are suggestions that will offer a new and possibly more personal view of your practice in 5 weeks time.

Week one: Changing the View

I suggest taking 5 postures that you know well—nothing too complicated, or too physically rigorous. As in meditation, we generally sit in a simple seated posture, so that our focus isn’t so fixed on the pose, but on the mind and the breath. Try this with your asanas: emphasize the content rather than the form. Don’t do any other practice first; allow yourself to experience yourself without the benefit of what you already know an asana practice offers (e.g. more room to breathe, more comfort in the body, more ease in the mind).

As you watch the movement of your breath in a posture, you are actually observing the movements of your mind and heart. The body reflects our thoughts and emotions; the body can become in effect, the physical shape of the mind and heart. Recognize that where your breath goes easily are the areas of your body in which or about which you are comfortable. Where it doesn’t or cannot flow easily, are the areas of some holding – either emotional, mental, or both. With time, the nature of the constriction can be revealed, but our first step is becoming familiar with the internal landscape of our home, our body.

Week Two: Moving the Mind

Using the same 5 postures, settle into them and imagine that your breath carries your mind into any area of the body that you like. As you draw a gentle breath into your right hip for instance, imagine this breath like a fresh breeze, lightly brushing the area of the hip, the internal crested shape, and the organs and glands that are in that area. Move your breath/mind/energy/consciousness/prana /chi/lung (Tibetan for mind and wind), everywhere you can imagine, and note all of the places that you can’t breathe into, or can’t imagine breathing into. Watch and observe how you feel during and after this moving of the mind. Listen to the thoughts that arise (make mental notes of them) and feel the emotions that might come up from either lingering in a particular area, or not being able to easily access an area.

Week Three: Staying with What Arises

Once you have discovered the areas of your internal landscape that aren’t so easily accessible, choose different postures to explore those areas. I suggest a restorative if possible, something that is very easy to stay in for a longer period of time. For instance, if you aren’t breathing into your heart area/chest very easily, roll a mat up and place it directly behind the heart center, a bit under your shoulder blades. Lie on this roll for at least 10 minutes.

As you are in the pose, imagine that you are simply pulling up a comfortable chair and ‘sitting’ inside this area. Just rest your awareness gently inside, returning your mind to this place over and over again every time you notice that you have wandered. Don’t expect anything to happen; simply ‘sit’ as if you were with a dear friend who needs you, and just being by their side in silence, is enough to provide ease.

Week four: Skillful Means

This week, begin to utilize this keen sense of awareness in an asana practice of your choice. As you fully occupy each posture with mindfulness, more patterns may reveal themselves: the desire to not pay attention, for instance, or the impulse to stay on one side less because of discomfort. As you begin to notice these relationships of mind and body, hold them very gently and kindly.

As you move from one posture to another, be mindful of the transition times as much as the periods in which you rest in the pose itself. These are very revealing moments, reflecting the internal adjustments that occur mainly unconsciously for example; when you step off the mat and move into the world, or how you are right before you enter a crowded room, or the moments after something is complete and you move to the next thing. Such moments have stories to tell about our habits of mind and heart. If you would like to re-introduce Ujjayyii, do so with this view of breathing into or towards the places that are beckoning your attention, rather than assuming your breath as it was before this experiment.

Week Five: Loving Kindness and Compassion

Now introduce Metta (loving kindness and compassion) into your practice. Begin in a seated posture or a restorative. Picture yourself as you are now or, as you were as a child. As you imagine yourself, with as much detail as possible, offer the following phrases to your self

May I be happy

May I be be joyful

May I be be peaceful

May I be healthy, in body, mind and heart

May I be be safe

May I be loved, and know I am loved

May I love others freely and abundantly

May I be forgiving

May I be at ease

May I be free from all suffering

[7]

 

You may repeat the phrases as many times as you like.

 

Next imagine that from deep within your heart, you can offer these phrases to all sentient beings – seen and unseen, born and yet to be born, human and animal, plants – everything on our planet and beyond.

 

May all beings be happy

May all beings be joyful

May all beings be peaceful

May all beings healthy, in body, mind and heart

May all beings be safe

May all beings loved, and know they are loved

May all beings love others freely and abundantly

May all beings be forgiving

May all beings be at ease

May all beings be free from all suffering

Imagine these sentiments radiating from your heart outwards in all directions. Sit quietly after this practice and allow your mind to rest on the coming and going of your breath for as long as you like.

This practice is very portable. I take a phrase and silently repeat it as I walk around the city; it’s a personal practice as well one that transcends the personal, as much about ourselves as we abide in the category of sentient beings, and ourselves as individuals. Both aspects co-exist beautifully together.

Practice the Metta phrases as they are, or add your own. You can repeat one or more phrases as you are practicing asana. Apply it as needed, whenever you hear yourself judge or criticize your self during your practice for instance, say, “May I be at ease” or “May I be loved”— whatever suits the moment. This is using what is called a skillful means, seeing things as they are and applying a skillful tool to work with what is.

As a recap of the practices: We began with simple, elegant noticing, how things were moment- to-moment, watching the breath without manipulating or changing it. Then we noticed where we were comfortable breathing, and the places where we weren’t yet.

Next, we deliberately and kindly moved awareness and breath to the areas we noted weren’t so easily accessed. By resting the mind in a particular place, slowly what ever it might have been holding could become known, or at least seen.

Finally, we apply loving kindness and compassion—toward ourselves to begin, then extending toward all sentient beings. So essentially we are practicing loving kindness and compassion for ourselves twice, as we are one of the ‘all sentient beings’.

These practices are among my favorites, they arose out of many years of my personal practice of yoga on silent meditation retreats, especially during the years I was suffering from chronic pain and illness. They have helped me transform a critical view of myself into a kinder more compassionate assessment and understanding. They provided me ways to turn my asana practice into “Meditation in Motion” so that I was mindful and training my mind as much as possible to stay present no matter what I was doing or feeling. As importantly, these practices have kept me interested in practicing, reflecting and taking kinder, more holistic care of myself – and, that I think might be their greatest gift.

I am a much better teacher because of these practices, and I dare say probably a healthier human being. I sincerely hope that you find treasures for yourself with this as a guide, so that you can remain healthy, vital and flourishing with the work you are doing in the world. You are an extremely valuable and integral part of this relatively new and still growing field of yoga service. Take excellent and kind care of yourself so that you last for many, many years to come.

As we continue on this path together, collectively becoming more mature and seasoned leaders in this field of work, remember that taking care today will offer you the chance to continue long enough to guide the next generation; as within each new generation there are the seeds of the previous generation. What you will be offering from your own experiences and practices will not just inform the next wave of those interested in continuing this work, but shape it’s future to hold the guidance of empowerment through self knowledge and direct experience. This is ultimately, the very best service we can offer to anyone.

Published in the Journal of Yoga Service Volume One, 2013

 

 

 



[1] Oxford Dictionary

[2] US Dictionary

[3] Oxford Dictionary

[4] Wikipedia Contributors. “Wisdom in Buddhism” 12 March, 2013

[5] “Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dewdrop contains the reflection of all the other dewdrops. And, in each reflected dewdrop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.” –Alan Watts  “ Following the Middle Way #3” alanwattspodcast.com, 2008-08-31

 

[6] Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250, 2003. K.D.Neff ISSN: 1529-8876

[7] These phrases may be found on my CD: Vajra Yoga + Meditation: Meditation for Beginners Volume 2.

By |2014-02-27T18:36:07+00:00February 27th, 2014|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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