Yoga and Meditation
"On this path no effort is wasted, no gain is ever reversed; even a little of this practice will shelter you from great sorrow...However men try to reach me, I return their love with my love; whatever path they may travel, it leads to me in the end."
It wasn’t long after I began a regular practice of yoga that I noticed very clearly how my own mind was causing me suffering. I was walking in the woods with my dog one morning- which could have offered me a perfect opportunity to release some of the tension that had been building up for me in the past week. I remember feeling as I walked that I just didn’t have enough time to myself, and the feeling was oppressive rather than appreciative for the walk I was taking right then- alone, but for the dog. This line of thinking soon settled into a state of perseverating over a planned get-together with a particular friend, who often expressed intense emotional neediness.
I spent at least fifty minutes of my one-hour walk dreading this get-together, festering about the demands made by the people around me, bemoaning the lack of solitude in my life. I was caught up in the stream of my thoughts. It wasn’t until later reflection that I became aware of the suffering my thoughts had created.
So how can yoga and meditation help us out of these ways of thinking that cause us stress? I think the process begins with the very awareness that it is our thoughts which cause us stress. For me, the practice of yoga--becoming aware of my body and my breath, slowing down and becoming mindful, created a fertile ground in which I could observe myself and my thoughts more fully.
This awareness which began in yoga class moved “off the mat” and into my life. This awareness can be called “witness” mentality--the part of us that observes our thoughts and our actions without judgement, just notices “what is” in each moment. We begin to untangle ourselves from our sticky thought patterns by noticing our thoughts and creating the awareness that we are not our thoughts.
From this place of observing “what is” we can witness some of the habitual ways that our mind works. We may notice how we tend to fixate on certain interactions in either positive or negative ways. Sitting in meditation affords us a perfect opportunity to observe the flow and movement of our thoughts. We don’t sit in stillness to stop the thoughts, but rather to notice “what is” without judgement.
Sometimes I find it useful to picture my thoughts as sediment stirred up in a pool of water. No thought is a true reflection of who I am in essence, but rather a distraction, a stirring up. If I sit without resistance or attachment to any particular thought, the thoughts eventually settle down and allow a feeling of opening up to clarity, creating an image of clearer water, of limitlessness of increased stillness.
The practice of meditation affords us the opportunity to become aware of our true nature--that aspect of ourselves that is always peaceful, always accepting, and always calm. In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki refers to this as our “big mind” or “Buddha mind” and explains that this is our natural state. I agree with him that this is our natural state and also concur that in order to recognize this truth more fully than we might habitually, we need to exert “right effort.” Through the practice of meditation, the process of observing ourselves without judgement, we can make this “right effort.”
This “right effort” of meditation can allow us to connect with the essential nature of who we are, the place of stillness and calm that is always present within us. By turning our attention to our thoughts, we can use our observation as an opportunity to “clean house”; create more space for an awareness of this “calm abiding” self. When we notice thought patterns that don’t serve us, that cause us stress and suffering, we can invite ourselves to move deeper into our “big mind.” We can experience, through the silent and simple practice of sitting in meditation, that we are not our thoughts, captivating as they may be. Our reality is more inclusive than any story (good or bad) that our mind may currently be telling us.
The goal of meditation is not to get anywhere, but to more fully experience the reality of exactly where we are in each moment; to become more fully ourselves in the truest sense. When our mind becomes liberated, through awareness and observation, from our habitual patterns of thinking, we can shift into that place of openness and acceptance.
Regular meditation practice is essential to creating healthier thought patterns; as the tendency of the mind is to return to its habitual patterns. It takes regular practice, “right effort,” to remember and embody more fully our true nature. There are still times when I notice my mind slipping into patterns of thinking that increase my stress, but more and more often when I find myself there, I turn my attention to the “big mind.” Even while I am aware of a part of me that might be worrying about the future or the past, there is another broader awareness reminding me of the perfection of each moment. It is this awareness of my essential self--the self that is beyond thoughts in any form, the self that is always calm and peaceful--that summons me back to my practice of yoga and meditation each morning.