Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Practice as an inner radio, character self-lobotomy, more asshole meditations

This morning, I woke up with a very troubled and anxious mind. I felt weighed down by some practical and personal things that have been bugging me lately. I'm not going to bore you with the details of what they involve; suffice to say that they are personal enough to bug me deeply, and at the same time practical and immediate enough to allow me no room to ignore them (or so it seemed at the time). At any rate, because of my state of mind, I really did not feel like doing my practice this morning. Heck, I thought, no amount of Surya Namaskar, or getting into a deep Kapotasana, or even finally being able to come back up from Karandavasana is going to change all these things, are they? So, really, why bother?

I listened to this inner whine for a couple of minutes, and then went ahead and did the practice anyway. And I am really thankful I did. The things that were bothering me did not magically go away, but there was a semi-magical transformation of the way the world appeared to me. Somehow, something inside me had shifted somewhere between that first Surya A and Utpluthih, so that by the end of practice, the things that were bothering me seemed more tangible and manageable, and less overwhelming than they did when I first got out of bed this morning.

I believe that many practitioners have had such semi-magical experiences at various times in their daily practices: Indeed, I'm almost certain that experiences like this are what make the practice and its attendant rigors and schedule-adjusting demands worth our while, in the final analysis. But what makes such experiences possible? What kind of shift or transformation happened between that first Surya A and Utplutih, so that one is almost literally not the same person between one point in time and the other?

One response to this question is to appeal to sheer biology: The physical practice releases endorphins into the system, so that we feel more "relaxed" or "high" at the end of it. On this level, doing the practice would really not be that different from, say, going for a run. Actually, it might not be that different from directly injecting endorphins (or endorphin-inducing substances) into the system, come to think of it.

Which is not to say there is anything wrong with having an endorphin high. It's a perfectly respectable thing to have. But perhaps one wants a more... yogic response. In which case, the question might be: Does the practice do anything to the mind and the spirit to bring about this semi-magical transformation?

From my own practice experience, and from reading and listening to others' practice experiences, it seems to me that there are two ways of answering this question:

(1) By making the effort to overcome inertia and get onto the mat and practice, one is able to get to a place of higher (more evolved?) energy. From this place of higher energy, one is then able to see what was troubling one before with a bigger and broader perspective, and be less overwhelmed by it. If I remember correctly, somewhere in his book, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness, Erich Schiffmann describes it this way: If you think of the journey of life as a drive on the freeway, then yoga practice is like a radio that tells you about the road conditions ahead, so that you can "see" further and have a bigger perspective, and be better prepared and secure about what is coming. So, perhaps somewhere between the first Surya A and Utplutih, my "inner radio" got turned on, and I became more aware of where my problems stand in the universe in relation to me. Equipped with this awareness, I became more secure and less fearful about what's out there.

Which underscores the importance of the practice to daily life. Somebody once asked some senior teacher (I can't recall exactly who this is; having a bad memory day :-)) how he could possibly have the time to practice, given all his teaching and other commitments. He said, "I don't have the time; but that's why I practice." To him, the practice wasn't just some optional activity that one does when one has the time; it is precisely when one doesn't have the time that one needs the practice the most. Interesting paradox, no? :-) 

(2) In the course of doing the practice, problems that are not so important simply fall away. I've heard many yogis' experiences of how the practice enabled them to overcome certain not-so-desirable habits (smoking, etc.). There is a common thread running through most of their accounts: It's not so much that one overcomes the undesirable habit in question. The habit simply falls away from one, so that one day, one simply notices that the habit (smoking, for example) isn't so desirable anymore, starts indulging in it less and less, and eventually stops doing it.

I wonder if a similar thing could be happening, on a smaller scale, with our day-to-day worries on the mat. Perhaps this morning, in the course of doing my practice, the things that were bugging me lost their hold on me, and simply "fell away" by the time I finished my practice. Is this possible?

Well, maybe I should also relate this line of thought to my recent asshole meditations. Is it also possible for certain character traits to kind of "fall away" from one with regular practice over a period of time (maybe over the course of many years?); so that, for example, one's asshole characteristics naturally and gradually fall away from one over time? Or--to borrow a phrase that Grimmly used in his latest comment on Bindy's recent post--is it possible that practice causes one's character to undergo a self-lobotomy and get rid of those parts of it that make one less effective in the world? Of course, in saying this, I am making a couple of assumptions: I am assuming that being an asshole (a) is an undesirable character trait, and (b) makes one less effective in the world. To date, neither of these assumptions have been proven. But nevertheless, this is at least something interesting to think about, wouldn't you say?

It could also be that, in the end, (1) and (2) are not two different answers, but simply two different aspects of what is essentially the same thing. That's possible, but I don't know for sure. As usual, I'm just thinking aloud here. If you have anything to share, I'll love to hear from you.



  1. This has got to be one of my favorite blog post titles, ever.

    But, #1-2 skirt the real questions. Many things might "overcome inertia" - e.g., going for a walk. But what is it about yoga that might "evolve your energy"? And, what is it about yoga that might make less important issues "fall away"?

    Even if we observe it happening, this doesn't constitute an explanation as to WHY it is happening . . .

  2. Yes, Carol, observing something happening does not by itself constitute an explanation. The "real" explanation, I suspect, would involve something along the lines of changing the grooves of samskara, although I do not know enough yoga philosophy at this point to be absolutely certain about this.

    But perhaps #1 and #2 might yet be fruitful starting points, even if they do not in themselves constitute explanations? After all, in my understanding, yoga is an empirical science; but unlike much of western science, the empirical investigation of yoga focuses much more on introspective experience (what is going on, as felt by the practitioner) than on objective, measurable phenomena.

  3. I love this post. I have had the same experiences. Do you think part of it is the process of doing something that you do pretty well, and enjoy, while always being aware that you are working to improve it? A certain equanimity and triumph results from that, and a certain perspective.

  4. Yes, Anonymous, perhaps the fact that I am doing something that I do pretty well and enjoy might have something to do with my experience. But I think it is more than that. Lots of people who do not consider themselves "good" at yoga (at least asana-wise) have also reported experiencing both #1 and #2 as a result of their practices. Perhaps it's not so much a matter of doing something well (or even, dare I suggest, enjoying it) as it is a matter of losing one's self in the activity, at least for that duration of time. Perhaps (and I stress "perhaps", because I'm not entirely sure myself) this is when the yoga, the union of self with something greater than it, happens.