Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Feeling, Emotion, Health Scare, the gift of a disability

I have not written anything on this blog for close to a week now. Why? Honestly, I don't know: It's probably a combination of life, stuff that happens in life, and whatever else it is that prevents me from wanting to blog, the origin and nature of which are unknown to me. But if we must have some kind of semi-coherent story about why I am not blogging so regularly, the closest thing I can come up with would be something that I just read over at Patrick's blog. Patrick has been documenting his experiences and feelings at a Matthew Sweeney immersion that he's attending right now. By the way, if you haven't studied with Master Sweeney before, I highly recommend it: He's very Yoda-like in his powerful insights :-)

Anyway, there is one thing that Sweeney said at the immersion that really struck a chord with me. Here's how Patrick relates it:

'Later in Q-and-A I would ask about negative stuff (fear, panic) in sitting; I'm used to it by now in asana, but in sitting, I'm not. He [Sweeney] said, "Well, humans have mess; this is entering the mess. But be careful not to turn FEELINGS, which are embodied and quite healthy, into EMOTIONS, which is how the mind ramps up feelings." I liked that. I like the idea of engaging the mess, and I've had this in asana for over two years. And I like this idea that sensation, feeling, is pure and healthy, while EMOTIONS are a sort of conceptualized feeling, the mind ramping up our feelings, sort of exaggerating them. Matthew also made it very clear: KEEP OBSERVING.'

I really think that Sweeney's words really speak to blogging: Isn't blogging (at least my blogging) a process of putting feelings into words, thus conceptualizing them and turning them into emotions? If so, might blogging inadvertently add to my emotional baggage (and by extension, yours, since you are reading this)? Hmm... I wonder if this is why I have consciously or unconsciously been blogging less: Why conceptualize that which does not need to be conceptualized?


But now that I am actually blogging (and conceptualizing) again, the floodgates have been opened, if only temporarily. So I may as well blog and conceptualize some more :-) And actually, I do have something to say about my practice this morning in connection with this. Over the last couple of months, I've noticed that I have come to regard Kapotasana as less and less of a challenging posture. I wasn't sure why this is so. Perhaps it's because the intensity of Kapotasana fades when compared in my mind's eye to Chakrabandhasana, which is what is really pushing me to my limits right now in my practice. This may be true. But this morning, when I was exiting Kapotasana, it suddenly occurred to me that on a purely visceral physical level, Kapotasana is no less challenging than it has always been, even if I have been able to get deeper into the posture with more ease now than, say, a year ago or even half a year ago: I still feel those really intense sensations in my back and in my front body, and it still takes quite a bit of work to steady my breath when I am in the posture. The difference, I realize, is that I tend to hold Kapotasana less tightly in my mind's eye (if this makes any sense); I basically do the posture, feel the intense sensations that it brings up, and then move to the next posture (Supta Vajrasana). Because I hold it less tightly in my mind's eye, there is less of an energetic shading around the posture, and my mind has come to regard it as less of a challenging posture, even if visceral physical intensity of the posture itself hasn't actually changed. This brings us back to what Sweeney was saying: The intense feeling will always be there. But if you conceptualize the feeling and hold it in your mind's eye longer than you have to, the feeling becomes ramped up into an emotion, and acquires an energetic shading all its own. Interesting, no?


I had a bit of a health scare yesterday. Around noon, I was looking closely at myself in the bathroom mirror (yes, I love looking at myself in the mirror :-)) when I noticed a blood-red spot in my eye just below the pupil. That really worried me, so I went online and googled "blood red spot on eye". WebMD then proceeded to inform me that I probably had what is known as a Subjunctival Hemorrhage, a.k.a. bleeding in the eye. F%$k! My eye is bleeding! was my first thought on seeing those words. But then it went on to assure me that in most cases, this is probably quite harmless, and is probably caused by forceful sneezing or coughing or rubbing of the eyes induced by seasonal allergies, and should clear up on its own. This made me feel a little better, but only a little, because I don't really remember sneezing or coughing very hard or rubbing my eyes in the recent past. And besides, trying to self-diagnose something is almost always a bad idea. So I went to my optometrist immediately. They ran a few tests on my eyes (checking eye pressure, etc.) and looked in my eyes with a microscope, after which the optometrist told me, to my great relief, that it really was a seasonal allergy. I could treat it with some eye drops, or simply wait for it to clear up on its own. I chose the latter.

My eyes have always been a source of anxiety to me: I am very near-sighted, and have been near-sighted since the age of eight. I am always very painfully conscious of the fact that if not for two pieces of glass in front of my eyes, my world would be an indistinct, hazy patchwork of color. But after this health scare yesterday, I took a little time to reflect on this condition of mine, and am reminded of the fact that ironically, my being near-sighted has almost certainly saved me from going blind at least twice in my life. The first time was when I was nine. I was playing and running around in a parking lot with my younger brother when I tripped and fell on my face. I landed face-first on a sharp corner of a concrete slab, which impacted my glasses and inflicted a big scratch on the lenses. As you can probably imagine, if I weren't wearing glasses at the time, my eyes would almost certainly have been on the receiving end of that scratch. The second incident happened when I was nineteen and doing my military service (in Singapore, where I was born and grew up, you have to serve in the military for two years after high school if you are a male citizen). On this particular day, a bunch of us in my platoon were doing some work with barb wire: If I remember correctly, we were setting a barb-wire barricade for an exercise. Anyway, this guy in front of me was trying to twist some barb-wire into shape when he lost his grip, and the entire length of wire sprung into my face. Somehow, the wire hit my glasses, and dropped harmlessly to the ground, leaving a big gash on the lenses. None of us thought much of it at the time: We probably even joked about my having an excuse now to go get some cooler-looking glasses from my optometrist, now that my glasses are broken. But a while later, thinking back about it in the quiet of the barracks, I couldn't help noting that if I weren't wearing glasses, I would have gotten a big gash on my eye. And while one can quite easily get new glasses, one can't get new eyes so easily...

So, as ironic and strange as it may be to say this, I have to say that my disability has actually protected me on at least two occasions in my life so far. Perhaps what they say is quite literally true: A disability can sometimes be a gift.     


  1. Not all blogging/writing = conceptualizing. And I like my nearsightedness also for the gift of being able to maintain driste with fewer distractions when I take my glasses off. Fwiw.

  2. Well, maybe it's just MY blogging, then :-) I agree with you about the nearsightedness thing: Whenever I practice, there is less to see, and it is thus easier to maintain drishte. It was Sweeney, btw, who first suggested that I practice without my glasses.

  3. I think Sweeney's take on Feeling and Emotion is pretty spot on, thanks for sharing Nobel.

    I would challenge the previous commentator to produce a piece of writing that is not a conceptualization; to me that is impossible.

    Language is an abstraction, a vehicle for the mind to conceptualize and transmit direct experience. It is why Pantanjali recommends, in sutra 1-42, the practice of Savitarka Samapatthi, engrossment on the word, the object the word represents, and the knowledge associated with this object. Do this practice even for a bit and you will see that all language is conceptualized abstraction. There is no way to escape conceptualization with the use of language (and by default writing). This is also why Krishnamacharya told his students not to talk about the experience of their practice, as it reinforces ego and the conceptualizing mind.

    I think you hit it right on the head Nobel, both about blogging and how the mind can affect our experience of asana. I remember reading somewhere that SKP Jois said "body not stiff, mind stiff" which to me sums up the experience you are describing with kapotasana.

  4. To be fair, Tom, I think there are at least a few bloggers out there--Patrick comes up right away as one example--who write in a kind of stream of consciousness way (and I don't mean this in a bad way, as in rambling or going all over the place; I mean this in a more positive way, more like using words that capture a particular feeling or sensation without over-analyzing either the words or the things that the words refer to), and who keep conceptualizing to a minimum this way. But I guess you are probably right that there is no way to avoid at least some level of conceptualization. In order to communicate anything effectively in writing, one needs to use words as a kind of verbal shorthand for entire chunks of lived experience. If one doesn't do this, there would simply be no way to even start communicating, since any form of communication assumes a shared verbal shorthand between the people who are communicating: For instance, I have to assume that you are thinking the same thing as I am when I use the word "chair" to refer to something. If I can't even assume this, verbal communication would be impossible. But in using this verbal shorthand, we are conceptualizing lived experience.

    So I guess this is just my very long-winded way of agreeing with you that it is impossible to express oneself in language without conceptualization. But we can't not communicate; if we don't, how can yoga be passed on? Maybe the trick is to remember that a word or concept is just something that points at the moon, and is not the moon itself. So long as we remember this, we should be fine. But this is, of course, often easier said than done (SKPJ: "Body not stiff, mind stiff"... And could it be that the mind is stiff because it spends too much time fixating over concepts?)

  5. I completely agree Nobel, not all writing and not all blogging is the same. I do not read Patrick's blog regularly but what I have read would leave me in complete agreement with you. I love his raw, honest, transparent approach.

    And while I still think all writing is conceptualizing, I do not think that writing, or conceptualizing, is bad (well actually I do not really even believe in the concepts of good and bad, but that is whole other thing and I'd rather not digress too far...)

    We do need to communicate, I agree, it is essential in transferring knowledge, wisdom, traditions, etc. It also makes some of the practical tasks of daily life a bit easier.

    I really appreciate the jnana yoga approach to this (as taught by Ramana Maharishi, Sri Nisargadatta), which first and foremost is just to bring our awareness to the truth of what is. If we are aware of our thoughts and our words, and how they are conceptualizations of actual experience, that is enough. Just see it for what it is, no need to stop, or repress. Just watch, and deeper and deeper levels of truth will unfold. We'll start to see through concepts, and we can start to leave behind the concepts that do not serve ourselves and the world at large.

    And really this is the same approach as outlined in the first pada of Pantanjali's sutras, but different words/concepts are employed to get the point across. This is a perfect example of your point - eventually the practice of entering the state of yoga renders concepts unnecessary, but concepts are necessary to transmit this knowledge, and different teachers employ different conceptual approaches to the same task of teaching the inherent wisdom of self-realization.