Monthly Archives: April 2012

Being in the flow

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In my last post, I wrote about the importance of being able to stay with our uncomfortable feelings, and to let them pass. In my yoga teaching and therapy practice, as well as in my own personal life, it is evident that we really struggle with our emotions, and may hold on to perceived hurts for long after the event which caused them.  We may feed our sadness or our anger, dwelling on the events or circumstances of our lives to which we attribute the emotion, going over and over it in our minds.  We can have a relatively small encounter which upsets us, and by repeatedly bringing it to mind, we can blow it out of all proportion;  when it’s a more significant event, we can hold on to the associated feelings for years.  Once we dwell on and feed an emotion, it can become a part of us.  It is no longer just an energy flowing uncomfortably – but ultimately harmlessly – through us.  Instead, it crystallizes and becomes an attitude.

We all have these attitudes or outlooks, which can affect our whole lives and the way in which others perceive us.  We all know people who we would describe as angry, sad, fearful or anxious – as well as those we would think of as basically happy, giving and forgiving types.  We also flit in and out of these modes of being throughout our own lives.  So what started as a brief, passing sensation can last much longer and colour our whole life.

But just because the attitude has begun to dominate our general mood, doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever.  The emotion may seem to have solidified, even to have become immovable, and yet it can still melt away once we become aware of it and begin to work with it.  Even if anger has become such a basic part of our nature that we react irritably to minor events and explode when faced with bigger challenges; even if we are so fearful that we feel we cannot move forward in our lives.  Things which seem permanent can change and dissipate over time.

Firstly, we need awareness.  We must not close our eyes to the way we are.  We must see the difference between the way we would like to be, and the way we truly are.  Not judging, but seeing kindly, with compassion for the difficult parts of ourselves.

Secondly, we need to desire change, and to create the space to change.  One way we create this space is through the breath; through meditation.  Just sitting quietly – watching the breath, stilling the mind.  Noticing the space between the inbreath and the outbreath.  Calming the mind so that the endless chatter starts to ease away.  An analogy often used is that of  the sky – letting our thoughts be like clouds, just floating through our minds without holding on to them or spinning off in all directions.  In this way, we slowly learn to  stop fanning the flames of our emotions, and to be less reactive in our wider lives.  Whilst we are learning – and this may be for the rest of our lives! – we must continue to be kindly observant of ourselves, to reflect on our progress and not only our inevitable failings.  And whilst we are developing this kindness for ourselves, and learning not to identify with our difficult feelings – acknowledging, for example, that anger is a passing energy rather than turning ourselves into ‘an angry person’ – we could also think more kindly of the difficult people in our lives, allowing that they too can be other than the way we perceive them.

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Feeling your emotions…

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We call our emotions feelings, yet sometimes – or even, usually – we do anything and everything to avoid feeling them. When is the last time you really allowed an emotion to flood your body and then stayed with it?  If you felt sad, did you just allow that feeling to be with you, feel where it affected your body, whether it made you feel heavy in a particular place, or did you try to smother it by distracting yourself with television, reading or food – maybe two or all three of these at once?   If you felt angry, did you just notice how it made you feel on the inside, or did you act it out, shouting, stamping your foot in impatience and frustration?

And did your actions, in the end, make you feel any better?  Or did you, after an outburst or too much chocolate, just feel ashamed and wish you’d behaved differently? Our negative emotions – feelings – are such powerful sensations, that they tend to scare us and make us deny them as far as possible.  But different emotions affect us in different ways – they may make us feel heavy, as in sadness, hot, as in anger, or paralysed with fear.  When was the last time you managed to stay with those uncomfortable sensations, to truly experience them and watch them pass?  However intense those feelings, they usually start to subside surprisingly quickly if they are allowed to.

Emotions are simply energy states in the body. Some, such as anger, are high energy states, whilst others, such as sadness, are very low energy states. Our clumsy attempts to deal with unwelcome emotions usually try to redress the energy balance – for example, when we act out our anger, we release some of our excess energy by shouting or slamming doors. When we feel sad, if we try to make ourselves feel better with stimulants such as chocolate or alcohol, we lift our energy levels, at least temporarily.

But the difference if we attempt to simply observe our emotional states can be so revealing. We can feel the emotion on a physical level, and truly experience the ancient wisdom which finds the seat of worry in the stomach, sadness and grief in the lungs, and anger in the liver. We feel the discomfort of the emotion, we stay with it, and let it go. In meditation, we simply observe each sensation as it arises, and learn to stay in the moment, regardless of whether we perceive that moment as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We learn to create a space between our feelings and our actions, a lesson we can begin to apply in our daily lives.

The more we maintain and honour our meditation practice, the more present we manage to stay in our daily lives, and the less reactive we become. When we feel pushed by the circumstances of our lives, we find it harder and harder to maintain the space between our feelings and our actions, and the more we react, the more of a habit that reaction becomes. Our regular meditation practice can help us to keep that space, and help us be brave enough to feel our feelings – ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

More musings on spring…

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We really are having a beautiful early spring.  I am so enjoying the sunshine and blue skies, and the energy of the new season.  I heard a priest talking on the radio this morning about Lent, and how the meaning of Lent is spring.  How it signifies the death of the old, and the birth of the new.  So many of us give things up for Lent – for me it’s chocolate again this year! – but how many of us take up something new?  Many years ago, I heard someone talking about Lent being an important time to adopt positive changes, rather than denying ourselves something for a matter of weeks, and then simply going back to our old selves.  But this message of Lent, and of the spring, is so often forgotten.

Think of spring cleaning, and we think of cleaning out our homes, but could we take this further and clean out the clutter of our wider lives, our minds, our beliefs, our behaviour patterns?  Could we use the energy of spring to rid ourselves of our outdated opinions and thoughts, could we really die to our old selves, and be reborn?  Could we let go of the old, and see clearly what we need to do to move forward in new, fresh ways?

Buddhist writer Pema Chodron suggests in her book ‘When Things Fall Apart’ that we need to hold our opinions more lightly, to stop ourselves from taking a stand and using our position to alienate and distance ourselves from others. To be less attached to our beliefs.  In ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, we are urged to let go of everything, to let every moment be like a little death.  If we don’t let go of each moment as it happens, then how can the new moment be born?  It is so easy to end up living in the past, dwelling on perceived slights and harms, and to miss the beauty of the moment.

In Jin Shin Jyutsu, the Safety Energy Lock 9, located around the lower shoulder blades, relates to this cycle of life.  Its meaning is ‘let go of the old, receive the new’ and interestingly the next Safety Energy Lock 10 is known as the ‘warehouse of abundance’.  This suggests that by letting go, by letting the natural cycle of life work in us, we will  step into our true nature, one which is truly rich and wonderful.

One way we can work with letting go is by watching and meditating on the breath.  Sitting quietly and just observing the breath flowing in, flowing out.  Allowing ourselves to let go with the outbreath, and then to receive the inbreath – not taking, not reaching and straining with the breath, but simply allowing it to flow in –  and then to leave again.  Letting go of the old breath cleanses the body, and makes space for the new breath to flow in. Similarly, in life, letting go of what no longer serves us allows a breathing space, a place where possibilities are endless, where the more positive has room to flow into our lives.  In pranayama practice, we learn that it is the spaces, the pauses between the inhale and the exhale, where meditation can truly begin.  At first, we work gently, just noticing the pauses, without trying to sustain them in any way.

In ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, Sogyal Rinpoche describes the pause at the end of the outbreath as a profound experience:

‘Each time you breathe out, you are letting go and releasing all your grasping….Each time you breathe out, and before you breathe in again, you will find that there will be a natural gap, as the grasping dissolves.  Rest in that gap, the open space’ 

(Rinpoche 1992: 68-69)

 Every aspect of our lives tends to be full and cluttered, not just our homes, our days, our diaries, but also our mind with its endless chatter, its endless preoccupation with what might happen, what has already happened earlier…it’s easy to miss the present moment.  This is what mindfulness meditation is all about.  Really savouring the moment, feeling yourself walking, cooking, eating, whatever it might be.  Sitting and observing your breath is a wonderful place to start and to embrace the spirit of the season.