People are pretty keen on the analogy of life as a journey these days. But the best part of any journey is coming home. Home is where the heart is – apparently! I’ll confirm this as soon as I get there.
And when you come back home into your heart you find that all the suffering and pain you’ve been through on your journey was absolutely worth it because you’ve found out what you already had.
All pain is caused by the experience of internal conflict between what our heart knows us to be and the brain thinks we should be.
The brain evolved from monkeys evolved to survive in jungles then adapted to move out into a variety of environments this ability to adapt to changing ecological system served to take our species into every part of the planet and become its dominant species.
That brain has been hijacked by our own creation. Culture that mechanism by which brains are harnessed to create and sustain the complex structures of civilisation (i.e. living in cities). So remember you are not well adapted to living in the city it’s a very recently created and rapidly changing ecological system for you, the organism, to be in.
And as I often say culture operates by hi-jacking an individual and harnessing it to work for a much larger collective than it was originally designed to operate within.( i.e. a tribe or clan)
In a tribe, in a village the number of variables was limited but in contemporary 21Century urban communities with technology at our fingertips the complexity is as the saying goes mind boggling.
Our brains are so distracted by the stimulation to our brains via our senses that most people rarely if every check in with them long enough or deep enough to feel the truth of the heart.
The heart and the body can only do truth. The brain however evolved that capacity to do fantasy confabulation and story or as most western business prefer to think of it analysis, planning and forecasting. This capability is well adapted to civilisation and has contributed to the evolution and development of that uniquely human technology and invention, the ego. The ego is a survival mechanism with its basic hardware provided by millions of years of biological evolution and software tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution. It is through this mechanism that culture hijacks us to produce people adapted to that culture. As your reading this right now on your device our contemporary culture is persistently, subtly and surreptitiously shaping your consciousness in ways that adapt you to conform to social norms. (Of course you may deny this influence is operating on you and rebel against this conditioning, but in doing so the neural networks are still operant – but the agenda has been set for you.)
This social conditioning is not who we are, but it is very distracting and I find myself frequently and massively distracted by it. So right now I’m in caterpillar pose in Mysan’s Yin class and I’ve gone down this particular rabbit hole, like Alice in Wonderland I start spiralling down
“Who are you”? purrs the caterpillar to Alice.
‘Why I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present– at least I know who I was when I got up in this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then. I can’t understand my self, to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”
The caterpillar knows full well who he is and what his transformation will do to and for him. He does not for one moment doubt or fear his process which at a specific time begins with a change to a chrysalis and then a butterfly. He is aware that it is normal and expected. That his current state of being cannot change his essence.
Alice reflects our doubts, fears and concerns of transformation when she declares, “I wonder if I’ve changed in the night? Let me think; was I the same when I got up this morning? But if I am not the same, who in the world am I ?”
How soothing would it be to have full trust in our process of transformation and development? How sweet it is to relax into the natural process of being (love) because we realize what we are, as the caterpillar is urging.”Who are you, do you know?”
The primary distraction from my practice is often flights of confabulation not unlike the above. I’m convinced that they are relevant to my process because they are explanatory and create meaning but really they’re just a distraction from whatever is actually happening right now in my body. Which is my lumbar spine radiating sensation around my ribs and down into my sacrum; and the constant need to relax my gluts which although not actually doing anything keep engaging in the pose for no particular reason.
This pattern of thinking was already well established for me by the time I was about seven years old and from that time onwards my school reports card which were always excellent had the frequent observation by teachers that I was too easily distracted.
My own experience of this was always that I contextualising what I was learning trying to make sense of it. Quite indignantly I protested that I was not being distracted. My teacher’s point of view was that my focus was not on what they wanted me to learn but rather on how what they intended me to learn related to what I already knew. (Bit arrogant really!)
If I’m to take responsibility for my process, my being, then how do I understand this proclivity to chase rabbits down Wonderland filled holes? Attention to and focus on what is present what that ( the current reality) rather than what my current experience means in relation to the bigger picture my life or my understanding of life.
In the 1970’s and 80s I studied psychology ( and literature), I was fascinated to learn about Nobel-prize-winners, Roger Sperry and Robert Ornstein work: the theory of brain lateralisation, which helps us to understand our behaviour, our personality, our creativity, and our ability to use the proper mode of thinking when performing particular types of mental acts or tasks.
Amy reminded us in a recent Pilates class about a TED talk by neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte Taylor, who when she suffered a stroke studied her own changes in brain function to highlight the distinct characteristics of each side of our brains. https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight#
The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of neural tissue of the cerebrum of the brain, in humans and other mammals. It is separated into two cortices, by the longitudinal fissure that divides the cerebrum into the left and right cerebral hemispheres. It manages and co-ordinates brain functions such as thought and action and integrates memory, attention, perception, awareness, thought, language, and consciousness and is responsible for the emergence of ego consciousness in humans. The theory specifies the functions of the two hemispheres of the cortex.
The left hemisphere specializes in analytical thought dealing with empirical facts: abstractions, structure, discipline and rules, time sequences, mathematics, categorizing, logic, rationality and deductive reasoning, knowledge, details, definitions, planning and goals, words (written and spoken and heard), productivity and efficiency, science and technology, stability, extraversion, physical activity, and the right side of the body. This hemisphere is emphasized in our educational system and in our western society in general, for better or for worse; this hemisphere was the part of me that my school teachers were so insistent on “training”( i.e. teaching me to control my experience through understanding or explaining it – hence my process in yin yoga class, hence this blog,)
The right hemisphere specializes in the aspects of life associated with a more wholistic perspective. This includes intuition, feelings and sensitivity, emotions, daydreaming and visualizing, creativity (including art and music), colour, spatial awareness, first impressions, rhythm, spontaneity and impulsiveness, the physical senses, ( note the perceptions themselves not the interpretation of what is being perceived or the naming of things perceived which is the function of the left brain) risk-taking, flexibility and variety, learning by experience, relationships, mysticism, play and sports, introversion, humour, motor skills, the left side of the body, and a holistic way of perception that recognizes patterns and similarities and then synthesizes those elements into new forms.
Ideally, we develop normal functional “lateralization.” This is the use of the proper hemisphere for the task which we are doing. For example, when we are playing a friendly game of backyard cricket (a right-hemisphere activity), we would lose the essence of the game — the fun, the play the relationship with family and friends — if we were overly apprehensive regarding left-hemisphere matters such as rules and discipline and winning.
And when we are balancing our monthly accounts (a left-hemisphere activity), we don’t want to be distracted by the right hemisphere’s fascination with creativity and emotions. Worrying about the bills does not help you create a budget, although some people may use the activity of creating one to allay their fears around money.
In every task, one hemisphere is dominant, but the other hemisphere participates to some extent; for example, we do have rules during the cricket game, and we can feel happy when we notice that our electricity bills are not as costly this month. When we understand lateralization, we become more efficient: we can consciously allow and emphasize the correct hemisphere, knowing that the sense-oriented right hemisphere is a much better cricket player, and the analytical left hemisphere is better in math.
Of course the ancient Chinese had a very elegant means of communicating this inherent structure in our experience of mind.
In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang (“the dark—the bright”) describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces in nature ( including ours) may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.
People generally tend to use one half more than the other. During childhood, we develop “brain dominance” — the inclination to act and think in the mode of either the left or right hemisphere. The decision is affected by our genetics, childhood experiences, and family environment. The dominance is not total; whether we are “right-brained” or “left-brained,” we may permit the other hemisphere to lead occasionally. However the development of left brain rational scientific “dominance” (interesting word here by the way particularly when considered in the context of the story of patriarchal monotheistic dominance that characterises western civilisation – just saying) In order to gain a sense of power and control over experience requires a psycho-somatic act of dissociation from our innermost feelings. To dwell in the abstractions of our rationality, often denies our lived experience.
Incidentally the communication between hemispheres is mediated by the corpus callosum. ‘Normal functional lateralisation varies among individuals on the basis effectiveness and the number active firing axonal fibres in this connection. Women statistically have more connections than men, which contributes to the many of the observed behavioural distinctions between men and women. Women also tend to have more active right brain functioning. Hmmm!?
We tend to distrust or even dislike the non-dominant half. If we generally use our left hemisphere, we might be annoyed by our right hemisphere as though it were an undisciplined child (or wanton woman); contrarily, a right-hemisphere person might consider his or her left hemisphere to be a spoil-sport (or unfeeling man). These same attitudes might be projected onto other people. For example, if we favour the right hemisphere, but our co-workers are oriented toward their left hemisphere, we are likely to judge them as boring and rigid, cold and calculating; if we favour the left hemisphere, we probably view our right-hemisphere co-workers as unreliable and disorganized.
So coming out of caterpillar Mysan quotes the first four lines of chapter one of Patanjali’s sutras about enlightenment
tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe-‘vasthānam
Yoga in the here and now: an introduction to the study and practice of yoga
When you are in a state of yoga, all misconceptions (vrittis) that can exist in the mutable aspect of human beings (chitta) disappear.
For finding our true self (drashtu) entails insight into our own nature.
Lacking that, misconceptions (vritti) skew our perceptions
I read later that Old mate, Patanjali continues
vr̥ttayaḥ pañcatayyaḥ kliṣṭākliṣṭāḥ
pramāṇa viparyaya vikalpa nidrā smr̥tayaḥ
viparyayo mithyā-jñānam-atadrūpa pratiṣṭham
śabda-jñāna-anupātī vastu-śūnyo vikalpaḥ
There are five types of misconceptions (vrittis), some of which are more agreeable than others:
insight, error, imaginings, deep sleep, and recollections.
- Insight arises from direct perception, conclusions, or learning that are based on reliable sources.
- Error arises from knowledge that is based on a false mental construct.
- Imaginings are engendered by word knowledge without regard for what actually exists in the real world.
- Deep sleep is the absence of all impressions resulting from opacity in that which is mutable in human beings (chitta).
- Recollections are engendered by the past, insofar as the relevant experience has not been eclipsed.
My own particular whirlwind is my excessive explanations and rationalisations for my experience especially when I’m practicing Yin. While attempting to cultivate the right brain consciousness of being present and being aware of my sensory experience in the moment I’m off chasing down connections with ” imaginings engendered by word knowledge” often coloured by recollections of the past which for me consists on a rather large accumulation of previous imaginings ( and maybe a few false metal constructs thrown in for good measure).
This particular whirlwind has rattled around inside me for weeks now. Clearly I’m experiencing the internal conflict between left and right hemispheres and rewiring my brain through the practice of yoga to change a lifetime’s habit of a particular kind of ” normal brain lateralisation. It’s my fantasy that that is why I keep falling over in balancing poses.
The resolution comes for me by asking Mysan a seemingly inoccuous question after a Yin class,
“So, am I a grizzly or a gummy ?”
Then I came home and read this…
Another common obstacle to authentic practice is idealizing your practice, setting impossible standards for yourself, and then making your practice into an act of will, almost an act of aggression, with little or no self-compassion, and no sense of humour either. Remember that mindfulness practice is a radical act of love. That means that compassion and self compassion lie at its root. If we cannot be gentle with and accepting of ourselves and the experiences we are having now, whatever they are, if we are always wanting some other, better experience to convince ourselves or others that we are growing, that we are becoming a better person, then we probably should give up meditating. We will certainly be creating a great deal of stress and pain for ourselves, and then will ultimately blame the meditation for “not working” when it might be more accurate to say that we were unwilling to work with things as they are, as we found them, and accept ourselves as we are. Forcing or striving can sometimes give the impression of “progress” and “movement” and of “getting somewhere in one’s practice,” but without self-acceptance and self-compassion, the energy of contraction and forcing is an unwise and unskillful motivation for exploring stillness, and even with the development of significant focus and stability of mind, wisdom will be elusive because it is not something that we acquire, but a way of seeing and being that grows within us when the conditions are right. The soil of deep practice requires the fertilizer of deep self-acceptance and self-compassion. For this reason, gentleness is not a luxury, but a critical requirement for coming to our senses. And harshness and striving ultimately only engender unawareness and insensitivity, furthering fragmentation just when we have an opportunity to recognize that we are already OK, already whole.
COMMON OBSTACLES TO PRACTICE pg 303 Coming to our Senses Jon Kabat- Zinn