Rox Does Yoga

Musings on Everything Yoga

Man of the People May 23, 2013

Filed under: reflections,TV — R. H. Ward @ 12:40 pm
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Recently F and I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Man of the People.” In this episode, the Enterprise is transporting Ramid Ves Alkar, an ambassador and peace negotiator, along with his elderly mother, to a war-torn planet. When Alkar’s mother dies en-route, he remains calm and composed, and no one thinks much of it since she seemed to be old and sick, suffering dementia. Then Counselor Troi starts exhibiting strange behavior: acting angrily and maliciously, dressing seductively, making inappropriate lewd comments to other crew members. When she begins aging prematurely, the crew discovers that Alkar has created a psychic and empathic link with Troi: in order to stay so tranquil in his work at the negotiating table, he dumps all his negative emotions into Troi, and the onslaught is killing her. Captain Picard discovers that Alkar has done this many times, and the woman they thought was his mother was actually just his latest victim. Alkar argues that his success in negotiating peace is worth the women’s sacrifice because millions of people will be saved from death in war. The Enterprise crew disagrees and finds a way to break Alkar’s link with Troi. The overload of negative emotions rebounds onto Alkar, ending his life.

From a yogic and moral perspective, there’s a lot going on in this episode! Many people would agree with Alkar that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. However, Picard disagrees, saying, “You cannot explain away a wantonly immoral act because you think that it is connected to some higher purpose.” As Captain, Picard’s primary responsibility here is for the safety of his crew member, but Picard also refuses to let Alkar continue using others; when the Enterprise crew makes their plan to save Troi, they know that Alkar will choose another “receptacle” for his emotions, and they keep that woman’s safety in mind as well. They must rescue Troi, but sacrificing another innocent person is an unacceptable alternative, even if it means that Alkar will be unable to negotiate a peace treaty for the warring factions. Compromise isn’t acceptable here. Picard acts in keeping with the yogic principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence.

From a yogic perspective, I’m interested in Alkar’s chosen method of dealing with negative emotions. While we can’t create a psychic link and channel our emotions directly into another person, most of us do have some experience with pushing negative emotions away so we don’t have to feel them, or taking our hurt, fear, or anger out on another person with negative consequences. It’s perfectly natural not to want to deal with dark emotions – it’s not fun! But learning how to be with our emotions, how to experience them and then set them aside, makes us stronger people, calmer in the long run, and better able to enjoy happiness when it comes our way.

Alkar had chosen to work as an ambassador and peace negotiator, which is a noble aim, but it’s telling that, with an entire galaxy to explore and the meditation techniques of thousands of races to choose from, Alkar instead chose to oppress another person to accomplish his goals. Alkar tells Picard, “I get no payment. I have no power base, no agenda. I’m willing to risk my life simply to help others,” and Picard responds, “Do you think that makes you appear courageous? Because you’re mistaken. You’re a coward, Alkar. You exploit the innocent, because you’re unwilling to shoulder the burdens of unpleasant emotions.” Cowardly and selfish, Alkar is not the hero he thinks he is. He took the easy way out of dealing with emotion, unconcerned about the harm it did to others. Meditation is difficult, and learning to deal with strong emotion is difficult, but in the end, the rewards are far greater.

 

books: The Wisdom of Yoga, by Stephen Cope June 18, 2012

Filed under: books — R. H. Ward @ 1:22 pm
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The Wisdom of Yoga, by Stephen CopeI found Cope’s approach to this book pretty fascinating. He began writing the book with the intention of writing a traditional commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and he completed exhaustive research into yoga philosophy and Sanskrit with this in mind; however, the focus of the project morphed and shifted as he wrote. The final book includes three intertwining components: commentary and explanation of the yoga sutras, explication of the sutras from a modern psychological perspective based on Cope’s experience as a psychotherapist, and a semi-fictionalized/loosely memoirish account of the yoga explorations of Cope and five of his friends during the years Cope was working on the book.

The book benefits immensely from Cope’s philosophical and spiritual research without becoming too esoteric for the beginner. Cope discusses key concepts from Patanjali, such as the steps of the eightfold path, in an accessible way; he also relates some of Patanjali’s teachings on meditation and the mind to similar teachings in Buddhism, which I was really intrigued by and hadn’t seen elsewhere.

Cope’s perspective as a psychotherapist helps to elucidate for the modern reader why this yoga stuff actually works and what it does to our minds. I personally found the psychological verbiage to be a little heavy and technical for my taste, so I didn’t spend a lot of time dissecting and digesting it, but I still found those passages to be interesting and informative even at a casual reading pace and level.

What really kept me moving through the text were the stories of Cope and his friends. Cope would describe one person’s particular struggle – overeating, a lying habit, a lifelong conflict with a family member – then use that almost as a case study to discuss what, yogically and psychologically, was going on for that person, and show how yoga and meditation could help. Cope includes conversations among the friends as well, as they help one another work through their various issues. Each character makes progress on a spiritual path throughout the book, each in his or her own way, including the character of Cope himself as he struggles with the book he’s writing.

Wanting to know what happened next for the characters kept me moving through the spiritual and philosophical material, some of which was very familiar to me, and the more technical psychological stuff, so I found the framework to be a useful and interesting way of organizing the book. Overall I really enjoyed the book’s unique approach and would recommend it, particularly to those who want to explore the ancient philosophy of yoga and the mind from a modern perspective.

 

Books: Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard March 15, 2012

As a book on meditation, Mathieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill is the best of both worlds, presenting both a spiritual and a scientific perspective. Ricard left a promising career in biology and genetics to become a Buddhist monk, so he uniquely understands both perspectives and is fascinated by the scientific study of the brain and how meditation affects, on a biological level, the way we think. Happiness is at once a guide to how meditation can improve our lives and help us to become happier and a thorough description of why it works, written in language accessible to any reader.

In the first few chapters, Ricard opens the book with discussion of happiness in general: is happiness the purpose of life? What does it mean to be happy, and how do we recognize happiness when we have it? Can we actively cultivate happiness in our lives? Concluding that happiness is possible and that cultivating it is worthwhile, Ricard then considers the problem of suffering. How can we be happy when we suffer; further, how can compassionate beings be truly happy when faced with the suffering of others? Ricard tackles this question, presenting stories of those who have suffered true hardship and examining the root causes of suffering. While we cannot control the events that happen to us, we can always control our responses to those events, and here is the real key to being happy under any circumstance. Over several chapters, Ricard discusses how we can use meditation in order to overcome ego, negative thoughts, and disturbing emotions, the obstacles within ourselves that prevent us from being happy no matter what occurs.

Ricard speaks from his own and his teachers’ experience that when we can lessen the influence of the ego and negative thoughts and emotions, we feel more freedom and happiness in our lives. He then goes on to discuss happiness from the perspective of sociology, psychology, and psychiatry, citing laboratory studies of experienced meditators whose brains have been shown to function differently than ordinary people’s brains. Meditation over long periods literally changes brain chemistry, leading to great benefits in quality of life. Ricard as both a scientist and a talented writer, in these chapters and throughout the book, is able to describe a variety of scientific studies and their results in terms a layman can understand and appreciate.

In the later chapters, Ricard examines positive attributes like altruism, humility, and optimism, and describes how cultivating these attitudes can help us to be happier. He cites evidence that those who are kind, humble, and optimistic tend to be happier than those who are not. By modifying our behavior to act more altruistically in daily life, or by being aware of pessimistic thought patterns as they arise, we can begin to make progress toward increasing happiness.

In the book’s final chapters, Ricard addresses several difficult issues: appreciating versus wasting time, ethics and the dichotomy of good and evil, and how to be happy in the presence of death. Ricard’s wisdom truly shines in these chapters; his advice is inspirational, practical and uplifting. The concluding chapter rounds out the book by describing the challenges and great rewards of following a spiritual path. Ricard promises that with regular practice and dedication, we can each not only live happier lives but become kinder, wiser, and more compassionate. Developing these qualities can lead us, as it led Ricard, to a life of great meaning, freedom, and joy.

 

books: The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche December 20, 2011

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness is an excellent and informative book and a good practical manual for meditation. A wide variety of meditation techniques are discussed, in language that makes them accessible to even the most un-Buddhist of readers. Mingyur (Rinpoche is an honorific given to respected teachers) is a kind and encouraging teacher; his writing style is very natural and conversational, helping you feel as if he’s right there beside you to help along the way.

The book is divided into three main sections. Part One: The Ground begins by describing Mingyur’s early life and training in meditation and his journey toward overcoming anxiety. He’s an engaging storyteller, and it’s comforting to hear that even a monk who grew up meditating from childhood can still struggle with his mind. This section also discusses the connection between the ancient Buddhist practices of meditation and modern advances in neuroscience, physics, and biology. Raised in isolated monasteries, Mingyur is fascinated with Western science and has worked with many scientists to learn about the brain’s workings and the structure of the universe and compare them with the Buddhist understanding of the mind and reality. While interesting, this area was not as strong as other sections – these discussions could have benefited from a scientist coauthor to help refine and make specific Mingyur’s comparisons. However, Mingyur does make a good case for meditation as valuable and needed in the West, and his ideas here are well worth reading.

In Part Two: The Path and Part Three: The Fruit, Mingyur is at his best, carefully walking the reader through the basics of meditation. He provides a firm foundation for beginners, with examples from his own history as guidance. Beyond the basics, he details a variety of different meditation techniques that will appeal to new and experienced students alike. He asserts that it is the intention to meditate that is most important, not the actual time spent on it or whether your mind wanders off in the middle. Mingyur strives to make meditation available to everyone.

I began reading this book back in February 2011 and just finished it this month, but the long reading time is due to my own crazy schedule this year, not any failing of Mingyur’s. I’ve actually posted about this book on several other occasions because as I read I found his words so encouraging and insightful. I highly recommend this book to anyone hoping to begin or deepen a meditation practice.

 

Meditation and Emotions November 28, 2011

We spent a lot of time last month talking about how yoga can help us deal with strong emotions. Meditation is another great tool we can use to work with and through strong emotions, and we can even use those emotions to strengthen and deepen a meditation practice. Positive emotions, such as love, compassion, forgiveness, and friendship, can naturally help to put us in a state of mind conducive to meditation. After all, these are the sorts of emotions we want to use our meditation practice to cultivate! On the other hand, there are negative emotions like fear, anger, sadness, jealousy, or shame that tend to weaken the mind and distract us from meditation. However, we cans till find ways to channel these emotions into something useful.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche advises us (in The Joy of Living, pp. 168-9) that with positive emotions, we can focus on both the object of the emotion and on the emotion itself: for example, if we’re experiencing love for a child, we can picture the child in our minds and concentrate on the feeling of love. The image of the child keeps us feeling love, while the feeling of love helps us to focus on the image – the emotion and its object serve to support each other in our meditation.

With negative emotions, though, its best to place our attention only on the emotion. If a coworker makes you angry, don’t picture your coworker: it’ll just make you more angry. Instead, rest your attention on the feeling of the anger. Try to detach it from its source; forget about your coworker’s stupid face and the extra work he dumped on you and just look at the anger. Don’t analyze the emotion, don’t try to hold onto it or block it or do anything with it – just observe the anger, by itself, separate from the person/event that caused you to feel that way. Observing the emotion on its own will probably serve to shrink it down, so that the anger won’t see as big or powerful as it did before (p. 169).

Looking at the anger, fear, sadness, or anxiety this way, we begin to see it for what it is: not an all-encompassing emotion, not an insurmountable obstacle, but just a series of images, sensations, and thoughts, and we can notice how other thoughts come along and interrupt the emotion easily. (For example, imagine a thought pattern like this: ANGRYANGRYANGRY hey let me email George ANGRYANGRY what’s for dinner tonight? ANGRYANGRYANGRY…) If we’re aware of those little interruptions, we can try to look for them, finding the spaces between the moments of anger and focusing on those instead of on the anger itself. In this way, we grant our emotions less power over us.

According to Rinpoche, there’s an old proverb that goes, “Peacocks eat poison, and the poison they eat is transformed into beautiful feathers” (170). Often we can’t help eating poison – unhappy evens, frustrations, and annoyances come into our lives every day and inspire strong emotions in us. But like the peacock, we can learn to use that poison to grow, and turn it into something lovely.

 

Upanishads (part 1) November 1, 2011

We’re taking a quick break from our yoga & sex series so I can tell you how much I’m in love with the Upanishads already. It’s a collection of ancient wisdom from Hindu sages who lived over 2000 years ago, and so far I’ve only read the intros and the first Upanishad, the Isha, but I’m head over heels here. Opening the book, the very first page has this inscription:

You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As you deed is, so is your destiny.
(Brihadaranyaka IV.4.5)

Those few lines touched me really deeply. I memorized them and used them in my meditation this morning. Ten minutes zipped past, and afterwards I felt incredibly peaceful. I love how these lines imply that by using your will to carry out your deepest desires, you have the power to choose your destiny, and further, that that destiny is already within you, ready to be created.

I loved the Isha Upanishad, too. It’s so short and so powerful, really intense and lovely. I read it and the accompanying commentary twice on the train this morning. I’m really loving this. I simultaneously want to read the whole book right now and also to stretch out the reading of it for as long as I can. I’m planning to stretch it out since I know I’ll get more out of it that way. I’m already plotting the purchase of multiple translations so I can reread it again and again and compare the wording. Just thinking about it makes me really happy.

 

Meditation: Minding the Gap October 28, 2011

So I’m not making a lot of progress in reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living, because every three pages he says something amazing and I want to go write a blog post about it. Today, what inspired me is the idea of minding the gap.

In London, there’s a gap between the subway platform and the train, such that when you get on the train you have to pay attention as you step over the gap. There’s also a gap between one thought and the next thought in our minds. Most of the time, we coast right along from one thought to the next to the next, not even noticing the gap in between, just the way that a frequent subway traveler steps right onto the train without looking at her feet. But the gap is still there, and being mindful of it can help us be safer on the subway and more present in our daily lives.

Rinpoche tells us that it can be a form of meditation just to notice the gap between our thoughts. He writes,

Watching thoughts is a bit like running to catch a bus. Just as you reach the bus stop, the bus is pulling away, so you have to wait for the next bus to come. In the same way, there’s often a gap between thoughts – maybe it lasts for just a split second, but still, there’s a gap. That gap is the experience of the complete openness of natural mind. (163)

When we meditate, we can just rest our minds in conscious awareness. Thoughts will come and go – there’s no way to stop them. We just pay attention to the thoughts and notice the gaps between them, and see what it feels like in that gap. The complete openness of natural mind! Sounds nice. Rinpoche goes on to say that, when you practice paying attention to that gap, you can start to extend it, to put a little more time between one thought and the next, spending a little longer resting in your natural mind. Like any other type of meditation, recognizing and resting in the openness of our natural mind will help us develop calm, peaceful attitudes that we can carry throughout the day.

Rinpoche uses another metaphor that I like a lot: that of watching TV or a movie. He writes, “On the TV or movie screen, lots of things may be going on, but you are not actually in the movie or on the TV screen, are you? There’s a little bit of space between yourself and whatever you’re watching” (165). In the same way that movies and TV shows (and commercials!) play on our TV screens, thoughts play across our minds. We can become very wrapped up in our thoughts, just as we’d get wrapped up in a good movie, forgetting that we’re not actually part of the action. Then we hear a noise, the phone rings, or we run out of popcorn, and suddenly we’re back in the living room in the present moment, not a part of the movie after all.

Our thoughts sweep us up and carry us away in the same way that movies do, but if we’re able to take a step back from the Thought TV and come back to the present moment, acknowledging the gap between our thoughts and us, we can avoid getting all worked up. After all, movies are really fun to watch, but they can be intense, scary, and upsetting too – and it’s the same with our thoughts. Sometimes part of the fun is getting caught up in all the emotion, but our goal in meditation is to keep our minds calm and peaceful. That doesn’t mean we have to stop having thoughts and emotions, or stop enjoying the thoughts and emotions we have. We’re going to have thoughts and emotions no matter what. But if we can mind the gap between one thought and the next, between our thoughts and ourselves, we can learn to live with a little more peace and calm. It’s one more technique we can use in our meditation practice and our yoga practice.

 

 
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