‘A Paradox of Neuroses and Wisdom’: reflections from my yoga mat

संकल्प

‘I am well, I am happy, I am peaceful and at ease’, I said to myself, three times, focusing on my heart. I say this three times before my yoga nidra practice and three times at the end. Its called a Sankalpa in yoga, and means a positive intention or focus that you wish to bring about in your life, stated in the present tense. (You may recognise that mine is derived from the meditation of loving kindness.).

As I lay on my mat and said the words, on Thursday, I noticed is that each one of these intentions was absolutely true within that moment. ‘I am well!’ I thought, I checked my experience and my sensations and there was nothing to indicate an absence of wellness. ‘I am happy!’ I agreed, in that moment nothing impinged on my happiness. “I am peaceful and at ease.’ I lay on my mat, peaceful and at ease.

My Sankalpa was not far-fetched, I was not going to have to strive, it was all true in that moment.

It hadn’t been true that morning, with lots of stressful, annoying and upsetting  difficulties happening on the same day. And a few hours later it didn’t feel very true when I lost a valuable possession. But it was true when I was on my yoga mat.

What I aim to practice is not denial or suppression of feelings, but to allow changes in focus, and shifting attention. When I fixate on a problem, a difficulty or a loss, I can feel the consequences of that fixation: increased adrenaline, anxiety, rumination, even distress and tears. In this state we build the story, this sad thing happened because [fill in the gap with your favourite narrative, ‘I’m stupid’; ‘the world is a dangerous place’; ‘my parents didn’t treat me right’; ‘the government’]. We cannot change facts or contexts, we can only choose our focus. When we allow but don’t dwell we have a better chance of peace.

I’ve been thinking about contradictions and how we like to define everything as good or bad, including ourselves and our actions and other people around us. I feel a little uncomfortable when I get positive feedback because it’s one aspect that’s being seen and I’m not always calm or ‘inspirational’, I can be super stressy and neurotic too. I don’t like it if only my neuroticism is focused on and pointed out either, and can feel angry or hurt that the person seeing this and mentioning it, that they haven’t seen or mentioned other qualities.

I’ve spent a lot of time engaging in yoga and meditation over the last 30 years and at the end of this post I will include a breakthrough I had one day as a result. I’ve also read a lot of books, gained multiple qualifications and been on probably a hundred training workshops. To balance that out I’ve spent more time messing about on Facebook than reading and doing yoga and meditation combined. Paradoxes, contradictions, real life, real people.

Something I like about the type of yoga class that I attend is a practice where we listen to all the sounds around us, and further away, we don’t judge or label them as ‘annoying’ or ‘distracting’ or ‘pleasant’ (like birdsong). We just allow the sounds to be. We notice smells and tastes and bodily sensations, that might be uncomfortable or painful, we notice temperatures, we notice the touch of fabric on the skin and the shapes and colours behind our eyelids. We notice the breath in our nostrils, its coolness going in and its warmth departing. In this interesting practice we let our awareness land lightly on one thing and move to another. It is such good practice for not making anything bigger than it is, yet without denying it or making it smaller than it is. The sounds and sensations can co exist while I focus on my breath.

Later on we sometimes are encouraged to let our body feel ‘very heavy’ as if we are a sack of sand, and quite soon after to let our body feel ‘as light as a feather’; to feel cold and then to feel warmth. This is allowing our brain to practice registering different experiences, not just a limited few. It expands our recognition. Often in life we begin to ignore and not register certain experiences that don’t fit our story or our narrative.

 Often … we .. ignore … experiences that don’t fit our story or our narrative

What is most important is suspending judgment about what is good and bad. A person centered therapist tries not to say ‘good’ or ‘well done’ but ‘how do you feel about that?’ instead. If we introduce a system of good and bad, then the client will adapt to preserve the relationship, just as they did as a child, (or they leave therapy). I don’t think being non-judgmental all the time is helpful, but I do think we can extend and expand ourselves and our perspective if we practice it more.

 everything just was what it was.

A year ago I had a day when my experience was enlightening, in the sense that I felt lighter:

“I just had quite an interesting experience. I was sitting here in bed trying to bring my focus onto my gratitudes (morning has arrived, I have a cup of tea, toast, hot water bottles and codeine, there is light arriving behind the trees) and away from negatives (I’m in a lot of pain, feel sick, wonder when my CT scan is, worried there is something wrong, finding it hard to swallow, it’s dark and cold and I’m scared). And I felt myself moving between the ‘positive’ emotions to ‘negative’ feelings and then I thought, ‘you don’t HAVE to be grateful’. And once I stopped pushing it, my toast and peanut butter became more delicious but I stopped feeling grateful and a need to recognise my gratitude and just noticed as I continued to be aware of the toast and the pain and an aching heart and a memory that floated in (of cold, January, Monday mornings, making myself get up and it still being dark when I took the dog out) and my current endeavour to feel into my body and see if I can work out ahead of the scan what they might find and the sound of the central heating and the feel of my socks and wondering how many days I’ve worn these pyjamas, the heat from the hot water bottle going deeper and the quality of light from my salt lamp and then something happened. For a good few minutes I lost the capacity to divide these experiences into positive and negative, to judge what I was grateful for and what I wished was not happening and everything just was what it was.

Of course I have known the theory of this for decades and ‘practiced’ this too for a long time. But just now it was effortless and made more sense than anything has for a long time. I’m liking it and I don’t know how long it will last but I’m not invested one way or the other. “   Just an unexpected Monday morning experience in January 2018. A year ago.

Those studying meditation know that as enlightening as such an experience may be, we shouldn’t fixate upon it or grasp at it, trying to achieve it repeatedly or believing that this is proper meditation, and true enlightenment. We practice moving from this state into discomfort and our thoughts wandering and dissatisfying meditation, not valuing one above the other but just bringing our focus back to the breath, the now, the what is.

So I was quite struck by a phrase I heard listening to my book yesterday, it was about us being ‘a paradox of wisdom and neuroses’ and I laughed when I heard it because I liked it so much. And I looked at the books at my feet, one was a self help book, one was a book against self help and one was about acceptance. I liked that all three were sitting there together, lovely in their own way, loved by me without me having a preference for one model or another.

I am well, I am happy, I am peaceful and at ease

I am also a paradox.

Life is good, happy, easy and peaceful, as well paradoxically not always being so.

Sankalpa (Sanskrit: संकल्प) means an intention formed by the heart and mind — a solemn vow, determination, or will. In practical terms a Sankalpa means a resolve to focus both psychologically and philosophically on a specific goal.

संकल्प

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An assortment of my

paradoxical and contradictory reading

co-existing on my sofa.

With Thanks to Elaine, Phillipa from Oakwood Yoga and my current teacher, Rebecca Allen in Sheffield.

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