(Image by Dana Wyss)
Has my heart gone to sleep?
Have the beehives of my dreams
stopped working, the waterwheel
of the mind run dry,
scoops turning empty,
only shadow inside?
No, my heart is not asleep.
It's awake, wide awake.
Not asleep, not dreaming -
its eyes are opened wide
watching distant signals, listening
on the rim of the vast silence.
- Antonio Machado, translated by Alan Trueblood
Today in my weekly yoga class at Dharma Yoga Austin, we looked at the yogic observance* of svadhyaya, or self-study. Svadhyaya asks us to look clearly at what drives us, what is arising within us, at the stories and lies that we tell ourselves, at how things actually are. Svadhyaya asks us to bring unwavering attention to what we are saying about ourselves or others in any moment, to the emotional reactions we are having in any situation, to the sensations arising in our bodies with every breath. While yoginis and yogis endeavor to cultivate and retain this kind of attention at all times – on or off the mat – our experiences on the mat during our asana practice give us insights and clues into what is happening in the greater picture of our lives.
So we practice here.
And it’s more difficult than it sounds.
What gets in our way? If we judge or shame ourselves over what we see, we begin to lose our ability to see clearly. When we hold up some ideal of who or what we “should” be, or of how a pose “should” look or feel, we are constantly comparing ourselves to an ideal or to other people. And then we’re constantly failing. We're forever not measuring up. This is extremely painful, and so we may stop looking into and instead begin denying our reality (i.e. moving more deeply into a pose than our breath has told us is safe) or perhaps laying blame outside of ourselves for what we’ve judged as wrong (i.e. “if she weren’t late all the time, I wouldn’t be so upset”). From either response comes more pain. We must turn towards ourselves to see our problems and their solutions clearly, and we must look without violence.
What can help us in this practice? In a word, curiosity. When we turn toward our experience with true curiosity, we place ourselves in the position of observer – giving us both a little distance and a broader view. This place is expansive and open. This view allows new possibilities. Anthony de Mello spoke to this when he wrote the following: “Every time I am disturbed, there is something wrong with me. I am not prepared for what has come; I am out of tune with things; I am resisting something. If I can find out what that something is, it will open the way to spiritual advances”. In order to cultivate the capacity to see things clearly, we must move into the seat of the curious observer and release the role of judge.
Why might we bother? Say the invitation to cultivate a well-lived and joyful life is not enough to muster our courage and discipline, or perhaps the idea of spiritual advancement does not motivate us? Great question! There are many reasons we might endeavor to understand our minds and feelings more clearly. Perhaps we want real intimacy in our relationships, or a clear sense of purpose in our work, or perhaps we'd like to notice when we're stressed and be able to respond to our needs before getting sick and injured. To offer additional motivation towards self-study, I’d love to share with you some thoughts from outside the world of yoga:
“Agency is the technical term for the feeling of being in charge of your life: knowing where you stand, knowing that you have a say in what happens to you, knowing that you have some ability to shape your circumstances…Agency starts with interoception, our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater our potential to control our lives.
Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way. If we are aware of the constant changes in our inner and outer environment, we can mobilize to manage them.”
– Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. from The Body Keeps the Score
“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.”
- Hildegard of Bingen
Wishing each of you a week full of clarity, curiosity and kindness. May you grow wise in your looking, and compassionate towards all for doing so. Please contact me if you feel that bodywork can guide you into greater awareness of your feelings, or if you'd like to begin your yoga practice in a private setting. And if you'd like to practice in community, join me in class at Dharma Yoga Austin on Sunday evenings from 7:30-8:45 pm. Hope to see you soon! Be well.
* The yogic ethical practices consist of ten guidelines foundational to all yogic thought. The 5 Yamas or “restraints” include nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing and non-excess. The 5 Niyamas or “observances” include purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and surrender. They offer direction to a well-lived and joyful yogic life.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.