In ancient days, the yogi had a particular role in society that we can apply to ourselves. He or she was detached from the conventional social rules and roles. Attuned to an innercall, the yogi left the conventional structures of the world. But she did not abandon the world. She sloughed off the conventional social forms in order to develop her capacity to embody awareness, compassion and detachment so she could re-enter the world it as a teacher and a healing presence.
We have a phrase in the West: To be in the world but not of the world that reflects this archetypal yogi consciousness. The goal is not to retreat from the world into some kind of insulated spiritual cocoon. Rather following the template of the yogi, it is to embody compassion and detachment to such a degree that that we can re-enter our lives our world – with greater wisdom, creativity, and presence.
There is a yogi within each of us. There is already an aspect of our own awareness that is the healing agent; that has the capacity to both witness and bless our body and mind. But it's hiding in a cave somewhere. In order to activate it, we need to engage in spiritual practice.
What is spiritual practice? First of all it's not about beliefs. it's not about replacing one set of ideas with another. it's about cultivating our capacity to embody compassion and detachment, to become a healing presence in our world. Spiritual practice builds your capacity to be in your world but not of it. So you don't escape from your life when you commit to it.
You cultivate a new, more creative, transformative relationship with your world. And this does require periods of withdrawal. Time for silence, stillness, and inner communion with that yogi-consciousness, that healing presence, within. But you don't stay inside hunkered down in your meditation. The spiritual path leads you from inner stillness back into your life, your world where you express stillness-in-action. Where you bring a more creative, healing presence to your life conditions. Where, day-by-day you walk embody a slightly less reactive presence than the day before.
Reactive but on the Right Track
Spiritual practice is the path of conscious, intentional development, of choosing to create rather than simply react to life in a habitual way. There s a joy knowing that each moment of building capacity expands my fulfillment and my ability to create what matters most. This doesn't happen through reading spiritual books although these can inspire you to do the actual practice. It happens through leaning into your discomfort.
The word is lean. it's a gradual, developmental, organic process that you intentionally participate in. But you can't jump over your discomfort, you can push it aside, or blast through it. I mean, you can . . . for a few minutes. If you re angry at your boss, your lover, your life . . . you can bite your tongue, squash the anger, grin and bear it. But this isn't a sustainable strategy. Neither is reactively letting it out releasing it all over the people in your life.
Spiritual practice offers an alternative to squashing and spewing. it's consciously, intentionally, and developmentally leaning into your discomfort with compassionate and detached awareness. it's cultivating that yogi consciousness and shining it upon and infusing it into your mind and body.
Transformation isn't a matter of will power. When you push aggressively on your body/mind, it's going to react, pull back, contract and keep you locked in the same self-limiting patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior that diminish your creativity, meaning, and joy.
So spiritual practice is about building your capacity to embody compassion and detachment first towards the reactive patterns of your own body/mind and then towards the rest of your world.
Through spiritual practice you build your capacity to witness, experience, and bless the patterns of reactivity that have been conditioned into your body/mind.
I began practicing yoga & meditation in 1970 when I was seventeen years old. I practiced in my small bedroom at one end our family’s long New York City apartment. My room was next to the kitchen. My parents, brother, and sister had bedrooms on the other side of the apartment.
I’d get up early and move through a sequence of yoga asanas before sitting down to meditate. I’d sit in meditation until I heard the kitchen noises as my mother and siblings began their breakfast routine.
That was the signal that it was time for me to move from my cave into my world .
After bringing my palms together, I’d start the experiment. My bedroom was separated from the kitchen by an eight-foot long hallway.
I’d observed, over the weeks of practicing, that the inner experience of peace and balance would rapidly degrade as I made my way along that short hall. Even though I wanted to maintain the yogic feeling, as I took each step my inner peace fragmented.
As I moved down the hall, my body would tighten – shoulders and belly tensing instinctively as I approached the family breakfast table. Step-by-step, yogic equanimity was replaced with the persona of a moody, too-cool-for-school teenager.
Those states of balance and equanimity were no match for my well-established emotional patterns for my reactive conditioning. I didn't have the capacity to sustain compassion and detachment while engaged in my family relationships. But I could develop it: Through daily deepening practice. In the presence of my family it seemed like I had no choice but to be . . . teenage-Eric. The expansive, undefended consciousness that I discovered through yoga and meditation didn’t seem to have a place at the breakfast table. I was face-to-face with my need to develop greater capacity.
Imagine a friend who comes to you all upset about her boss. She s fuming and lost in the drama of the situation. You can see the situation as a whole. You see her part and the boss part in creating the drama. And as a true friend you see how her reactivity will not lead to positive results.
You have the capacity to witness her situation and more importantly her reactivity with compassion and detachment. You have the capacity to witness her reactive emotions without being swept into the drama, without buying into her reactive narrative. And without blaming, judging, or condemning her. Because you can bring compassionate and detached awareness to her drama. But your friend doesn't. She s been sucked into a conditioned vortex of thought, emotion with all the accompanying body sensations and behaviors.
We're all like that friend when it comes to our own reactivity until we build capacity. We get sucked in.
So we need to build our inner capacity to be the compassionate and detached witness of our own thoughts and emotions. Because if we don't, the un-observed patterns of thought, speech, and action will continue to generate unsatisfactory experiences without our conscious participation.
We get to know that every time our mind says, for example, Am I doing the right thing? Should I be doing this or something else ? that we're tipping into reactivity. We also get to know that there are certain bodily tensions, maybe a clenching of the stomach, flushing of the voice or tightening the shoulders that invariably go with this habit of reactivity. So we become a student of our own reactivity.
When you know your signature pattern well enough and you ve built enough capacity to be present to it, then whenever it arises, you can be the compassionate, detached, healer. From the perspective of the healer, the witness, you warmly say, Ha, there you are again. Reacting. You know what? it's okay. You re safe.
You bless that reactive pattern of mind and body. You send loving kindness. You infuse that reactivity with awareness. That s the key: Infusing reactivity with awareness.
it's a training process, a learning and developmental process. But it's also kind of a paradox: How do you develop the capacity when you don't have the capacity? If you re like teenage Eric walking into the breakfast kitchen 40% balanced and 60% reactive.
This is where the genius of spiritual practice comes in. Because spiritual practice, specifically meditation practice, provides you with a very simple method for naturally developing your capacity to embody compassion and detachment to be a healing presence in your life.
You get good at what you practice. Most of us have been unconsciously practicing patterns of reactivity for a long time. No wonder we're so good at reacting!
Whether you practice playing the violin, baking bread, teaching kids to read you get good at what you practice. The practice principle doesn't just apply to externally observable skills. It also applies to inner states of mind. That s what the yogis and meditators of all cultures have discovered. it's also what neuroscience is telling us.
The goal is not to eliminate reactivity. The goal is simply to build more capacity to meet whatever arises. So what if reactivity shows up? We need to understand that it will show up, but that that s not a sign of spiritual failure. it's just life and the organic unfolding of the learning process. The learning process is one of continually leaning into your discomfort. Reactivity s arising is not a sign that you re blowing it but actually a sign that you re paying attention. Noticing reactivity is an occasion for celebration. You ve been reactive your whole life; you just haven't noticed it before.
The Formula for Life
I learned from my teacher that for any experience: Intensity multiplied by duration equals force. Duration is . . . well, the length of an experience. Intensity is how focused and absorbed your total mind is in the experience. Imagine that early in your career you were asked to give a presentation. You stood up in front of a group and you bombed. The presentation itself may have only lasted 5 minutes. But it was very intense. All of your mental and emotional energies were focused and absorbed in that painful presentation experience. The force of the experience was imprinted in your memory track because of the intensity.
Now every time you re invited to give a presentation, that imprint that memory track – is activated and there s a tremendous amount of anxiety, fear and a concern that s stirred up.
The imprint overwhelms the mind and gets in the way of your conscious desire to make an effective presentation. That conscious desire s force is weak compared with the imprint.
How can you resolve that imprint? How can you free your self from repeating the pattern of anxiety, frustration, and dissatisfaction when it comes to presentations (you can substitute any situation here)? You have to meet that imprint with an equal amount of force. What kind of force? The force of compassion, detachment, of loving kindness.
Let s imagine that the emotional anxiety is a force of 10. To balance that pattern, you would need to infuse the reactive pattern with a pattern of equal force. Remember we're not talking about beating down, crushing, or controlling the reactivity through will power. We're talking about transforming the reactivity.
What s the opposite of anxiety? Maybe peace.
So one practice would be to meditate on the vibration, the pattern, the state of peace. To bring into the reactive mind a state of peace that has the same force as the anxiety.
But if you can't do it through will power how can you activate the force of peace? What creates the healing force of the meditation? it's the intensity. And remember that intensity means the degree of focus and absorption. Not will power. Not emotionality. Just pure focus and absorption.
This takes training. it's not really hard. it's like building a muscle. It takes practice. If you meditate every day with profound absorption and focus, the force of your meditation can transform the reactive.
The secret sauce is the intensity. You don't have to sit for hours and hours. You simply have to build your capacity to effortlessly sustain (this is key) your focus on a chosen object of attention.
This is absorption: the ability to hold the mind still and in balance on the chosen object of attention, whether it's the novel you re writing, the spreadsheet you re analyzing, your lover s face or your breath. It doesn't really make any difference.
Taming the Beast
Be realistic about the time you will consistently devote to spiritual practice. Then cultivate the intensity factor your capacity to effortlessly sustain deep absorption.
You say, I'monly going to be meditating for three minutes and I'mgoing to bring my whole being to those three minutes. Your mind will say, OK I can do it for three minutes. If you try to sit for an hour you ll end up fighting with your mind. Struggling with your body. More inner conflict isn't the goal of meditation. You need to get your mind your untrained mind on your side. So, you commit to a short duration.
After those three minutes, the mind will say, Hey, I can do that for longer. But, you answer from the position of the healer, the compassionate and detached guide of the mind and say, I know you can. But today we're only going to do it for three minutes.
Why? Because you want to gently and consistently build your capacity to be effortlessly and fully absorbed. And to do this you have to deal with the mind skillfully. You want the mind to become convinced that I could do that for longer .
Instead, people decide I'mgoing to do practice three hour practice and then their mind is impatient, When will it be over? Can we stop now ? This is not skillful. Reduce the duration and focus on the intensity side, which is really the magic key.
Look at your experience. If you re happy with everything as it is, please ignore everything I say and just continue your life because you ve found the secret. But if you notice dissatisfaction, or find yourself in repetitive struggles over and over again then emotional freedom is something to investigate. Through meditation and by looking at our lives deeply, we find that the struggle is primarily self-generated.
Freedom from struggle and self-induced suffering is not found through thinking or through emotion. If thinking worked, we d all have figured it out. If emotion worked, we d be free.
We need to touch a deeper level of consciousness. All of our thoughts and emotions are conditioned by personal and our cultural history. We ve been taught what to value, what matters. We ve been taught what s right. We ve been trained to react to life and that training is not producing happiness. Look around! It doesn't take a genius to notice this. The world is in turmoil. But look more closely . . . the mind is in turmoil. So we need to do something with the mind. We need move our mind from the level of conditioned emotionality and thought to a deeper level. That level is called the feeling state.
A feeling is a state of consciousness that has no personal or cultural history associated with it. it's a pure experience. You have already touched the level of feeling many times.
I see people touching the feeling level any time I walk to the ocean at sunset. As people watch the sun disappear into the Pacific, they become absolutely still and are effortlessly absorbed in the beauty of the moment. In that profound absorption they enter the feeling state. But then and this happens almost every time someone speaks and says, That s just like a painting. That s like a movie!
In other words, they move from the primary experience, which is the feeling of beauty, to a cultural or personal association with it. They retreat from the state of pure feeling into the level of thought and emotion. But in order to free ourselves from our patterns, we have to do the opposite. We have to move the center of our attention from its entanglement with thought and emotion from the conditioning of our history back to the feeling state. Meditation is the process for making this shift.
Meditation Makes Life bland?
Sometimes people worry, If I meditate and get into this peaceful balance, my life will become bland and lose all of its color. The answer is no. Actually things become more vibrant and alive, but less reactive and struggling. The feeling state that is attained in meditation is very intense. So intense that it can heal the wounds of the past.
To do this though, we have to find a place within us that is deeper than emotion a level of awareness that isn't conventionally discussed in most forms of psychology I spoke about earlier. it's a state of consciousness that we call the feeling state.
The Feeling State
Again, we distinguish the feeling state from thoughts and emotions in that the thoughts and emotions are framed by our personal or cultural condition. I have an aunt who never liked dogs. Today she lives in a nursing home and even as her cognitive capacities have degenerated over the last few years, she still doesn't like dogs. She s been emotionally conditioned that way. Another example: My aunt and my mom had a really difficult relationship. The two sisters really didn't get along and they didn't talk to each other for the last twenty years of my mother s life.
Now my aunt doesn't remember why she s mad at Roslyn anymore. But if I say Roslyn she gets upset. She s got this emotionally conditioned reactivity to the symbol Roslyn . And she has no idea why.
To be free, we have to be able to meet and experience the difficult, the reactive emotion without being reactive to it. So we're back to building the capacity. As we build capacity, we learn that there s a feeling place in us, a place where we are able to relate to life very beautifully and directly, unencumbered by our personal or cultural history. When you touch this place, you experience the unconditioned nature of life. Such experiences are almost always described as sacred and special moments in our life. We're in the presence of something so real and powerful that we shift out of our thinking and emotional mind and we just have a direct experience of the beauty of life itself. That experience is then encoded in our memory as, Wow! That was an amazing, beautiful, liberating. I felt free! Yeah, you were free. You were free from your history.
To make contact with the unconditioned feeling level of life is transformative and liberating. Then, the art of spiritual life is to bring that unconditioned feeling state say of peace into your daily life. The idea isn't to retreat into meditation. Remember the yogi went into the cave to practice and then came out into the world as a healing and beneficial presence. That s the path for most of us at this time in history. That s the challenge of these times, as well: How to bring the wisdom, beauty, creativity, and peace that we contact in our meditation out into our lives.
There are no preset formulas for doing this. Each person s path is highly unique. The path starts exactly where you are in the very conditions of your life psychologically, emotionally, financially, relationship-wise etc.
it's in the conditions of your life that you begin to build the capacity to be a compassionate and detached witness. it's in the conditions of your life that start learning how to act and show up as a healing presence.
I find this a very liberating notion. It means there s not some place to get to. Rather that this very place where I am is the path itself. This very moment is sacred.
Eric Klein (www.wisdomheart.org) is one of the few people on the planet who is both a lineage holder in a 5,000 year old yoga tradition and a best-selling business book author. You can get a free sampler of his 50 Ways to Leave Your Karma program at: www.wisdomheart.org/50Ways. He lives in Encinitas, California with his wife Devi. Learn more about their work (and listen to their fusion kirtan music) here: www.wisdomheart.org
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Featured image by Esparta.