If yoga and meditation practice don’t practically enhance our lives at the level of nitty-gritty details – like arguments with our wives and husbands – then what’s the point?
A while back I was getting geared up for an argument with my wife. She left me alone with our 5 month old for two hours with no way for me to contact her. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have no problem being alone with my boy – I love it. And, despite this incident, my wife is the best in the business as far as the mama thing goes (and she is kind enough to bear with me as I use our personal life as food for blogger-thoughts). But, as all parents know: eventually the little buggers push even the best of us to our limits with sleepless frustration.
In this case anger arose due to my inability to give my child what he needed and the belief that my wife put me in this position of vulnerability by making herself unavailable at a time when I thought she shouldn’t have. There are some things I simply can’t provide for Rudi, namely breast milk. When he’s hungry there is not much else that will do the trick. Plus, we live in a communal setting and it was late, so the baby’s crying was likely to wake everyone else up. To top it off, I had a fever with all its accompanying aches and pains.
All told, in other words, in rational terms I had reason to be frustrated.
However, I also knew that the anger that was building inside me was not going to help matters at all. I could feel myself getting hot and tight in the chest. I was motivated to relax because I knew that the degree to which I could would enable the baby to calm down and go back to sleep. So, I employed a simple yet very effective practice. With each inhale I would repeat internally, “Clear mind” and with each exhale, “Don’t know.”
This simple meditation exercise is as easy at is can be profound in its effect, though it is greatly complemented by a hatha yoga practice. In classical tantrik yoga we hold postures for a long time. Not only does this build an incredible force of internal power that any practitioner knows is far more “complete” than mere weight-lifting strength, but it also trains us to withstand ever-increasing amounts of sensation.
We all know that our physiology changes with emotion. But, maybe we don’t consider that emotion changes along with our physiology. In anger we experience rising heat, quickened heartbeat and respiration, shakiness, and we may even “black out” in rage. When our reactivity is so physically visceral it is almost automatic that we will be compelled to do something – sometimes anything – to blow off some steam. So, we may find ourselves yelling at our wives, saying something nasty, or worse yet, handling our babies with a “Shut the f—k up and go to sleep!!!” demeanor.
But, if we have practiced hanging out in yoga postures for long holds then we have had some experience with not moving despite our discomfort. We grow more able to tolerate more intense sensation without compulsion to react. In stead, we have the presence to choose when and how we move out of the pose, and hopefully we learn to do so with grace and elegance. Then, we can use this reference point of practice as a resource when we are feeling driven to emotionally react and are out of control.
Choice is the key. It is what makes or breaks us as humans. We can choose to be simple, open, compassionate and direct, or we can choose to be assholes I suppose – if we wanted to. But, I find that most often when I am acting like a total jerk it is not because I have chosen to be, it is because I am in a state where I am unable to choose. I am reacting. I am compelled to express myself in defensive and/or aggressive ways based on habitual patterns that have hardened as my “personality” when I don’t have the presence of heart to be aware before I get involved.
When I find myself “waking up” already in the heat of the moment I am then caught in a chain of karmic tension that will require some skill in unwinding. Or, in more simple terms, I realize I have said or done something that I regret.
Meditation practices, like “clear mind, don’t know,” give us awareness-space in which to choose and yoga practice gives us the container for powerful energies so that they don’t just automatically spill out.
In the case of that night with my wife, each time thoughts would pop into my head about the specific words I would use to tell her off when she got back to the room I would return to the exercise. I told myself, “I’ll have the words I need when the time comes, I don’t need to ‘loop’ on these thoughts.”
As an aside, don’t we all do this so often: “loop” on thoughts about things we want to do, say, remember, etc? To live a more relaxed life we must learn to trust that when the time is right we’ll do what need to do, say what we need to say and remember what we need to remember. Thus, by breathing more deeply and slowly into my heart area, and using the “Clear mind, Don’t know” trigger to help empty my mind of thoughts, I was able to quickly calm my physiology.
The body, mind and emotions are all linked. We can use our awareness of this body-mind-emotion link to disarm unwanted feeling-states. In this case there was a problem with my emotional center: anger was rising out of control. It would be too difficult at this point to try to settle the emotion directly, so I focused on the other two aspects of this equation, the body and the mind. Most importantly I was able to calm the body with the awareness of the breath and relaxing tensions. Calming the body is sufficient to appease all aspects of this body-mind-emotion chain. But, for good measure, since my thoughts were really spinning, I gave my mind something to do by repeating, “Clear mind, Don’t know.”
By doing this it actually became impossible for me to be angry.
You see, just as much as anger is associated with increased heart rate, heat, etc., so too is the opposite true: if the physiology is calm and the heart rate is normal one CANNOT experience anger. Now, when we are pissed it only makes matters worse to try to not be angry. We have to actually DO something. What I have described above is just one simple example of something we can do.
It is important to note that by saying, “Clear mind, Don’t know” I was not like Mr. Kostanza on Seinfield who eventually blew a gasket by repressing his anger using the “Serenity now!” mantra. In fact, quite the opposite is true. By practicing this method many times one develops confidence that being present, in the “clear mind, don’t know” state, is actually the most skillful way to meet our life situations. So, when my wife returned to the room I was able to communicate with her clearly, but also considerately. I was able to keep things in perspective because I was not being ruled by my emotions. When we try to engage with others when we are emotionally facilitated things almost always get worse.
This also doesn’t mean we need to be spiritually-passive pushovers who only speak in slow, soft, cadenced tones… There is a manner of being direct and even sharp that is at times appropriate while still being compassionate. In dharmic view we often make the distinction between anger (limited and divisive) and wrath (unlimited and connective).
Every so called “negative” emotion has a contracted form and an expanded, virtuous quality. When anger is let go of, what remains is clarity. Thus, by “driving a wedge” of awareness between “me” and “my anger” I was able to settle myself… the anger dissolved of its own accord and what remained was clarity. So, we didn’t need to stay up “processing” this matter for 3 hours. Instead, we talked for about 3 minutes and reached a mutual understanding. Then, how much better than going to sleep upset, we spent about ten minutes “making up” (okay, maybe it was only 4 minutes!) before returning to each others’ side of the bed for a good night’s rest with our sleeping baby between us.
Finally, it should be noted that one of the reasons I was able to access the fruit of this “clear mind, don’t know” practice so quickly was due to practice. We learn efficiency with tools by using them more often. When emotional reactivity is already in the stage of full physiological symptoms it is not likely that one would be able to detach so quickly from the emotion without having established familiarity with a method to enable this result.
To expect this stuff to work we must set aside some time to practice it when we are not in a stressful situation. Then, having tasted the experience of “clear mind, don’t know”, for example, we can learn to apply it when the crap hits the fan. Also, by taking time to settle ourselves in this way each day, we will grow less and less likely to become so emotionally reactive in the first place. This will greatly increase our health, longevity and happiness as we more often avoid the toxic overload of chemicals that stream through us when we are emotionally facilitated.