February 13, 2012

Straight Walk Down the Middle Path, Home. ~ S. Ashley Hunt

How many of us remember things how we want them to be?

You are retelling a story to a friend, and you are excitedly explaining a confrontation you had with a co-worker. You say, you said this…and then your co-worker said this… and then you wanted to say this, but you did not. When you retell your friend the story, you tell it as if you did say that awesome comeback, and the tone of your voice implies TAKE THAT! HA!”

I have most certainly done that. I never meant to lie or embellish the story, but in the heat of the moment the rewritten story just comes out of the mouth as truth…What is this all about? I didn’t even have time to consciously edit the story. My mind selected the edited version, as if it really happened. “In a sense, when we remember something, we recreate a new memory”[1] I rewrote history as I was reliving the story and telling my friend all about it. “ Several scientists now believe that memories effectively get rewritten every time they are activated.”[2]

 What does this mean about the clarity and validity of my memory and discriminating faculties? How do my faculties of perception, or even my recollection of perception, affect my behavior? For instance, when remembering a previous love relationship, or a horrific event in the past, we can experience physical sensations in the body and thought forms in the mind. This recall is a mental recreation of the past event, taking place in a different point of time. If we rewrite memories with each mental recollection, does this mean we have the mental power to rewrite our physical and emotional associations to the past? “Memories transform our perception of the present, but the process is even more nuanced and layered than that: reactivating memories in a new context changes the trace of memory itself.”[3]

Memories and learned behaviors affect how we interact with the present moment. Lack of awareness causes our associations with the past to shape who we think we are. Every time we relive the stimulus of a memory, the brain retraces the previously formed neurocircuitry of this past event. These synaptic connections are subject to the subtle differences in our mind, body and environment of the present causes and conditions which are inevitably different from the time of the memory. As these two ideas parallel one another, we can now take an active role in redefining our own connection to the past, and the construction of ‘the self’. We have the mental capacity to simulate a memory and change our associations by controlling the present stimulus, and being fully aware of the circumstances within the present moment. We can rewrite our own relationship to the past and ‘the self’, by strategically coupling awareness of the present moment and memory recollection. Sounds like a bizarre matrix-like sci-fi experiment. Spiritual seekers, monks and sages have been activating this methodology through meditation and spiritual practices for thousands of years.

Yasodhara Ashram is a magical place situated in the West Kootenays of British Columbia on Kootenay Lake. The ashram’s founder was a female of the Saraswati lineage, Swami Sivananda Radha. Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, her Guru, told her to return to the west and communicate the truth of yogic teachings to westerners. With no money, and no plan, she left India to live the words of her Guru. While living at Yasodhara Ashram in 2009, I learned a walking meditation technique called The Straight Walk. The guidelines of the straight walk are vague for a reason. The practitioner has optimum space to observe the mind and body. Start at point A and walk to point B. Turn your back at point B, and then walk back to point A. The object is to walk towards, and then away from ‘something’, while observing how the mind and body interact in the space between point A and point B, and within transition points. The walk takes place in intervals determined by the practitioner; five-minute walk between the points, and then a five-minute free write of your experience and observations. Repeated as many times as the practitioner sees fit. The yogi becomes the experiment and the scientist simultaneously.

My name is Susan Ashley Hunt, and I am a recovering bulimic.” I avoided therapy at all costs throughout high school and college. I convinced myself it would not work for me, and I had to heal myself. I was living with my parents, and at a very low moment about three years into the emotionally sick habit, my mother found food and purge remnants in my toilet bowl. I had not cleaned it well enough. With nowhere else to turn, she threatened to kick me out of the house and put me in a rehabilitation center. I slowed the habit down, in order to not be caught again, until I went back to school. I graduated college, unhappy with a distorted view of reality and myself. Yoga and its healing power lead me to Yasodhara Ashram, to live and participate in a yoga development course.

While living at Yasodhara, Swami Sivanada, a resident teacher at the ashram, described the straight walk with clarity and then said, “Now go do it.” As I ran to a quiet place, I knew exactly what I was going to walk towards and away from. Point A would be a healthy, happy, smiling version of myself. Point B would be me, on my knees, with my head over the toilet, bottom of the toothbrush down my throat, purging with tears running down my face. “…the process of memory recollection is layered and very complicated.” That is most definitely the truth, all I knew was when times got rough, I turned to binging and purging. It was the action that satiated my mind when layered conflict and undecipherable emotions arose in my life. This is precisely the reason I chose the situation for the straight walk. I wanted to examine the undecipherable black hole of emotions that dictated such destructive behaviors. Here I was in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, confronting the biggest issue in my life. I visualized the memory, reliving it, in a controlled and mentally mindful circumstance, where I gave myself the space to observe.

The hour-long walk was filled with strong sensations, epiphanies, low points and an array of emotions. “…emotions can flood the consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.”[4] Reliving the purging memory in an aware meditative state of observation, delegates the power of association to a clearly functioning cognitive system. Within this clarity and clear function, JUDGEMENT FREE AWARENESS arises. As the yogi, and the active participant in the meditation, I conducted a controlled experiment. This time the variable was not the landslide of gripping emotions, but the penetrating engagement in the present moment.

As I walked I let myself feel, digest and observe. I walked towards and between mentally cultivated images of myself purging, and myself in a happy confident space. I walked with a sense of curiosity and freedom between the two mentally cultivated symbols. Walking between these two points revealed the physical and emotional progression that lead to each state. This recognition gives my clear and aware cognitive ability the power to distinguish either mental trajectory in the present moment. The straight walk allows the emotional systems and the cognitive systems to function in equilibrium. Restoring the power of choice, we have the choice to choose who we are in every moment, the present moment. Do not allow ignorant emotion and associations to the past dictate who you are, choose to STRAIGHT WALK all the way HOME.

All we have is NOW…“Live your life in such a way as to get yourself straight, to get free of attachment that just keeps sucking you in all the time.” – Ram Dass

Photo credit: Path

Sources and Links:

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life By: Steven Johnson

The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life By: Joseph LeDoux

– Link to Straight Walk Workshops @ Yasodhara Ashram:

[1] Johnson, Steven. Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

[2] Johnson, Steven. Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

[3] Johnson, Steven. Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

[4]  LeDoux, Joseph E. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.

S. Ashley Hunt has been studying and practicing yoga for the last 8 years. Ashley has her Bachelors of Arts in Hinduism and Buddhism from Trinity College, CT. She continues her graduate studies at The Goddard College in the Individualized Masters of Arts program with a concentration in Consciousness Studies. Ashley has been teaching yoga for the last several years in yoga studios and within academia. Last year Ashley taught her own yoga philosophy curriculum to Trinity College undergraduates. A class formatted to the setting of a liberal arts New England college where the academic study of yogic ideology is coupled with the practice of yogic techniques. Ashley is also a current participant of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, and will be a certified UZIT by this coming March. Ashley completed Lilias Folan and Katy Knowles 200 hr teacher training and is currently studying for her 500hr certification with Lila Yoga. She has taken many a master training with Para Yoga-Rod Styker, and respects the authenticity and clarity of Rodney Yee, Colleen Yee, Roshi Joan Halifax, Richard Freeman and Richard Rosen’s teachings through her work with Urban Zen Integrative Therapy. Blessings and love to Turner Hunt, Tracy Hunt and Ducky Hunt, Ashley’s family will forever be in her heart.

This article was prepared by Assistant Yoga Editor, Soumyajeet Chattaraj.

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