I was about to start facilitating a meditation the other day and about an hour before, I was struck with the realization that in order to become a lifelong meditation practitioner, it is helpful to know your learning style. As a college professor, one of the first things I teach my students is to learn how you best learn. Essentially, you are either an auditory learner, a visual learner, a kinesthetic learner or more likely, a combination. Schools, whether it be kindergarten to grade twelve or post-secondary institutions, are still mainly set-up for auditory learners. We ask the learner to sit attentively at a desk and learn what is being said by the instructor. Only about thirty percent of the population are auditory learners. The majority of people are visual learners and a very small percentage seem to be kinesthetic learners. Learning styles are very easy to spot. An auditory learner often does not write notes and will question and clarify their understanding of what was said. The visual learner benefits from movement and transitions in teaching. Light and color can enhance their learning and they will often use hi-lighters and underline words in the text. Videos can be particularly helpful. Kinesthetic learners find it difficult to sit still. They need to have movement to facilitate their learning.
You might ask what learning styles have to do with meditation? A common entry point to meditation for people is to use a meditation app like Insight Timer or Calm and others may try attending a group meditation. Many people find learning to meditate to be tedious or even frustrating and many give up long before they start to notice the benefits. If you are an auditory learner, you may really appreciate a guided meditation where you are following somebody's voice or perhaps chanting but if you are visual, you will need the guided meditation to at least have elements of imagery but even visual learners have trouble seeing images in their mind. Many visual learners will benefit from meditations that involve visual focus such as trataka or mahasati or a japa meditation with beads. Kinesthetic learners will benefit from movement based meditations such as mahasati or walking meditations. Kinesthetic learners can practice mindfulness during body practices such as Tai Chi, hatha yoga, or Qi Gong.
When you understand how you learn you can effectively employ your conscious mind in an activity that is most natural to you. It doesn't matter whether you sit in full lotus and focus on sensations of breath at the nostrils (vipassana) or dance and sing in a devotional bhakti yoga practice or count mala beads or do a walking meditation, the practice is always the same: notice that your subconscious mind has taken your attention away and gently guide it back. Meditation, which comes from the Latin word "meditari" means to "concentrate or mull over", is simply the practice of continually using the conscious mind to concentrate on something. If you know how you learn, you are more likely to find meditation practice to be less of a frustrating seminar and more of an enjoyable learning experience.
Here is a learning style inventory test if you are unsure of your learning style.
The title of this blog is an excerpt from a quote by American philosopher and writer, Will Durant. The full quote is, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence ,then, is not an act, it is a habit." Durant who wrote several books on topics ranging from civilization to education to religion, was reinterpreting a quote by Aristotle who said, "These virtues are formed in a man by his doing the actions."
As somebody who spends a great deal of time in meditation practice, I am often contemplating my habits: both good and bad. I know that some of you might take offense to my use of the judgmental words of "good" and "bad" but they are part of our vernacular for..."better" or "worse".
We all know the habits that are good for us such as: regular exercise, a balanced diet, stimulating our minds, and managing emotional or mental stress effectively. We are also very aware of the bad habits: smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating foods that do not have enough nutrients. In many cases we cannot even remember when or why the bad habits started. When examining the literature on addiction, which is very much related to bad habits, there is often a chemical profile that predisposes a person to the addiction. Alcohol triggers the dopamine rush and nicotine attaches the prodigious nicotinic receptors in the body. Either way, the result is a chemical feeling of relaxation. Sounds pretty harmless until a person engages in the practice long enough so that it makes it an automatic habit that becomes not only harmful to the body but really hard to break.
When I went to school, the prevailing theory was that it only took 21 days to break a bad habit or start a good one. More recent studies have caused that theory to be re-considered. It turns out that if a person wants to break a bad habit like watching too much television, that might fit into the 21 day rule but if a person has a chemical sensitivity or the habit is just more challenging or complex, it takes longer. In fact, a recent study out University College London, asked participants to choose a habit they wanted to make and then try everyday to make that change for 84 days. The participants would log their feelings on how automatic it felt. It turns out for the wide range of habits, it took 66 days on average to make most changes.
So if you have been challenged by trying to break a bad habit or make a good one, it might be that you are stopping before it becomes habitual. We cannot rely on our conscious minds to break or form habits for 66 days. We need to make this part of the subconscious programming. You can see why most New Year's resolutions fail! Sixty-six days is no small challenge but when weighed against the often deleterious effects of the bad habit, in most cases, it should be enough leverage.
I never really got it. Social media is what I mean. It is probably because I am of that generation where we didn't grow up with social media or the internet. I was twenty-six when I got my first email address. I was, by the previous generation's standards, introduced to technology at a young age. I remember seeing the first Apple computer in my elementary school. It didn't really do much but there was one game loaded on there - Lemonade Stand. The graphics were, by today's standards, ridiculous but we learned about basic commands and how to use a keyboard. I grew up with home game systems like Atari and Nintendo but my friends and I would still go to the mall and play games at the arcade.
Acedia is a Latin word which means “lack of care.” It is further described in Wikipedia as, “A state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one's position or condition in the world.” This condition was first described in monks who, as a result of a solitary life, become afflicted with a condition that prevented them from either work or prayer. The theologian Thomas Aquinas saw acedia as a “flight from the divine.” We have all gone through periods of our life when we feel like doing nothing. Acedia is not a depression but rather a lacking of drive, ambition, and passion. How often have you had that feeling like you just didn’t want to do anything?
It is very common and natural but if acedia continues for long periods of time, the ego may begin to consider this as the new normal.
While Aquinas saw acedia resulting from a running away from the divine, we can see acedia exists in agnostics and atheists too. Those who never believed in a divine force may still go through periods of torpor. Maybe, as suggested at the beginning of this article, it has more to do with living a solitary life. Those who have a strong connection to spirituality or God or some higher power may be less likely to experience loneliness. Of course, our relationship with friends and families can also be an antidote to acedia. It seems connections, divine or otherwise, can give our lives purpose or meaning and be a source of inspiration.
It is greatly concerning that the loneliest generation is the youngest generation. A recent survey, conducted with 20,000 people in the United States, found that people who are part of Generation Z, (the post-millennial generation) have the highest rates of loneliness — even higher than that of seniors. In fact, in this same study, the least lonely group were those older than seventy-two. It may seem ironic that the generation who was born connected to the internet and the World Wide Web is the loneliest. Perhaps the fact that we are social beings and the vast majority of communication in the Generation Z group is through texting and social media apps has something to do with it.
There is a way to experience connection and ameliorate feelings of loneliness – mindfulness. Yes, research (ref: https://www.livescience.com/21867-loneliness-mindfulness-mortality.html) has shown that people who practice meditation for twenty minutes a day feel less lonely. It may seem counter-intuitive that sitting with your eyes closed in a solitary practice can assist with feelings of loneliness but the practice seems to help people feel less lonely – perhaps connecting into a sense of self or spirit or for some, a connection with the divine. If you are feeling like you are stuck in neutral and lack the ambition to go forward, perhaps a meditation practice can help you get in gear and move forward with some ambition.
We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know.
W. H. Auden
Long before yoga emerged as one of six Hindu darshanas, and even longer before the word “yuj” was entered into the Rig Veda, civilizations have experienced strife, starvation and inequalities. The average life expectancy around the time in which the Rig Veda was compiled (1500-1200 BCE) was approximately twenty-six years. Early Hinduism relied on the rishis (“sages” or “seers”) to share the insights they received during meditations to guide the followers. Later, it became the swamis and the gurus who taught the path to attaining moksha. We live in different times now, and most certainly swamis and gurus still have an important role in not only helping the individual to attain moksha, but also to help make a big impact on global problems. To tackle global problems will require not just those who are well travelled down the pathway to liberation or those who have become enlightened, but also the rest of us are required to tip the scales to make the necessary changes. Some of us may take an active role in teaching the eight limbs of yoga in a class and others may lead by example, by taking their practice “off the mat” and living in accordance the yamas and niyamas.
This essay begins with a discussion about accepting the reality that, while the time in which we live may seem bleak, statistically speaking, this is the best time ever to have lived as a human. I will then examine the core issues facing the world today and how the modern yogi and yogini can help to make positive changes by being becoming aware of the issues, taking action and being an exemplar of living a life that is the embodiment of peace, honesty, respect, fairness and balance; in other words, becoming a “yamic leader.” As the quote by Auden so perfectly states, “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know”.
While speaking to the United Nations in 2014, then President, Barak Obama, declared, “This is the best time in human history to be born, for you are more likely than ever before to be literate, to be healthy, and to be free to pursue your dreams". By almost all measures, he was, and still is, correct. Thanks to the development of vaccines and better access to clean drinking water, childhood mortality rates have plummeted all over the world. The childhood mortality rates and average life expectancy in many countries in Africa and other parts of the world, however, are still at unacceptable levels when compared with the rest of the world.
Is there inequality? Yes. Are wars still fought? Yes. Is there disproportional food scarcity? Yes. If you watch the news, it may seem that all measures of health, happiness and safety are lower than ever, but they actually are not. Compare the casualties of the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) and the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949). Each of these conflicts saw losses of life close to ten million people. By contrast, the War on Terror which began after September 11, 2001 has seen losses of approximately 1.2 million lives. Of course, any untimely and unexpected loss of life is unacceptable. Clearly, we still have major problems in the world, and some new ones we have created such as global warming, but in Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, he points out that while the vast majority of people in developed nations report that the world is getting worse, the data simply does not support this assertion. As Pinker puts it, “This bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong — and not just a little wrong but wrong…wrong, flat-earth wrong”.
Part of the problem is when elected leaders describe the current state of affairs as bleak and scary and implore their citizens to be wary of people who don’t look like them or don’t believe in the same things as them, mass paranoia and pessimism begin to bubble up. Over the last fifty years in the United States and Canada, poverty levels are down, almost all health measures are up, literacy is up and overall violent crimes are down. An article written by Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail in March 2018 is titled, “Violent crime has faded in our cities, replaced by fear and distrust.” In the article, Saunders provides statistics to show how, in major cities in Canada and the United States, there have been precipitous drops in violent crimes. Curiously, while the stats show improvements, the public perception and attitude does not align. As Saunders puts it, “Yet this has not brought about an era of urban peace and harmony. These same years have seen explosions of fear, anger, mass protest and distrust expressed by urban residents, especially those of minority backgrounds”.
Of course, there are some major problems in the world which can’t be ignored. In spite of most data showing many areas of global improvement, serious problems remain. According to the United Nations website on Global Issues, some of the most pressing issues are: food scarcity, global warming, refugee migration, gender equality, human rights, poverty, peace and security. It is a daunting list of problems and it would be easy to think that the acts of one person or an organized group cannot make change, but as already mentioned in this article, many positive changes have already been made by groups of people. All change begins with having an awareness and then being optimistic about the ability to make change. Through actions of people, according to the United Nations website, “New HIV infections have fallen by 35% since 2000 (by 58% among children) and AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 42% since the peak in 2004”. The same site also states that global poverty rates (those living on less than $1.90 USD per day) have been “cut by half since 2000”. These positive changes started with awareness of the problem and a belief that that they could be ameliorated.
The problem with awareness can be where we are getting the information. Many news outlets know that sensationalism sells. We must be discerning about the sources of information. Related to this point is the issue of gun-related deaths in the United States and Canada. It may surprise you to know that in spite of the focus on the horrifying mass shootings, most gun violence death is due to suicide (60% according to the Center for Disease Control in the United States). In Canada, the percentage of gun violence deaths related to suicide is 75%. If we are unaware of the fact, we cannot effectively help. Once we have awareness on an issue, we must believe we can make a change. Our minds create reality. If we believe everything is hopeless, we may start leaning towards nihilism and then we are in serious trouble. There are some troubling statistics on rising rates of depression — especially among teenagers — we should be aware of: on average (data from Blue Cross Blue Shield) depression rates have risen 33 percent since 2013 and the largest jump is in the 12-17 year-old group rising 63%. In Canada, similar trends of rising depression rates — especially in teenaged girls — are dramatically on the rise. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists depression as the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. The WHO says there are more than 300 million people suffering with depression worldwide.
So, it begs the question, “If the world is a better place, statistically speaking, why the dramatic rise in depression and high rates of suicide?” It is difficult to understand. The causes of depression are complex and may include: genetics, brain chemistry, past trauma, abuse, some medications and addictions. There also appears to be a relationship between depression and feelings of loneliness. A recent survey, conducted with 20,000 people in the United States, found that people who are part of Generation Z, (the post-millennial generation) have the highest rates of loneliness — even higher than that of seniors. In fact, in this same study, the least lonely group were those older than seventy-two. It may seem ironic that the generation who was born connected to the internet and the World Wide Web is the loneliest. Perhaps the fact that we are social beings and the vast majority of communication in the Generation Z group is through texting and social media apps has something to do with it. It has been shown in numerous studies that face-to-face communication is what helps to ward off depression by producing hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine. Later in this essay, I will lay out why I think the greatest area of opportunity for yogis and yoginis is in helping those suffering from depression and anxiety related disorders.
At the source of every problem in the world is a human. Whether it is poverty, starvation, global warming, war, or gender inequality, a person or a group of people are to blame. When you examine the global issues more carefully, you could argue that human qualities of greed, dominance, control, power, lack of empathy and lack of compassion are at the core of the problems with the leadership. If you were to think of a person or a group of people with those qualities you might see that this kind of person has some characteristics of narcissism, antisocial personality disorders or borderline personality disorders. While it might seem like a stretch to say that all global problems are the result of psychopathic leaders; it may not be so crazy. Look at the history of ruthless dictators from Pol Pot to Adolph Hitler to Joseph Stalin. Each of these leaders have been posthumously diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorders – they were psychopaths.
Narcissistic personality disorders are characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy. People with these types of disorders could partially explain genocides, wars, lack of equality and lack of human rights but what about other human-caused, global issues such as global warming? According to Jon Ronson, author of New York Times bestseller The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry,while psychopaths make up approximately one percent of the general population, they make-up at least four percent of CEOs and leaders of major industry. A “psychopath” is a diagnosis of a personality disorder characterized by antisocial behavior, lack of empathy and remorse and it is often used interchangeably with narcissist. So, if a psychopath (narcissist) is running a corporation and he/she does not have empathy or remorse and does not care about anything that does not satisfy themselves and shareholders then you can see that concerns about the environment are going to be non-existent.
So, in answer to the question in the title of this essay, “What Can Yoga Offer to Assist the Global Challenges of this Era?” the answer is…a lot. I will now focus on the two main areas I think the modern-day yogi and yogini can make the most profound changes: 1. Participation in peaceful protests against despotic leadership or/and 2. Helping those suffering from depression and anxiety by sharing the practices of yoga. All change must begin from within. We must first become aware of our own short-comings in our own practices. Whether you are working towards enlightenment through Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, or Tantric Yoga, if your practice is irregular or inauthentic it will be difficult to inspire change in others. By practicing what the sages, rishis, swamis and gurus laid out as pathways to enlightenment, we can become lights of leadership. This does not necessarily mean that we must lead by assembling masses of people — but it might; leadership can also be a demonstration of what it means to practice all aspects of yoga on a pathway to enlightenment. This kind of leadership might be assisting one person onto the pathway.
Peaceful Awareness and Action
It is my conjecture that most, if not all, serious global issues are caused by humans who were/are inspired by psychopathic leaders. We must work to replace this kind of leadership with intelligent leaders who embody peace, honesty, respect, fairnes, and balance — a “yamic leadership”. Removing despotic leaders is a challenging thing to do and usually involves conflict but, as history has shown, when masses of people are inspired to rise-up and demonstrate through peaceful actions, change does happen. The suffragette march in 1913 and Martin Luther King’s march in 1963 ‚— both in Washington DC — were peaceful rallies causing massive changes in women’s rights and racial equality. Gandhi’s salt march in 1930 was another example of peaceful protesting which eventually led to India gaining its freedom. A yogi or yogini may identify a problem that is close to them in proximity or close to them in a more heart-centered way. Maybe you have an example of a global problem right in your backyard? In every community in Canada and the United States, and all countries around the world, there are examples of global issues such as poverty, homelessness, inequality, domestic abuse, addictions and food scarcity.
One could start with becoming aware of the global issues in your backyard and then, with a sense of optimism, take steps to make change. You may not be the type of person who will organize a local rally to take to the streets but, if you are, that can be a highly effective tool to spread awareness. We live in an amazing era where we have access to technology that gives us an electronic platform to reach massive numbers of people. Maybe you are better suited to social media campaigns of raising awareness. Once we have awareness about a global issue either in our backyard or in other parts of the world, we have the opportunity to make change — we can take action. Action comes in many forms from invoking democratic rights of election (electing yamic leaders) to fund raising to more hands-on action like construction or making food or sewing. Your skill set will largely determine your awareness campaign and your action. No matter how big or small your campaign, know that you are making a positive change.
Assisting Those Suffering with Depression and Anxiety
As already described in this essay, depression, anxiety and suicide rates are on the rise. I outlined a possible link to social isolation or loneliness and that the most lonely group is the group with highest rates of depression — the youth. While awareness and action campaigns were described above for global issues such as poverty, homelessness, food scarcity, global warming, inequality and domestic abuse, assisting with those suffering from depression and anxiety is something you already have awareness about. Either you have experienced depression and anxiety or you know someone who has. Recall that the WHO says that depression is the leading cause of illness and disability worldwide. The number one reason for suicide is depression. If we are going to make global changes, we need a healthy population to assist with the heavy lifting of change making. In a recent health survey in Canada, 11% of the population between the ages of 15-24 reported suffering from depression requiring medical treatment and the second leading cause of death in this age group was suicide.
Perhaps participating in activism with global issues such as poverty or homelessness did not resonate with you; activism to assist those suffering with depression and anxiety should because if trends continue, we won’t have the healthy masses to make the changes. The good news here is that, since you are reading this article, you likely are already doing something which has been shown to dramatically help with depression and anxiety — yoga. I am not just talking about anecdotal reports. There are reams of studies published in some reputable, peer-reviewed journals showing objective improvements in people suffering from depression and anxiety when practicing yoga. In some of the studies, they actually delineate the different aspects of yoga and whether they studied: asana, pranayama, dhyana or some combination such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). There are improvements over control groups and, in some studies, improvements over pharmaceuticals. We also must not discount some of the intangible benefits of a yoga class such as creating the sense of community and face to face interaction. It seems that the younger generation may need this more than any other generation.
While there does not appear to be any cure or effective treatment for adult psychopathy, there does appear to be effective treatment of juvenile psychopathic tendencies. A meta-analysis of mindfulness techniques (mindful movements, vipassana, mindful meditations) in an article titled, “Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Young Offenders: A Scoping Review” published in the October 2018 edition of Mindfulness concluded, “Studies found some improvement in various measures of mental health, self-regulation, problematic behaviour, substance use, quality of life and criminal propensity”. Perhaps yoga can be a tool to assist our youth in modifying behaviours before they become intractable, adult psychopathic traits.
In this essay I have pointed to research which shows that the world is a better place by almost all markers compared to any point in history. There are however some things that are not better and in fact getting worse — depression, anxiety and suicide rates among the youth. It is my opinion that one of the greatest global problems facing our planet at this time is the dramatic increase in rates of depression, anxiety and suicide in the youth. In addition, I have described how all global problems are human problems and at the source is often leadership with narcissistic traits. Fortunately, as yogis and yoginis we have been shown a path that not only can lead to our personal enlightenment but can, in fact, assist with global problems. I have suggested that activism to replace narcissistic leaders with yamic leadership is important but also to become yamic leaders ourselves and in areas which we identify as problems, create awareness and make change.
Those who have practiced yoga know of the benefits as the body, mind, and spirited become yoked together. We now know through scientific studies that aspects of yoga such as the asana, pranayama, and dhyana have been shown to assist with feelings of loneliness and we also know the mechanisms by which these practices change structures in the brain and affect hormones related to chronic states of stress. We needn’t be zealots but gently lead by example to sensitively assist those suffering from depression and anxiety by showing them a pathway which we know can help ameliorate the biggest problem facing our planet today.
I know talking about Jordan Peterson these days puts you in one of two camps: those who love him and those who abhor him. I have often found that when somebody is really polarizing, I want to try and understand the person even more. One cannot really pick a side in any debate without fully understanding both sides of the argument. If you were to search online for "Jordan Peterson" you will find countless pages and posts directed at him positively and negatively. Around our house, Peterson is often the subject of great debate and discussion. In order to participate in the "Peterson debates", I wanted to be more educated. I was becoming concerned that people seemed too quick to quote sound bytes either for or against his views but there seemed to be an unwillingness to examine both sides.
A few months ago we downloaded his book, "12 Rules for Life: an antidote to chaos." We decided to listen to this book on a road trip into the Robson Valley. Some of his rules are straightforward and very sensible. Unfortunately, some parts of his book sound like he was pontificating and proselytizing and there were far too many references to the Old Testament for my liking. As a psychologist, Peterson does have some credibility in actually working with clients and advising them on how to make improvements in their lives; in other words, he is not just another academic whose philosophy and theories have not been tested.
Rule #4 is a rule I actually find myself applying each day. I have always been interested in self-improvement but sometimes I can get caught-up in comparing myself to others. Rule # 4 states, "COMPARE YOURSELF TO WHO YOU WERE YESTERDAY, NOT TO WHO SOMEONE ELSE IS TODAY." Not only does this simple rule keep the comparison just to yourself but inferred in the rule is that you are just trying to be a better version of yourself today compared with yesterday. I have also been guilty of trying to compare myself to a version of myself from years ago - even decades ago. While in some aspects I am a better version of my former self, in other ways, the realities of aging have taken their natural course. I am physically not the man I was in my twenties! The fact is that we cannot compare ourselves to a version of ourselves from years ago because life changes and the context is different. New careers, new relationships, personal crises, having children, etc. all make comparisons to the past unrealistic and pointless.
In comparing myself to yesterday, I can get a pretty quick assessment of how I am doing. I have some habits I am trying to change and now when I get up in the morning, I say to myself, "Brett, just try to be better than yesterday." Unfortunately for my wife, she has to hear this every morning because I say it out loud; yes, this is one of the habits I am trying to change too! I am a bit too much like an annoying alarm clock that my wife didn't set and most certainly would not have chosen this ringtone! In reminding myself to, "just try and be better than yesterday" I am also setting the bar pretty low. While one might say, "Aim a little higher buddy!" but by setting the bar low, I am actually trying to increase my chances for success. If I were to say each morning, "Brett, today judge nothing and nobody and try to exercise for two hours and meditate for at least an hour" there is almost a zero percent chance of success. Do you know what happens when I feel like everyday I wake up knowing that I have a zero percent chance of attaining my goal? I stop trying.
So while I can't say I am a fan of Peterson - his views are regressive and often sexist, I can say that some of his rules provide some good reminders that we can all help ourselves by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and accepting the fact that life is hard and having some goals and a plan to achieve them is a reasonable "antidote to chaos."
“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” ― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
I love this quote. Mozart is said to have been a genius. As the story goes, he began composing music at age five and wrote his first opera at the age of fourteen. His entire life was about music. His father was a musician and a music teacher. Mozart was immersed in music before he was born and likely never had a day off from either composing, playing, or thinking about music.
I don't know when Mozart was credited with that quote but one can assume he was likely an adult. As a curious person, I am always amazed at how some people can have their whole life consumed by one thing. He died at a relatively young age - thirty-five. The cause of his death is uncertain but medical experts have agreed that his busts of creativity and then periods of depression suggest he suffered from bipolar disease.
When I read the quote over again I think that he might have found solace in the silence between the notes. Perhaps a brief moment where his mind could be calm and appreciate the pause in action before the next note. As a meditation teacher I am constantly reminding myself and my students to take time in as many moments as possible and pay attention to the present moment. I wonder with a mind and a mental state like Mozart, if these moments of silence between notes were moments of mindfulness. The gift of silence is it is a period, however fleeting, where one of the five senses is not bombarded and allows our conscious mind to take notice of the absence.
Our subconscious mind which processes unfathomable bits of information twenty-four hours a day, takes care of running the machinery of our body so that our conscious mind can be freed-up for more interesting tasks like thinking and communicating and empathizing. Perhaps the brief moments of silence is where the creative genius of Mozart came from. The silence was the well he could dip into for not only moments of reprieve from his active mind, but also moments of inspiration.
While we will never likely be a genius like Mozart, we can learn something from people like him. Perhaps the most important lesson from the genius is how to better utilize our minds. Our minds, like a powerful computer, heat up and need time to cool down and recharge. By most accounts, strokes of inspiration or great ideas come from well of silence. As the summer winds down and many people return to a busier time with more routine, hopefully we can remember to take time and listen for the beautiful music that is made in silence.
It has been a few months since my last blog. Siri and I have been busy re-structuring our business lives after selling the Ekahi Center. This has been our first summer without managing the business in nearly five years. We were able to spend some time with our kids hiking and playing in the pool and we just spent eight days in Vancouver. Siri was competing her 500 hour Yoga Teacher Training and I did some yoga, writing, and running. The self-care felt foreign and at times...physically painful.
One of our favourite things to do in Vancouver is to take a baguette, some wine and cheese and sit on the beach. We did this the other night and it happened to be a new moon. During a full moon and a new moon, the tides are slightly more extreme. The alignment of the moon and the sun, as happens in the phase of a new moon, creates a stronger gravitational pull on the oceans. As we sat on the rocks, we were treated to a delightful ocean spray every time the waves crashed in front of us. It was like being on the front of the Log Ride at Disneyland. Speaking of logs!
At some point I noticed a large log making its way along the shore towards us. The high tide had just been reached and I assumed this log must have washed off the beach where it had been placed to protect the beach from erosion. After chatting and enjoying our libations, it was becoming clear that the log as coming closer towards us, albeit slowly. After about an hour, the log had ground its way down the shore and was hung up on the rocks right in front of us. It appeared to be in the middle of a tug of war between the pushing waves and the pull of the tide - now heading out.
It may have been the wine, but at some point, I began to sense that the log was struggling to be set free. I started to anthropomorphize the log. I could see the bark had numerous scars on it and I imagined the bark was like skin. I imagined the scars were sustained when the tree was cut from its life supply. I imagined some of the scars happened when the tree, now called a log, was unceremoniously tossed onto the back of a logging truck to be transported to the beach. Each scar seemed to tell a story.
As I watched the log "struggle" on the rocks, I could barely stop myself from pushing the log far into the ocean. I wanted to set it free from the waves and let the tide take it away. Then it hit me: I was treating the log, not only like a human but also as if I knew what it needed. It reminded me that we can never know what another person's experience actually is. What we may perceive as a struggle, may in fact not be for the other person. Even if a person allows us in and shares their personal experience, it is not our place to "push them off the rocks and free them from struggle." Even if we could do this, our hubris is robbing the other person of the learning opportunity. The struggle is the teacher.
At some point in our lives, we will all get hung up on the rocks. As we get battered around by the tug between the tides and the waves and ground on the rocks; we will all receive some scars. The beautiful part of scars, physical or emotional, is that we can look at them and see how much we have learned and how much we have grown. Like on the log, the scars tell a story. The next time you find yourself hung up on the rocks, try to breathe through the experience and see it as a learning experiencing. Similarly, if you should see a friend or a loved one in the middle of what appears to be a struggle, you can hold space for them but we must resist the temptation to truncate the learning experience and think we know best.
It wasn’t until I came to yoga that I heard the phrase, “Finding my tribe.” When I first heard it used by a yoga teacher, it did not resonate with me, but then again, many “yogaisms” don’t. For example, I also don’t resonate with the oft-used yogaism, “Finding your juicy spot.”
Recently, in one of my meditations, I was presented with a thought that made me reconsider the idea of “Finding my tribe.” Often, when a thought arises in meditation, we chalk it up to a disturbance from the subconscious mind and dutifully let it go and return to a present-moment anchor such as breath-awareness. Having practiced mediation for over twenty-five years, I have become aware that there are different kinds of chatter. There is the subconscious chatter which makes up about ninety-five percent of the noise and, then, as I have learned, there seems to be about five percent of the chatter that is different. This is a voice that is distinctly different. These are thoughts or ideas that pop into mind and seem to come out of nowhere, but under close examination appear to come from a source of wisdom or insight.
In this recent meditation, the message of needing to “Find my tribe” came to me. I wanted to brush it off as subconscious chatter, but after my meditation I dedicated some conscious time to the message. I realized that very early on in my life, I had a tribe – a spiritual tribe that I talked to and connected with regularly. Every day I would connect with my tribe and feel a sense of happiness and peace. As I suspect happens with many kids who know that their tribe is a spiritual tribe, they abandon it for fear of not fitting with the other kids who clearly seem to have a more terrestrial tribe. I spent the better part of my adolescence, teen years, and young adulthood struggling to find a tribe to fit into on this earth but it never really happened. In university I struggled with feelings of profound loneliness. To combat this feeling, I overloaded my sensory systems. I exercised like mad and I drank alcohol to excess. The physical discomfort I felt the next morning was a salve for my much more intense feelings of being lost and alone.
I discovered meditation while in university, and I don’t think I am over-stating it to say that it saved my life. Slowly, I began to have small moments where I did not feel as alone, in spite of the fact that I was sitting on the floor of my dorm room all by myself. I really had no idea what I was doing but I knew somehow I need to be quiet and still. Over the years my dedication to the practice would ebb and flow but in retrospect there was a change happening. About ten years ago in my meditations, I realized that I was not alone. I realized that I was spending time with another entity that would sometimes provide me with important information. It took me awhile to separate the wheat from the chaff but eventually I could see that some of the information was provided by spirit. I realized that the more I got to know this spirit, that this was the guide that introduced me to my tribe when I was a child.
When I was presented with the information that I needed to “Find my tribe”, I realized that I had become separated from my tribe. An, there was importance in getting reacquainted with them. My meditations now are often about the journey back to the tribe. The loneliness has largely abated and there is renewed purpose in my inward and outward journey. I have come to realize that as I relocate my spiritual tribe that many of them also exist in physical form. The journey of going inwards to discover spirit, to re-discover my spiritual tribe, is presenting me with my tribal members incarnate. I notice when we look in each other’s eyes and deep into the spirit, we have become reacquainted. I know I am slowly finding my tribe and I know they come from all walks of life.
We all need a tribe. We are social beings who cannot survive well alone. Increasingly, we are become more and more distant from our tribes. It used to be that people lived more communally and felt a sense of belonging. Now more people describe feeling lonely and isolated and it is affecting our health. This excerpt from Psychology Today, September 11, 2012 exemplifies the importance of the tribe, or the clan, as they call it.
The Power of the Clan
The people of Roseto, Pennsylvania, knew this well.
Back in the 1960s, if you had stumbled upon the small town of Italian immigrants, you would have seen people returning from work at the end of the day, strolling along the village’s main street, stopping to gossip with the neighbors, and maybe sharing a glass of wine before heading home to change into dinner clothes.
You’d see women gathering together in communal kitchens, preparing classic Italian feasts, while men pushed tables together in anticipation of the nightly ritual that gathered the community together over heaping piles of pasta, Italian sausage, meatballs fried in lard, and free-flowing vino.
As a community of new immigrants, surrounded by English and Welsh neighbors who turned up their noses at the Italians, the people of Roseto had to look out for each other. Multi-generational homes were the norm. During the week, everyone went to the same workplace, and on Sundays, everyone went to church together. Neighbors wandered in and out of each other’s kitchens regularly, and holidays were joyously celebrated communally.
The people of Roseto took care of each other. Nobody in Roseto was left to struggle through life alone. Roseto was living proof of the power of the clan. And while they smoked, drank booze every night, and ate junk food, the people of Roseto had half the risk of death by heart attack as the rest of the country, not because of genetics, better doctors, or something in their water supply. Researchers ultimately concluded that love, intimacy, and being part of a tribe protected their health.
John Bruhn, a sociologist, recalls, “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That’s it.”
Then Everything Changed…
As time went on, the younger generation wasn’t so thrilled about life in Roseto, which to them seemed immune to modernization. When the young people went off to study at college, they brought back to Roseto new ideas, new dreams, and new people. Italian-Americans started marrying non-Italians. The children strayed from the church, joined country clubs, and moved into single-family suburban houses with fences and pools.
With these changes, the multi-generational homes disbanded and the community lifestyle shifted gears from nightly celebrations to more of the typical “every man for himself” philosophy that fueled the neighboring communities. The neighbors who would regularly drop in for casual visits started phoning each other to schedule appointments. The evening rituals of adults singing songs while children played with marbles and jacks turned into nights in front of the television.
In 1971, when heart attack rates in other parts of the country were dropping because of widespread adoption of healthier diets and regular exercise programs, Roseto had its first heart attack death in someone younger than 45. Over the next decade, heart disease rates in Roseto doubled. The incidence of high blood pressure tripled. And the number of strokes increased. Sadly, by the end of the 1970s, the number of fatal heart attacks in Roseto had increased to the national average.
As it turns out, human beings nourish each other, even more than spaghetti, and the health of the body reflects this.
Intimacy Is Preventative Medicine
While we are not likely to go back to living in small, intimate communities with multi-generational family homes, the need to find tribe is more important than ever. Lissa Rankin, M.D., lists seven ways to discover your tribe: http://lissarankin.com/7-tips-for-finding-your-tribe.
I would add to this list and put it at the top: Discover your spirit. Our ego can confuse us with who we think our tribe should be. You may want to think your tribe are yogis and yoginis. You may think your tribe is in your church congregation. You may think your tribe is your softball team. Maybe you have found your tribe and maybe you haven’t – only your soul knows for sure. Check in with your spirit and find out. When was the last time you sat and visited? Like the Italian immigrants of Roseto, maybe after work you should sit down with the “person” who shares the “house” with you – your spirit. Maybe your loneliness can be relieved by being guided back to your authentic tribe. Don’t be surprised if your tribe isn’t the group you thought they would be.
Vipassana is a Pali word and the meaning loosely translates into “the right path”. It is also often described as “attaining the insight into the true nature of reality.” Vipassana then, by definition, is a state of attaining insight.
My intent with this article is to provide some clarity around “Vipassana” and the related “Vipassana meditation.” It is also my intent to elucidate how this Buddhist meditation can be synthesized into the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Whether you are a Buddhist or a yoga practitioner or both, meditation is a key path, or limb, on the journey towards Nirvana or Samadhi.
Before delving into the somewhat complicated history of Vipassana it is worth remembering that Vipassana is a Buddhist term – hence the word being Pali. The other important thing to remember is that Siddhartha Gautama, before attaining enlightenment, was a Hindu. When the Buddha attained enlightenment he described a process by which everyone could break-free from the cycle of samsara. He called these the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. After the death of the Buddha, in approximately 483 BC, Buddhism began to spread throughout Asia and eventually split into three main schools: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (Tibetan).
Each of these schools has some differences in the way in which they interpret and actualize the teachings from the Pali Canon. Theravada Buddhists (38% of all Buddhists) believe that the Pali Canon are the only true Buddhist texts whereas Mahayana Buddhists (62% of all Buddhists) weave in additional texts into their teachings. There are several other differences between these two main schools but it is beyond the aim of this article. The other thing that all Buddhists have in common is the practice of meditation as a part of the Noble Eightfold Pathway to attaining nirvana. The two main types of Buddhist meditations are Samatha and Vipassana. It should be noted that a “Vipassana meditation” is not mentioned in the Pali Canon.
The Vipassana meditation has become known as a meditation for gaining insight into the nature of reality or the mind by noticing the breath on the upper lip. Theravada Buddhists focus exclusively on this type of meditation which, over time, gradually spreads awareness to the entire body. Mahayana Buddhists typically practice both Samatha and Vipassana. Samatha, loosely translates as “calming the mind.” To practice Samatha, the student may focus on an object or it may be a process such as the four-level, rupajhana meditation to set the mind at ease. Once the mind has settled, the student then begins the focus on breathing or Vipassana meditation. The goal with both meditations is to gain insight into the nature of reality which could be said to gain insight into consciousness – one of the pathways towards nirvana.
Patanjali who is often credited with developing the eight limbs of yoga, was clearly influenced by the teachings of the Pali Canon. The Buddha developed the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Pathway. Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, known as Ashtanga yoga, gave rise to Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga). Hatha yoga and Vinyasa both have their underpinnings in Ashtanga or Raja Yoga. Both Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga and the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Pathway are very similar. See the comparison below in Table 1.
Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga for attaining Samadhi
Approximately 200 AD
Buddha’s Eightfold Pathway to Nirvana Approximately 400 BC
1. Yama : Universal morality Right understanding (Samma ditthi)
2. Niyama : Personal observances Right thought (Samma sankappa)
3.Asanas : Body postures or poses Right speech (Samma vaca)
4.Pranayama : Breathing exercises Right action (Samma kammanta)
5.Pratyahara : Control of the senses Right livelihood (Samma ajiva)
6.Dharana : Concentration Right effort (Samma vayama)
7.Dhyana : Meditation Right mindfulness (Samma sati)
8.Samadhi : Union with the Divine Right concentration (Samma samadhi)
Table 1. Comparison of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs and the Buddha’s Eightfold Pathway.
One of the main differences between Patanjali’s Eight Limbs and the Buddha’s Eightfold Pathway is Patanjali’s focus on Pranayamas and Asanas. If you were to delve deeper into each of these limbs or pathways, you would note some other subtle differences. Patanjali was less specific when it came to how to meditate whereas Buddhists have generally more emphasis on style and specifics of how to perform the meditation.
It is very popular now for yogis and yoginis to take part in Vipassana retreats. It makes sense that many yoga students are looking for more specific ways to practice meditation. Since it is an important part of both the Buddhist and Yoga student’s journey towards Nirvana or Samadhi, meditation cannot be ignored. Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga and the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Pathways are not à la carte menus. As a yoga student, a yoga teacher, and a yoga studio owner, I am continually surprised when a yoga student says to me, “I am not really into the meditation thing.” It is kind of like a Christian saying, “I am not really into the whole Resurrection part of the Bible.” To fully immerse yourself as a student of yoga or as a Buddhist, dedication to all parts are required.
I teach several meditation classes each week. I do not call myself a Buddhist, but my guided meditations almost always begin with Rupajhana. This four-level meditation is extremely powerful as a tool of Samatha (calming the mind). Once we have reached the fourth jhana, I often transition into a Vipassana meditation to work on gaining insight. These two meditations together are a Mahayana-style of Buddhist meditation and have encouraged the most significant spiritual evolution in myself along my journey towards Samadhi along Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.
If you are looking for a specific meditation practice for your Dhyana, do consider Vipassana or Samatha or Rupajhana. You can learn these meditations by attending a retreat or a local Buddhist temple. I came to yoga from a long history in meditation, which I now see is not as common as people who come to meditation from exploring Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Most people I have met in my yoga journey, come to yoga for the asana but those who stay in yoga, stay to follow the path along all Eight Limbs. If your journey through yoga does encourage you to learn more about Dhyana and all the limbs of yoga, it is my hope that this article provides some background into the weaving of Buddhism and the Raja School of Yoga.
In peace and love,