You are Awareness

In my yoga class today, the wonderful Micki quoted from Ramana Maharishi to start and end the class.  I found the quote very moving and have been contemplating it (between some stressful work tasks) today.  So, I thought I would share…

You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things, that is of the not-Self. If one gives up being aware of them then pure awareness alone remains, and that is the Self. ~ From Be As You Are: The Teachings of  Ramana Maharishi

What does this quote mean?  Many people think that meditating or doing yoga is about attaining a state of awareness.   Awareness then becomes a goal, a state of being that we work and effort toward.  Ramana Maharishi tells us here that this is a faulty and limiting way of thinking about awareness.  Awareness is our natural state of being.  It is only because we have limited ourselves (through what we learn as we grow up) that we do not experience this awareness.  If we can let go of these limits, awareness is there.  We don’t have to “do” something to reach it; we have to stop “doing” something.

So, what is it that we need to let go of?  I think, and this seems correspondent with the teachings of R.M., that what we need to let go of is our tendency to evaluate/categorize/separate/individualize.  When we are tiny babies, we experience the self only in the sense of being the self.  As we grow and learn the expectations of the culture, we start to assign labels to the self.  We go beyond the “I am” to the “I am a woman,”  “I am smart,”  “I am fat,” and so on.  In doing this, we also create the false dichotomy between self and other, “I am not you.”  Now, here is where it gets fun.

One of my favorite communication theorists is Gregory Bateson.  Bateson (and others) make the argument that, in Westernized thought, we tend toward dichotomy in our understandings.  This means we think in terms of opposition (as a nice example, consider how few words we have for the states between too opposites – if it is not dark nor light, it is?  – if one is not tall nor short, one is?  – if one is not fat nor thin, one is? – if the food is not great nor horrible, it is?).  We do this in our understanding of self as well.  What is not self is other.  What is other is not self.  And, we tend to think of the skin as the boundary line for self and other (anything in is me… anything out is not).  Small children, before they learn this dichotomy, do not see the skin as the boundary of self.  A toddler is not disturbed at the notion of drooling into his cup and then drinking it, but an adult would be (you can think of all the other examples of this…. I won’t disgust you by writing them here).  This bifurcation of self and other causes us to see our own experiences as “my successes,” “my failures,” “my problems,” rather than understanding the fully systemic nature of being.

Ok, I’m going to depart from Ramana Maharishi here (because there is a lot to be said about his ideas – much of which I only loosely grasp – and I’m too “pragmatic” to be able to fully embrace the theoretical idea that reality and suffering only exist in the mind and that the only reality is the self… when I start to go there, I want to curl up in a ball in the corner)  and talk about what all of this means to me, rather than in terms of his particular teaching.

  • I need to stop continually evaluating myself – I am.  I am.  I do not need to label myself as good or bad or smart or stupid or thin or fat.  I need to just be as I am.  This is particularly good news and a difficult task for me, because I am a constant self-critic.  Even after hearing this beautiful quote and thinking how right it was, I found myself thinking (during yoga) – “boy, I am a crappy yogi… I am never going to do Pincha Mayurasana, I should give up now.”  How nice, very yogic of me, huh?  Let go… Let go. I am not the body. I am not the body. I am. But, this doesn’t mean that I get to just selfishly ignore everyone else to be whatever I want, because of the next point.
  • I am other, other is me, there is no division.  This is a way of thinking and not a physical state, because clearly the things that happen to the physical bodies of each of us do not happen to all of us (though RM would say they do not happen to any of us, really, but our experience of them is what it is, so let’s just go with that for now).  But, if I stop thinking about myself as something separate from others, individual, distinct, it pushes me to more carefully and fully appreciate and consider the world community, and to realize that what is good for others is good for me (because it’s not “someone else’s problem”).  When people all over the U.S. have adequate healthcare, this is good for me as part of the universal community.  So, why would I not want that?  If I treat others with disrespect, I disrespect myself.  Why would I want to do that?  When I help others, I should not do so as a way of being proud of myself (“Look at me, I donated money and I built a house for someone in poverty.”).  I should do so in the understanding that I am the other, and the other is me, and I act to help the self, which is both of us.  It is not something to feel egotistical and proud about; it is just a responsible part of being the universal self.

Whew. There is certainly much more that can be said about this, and I haven’t even been able to fully explain what I’m thinking here, but it’s a nice start.  I am. You are.

LBA

Turn that Frown Upside Down – Literally

I. Love. Inversions.

Image from wilddingo.com

Image from wilddingo.com

If someone would have told me a few years ago that being upside down would be one of my favorite things, I would have thought that he/she was a few apples short of a bushel. Not only did I think that I couldn’t physically do it, I was scared to try. But, it’s true – I love inversions. Based on medical information and traditional yoga thought, there are many benefits to inversion that include:

  • Increase of Oxygen Flow to the Brain
  • Relief of Varicose Veins
  • Improvement in Circulation and Acceleration the Cleansing of Blood and Lymph Fluids
  • Reduction of Swelling in Legs
  • Strengthens the Core
  • Enhances Ability to Concentrate and Remain Focused
  • Repositions Internal Organs Displaced by Gravity
  • Relief of Stress

I find this list to be pretty accurate. When I’m upside down, I can feel the blood draining from my feet and legs; I can sense my circulation changing; I can feel my core muscles working; I can almost feel the stress and tension draining out of my head into the floor. And, even more pleasing for me, I feel happy. I don’t exactly know what it is about inversion, but it makes me so happy, practically giddy! I’m not even very good at most inversions, though I’m getting better from practice, but that doesn’t matter. Even if I’m wobbling all over the place…. Even if my silly spasming muscles are making my legs jerk around like a fish on the banks…. Even if I periodically fall right on my head…. They make me happy!

If all of the other benefits of inversion suddenly disappeared, I would still practice it, just because it makes me feel so good emotionally. If you don’t have inversion as a part of your yoga practice, or if you don’t do yoga on a regular basis, I highly recommend spending a little time upside down. You don’t have to start with a handstand or a headstand. Lay on your back and put your feet up the wall. Or, try a tripod pose (keeping your knees on your elbows). If fear is the issue, try an L shaped handstand.  It’s not much easier in terms of muscle strength, but less scary if you are relatively new to inversions (image from YogaJournal).

Go ahead!  Give it a try.  Grab a mat and head for a wall.  Or, go get your favorite elementary age child and have him/her teach you how to go upside down (kids can do it, because they aren’t so afraid and haven’t learned upside down is not “normal” yet).  If none of those things seem possible, just lay down on your bed and let your head and arms hang down over the side to the floor.  Ahhhh!  The world is so much more agreeable when we’ve viewed it from the “wrong” way for a little bit.

Yours in inversion,

LBA

It's Not Just a Body Thing

Starting last week, on Friday, I’ve been “off” of my yoga routine.  There were a variety of reasons.  Friday my schedule was busy and it didn’t seem like there was time for me to do something self-focused.  Saturday, I took my daughter shopping and by the time I got back, I was in too much pain to do a vigorous practice, and a calm practice seemed wasteful of time when there was so much to do.  Sunday, I was feeling quite ill and had a university function to attend.  So, it’s been days since I’ve done yoga, and boy do I know it.  At the moment, my shoulders are tight (and seem to be somewhere near my ears), my hamstrings are practically crying, my knees hurt, and I’m slouching.  But, even more disturbing is how it makes me feel.

If I manage to get in yoga every day, I’m able to stay quite calm and annoying or stressful issues wash over me much more easily.  If I miss a day here or there, I can feel my nerves start to bunch up a little, but the next day’s class takes care of it.  This many days in a row, however, is just not a good idea for my mental state.  I’ve noticed this summer that I rarely raise my voice to the kids, no matter how pesky they get.  By last night, that certainly was not the case.  My temper was just under the surface, and almost everything was bothering me.  I couldn’t get my mind in a good place.  Today, I don’t feel cranky, I just feel a little sad and tired and wound up.  I know this means that I need a good 60 minute  yoga session for sure.

It’s easy enough to put off exercise or meditation as something that is a luxury and not a necessity.  And, for people who don’t do these things regularly, I’m sure that it seems like exactly that.   But, for those who exercise regularly, it becomes a part of the mental health and fitness process as well.  If I attended weekly therapy sessions with a mental health professional, I would not consider that a luxury.  I would feel it was a necessity for my health.  So, why do I not grant myself that same status for yoga?  I think it’s a factor of my upbringing.

As a child, growing up in a household somewhere between working class and middle class, exercise wasn’t really something that I experienced as an adult priority.  Children and teens played sports, but adults got all the activity that they needed in the accomplishment of their daily activities.  With the exception of weekend yard jart games or some catch with the kids, exercise just was not something the adults around me were concerned with, and people who “worked out” got some rolled eyes.  A variety of studies (I won’t bore you with the cites here) have supported my experience, indicating that individuals from lower socio-economic groups are more likely to see exercise as a luxury engaged in by those who have too much spare time and too little to do. Because women are taught to additionally put spousal or child needs first, before self, that adds an extra dimension of complexity to exercise.  Women feel guilt when taking time “away from” family, and thus exercise or meditation become things that have to be done in whatever time remains after all relational partners are cared for and their needs satisfied.

So, what do we/I do about this?  First, for myself, I really have to get my head around the fact that it’s not optional.  It isn’t a trip to the spa, it’s eating and sleeping.  This is an important part of my daily mental and physical health and should be a priority item, not relegated to the leftover time in my schedule.   I need to stop feeling like a bad wife, bad mother, bad teacher, or bad administrator because I elect to spend this time for myself.  Ultimately, it is to the benefit of my family that I am happy and healthy, but even if it wasn’t, I am worth it as an individual.  If the kids have to have PBJ and apples for dinner instead of salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, so be it.  No one will be harmed; in fact, they will probably like it.  If a few emails have to go unanswered for a little while, they will still be there when I get back.

In the larger scheme of things, we need to create a culture where the value of bodily and mental health are prioritized.  We need to teach and show children that taking time to care for the physical self and the psychological self is not only *not* a luxury, but is a responsibility.  We need to show our daughters and nieces that they are important, not only in the context of relationships, but in their own beings.  If working our bodies in a pleasing, invigorating, and healthy way became as much a part of our cultural understanding of a normal life as eating, imagine what might change… think of how much healthier we would be!  This is the kind of national health plan we need (well, to go along with that other one).

Take some time for yourself today and move your body in a way that eases your mind!