One Thing At A Time

There have been several recent studies, like this one, that have definitively proven that multi-tasking is not only inefficient, but also Publication2-page-0harmful to the brain. Frequent or chronic multi-taskers use their brains less effectively than folks who focus on one task at a time.

This, of course, is not news to ancient Yogis who knew the value of singular focus and a less cluttered brain. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali talk about training the mind to focus on one single principle or object.

Despite the research, multi-tasking still seems to be a badge of honor and something that is highly valued in a prospective employee. It may take a few years for the research to catch on, but in the meantime we can all benefit from unlearning this “skill”. Not just in our work life, but in our personal lives as well. So much of each moment is missed when our brains are occupied with things that have happened, are happening simultaneously, or will be happening.

Like any habit we’ve formed, in order to change it, we need to form a new habit by repetitively and mindfully choosing to focus on one thing at a time. A regular and comprehensive yoga (meaning, ALL of yoga, not just asana) practice is a good way to train the mind for singular and directed focus. By giving our brains the opportunity and space to focus on our breath and only our breath we begin the hard work of retraining ourselves to operate more effectively and efficiently in a world that is built around multi-tasking.

One breath at a time, one moment at a time, one thing at a time.

Advertisements

Enthusiasm + Compassion

I’m back from Hong Kong and the Asia Yoga Conference, dear yogis. It was a fantastic trip and a great experience.

I spent seven straight hours with Sri Dharma Mittra and, as I imagine many people are, was thoroughly moved to be in his presence. The man is pure heart and a living example of dedication. He imparted many gems of wisdom in those hours and hopefully my quickly-scribbled notes will allow me to share them over time.  (I also spent two wonderful hours with Jason Crandell. More on that as well in future posts)

This man is 73 years old!

Today, though, I wanted to share his most frequent and passionate message: enthusiasm and compassion in your yoga practice and in your life will lead to Realization*. It seems so simple because it is, and yet as anybody who has attempted to be enthusiastic and compassionate in everything they do knows,  we can make simple much more difficult than it needs to be.

Enthusiasm can be defined as “absorbing or controlling possession of the mind by any interest or pursuit”. For me this definition is a bit revelatory as I had never considered the role of controlling the mind in being enthusiastic. According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one definition of Yoga is “the ability to direct and focus mental activity and the ability to still the turning of thought.” Looking at these two definitions, it is clear how interconnected the two are.

Finding and maintaining enthusiasm about our practice and our life requires focus; what do we want? what do we hope to gain? what do we hope to refine? Without this focus, enthusiasm and joy will wane. How can we maintain enthusiasm and focus?

By applying compassion towards ourselves and others. Compassion involves not only commiseration, mercy and tenderness but is a feeling always accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate suffering. The ability to be kind to ourselves, to recognize when we need to move away from the plan we’ve laid out for ourselves and perhaps shift our focus onto other things, as well as to recognize that a loss of enthusiasm and/or focus (i.e. suffering) is not something we should berate ourselves for, but rather an indication that it is time to reassess, time perhaps for a change.

I think sometimes in our culture, specifically in competitive settings, we see focus as an ability to remain fixed on a goal in such a way that we are able to ignore everything else around us. While this may be useful for winning a race or a  job or a contract or a client, we have to ask ourselves, if we focus to the point of exclusion of all other sensations, how holistic and balanced can our approach be to life? And is it possible to maintain enthusiasm if we are ignoring so many other parts of ourselves? Eventually, whatever we’re ignoring – our bodies, our families, our spiritual life – will need to be addressed.

What if instead we see focus,  not as a mental override, but through compassionate eyes as a mental attunement? Something that clarifies our path as we move forward, rather than something that keeps us on a path we may have chosen. After all, we can always change our mind! Changing our mind does not necessarily mean we lack focus. It simply means that we see things differently and/or more clearly than we did before and are making necessary adjustments.  In this way focus allows us to find harmony among our physical, energetic, mental, intellectual, and spiritual bodies.

This is what I’m pondering now, dear yogis. As I said, I have lots more to share from the conference and specifically my time with Dharma Mittra, so stay tuned.

Namaste.

 

*more on Realization in a future post

 

 

The Yoga of Korean Temple Food

A major bonus of living in Korea is undoubtedly the food. It is simple, colorful, mostly healthy, and often spicy. All of my favorite things.

Korean temple food is the cuisine that has developed in Buddhist temples around the country. It is vegetarian and like all other Korean food, simple and healthful. What makes it such an experience to enjoy, though, is the focus on balance, moderation, and pleasure. There are generally small amounts of many dishes, each dish meant to satisfy different taste buds. There is a seemingly perfect combination of sweet, salty, tangy, bitter, and savory. The food itself is served in a beautiful way, the colors of the food varied and balanced. Some dishes are served hot, others warm, others room temperature, and some cold. There are many different textures.  A meal of temple food is a completely satisfying sensory experience. And because all of the senses are completely engaged, it becomes a very mindful experience.

Yogis have long known the importance of eating with mindfulness and intention, of managing the senses, and of caring for the physical body as a way to ensure the health of the mental and spiritual bodies as well. Temple food is right in line with the yamas and niyamas (attitudes and behaviors towards self and others) which Patanjali laid out in the Yoga Sutras. From the yamas of non-harming and moderation to the niyamas of purity, contentment, and discipline.

How and what we eat is a big part of our life, considering we do it every day, usually at least 3 times a day. And the choices we make do affect our body, our mind, and energy, our intellect, and our spirit. Aphorism 2.43 of the Sutras says that it is by living a disciplined and well-balanced life on all levels that we achieve “perfect mastery over the body and the mental organs of senses and actions”. A healthy body and mind allow us to effectively manage both the quantity and quality of our energy. It is this vital energy that prepares the way for connection with the Divine and Ultimate Reality.

Even when we know this, it can be difficult to maintain balance. When was the last you felt you got exactly enough time for eating well , sleeping well, exercising, spiritual practice, and personal relationships? I know I couldn’t tell you.  There have been pockets of  time and moments, but it remains a challenge. I know the goal for me is to have these pockets and moments of time get longer and longer, until there’s no break in between. (I may have to move somewhere with no access to cream for this to happen)

In the meantime, I am feeling so very grateful for temple food. Grateful to have access to it, to be nourished by it, and to learn from it. Each time we enjoy it, my commitment as a yogini to a well-balanced and healthful life is reinforced and nurtured.  You don’t get that from a McDonald’s, that’s for sure.

None But Ourselves Can Free Our Minds

As yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Bob Marley’s death, I had many of his songs in my mind all day, but I kept coming back to this one, Redemption Song. Emancipate yourself from mental slavery … so much easier to say (and even easier to sing!) than to do, no?

Redemption can be defined as deliverance or rescue. I think we’ve all needed to be rescued from our own minds at one point. Or as in my case, daily. The freeing of the mind and emancipation from mental slavery is really the whole gist and purpose of the practice of Yoga, as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. When we realize that we are more than our thoughts, and that until we create a calm, clear mind our thoughts are in fact nothing but mistaken impressions of reality, we can move into deeper levels of experience and being. One of my favorite quotes ever … “don’t believe everything you think”.

This can be very hard in a society that elevates the thinking mind beyond all else. Descartes’ statement “I think therefore I am” is considered to be sound philosophy. So, if you stop thinking, do you cease to exist?

Well, hopefully not, because that is in fact, one of the most important things that we should be learning from our Yoga practice – how to move beyond thought into the experience of Ultimate Reality. I think one of the most common misunderstandings about Yoga and Meditation, and one of the reasons it is feared by various religious groups, is the idea that we are trying to shut off or ignore completely the mind. The mind is part of the greater whole, and as yogis take a very holistic approach to the Self, trying to rid oneself of the mind would be, not only harmful, but also futile. Instead, through our practice we strive to change our relationship to thought. As our mind becomes clearer and calmer, we begin to see our thoughts for what they are: impressions.

Each day what we see, smell, hear, taste, touch sends messages to our brain, and from this stimuli, our brain produces thought. Everybody’s brain is doing this all the time and the result is a lot of different thoughts about the same stimuli.  For example, I am a vegetarian and the smell of sausage makes me feel sick. So, when I smell sausage I think, “disgusting!”. For somebody who loves sausage, the smell of sausage makes them think, “delicious!”. So, is sausage disgusting or is it delicious? It is both and it is neither. Sausage is just sausage. This is a very basic example but it doesn’t take much extrapolation to see how something so simple can cause a mistaken impression of reality. If I accept my thought about sausage as truth then from there I might think that anybody who likes sausage likes disgusting smells and flavors. And if they like disgusting flavors, they may also like other things that I find distasteful. And then from there I can imagine how different we must be, and before too long you arrive at the age-old disagreement between vegetarians and meat-eaters. Both sides think the other side is strange and wonders, “how does anyone live like that?”. We can’t even enjoy a meal together because we are SO different! But then what happens when the person who loves sausage gets pregnant, and suddenly the smell of sausage also makes them feel sick? Or if a vegetarian gets pregnant, and suddenly they crave sausage? Has the fundamental nature of sausage changed? Of course not. Sausage is just sausage.

If we trust all of our thoughts we very easily begin to move into the “us vs. them” mentality. We start to define ourselves and others by our differences . Again, the smell of sausage is a somewhat silly and very basic example. But think about all the ways in which we humans define ourselves as “this” or “that”: Politics, Religion, Gender, Sexual Preference, Race, Ethnicity, Citizenship, Lifestyle. Our minds trick us into thinking we are all so very different when in fact we are all the same. We are all expressions of Ultimate Reality and the only differences that separate us are the ones we ourselves create.

Having just arrived in a new country this idea of differences has been very much at the forefront of my mind. It would be very easy to look around and notice how different everybody and everything is here. And, believe me, I have done my fair share of that. It is, however, just as easy to look around and see how similar everybody and everything is here. People are people are people are people, driven by the same thing no matter where you go – love and connection.

So, if none but ourselves can free our minds, how do we do it? Yoga, of course! (my answer for everything) When we begin a Yoga practice, we’ve already taken the first step. First, we free our minds of ideas about our limits. We learn to stop thinking, “I can’t”, and instead begin to accept that we are not as limited as we thought we were. Then as we begin to do more than what we thought we could, we learn to stop judging how it looks and we realize that nobody is judging us as much as we are judging ourselves. We stop wondering, “am I doing it right?”, and start noticing, “this FEELS right” or “this FEELS wrong”. Eventually we get to the point where when we come to our mats, we cease to notice our surroundings. Our focus is so great that the entire Universe exists there in that moment. We experience Ultimate Reality. And when we leave our mat, having experienced this glimpse of Reality, we are transformed. We go out into the world and slowly, over time, begin to see it for what it really is – everyone and everything in it – an extension of our True Self. We are Ultimate Reality. Each one of us.

How’s that for emancipation and freedom? Thanks Bob, you yogi you.