For Thanksgiving: Two different vulnerabilities that lead to eating more than we want to

Coincidentally, I came across this passage in Jack Korn field’s “A Path With Heart” on the morning after Thanksgiving just as I was wondering what had driven me to eat more than I wanted or needed or than was healthy the day before:
We can feel for ourselves how fear, judgment, and boredom are all forms of aversion. When we examine them, we see that they are based on our dislike of some aspect of experience.
Boredom is a form of aversion? It makes sense, but I never connected them before. Boredom and fear, two expressions of one primal emotion.  
This passage spoke to me because I had blamed a lot of my eating on Thanksgiving on boredom: sitting around making small talk or waiting for people to arrive with nothing much else to do. Except snacking. But now I asked myself: what was I afraid of? What did snacking help me to avoid?
Kornfield goes on to discuss another of what he calls “demons”: desire. Of course we also overeat because of grasping, wanting desire: it was not boredom that drove me to have those 3 slices of pie, but instead the false promise of fleeting pleasure that comes with desire.
I blogged about this type of grasping — and Iyengar take on it — previously. But it is helpful to now realize that unwise/unmindful consumption can come not only from grasping desire, but also — alternatively — From fear or aversion.
The next day I went to a restaurant with friends and they ordered some appetizers. I did not want to eat too much and was not very hungry, yet again, I felt driven to reach for the snacks. This time, though, I stopped and thought: what am I avoiding? Am I afraid of just sitting with my friends — being with them with maybe nothing to say and no activity like snacking to occupy me? And as I looked at my friends with this thought, I knew the answer was No: I am happy to be with them. I was struck by a deep gratitude for my friends and for the wonderful day.  
A small triumph: turning aversion to enjoyment merely by taking the time to examine my thoughts. Something to remember next time I reach for a chip! Thanks, Jack!

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How yoga helps us be truly free – not just doing whatever we want

Some notes from a yoga class I took 3 years ago on the subject of freedom:
The teacher was talking a lot about freedom.  And she said freedom is not about just doing whatever you feel like doing — because then you are actually being captive to those internal forces that cause you to feel like doing one thing or another — cravings, desire, neuroses, fear, etc.So to really be free is to first free yourself of all of those internal drives — discover what it is you really want to do and then do what the intelligent self really wants to do.  That’s freedom.

And of course in order to do that first takes discipline – turning inward – focus on the self, the breath.

So first: free the mind with yoga; then let the intelligent self guide your action.  That’s real freedom.

Maintaining Yoga Practice Through Physical Pain

For the last two months, I’ve had lots of physical pain.  First a knee gave out, followed by surgery.  Then my herniated disk flared up, causing continuous mild to severe pain in my shoulder and arm.  So I’ve spent a lot of time considering how to maintain my yoga practice through this pain.

I’m not so much talking about Asana practice.  It’s fairly obvious that if your body is fragile, you need to be careful with Asana: don’t overdo it; back off if you have pain.  At the same time, Asana can be an excellent way to heal your body if you focus on alignment and practice with mindfulness and compassion.  Iyengar’s Asana practice, for example, was intended in large part to heal physical ailments.

And I’ve had practice with this before, so I am reasonably good at adjusting my Asana practice for physical ailments.  When I had a kidney removed and my abdominal muscles severed, I could barely sit up but I could still practice viparita karani.  (A great pose for anyone who says they cannot do yoga every day: you can always put your legs up the wall – that’s yoga!).  And I’ve dealt with knee stuff and neck stuff for years.

But for me, what’s harder is maintaining the yamas and niyamas.  Pain makes me want to take the easy way, to comfort myself, to wallow.  Pain makes it easy to forget Ahimsa and to lash out or be impatient.  Pain makes me want cookies and chocolate and to self-medicate with a margarita or a scotch, setting aside Aparigraha.  Pain makes it hard to focus and to act mindfully and with Tapas, or to take the time to concentrate on Sw-adhyay.

So what’s the answer?  I am far from having conquered my pain, but I have found some relief in the yamas and niyamas themselves.  Great solace can be found in Ishwar-Pranidhan: relinquishing concern about the self and turning my focus outward to appreciate the wonder and divinity of all things.  Buddha is reported to have said “suffering is real. You have to face it, live with it. There is no escape.”  But there is no need to be mentally consumed by pain.  Accepting it and then turning to other things is the best I can do.

Something else that helps is chanting and Pranayama.  Pure meditation is just too hard for me when I have pain.  But practicing breathing exercises can help me take my mind off the pain and at the same time relax my muscles, infuse the body with oxygen, and perhaps ease some of the discomfort.  Lately, I have also really enjoyed the Gayatri mantra.  For a time I took an early morning yoga class from a teacher who chanted the Gayatri every morning. Since then, the sound of it takes me right back to that time: to sunrise when hardly anyone is awake and the time is just for me and my practice.

I would love to hear other ideas anyone else may have: how do you maintain the yamas and niyamas through a period of physical pain?

Iyengar’s metaphor: smoothing the mound on the floor of the lake to calm the waters of the consciousness

In Light on Life, Iyengar has a metaphor comparing consciousness to a lake, and explaining that over time, repeated bad habits can cause mounds at the bottom of the lake that result in secondary ripples in the surface above the mound.  I have long been puzzled by the metaphor and felt like I didn’t really get it – what is the sand? And how can our actions create a mound on the bottom of a lake?
Later in the section he explains that “The practice of yoga is about reducing the size of the subliminal mounds and setting us free from these and other fluctuations or waves in our consciousness.”  So clearly this is important stuff!  Yoga citta vritti nirodha!
And he explains that the way to do this is with yoga: asana, pranayama, meditation.  But I have had trouble fitting these into the metaphor: how does one smooth amount of sand? What corresponds to asana or meditation in this metaphor?
But last week I had a kind of a revelation while sitting on a beach gazing at the water – the whole metaphor makes sense now and I can see why I thought about it so much – because it has so much potential to be helpful.  As I sat by the water there was a little ridge under the sand that, as in the metaphor, was disturbing each wave and causing extra waves and fluctuations, making the water more chaotic.  As I gazed at it I realized the action of the water was exactly like what I see in my mind when I am able to meditate and stop labeling thoughts with words: random movement caused by reactions to sounds, feelings, and other movements of the mind.  The consciousness, like the water, is reactive: a reflection of all the forces it encounters.  We have very little control over it, very few tools at our disposal to help smooth the fluctuations, but if we use those tools we can make tiny changes that, over time, can help smoothe the mounds in the sand.
Here is how I understand it – apologies to Iyengar if this is not exactly what he meant, but I find it helpful even if it’s a slight variation:
  • One tool we have is breath.  Breath is like the wind on the lake – if is is gusty, the water will have chaotic waves.  It it is fast, the waves will be higher.  But if we can smooth it and slow it, the waves will be smaller and more regular.  This does not directly smooth out mounds in the bottom, but it can stop them from growing by avoiding the repetitive beating of touch waves on the trench in the sand.
  • One tool is meditation.  Our day is full of thoughts.  Ideally our thoughts help us accomplish our goals, but often they are merely reflections of the reactive mind.  It’s like we are every day canoing around on the lake.  Maybe we have a goal to get to a certain place on the lake and we often paddle toward that place, but the waves on the lake are strong and we often find ourselves just paddling in the same pattern around the same part of the lake every day.  So our voyage in the canoe is like our thoughts — often the canoe is almost rudderless, simply moving in reaction to the currents below it.  And often we are paddlinf furiously but, again, solely in reaction to the current and not necessarily toward our goals.
  • Meditation is when we mindfully stop paddling and simply watch the water; observing the current and the movement of the canoe in the absence of any intentional direction.  
  • So when Iyengar says that our habitual thoughts often cause the mond on the floor of the lake to get bigger, it’s like if we are canoing past this spot every day, and every day we encounter the current caused by the mound, and every day we paddle furiously in response to the current – but our furious paddline is simply increasing the mound.
  • So meditation can do two things to help smooth over the mound on the bottom of the lake.  First, it at least stops us from building the mound higher with our furious paddling.  And second, by taking a step back and observing the lake and the current, we may be able to see another path toward our goal that does not require fighting the mound-created wave.  

Dancing, drishti and dharana: Discovering the sixth limb of yoga by learning to dance

My wife and I had a chance to dance to a live band the other day – such a blast!  And she said afterwards: “you are always such a good dancer even if you don’t know what you are doing.”

I don’t think she realized but a number of years ago she would have said just the opposite:  my dancing was stiff and awkward even if I had the steps down,  and I remembered that this change in my dancing did not happen gradually, it was sudden and involved yoga.  So I looked up my notes from the experience and found them from 2011:

A couple weeks ago I had great success dancing and it was because I made myself really present in the moment.

But what was really interesting was the way I put myself into that state.  It was like flipping a switch.  And I realized this is the same switch in my mind that I have eased in balance poses in yoga.its like I can put my ,IMS in this very present state at will — but until now I’ve only used it for balance poses.

So how to access this in daily life ?  One thing I do in the poses is gaze on a drishti point.  That’s not what causes the state, bit it helps me recall it.  But there is an internal analogue to the external drishti, a sense of focusing the mind internally and refusing to be distracted, that I can actually feel like it’s physical.  It’s not about the eyes, but still it involves an unwavering internal spot of focus.  

Reading these notes I realize I have stumbled upon the sixth limb of yoga, dharana.  Here is a good post about how drishti is a key component of dharana.

Why does it make us happy to do good things for others?

In 2012 I was well into my career with a very demanding litigation group at an international law firm.  The most demanding partner of all took me and another associate to an uncharacteristic casual, non-working lunch.  This partner liked to engage people in challenging intellectual questions even in casual settings.  
This day he asked whether it didn’t seem that the whole idea of superego and id might be wrong because the things that we are “supposed” to do actually are the ones that make us happy.  Why does it make us happy to do good things for others?

What the partner was saying exactly dovetails what Yoga teaches .  Here’s what I’ve thought about it since then, and then we can see about what Yoga really teaches:

I think that the goal of yoga is to come to know the true self, which is in a sense universal, and through that knowing to achieve peace, happiness, and equanimity.  One way to come to know the true self is to practice compassion.  I think maybe that’s true for 2 reasons: 1) the true self is designed to connect with others to work together — we’re pack animals, after all — so connecting with, understanding, and helping another person is deep in our nature and practing that part of our nature helps us connect to our true self.  2) compassion involves learning about another person’s will, needs, and desires.  SInce our brains are designed to categorize things, as we see these things in someone else, we automatically recognize how they are similar to or different from our own will, needs and desires, and our brains automatically highlight the commonalities — since the true self is in a sense universal, understanding common needs and desires helps us come closer to the true self.

But why does this make us happy too?

Well, I originally thought maybe it’s because coming closer to our true self makes us happy.  That’s true, but it’s more of a peaceful kind of bliss.  So you do get that.  But there’s a simpler explanation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – pack animals — anything we do that makes us feel helpful to another person is going to make us happy in the same way that bringing a child a toy or opening a door makes our dog wag her tail.  So both explanations are true.  Also, just any sense of connectedness, of being together with another person and sharing an experience, will make us happy — especially when that person is a stranger.  Why is that?  Maybe for the reasons discussed above — that learning about the hopes and cares of a new person gives us deper insight into what it means to be human and to live in the word. 

In a deeper sense there is a  spark that is in all of us, our will, and that it is so unknowable and awesome that you can study it forever.   Compassion is a religious exercise because it helps us understand this will / spark of divinity that is in all of us, and thus to start to understand how will gets corrupted as it is translated into action.
To stop that corruption is to understand the true self.  And that’s Yoga.

Great list of 7 compassion practices from a 2007 ZenHabits post

Here are the 7 practices but read the entire post at Zen Habits for context and key insights:

Morning ritual. Greet each morning with a ritual. Try this one, suggest by the Dalai Lama: “Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.” Then, when you’ve done this, try one of the practices below.

Empathy Practice. The first step in cultivating compassion is to develop empathy for your fellow human beings. Many of us believe that we have empathy, and on some level nearly all of us do. But many times we are centered on ourselves (I’m no exception) and we let our sense of empathy get rusty. Try this practice: Imagine that a loved one is suffering. Something terrible has happened to him or her. Now try to imagine the pain they are going through. Imagine the suffering in as much detail as possible. After doing this practice for a couple of weeks, you should try moving on to imagining the suffering of others you know, not just those who are close to you.
Commonalities practice. Instead of recognizing the differences between yourself and others, try to recognize what you have in common. At the root of it all, we are all human beings. We need food, and shelter, and love. We crave attention, and recognition, and affection, and above all, happiness. Reflect on these commonalities you have with every other human being, and ignore the differences. One of my favorite exercises comes from a great article from Ode Magazine — it’s a five-step exercise to try when you meet friends and strangers. Do it discreetly and try to do all the steps with the same person. With your attention geared to the other person, tell yourself:
Step 1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in his/her life.”
Step 2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.”
Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”
Step 4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”
Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”
Relief of suffering practice. Once you can empathize with another person, and understand his humanity and suffering, the next step is to want that person to be free from suffering. This is the heart of compassion — actually the definition of it. Try this exercise: Imagine the suffering of a human being you’ve met recently. Now imagine that you are the one going through that suffering. Reflect on how much you would like that suffering to end. Reflect on how happy you would be if another human being desired your suffering to end, and acted upon it. Open your heart to that human being and if you feel even a little that you’d want their suffering to end, reflect on that feeling. That’s the feeling that you want to develop. With constant practice, that feeling can be grown and nurtured.
Act of kindness practice. Now that you’ve gotten good at the 4th practice, take the exercise a step further. Imagine again the suffering of someone you know or met recently. Imagine again that you are that person, and are going through that suffering. Now imagine that another human being would like your suffering to end — perhaps your mother or another loved one. What would you like for that person to do to end your suffering? Now reverse roles: you are the person who desires for the other person’s suffering to end. Imagine that you do something to help ease the suffering, or end it completely. Once you get good at this stage, practice doing something small each day to help end the suffering of others, even in a tiny way. Even a smile, or a kind word, or doing an errand or chore, or just talking about a problem with another person. Practice doing something kind to help ease the suffering of others. When you are good at this, find a way to make it a daily practice, and eventually a throughout-the-day practice.
Those who mistreat us practice. The final stage in these compassion practices is to not only want to ease the suffering of those we love and meet, but even those who mistreat us. When we encounter someone who mistreats us, instead of acting in anger, withdraw. Later, when you are calm and more detached, reflect on that person who mistreated you. Try to imagine the background of that person. Try to imagine what that person was taught as a child. Try to imagine the day or week that person was going through, and what kind of bad things had happened to that person. Try to imagine the mood and state of mind that person was in — the suffering that person must have been going through to mistreat you that way. And understand that their action was not about you, but about what they were going through. Now think some more about the suffering of that poor person, and see if you can imagine trying to stop the suffering of that person. And then reflect that if you mistreated someone, and they acted with kindness and compassion toward you, whether that would make you less likely to mistreat that person the next time, and more likely to be kind to that person. Once you have mastered this practice of reflection, try acting with compassion and understanding the next time a person treats you. Do it in little doses, until you are good at it. Practice makes perfect.
Evening routine. I highly recommend that you take a few minutes before you go to bed to reflect upon your day. Think about the people you met and talked to, and how you treated each other. Think about your goal that you stated this morning, to act with compassion towards others. How well did you do? What could you do better? What did you learn from your experiences today? And if you have time, try one of the above practices and exercises.