"now find your center, notice your thoughts, and let them go . . . "
Ahh the glory of spiritual platitudes . . .
It would not be unreasonable to estimate that students absorb about 10% of what a yoga teacher says, and that 10% varies by student. A beginner may be struggling with balance, so finding center will mean balancing in tree pose. A more experienced student may notice erratic breathing, so the same instruction translates as creating stability in the breath. Seasoned practitioners may apply this concept to purification of susumna, the central channel where energies of the body merge. We all hear what lands within our experiential context, and everything else remains invisible. So how have these sayings become standard yoga vernacular? And do they have any spiritual significance? Find your center This could mean anything from firm your abs to open your heart. Center can refer to a physical area, a point of balance or any number of psychological dispositions related to mental clarity. Buddhists use the term emptiness to describe a clear, compassionate state of mind, while new age Christians might use the term Christ consciousness for a similar state of mental steadiness. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali refers to the unbiased state as purusa, which translates crudely into spirit or soul. He says that ultimately -- through consistent, long-term practice -- mental awareness is refined to reflect an unbiased orientation, as clear and uncolored as a pure gemstone. The senses turn back on themselves and identity is dissolved. The yogi’s objective is to enter this unitive state over and over again, until the mind is trained to recognize nothing else of |absolute| value. Thus the entire process of identification is aborted, and its root cause – the ego-making machine – obliterated. This return to center doesn’t mean we stop tending to responsibilities or experiencing human difficulties. It means that we remember ourselves as abiding presence and, in so doing, the duality of worldly experience loses its seductive power. Noticing This concept is essentially borrowed from Buddhism. Mindfulness and other meditative practices include cultivation of the neutral witness, by which we are encouraged to be the watcher of our thoughts rather than a participant in them. The idea here is that eventually, with intention and repetition, we begin to see the thoughts as simply habitual responses to external stimuli. Unlike modern psychology, thought patterns do not need to be analyzed or deconstructed in order to clear them out of the way. As awareness of the observer becomes our natural state, thoughts do not drag us through their constant emotional drama. The result? An abiding mindset of clarity and compassion. Among the earliest concepts in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali mentions vrittis (tiny turnings of the mind) and says that, fundamentally, we are better off without them. Various meditative techniques are offered to aid the process, leaving the practitioner to choose the most effective. The logic goes something like this: we know it is the nature of the mind to look constantly for something to chew on, so let’s choose something productive and route the mind's activity in a positive direction. In other words, we ‘trick’ the lower mind by keeping it busy, and in the meantime cultivate the higher mental faculty of discernment. Kind of like distracting a barking dog by giving it a bone. In a classroom situation, the physical body temporarily substitues for the later, more refined points of focus. The body cannot be ignored, in fact we constantly track our existence through it. Am I hungry? Am I having an emotion? Is my lower back aching? So, in the beginning, we use the gross physical structure to jump-start the internal process of observation. We train the mind through a process of noticing, starting with the one thing that's stuck to us everywhere we go. Let It Go This unfortunate, overused sentiment has no grounding in yoga philosophy. The concept is respectable enough, but the glib undertone goes something like this: when things upset you, stop having emotions about them. Excellent logical argument, but if it were that easy we would have done it by now. While this concept doesn't show up in early writings, Sri Patanjali does offer specific techniques to deal with difficult emotions. One option is essentially to cultivate the opposite thought of the one you are having. Modern psychology might say, "use the emotional experience as a mirror." (Logic: the thing that most bothers us in others is the thing that most bothers us in ourselves). Another is to practice happiness toward people who are happy (because we feel jealous or entitled); compassion for those who are unhappy (because they are difficult or drag us down); delight in those who are virtuous (because we compare and then feel insecure); and equanimity to those who are non-virtuous (because we find their behavior distasteful). This practice is not to absolve or forgive anyone, but to temper and improve the quality of our own minds. This last cluster is also known as the four locks/four keys sutra (PYS 1.33). Personally, I've made more progress tackling even one of these four than I could have being told to let something go. Buddhists tell us that the mind is a monkey, just waiting to be entertained. So we essentially replace troubling thoughts with something of higher existential value, something that moves us along the trajectory of self-actualization rather than against it. Instead of fighting mental activity, we use the monkey as an ally and garner its participation in creating a healthier thought pattern. It takes time and practice, but it does work. In contrast, the overly simplified instruction to let it go is like asking someone to stop their thoughts; neither can be done on command. As a good friend astutely observes, “I have no problem letting go; it just allows me to get a tighter grip.” These inspired ideas have remained relevant in the human experience for thousands of years. And their wisdom would not have survived without practical value. With consistency, faith, enthusiasm, and a spirit of patience, these platitudes can become power tools for transformation. The resulting internal environment is conducive to observe, reflect, and ultimately upgrade our thoughts -- one tiny whirling at a time.
Jagadambe Mata Ki Jay!