In my early-thirties I became increasingly curious about spirituality and other practices that appeared to offer the promise of calm and inner peace. I’d spent most of my life mired in distractions, chasing achievements, self-improving; always fighting the feeling that I was late to the party and came wearing the wrong outfit. If I wasn’t spending late nights on the job to make my mark, I was frantically trying to raise my intellectual bar higher to cultivate an urbane mind to pad my accomplishments. I was a classic Type-A personality of the species hubris overachieveritas academicus. I was bright, clever, and capable, but also chronically unhappy, anxious and agitated. I never felt relaxed and constantly battled the urge to psychologically slip out of my own skin.
I was aware of exotic “new-agey things” like yoga and buddhism, and attracted by the sense of calm and groundedness it offered, but was skeptical. I believed people who were outwardly calm were seething cauldrons of rage just waiting to boil over – like me. I was convinced the world was going to shit, that it was ruled by thugs, thieves, and troglodytes, and that all with a conscience were right to be pissed off about it. The idea of “mindfulness” and dubious fitness trends like yoga were soothing antidotes for personal setbacks, but weren’t contributing much to end the insanity I perceived as the undoing of the human race. It never occurred to me then that the locus of my perception of insanity, my grim outlook, was at the heart of the problem.
Today, I accept many things are beyond the grasp of reason, especially in human affairs. I don’t presume my mind is capable of accurately diagnosing the world’s ails or fabricating ideas to fix them. That project is flawed in intention and doomed by its very design. I aim to be one less active part of the problem by taking steps to become more mindful of how I conduct myself; a task which must necessarily begin by banishing a half dozen pathologies from my mind.
In my twenties, I was unknowingly doing my best to soil the planet with well-intentioned, but objectively dodgy ideas and conduct. These days I do my best to apply mindful restraint to prevent the unleashing of my culturally pre-ordained sociopathy on the world. I am aware of habits of mind that influence my perception of things, which leans far too readily to the grim and cynical. I began to let go of trying to fit the world in my mind and force it to unfold according to my plans. It’s made for a much more calm and peaceful existence, and yoga and meditation are what brought me to that place.
Before I took up the practices I would have easily tried to intellectually shake down a Buddhist or a yogi to debate them about the virtues of their “religion.” I mostly thought of spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and Desmond Tutu as good people on the whole, but fatally flawed in a way that simply had been well hidden from public view. I gave them props for spreading a positive message – the left-of-centre ideologue in me was attracted to the rebellious, emancipatory spirit of “Free Tibet” – but I wasn’t buying what I they were selling. Christopher Hitchens’ bilious assault on the alleged fraud of Mother Teresa’s crusade against poverty was emblematic of the kind of cynicism I harboured about “spiritual” movements, which I viewed as one of many in a string of dangerous assaults on reason.
As much as I thought sitting on a cushion doing nothing but “relaxing” and putting my legs behind my head was – logically speaking – ridiculous I was still intrigued by the promise of inner peace to fully discount the ideas. By my mid-thirties, when life had handed me a few more disappointments and unexpected turns than I anticipated, the abysmal coping mechanisms of my “reason” had me desperately craving a piece of the Peace I heard was within my grasp but did not really believe. I may have been suspicious of the Dalai Lama, but his happiness and radiance, in spite of living in exile and witnessing the cultural genocide of his people, suggested he was doing something right. It seemed worth a try.
My initial curiousity was piqued by falling into an old habit: I did a lot of reading about buddhism, meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. I bought some buddha statues and put them around my home. I bought a couple yoga videos and went to a hot class or two. I even contemplated getting a buddha tattoo. I listened to Dalai Lama talks on CDs. Like a good North American I started the process of spiritual exploration by cultivating an identity around my sense of what it meant to be a peaceful dude without actually being a peaceful dude. However, the same basic message of the books I dug into over pints of beer and bags of chips was unavoidable: practice, practice, practice. Don’t read, don’t ponder, don’t muse and banter about meditation or yoga, they implored. Do a regular, disciplined practice.
I felt initially that this kind of approach was too soft to achieve much. Plus, I was reluctant to fully embrace being nice and mellow as a way to smooth over my abrasive persona. My ego had hardened around the idea that it was me against the world and I was apprehensive about softening the armour I’d put up, especially in my line of work at the time. I didn’t want to be a tree-hugging pushover. I was also an ardent rationalist, genuinely frightened of becoming a blinkered bliss junky. My identity was caught up in the idea that there was virtue in being a skilled, consummate critic. To a degree, maybe there is, but I found that it just dug me deeper and deeper into a pit of negativity that was difficult to crawl out of when I wanted relief; when I wanted to not be angry and indignant, to let loose, just for while.
In spite of my negative, cynical self, in 2006 I gave yoga and meditation a real college-try. I haven’t looked back. Sure, there have been ebbs and flows in the regularity of how I practice. I am a quick-fix Westerner, after all.
Certainly, I’ve slipped into old habits of negativity – they were thirty-some years in the making. But I’ve stuck with it and the practices have changed my life for the better. I am happy to report that I can still reason and judge, I just do so with a more open mind and come away from the exercise without being singed by a seething cauldron of outrage.
This Work is no Walk in the Park
Even now, seven years after exploring a meditation and yoga practice the thought “what
bloody good is all this?” still creeps into my mind. The doubt is especially intense at six in the morning at Mysore, when I am falling over balancing on one leg while holding the other suspended in the air by the toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana). My pride is shaken when, from across the room, my instructor catches me stealing a furtive glance at the sublime curves of the down-dogging yogini in front of me and quietly, calmly exclaims “look at your nose, Edmund.” Many mornings as I struggle to get my arms to wrap behind me and around my knee and fold into a forward bend (Marichyasana A) I muse about the relative attractiveness of sleep in my cozy bed and curse myself for the decision to come so early to a room of organic farts, sweaty, unwashed bodies, and the amplified Darth Vader din so characteristic of Mysore class.
Some mornings I fantasize about driving back and forth over my zafu cushion as I sit in the wee hours, the sleep still in my eyes, with feet that have ceased to exist and knees that feel like they’ve been through a New York Yankees batting practice. I feel my frustration starting to build as I obsess about my grocery list, remember bills I have to pay, and re-hash conversations where I wish I’d said something more poignant, more funny to score points (usually with a woman who is much too young for me). I find myself repeatedly humming the same annoying jingle, or realize I am mentally masturbating on the image of the yogini in front of me at yesterday’s Mysore class and feeling embarrassed for having been busted by my teacher.
My timer rings and I have to fight the feeling of failure about the fact that, over the past thirty minutes, I’d had maybe three minutes of darn good focus on my breath and twenty seven in the jungle swinging from tree to tree, beating my chest and throwing shit like the unruly monkey my mind happens to be. The success is that I sat there. I got those three minutes, which is better than nothing. I also became a little more familiar with what makes my little Curious George throw shit and get jumpy. It’s insight I can use later on.
This inner-focused, meditative stuff is maddeningly difficult for me, and I’d bet its probably so for most constantly distracted, perpetually busy North Americans. It was much easier training to run half marathons than it is to sit and focus on the breath and mindfully set the body in various poses. It was hard to keep up a good practice when I was suffering emotionally during the early stages of my separation and sobbing in a perpetual state of semi-catatonia.
This is all to say that sometimes – often, frankly – it isn’t easy work. Yoga isn’t just “stretching” – especially if you choose Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flow. Meditation isn’t just “thinking.” Meditation definitely is not as glamourous as the posters of a peaceful saffron-robed monk sitting serenely in front of a giant Buddha statue in an exotic Asian locale. Yoga is not as glitzy as the photo-shoots of air-brushed naked toe-sock-wearing yoginis depict. Both are a lot more gritty than that in reality. There’s pain, and sweat and lots of frustration. There are tears, anger, and eventually, laughter.
I am grateful for the serendipity that got me sun-saluting on the mat and sitting on the cushion; that compelled me to give it a try and to stick with it when at first it really sucked. When I was lamenting the fact that my life had turned to shit back in 2006 and I wanted to hurl myself off a bridge, instead of blanketing myself in booze or addiction I just said, “what do I have to lose with this buddhism and yoga stuff?” I started to regularly roll out my yoga mat at home and practiced to yoga videos from a box set that someone had given as a gift. We didn’t really do yoga and I remembered looking at the DVD box set thinking, “Isn’t Muriel Hemmingway an actress, and who is this Rodney Yee guy with the really long, healthy hair? What are these two waifs going to teach me about fitness?” I gave it a try anyway.
At the same time, I started going to dharma teachings and soon signed up for meditation retreats. I sat for a meditation session daily, no matter how short. For the first time in my life I started to experience genuine calm, even if only ephemerally. Old habits die hard. I wasn’t a walking dove and giving hugs to the homeless, but I could see changes in the way I was coping with things that had, in the past, sent my mind in a cycling frenzy.
I am glad I had the faith to just try it and stick with it, even though “results,” whatever I thought they’d be, were hard to come by. I am able to say without any equivocation that, if I had not spent the previous years cultivating a robust meditation practice before I separated from my wife in late 2011 I would not be writing this article today. I’d be in a pine box, or dust in the wind. I simply did not have a positive outlook or any functional method to bring me out of my tendency to stew in the cycle of negative thoughts and emotions that so easily germinated in my mind. When I first separated from my wife, a woman I’d been with eighteen years, the seeds spawned in my emotional garden were of the hemlock variety.
Negative thoughts and emotions still arise – that will never change – but after I’d taken up yoga and meditation I no longer instinctively repressed them under the din of activity or distraction. Nor did I get so wrapped up in them for as long as I had before. I became more able to confront my strong emotions about things and just let them be without needing to “do something” about them. It was extraordinary progress in my level of self-awareness and emotional growth.
I won’t tell a lie, I’m not even close to being the next buddha. I am still far too enamoured of bacon and the taste of other inhumanely slaughtered flesh tearing to pieces between my teeth; I am still neurotic, slightly compulsive, and just a tad more indulgent than I should be because of my Attention Deficit Disorder. I’d have to bribe someone on high to claim just a sliver of real estate on the spiritual pedestal. I am too flawed to be a sage, and I’m just fine with that. There aren’t any bodhi trees where I live anyway, so I’m out of luck.
At the same time, I am much less a slave to my neuroses and the dysfunction they perpetuate than I used to be. I am not the negative person I used to be, nor am I so easily attracted to other negative people. If I can change, anyone can. The change can occur without over-reliance on anti-depressants and psychotherapy, which leave you with wait gain, a loss in libido, and quite a few bucks lighter in the wallet. The point I want to make here is that there is something else to try. Work at it, and give it time, and see what happens.
Two months of unlimited yoga classes at my studio costs just a little more than one session with a shrink. Meditation is free – other than the one-time cost of a cushion – and a dharma class costs whatever you want to offer in terms of dana. These are modest investments for sake of one’s well-being and much more assured of results than anti-depressants and shrinks alone.
Carve just twenty minutes away from tweeting, facebooking, porn-surfing, gaming or any of the multiple distractions you’re using to titillate your stimulus-craving mind and use the time to sit in meditation. Instead of beating your body into submission at the gym or on the track, try yoga a few times a week; maybe repair some of the damage you’ve done to that vessel of yours because you’ve subjected it to so much stress and mindless activity.
Instead of hiding under the blanket of meds and psychoanalysis, go on a scavenger hunt. Suss out your demons and look them square in the eyes. See how they look when you’re not running away. All you’ve got to do is sit, or hold a pose and attend to your breath; wait for them to make an appearance. When you’ve done your sessions over and over again with your demons trying to spook you out of your practice, the realization that you’re okay, that you’re still in one piece, will diminish the their ability to mess with your mind. You will win, in your own way. Your monkey will be off your back and on your leash, I just know it.
Just Have Faith – In Yourself
Just do the practices and see for yourself, preferably without fettering your experience with a bunch of expectations about what it’s all supposed to be about. Most of us are conditioned to see every thing we do in the world instrumentally, in terms of how it suits our aims. Not everything worthwhile can be quantified and evaluated like a capital investment, and neither can we apprehend everything that is worthwhile in the world from the jumping off point of our own minds. It’s all really about the process, which you have to allow to unfold as it does for you.
It’s difficult to believe this at first because the practices are deceptively simple and yet extremely difficult in the application. They have to be done with energy, effort, and focus – end of story. Yoga and meditation aren’t rightly approached as part of an ego-project to chalk up another achievement – that of enlightenment. They are, simply put, transformative in such a profoundly positive, impactful way for each who practices.
The only faith required for this practice is in yourself and in the process. If you don’t have a clue what that process is, find a teacher and follow their instructions with diligence. A cautionary word of advice for anyone coming to the practice on the promise of a quick fix: that attitude will be the greatest hindrance to your practice. There is nothing to “fix”. You’re lost, not broken, and the rescue mission is going to take time, especially if you’ve been running away from yourself for a long while.
Practice to free your mind from the layers and layers of conditioning you’ve been subjected to your whole life, that have sent you grasping into the world with endless desire in your heart. You are not the sum total of your cravings and reactions to the frenzied drama of modernity; you are not the hungry ghost of your conditioning. The practice of looking closely into your body and mind will gradually unearth the human being you really are. Aren’t you the least bit curious to know who that person is, after all these years?