A trip to fantasy island.

Do you ever daydream about being somewhere else? And in that daydream, life is wonderful and you’re wonderful and everything’s… wonderful?

Look at these photos (I command you). These are the types of pictures you’ll find me routinely posting to my facebook profile, along with variations on the caption of ‘gee, wouldn’t it be horrible to be here?’ Not only do I indulge my own longings for escape but I like to lure others along with me.

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Now look at the following photos. These are photos of where I live.

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Am I friggen nuts, or what?? Why would I long to be anywhere else?

Actually, I’m not nuts. I’m just unenlightened (although perhaps there’s not much difference). What is nuts about my incessant fantasising of greener pastures is that it is a gooddamn illusion and not much lasting good can come from it.

Yes, it’s a lovely little visual feast that momentarily sparks excitement within but you can bet your arse if you actually found me sitting in one of these amazing fantasy settings I’d be there with my computer, posting some other facebook picture of some other greener pasture I needed to get to in order to feel completely happy and fulfilled. Oh yeah, I’d be amazed for a day or two but inevitably, when the novelty wore off, the void would re-open and I’d be looking for something else to fill it. Oh, to be free of all life’s insecurities and pains! All I need is to be somewhere beautiful.

Yoga is wise to this insanity. Patanjali (a big cheese in yoga) explains the roots of these fantasy traps through the concept of the ‘kleshas’. Kleshas are largely unconsious earthly desires and aversions we carry with us as we live our lives. These desires blind us to a deeper experience of peace: we’re endlessly attached to what we like and dislike and suffer when deprived; we’re ceaselessly attached to our physical selves so we constantly seek to satisfy our needs and desires through sensory experiences; we’re so attached to ourselves as material beings that we think what is happening outside of ourselves is what mostly affects the inside.

Ergo, if I’m sitting on fantasy island with the sand under my feet, sun on my skin, waves gently lapping at my feet, hot man in g-sting feeding me grapes, and nothing to think or do, then surely all my suffering should cease. I should be instantly content. Life should wonderful.

But if sun, sand, water, and beauty were enough, I wouldn’t be fantasising over pictures of more sun, sand, water and beauty.

The fabulous and insightful meditation expert, Jon Kabat Zinn, wisely said, ‘wherever you go, there you are’. What a smart cookie.

It’s not the environment I’m looking to escape. It’s myself. It’s this inability to simply be where I am, with who I am, without needing to be or have anything more.

Going to fantasy island will never erase my neuroses. It won’t suddenly make me more disciplined, more meditative, less anxious, more kind, more compassionate, more successful, less identified with my ego, less afraid of dying, and all the other mores and lesses I want to have and be. Once the island becomes a reality, the fantasy reignites elsewhere.

Fantasy island is no remedy for suffering. In fact, fantasy island is a trap for more suffering. It deepens the void by deepening the sense of not having enough, of needing more, of needing things to be different, of perpetually chasing something that actually doesn’t exist outside of ourselves.

Fantasies aren’t all bad, when they impel creativity and invention and action. But endless fantasies that can’t be fulfilled create bigger holes.

Voids fill themselves when we let go and let be.

Yoga teaches us how.

(c) The Yoga Experiment, 2013

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The REAL Secret.

006I read The Secret when it first hit the stands and frankly, I wanted to punch it.  That, or wipe my bum with it.  Apparently, all you need to do to have everything your heart desires is genuinely believe you can have it. Of course!  It’s so simple!  If only the starving African children made vision boards filled with pictures of money and food their poverty and starvation would be eradicated for good.  If only cancer sufferers believed hard enough, they could spontaneously heal.  If only we believed it enough, we would never die…

I also wondered this… what if 1 million people bought a lottery ticket and (applying the principles of The Secret) they all genuinely believed they were going to win?  Would they all win?  The Secret and similar philosophies have an out-clause to explain this improbability – if you don’t win, or you don’t get what you want, it’s because you don’t really believe you can have it.  So, I guess most of the time, only one person (or a small few) REALLY TRULY believe they can win the lottery?  They must have superior skills of belief.

I’ll say it loud and with heated passion – I can’t stomach this kind of simplistic nonsense.  Life can’t be abundant and fair for everybody.  Where somebody ‘wins’, there are others who lose – and through no fault of their own but because of the nature of life.  Our needs compete.  This is the nature of survival.

Besides which, is it not incredibly egocentric to think that we, as individuals, have the power to manipulate the universe to our own will?  Life is a complex inter-play of the needs of billions of people.  Why do we expect to always be avoiding suffering and getting what we want?

Yoga will tell us the same.  We can be free of suffering but it won’t be through the manipulation of external forces to get ‘what we want’.  What we can control is our internal reactions to things that happen in the outward universe (allegedly.  I’m still working on it).  Yoga also teaches us to release expectations – it is the ‘hanging on’ to the need for certain outcomes that creates suffering.  We are bound by the fears and disappointments of not being able to accept what is.

As an opponent of fundamentalism, I’m not going to head in the other direction and wipe out the power of positive thinking altogether because that would be bull-headed and dumb.  And besides, I love science, and the science supports a middle ground.

Imagine you believe you are an ‘unlucky’ person.  When you believe you’re unlucky, you effectively become ‘blind’ to luck.  There could be a fifty buck note fluttering on the footpath in front of you and you can walk right past it.  Because you’ve focussed on being ‘unlucky’, you fail to see a lucky opportunity (‘good things never happen to me’).  The belief becomes your reality.  Everything you ‘see’ validates the belief.

Similarly, if you were to focus your attention on positive goals and possibilities you are likely to find opportunities ‘springing up’ in the universe around you.  You might envisage having more money and then walk past that fifty buck note fluttering on the footpath and think ‘See? I put it out there and the universe gave it to me!’  But is that really a wish granted?  Or an opportunity recognised?  What if these opportunities are always out there in the world and your belief didn’t will them into existence, it just opened your eyes to them?

I’m about to pull some science on your ass so put your specs on please. Act academic.

The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a part of the brain that filters sensory information, ignoring the bits that aren’t valuable to you and holding onto the bits that are.  It helps human beings stay focussed on the things that matter to their survival.  And it’s very subjective.  The RAS is a radio that tunes in to the things you put the most focus on. If you put the focus on fear and feeling insecure, the RAS tunes you in to fearful and threatening experiences.  You jump when a door slams.  You find human beings ugly and untrustworthy.  You sense ‘negative energy’.  Nothing ‘ever goes your way’.  Your beliefs paint your world.

If you put the focus on positives or possibilities, the RAS tunes you in to positive experiences and these dominate your perception of your world: you see the beauty in things, you see opportunities to be kind and loving; you see your own human potential and opportunities that will allow you to develop it.  (This can go the other way too though where certain unpleasant realities can be denied).

In essence your RAS creates the world around you.  We see what we believe – these beliefs can be both conscious and subconsious.  This is why it’s a grand idea to focus our thoughts and goals and beliefs about ourselves on positive things and to become conscious when negativity clouds our perception and robs us of progress. This gives us the greatest chance of recognising opportunities. Having said that, this doesn’t mean that if we just ‘think positively’ we will be immune to hardship.  Sorry brothers and sisters, a cold reality I know.  There are things out there in the material world that are beyond our control (although the ego persists in trying to convince us it should and can be otherwise).

But that’s why we have yoga.  We don’t try to control suffering; we don’t deny its existence with wishful thinking and fantasies; we learn how to transcend it by seeing EVERYTHING for what it is. We don’t allow our RAS to trick us into ONE WAY of seeing things.  We don’t allow it to either cripple or delude us.  We can float above the world, looking down on it all without wanting or needing to believe anything.

Sankalpa is one yogic way of orienting the RAS to positive experiences. But there is almost a contradiction in using this yogic tool to create a particular desired experience – if one considers that enlightenment comes from being free of want and desire.  My brain is still chewing on this and will spit out something in the following weeks.

In the meantime, I’m off to buy a lottery ticket (my RAS is choosing to ignore any information out there regarding mathematical probability…).

© The Yoga Experiment, 2013.

Body, mind, gollum…

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I’ve been thinking recently, it’s interesting how the human body reflects mental and emotional states.  Given that the majority of what we think and feel is communicated non-verbally – through our body language – the idea that we hold onto emotion and mental tensions on a physical level is not a mind-blowing revelation.   If we’re having a bad day, we might not hold our head up as high; our chest might cave inward in an attitude of defeat, or of protection; our posture retreats.  On days we’re feeling glorious and impenetrable, we might puff out our chests; walk taller; take greater strides.

Walk with me.

When I was training as a yoga student, I unmasked a previously-hidden fact.   I have always been aware, in a peripheral kind of way, that my posture isn’t fantastic.  But it wasn’t until one of my fellow students photographed my body from the side for a postural appraisal assignment that the reality hit home: I have the posture of a buzzard.

Imagine: head juts forward quite a bit more than is anatomically necessary for a standard human being; the shoulders slump forward, melancholy, as if somebody kicked their puppy.  I look like some forlorn creature slouching around the place with nothing much to live for.  Oh hello Gollum, how are you today?

If I’m honest, my body is an emotional inventory of my life; a snapshot of my mental self-image.  It says, among other things, ‘I am afraid’.

I’m reminded of another phenomenon I experienced during my yoga studies.  Whenever I did shoulder rolls, I felt angry and wanted to stop.  Weird!!??  I’d understand if I was frothing at the mouth during some kind of challenging upside-down- pretzel pose but shoulder rolls?  Gimme a break.  Rolling the shoulders is about as innocuous as taking a breath (unless you’re asthmatic… or have emphysema… bad analogy, forget that one).  But there it was, every time, rage bubbling up from under the surface.

A scientific mind searches for scientific explanations.  But I didn’t have a completely water-tight one, so I blended a little bit of science with a little bit of yoga knowledge, with a little bit of intuition and a chunk of life experience, and came up with a hypothesis.

There are three types of reactions to danger in the human body – one is to fight, one is to flee, and one is to freeze.  I’m a freezer.  I lack the faith in my own strength to either fight or flee; perhaps I lack the self-worth.  Maybe if I stand still enough and squeeze my eyes shut tightly, the cave lion will simply not see me and continue on his way.  Make the body look small, yes!  Now there’s an idea!  Roll the shoulders down, huddle in!  I’m adapting!!

When in danger, in any mode, the muscles in the human body tense up – this is how the muscles prepare to either fight back or to run away.  When you fight or when you run, this fear energy moves, it propels the body into action.  When you freeze, this energy freezes with you.

This is how I hold it.  I hunch the shoulders up and forward, for protection.   I have made a habit of holding my fear this way, mostly unconsciously.  I am always looking out for the cave lion (head jutting forward buzzard-style – is he behind THAT rock?).  This anxiety is temperamental; it was there when I came into the world (hypotheses around this one pending).

When I attempt to roll the tension out of the shoulders, the emotions release.  In the development of human emotion, fear gives rise to many strong secondary emotions, including anger (others include jealousy…hate… sorrow… ).  Shoulder rolls = Jen aka Cujo.  The upside is that this releasing is not a bad thing.  It feels ghastly in the moment but as it finds expression, the tension eventually subsides.  And I don’t even have to punch a cave lion in the face!  Hooray!

So, thank you yoga.  You are my release.  You are my mirror.  You may have shown me that I am a buzzard but you give me hope yet – that by watching the body, by gently working with it, I can change my mind.

Copyright © The Yoga Experiment, 2012

Can making your bed change your mindset?

What does making the bed have to do with the mind??  What preposterous nonsense is this?

Making the bed might seem like a trivial activity in the broad scope of life but what if we supposed that the smallest actions can create profound effects on the state of the mind?

Let’s explore this idea through the unmade bed.  The unmade bed is dishevelled.  The sheets are tangled.  The pillows are wayward.  We leave our bed this way in the morning, to come back to sleep in at night.  As the mornings and nights pass by, the unmade bed becomes more dishevelled.  The sheets are now turned sideways.  The mattress is exposed.  A pillow seems to have permanently made it to the floor.  The task of making the bed now seems so labour-intensive that we give up on it all together.  Perhaps we have not even noticed the state of our bed.  Perhaps we don’t care.

If we were to stop for a moment and compare the unmade bed to the state of our mind, could we find parallels?  Is the mind cluttered with worries or concerns or problems to solve?  Do we typically feel disorganised?  Do we find ourselves habitually feeling confused or overwhelmed by all the things we need to do in our days (dishevelled)?  Do we view life as chaotic and largely beyond control?  Or have we broken our connection with ourselves and the world around us?  Do we find ourselves making lots of mistakes, being forgetful or absent-minded?  Do we fail to be PRESENT?  Or are we in a state of apathy, where few things seem worth the effort?  Do we have a ‘why bother’ attitude to life?

In yoga, maintaing tidiness and order in our external environments facilitates tidiness and order in our minds.  When the external environment is cluttered, the senses are overloaded and the mind absorbs the clutter.  A cluttered mind struggles to think clearly; it reacts to problems impulsively; it fosters negativity.  When the effort of the mind is on sifting through all the clutter, it is unable to connect with a deeper experience of peace, intuition, and wisdom.  Like the sheets of the unmade bed, the mind becomes tangled in itself.

When we make our bed, we are creating order in our environment.  We are cleaning and clearing our physical space.  By doing this, we give the mental space a chance to follow.  When the mind is uncluttered, we find ourselves approaching life and all its challenges with a sense of calmness and clarity.  Our attitude becomes positive and light; all the things that typically bother us cease to seem so serious.  Our attitude towards people becomes open and friendly.  We feel greater control over our lives.  We’ve cleansed the inner turmoil.

Making the bed might not solve ALL of life’s problems.  But it can be used in daily life as a metaphor for clearing the mind.

It might be worth a mention that making the bed does not mean making the perfect, wrinkle-free bed with professionally-ironed sheets and hospital corners (that kind of need too reflects a conflicted mind – more on that another time!!).  It just means getting up in the morning (or whenever) and creating an intention to clear your space – to start your day with a clean slate.  Maybe try it and see what you notice.

For the sake of experiment – what does your bed look like right at this minute and how would you describe your state of mind?

© The Yoga Experiment, 2012