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.

The Morning Musings of a Jnana Yogi

If the witness observes the mind, who observes the witness?

If an objective of yoga is to renounce ‘I-ness’ (associations with identity) why don’t sanyasins just wear inconspicuous clothing like trackie dacks?

Are bhakti yogis attached to God?

Are karma yogis attached to selfless service?

Are jnana yogis attached to questioning?

Why do Om chants always end up at least a semi-tone lower than where they begin?

If the aim is to renounce everything, should we renounce renouncement?

How many days in a row can one eat dahl before one’s bowels explode?

Why is enlightenment the purpose of life?

How many yogis does it take to change a light bulb? (None.  They light a candle).

©The Yoga Experiment, 2012

The Secret to being GOOD at yoga

When I ask students what they want to get from yoga, often the answer that comes back is, ‘I want to be good at it’.  But what does it mean to be good at yoga?

Many students typically think being good at yoga means being able to do all of the postures (asanas) perfectly but this isn’t really what it’s about.

A student who can maintain AWARENESS throughout his/her practice is one who does yoga well.  Or a student who can notice when his or her awareness slips and can gently guide it back, does yoga well.  If you can perform an asana to 10 percent of its full range yet you perform that 10 percent with full  awareness, you are getting the hang of yoga.  When you practice SAFELY and with RESPECT for the needs of the body, you are mastering yoga.

So what is meant by AWARENESS?  Awareness simply means applying your attention fully to what you are doing; finding a focus for your attention and simply OBSERVING your experience and being ‘present’ with it.

There are many focus points we can use to anchor our awareness during our practice.  We can focus the attention of the physical movements of the body; we can focus on the breath; we can sense into subtle energetic sensations in the body; we can notice our mood or emotion; we can watch our thoughts.

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Central to doing yoga well is an aim to observe our practice without any judgements or criticisms – or simply noticing when there are judgements and criticisms occurring within us.  Judgements and criticisms might include thoughts like, ‘I should be able to do this’ or ‘I’m so inflexible’ or ‘Everybody else is better at this then I am’ or ‘I will never be able to do this’.  Or they might even include thoughts like ‘I am better than everybody else at this’ or ‘This is way too easy for me’ or ‘I could do this with both eyes closed’.  All these thoughts are the voice of the ego.  The ego limits us to narrow experiences – it doesn’t allow us to open up and thrive.

Believing we can’t do something is a self-fulfilling prophecy – we stop trying, lose motivation, limit positive action and reinforce the belief.  When we believe we can do everything and there is nothing more to learn, we close ourselves off to deeper experiences.  There is always something to learn, something at which we can improve – if not a physical achievement then an emotional, mental or spiritual one.

Needing to be ‘good’ at yoga is an unhelpful judgement in itself.  What is the concept of ‘good’ anyway?  It’s just a social construct to which we’ve attributed all these ideas and meanings.  Why not just ‘do’ yoga and allow the experience to be whatever it is?  This is the gift of yoga – of developing awareness: the gift is the ability to let things be.  If this is not the most potent survival tool for living, I don’t know what is.

(c) The Yoga Experiment, 2012