Friday November 22nd 1963 is a day that many people remember. At 12.30pm John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas. This event sent shock waves around the world. At 5:20 pm on the same day the English author and respected intellectual Aldous Huxley died quietly, with his wife by his side, in Los Angeles, aged 69. Any news coverage of Huxley’s death was of course overshadowed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Aldous Huxley is best known for his novels which include Brave New World, set in a dystopian London, The Doors of Perception, which explores his experiences when taking psychedelic drugs and The Perennial Philosophy, which examines the various teachings of mystics and spirituality in the world.
In Huxley’s last novel Island, published in 1962, he explores the theme of an Utopian society on the island of Pala and its way of life struggling against the expanding surrounding materialism. Huxley uses an image within the novel that I find rather evocative and beautiful. We are told that there are Mynah birds that live on the island that fly about calling out “Attention” repeatedly and “Here and now”. The birds have been trained to do this because “you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now”.
When I first read Island I was struck by this image of the mynah birds calling out to the people of the island to pay attention and be here and now. If, like me, you have ever tried to be present to your experience for any length of time you will notice how hard it is to just be aware and alive in the present moment, mindful of your life as it unfolds. We so easily become absent from ourselves and our experience. Unfortunately we do not live in a society like the inhabitants of Pala, having mynah birds flying around us during our day reminding us to stay aware and pay “Attention” to what is going on in the “Here and Now”.
As we move into autumn and the seasons change, I go about my daily life and from the surrounding hedgerows and trees I can hear birdsong. For me this can feel like a calling to pause, connect and come home to myself once again. Maybe when we next hear the birds singing in the trees we could imagine it as an invitation to return home to ourselves. It is easy to be lost in the world, lost in our work, relationships, even our families and forget who we are and what is really important to us. But if we are willing to try and live a conscious life, then we have the potential to live more fully in a congruent and whole way.
“It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder.’”
Oscar Wilde once said that “To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual”. We live in a modern world where the idea of productivity is held in great esteem. Phrases such as “work hard, play hard” are seen as qualities that successful people should strive for and the old phrase“The devil finds work for idle hands to do” suggests that evil is to be found for those who give time to doing nothing!.
Since the industrial revolution and the idea of the protestant work ethic our lives have been regulated more and more by working longer hours. The idea that any value could be found in doing nothing, such as lying on your bed, and gazing out your window as the clouds pass by, or sitting quietly in nature just enjoying a state of relaxed being, can seem miles away from our busy lives or even a little threatening. Even as a yoga teacher and somebody with a meditation practice, I am often humbled by how hard I find it to just stop and move from a state of doing to just being. We may have views that nothing productive can come from doing nothing, when in fact allowing for moments of reflection and stillness can be nourishing for our bodies and soul. I have often found that when I do give myself time to do nothing I encounter a deep state of relaxed, open spaciousness and stillness. Things in my life that may have seemed a challenging difficulty before are perceived from a new fresh perspective. And I find myself re-engaging with life again with a new sense of vigor and aliveness.
“The ironic thing about doing nothing is that sometimes we accomplish an awful lot while appearing to be unproductive. When you recharge, gather your thoughts, and take time to simply be, you allow yourself to both enjoy stillness and more effectively engage in the world later. It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the most complete days are the ones that are not full. What meaningless activity can you replace with purposeful nothing today?” Lori Deschene Author of Tiny Buddha.
I was recently interviewed by a journalist for a magazine and was asked the question ‘Is yoga a spiritual activity?’ I thought this was an interesting question. As a yoga and meditation teacher I often come across the word ‘spiritual’. People I meet may think of me as someone who is spiritual, particularly as I have a Buddhist name.
Spiritual may mean different things to different people so, to begin with, we need to clarify what is actually meant by the term ‘spiritual’. The dictionary defines it as ‘relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things,’ which I think may be helpful. It alludes to transcendence, moving beyond the mundane and material world, to something or someone concerned with higher matters. Personally I am not very keen on the word spiritual, as I feel it encourages a potential tendency for aloofness, seeing spiritual practice as escape, cut off from our lived experience and engagement with the everyday world. Sometimes this tendency can lead to a desire to repress aspects of ourselves such as our sexuality and our relationship to our bodies. I think the late Jungian psychologist James Hillman captures this well when he says “The Spiritual point of view always posits itself as superior, and operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes.”
This Spiritual view can express itself with ideas like drinking a pint of beer down the pub or enjoying fish and chips for your supper are not very ‘spiritual’ activities, whereas going on retreat, meditating and practicing yoga are somehow higher or more spiritual activities. A view like this, I feel, has an aspect of Spiritual arrogance and is not very helpful, as it can potentially lead to a cutting off from the ordinariness of human life.
Hillman draws out a counter-balance to this aspect of Spirit or Spiritual. He calls this Soul. He sees Spirit as concerned with transcendence, to move beyond, to distance oneself, the realm of ideas, clarity, masculinity. Soul in Hillman’s sense is not used in the way we sometimes think of it, as an eternal part of us that will be liberated from the body after death. Soul in this sense is not a thing but a quality: dark, mysterious, moist, associated with the earth, the body, imagination and the feminine. Soul by its very nature is relational and is very much about being in the world.
I believe that spiritual traditions can have, by their very nature, a view of transcendence. As someone who has spent the last 20 years exploring Buddhism, this has been my own personal experience. For me, I have found a healthy balance is needed between these two qualities of Soul and Spirit. We all need spirit in our lives to enable us to see beyond the horizon, a glimpse of something bigger than ourselves, but we also need soul, to remind us of our bodies and the earth beneath our feet. I think during my first 10 years of practicing Buddhism I had a view that I wanted to transcend the world in some way, partly because my experience of being in the world and my own inner life were at times painful or difficult. Now I feel rather than trying to transcend the world I am more interested in making my way through it.
I am reminded of the words by the American poet Wallace Stephens:
“The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it
I recently spent a week teaching on a yoga and meditation retreat at Dhanakosa, a Buddhist retreat centre in Scotland located next to Loch Voil & the Trossachs National Park. Those of you who have been lucky enough to visit Dhanakosa will know It provides a quiet and beautiful setting for retreats.
During my stay I became aware of the chorus of bird song that would surround me every day. When we would meditate in the shrine room in the afternoon I particularly loved hearing the sound of a Woodpecker in the nearby trees, tapping away. I noticed that when I listened to sound of the Woodpecker it acted as a reminder to stay embedded in my body whist also staying connected with the world.
I reflected on how often we can lose our sense of belonging and connection to our environment and the world. The meditation teacher Paramananda wrote about this in his book, ‘The Body’ where he described watching a television programme about the culture of Indigenous Australian peoples.
“I was struck by their intimacy with the world around them. I was impressed not only by their vast knowledge of plants and animals, but also by their sense of care and appreciation for their environment, a profound sense of belonging within the landscape that brought forth a feeling of reverence and responsibility for the world that sustained them. They seemed totally at home in the world, in a deep, yet relaxed, intimacy with everything around them”.
How can we find our own way to connect more deeply with the environment and our world? This may not come naturally to us, we may not live directly in nature or be able to visit beautiful landscapes all the time. However, I think that in our daily lives our meditation and yoga practice can help us towards this goal.
When I mediate or do my yoga practice in the morning I try and come into a simple relationship with my body, feeling through my senses where my body meets the floor and when I do this I give myself the opportunity to notice any sensations through my pelvis, my back or my legs. Then, I open my awareness out to include any sounds around me in the room such as a ticking clock or the hum of a radiator. From there, I focus on the sounds outside of the room. For example, I have a neighbour who is a talented musician and I can often hear them practicing their guitar. Sometimes I hear children playing in the gardens outside my room. Rather than interpreting these sounds in my environment as an intrusion on my practice, I try and see them in the same way as I saw the Woodpecker – as a calling bringing me deeper into life and my connection with the world. If I can relax and open to the experience, I often feel more connected and embedded in the world and my life. From this, a natural desire to want to care for my community and the world around me comes alive and I feel less isolated.
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
E. M. Foster – ‘Howards End’
A friend recently shared a photo with me on Twitter of a young woman performing a very elaborate yoga posture, she was doing a headstand while in full lotus. As if this wasn’t enough, she was also doing this whilst only balancing on her head with her arms not touching the ground!
Over the years I have attended many classes and workshops and, as part of the wider yoga community, I have come into contact with many teachers of different yoga traditions. One of the things that I have noticed in the modern world of yoga is that it is very fixated on asana, the physical postures. It seems to me that the implicit aim or goal of a lot of modern yoga classes is one of physical gymnastics which, enjoyable as this may be, kind of misses the point. Perhaps it is helpful to be reminded that in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra of the eight limbs of training, asana is only one limb – there are actually another seven that explore ethics, meditation, etc. Patanjali places a lot more emphasis on using the body as a vehicle to support and explore meditative states of consciousness than he does in mastering an impressive back bend.
This over-emphasis and obsession on physical yoga postures can be seen regularly on social media. The majority of the photos shared by yoga teachers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are showing mastery of elaborate yoga poses. I feel there is a danger in this, as it gives a strong message that the attainment of physical asana is the goal of a yoga practice.
Like a lot of yoga practitioners, I enjoy a physical yoga practice and the benefits that it gives, so my comments are not an attack on yoga asana, but a call for balance and an awareness of the wider context in which it is held.
The modern hatha yoga tradition as we know it originated in ancient India and was heavily influenced by Hindu Brahmanism. There was also a cross-fertilisation of ideas occurring over hundreds of years between Hindu thought and Buddhism. The problem I feel is that the modern yoga we may come across has been removed from the context that supported it. The original goal of yoga is a far cry from what we find in most yoga studios today. I would go as far as to say that what passes for yoga in most gyms and yoga studios is a physical gymnastic body routine, with a liberal sprinkling of vague new-age ideas or a dash of Hinduism.
I often give an example to my students that if you are in a busy supermarket after a day at work and you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, being able to balance on your head is not much help!. But if you are able to work with your mind and connect to a quality of spacious, open awareness and relax, then you are going to be more able to respond creatively to the challenges that life offers us.
“In recent times the practice of asana or hatha yoga has become synonymous with the practice of Yoga. This is unfortunate. The perfection of asana was never meant as the goal of Yoga, nor will standing on our head for an hour signal some major achievement on our spiritual path. This misconception is understandable given our obsession with form and our desire to have some kind of concrete evidence of attainment.”
Donna Farhi – yoga teacher
When was the last time you felt an emotion that you did not want to feel?
In a recent TED talk, “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” Psychologist Susan David explored our flexibility with the emotions we feel in our lives. She mentioned a survey she conducted with over 70,000 people where a third of those people judged themselves for having, ‘bad emotions’ like sadness, anger or grief, or made attempts to push these emotions away. She went on to say, “…normal, natural emotions are now seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’…” Susan argued that by becoming emotionally agile and allowing ourselves to feel, acknowledge and talk about the full spectrum of our emotions we allow ourselves to live more fully than if we are rigid. For example, trying to push away less appealing emotional states or distract ourselves from them by embracing a false positivity. Susan said something I really liked, “…being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.”
I found it really refreshing to hear this. I feel as a society we have placed a strong emphasis on having a positive attitude. I have noticed this to be even more prevalent in the modern yoga world, where there appears to be a heavy focus on the goals of happiness and positivity (and their corresponding emotions) almost as if they are solid and fixed states. My experience of life however has been that these states are a more ephemeral experience; maybe they last a few hours, a day or week, even a month, but at some point it changes and something else emerges.
As my practice of yoga and meditation deepened, I noticed that by being in the world and in relation to life itself our states and emotions are in a constant state of movement. We hear news that touches us, and we feel sad; then maybe later a friend makes us laugh and a lightness enters our experience; a little later on we hear something that makes our blood boil. So, I am inclined to believe that these aspirational states of emotional positivity (we might be able to achieve if we just work hard enough) can be a very misleading view and I wonder if it might cause us to reject our more challenging emotions, wanting certain feelings to just go away. Susan described this as ‘Dead People Goals’.
“Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings. Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life.”
Learning to deal with the world how it is and not how we want it to be is challenging. You could say in a nutshell, life is very much a bitter-sweet experience and the emotions we feel on a day to day basis reflect this. The sooner we can truly begin to understand how important it is to be emotionally agile instead of chasing a fixed idea of ‘positivity’ or ‘happiness’ the easier our way in the world may be.
Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life
Susan David Psychologist