Silence. How and Why.

Please note that meditation and silence are not advisable if you are under extreme mental stress or emotional distress.

[…] Those with agitated, uncontrolled minds cannot even guess that the Atma is present here within. Without quietness, where is meditation? Without meditation, where is peace? Without peace, where is happiness? Bhagavad Gita 2:66

Cultivating silence is gradually becoming part of my yoga practice. It can be for a short period of time like some hours during a day, or in the form of one to several days retreat where I spend time on my own.

The way I see it, spending time in silence is like an extension of my daily sadhana which is basically doing simple breathing exercises for ten minutes, and sitting in silence between 10 and 20 minutes. I sometimes write for fifteen minutes instead and sit in silence for five minutes. The purpose of sadhana is to get into the habit of calming the mind, and the more I practice the easier it becomes to keep a calmer mind in my everyday life. This doesn’t mean that when I sit, I don’t think. More often than not, I engage in planning, evaluating, analysing, ruminating, etc., but when I notice that I’m engaging in my thoughts, I slowly and gently let the thought go and focus my attention on my breath.

Why cultivate silence? I have noticed, since the very first time I was in a silent retreat with my teacher Prasad Rangnekar, that when I go into silence, my body starts slowing down and this has an effect in my nervous system reducing stress. When in silence, I am also able to observe my thoughts easier. It is very useful to know what is occupying my mind and work with it either practically by making some adjustments in my life, or by letting go of thoughts that don’t serve me and only create internal noise or even distress.

Most of us live quite busy lives with work, family and other obligations. This keeps our mind going on all the time. Then, when we have some spare time, what most of us do is to “relax” by going into our phones, reading a book, watching TV, meeting friends, etc. None of these activities are bad but they do not allow our mind to relax completely.

In the yoga practice, it is known that a relaxed mind is a clear mind. Cultivating a calm mind is the means of the yoga practitioner towards self-realisation. Seen it in a more practical way, when we take time to quiet the mind, to observe our thoughts and emotions, we gradually get a better understanding of how we function, and we are able to make adjustments to our patterns of thought and behaviour. Thus we live a more skilful and harmonious life following our real priorities and not making decisions by impulse or because everybody is doing the same.

Going into silence can sometimes be unpleasant because as we finally slow down we might be confronted to difficult thoughts and/or emotions that we have been pushing away in our business. It is important in this cases to receive these thoughts/emotions with an open heart, with a calm attitude, observe them and not try to push them away again or run away from them. It is also important not to engage with them either. This means that we allow them to come, but refrain from analysing, justifying and/or judging them or ourself for having them. When we try to cultivate stillness, we avoid solving problems, otherwise, we are engaged again in too much mental activity. This said, I have experienced that after a period of silence, solutions to problems come almost by themselves precisely because my mind becomes clearer.

There are different ways to cultivate silence, one doesn’t necessarily need to go hide in a cave. The simplest one is, as mentioned at the start of this post, to create the habit of sitting down in a calm place for some minutes and do nothing other than breathing slowly and deeply. When you notice you’re engaged in thinking, gently let the thought go, and go back to your breath. It doesn’t need to be for a long period of time. You can start with two or three minutes and as you get used to it, increase the time.

Another way of cultivating silence is by being aware of all the sometimes unnecessary noise we bring into our life. Maybe next time you sit on the couch to catch your breath after a busy day, you just do that, sit and observe what happens with your mind. Or whenever you are doing some chores where you usually would turn on the radio, turn on the TV, listen to a podcast, be completely present with what you do instead.

I had the habit of listening to music when going for a walk or a run. I still sometimes do, but I often chose not to, so I can try to be in silence. This one is very challenging because I always end up engaging in some mental activity, mainly planning ahead. But I’m working with it. Whenever I notice I’m again mentally “busy”, I try to let go.

And there are, of course, the retreats. If possible, leave for a place where it is calm or create that calm space at home. Decide how long you want to be in silence. Maybe it is a good idea to start slowly, with one day, and increase as you feel more comfortable with it. Tell those around you that you want to be in silence, so you don’t need to worry about feeling that you are rude. Slow down, try not to make much eye contact with those around you. Don’t talk. No reading, no music, no radio, no phone. Just you and the gradual peace that silence brings. It might feel very difficult, and that’s ok. Try not to engage with your thoughts. Thoughts will come all the time, the key is to try to let them go when we notice we’re engaged in thinking. It is very important not to be judgemental of your own process. If you feel your mind is all over the place, don’t add distress by judging yourself. Just observe with curiosity, and after the time of silence, decide what changes you need to bring into your life in order to help your mind quiet down. This is where one of the most important principles of yoga steps in: vairagya or detachment. The more we attach our thoughts to, the less our mind is calm. Find out what is it that you are clinging to that doesn’t serve you in life. What is it that you can let go of.

When I go into silence, I like to create myself a routine. I wake up at a specific time, I choose a time to do my asana (sometimes twice a day), I do breathing exercises and sit in stillness several times a day. I also go for walks, and since I am a Yoga student, I usually study the Gita under the guidance of my teacher. While in a retreat, I spend more time reflecting on how the verses I am studying apply into my life. I also write, and I rest. If I feel like taking a nap, I take a nap but beware of not falling into drowsiness, that is why the walking and the asana. If you’re not a yoga asana practitioner, just some mild movement of the body would do.

This is the stage I am at when it comes to silence. I guess the more you practice, the more you can sit in complete silence, and the less you do but remember, we all are where we are in life and we need to take that into consideration when practicing yoga. Often, what we want or think should do is not necessarily what we need or benefit from. If you’re in doubt, seek for some guidance.

It’s unfair!

One thing that frustrates me to tears since I was a little girl is the feeling of being treated unfairly. I purposely say ‘the feeling of being treated unfairly’ because from what I observe in myself, it is often a matter of perception.

As a kid, I might have been scolded at for doing something I didn’t perceive as a fault but for the “scolding” adult, it was. I see that a lot as a teacher of young teenagers, when I correct a behaviour, my student(s) and I often move into a discussion about the unfairness of me pointing out at this action as inappropriate. This then leads to me explaining how the behaviour is against our school’s common agreements, or how it affects negatively the classroom/school’s environment, and the student in question seeing it as unfair because he/she wants or needs something different. There is a conflict between what the student in question wants or needs and what he/she can/should do at that given moment.

So, sometimes unfairness is a matter of perception, but what happens when we experience doing our best in something for then seeing it being taken away from us without clear reason? Some years ago, out of the blue, a friend that I considered as one of my closest friends, suddenly decided that she didn’t want me in her life anymore. When I asked for a reason to at least have the chance to apologise, my friend got even more angry and accused me of harassing her. We don’t live in the same country, so this made things even more difficult. I asked myself several times what was it that I did to be treated like this, and honestly, to the day today I really don’t know. In this friendship of so many years where we never ever had dispute, this really felt unfair.

After some days of reflecting, I decided that all I could do is to respect my friend’s decision. I sent her a message telling her that I love her and that I would be here in case she wanted to reestablish contact, and I let her go. From the yogic perspective, I went into this conflict with the intention to do my part to fix it, I measured my words and tried my best, her reaction to it was completely out of my hands. Why spend more time and energy thinking about the unfairness of the situation? Why make the situation even messier by engaging in negative thoughts and feelings when none of them would solve anything and just add distress for me?

If there is something I am more and more convinced of it’s the fact that even when it seems like people do things to us, it is all about their inner world. Why do I know this? Because I experience it myself. All my interactions with others and the world around me are a result of my way of perceiving myself and the outer world.

I guess at this point you are wondering if I mean that we should then just accept unfairness and let go. Not really, but like with everything, I think we do ourselves a favour when we peel off the layers of emotion in any given situation. I am not saying we shouldn’t experience emotion, but we should try to not feed into negativity and rather approach life in a practical way by seeking clarity in our mind.

I recently had the privilege to learn a big lesson from another friend. She lives abroad, has a child and is divorced. She was facing a trial about the custody of her child, and like in many trials, the lawyer in the opposing party had dug into her personal life to find aspects of her past and personality that could be presented in a bad light. It was very tough for her who has been taking good care of her child and taken every decision thinking of the child’s best, to be depicted in a completely wrong way. After the first emotion of unfairness and frustration had passed, she decided to stay calm throughout the whole process and not even respond to these accusations. She had prepared her case well, she had done all the right things for her child, and didn’t have anything to prove. She even had the compassion to understand the tactic, and let go of it in her mind. This, in my opinion is the big lesson for me to learn here. She let go for her own well-being. Thus, by letting go, she was able to stay calm in court, talk from reason, and go home with peace in her heart. She was, of course, nervous for the outcome but had the wisdom to see that she had done her part and the rest wasn’t in her hands.

This is the very principle of Karma Yoga. In her role as a mum, my friend did her duty by always acting with her child’s best interest in mind, she presented herself to trial well-prepared, the rest is not in her hands.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t fight when we perceive something as unfair? I don’t know for sure, but I think that we would benefit from asking ourselves what is it that we are fighting for and why are we fighting for it? What is required from us in that particular role? How much will this fight cost emotionally? What would happen if we let go?

This morning, I was reading verse 11 from ch2 in the Bhagavad Gita where Sri Krisna says to the warrior Arjuna “The wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead” which for me, in the context of spirituality, is a big statement. We don’t lament our losses, because they are losses in the transient world. The transient world is constantly changing and nothing that we acquire in it is really ours. What is even more important, no matter how much we loose ‘out there’, we don’t loose anything inside ourselves. Sometimes we even need to let go of something in order to learn a lesson, in order to be able to move on and win something that truly benefits us. If we are sure of our integrity, of our attitudes and our actions, no one can take that away from us. We can loose an unfair battle, but we can also rise tall, and move on to the next level.

It is interesting to use the Gita here, since it is a song about the dialogue between Arjuna and Krisna at the battlefield right before a big battle Arjuna needs to fight against, among other things, injustice. But I think the key here is to remember that Arjuna should engage in this fight following his duty as a warrior, and not driven by his own negative emotions…

Self-sufficiency – the yoga practice is not always a walk in the park.

An important aspect of the spiritual practice of yoga is the concept of self-sufficiency and self-responsibility. The practice should guide us little by little to the realisation that the source of love, peace and freedom comes from inside ourselves and not from the external world. Once we manage to detach from the idea that the outer world should fulfil these three basic needs, we can reach an independent state of contentment.

Therefore, we are encouraged to make sure that the intention at the base of our actions and interactions is not a need for validation of the ego or to satisfy emotional needs.

During the last six months, I have been more observant of my actions and interactions, and I can honestly say that when I manage to detach from my need of a reward from the outer world, I can act from a place of peace and the end result doesn’t affect me as much as before especially when it is not what I perceive as in my favor. It requires that at every moment, I ask myself what is the nature of the role I am playing and what is required by me in that role.

Needless to say, this is a quite difficult practice, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships. The unconscious principle of trade is so embedded in me. When I give good, I expect to receive good back. On this note, a fun exercise is to remember that what I perceive as good might not be received or perceived as good on the other end. Or maybe not as good enough.

I recently had an episode with my husband where I went back to the idea that he never actually sees me. The feeling is that I do my part in our partnership, I work with myself to be a positive member of our family by observing my attitudes and trying to adjust them not to add stress and distress to our everyday life. Still, at times, I feel like I am completely invisible, and what is worse, whenever I say something that is perceived as silly or incorrect, I can then be sure to be noticed and not necessarily in a way that I appreciate. The amount of fun my ‘silliness’ can bring to the table is limitless. Joke after joke about what I said. I know there are no bad intentions behind this, but I did notice myself getting upset about it recently.

I am trying to be more assertive and to communicate in a positive way, so I took this up. I explained that in my view, in a relationship, there needs to be a certain balance between positive and negative attention. I can take criticism and even be made fun of at as long as from time to time, I feel appreciated too.

The response from my husband was positive, but this episode stayed in my mind, as it often does when something upsets me. I kept asking myself, am I right? Is it just my perception? Am I being needy?

I don’t have very concrete answers, but I did come to one sort of conclusion. There is of course, no harm on being assertive, but if I really want to be self-sufficient, I could say that sometimes, I attach to my role as a wife and what I believe I am entitled to in that role. If I detach from from it, I would then be ok with what is because 1) I don’t need anyone’s actions to validate me. 2) Maybe I am being appreciated all the time but I don’t see it.

I have another example. As a middle school teacher, I work with teenagers. They are lovely kids, but from time to time, like any teenager, they push the limits. One thing that I have observed really pushes my buttons is respect. Whenever I perceive my students being disrespectful, I struggle to keep my cool, especially if I am tired. After reflecting a lot about this, I came to one way to deal with it. As a teacher, I believe it is my duty to teach my students certain important values that will allow them to live peacefully in any society, and respect is one of them. Whenever they are disrespectful, I can react in a much more skilful way if I detach emotionally from the situation and react only in my role as a guide and mentor. So, it is not my hurt ego responding, or my need to be respected by others. I respond as someone that is supposed to guide them through their years at our school. I must confess that I am still practicing this, but when I manage, I reduce the amount of stress to zero, and I believe it benefits both me and the concerned student(s).

When I started experimenting with these ideas, I had a period where I felt disconnected and maybe even distant from all and everyone. It kind of scared me. Was I becoming like a robot? I felt like I was building a wall between me and the rest of the world.

It is too early to say whether I am or not becoming a robot (he he), but as I continue experimenting with these attitudes towards life, I feel some sort of calmness growing inside me, and at times a stronger feeling of connectedness. I can even say that I feel compassion when I am challenged by someone because I can see where my emotions come from, I can accept them instead of reject them, and I can show understanding for the other person’s behaviour since I know how challenging it can sometimes be to interact with others when we live trapped in our own perceptions, needs and expectations.

What if?

– Dedicated to a dear friend

What if
The very thing
You believe you're missing
The very thing
You keep chasing
The very thing
You believe will make you happy
Is
The very thing
That is holding you back
The very thing
That is draining you from energy
The very thing
That is standing on your way
To
Pure contentment
To
True happiness
Dare
To drop it
That very thing
Let it go
And then
Stand still
Be quiet
You will discover
How complete you are
Without
That very thing

Aversion, the other face of attachment

Abhyasa and vairagya are two very important principles for the yoga practitioner. Very simplified abhyasa means practice and this encompasses the daily sadhana, but also practicing the teachings of yoga at every moment in the practical life. Vairagya is often translated as detachment. The less we cling to, the less disturbances we create in our mind, the clearer we live our lives and most importantly, the closer we come to the core of who we are.

The principle of detachment really makes sense to me, and therefore during the last five years, I’ve observed myself, and tried to detach from what does not serve me in my spiritual path. I have had to be quite honest with myself and let go of what causes disturbances in my mind. I am constantly looking at what I do, what I want, and what I possess, and I ask myself if this is a priority, or if I can let it go. This can be things, activities, relationships, habits…

The idea of detachment is not that we stop engaging with the world, on the contrary, we engage maybe even more wholeheartedly but with awareness. Without clinging into it.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the other face of attachment: aversion, and I have discovered that this one causes maybe even more trouble in my mind and in my practical life. There are different levels of it, the highest probably being hate or resentment. When we go around thinking bad of others, we can physically feel how it affects us, our heartbeat increases, our body feels restless, we feel generally unwell. A dear friend of mine once said in one of her workshops, hate is like eating poison and hoping for the other person to die. It really eats us up.

Luckily for me, I don’t hate anyone, but I do have resentment towards things people have done that have hurt me. I have been aware of that kind of aversion for some time now, and I constantly work with it. It helps me to think that people act out of their own perspectives and needs, just like I do, even if this sometimes means that they hurt others, just like I’ve done.

When it comes to the ‘lower’ degrees of aversion, I know now for a fact that I have a tendency to panic in moments of unpleasantness, either created by my emotions, situations or people around me. This often leads to me acting impulsively to get out of the unpleasant feeling making things worse.

Reacting with aversion to unpleasant situations is, of course, part of our instincts, and it is useful when we are in danger, but let’s be honest, in our everyday life, how many times are we in real danger?

Form now on, I will observe myself in moments where aversion arises and try to work with it by 1) Not reacting impulsively to it 2) Being courageous and sit with the feeling 3) Trying to understand where the aversion comes from and see if I can make some small adjustments in my perceptions and life in general. My yoga teacher often says that it is the people and situations that challenge us that teach us the biggest lessons about ourselves.

To achieve this, abhyasa is a very important element. During my sadhana (=daily practice which for me is sitting with myself), I can practice sitting with the unpleasantness, by using my breath to calm the mind and not feed into the feeling with analyses and judgements. And for the rest of the day, remind my limited mind that it is ok, unpleasantness is not the end of the world, it is trying to tell me something about myself and the way I interact with the world.