Patience

Do you ever get caught up in negativity? What happens then? Have you noticed when that happens? Is there a sort of pattern? Since Friday and throughout the weekend, I started noticing that almost everything was creating distress in my mind. Either by mentally rejecting an idea or a task I had to do, by focusing on the negative aspect of a situation or by predicting the worst-case scenario. Through the practice of yoga, -please read in the broader understanding of yoga, not just asana (physical activity)- I am gradually learning to observe my thoughts and not take them that seriously. By this, I mean that even though I notice distress rising internally, I don’t necessarily give in to the emotion. I just observe it. This doesn’t mean either that I can make it go away right away but by giving attention to my states of mind, I seem to be able to let go easier than when I don’t.

As a yogi, it doesn’t stop there, I have to be curious about why I am being so negative. What has changed? What is happening internally that is meeting the external world with a different attitude? I made some discoveries:

1) At the beginning of the lockdown, I was being very good at keeping my sleeping routines as usual making sure I sleep between seven and a half and eight hours per night. During the last two weeks, I’ve been going to bed later sometimes sleeping seven or less hours. I don’t know if it is because of ageing but I know now that for me to be at my best, I need eight hours of sleep. If I sleep under seven, I am more emotional, I have problems concentrating, and by consequence I am less efficient at home and work.

2) This took me a while to realise: I am putting too much pressure on myself during the lockdown. Since I have (or I think I have with full online work, three kids, a husband and a cat) more time, I want to spend that time ‘well’. What does that mean? Well, I want to spend more time with my kids in the afternoons doing fun stuff, I have been wanting to take an extra course in anatomy applied to yoga, so I signed up to an online one, I want to finally develop some ideas I have about yoga teaching, I want to do some home improvements, I want to read books, I want to exercise more, I want to spend more time with my older son in the evenings (that is why I’m going to bed later), and the list goes on and on… In addition, the ne new situation brings new possibilities: online teaching and online yoga teaching. This is lots of fun, and I have many ideas for both, but it requires time to learn new skills, use new tools, and plan differently.

Added to all this crazy mental activity, is the uncertainty of the situation. In Norway, we have come to a point where schools are gradually reopening. We know it will soon be our turn but we don’t know when or how our school is going to choose to meet all the requirements by the government to avoid spreading of the virus. On one side, my brain doesn’t like uncertainty, on the other, this makes planning for my lessons a bit challenging because I don’t know how much time I still have until things are turned upside down again… But mainly, I struggle with uncertainty.

So, once I realised all this, I have come to one big keyword: PATIENCE. Yes, I have maybe more time, and it is nice to have some projects and wanting to improve my online teaching, but not everything needs to happen right now. PATIENCE with myself, when I get anxious about the uncertainty, it is ok to experience these emotions right now. Just keep observing, keep breathing, and the anxiety will eventually go away. PATIENCE with life right now, things are as they are and we all are doing as good as we can with what we have.

I will also sleep more, be more disciplined with how much work I do and read the news only once a day. I really need to stay away from my computer after dinner no matter how many ideas I get. My mind needs to rest. I can just sit down and enjoy a cup of tea without having to do or achieve anything at the same time.

I also have to keep reminding myself that whatever happens, we always get through it. Whatever challenges we meet, we only come a bit wiser a bit stronger out of them. But above all, how important it is to have a stable sadhana. If it wasn’t for my sadhana, I think I would be even more negatively affected by the situation. I am so thankful for my teacher and for the teachings of yoga.

A very simple view on meditation

The practice of meditation in the Yoga tradition is more than sitting in lotus pose to ‘not think about anything’. It is a process that requires constant practice even -or better said especially – when we are not sitting in silence (no need to sit in lotus pose by the way).

Like in all paths of Yoga, the purpose of meditation is to help us come closer and closer to the core of who we really are, and to achieve this, the attitude we have towards our practical life needs to gradually help us cultivate a quieter, calmer state of mind. If our mind is all over the place 24/7, it is very unlikely that we will be able to sit and meditate in silence for some minutes. So it is like a circle, the practice of siting in silence with yourself teaches you to slow down, to calm down the body and the mind, at the same time as applying some basic principles to your everyday life will also help you cultivate this calmer and more harmonious state of mind that in turn will help you in your meditation practice.

This said, the best is to start somewhere, and using apps such as Head Space or Insight Timer can be a good tool to help you establish a regular practice. Both apps offer guided meditations in different styles and with different lengths that can vary from 1 minute to up to one hour or more. Spend some time exploring the different guided meditations they have and either pick a course (a set of guided meditations with a specific topic or purpose) or a couple of meditations that you like, and stick to them. You will need to try quite a few since the voice, pace and music/no music need to be suitable for you.

I recommend that you try avoiding jumping from one guided meditation to another because if you do so, all you are doing is serving your mind with some sort of ‘entertainment’.

I have tried guided meditations using these two apps, and I like using them mostly to take a break during the day, especially when I am tired, like for example those under the categories of Yoga Nidra or Body Scan, but when I want to slow down, to be with my mind, I prefer to sit down in silence and only use the timer from Insight Timer. I usually start with some simple breathing exercises, and then I sit down and focus my attention on my breath. Most of the time I start thinking about what has happened, what will happen, or what should happen, and when I notice this, I move my attention back to my breath. It is like a dance, and so we dance, my mind and I. No judgement, no pushing, just patiently observing.

Whether you choose to use a guided meditation or try sitting in silence, the very first thing you need to do is to convince your mind that you do have the time to sit down every day for at least three minutes, in a quiet space and spend some time on your own. Once you get so far, you need to have the patience and discipline to stay. Thoughts will come and go, especially thoughts about what you should be doing instead of sitting here and doing nothing. This doesn’t mean that you can’t meditate. On the contrary, it is part of the process. So just observe your thoughts come and go, let your mind tell you whatever it wants to tell you, but sit until the timer rings. With practice, it will get easier.

In this kind of practice, as with anything else you engage in, you need to have it very clear for you what it is that you want, what your motivation is. If your motivation is ‘just’ to relax and take a break from everyday life, I then think you can use any of the mentioned apps or you can also find quite a few guided meditations on YouTube. If, on the other hand, you want to cultivate a lasting calmer state of mind, you will need to do a slightly harder work and learn to sit in silence with yourself , and seek for some guidance to learn some of the basic principles of Yoga that complement this practice.

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.