Recently I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who happens to be a Jungian therapist. And very casually he said, “Well, no one can MAKE you feel anything.” And I happen to believe that’s true, although not necessarily obvious. It’s another way of describing “Vairagya”, or non-attachment. But I think most of us have to wrestle with that idea for a bit, and I think if you’d like to achieve that state you’re going to have to have a lot of patience (with yourself and with others), desire and discipline. Particularly if we’re talking in the context of any close (intimate or familial) relationship, let alone a guy on the freeway who cuts you off.
I remember years ago when I was at my first Vipassana Meditation retreat, I stayed one night to speak to one of the teachers. The night’s discourse had been about non-attachment and I was left feeling troubled. Even though I’d committed to not speaking or making eye contact with anyone for 10 days, we were allowed to ask questions of the teachers and I decided this was pressing enough that I didn’t want to wait almost a week to have some input. I told her I never wanted to be someone who was so non-attached that if, let’s say, my friend got hit by a bus, I would just accept that must be the natural order of things, and go on my way. She assured me that no one was looking for that level of detachment. The idea was to not be so attached to possessions, ideas, our plans. She went on to say that as human beings we will be attached to our loved ones, and as a result we will suffer. We’ll suffer when they don’t do what we want (think significant others, parents, children), we’ll suffer when we lose people we love through misunderstandings, break-ups, and ultimately, through death.
Most of us practicing yoga today are not living the life of a monk in a cave. I spend a lot of time considering how to teach the spiritual limbs of the yoga practice in a practical way. How do we apply these ideas to our fast-paced, technology-saturated, “house-dweller” lives? How does someone who has a job of some kind, checks Facebook regularly, carries an iPhone or an Android or whatever, stops to tweet something now and then, has responsibilities and pressures to meet, how does someone who is IN and OF this crazy world practice YOGA? I’m not talking about the 90 minutes on your mat, I’m talking about the eight-limbed path. I know you dig it. Check Georg Feuerstein from “The Shambala Guide to Yoga”:
“…if we truly understand that our material life is inherently limited and that the pleasures we can derive from our body and mind are likewise limited, merely temporary, and certainly not ultimately fulfilling, then we can open ourselves to the possibility of a new perception: that happiness is independent of our nervous system and the stimuli that can excite it. This is indeed the great message of all forms of Yoga: Happiness is our essential nature, and our perpetual quest for happiness is fulfilled only when we realize who we truly are. This realization is awakening to our Selfhood, which transcends the body-mind, the ego-personality, and the horizon of the world reflected in our ordinary experience. All this, and more, is captured in the word yoga.”
Practically speaking, the idea is to attain and then maintain (and that’s the tricky part), this level of balance, or steadiness, or inner peace, or happiness, or realizing, or whatever you’d like to call it. Now, I just brushed over some serious work, because if you want to get back to your natural state (which Georg calls happiness and I call love), you’re going to have to examine the relationship you’re having with yourself, and heal what needs to be healed. I think one of the greatest gifts of a seated meditation practice is that it helps to connect us to our “witness” or our “watchman”. If we can start to observe our own experiences as they’re happening during seated meditation, we can also start to observe our experiences as they’re happening when we are out in the world.
The implications of ,”No one can MAKE you feel anything” are huge. Most of us in relationships, whether they be with family members, significant others, close friends, or our dogs…most of us have a story that we tell ourselves. We look back on the relationship and we dwell on the history. First this happened, and then this, and then this. And almost always, we are the hero or the victim, or sometimes the heroic victim. Our history explains our current state with this person, and if it isn’t good, well, it is almost definitely the other person’s fault. But, um. If no one can MAKE you feel anything, then what do you do with your story? If you were to suddenly drop all your stories, what would be left? Or, if it’s not the other person’s fault, if, in fact, only you are responsible for the way you feel, then what do you do? Consider Eckhart Tolle on this subject, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation, but your thoughts about it.” I think you have to own the fact that you participate or have participated in any relationship that has gone, or is going, in a direction that does not feel healthy, or good, or growing. And then figure out what you brought to the situation, the lens you’re looking through, the way you feel about yourself, and the choices you make, or have made. If you’re in a balanced state, you’ll move toward people or situations or experiences that are naturally soothing to you, that bring you laughter, and light, and a sense that you are understood and seen and appreciated. But if you aren’t feeling good about yourself, all kinds of unhealthy choices might be made.
Please understand I realize there are many situations and circumstances in this world, and perhaps in your own life, that are incomprehensibly heartbreaking. In this context I’m talking mostly about day-to-day interactions with people, whether they be casual and “in passing”, or with people close to you. We all have a lens we look through, which is shaped by our experiences, and the conclusions we choose to retain as a result of our experiences. It’s very important to be familiar with your particular lens. Your Rx might read, “Everyone Leaves”, or, “Everyone Cheats”, or , “I Never Get Any Breaks”, or, fill-in-the-blank.
In any meditation practice, whether it be a moving meditation like the asana practice, or a seated meditation, the idea is to drop the lens, to witness without judging, naming, categorizing. Osho says a reaction comes out of the past and a response comes out of the present. Hopefully when you’re practicing any kind of meditation that speaks to you (and for some people it’s windsurfing, or horseback riding, or hiking), hopefully it offers you the experience of being more responsive and less reactive. How can I show up in THIS moment, fully open and awake and aware? Let me learn to listen and to breathe and to be curious, without being attached to any particular outcome.
That’s a good state of mind on your mat, and I think it’s also a good state of mind in any relationship. That opens some huge windows. Maya Angelou says, “When people show you who they are, believe them, the first time”. The ability to listen and be open and allow the person to unfold to you, rather than to project a list of attributes you hope to exist within them. The ability to let the relationship breathe and grow without an agenda, without trying to shape it or force it along a certain trajectory. To be able to cultivate that listening in the context of a disagreement. Let me fully listen to this other person. Let me drop my defenses and hear what’s being said. Let me be aware of my own ability or inability to do that. If I’m having trouble, let me just state that out loud and try again to listen. Often in relationships, especially if there’s conflict, we don’t listen, we just wait for our turn to speak so we can present our point of view. So we can “win”, so we can be “right”. Sometimes we have the “feeling” without any real understanding of what’s actually being communicated. We “jump” to the feeling and immediately blame the other person for our heightened state, our quickening heart-rate, that sensation in the pit of our bellies. We are in fight or flight, and chances are, we are bringing something old into the present. In other words, WE are bringing a lot of the feeling into the situation. Maybe there’s an opportunity to witness your experience as it’s happening. To notice your breath and the way you’re holding your body. To direct your attention to what the other person is saying, and to try to reflect it back to them, so that you’re both clear about what’s being said. Maybe you’ll do all that, and still feel very hurt by something that was said to you. Then you have an opportunity to explore why it hurts so much. Is it true? Do you believe it to be true? If not, why feed it so much energy? If yes, examine why. Because you may have just uncovered a deep pool of pain that could use some attention, compassion and healing. Your feelings are yours.
What I’m talking about is very different than what I consider to be an “abuse” or a total misrepresentation of the yoga practice. Maybe we can all agree that no one can make you feel anything (and maybe we can’t all agree on that!), but that does not negate each person’s own accountability. In other words, I can’t do something hurtful to someone, and then tell them when they feel badly that it’s their own “negativity”. And boy, is there a lot of that garbage floating around in the water sometimes. There’s a famous story about Buddha which I’m going to condense. Basically, he became a threatening force to an elder in a community where he was starting to teach meditation. This man showed up and insulted and berated the Buddha during one of his meditation sessions. The Buddha asked the man if people ever visited him in his home. The man was confused and thrown off center and he said yes. The Buddha asked if his visitors ever brought gifts, and again, the man said yes. Then the Buddha asked what would happen if the man refused the gifts. The man answered that the gifts would still belong to the visitors who brought them. And Buddha said, exactly. You came here today with your gift of anger, but I do not want it, it is not mine. So take your gift away with you, or join us and learn to meditate. Or so the story goes. Well, some people have taken this story, and run with it, a great distance. Their idea goes something like, “I have to honor what I feel in each moment, and if you’re hurt or upset by that, that’s your stuff to deal with”. Or something. But that’s not yoga, that’s self-absorption. Totally different practice. Dr. Wayne Dyer has a quote, “How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours”. So while no one may be able to make you feel anything, I think the world would be a more loving and happy place if everyone tried to remember that we are all in this together, that we are more similar than we are different, that we could all use more compassion and less judgment, and that we will all make mistakes. I think it’s also essential to be able to receive and accept an apology, to work on the ability to forgive. If you want to take ownership of your feelings, you’ll also want to add a healthy side of compassion.
In one sense, accepting ownership of your feelings creates a lot more work for you. The “blame game”, or the victim stance may seem easier, and it may also be habitual. If that’s the case, it will take a lot of effort, a new way of thinking, and a willingness to witness your experience as conflicts arise, in order to make some changes. But in a very real way, if you accept responsibility for your feelings in any given moment, you also become empowered. There are opportunities to practice this way of being every day, in small ways and usually in big ways, too. S.N.Goenka, who is the primary Vipassana meditation teacher, talks about how the mind loves to “boil itself”. He’s talking about those times when something unwanted has happened, and we obsessively replay it in our minds. Sylvia Boorstein, another highly revered mediation teacher talks about how the mind seems to get hooked or snagged on those negative instances. Someone says or does something hurtful, and the mind goes into a tailspin. It might be an interaction, a conversation, or a situation we’ve been a part of that did not go the way we wanted it to, and now we’re in a state of turmoil.
Have you ever replayed a conversation in your mind, and rewritten your responses? Maybe you’ve experienced hours, or an entire day going by when you are just caught in this awful web of negativity, re-writing this interaction, and at the same time feeling worse and worse. Of course, because you are feeding this beast, and the more energy you feed it, the bigger it gets. These are the moments when you have an exceptional opportunity to practice picking the mind up and bringing it back to the present moment. The past is over, the conversation cannot be redone (but perhaps it can be revisited with more clarity and calmness, or maybe you won’t need to revisit it, maybe you can find your own closure). Observe your state of mind, and observe the way it’s affecting your physical body. First of all, can you take several deep breaths and be really aware of each one? Can you scan your body for tension, checking the hinge of your jaw, your neck, your shoulders? From there, can you find some compassion for yourself? Maybe you can start to examine what has you so tweaked. Undoubtedly something has pushed a button in you, and you might as well get to know your buttons.
At the root of any spiritual practice is the idea, “know yourself”. Maybe the other person has stuff to own, but you cannot control whether they will or won’t. If it’s circumstances that have you down, if you’re angry at the world, or shaking your fist at the sky, it is almost definitely a time to shift your perspective inward. Ultimately, you are left with your own state of mind, and your own internal dialogue. You can’t change the world around you without changing the world within you, first. None of us are perfect. None of us will show up as our highest selves in every moment of every day. Sometimes life will feel really unfair. Sometimes, we will all struggle to find the path, and even after we’ve found it, we will all experience dark times when we lose our way. The person you will spend the most time with in this life is you. If you can start to tap into the reality that although you are having this somewhat isolated personal experience, you are also a part of something much larger than yourself, if you assume responsibility for your feelings (and in so doing, your actions, and the energy you’re spreading as you travel about the world), you may begin to experience a little more peace. Just a little less focus on the “I, ME, MINE” (the STORY), and a little more on the great potential you have within you to spread some love, will help a lot. The more peaceful it is within you, the more peaceful it will be around you. And if you can keep working toward a peaceful inner state, it will become less and less likely that something as small as a stranger driving like a maniac will rob you of that peace.
Perhaps eventually you will be able to send compassion to anyone in your life who might be suffering, who might not be showing up in the kindest way, who might be “off the path” for a bit, without losing your own inner balance, even when they do something or say something that upsets you, or confuses you, or disappoints you. And someday, maybe you can work toward compassion for all people who are suffering, in any kind of way, physically or emotionally, or violently, whether they be known to you or not, whether they are doing things you agree with, or not. What I’m saying is, the possibilities for inner peace are pretty limitless if you decide to steer your own ship. And if everybody got on board with that plan, I think the possibilities for outward peace would also be pretty limitless. I think even working toward this in small ways, a little at a time, leads to a very positive result. Your feelings are yours, but I wish you feelings of peace, and love, and the strength to find those things, Ally Hamilton