contributed by High Desert Yoga Student and Substitute Teacher Ken O’Connor
I am amazed by the complexity of the human experience. We seem to build whole systems of beliefs and ways of relating based on our (often misguided) experiences as children. And yet, I have come to realize there can be so much more to life if we become mindful enough to examine our preconceived ideas; releasing what is no longer useful and allowing ourselves to live more fully in the “now.”
Earlier on, I followed a yearning to explore beyond my cultural/family defined boundaries. I read books by authors such as Ken Wilbur, Scott Peck, Yoginanda, C. Joko Beck and others to broaden my spiritual concepts. Their ideas inspired me to attempt to teach myself sitting meditation. To my dismay, sitting seemed nearly impossible because of rigid thought patterns which seemed to instantly take over my brain. My mind was filled with stories of the past, both recent and distant, evoking feelings of dissatisfaction. My mind would then leap to wild speculations about the future and how I needed to figure out a way to control it. All illusions, of course, but what was I to do?
Once again, reading about the experience of others like Ram Das, Kornfield and Goldstein inspired me to explore hatha yoga. Picking up Yoga The Iyengar Way by Silva, Mira & Shynam Mehta, I began my home practice. (I really recommend finding a teacher; my practice improved greatly when I eventually did). Practicing postures, focusing intently on alignment and the breath resulted in moments where all my thoughts dropped away. Soon, I discovered I could bring the focused experience of asana to sitting meditation. When thoughts occurred, I learned to gently acknowledge them without losing myself in mental dialogue. I learned how to allow judgment, planning and worrying to float past without attachment. Yoga became the vehicle to help clear my mind of the debris that clutters my awareness of “NOW.”
A few years ago, a few friends formed a weekly study group to read and discuss the yoga sutras of Patanjali. I found the sutras to be a fascinating manual for understanding the perceived dualistic nature of the world and how to begin to deal with it. Using the sutras as a guide, I was better able to observe my thought patterns. I became more aware of when old habits of thinking surface and want to drag me back into old behaviors. I’ve found I don’t need to abruptly try to change the pattern; the very action of bringing awareness to the pattern initiates the change.
Although teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Tara Brach explain it better then I can, it’s the moment of awareness that lets me identify the emotion. Whether it’s fear, feeling of lack, loneliness (or whatever the trigger is), once I can step back and see the emotion behind the feeling, it minimizes the power to control my reactions even as the event is unfolding. A while back I went out to go to work in the morning and my truck had been stolen. Part of me wanted to be angry, part wanted to play the victim, part wanted to blame others; instead, I took a few breaths and just did the next thing I needed to do. The more mindful I am, the less drama there is in life. And some days I am much more skillful than others.
A true test of the value of yoga is attempting to take the practice of mindfulness off the mat. Mindfulness developed through asana and meditation translates to giving me the space and freedom to make real changes in my thinking and life. Bringing this type of mindfulness to any action or situation, from washing the floor (I just spilled a quart of apple juice in the kitchen!) to dealing with difficult people, initiates the process of spiritual awakening.
Recently I have decided to try dancing, an interest my upbringing kept me away from exploring. I was taught by my family and religion both in overt and unspoken ways that dancing, especially for a boy, was somehow unacceptable behavior. I’m now embarking on the somewhat awkward process of learning how to move my body in unison with music without tripping myself or someone else – an activity that while innate to someone from a different background- I have avoided all these years. By choosing to do this, I am continuing the process of freeing myself from self limiting beliefs, freeing my mind (and my hips) to live more fully in the present moment. Since now is all there is, there is never a better time to explore.
Life simply IS. As humans there will always be times of joy and times of sorrow. But if we can be more present, we can free our minds from unnecessary limitations, open our hearts to new ways of relating and, most importantly, learn how we can truly be of service to those around us.
Ken, a regular student and substitute teacher at High Desert Yoga, has been practicing and studying yoga for 15 years. He completed the 500 Hour HDY Teacher training program in 2006. His education and work background span the fields of psychology, computers/electronics, and “fixing stuff.” He recently has been revitalizing his love of the outdoors, and has begun exploring everything from comic book conventions to folk dancing. He eagerly awaits other adventures still to unfold.