Archive for February, 2010

To Breathe or Not to Breathe? That is the question.

Yesterday a friend of mine told me this story. She had met a producer who had offerred her a job on a film he was preparing. They arranged to meet a second time, but she was fifteen minutes late, and when she arrived he was gone. Upset about this, she tried to phone and email him but got no response. Thinking that she offended him by being late, she rang one of his associates who told her that he had killed himself the day after their first meeting. He was 53.

“To be or not to be?”, that must have been the question that this producer asked himself, and his answer was “No, I’ve had enough.” To those of us who have never contemplated suicide, it seems such a radical thing to do, to stop life just like that. I don’t blame him, it was his life to keep or lose, but he left a 15 year old son, and who knows the psychic repercussions that this will have on him. 

In meditation, it’s relatively easy to come to this stage, the point where you are only ‘being’ and so can contemplate ‘non-being’ . When in meditation you have come to a highly relaxed state, with a quiet mind and a body that has almost disappeared from sensation, you have left behind ‘doing’, ‘making’ and ‘having’, and most of what remains is the breath – inhale and exhale, with the pauses in between.  At this stage the breath is so clearly life, your life, that you are filled only with ‘being’, and the body and mind become the possession of your involuntary systems- the circulation and movements of blood, lymph, spinal fluid, water, food and so on, all controlled automatically by your brain.  

When you become aware of the breath being your life, of only ‘being’ , life becomes very simple, a matter of one inbreath and one outbreath. It is so simple that you can understand how easy it would be to stop breathing and to cease to be. Every once in a while, especially when times are painful, I have found myself being forced to ask myself , in meditation, why I go on, what purpose my life is serving, and whether it would make sense to stop. When this question arises, I take a review of my life, the present as well as the future. Am I happy? Are there things I still want to do?  What do I hope to achieve in the future? What responsibilities do I have, that I would be ducking out of? Do I have the potential of greater happiness in the future? So far I have always answered in the positive, that to be means more to me than not to be, but I suppose a time might come when the balance might swing the other way.

Today in meditation I realised that the past only exists in our body, where memories are stored, and that these are delusions, not accurate remembrances of what we experienced. The future too is a complete illusion, since we don’t know if we will be around to experience it. All we are left with is now, the present instant, the inbreath and outbreath that express our life’s feelings, thoughts and emotions.  And this is more than enough if we can find a way to be really present to that breath, to the moment in which we live. To be is really to breathe.

February 10, 2010 at 7:53 pm Leave a comment

A Spiritual Almanack: February – Seeds

Hexagram 3:  Chun – Difficulty at the Beginning

Cloud (water)



After stillness, action; after rest, movement; after completion: beginning. One yin and one yang make up the entire universe.

In February seeds lie in the ground, but they are not dormant. Within they are beginning to stir, slowly uncurling, starting the long journey to fulfil their mysterious inner potential. But we cannot see their progress; the ground hides them, just as our deepest motives and impulses, the mysterious unseen movers that cause us to move, lie hidden in our psyche.

The Decision of the I Ching Hexagram 3, Beginning says,

The beginning of a tiny sprout.

Sublimely prosperous and smooth.

Favourable to be steadfast and upright.

Do not act lightly.

From the slowly rousing seed, there emerges first a root, which buries itself deep into the soil, and then a tiny seedling appears, a tender shoot which rises up. This first tendril represents new life, and life grows out of two movements – the rise of yang and the descent of yin. The seed surrenders itself to the earth and in turn receives nourishment from it.

In our yoga practise as in life we need to follow both of these dimensions: using gravity to find our own root, and using our prana, our life energy, to rise up. We need to understand how we relate to the ground, how we use the ground. To find our own root is to learn to trust the earth, and to let it really support us, with no holding on to muscle tension. The ground represents elemental power and energy, the power that nurtures and grows.  Can we trust it enough to just let go and rest into it?

The seed is the essence of the plant, just as our seeds – our cells and eggs – contain our essence, our inner self.  So in this season our being starts to emerge from its hibernation, the life force unfolding towards the light. Seeds are powerhouses of energy, sharply concentrated and attentive foci of action. The smallest plant, soft and pliable, carries tremendous power in its root, the serenely unfolding yang power of the life force. We too have this power within us, but our fears, doubts and anxiety create obstacles that inhibit the release of the intense force of our life energy. Hexagram 3 is an emblem of this situation: the crashing power of the thunder is damped down by the clouds above. Our tremendous latent power is covered over and inhibited. Before we are able to emerge into our own light we must make a journey back, a reversal into our root so that we can again emerge from it. Paradoxically, we make progress by moving backward, crablike, as the Tao Te Ching tells us,

The Tao moves the other way

The Tao works through weakness

To go back the other way means to return to the root, to the source and origin of our being, where our power lies hidden and sleeping, coiled like the serpent power – Kundalini. Yoga is a means of discovering and releasing this latent energy so that we can use it in daily life. Many of us live too much in our heads so we need to practice bringing our energy down to our base, our fundament.  Vanda Scaravelli taught a yoga influenced strongly by using gravity, allowing the natural pull of weight to draw us down to earth, to ground our self in ourself. When we work on the base – the essential, the fundamental – then we are working with the base chakra, the first power centre of the body.  As we allow ourselves to be supported by life, solidly grounded on the earth, comfortable in our own skin, then we are balanced in the root chakra. And the root chakra is the support of all the other chakras.

Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa says:

We connect to the planet through our first chakra, and it’s where we return ourselves back to the earth beneath us.  It is at our first chakra that we accept we are even here on earth.  It is where we first say ‘yes’ to life.

Once we can unconditionally say ‘yes’ to life we can discover our true self, our true nature, and in doing so we liberate our energy and become free of fear, as the Katha Upanishad tells us,

When the wise understand that it is only through the Eternal Self that we see, taste, smell, feel, hear, and enjoy, they meditate on this Self and go beyond all suffering.  When we are present with our Self, we are beyond fear.  And this is our true nature.  The Eternal Self lives not only in our hearts but also among the physical elements. It is a boundless power manifesting as life itself, entering every heart, living there among the elements – that is the Eternal Self.

When we lose fear we automatically gain courage, which is why courage is one of Socrates’ cardinal virtues. He did not mean only the bravery of a soldier, but our everyday courage when we strive to overcome our deepest fears. Yoga can be a powerful tool to help us gather our courage, and learn to live in greater freedom. When we are free, we begin to see reality clearly, without the delusion of the past. In such a state, we can see the obstacles that stop us, can grow past our old conditioning, can learn to grow  ‘prosperous and smooth’, just like the tiny plants.

As the Zen monk Tiantong Hongshi says,

Everywhere life is sufficient, in its way.

In us life is also sufficient, and we have everything we need within to fulfil our enormous potential. All we have to do is wake up and realise it.

February 8, 2010 at 4:01 pm Leave a comment

Emotion, a book by Dylan Jones

I’ve recently been re-reading the book Emotion by Dylan Jones. The book is a survey of recent research into the emotions, and their evolutionary role. Jones lists the Basic emotions as being joy, distress, disgust, anger, fear and surprise. These are controlled by the amygdala, a sub-cortical part of the brain. The Higher Cognitive Emotions are love, guilt, shame, embarassment, pride, envy and jealousy, which engage the frontal cortex. Jones also discusses moods.

He touches on meditation as one of the Body Technologies of Mood. He considers meditation as a safe and effective ‘body technology’ to regulate emotions. Its calming effects work through feedback. In a meditative state, ‘the rythmic breathing and relaxed state of the muscles are interpreted by the brain as conducive to a calm state of mind.’

We usually think that the onset of a strong emotion causes body changes, but in meditation the reverse happens: the body changes come first and they induce the emotions. Since a feedback loop can be amplified, it stands to reason that improving meditative skills through practice can lead to more voluntary control over the body and the emotions. This has been demonstrated in advanced yogis,  who can control their hearbeat and breathing to a great degree.

Jones makes an interesting comparison about breathing and the basic emotions, in that he considers them to be similar, ie, that they are biological -‘hard-wired,etched into our neural circuitry, by our genes rather than by our culture.’

An interesting and well written book.

February 2, 2010 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.