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Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

… except for the genes that allow us to totally reset our expectations about social rejection.

Thank you Jia Jiang for helping me to take everything I had learned about the psychology, neurobiology and genetics of social rejection and rejection sensitivity … and throw it in the garbage.

Apparently the best part of having a human brain is that we have the biological predisposition to transcend our own biological predispositions.

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Peter Mark Roget (Roget's Thesaurus)
Image by dullhunk via Flickr

On Fridays, after a regular practice session, our shala is open for quiet meditation.  This is a new experience for me, even as I’ve read much about the mental and physical health benefits accrued by experienced practitioners.  As someone who is totally exhausted after practice – indeed, I couldn’t move another muscle even if I wanted – I always think it will be easy to settle in, and pass 30 minutes  in quiet stillness.

Sure enough though, even as my body is spent and motionless, my mind starts to wander, and wander, and wander some more.  “Damn”, I think, “here we go again”. Just a few minutes in, and I’m losing a battle – with myself.  “This is going to be the longest 30 minutes of my life!” What to do?

Some experts say to simply LABEL your thoughts and feelings.  Just find a word to place on the thought or feeling – and then – let it go.  Does this really work?  How does this trick work?

Recent brain imaging studies seem to show that when a word is applied to a negative emotion,  the brain changes how it processes that emotion and shifts processing to neural systems that avoid centers of the brain (the amygdala, in particular) that send neural projections to our face, gut and heart (areas where we tend to physically “feel” our bad feelings).   It seems that our ability to use words is an important tool in how we cope with emotional experience.  Either we succumb to the storms of negative emotions that can well up inside us from time to time (and feel lousy inside), or we can manage these feelings – using our words – and feel less lousy inside.   Apparently, the use of words, alters neural processing – leading us to experience less tightening in the chest, clenching in the gut, etc.,  etc. than we would otherwise feel when negative emotions come over us.  One of the researchers, David Cresswell, remarks: “This is an exciting study because it brings together the Buddha‘s teachings – more than 2,500 years ago, he talked about the benefits of labeling your experience – with modern neuroscience.”

But this is easier said than done.

How do I label a thought?  How do I label an emotion?  I mean, “I feel, um, um, frustrated, lousy, anxious … crap … I’m not exactly sure how I feel?  What’s the word I’m looking for?

Indeed – the words – the words – as in, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” WORDS.  Do I know enough words?  How many words are there anyway to describe all the possible feelings that a person can feel?  How many do you know?

Check this list out.    There are more than 3,000 words in the English language to describe various feelings.  Thank you Peter Mark Roget (who, ironically, worked on the first thesaurus as a means to cope with negative feelings associated with depression).  I will bring my thesaurus – full of these tools to help me label my feelings – to meditation practice from now on!

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Are they practicing breath control?  No.  Are they practicing postures?  No.  Are they desperately seeking meaning and a connection with divinity?  Yes.  Are they pulled in one direction by the wants of the body, and in another direction by the wants of the spirit?  Yes.  Do they cope day to day with grim realities of suffering and loss in a place where, “gravity is stronger and you can feel it pulling you closer into the earth everyday”.  Yes.

These are the very themes of yoga.  Beautifully captured in picture and sound in the 2003 film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus“.

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Manipura chakra
Image via Wikipedia

More on CG Jung‘s famous “chakra lectures” …

In lecture 2 he opines on symbolic and psychological aspects of the 3rd chakraManipura – shown here with a yellow center and red triangle that symbolize fire.  Interestingly, the location of this chakra overlaps with what we, today, call the “solar” plexus – not because of its symbolic connections to the fiery sun – but rather, simply because the neural projections from this plexus, located between the stomach and the spine, radiate outwardly in a sun-like fashion.

Jung notes that fire symbolism often follows water symbolism – just as occurs in the chakra hierarchy where the previous chakra is symbolized by water.  This ancient pattern of symbolism is common across many religious traditions.

“One sees all that very beautifully in the Catholic rite of baptism when the godfather holds the child and the priest approaches with the burning candle and says: Dono tibi lucem eternam (I give thee the eternal light) – which means, I give you relatedness to the sun, to the God.”

So, I guess, after a person emerges from the murky depths of water, the next stage of their spiritual journey or subconscious “awakening” is a time in their lives when they grow to feel connected to something greater than themselves, to something eternal, beyond the everyday world, perhaps cosmic or goldly, etc.  Jung suggests that this initial connection to “god” has long been symbolized by the sun and by fire.

“This is a worldwide and ancient symbolism, not only in the Christian baptism and the initiation in the Isis mysteries.  For instance, in the religious symbolism of ancient Egypt, the dead Pharoh goes to the underworld and embarks in the ship of the sun.  You see, to approach divinity means the escape from the futility of the personal existence, and the achieving of the eternal existence, the escape to a nontemporal form of existence.  The Pharoh climbs into the sun bark and travels through the night and conquers the serpent, and then rises again with the god, and is riding over the heavens for all eternity.”

Furthermore, Jung suggests, there is a shared, underlying psychological reason why so many ancient cultures used the common symbols of fire for this phase of their development.  It would seem that for many, that once they let go of the closely-held, relatively petty details of their day-to-day life and acknowledge a connection between themselves and the wider universe and things divine – that, upon letting go – their own fires of passion and emotion become alight.

So it is just that – you get into the world of fire, where things become red-hot.  After baptism, you get right into hell – that is the enantiodromia.  And now comes the paradox of the east: it is also the fullness of jewels.  But what is passion, what are emotions? There is the source of fire, there is the fullness of energy.  A man who is not on fire is nothing: he is ridiculous, he is two-dimensional. … So when people become acquainted with the unconscious they often get into an extraordinary state – they flare up, they explode, old buried emotions come up, they begin to weep about things which happened forty years ago.

I think I can relate to this notion.  Perhaps when you accept that you’re just a part of a larger plan, or just a single link in a long continuum, you stop worrying about the petty stuff which then allows your own deeper passions and emotions to flow more freely.  Both the good emotions related to creativity and love as well as feelings of sadness and loss that come along with recognizing your fate and limitations  – all begin to emerge.  These feelings make a person feel more “alive” than they would just playing it safe, workin’ 9-to-5 payin’ the bills etc., etc. and never allowing themselves to embark on their spiritual journey.

So it seems, as suggested by Jung, that we begin our spiritual awakening as humans have for thousands of years, by “taking the plunge” and choosing – not the “safe career” path – but a path in life that “means something” to us.  From the dark, uncertain waters, we emerge – and then the inner fires begin to burn, to inflame our passions and give us energy, to live and to create.

… can’t wait to see what’s in store next!

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The Monkey Baba
Image by orange tuesday via Flickr

Is there such a thing as a “true” guru?   A gentle sage atop a mountain who lives only to practice and nurture the spiritual growth of students? Like many students, I’ve always carried this idealized and universal notion close to my heart.  Back in school, my favorite professors were the genuine, off-beat ones who really lived for their work.  Today, as a new yoga student, I feel the same way about the teachers who genuinely seem to live and breathe yoga.

Nevertheless, in the real world, this ideal can, understandably, be hard to live up to.  Ask Jews, Catholics and Protestants as to which group is more “true” or follows the “real”, “orthodox” or idealized tradition.  Better yet – don’t go there.  Nor Sikh, Hindu, Shia or Sunni, etc. etc.  Since their dawn, spiritual pursuits have had a natural tendency to splinter and sub-divide as zealous followers strive to maintain the “pure”, “true”, “uncorrupted” ideals of their faith – hence, thousand years of religious war.  Indeed, the desire for spiritual purity is a powerful force.

Recently, the blogospere was buzzing about John Friend, a well-liked and highly regarded teacher and founder of Anusara yoga (nicely summarized here).  Some of the buzz centered on the age-old question of whether the new tradition of Anusara yoga is really, truly valid and also whether Friend is a “true” guru or more of a (now rather wealthy) profit-seeking entrepreneur.

True or phoney.  Its an age-old, passion-inflaming topic to be sure – great for driving blogosphere traffic!  Even for yoga, its an issue that is thousands of years old (see David Gordon-White‘s “Sinister Yogis“).  From his book page:

Combing through millennia of South Asia’s vast and diverse literature, he discovers that yogis are usually portrayed as wonder-workers or sorcerers who use their dangerous supernatural abilities—which can include raising the dead, possession, and levitation—to acquire power, money, and sexual gratification. As White shows, even those yogis who aren’t downright villainous bear little resemblance to Western assumptions about them. At turns rollicking and sophisticated, Sinister Yogis tears down the image of yogis as detached, contemplative teachers, finally placing them in their proper context.

Of course, the recent blogosphere buzz about John Friend is nothing of this sort – its just a few impassioned blog posts here and there (watch Yoga Inc. for a more intense debate).

Perhaps this reflects one of the great things about yoga.  Even with its own age-old debate of “true guru vs. showman”, it remains so uniquely free of the epic strife and hard feelings associated with other spiritual traditions.  Its bare-bones, bare-foot simplicity offers little for debate and intellectual hang-ups and makes it easy to accommodate its many splintered traditions within any given yoga shala.

I came across these remarks by Carl Jung made in 1936 in his work, “Yoga and the West” – who seemed to parse the issues quite handily and foresee the over-hyping to come:

“Yoga was originally a natural process of introversion. … Such introversions lead to characteristic inner processes of personality changes.  In the course of several thousand years these introversions became gradually organized as methods, and along widely different ways.”

“I can, however say something about what it [yoga] means for the West.  Our lack of direction borders on psychic anarchy.  Therefore any religious or philosophical practice amounts to a psychological discipline, and therefore a method of psychic hygiene.”

“Yoga is mainly found in India now as a business proposition and woe to us when it reaches Europe.”

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Synthetic made gold crystals by the chemical t...
Image via Wikipedia

As I mentioned earlier (here), I really enjoyed David Gordon White‘s  The Alchemical Body – an in-depth exploration into the interplay of yoga with spiritualityalchemy and the local political economics of India from 1,500 years ago and even earlier.

Before science and spirituality became dis-integrated, separate explorations (in the past 200 years), they were tightly intertwined and integrated for thousands of years in the practice of ALCHEMY.  Just as alchemists (yogis were among the first and best alchemists!) tried to transmutate lesser metals into gold, they also sought to improve and perfect their bodies and minds.  Eventually, the process became quite standardized across cultures along both chemical and psychological dimensions.

Here is an awesome blog post from Modus Vivendi entitled, “What I learned as a scientist from the 7 steps in alchemical transformation“.  I love the first of 7 steps:

Calcination – Basically this means to destroy the substance.  Normally by burning it to ashes. Mentally it is the destruction of the ego.

Yoga postures can be so darn difficult.  Practice certainly has a way of crushing the ego.  Much to explore here as modern science increasingly seeks to re-integrate science and spirituality.

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