Who is your enemy? Mind is your enemy. Who is your friend? Mind is your friend. – Buddha
For an upcoming yoga support group, Reflect, Relax, Renew, I have been exploring the idea of wisdom. We throw around the word wisdom, but do we really know what it is and what it means to embody wisdom?
From my readings, the definitions “Knowing deeply how to live” and wisdom as “Your Inner guide” resonated with me as the simplest. Kelly McGonigal, Health Psychologist, more specifically describes or defines wisdom as "the ability to see what is true in this moment and what is needed in this moment.” She goes on to talk about how “It is the ability to see through the habits of the mind including stress, disappointment, and self-criticism.” So, what does that mean? I think it means that we are all born with wisdom, a core essence of who we are. I see this in my 2 year old son. He is silly, sensitive, caring, curious, and expressive. These characteristics guide him in how he explores the world. Yes, I realize he is not yet reasoning and rationalizing like an adult, but his wisdom is simple, he is all about the moment and what he needs in the moment. He doesn’t see his emotions as good or bad, simply as communication tools to know what he wants or needs and expresses it. So, what is it about life that transforms normal emotions and feelings of stress, disappointment, anxiety, self-criticism to habits that pull us away from staying connected to this innate, intuitive wisdom?
I believe Tara Brach, a Psychologist and meditation teacher, touches on an answer to this question when she speaks of the “stories that imprison us”. We frame what’s going on in our lives with a story, we assign meaning to the events in our lives based on how we interpret and evaluate them, and this shapes the experience. The stories that imprison us are fear based and can keep us stuck in pain and suffering. More specifically, we have a difficult experience or many or a trauma and it shapes us, it impacts how we think, feel, and act, it shapes our world view. With anxiety, our story could be that life is unpredictable, not safe, so our thoughts and feelings follow. And this story can and often does come from a very real place, from events in our lives that involved loss, violence, fear. What sometimes happens is if we get stuck in this anxiety story our mind becomes conditioned with lots of “what if” thoughts and feelings of tension. Tara Brach refers to this as a “negativity bias”. This is when we have experiences that are traumatic or we experience chronic stress or anxiety or depression and we get stuck in a protective habit of keeping ourselves safe and by habitually looking for threats. This is a part of our survival filtering process to scan for what could be a problem and fixate on it, again to keep ourselves safe. Tara goes on to say, “we get very loyal to our anxiety, mistrust or vigilance and we can unconsciously walk through life with these fears based stories if we don’t unhook.”
How do I connect this to the practices of mindfulness and yoga? Well, both are practices that help us cultivate wisdom. Wisdom gives us the strength and insight to unhook from the stories and habits that are not serving us anymore but at one time kept us safe and helped us survive. I believe mindfulness and yoga give us the space to reflect, relax, and to reconnect to our wisdom of knowing that we do not want to live a life detached from others in our emotional world or distracted in worry thoughts. These practices help us get out of autopilot and be intentional.
Chris Germer wrote that we can cultivate wisdom through mindfulness in the following ways and I’ll expand it to include yoga:
1. Step out of our thought stream and bring our attention to the sensory experience. -this practice can easily happen in yoga or via day to day mindful moments by bringing your attention to your breath or your movements.
2. Practice being with discomfort to help us increase our tolerance and acceptance – Discomfort happens physically and emotionally in yoga when we struggle with a difficult pose. We can also practice mindfulness of emotions and physical sensations from a place of curiosity vs. judgment or awareness vs. rumination.
3. Disengage from automatic responses; learn to pause, breathe, observe the stimulus response process – In yoga our automatic response to a difficult pose could be frustration and I can’t, through support and encouragement we breathe, refocus, and try again and maybe modify and practice what we can do vs. what we can’t. Mindfulness mediation gives us this practice as well; a favorite is Stop Take a breath Observe Proceed.
4. Vehicle to practice moment to moment observation of the minds antics – Again mindful movement allows for the practice of observing with curiosity vs. judgement and learning to observe with space vs. attach with urgency.
5. Allow us to see how the mind creates suffering – when the mind fights thoughts and feelings with aversion it fuels them and we suffer. Pain X Resistance = Suffering.
6. Develop Compassion – practicing mindfulness and yoga cultivate our wisdom and fuel our compassion, our loving-kindness towards ourselves and our struggles.
I hope these ideas give you the strength and insight to continue showing up fully in your life during both the good times and the difficult. Maybe, next time you are in a situation that triggers you, get curious. Ask yourself “what’s the story I’m telling around this? What is it bringing up? Can I name the emotions? Can I remain a kind witness to what is happening right here? And can I tap into my inner guide and see what is true in this moment and what I need?” Tara Brach wrote “The poet Rumi saw clearly the relationship between our wounds and our awakening. He counseled, “Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” When we look directly at the bandaged pace without denying or avoiding it, we become tender toward our human vulnerability. Our attention allows the light of wisdom and compassion to enter. This is what I wish for all of you, for your wisdom and compassion to continue to heal you and keep you resilient and hopeful and present.
May the light in me, honor the light in you - Namaste
Sources: Kelly McGonigal Yoga for Pain Relief, Chris Germer Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy, Tara Brach podcasts