If you have ever engaged in a sustained spiritual practice like Yoga, meditation, or anything that brings you face-to- face with the contents of your mind, you may be shocked at what you have found. The untrained human mind is a very messy thing: a jumble of hopes and dreams, insecurities, often conflicting opinions and an ongoing drama that would make even the most outlandish soap opera seem tame by comparison. Realizing this can be quite a shock to the system, especially if you were expecting Yoga and meditation to transform you into a Zen monk-like character who floats effortlessly through life.
While spiritual practices can uncover some challenging feelings, it can also work the other way round – challenging feelings are often what cause people to start the practices in the first place. Retreats are full of the broken-hearted, or people experiencing some type of crises which leads them to realize a massive change in direction is needed.
Either way, when dealing with challenging thoughts and emotions in spiritual practice, it is important not to fall in to a trap. The trap is judgement, a.k.a. being hard on yourself. Your mind is a mess, not because you are some kind of terrible failure, but simply because you are a human being. The fact you have noticed the mess means you are on the right path. It is basically good news. However our tendency for self-criticism can jump in and turn the spiritual path into one giant guilt-trip. This could cause you to push yourself too hard (turning the practice into some kind of never-ending competition with yourself) or just to give up all together (“there’s no point, it’s too difficult for me!”).
Yoga To The Rescue
We can turn to the ancient Indian tradition for a remedy to this problem. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (thought to be written around 2000 years ago and based on even older traditions) Yoga is divided into 8 limbs. The first of these 8 limbs is Yama, which is a kind of ethical code – and the first section of this ethical code is known as Ahimsa (meaning non-violence). So really, the foundation of the foundation is non-violence! Everything else starts with this: training the body, calming the mind, going deep into meditation and eventually waking up to the true nature of reality – it all begins with non-violence. Obviously this includes violence against others, but judging yourself negatively or pushing yourself too far is a form of violence against the self – and this is what we really need to avoid when working with challenging emotions.
So we can deal with whatever comes up in our minds in a non-violent way. Say for example that meditation has made you more aware of the workings of your mind, and now you are noticing the thoughts and feeling the emotions fully. If a situation causes you to feel a negative emotion like anger, it may feel really intense. This can seem quite confusing as it is almost as if our meditation practice has made our life more difficult! However really all that has happened is that we have become more aware. We now have the potential to transform or transcend difficult emotions, but we have to be gentle. So if the negative feeling comes up, our job is just to notice it without reacting to it. If we are not careful we will judge it – becoming angry about being angry (then perhaps even being angry about the anger about being angry!).
This is just the ego trying to get hold of your new-found awareness – playing the same old game of labelling things as good or bad and making everything personal. We are trying to connect to the part of us that is universal and beyond judgement, so when an emotion like anger is recognised it should be looked at in a detached way. Being angry does not mean you are bad, or that you are not “spiritual” enough – it just means that there is an emotional experience taking place. The same with whatever other challenging feelings comes up. You can simply allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling… and it will eventually pass. If the self-criticism arises, even that can become part of our practice if we simply notice it without buying in to it – it really takes a light and gentle approach.
Enhancing your awareness may also shine light on certain patterns of behaviour that are unhelpful or even detrimental to your well-being. As human beings we cannot help but avoid pain and seek pleasure, and this can often get out of control with bad habits or addictions. Becoming aware of these can again lead us to judge ourselves, but this is not the point. Of course it is good to drop bad habits and develop good ones, but this is best achieved without being violent toward ourselves in the form of strong judgements. Noticing any bad habits is actually something that should be celebrated – now you have the possibility to change them.
It is also possible to fall into the judgement trap during a spiritual practice itself. In mindfulness meditation, the practice is to notice when a thought comes up, then return the attention to the object of meditation (e.g. the breath). If you find yourself constantly getting lost in thought, you may get the feeling that you are doing it “wrong”, or that you are not “good” enough at meditating. This really is not the case, noticing that you are having many thoughts IS the practice. Even Zen masters sometimes report many thoughts during meditation! However, the self-critical mind can get involved and convince you that you are doing it wrong. This is why it is so important to be non-judgemental, just take a look at whatever your mind throws up with a smile… and go back to concentrating on the breath. It is the same with Yoga, you may find that you are not as bendy as the person next to you, or that you are not motivated to practice as much as you would like – but this is fine! Beating yourself up over these things is definitely not in the spirit of non-violence.
Focusing On The Positive
So how can you motivate yourself to improve without being hard on yourself? In today’s goal-oriented culture we are taught to push ourselves to do uncomfortable things for future rewards (e.g. working endless hours in an office or exercising to the point of exhaustion at the gym). However this is not the right attitude for the spiritual path. Yoga does require self-discipline, and this will improve with continued practice – but it does not require self-harm. The whole point in the postures is to ultimately make the body MORE comfortable (in the ancient Indian tradition the postures were used to prepare the body to sit in meditation without distracting pain).
Ways to motivate yourself in a non-violent way include setting realistic goals, allowing yourself some leeway, and focusing on the positives (what great improvements you can have to your life rather than what is wrong with you and needs fixing). Your mind may not be calm, but you can always get calmer. Your body may not be as flexible as you like, but it can always get more flexible. Really our potential is limitless and we can always improve. Eventually the body and mind will learn to crave what is healthy so it will not feel so much like hard work. In the meantime, be gentle on yourself and have faith in the practice.
Remember Why We Are Practicing
So it important to see spirituality not as an endless battle with internal demons, but more like a process of refinement and growth. Perhaps the misconception that spirituality is about self-punishment has come from hundreds of years of guilt-tripping and repression from organised religion. Some Christians still practice literally beating themselves up, whipping themselves until they are raw and bloody, in the practice known as self-flagellation. Indian holy-men have been known to sleep on beds of nails! This is certainly not in the spirit of non-violence! So please don’t join the self-whippers and nail-sleepers by using your spiritual practice as an opportunity for self-criticism!
It is easy to get fixated on the negative aspects of the mind, and forget that the process of becoming self-aware will also enhance the beautiful positive experiences we can have. Simple things like eating a nice meal, going for a walk, watching the sunset, spending time with friends can become much more pleasurable when we are more aware. In Yogic tradition, as well as non-violence, the cultivation of contentment is also essential – how can you concentrate and delve deeper into yourself if you are in a state of discontent? This again is something often forgotten, we have a tendency to associate Yoga with pushing ourselves into uncomfortable positions and generally being serious. However, doing things to cheer yourself up is actually part of spiritual practice. In the same way as the Yoga postures make our body more comfortable, being nice to yourself makes the mind more comfortable. With a comfortable mind and body, you will be able to go much deeper on the inward journey.
Yes there will most likely be difficult things uncovered as you progress on the path, and sometimes the process of waking up can sometimes feel a little like going crazy… but there is so much more to spirituality than facing the negative stuff, it’s a beautiful process of becoming stronger, expanding the mind, and ultimately waking up to the true nature or reality… and it all starts with being nice to yourself!
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