Yoga Sutra 1.1 – The How of Presence

Atha yoga anushasanam. Now, the teachings of yoga.

Yoga Sutra 1.1, Patajali

Now the teachings of yoga… or How I meditate with a busy mind

“I tried meditating, but I was terrible at it. I just sat and thought about all the things I have to do.”

“I have to do guided meditations, otherwise my brain just keeps getting distracted.”

“I meditate by running. I have to move.”

Heck yes, meditation can be a struggle. Those are all real quotes from people I know and love. So my first post on what is intended to be a yoga blog, based on the very first line of the first yoga sutra, is, in fact, about sitting meditation.

Most of us who are interested in yoga have heard of the benefits of being present, and that yoga and meditation can help us be that way. But they are just techniques, and if techniques don’t work to help us be present, then they can do more harm than good, by making us believe more in our limitations than possibilities.

This year marks a decade of meditating faithfully, nearly every day. I do often become preoccupied with thoughts, and doing or not doing something with them. I’m not going to lie, this creates a tedious feedback loop. The thought emerges, walks in wearing a business suit or with a surfer-dude swagger. When I notice it, another thought rushes in, dressed in the loincloth of an OG Yogi or the flame-hued robes of a Tibetan monk or the spandex leggings of a yoga teacher and scolds, “Hey, remember we aren’t entertaining thoughts right now? Come back later!” 

That first thought might cooperate, or it might start to argue, or get its friends involved, or maybe even your mother! It might invite in the latest list of techniques from Yoga Journal or a report from Newsweek, and soon I’ve got a mind full of jabbering thoughts. An NBA player, some saxophonists, a mouse reminding me that I was supposed to seal that hole in the garage yesterday and, ooooh look! The dragon from the fantasy novel I have been reading!

Meanwhile my inner yogis and buddhas are weaving through the crowd, trying to insert a word edgeways, whispering with increasing levels of impatience, until one of them breaks and screams,

I AM TERRIBLE AT MEDITATING! 

I need to do a more active practice, run or vinyasa, this stillness is just a chance for my brain to go crazy!

Almost every day, I practice Zazen. Zen meditation. Not metta lovingkindness or shamanic journey or pranayama (though I love those too), but the most bare-bones, no-nonsense, just sit there and feel your breath and, no, you don’t get any fancy mantras or flames or visualizations kind of meditation. 

It’s a huge part of my life – its integral to my yoga practice. The confluence of rivers of insight is always a good place to draw water. We sustain ourselves by breath and gravity. I return often to this notion during my yoga practice. Am I aware of my feet, the earth beneath me, and am I feeling my breath, not distantly, but from within? Sometimes I can feel the life pulse initiating, inspiring the breath. It is an exquisite joy. As my zen teacher, Sean Murphy Sensei, calls it, “Like sinking into a warm bath.”

But sometimes, the cacophonic party of thoughts seems about as far from a warm, solitary, contented bath as it is possible to be. So what’s the trick? Why are so many initial meditations much more like the party of all our inner voices than the surrender promised by seasoned meditators?

Thoughts are born of neural networks, and as their name denotes, neural networks are built to connect. The thought about the mouse is supposed to remind me that I need to seal up that hole in the garage. In the wild, in evolutionary terms, seeing the tree where the lion hid last time or the bush that bore such sweet berries last season were vital connections to make, reminders of information and strategies critical for survival. But in a world with fewer survivally (that is a word now, m’kay?) important stimuli, this same neural interconnectedness becomes a burden that can completely obscure the present moment — which is the only place that our life actually happens.

But neurons are not only in our minds, not only the stuff of memory and linguistic thought. The whole body is abuzz, awash with sensations of our present reality. The nerves in my belly, my feet, my lower back are just as active as those firing as thoughts in my brain. I just have to choose to pay attention to them. So this is what I do when I notice myself following a web of thoughts in meditation— I shift my attention back to my belly button. I don’t think about the thoughts (that leads to the thought party, remember?). I just try to feel the (usually quieter) sensations in my pelvis, my feet. I focus on the “still small voice” of those nerves. 

It is possibly to get as absorbed in the sensations of the body as we are in a train of thought. If I can keep my attention in a body part, it does start to feel comfortable, usually, rather like a warm bath. Even when the body is in pain, there are almost always places that feel neutral, and funnily, when I focus on neutral sensations long enough, it does become pleasant. Rather like a warm bath. 

In the beginning of my sit, I take a few deep, loose breaths to release surface tension, then I gradually draw my attention to a very specific place in my body, far from my head— “Time and space matter in magic, Potter.” If I focus on my nostrils as I breathe, that is just too close to my brain, and I will end up thinking more. If I focus on my belly button or my feet, somehow that draws the energy, my focus, to nerves that are far, far away from the to-do list triggered by the neurons in my head. Maybe I am playing a bit fast and loose with the science here, but it’s a working theory, okay?

Eventually, if I focus my attention on a specific part for long enough, it spreads to the rest of my body, and this can lead to the body highs that are Samadhi, gateways to enlightenment. More often, it’s just a sensation of simple presence.

After all, as Sensei Sean says, that is where our life happens.

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