At the beginning of each yoga or mindfulness practice, we set an intention:
“From this moment, I wish to cultivate mindful awareness of my body, heart and mind, knowing that it is for my own deepest well-being, and for the benefit of all those whose lives mine touches.”
This intention motivates us to connect with three aspects of our present moment experience; the body, heart and mind. We tune in to hear our inner voices. The body-mind speaks the language of sensation; the heart-mind whispers in the language of feeling; while the head-mind communicates through thoughts and images.
With practice, we become aware of the quieter messages, as well as the louder ones. Over time, we also learn how we habitually respond to these languages – do we listen attentively, or do we ignore or reject the suggestions? Do we take their advice, or exaggerate the messages, blowing them up into a drama of untold proportions?
Let’s start with the body. For many people, as Ken Robinson jokes, “the body is simply used to carry the head to meetings”. Many of us have lost touch with life below the neck, for a host of reasons. However, once we start listening, we experience our full range of sensations, from the strong to the subtle, from the ache of fatigue to the tingling feeling of aliveness. Within our yoga asana practice, we explore the place of sensation known as ‘the edge’. This is where the body begins to experience stretching or strengthening. For someone less attuned to their body sensations, they may not notice the warnings of the body until they have pushed too far, and the increasing sensation heightens into the pain of injury – more a shout than a whisper. For others, more sensitively attuned, but not used to exploring the edge, the early sensations may feel like a danger sign and we back away. There are many reasons, unique to each of us that cut us off from the body; maybe we experienced intense physical pain in the past, or trauma, or ridicule about our body shape. However, it is possible to find our way back – to relearn our innate language of sensation.
We can learn discernment when the body speaks. We can stay present with increasingly intense sensations, trusting that they indicate a place of benefit, a growing edge. Can we explore how appropriate stress on the tissues brings longer-term benefits, even if in the short-term, the experience is uncomfortable? Or do we back away, losing the opportunity for growth? On the other extreme, we may ignore the body’s wisdom, pushing forward from the place of a competitive mind, determined to go deeper, faster, further… and into injury. Discernment means balance, finding the middle path between holding back, and pushing beyond. Discernment means listening deeply.
Last week I was speaking to a mother who had recently journeyed through one of the body’s most intense physical experiences: birth. For her, ‘the edge’ had been an invaluable concept and practice. Even during the surges, when the only true description of her experience was ‘intense pain’, she knew how to bear witness to the arising and falling of sensation. She knew that to make it through each physical contraction of her body would bring an incredible reward – the sacred moment of welcoming new life into the world. Her practice had not only given her the inner knowledge that she could cope with extreme experiences, but also meant she could recognise the gift of resilience that this offered for her future role as a mother.
Whether we experience sensations from the body-mind, or a flow of thoughts from the head-mind, there is an accompanying feeling tone from the heart, falling into the category of pleasant, neutral or unpleasant. “This is an immediate and spontaneous affective experience of the awareness of a physical sensation or mental event” (Mendis, 2006). The heart-mind speaks the language of feelings but before we have learnt this language, it often goes unnoticed. Our habitual pattern is to miss the preliminary feeling tone until it has triggered a chain of reactions or thoughts, which can lead to strong emotional responses. We find that when a pleasant feeling arises, we cling on, wanting to hold it in place. This very act of grasping onto an experience makes us painfully aware of its passing. On the other hand, when we experience an unpleasant feeling, we try to push it away. This aversion, ironically, often locks it in place, as the energy from the feeling tone is not allowed to flow through us and release in its own time. Aversion or resistance creates our sense of suffering, and not the initial unpleasant feeling, which simply passes away on its own, when we trust in the truth of impermanence.
For experiences classified by the heart as neutral, our head-mind usually ignores them, or zones out into somewhere other than the present. In this way, we miss the joy of neutral experiences, the everyday life situations that we take for granted. During the recent Johannesburg winter, I felt sick and exhausted, yet once the illness had passed, I was able to re-appreciate the joy of health, or as Thich Nhat Hahn states “the joy of the non-toothache”. In the neutral experiences, the seeds of joy can flower.
For many of us, the head-mind speaks the loudest and we often forget the other languages. We also fail to hear the quieter ‘wisdom voice’ that gives gentle suggestions appropriate to each moment, even if the advice seems to contradict our learned response to a situation. With the three languages conferring, we can become deeply attuned to each moment, acting skilfully and compassionately, without the need to think things through. The body and heart are honest and not prone to the tricks of the head-mind, that can spin us into rumination, analysis, opinions and second guessing.
We use our yoga and mindfulness practices to learn our own languages, to interrupt the chattering mental proliferation of thoughts, and assess our conditioning. Once we learn to listen within, life takes unexpected and delightful turns, like walking through a dark maze and asking, “Which way now?” The body turns left, then right, the heart smiles and we find our way out of the maze, into the sunlight.
Like learning any language, it takes commitment, the dedication to return again and again to the present moment, and tune in to what is actually here with us, not what we ‘think’ is here. Am I listening to the language in this moment, or assuming I know what is about to be said, preparing my response defensively? Can I take the risk of listening beyond my learned responses, and maybe even hearing something of profound wisdom?
We find we can start to engage with the second part of our intention: “my own deepest well-being and the benefit of all those whose lives ours touches”. Even at times of difficulty, we realise that we are not to blame, we are simply experiencing the truth that human life contains painful experiences. Rather than backing away, we learn to stretch out, we move to our emotional edge, and we find the place to grow, so that we can hold our own pain, as well as the pain of others. The inner languages reveal how to care for ourselves at the physical, emotional and mental levels. We then find we are able to care for others.
Our inner voices come out as words of kindness to those around us. Our inner knowledge translates into acts of compassion and wisdom. Our personal practice becomes a way of engaging fully with the world around us. These are definitely languages worth learning.