Monday, January 18, 2010
In the Taittiriya Upanishad, an ancient Tantric yoga text, a human being is described as having five sheaths, or koshas, that interpenetrate each other, encasing the soul like the layers of an onion. The outermost layer is the physical sheath, which the sages called the food sheath, not only because it is made of the food we take in from the earth but also because it will ultimately become food for other creatures. Encased by the physical sheath, interpenetrating it and transcending it are the three layers of the subtle body: the pranamaya kosha, or vital energy sheath; the manomaya kosha, or mental sheath; and the vijnanamaya kosha, or wisdom sheath. Deeper than these is the anandamaya kosha, the bliss sheath. According to the sages of yoga, any real answer to the questions "Who am I, really?" or "What is the meaning of my life?" involves looking into these sheaths, which are also called "bodies" or "selves."
Annamaya Kosha (Physical Sheath)
Though the physical sheath, or physical body, is the most tangible aspect of ourselves, very few of us have a real sense of where our organs are or what goes on inside our bodies. When I first began practicing yoga, it was nearly impossible for me to feel my feet or the muscles in my legs unless they hurt. Instead of sensing the body from the inside, I would "think" about the physical body, simply because so much of my energy and attention was parked in my mental body. Injuries and accidents—and even eating compulsions and other addictions—often come from the tendency to move and use the body without feeling how it responds. If you have difficulty fully entering your physical body, you may feel ungrounded, spacey, and fearful. But once you learn to feel your body, to sense it from within, you will learn how to move inside a posture to protect yourself from injury. You will begin to sense what kind of food you need and how much. Your attention will become grounded. Consciously inhabiting your physical body will bring more presence and ease to your life.
Exercise To get into the physical body, try this exercise. Notice your feet in your shoes. Tighten and relax the muscles in your calves. Touch your face and sense the contact between the fingers and the skin. Put your hand over your chest and feel your heartbeat, or feel the contact between the hand and the flesh. Then pick an inner organ—your liver, heart, or kidneys—and try to find it with your attention. Really sink your attention into that organ. Just as you would in meditation, notice when you become distracted by thoughts. When this happens, note "thought" to yourself and come back to sensing the organ. Notice the settling and grounding effect of this practice.
Pranamaya Kosha (Vital Energy Sheath)
The next three koshas are subtle—they can't be tangibly grasped. Nonetheless, they can be felt, and feeling them is essential for mastery of your inner world.
The pranamaya kosha, or vital energy body, interpenetrates the physical body but is much larger. When you feel energy expanding into your heart or head during meditation or asana practice, or when waves of heat ripple through your body, you are in contact with the vital energy body. Feeling energized, sleepy, dull, restless, or calm are all attributes of the vital energy body. Just as you have a physical "look," you also have a personal energetic signature. Once you become sensitive to the energy within and around you, you will start to recognize the vibrational signature that you and others leave in a room, or even on a piece of clothing. (Remember how comforting it was the first time you wore your partner's shirt to bed?)
You may also notice how much of your communication with the world happens on an energetic level. Consider the way you feel when you're in a room with an angry person, the peace you can find by sitting under a shady tree, the subtle transmission of energy you get from being near a good teacher.
Meditation is intended primarily to tone the energy body, as is asana practice. We often think of these practices as toning the mental and physical bodies, respectively, but yoga and meditation are also aimed at moving stagnant energy, or prana, through the body. One way to tune in to the power within the energy body is to practice letting yourself "be breathed." Without changing your breathing pattern, become aware of the breath flowing into and out of your body as a natural, spontaneous flow.
Exercise Instead of feeling "I am breathing," feel "I'm being breathed." Let yourself relax into this feeling. If you notice your breath tightening, just notice it, with the thought "I am being breathed." Eventually you may begin to feel the breath as energy, and you may sense that the body is bigger than the boundaries of the skin. This is a sign that you've entered the vital energy body. As this happens, you may find that your posture automatically readjusts itself, that your back or hips open. These are all effects of consciously accessing the vital energy body, which is the storehouse of healing power in your system.
Manomaya Kosha (Mental Body)
The manomaya kosha—within which you think, fantasize, daydream, and practice mantra or affirmations—is the part of you that creates meaning out of the world you inhabit. But just as the physical body has layers of skin, fat, blood, and bones, so the mental body has its own layers. The most superficial layer comprises passing thoughts, images, perceptions, and emotions that bubble up in your inner world.
However, if some of the thoughts in the manomaya kosha are like bubbles in the ocean, others are like tides and have a stronger hold. The deeper levels of the manomaya kosha contain the powerful mental structures formed by the beliefs, opinions, and assumptions that you've absorbed from your family and culture as well as from your accumulated mental patterns. Called samskaras in Sanskrit, these deep thought grooves in the mental body cause your perceptions of yourself and your life to run in certain fixed patterns. When you examine the contents of the manomaya kosha closely, you can often see these patterns, which take the form of repetitive thoughts like "This isn't how things should be" or "I'm not good enough." Samskaras not only color your experience but also help shape it, which is why one of the most effective practices is to notice and question the "stories" that, without conscious prompting, run through your mind over and over again.
ExerciseTry this basic self-inquiry, adapted from an exercise developed by the spiritual teacher Byron Katie. Look at a situation in your life that is charged in some way. Write down your thoughts about it. Then, one by one, consider each thought and ask yourself, "What would I be without this thought?" Notice how your breathing, your energy, and your mental experience shift.
Consciously replace the thought with one that feels empowering and real—such as "I am free to choose my attitudes" or "There is another way to see this." Notice whether this new thought brings greater spaciousness to your mind.
Vijnanamaya Kosha (Wisdom or Awareness Body)
As you explore your inner world, you may begin to notice that along with your thoughts there are things that come from a deeper and subtler level of your being. This sense of inner knowing comes from the wisdom body, the layer composed of intuition and awareness. The wisdom body is also responsible for insight. If you become engrossed in a project like writing, painting, math, or even problem solving, you're accessing the wisdom body.
A composer I know often plays random sounds until his ordinary mind (his manomaya kosha) steps back, making room for the wisdom body to "download" music that is genuinely creative and new. Another friend tells me that when he's stymied or stuck on a personal or professional problem, he'll formulate a question about it, then sit for meditation. At some point, as his thinking mind gets quiet, wisdom will arise. The wisdom body, at its subtlest level, is simply awareness&mdashthe objective, observing part of the self. It's where you can stop identifying with your powerful thoughts and self-descriptions, and just witness your mind and your life.
ExerciseRight now, notice that something in you observes that you are reading. That same observing "I" is also aware of your thoughts, your mood, the way your body feels, your energy level. It knows all this without being involved in it. As you embody awareness, notice if you are able to contain all the other levels of experience—without getting attached to their meaning or outcome.
Anandamaya Kosha (Bliss Body)
The bliss body is the most hidden part of us, yet its subtle presence is felt as the instinctive sense that life is worth living, that to be alive is good. You're literally born to be blissful, because the bliss body is the deepest layer of your personal Self. Separated by a thread from the universal Self, your bliss body is filled with natural ecstasy, dynamism, and goodness.
Contact with the bliss body develops through practice, especially practices such as mantra, meditation, and prayer that teach the mind to let go of the thoughts that hide the bliss body. To fully enter the bliss body, however, you usually need to be in a state of deep meditation. When you are in touch with your bliss body, you know that your nature is joyful, free, and capable of every flavor of happiness from rock-out ecstasy to simple contentment. You are in the bliss body in those moments during which you recognize—viscerally rather than intellectually—that love is the deepest reality, beyond mental constructs or ideas. In fact, one of yoga's greatest gifts is its power to awaken us to our body of bliss.
Exercise Ask yourself, "Where is bliss?" Ask in an open-ended way and tune in to the subtle feelings of tenderness, joy, and contentment that can show up at the most unexpected of moments. Let yourself open to the possibility that bliss is your true nature. Don't worry if there is no immediate answer or response. The bliss body takes time to reveal itself. For many practitioners, the experience of the bliss body arises after years of dedicated practice. Yet it can come alive for you in a moment—during an evening of kirtan or a meditation on the heart, or in deep Savasana (Corpse Pose). When the bliss body does reveal itself, it can seem miraculous, like a gift, and yet completely natural. Your essence is innately blissful. But you may need to learn how to turn deep inside to recognize it.
Believe it or not, it is possible to be conscious of yourself in all these layers and levels. To be aware and present in all of the koshas is to awaken to your own life and to integrate all the parts of yourself. It then becomes natural to sense the universal Self that expresses itself as our individual, layered Self. Then we become like the greatest sages of the yoga tradition, who are awake in all their bodies and awake to that which is beyond them.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and is the author of The Heart of Meditation. Visit her website at sallykempton.com.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
By Sally Kempton
I've dropped in on a yoga class with a popular teacher in Los Angeles. The room is full of slim blond yoginis moving like synchronized swimmers through a vinyasa series. Fifteen minutes into the sequence, the teacher calls the class together to demonstrate some alignment details. Half the women in the room move forward. The rest turn on their cell phones and begin checking their messages.
Those women could have been doctors on call, or moms with young kids at home. But I suspect that they are victims, like so many people, of the internal busyness syndrome—the breathless, stress-addicted feeling of having way too much to do and way too little time to do it. Internal busyness, a complex of internally generated thoughts, beliefs, and bodily responses, can certainly be triggered by an especially busy day or a lot of competing demands. But unlike external busyness, which is the more straightforward state of simply having a lot to do, internal busyness doesn't go away when tasks are done. External busyness—the pressure that comes from juggling a job, children, and all the tasks of running your life—can be managed. It can even be a yogic pathway, if you know how to practice with it. Internal busyness, however, manages you.
So when people tell me, "I'm so busy I can't find time to practice," I always ask them which kind of busyness they're distressed by: external or internal. One clue that you might be suffering from the internal busyness syndrome is this: When you don't have an immediate task at hand, when you have a moment that could be devoted to a few Ujjayi breaths or just spacing out, do you find yourself still spinning internally, wondering what you've forgotten to do? That's internal busyness.
The paradox of busyness is a bit like the paradox of stress. On the one hand, human beings are built to be busy. We're hard-wired for action—when it comes to our minds, muscles, or life skills, it's use them or lose them. To live is to act, as Krishna reminds his disciple Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. And there's a lot of bliss in using our skills. Given the choice, most people would opt for a full life, even at the cost of having too much to do. Happiness, so elusive when we're pursuing it, has a way of sneaking up when we're fully absorbed in something—even if it's just washing the dishes.
Getting Caught Up
But there's also a dark, compulsive side of busyness. You feel overwhelmed, driven by your schedule, afraid of what will happen if you let something go. You run on caffeine and adrenaline, get impatient with your kids and then feel guilty, dread running into friends because you'll have to stop and talk to them. Being in a hurry can make you so task-focused that you ignore others' needs as well as your own. In the famous Princeton Theological Seminary Good Samaritan study, nearly all the students observed walked right past a man who was apparently having a heart attack on the sidewalk. When interviewed later, most of those who didn't stop said that they were in a hurry to get to a class.
That study offered an important clue about internal busyness. It's rooted in an attitude about time. When the pace of work is intensified, as it is in modern industrial and postindustrial societies, time is seen as a finite, ever-dwindling commodity. Because time seems scarce, people try to squeeze the maximum amount of productivity out of every minute. They tend to spend less time on things like meditation, contemplation, and singing—activities that can't be made to increase their "yield" on the time invested in them. Even we yogis, who supposedly have our eyes on the inner depths of life, often find ourselves living by the basic capitalist assumption that what we do needs to yield a quantifiable result.
How many of us got more interested in meditation when we read about the University of Wisconsin MRI studies that showed that people who meditate can increase activity in the "happiness" section of the brain? We expect our practice to give us something measurable, give us more career leverage, or at least rejuvenate us so that we can go out and work more. Our spiritual practice becomes valued for its usefulness in our external lives, rather than as the source of peace and well-being that it was intended to be. This assumption—that if we're going to spend time on something, it needs to produce a measurable yield—is one root of internal busyness.
One powerful way to work with a tendency toward internal busyness is to periodically pause for two to three minutes during the day. While you're at your desk or doing the laundry, play with a yogic practice like the ones described on these pages. The idea is to do it for its own sake, without expecting results.Anti-rushing Practice
This practice releases the compulsion that often arises when you're in a hurry. Try it now, and then practice it the next time you feel yourself rushing.
STOP. Stand or sit totally still for one full minute. First, say to yourself, "I have all the time in the world." Then, bring to mind the image of a buddha in meditation. Hold the thought of the image in your mind while you breathe deeply and slowly five times. Keep that image in your mind as you continue on your way.
Busyness as an Addiction
My friend Glenn is like one of the eight-armed Hindu goddesses: a brilliant multi-tasker. She can do five or six things more or less simultaneously: run a meeting, make her kid's dentist appointment, talk to a friend on the phone. For years, she claimed that she did it all in a state of flow—that peak action state in which everything seems to be happening on its own as you move effortlessly from one activity to another. At one point, though, she realized that she had become addicted to the multitasking high.
Activity addiction is like any other addiction: As it progresses, you need more and more hits to get the original glow. So you add one more item to your schedule, then another. People ask you to join a committee, and you can't resist. You hear about a conference or a project, and angle to get involved. You add clients or classes. You speed date, go to two or three parties each weekend, sign your kid up for after-school activities six days a week. Pretty soon, you're emailing while you're talking on the phone, reading while you're eating or doing asana practice, and helping your child with her homework while watching the news and feeding the dog.
On a fundamental level, being busy nourishes the ego's need to feel important. But while it's normal to derive a healthy self-esteem from being engaged with the world, the ego's addiction to busyness has at its core a terror of its own emptiness. The ego feels, "If I'm busy, that means I exist. I'm worthwhile. I'm wanted." When you're active and engaged, you feel part of the rhythm of life. Our culture reinforces the assumption that being busy equals being productive and important.
Practice: Finding the Nonverbal "I Am"
STOP. Close your eyes. Ask yourself, "When I'm not busy, not productive, who am I? When I'm not thinking, not moving around, not emotionally engaged, who am I?" Instead of looking for a verbal answer, tune in to the space that opens up right after the question.
Getting off the Wheel
A few months ago, Glenn realized that she was exhausted and needed to make some changes in her life. She arranged to take a week of her vacation time, when her daughter was with her ex-husband, for contemplation. The first day or so, the phone rang constantly. Then it stopped ringing. At first, Glenn found the silence scary. Did it mean that she'd stopped existing in her world of busy people? She realized that, away from her job, she felt meaningless, as if her existence had no value when she wasn't doing important, helpful work.
Over the following days, Glenn surrendered to being present with what she was experiencing. She let herself inhabit her fear of being left out—and the deeper fear of nonexistence that seemed to lie behind it. As she did, she moved past those fears into a real peace. "I began to feel the part of myself that is deeper than fear of being alone, deeper than the fear of not being enough, deeper than sadness or boredom," she said.
At the end of the week, once back in her "normal" over-scheduled life, Glenn faced the problem of how to keep from going back to her old habit of filling every minute. The obvious first step was to do less. This is not always easy, especially for those with young kids or a demanding job. But Glenn discovered that if she turned down nonessential "extras," —like chairing a committee or giving a talk, she had more time to focus on the essentials. It also meant that she could have real conversations with co-workers, do a round or two of pranayama in between appointments, and even meditate for a few minutes before lunch.
Dealing with external busyness nearly always demands practical solutions—delegating or letting go of certain activities, maybe even observing a weekly Sabbath, a real day of rest and inner contemplation. But internal busyness is the domain of yoga. To truly address internal busyness, you need two types of yoga.
First, you need inner practices that take you to your center. Even if you aren't ready to commit to a daily meditation practice, you can get into the habit of stopping several times a day to center yourself through some form of inner focus, such as the micro-practices found on these pages. Micro-practices create small refuge spaces in your day. Over time, the sense of spaciousness you find in these moments will expand until you can access it at will.
The second type of yoga is more demanding, because it asks that you cultivate attitudes that allow you to act with yogic awareness in everything you do. Your actions become yoga when you act with inner focus. Otherwise, you might be doing wonderful things in the world—making art, practicing poverty law, or working for the environment—but you'll still feel overwhelmed and burned out.
There's an old Zen story about two monks who run into each other outside their temple. One of them is sweeping the temple steps. The second monk scolds the first for sweeping instead of meditating, saying, "You're too busy!" The sweeping monk answers, "You should know that there is one inside me who is not busy!"
The "one who is not busy" is our own pure Being, the unchanging presence within us that effortlessly connects us with the heart of the universe and imbues us with the simple feeling of basic all-rightness. That monk was able to act in time and space from a state of stillness and timelessness, because even in action, he never lost contact with pure Being. Internal busyness comes from the feeling of not having enough time. When you act with inner focus, it shifts you out of your time bind by anchoring you in the place where time is always enough.
Between Past and Future
You might have experienced a moment when your relationship to time shifted. Maybe you were truly engrossed in a task. Maybe you hit the "bingo" spot in an asana and found yourself in pure, effortless presence. One minute, you're in normal clock time, maybe wishing the clock would move faster. The next, time slows, and you're in the gap between past and future. In that gap, the timeless eternal present arises. There is no time pressure, because there is no time. When you enter that zone, you have all the time you need to complete your tasks.
Years ago, when I first started to give public talks, I found myself late to a program. I began to rush. I could feel anxiety coursing through my body. Suddenly, from some grace-filled inner realm, the thought arose: "What do you think you're doing?" I tried to push it down and keep rushing, but it came up again. Then I saw the irony, the contradiction. I was going to give a spiritual discourse, and yet my hurry was taking me out of contact with spirit! I stopped for a moment and practiced Stress Management 101, taking slow, deep breaths until I felt some of the anxiety drain out of my shoulders and neck.
When I continued on my way, I noticed I was feeling different. Whether it was the breathing or the intention to stop rushing, something had moved me out of the zone of busyness and into an internal quiet. Still focusing on the breath, I arrived at the program site five minutes late, but so present that I was able to flow right into my talk, with no bumps, no nervousness. That moment was a kind of turning point for me. For a friend whose work demanded that he spend hours every day in punishing traffic, the turning point was a decision to keep his attention in the heart while he was driving. For both of us, the shift came with a decision to focus inward at a moment of stress and to allow the "gap," the place of stillness where time slows down, to show its face.
The one who is not busy lives in the space between every breath, in the space between each thought. In the space between the end of one action and the beginning of the next, we can merge into the source of all action: the still point between the turning worlds. Known in Sanskrit as the madly, the "center point" or the "gap," this doorway into spaciousness arises in every moment. We just don't normally notice it. "Human beings experience thousands of fleeting samadhis every day," says a sage in the ancient text Tripura Rahasya. "But we pass them by, rushing forward to the next moment."
Meditation is the way we train ourselves to notice. (It's not an accident that when Krishna began teaching Arjuna the methodology of the yoga of action, he started with meditation.) When we meditate, we practice finding the still point and lingering in it. Once we've learned to inhabit it with our eyes closed, we can begin to recognize the gap when it shows up in the midst of activity.
That kind of meditation—meditation on the fly, as it were—is often said to be more valuable than sitting meditation. But you can't meditate on the fly until you've had some practice in sitting meditation. A regular sitting meditation practice trains you to identify the felt sense of quiet mind, and then you have a better chance of finding the quiet in the midst of activity. After years of tuning in to the one who is not busy, I've learned to step into those still moments instead of overriding them. When I stop to savor that stillness, my subsequent actions flow from that quiet place and have a power that my ordinary mind can't come near.
Practice: Finding the Still Point
RIGHT NOW, begin to sway slowly from side to side, inhaling to one side, exhaling to the other. At the end of each movement, notice the pause. Tune in to the pause on the right side, then on the left. Focus on the pause for a few seconds, then let the movement flow from that. Do this for two minutes.
Stillness in Action
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna defines yoga as "skill in action." At first, that might seem to simply mean being good at what you do. But the true skill in action is a natural fluidity that arises when you can act from the perspective of the one who is not busy. The one who is not busy is free in all her actions because she knows that she is untouched by the action and its results. She's the witness of action. When action is happening, she can sit back and allow it to take place. Yet, paradoxically, she is able to fully engross herself in a task, precisely because she is free from fear or anticipation about the outcome.
Turning your daily actions into yoga becomes a dance between doing your absolute best and surrendering the outcome. You can't surrender the outcome before you've made your effort, any more than you can win the lottery without buying a ticket. But as you make your effort, as you go about your daily tasks, the yoga lies in your intention to keep turning to the one who is not busy and to feel her steadiness, her detachment, and her freedom. You won't always see her immediately, but once you're committed to looking through activity to stillness, the one who is not busy starts to find you. Tuning in to the one who is not busy makes your effort, well, effortless. That's when action truly does become yoga, and you become like an eight-armed action deity, effortlessly multitasking with no sense of being busy at all.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yogic philosophy.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
By Sally Kempton
Mullah Nasruddin, the famous Middle Eastern trickster figure, once—so the story goes—took a pilgrimage with a priest and a yogi. On this spiritual journey, they were inspired to purify themselves through mutual confession. They decided to confess to each other their most embarrassing ethical lapse. "I had an affair with my assistant," said the yogi. "I once embezzled 10,000 rupees from the church," said the priest. Nasruddin was silent. Finally, the others said, "Come on, Mullah, it's your turn!"
Nasruddin said, "I didn't know how to tell you, holy brothers. But my worst sin is that I'm a compulsive gossip!" This fable cuts right to the swampy heart of human nature. Most of us, if we're honest with ourselves, will admit that we've been on both sides of the gossip aisle. I certainly have. I've been the one who confided an embarrassing secret to a trusted friend, only to discover a month later that it had gone viral. I've also, to my shame, been the one who couldn't resist sharing a juicy bit of information, even when it meant betraying a confidence.
Gossip is one of our most widely shared—and, often, most unconscious—addictions. People rarely consider themselves gossip addicts, even when they're filling the empty spaces in conversation with tales about mutual acquaintances. Someone like Adrian, who'll leave a message on your voice mail with the entire story behind John's recent firing—now, he's a gossip. And so is Susan, who considers anything you say to be fair game for her blog. But is that kind of compulsive sharing the same as your natural desire to talk to your sister about whether your other sister's boyfriend is right for her? Or the pleasure you take in hashing over a public figure's marital problems?
Maybe not. Yet, if you were to spend a day noticing how you talk about other people, you might begin to recognize a slightly compulsive quality in your desire to share the news. Maybe you do it to be entertaining or to lighten the atmosphere. Maybe your impulse is purely social, a way of bonding with others. But anyone who's tried to stop gossiping usually finds out that it isn't an easy habit to break. And that should tell you something about why the great yogic and spiritual traditions are so down on it. Any real yogic journey, any journey to spiritual maturity, will at some point demand that you learn to observe your own tendency to gossip, and then to control it.
Of course, only a committed hermit can completely abstain from talking about other people. After all, if we didn't gossip, what would we talk about? Public policy? Yogic principles? Well, yes, but all the time? The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar maintains that the gossip instinct is basically hardwired in us, and that language evolved because early humans needed to talk about each other in order to survive as social groups. He also reports having conducted a study on workplace sociability in which he and his colleagues found that 65 percent of the conversation in the office was people talking about—you guessed it—themselves or someone else. His point: We can't help gossiping. What makes gossip problematic is not that we do it, but how and why we do it. Some kinds of gossip help grease the wheels of human interaction and contribute to human delight. Other types of gossip are more like junk food for the mind. And then there's the nasty gossip—the kind that creates rifts between people, wrecks reputations, and even breaks up communities.
So, how do we tell the difference between good gossip and harmful gossip? When is gossip helpful, or at least harmless? And how can we engage in the harmless kind without stepping over the line?
Gossip has three important social functions. First, it facilitates the informal exchange of information. Dunbar points out that gossip is indispensable to the running of institutions. In a university, or a yoga studio, students informally rate the teachers. When you're trying to find a teacher, or get to know a new person, you ask around and find out what different people say about him. Is George someone I should work with? What did so-and-so really think of the meeting?
Gossip is also, for better or worse, a form of social monitoring. It's one way society keeps its members in line. If a person or institution behaves erratically or unethically, people will start talking about it. The evolutionary psychologists describe this as the social need to control "free riders"—that is, those who contribute less than they take. The idea is that the fear of word getting out may keep people from, say, abusing their family members or exploiting their employees.
But my favorite argument for the usefulness of gossip is that it gives us insight into other human beings and helps us understand the nuances of the human drama. God loves stories, says a Hasidic proverb, and so do the rest of us. When you talk about other people, you often do it partly from the love of a tale and partly in a genuine spirit of inquiry, a desire to unravel the mystery of another person. Why do you think he said that? What does her behavior teach me about what to do and what not to do? Is that just the way he talks to people, or does he have something against me?
But then, of course, you step over the line. The good story becomes just too irresistible, and you find yourself offering up a detail you know a friend would not want shared, or saying, "Yes, that's what I love about Ned, but doesn't this other thing about him drive you nuts?"
When you're addicted to gossip, even harmless gossip can be a slippery slope. Have you ever hung up after a gossipy phone conversation feeling wasted, as though you'd lost energy and time? Or felt depressed after lunch with a friend, realizing that you spent your time on tidbits of idle news and speculation—but missed the opportunity to connect in a more intimate way? Have you ever spent an hour dissecting Jeff's character and then felt guilty the next time you saw him? So-called idle gossip can easily tip over into snarky put-downs, or sarcasm, or a recitation of your grievances against the person you're talking about.
One sure way to know you're in the realm of bad or compulsive gossip is by its aftertaste. Good gossip leaves a friendly aftertaste. You feel closer to the person you've been talking about, more connected to the world around you. Good gossip feels pleasantly informative, like catching up on old friends. It doesn't leave you feeling out of sorts, angry, or jealous.
I first began considering these questions several years ago, after a series of conversations with my friend S. She and I were taking a walk when she began to share her dissatisfaction with another friend, whom I'll call Fran. Fran is someone I've always loved and respected. She's generous, smart, and fun, and she goes out of her way to help others. Of course, like most of us, she has her foibles, but certainly nothing that diminishes her essential attractiveness and good nature.
S and I started out talking about how much we liked Fran. But then S mentioned she was having a hard time working with Fran, that she found Fran to be careless about details and selfish about sharing. I realized that S was using our conversation cathartically, trying to work through some of her anger at her friend. So I tried to take a more or less objective perspective, defending Fran while doing my best to "help" S work through her feelings. Only in hindsight did it occur to me to suggest that S discuss these things with Fran herself rather than bad-mouthing Fran to me. For the next few months, S rarely let a lunch or a walk go by without a comment about our mutual friend. After a while, I stopped defending Fran. In fact, for a while I stopped seeing so much of her. Instead of a friend I adored, Fran had become someone I didn't quite respect. Not because I had had any negative experience of her, but because I had allowed myself to get pickled in someone else's negative gossip. That was when I began to consider how deeply other people's words can skew our opinions and even our feelings for a friend, teacher, or colleague.
Stop the Spread
Yoga circles are like other communities: perfect arenas for newsgathering. Like other communities, they offer endless opportunities for spreading rumors. A spicy secret will sometimes start a game of telephone, in which slight distortions mount up, and by the time the story has made the rounds, it often bears only the slightest relationship to the truth. So when someone tells you that X is mean to people, or is having private meltdowns at odds with her public image, or inflating his credentials, you never really know if it's exaggerated or downright false. And even if the story is true, there's the deeper and equally serious question of how much harm you would cause by spreading it.
In some situations you definitely have a responsibility to say what you know about another person. If Amanda is going out with a guy known for his Don Juan complex, she might appreciate your passing the information on to her, especially if you preface it by saying, "I heard" or "Someone told me that..." rather than claiming it as absolute truth. When you know that the person Loren is considering going to work for cheats or abuses employees, you should tell him. But many tales, rumors, opinions, and even facts don't need to be passed on to others.
That's the point made in the Buddhist Lojong precept "Don't speak ill of others' injured limbs." In the Jewish tradition, there is a specific prohibition against spreading negative information that is true.
This is the core of the ethical issue: Most of us wouldn't knowingly repeat false information about someone else. But we don't have the same prohibition against repeating something that happens to be true—even if it could cause deep and unnecessary damage if it got around.
Harmful speech, as defined in Buddhism and other traditions, is anything you communicate that could needlessly and pointlessly hurt others. It's a fairly broad category, since we don't even have to use words to comment on someone's missteps or character foibles. The eye roll you give behind Larry's back. The sarcastic or condescending tone you use to damn with faint praise ("Jim is such a cool guy"—said in a tone that conveys that Jim is exactly the opposite!).
This kind of gossip is like a triple-bladed ax. When you speak harshly of George—even if what you say is more or less true—you will probably affect the way other people think of him. But you will also make it hard for other people to trust you. As a Spanish proverb goes: "He who gossips with you will also gossip about you."
The third edge of negative gossip is what it does to your own mind. I no longer see S—partly because I'm afraid of what she might say about me, but also because I always came away from our encounters feeling unsettled.
Negative gossip leaves an especially nasty aftertaste, whether you speak it or hear it. That aftertaste is the inner karmic effect of gossip, and it's a useful indication that your words or tone have done some damage to the delicate fabric of your own consciousness. On the subtle level, you cannot direct negativity toward someone else without having it hurt you. Even so-called idle gossip can leave a painful residue, especially if you're sensitive to the nuances of your inner state. Try reading an entire issue of Us Weekly, and then notice the feeling state in your mind. Isn't there a subtle agitation, a feeling of vague discontent, a disturbance in the force field of your own consciousness?
Kicking the HabitPerhaps you suspect that you're a little bit addicted to gossip. If you want to change a gossip habit, it's a good idea to start by taking an honest look at what you get out of it and what motivation lies behind your impulse. Part of the thrill of gossip—any gossip—is simply the pleasure of being in on a secret. With negative gossip, there's another hook: It's comforting to feel that you're not the only person who makes mistakes, suffers losses, fails. Somehow, knowing that Jennifer Aniston got dumped makes you feel a little better about your own painful breakup.
Talking about other people can also be a way to avoid looking at something difficult or painful in yourself. A woman on a family vacation found herself complaining about her sister-in-law's casual parenting style. Only later did she realize that her sister-in-law's way of handling the kids had brought up her own insecurities about parenting, and that she'd used gossip as a way of keeping her maternal insecurity at bay.
It's not always an easy thing to admit, but behind most negative gossip, especially when it's about friends, relatives, or colleagues, is some form of jealousy. The German word schadenfreude describes one of the more shadowy aspects of human nature—the tendency to take just the tiniest degree of pleasure in another person's misfortune. Gossip is a way of getting that feeling. Maybe you have a moment of slight satisfaction in hearing that a college friend was left by his wife, or that a professional colleague was passed over for a promotion. Nearly always, this feeling comes up when the other person is a peer and, thus, a hook for your sibling issues or your projected negative feelings about yourself. In other words, when there's jealousy.
Most human beings have some insecurity about the amount of abundance that's available in the world. Most of us also tend to measure ourselves against our peers. Sometimes, we even feel that another person's success takes something away from us. That's when we might find ourselves resorting to gossip as a political or social weapon to neutralize rivals, especially if we feel that they take up space in the world that we'd like to have ourselves.
Perhaps the darkest reason behind gossiping is a desire for, to put it bluntly, getting even. A lover leaves you. A teacher dismisses you from class or criticizes you more sharply than usual. You have a fight with a friend. You're hurt or angry, and you don't feel that you can clear it up by talking to the person with whom you're upset. When you share the story, you discharge some of the pain. Of course, talking to a friend about your heartbreak or confusion can be genuinely cathartic: One reason you need friends is to have someone who'll listen when you're in emotional turmoil!
But there is a line between cathartic sharing and vengeful gossip. You know you've crossed it when you find yourself sharing only your side of the story. You exaggerate a little bit. You paint the person's behavior as more unfair or cruel than it actually was. You don't reveal that you had been making sotto voce wisecracks in the teacher's class, or that you had spent years dumping criticism onto the friend who no longer wants to see you, or that your "unfaithful" ex-boyfriend had made it clear when you began dating that he didn't want to commit to being in an ex-clusive relationship.
Instead, you impute dishonest or un-ethical motives to the other person, bring in gossip you've heard from others, theorize about their possible pathologies. "She's a clinical narcissist," someone says about a friend who refused to become a lover. "He has horrible boundary problems," a man says about his former teaching partner. We do this, consciously or not, with the intention of getting the person we're talking with to share our anger and validate our own feelings.
This is seventh-grade behavior, of course, but that's not to negate its seriousness. This is the kind of gossip that starts feuds, creates wedges in spiritual communities, and dissolves reputations. A man I know is still dealing with the fallout from the breakup of his marriage. His wife had not wanted to break up. When he insisted, she mobilized all her friends and circulated a letter on the Internet in which she accused him of infidelity, of abusing his kids, and of failing to credit sources in his work. At no point in the letter did she mention her own contributions to the failure of the marriage. The stories have been picked up and spread through blogs, tweets, and word of mouth. As a result, many of the man's students and friends no longer trust him.
We all gossip. We all listen to gossip. But it is possible, if you're willing to exercise awareness, to begin to discriminate about how and when you do it. Like wine or chocolate, which can be good for you in measured doses, gossip can be delightful—but only when you are honest with yourself about what you're saying and what its effect might be.
Obviously, you can't cut out all conversation about other people, and you don't have to. Instead, you can make your conversations more conscious, more disciplined, more measured. You can contemplate exactly why you sometimes feel compelled to bad-mouth a friend, or to spread a rumor that might cause harm. You can look into the feeling of emptiness that often lurks behind the urge to fill spaces in a conversation with gossip. And you can consider whether one of the greatest fruits of our practice is the ability to remain silent, even when you're dying to share a piece of juicy gossip or justify your dissatisfaction with a friend.
Recovering from a Gossip Addiction
Here are some tips by Sarah Wilkins for monitoring and controlling your tendency to talk negatively about others.
Pick a gossip buddy: One spiritual teacher suggests that you confine your gossiping to one or two people, perhaps your best friend, spouse, or significant other. If you have a designated gossip buddy, it's much easier to practice restraint with the other people in your life. Choose someone who can keep secrets and who will support you in your desire to be more conscious of what you say.
Catch yourself: Learn to notice when you're about to make a snarky remark, and stop yourself before you do. If one slips out, apologize.
Notice the aftertaste: Become aware of what it feels like after you gossip. It will be different for everyone, but for me the aftertaste of gossip feels like anxiety (tight shoulders, tight stomach) and what I can only describe as a worried, slightly sinking feeling that comes from sensing I might have said something I'll regret. Note where you feel the tension in your own body the next time you engage in a gossip fest.
Just say no: Turn down invitations to pick others apart. Try changing the subject when a friend wants to have a bad-mouthing session. Ask them (tactfully) to talk about something else, and tell them that you're trying to break yourself of the negative gossip habit. You'll find that many people will actually thank you.
Don't rush to judgment: When someone confides a piece of gossipy information about someone else, question it. Check the source. Don't believe something unless you have clear proof—and the fact that a whole lot of people are saying something does not constitute clear proof.
Try a one-day gossip fast: Decide that for one whole day you won't talk about other people. Then, notice when that's especially difficult. Observe what feelings prompt you to share news about someone or repeat something you've heard. Does your desire to gossip come from a feeling of emptiness or boredom? Does it come from a desire for intimacy with the person you're talking to? What happens inside you when you deny the urge? How do you feel when you've gone through a whole conversation without once saying, Have you heard?
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yogic philosophy and the author of The Heart of Meditation. Visit her at sallykempton.com.
Friday, January 15, 2010
Is all learning a matter of diligence? I am wondering what purpose the creative mind has in learning. Or is the creative mind a separate entity? I am beginning piano lessons and there is so much i want to get my hands on and play! I want to be able to play my own accompaniment. Alas, songs are too difficult for me at the moment as my hands and brain move very slowly across the music. How does one advance their sight reading skills and a faster rate?
...still reading the Rosa Ponselle biography and loving it! I am learning a lot about Caruso and the Met as well as Vaudeville and the history between American theater music and the Opera Italian immigrants brought to the USA. It is worth mentioning that Puccini upon hearing Caruso's voice for the first time exclaimed, "Who sent you? God?!" Additionally, Ponselle never took a voice lesson in her life. Whoa. Her method of learning was complete immersion in the music. She was a skilled piano player and an excellent musician/score reader.... She would wake up at odd intervals during the night and imagine herself in the world of the opera she was preparing for...How the character would move; how the character would naturally respond to the things around her...
Music theory camp is going really well. My teacher is an angel. Every class, a light bulb goes off and I begin to put all the separate pieces together to form the entity that is music...as ambiguous as it is......
confession: I just spent 140$ on music books at amazon.com.... (for 11 books! if my thrift gene my have itself heard..)
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Monday, January 11, 2010
fear and trembling."
"'Vernon, how do we recognize true spiritual principles?'
'You cannot recognize it with the old nature, which is an enemy of
truth, or true spiritual principles. So don't think that in your
present condition of merely being able to think that you'll be able
to recognize truth.
The mistake you'll make with thinking about it is to say, that's
truth, must be truth, because it pleases me.
Truth alone can recognize truth. Now when you invite it into your
mind and your whole life then you'll know what it is, and it isn't
thought at all.'"
"The power of the present moment is so immense it is capable -
when lived in fully - of destroying forever every past mistake
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Monday, January 4, 2010
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, -- so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Listen to criticism and try to learn from it, but don’t live or die by it. When I was in college, I would always take my best reviewed poem from the previous class and submit it to the professor for the next class. Invariably, the next professor hated the poem, and could provide good reasons why it failed.
When you write a good poem, one you really like, immediately write another. Maybe that one poem was your peak for the night, bit maybe you’re on a roll. There’s only one way to find out.
The bigger your theme, the more important the details are. A poem with Love, Destiny, Hate or other huge themes in the title already has two strikes against it (and I like love poems).
Say what you want to say. Let your readers decide what your poem means.
Feel free to write a bad poem.
That one perfect line in a thirty-line poem may be what makes it all worthwhile. It may also be what is ruining the rest of your poem. Keep an eye on it.
Don’t explain everything.
Untitled poems are like unnamed children.
People will remember an image long after they’ve forgotten why it was there.
Develop your voice. Get comfortable with how you write.
There are many excuses not to write. Try using writing as an excuse not to do other things.
The more you read, the more you learn. Read poetry often.
The more you write, the more you develop. Write poetry often.
Poems that focus on form are rarely my favorites, but most of my favorite poets learned how to write in forms before they discarded them. Writing in forms is a challenge. It makes you think.
Don’t be afraid to write from a different point of view. Write a poem that says exactly the opposite of what you believe. If you can, do it without irony.
When you cannot write, lie on the floor a while, go for a walk, or at least twirl around in a circle. Do something that changes your perspective.
Write in different places. Keep a notebook. Write in a park or on a street-corner or in an alley. You don’t have to write about the place, but it will influence you whether you do or not.
Listen to talk radio while you write. Listen to the people who call. Great characters and voices emerge that way.
If you don’t like a poem or poet you read, figure out exactly why. It may reflect something you don’t like about your own poetry.
When nothing is coming, start writing very fast. Write down any and every word, phrase or sentence that comes to mind. Do that for about a minute before you go back to working on your poem. I call this trick flushing. Feel free to use anything you came up with, but the purpose of flushing is to clear your head.
<Make a list of poems you can remember specific lines from. Go back and read those poems. Figure out why they stuck with you.
Keep a dream journal. Dreams are your mind at it’s most creative so pay attention to them. Don’t feel you have to write a poem about your dreams unless one truly inspires you. The main goal is to see what thoughts the dreams lead you to.
Analyze other writer’s poems. Figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and why. Think about how you would work with the same material and concepts.
Use humor, irony, and melodrama, but don’t abuse them.
Write the worst poem you can possibly write. Use clichés, use pretentious words, and beat your reader over the head with your point. Felt good, didn’t it? Now get back to work. The point is, don’t be afraid to write a bad poem. Every great poet has written a bad poem. Most great poets have written hundreds, even thousands of bad poems. The great poets kept writing though, and so should you. If it takes a hundred bad poems to produce a poem you like, finish those hundred poems.
Limericks can be fun too.
Every line of a poem should be important to the poem, and interesting to read. A poem with only 3 great lines should be 3 lines long.
Poems should progress. There should be a reason why the first stanza comes before the second, the second before the third, and so on.
Follow your fear. Don’t back away from subjects that make you uncomfortable, and don’t try to keep your personal demons off the page. Even if you never publish the poems they produce, you have to push yourself and write as honestly as possible.
Find a way to publish your poems. Sooner or later you have to send your babies out into the world to find their way. Emily Dickinson was a fluke. Most people who don’t publish while they’re alive will never be seen or heard of — no matter how great their poems.
Buy poetry books, especially books by current writers. Give back to the poetry community by reading (and paying for) the works of others.
Go to poetry readings. Check your local arts publications for upcoming events. Almost any sizable town has readings every week or every other week. This is a great opportunity to meet poets and people who care about poetry.
When you go to readings, donate money and buy books if you can.
Host a poetry event or organize a reading.
If you want to swap poetry and criticism with your peers, form your own group. Many local arts publications let you list your group for free.
Publish your own poetry journal or web site. Even a few sheets of paper stapled together gets the word out.
Whatever else you do, keep writing.
Reading tips from the Internet, I got this useful list where I personally follow some of it to help me sort of improve my day to day life. Read through it and just follow the things you want to believe. Remember, each person has his/her own needs/wants/beliefs.
- Take a 10-30 minute walk every day. And while you walk, smile. It is the ultimate anti-depressant.
- Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes each day.
- Buy a DVR and tape your late night shows and get more sleep.
- When you wake up in the morning complete the following statement, ‘My purpose is to __________ today.’
- Live with the 3 E’s — Energy, Enthusiasm, and Empathy.
- Play more games and read more books than you did in 2007.
- Make time to practice meditation, and prayer. They provide us with daily fuel for our busy lives.
- Spend time with people over the age of 70 and under the age of 6.
- Dream more while you are awake.
- Eat more foods that grow on trees and plants and eat less food that is manufactured in plants.
- Drink green tea and plenty of water. Eat blueberries, wild Alaskan salmon, broccoli, almonds & walnuts.
- Try to make at least three people smile each day.
- Clear clutter from your house, your car, your desk and let new and flowing energy into your life.
- Don’t waste your precious energy on gossip, OR issues of the past, negative thoughts or things you cannot control. Instead invest your energy in the positive present moment.
- Realize that life is a school and you are here to learn. Problems are simply part of the curriculum that appear and fade away like algebra class but the lessons you learn will last a lifetime.
- Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a college kid with a maxed out charge card.
- Smile and laugh more. It will keep the nagative blues away.
- Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.
- Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.
- Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.
Next 20 after the jump.
- You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.
- Make peace with your past so it won’t spoil the present.
- Don’t compare your life to others’. You have no idea what their journey is all about.
- No one is in charge of your happiness except you.
- Frame every so-called disaster with these words: ‘In five years, will this matter?’
- Forgive everyone for everything.
- What other people think of you is none of your business.
- Remember God heals everything.
- However good or bad a situation is, it will change.
- Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.
- Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.
- Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.
- The best is yet to come.
- No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.
- Do the right thing!
- Call your family often.
- Each night before you go to bed complete the following statements: I am thankful for _______. Today I accomplished ____.
- Remember that you are too blessed to be stressed.
- Enjoy the ride. Remember this is not Disney World and you certainly don’t want a fast pass. You only have one ride through life so make the most of it and enjoy the ride.
- Laugh when you can, apologize when you should, and let go of what you can’t change.