I originally wrote the following essay in the summer of 2014. As I consolidate my writing from various yoga blogs, I’m rereading and editing. I’ve added a little to this piece, but it remains timely.
In early July 2014, Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma, the “Hugging Saint”) visited Washington, D.C., as she does each year. For several years, meeting her had been on my yoga to-do list. Several yoga teachers and friends consider having been in her presence life-changing, and she is lauded around the world for her charitable efforts to provide education, clean water, food, and health care to those in need. Every year she visits the U.S. and offers free public programs in a number of cities to literally thousands of people for hours on end, which include darshan–a blessing and embrace–and Devi Bhava, a ceremony for world peace called Atma Puja followed by a talk, more darshan, and mantra initiations. (She also offers longer retreats for a fee.) I attended darshan twice and Devi Bhava on the final evening of the program. Most Amma program attendees are ready to stay up for 36 hours or more, as darshan goes on until every single person who wants a hug from Amma receives one. I covet my sleep. I cannot be a decent human without enough of it. Yet, I stayed awake for some forty hours and felt energized even as I arrived at my parents’ house in Baltimore around 8 a.m. Like others who have met Amma say, the experience is not well described in words. I think it’s worth experiencing for yourself. (This year, Amma will be in D.C. on July 4-5, 2017, and Atlanta on June 24 -25, 2017, as well as several other farther-flung American cities. I’ll be in D.C.)
During Devi Bhava, Amma expressed concern at our society’s dependence on technology like smart phones, laptops, and other devices that we pick up and look at very often. Immediately, I thought of the many, many times daily when I pull my iPhone out of my handbag or pocket to check email, tweet, find the nearest lunch spot on Yelp, text or–god forbid!–call someone. It’s in my Gemini nature to love this techy communication stuff, but one of Amma’s points–which has been made by others, too–was that these technologies that seemingly connect us, while convenient and not inherently good or bad, many times actually isolate us from true connection with one another, with nature, and with what’s happening in the present moment. Since hearing her speak I cannot say I’ve untethered myself from my iPhone, but I have become much more aware and concerned about my dependence on it for distraction, entertainment, information, and “connection”.
Not long after meeting Amma, I shared brunch with one of my best friends and her son. (Now, three years later, she has two sons!) Having been away from one another for weeks, we caught up on the usual things: work, family and friends, summertime adventures, and future plans. She mentioned her desire for more silence in her life and her mild frustration with her husband, a fellow Gemini, and his seemingly constant want or need for technological stimulation, even in the company of family when his full presence is desired. She’s talked this out with him, and they’ve come to a mutually agreeable amount of technology use, but she said that at one point he had earbuds in at least one ear nearly constantly around the house, listening to podcasts and other media as he did things like care for their son and engage with her, as well as at times where he was doing chores or more solitary work. They took a trip that summer that required a long drive, and she found herself wanting to turn off the music in favor of silence or conversation. I’m sharing her story not to call her husband out for his behavior, but to highlight how rare her desire is. She’s the exception in the times we live in, it seems, and he’s the rule (and so am I, much of the time).
Around the same time, The Guardian published “Shocking but true: students prefer jolt of pain to being made to sit and think”, about a study conducted by Virginia and Harvard Universities. I read and retweeted it (obviously), laughing, then realized the truth in lead researcher Timothy Wilson’s statement: “the findings were not necessarily a reflection of the pace of modern life or the spread of mobile devices and social media. Instead, those things might be popular because of our constant urge to do something rather than nothing.” The mind’s natural inclination to jump from one thing to the next. As it’s sometimes called by Buddhists and others, “monkey mind”. Why do we always need to be doing something? Because we’re suffering in either great or small ways. That’s where big-Y Yoga comes in.
Yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah.–Yoga Sutra 1.2
Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness. (Georg Feuerstein‘s translation)
Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind. (Edwin Bryant’s translation).
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions. (T.K.V. Desikachar)
A shorter, related piece from The Guardian summarizes the study’s findings this way:
“In a study to see how people coped with boredom, participants were asked to sit in a chair for 15 minutes and just be alone with their thoughts. Some of the volunteers found the boredom so difficult to deal with that they opted to give themselves harmless electric shocks instead of enduring the monotony of doing nothing. Two thirds of men pressed the button that delivered electric shocks, while a quarter of the women did. One man was so bored that he gave himself 190 electric shocks in 15 minutes. Could you sit quietly with nothing but your thoughts for quarter of an hour? Or would you take the shock treatment?”
I offered this summary to a Yin Yoga class as food for thought for when our minds wander during practice on the mat and in our everyday activities. How could we be more present in this moment, just as it is? Could we refrain from letting our thoughts lead us back to the past or into the future for just 75 minutes? Could we stop doing and just be? Could we refrain from suffering for a few seconds?
Pema Chodron offers the following practice, called “renouncing one thing” as an exercise of “inner renunciation”:
“For one day (or one day a week), refrain from something you habitually do to run away, to escape. Pick something concrete, such as overeating or excessive sleeping or over-working or spending too much time texting or checking emails. Make a commitment to yourself to gently and compassionately work with refraining from this habit for this one day. Really commit to it. Do this with the intention that it will put you in touch with the underlying anxiety or uncertainty that you’ve been avoiding. Do it and see what you discover.”
Will you try? Or would you prefer the shock treatment?