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Monthly Archives: August 2014

The 5 Obstacles to Clarity

Last week I blogged about The 5 Activities of the Mind and that we practice yoga and meditation to quiet these activities to allow for clear perception. It’s easy to write these words but much more challenging in the implementation. We are human, after all, with the tendency to look at things from our own point of view, which may be accurate, or not. Our humanness creates obstacles that interfere with quieting the mind and seeing clearly.edinburgh_sunset_1

What does “seeing clearly” mean? What is it we are trying to “see” and why is “seeing” it important? Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He didn’t pull any punches with that statement. He didn’t say an unexamined life could make it less meaningful. He said it’s not even worth living.

When I was in banking I read Forbes magazine and Malcolm Forbes included a quote on the editorial page of each issue, which has always stuck with me. “With all your getting, get understanding.”

Much has been written and discussed about the purpose of life. Our ancient ancestors, including Socrates, believed the purpose is personal and spiritual understanding and growth. They also believed and taught that we cannot grow toward “seeing” our true nature unless we take the time and create the space to reflect and meditate.

Examining our lives reveals patterns of behavior, both positive and negative. Until we examine these patterns we are doomed to repeat them – over and over again. Self-awareness makes us conscious of our patterns. The goal of yoga is to move from unconscious to conscious understanding so we “see” ourselves with clarity.

But there are roadblocks and obstacles along the way. Patanjali, author of the first written book on yoga, identifies five obstacles. The Sanskrit word for obstacles is klesas and 2,500 years later they still apply. In fact, given the hectic pace of our modern lives, they probably apply more than ever.

Five Obstacles to Clarity:

  1. Ignorance: This is the source of all obstacles. It begins the process and relates to confused identity. We’ve heard of highly career-focused people who die shortly after retirement. Their whole identity and sense of worth was wrapped up in their work and without it they had no sense of self. Several years ago my yoga teacher was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He refused to let it define him. In fact, he would say, “I am not my brain tumor.” (Fortunately, he is fine now) The point is our jobs, possessions, finances, health, etc are self with a small “s” not our true Self with a capital “S”. It is this identification with small “s” that keeps us ignorant. Self-reflection shines a light on that ignorance.
  2. Egoism: This is the first result of ignorance and mistaken identity. We are unable to separate our true “S”elf from our activities, thoughts, habits, surroundings and things. We are governed by external factors.
  3. Attachment: Then, our ego forms attachments to things or circumstances hoping that these pleasurable experiences will bring us permanent happiness. We often put much energy into “acquiring” only to discover it doesn’t lead to true, lasting happiness.
  4. Aversion: This is the opposite of Attachment but is still related to our desire to be happy and avoid painful experiences. With aversion our dislike continues, unexamined, long after the circumstances have changed.
  5. Insecurity: This is the innate feeling of anxiety for what is to come. Even positive change can be stressful. Self-reflection and knowing our true Self relieves the stress.

The path through these obstacles is not linear. Yoga provides the tools but we are human and there will be forward progress and backsliding. Patanjali says the key is to practice consistently.

I named my company Yoga for Self to honor the journey to our true Self.

Have a fun and safe Labor Day weekend.

Enjoy and Breathe Easy


The 5 Activities of the Mind

In the last couple of blogs we’ve discussed meditation and its many benefits. In the Clearing the Decks blog a process was described for practicing meditation and in last week’s blog, The Many Faces of Meditation, we talked about its purpose.

This week’s blog takes a more philosophical tone as we look at how Patanjali explained the mind in the first ever written “how-to” yoga book. Patanjali lived over 2,500 years ago and he wrote The Yoga Sutras to record what had been previously handed down by word of mouth

Yoga is about transformation. Asanas (postures) strengthen and transform our bodies. Pranayama (breathing) balances and transforms our breathing patterns. Meditation exposes and transforms our conditioning and refines our personalities. All three join together to form yoga. But, from a yogic perspective, asana and pranayama are in service of meditation because meditation is about controlling and transforming the mind.

What is the mind? According to Patanjali, the mind is a compilation of the activities (thoughts and functions) that occupy it. He goes on to explain there are five activities of the mind and each of them can be helpful or harmful.

Five Activities of the Mind

  1. Comprehension: This activity is when we use our senses to understand and have correct knowledge. When direct experience isn’t possible, we can understand correctly through outside, reliable sources.
  2. Misunderstanding: This activity happens when something we thought was correct turns out to be incorrect. As you might guess, this is the most frequent activity.
  3. Imagination: This activity involves understanding based strictly on words and expression. For example, when I say “time flies”, you know what I mean even though time doesn’t literally fly. Imagination also includes day dreaming, wishful thinking, fantasy and make believe and frequently comes from the memories of past experiences.
  4. Deep Sleep: This function refers to dreamless sleep that results in feeling refreshed and lucid upon waking.
  5. Memory: Here is where we store our conscious experiences. We can’t tell if our memory is true, false, incomplete or imaginary. Memory forms our perceptions, which become our reality.

These activities are states of mind and they change constantly. They are interrelated and complex. Each can, depending on the situation, be helpful or harmful.

We practice yoga to control the mind and stop these activities. Patanjali says the first step is to practice consistently. We are all capable of clear understanding but one thing or another frequently gets in the way. We’ll look at those interferences next week.

Enjoy and Breathe Easy




The Many Faces of Meditation

This past weekend I visited the Chihuly Exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Dale Chihuly is credited with revolutionizing the studio glass movement and moving the medium of glass from craft to fine art. He has exhibited all over the world and especially enjoys placing his work in gardens. This week’s photo is taken at a waterfall wall in the Denver Botanic Garden’s exhibition.Chih_flower_waterfall

The exhibit is wonderful and a must see if you are near the Denver area. There is a 20 minute introductory video that is also well worth watching. In the video Chihuly explains that he is without thought when he is creating. All of his art comes from a place of “no thinking” and he is absorbed as he works.

That is meditation. The mind becomes still and stops whirling from thought to thought. We become absorbed and time becomes irrelevant.

Last week I mentioned that sometimes people are confused by the idea of meditation and what they are supposed to be “doing”. There is this idea that in order to meditate one must sit cross-legged on a pillow or the floor. And, that is certainly one possibility. But, there are many, many other options.

Chihuly finds meditation in his work. I know people for whom washing dishes is a meditation. Gardens are wonderful places to meditate and find tranquility.

The goal of meditation (yoga), as explained by the ancient yogis, is to reduce the distractions, confusion and misunderstandings of the mind so it can see clearly. For example, when a mirror is dirty and covered with a film, our reflection is distorted and we can’t see ourselves clearly. After we clean it, our reflection becomes clearer and we see ourselves better.

Like the mirror our mind can become covered with the film of misunderstanding and/or confusion. Have you ever felt absolutely, positively certain about something only to discover later that you misunderstood and had not seen things clearly? Of course you have, we all have.

We are able to “clean” the mind through meditation in order to reduce and eliminate the film of misunderstanding and to “see” with greater clarity and less emotion.

To put this more scientifically, current research shows that meditation may actually increase brain volume. It appears that the brain regions responsible for appraisal, memory and emotional regulation create new brain cells in those who meditate consistently.

When meditation is used in prisons, it measurably reduces the anger and violent behavior of inmates. There are worldwide movements underway where groups unite to meditate at the same time during the day for world peace. In one Iraqi village, fighting and violence stopped when the villagers meditated in unison.

Meditation has the power to change and to heal.

How do you bring it into your life? How could it change your life? Read last week’s blog for a “how to” meditate suggestion.

Enjoy and Breathe Easy!

Clearing the Decks

trainThings are starting to gear back up again. Can you feel it? August is a transition month and I begin to feel summer slipping away. It makes me a little sad because it’s my favorite time of the year. I love the long days of sunshine and warmth. Summer isn’t as laid back now as when I was a kid. But even though the pace is faster today there is still a less pressured, more relaxed feel to this time of the year.

In August all that begins to change. The Back to School signs appear in the stores and the kids go back to school. Various summer focused merchandise goes on sale. A few days ago I cleaned out my office tossing out files and papers that are no longer needed. I am clearing the decks as I gear up for September and a more active, sometimes more stressful, time of year.

The quote on this week’s picture is one of my favorites and a nice reminder, especially as we move into fall. Take a little time to “smell the roses” at every time of the year.

Each of us handles life’s changes, challenges and stress differently based on our personality, which is the result of our conditioning. This month as we continue examining the elements of Total Well Being, we focus on Step Four – Personality. (For background on all the elements, please click here)

Our ancient, yoga practicing ancestors recognized that the way we respond to life’s events (our personality) comes from prior conditioning. They also knew it was important to examine this conditioning and used the tool of meditation to understand and refine the personality.

Likewise, it is good practice for us in our hectic, modern day lives to slow down the speed and meditate as a way to manage life’s stresses and to understand why we react to these stresses as we do.

Last week, I blogged that meditation improves mental focus and concentration because it reduces stress. Scientific research has proven the effectiveness of meditation. More and more frequently doctors recommend it as a way to counter balance the negative effect stress has on our bodies and minds.

But, what is meditation? What does it mean to meditate? What is supposed to happen during meditation? For many of us, it can be a very frustrating experience. Years ago my favorite aunt tried to meditate at the suggestion of her doctor and eventually gave up in frustration. Her mind kept wandering which made her feel she wasn’t doing it “right”. She didn’t realize a wandering mind is normal and happens to us all.

I’ve had numerous people tell me they would love to meditate but they don’t know how. There is no one “right” way. Meditation takes many forms with the ultimate goal being to still the mind.

We will delve into meditation more deeply during August. In the meantime, following are a few suggestion to get you started.

  1. Prepare your body and mind. Meet them where they are before starting to meditate. For example, if you are agitated, release the energy with a brisk walk or yoga movement so you can sit still during meditation. If you are exhausted do some gentle movement to get the energy moving so you don’t fall asleep.
  2. Place yourself in a seated (chair or floor) or lying position. I prefer seated because I fall asleep lying down but try both to see which works best for you.
  3. Focus your attention on the tip of your nose and observe your inhalation and exhalation. Breathe through your nose if possible.
  4. Bring your attention back to your breath when your mind wanders. You can mentally tell yourself “focus” or “release thoughts” or “thinking” to come back to your meditation.
  5. Initially your meditation will last a short time, perhaps a minute or two. Eventually with practice the time will lengthen.
  6. Make a brief written note about your experience to follow your progress over time.
  7. Don’t hold yourself to some idealized standard. There is no right or wrong. There just is.

As you clear your decks and prepare for the faster pace and increased activities of fall, take a moment or two to go inside yourself, slow your pace and meditate on your breath.

Enjoy and Breathe Easy



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