Some of you know that there was a Sunday not too long ago that I was suddenly in so much pain I couldn’t walk or move much. By Thursday things were a bit better but still frustrating. In the evening, weary physically, emotionally, and mentally from not having moved much all day, I forced myself to log into Skype for my Yoga Sutras class. We started talking about one of the definitions of yoga, which is “sustained attention in a chosen direction”. In other words, one of the definitions of yoga is the same as a definition of meditation.
As my attention focused on the class, I started to notice that the pain subsided. I have long studied (the physical practice of) yoga as “embodiment”, given that I (and so many of us) live constantly in the mind. I always thought that tuning into the body was a good thing, but as the class progressed, I started to question that. If I put my attention on my pain, sure I was feeling the pain in my body (embodiment), but was that helping to alleviate it or exacerbate it? And if the focus of my attention–in this case the pain in my body–wasn’t something I consciously chose to focus on, was I really doing yoga (or meditating)? I soon realized that my body was like any other sense (hearing, seeing, etc.) that was demanding my attention, and that I wasn’t actively choosing to put my attention there; it was being directed there almost against my will. When I put my attention elsewhere–i.e. on the class–the pain began to dissolve.
I encountered this quite a bit when I was giving my workshop on sleep and insomnia, most recently when I spoke to the North Austin Chapter 2700 AARP group on April 21 about “natural tips for refreshing sleep”. It is very common that when we can’t sleep, we rather unconsciously focus our attention on the very fact that we can’t sleep, as well as the stories and thoughts that are keeping us awake, and things go downhill from there. Like with my pain, we must choose to direct our attention to an alternative something that will help–like on a particular breathing pattern.
I think the lesson here is that sometimes we believe we are directing the mind in a way that is helpful, but it’s really still being pulled to what’s screaming the loudest, thereby sabotaging our own efforts to get what we want (freedom from pain, sleep, etc.) Something like embodiment (i.e. feeling body sensations) isn’t bad or good in and of itself, but it could be making our situation better or worse, depending on what that situation is. If the mind is racing–for example when trying to fall asleep, bringing conscious attention to the body may be a good idea. But if the body is already screaming in pain, sending the mind somewhere else for a little while may be the better answer.
Thoughts to share? Let me know!
And there’s still space in my “Meditation Sampler” workshop, coming up on May 7th.