Learn to Listen With Equanimity
Yoga is a science of awareness; of cultivating a higher level of consciousness. A big part of it is about listening; about paying attention; about noticing. And that starts with learning to listen to yourself.
New meditators are often taken aback by the amount of internal chatter that goes on continually throughout the waking hours; chatter they were mostly unaware of. Meditation allows us an opportunity to get a little distance from this internal dialog, so we can see it objectively. Over time, it becomes more obvious how much power these previously unnoticed voices have had in our lives. Observing them is the first, sometimes difficult step toward freedom. As long as they are hidden away and unobserved, they maintain their power over your life. In fact, the internal voices and chatter are responsible for keeping you from developing a regular habit of meditating.
Because of this internal chatter (called monkey mind), too many people get frustrated and quit meditating all together. There are various ways to get past that. First, by adjusting the way you listen: not with rapt attention but with equanimity, accepting all aspects of your being human, equally. As an example, if you were a playground attendant, you would hear snippets of little dramas being played out here and there without getting involved, and without focusing too closely on any one event. Your job would be mostly to be present, and to oversee all the comings and goings to keep the children safe. Be like that with your thoughts. Be present with an open awareness.
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
Another image that can be useful is to imagine your thoughts as clouds. Sitting quietly, allow the clouds to float in and out of your conscious awareness without attaching to them or trying to hold onto them.
Pranayama (yogic breathing) is a surprisingly effective tool for staying present without getting carried away by particular thoughts. Our thoughts and emotions are perfectly tied to our breath. If you don’t believe me, start to notice your breathing when you are reading a particularly harrowing passage in a novel, or when you get a call from school about something that happened to your child at school that day, or even when you are stuck in traffic and running late for an important appointment. I’m sure you can come up with a lot of instances when you notice that your breathing is responding to your thoughts or emotions.
Ancient yogis figured out a multitude of ways to flip that around and use breath to soothe an agitated mind, calm wild emotional states and deepen our conscious awareness. With pranayama we can improve our ability to sit still and quiet for a long stretch of time, remaining open and mindful of everything that comes up, mentally, emotionally and physically, inside, outside and all around. Conscious breathing can strengthen your capacity to relax and focus; to remain in a state of equanimity regardless of divergent thoughts and emotions that may arise. It can be a valuable tool to help you remain objective and steady while you sit still and quiet.
If you don’t have any experience or training in pranayama I recommend beginning with taking a few full deep breaths and letting them go, slow and smooth. Then sit with an awareness of the natural breath. Notice how your posture affects your breathing and adjust your posture to accommodate an easy, comfortable breath. I have good reason for starting pranayama instruction with simple awareness:
Done unconsciously or incorrectly, pranayama can have the opposite effect and can actually increase your restlessness, impatience and anxiety.
Breath awareness is so effective in settling the mind that it stands alone as a meditation practice. The Buddhist method of mindfulness meditation often uses the sensation of the breath in the lungs, or in the throat, or in and around the nostrils as a focal point for mindfulness practice.
In one pranayama method I often teach to beginners, ujjayi - the ocean-sounding-breath, the sound of the breath is exaggerated by closing off the throat. It has a similar effect as when you pinch a garden hose to create a spray of water. To try this, draw the chin straight back and slightly down and let the sound of the breath take on the sound of ocean waves leaving and returning to the shore. Doing this helps regulate the breath and can be especially effective when your breathing is erratic or agitated.
Ujjayi pranayama has a calming effect and can help you focus on your breath when you might otherwise be distracted by thoughts, emotions or events. It also makes it easier to feel, actually physically feel each breath. After a few breaths in ujjayi, you can again, allow your breathing to return to normal. Remain still and quiet. Notice your breath. Remain open to everything that arises within and around you.
Everything you say and do will be more effective, more efficient, when you learn to listen with a relaxed openness. When you’ve listened to yourself, your need to be heard will be filled in a way no one else ever could fill. You will be infinitely more available and freer to listen to others. Your awareness will grow daily and your ability to remain in a state of equanimity will become second-nature.
Throughout the day your internal dialog carries on but it usually goes unnoticed until you stop the busyness and pay attention. Have you experienced monkey-mind? What do you do when your mind is stirred up with incessant thinking?