"I think therefore I am " - Descartes
“I feel therefore I am” - Christine Caldwell
Recently a client returned from what she termed “bootcamp for the soul”, a 10-day vipassana retreat, consisting of 10 hours of daily meditation in a simple room in Worcester, her conclusion was “We really do choose our own reality”. I am well familiar with this phrase, but her words have stuck with me, lingering in the background of my days, perhaps because I was ready to hear this and I have needed a reminder, for recently, life has felt tricky. And so, I have been particularly attentive to my own thoughts and responses to the world as I perceive it, especially when I find situations challenging. Difficulty is both subjective and relative, as is ease and joy. We may not be able to shift external events and magic them to produce an ideal world, but yes, to a large extent we can choose our own reality.
In a world that is seemingly fraught with relentless adversity, incessant stressors, and endless bad news, it can be hard to remain Zen. Our nervous systems are wired for survival, to seek out threat (and safety) and the truth is we can’t spend all day seated in meditation reconnecting to Self. Events are neither good nor bad, nothing is binary, only our attachment to it. And yet sadness causes pain, and grief digs irrevocably into our souls. Equally joy is liquid sunshine to our hearts.
A cascade of mental and emotional choices informs our perception as to how wonderful or sad the world is, largely compiled of subconscious memories, internal maps, and rapid reactions. We are creatures of anticipation, creativity, feeling and habit and the total sum of our inheritance, spirit, and experience. And life is experienced. It is felt. Feeling is an ephemeral quality, something we can neither touch nor prove but forms the very heart of our humanness.
Science understands the chemical reactions and brain feedback loops, but our inner landscape is so much more than chemistry, a vastness which informs our deepest experience of this life, our profound sense of our own spirit. Sit in meditation and be with the world beyond your skin, notice the qualities that emerge and your sense of it, feel the landscape of your experience, and then consider what happens when you are a panicked or pained, your universe is definitively altered. Both states are undeniably true and certainly valid, they are real for you. Feelings extend beyond physics to a place of metaphysics, and our Inner space is innately true, it is our experience of our lives, but can we really choose this reality?
Yoga offers us tools to navigate this human experience, tools for interfacing with the world amicably, which over time, can help us reframe our experience and potentially reduce sensed threat and alter our chemical composition to restore equilibrium. These are building blocks for self-regulation and resilience. Because the truth is that the world is inherently both a place of safety and threat, unpredictable in its chaos, wild weather, predators, its community, love, and stability.
It is all these things at once.
Resilience is defined as recoiling or rebounding. I quite like the Webster definition: “in physics, resilience is the ability of an elastic material to absorb energy and release energy as it springs back to shape”, so not only do we recoil and recover after compression, but we absorb the energy of events, ideally dispersing the tension and returning to homeostasis. That is a measure of our resilience: not how far we travel from the centre but our capacity to return to it quickly.
Resilience is required for the survival of all earthly things. It describes a desirable state that does not so much make us impervious to the trials, tribulations, and traumas of living, but through reasonable exposure to challenging events, we can hopefully emerge stronger. Not only survive but thrive. This requires a level of vulnerability which takes courage to endure, as our instinct is to withdraw or attack in fear. Resilience also speaks to resistance built through compression/tension and how our muscles and/or minds react to the quantity of force. There is a bell curve which is anabolic, and a pivot point, where we reach break/retreat/reach overwhelm. Without compression and resistance, without vulnerability, there is no metamorphosis. Equally, too much pressure results in a breakdown of resources and is life diminishing.
In Yin Yoga we use the term anti-fragility, which was coined by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, (insert link) writer and philosopher who in his book Antifragile explores how exposure to randomness, stress and disorder evolves traits of strength and durability, i.e., resilience, whereas comfort creates fragility (eustress). So too does excessive stress (distress). Think about strength training vs couch surfing. Bernie Clark has written a lovely article on this In Yang Yoga we seek to make our muscles stronger and Yin we focus on our deeper tissues, by applying appropriate stress, but its superpower is utilizing awareness to tend to the felt stress, to befriend a spectrum of sensations, a witnessing. This can create a scaffolding for self-exploration where we are well rooted to meet the challenge appropriately. But how much stress is enough? Through practice we can grow our window of tolerance and our subsequently our own resource range. With practice we can evolve our perception of our reality, shift our relationship with ourselves.
The eight limbs of yoga as laid out in the Yoga Sutras are abstentions & observances, posture, breath control, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation, and absorption. Yes, there is way more to this practice than an agile body – we seek an agile mind too. Although this is a guide for transcendence, it is also indispensable advice for daily living, a pathway for mental liberation, a freedom from suffering to enhance emotional and mental well-being. A way of lightening your load.
Apart from ethical living, self-inquiry (witnessing), focusing breath (state), training our concentration and thoughts, we are also guided to cultivate an attitude of friendliness – an inner quality of kindness to ourselves, others, and all living things; compassion – holding space for suffering of another; delight and joy for both your life and others; and non-attachment which creates space for clarity. And, of course, To be steady in our mind and body. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) utilizes many of these same principles as too does Cognitive Therapy – witnessing thoughts, compassion and focus or refocusing and using these tools to anchor and ground both mind and body. In Yoga we view the heart as the Heart/Mind understanding that the two are inseparable and healing one requires the partnership of the other: the heart/mind, body, and breath.
A practice of union and re-union.
In our world of incessant stressors, we need to hone our skills of resilience, methods for managing the constant stimulus and threats. An ability to weather storms, adapt and evolve in the face of adversity and hopefully emerge not necessarily unscathed, but certainly stronger and sturdier from the journey. It would seem to me that this does indeed require a skill set and skills can be learnt. I have been reflecting upon this idea of thriving and growing as a journey, and life as a practice, much like yoga or running or painting. The practice of engaging and choosing to be present to the unfolding events, with curiosity. The practice of being our spirited selves in this wild and wonderous world. We may have little power over the world itself, seasons will change, deaths and births will occur, darkness, and light will emerge, but in this lottery of life we do have some autonomy. There are no quick fixes only slowly awakenings and due processes, but each day we rise to immerse ourselves in the light of day and learn a little more about this one, precious life.
“And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy” -Max Ernst, Desderad