Ancient Tools.....Modern Living: The What, the Why, and some Personal Reflections

What are ancient tools for modern living? What are the benefits for using an ancient perspective to cultivate a deeper understanding of humanity with more spacious awareness? There are many misconceptions regarding the cultural  accessibility of some of these teachings, as they can be esoteric by nature, considering the the historical context in which they were written. Do I need to walk off barefoot to India in order to become enlightened? Do I need to sit in a cave all day and meditate? I know for many, it can seem inconceivable to roll out your yoga mat in the conference room or checkout line at the supermarket. As contemporary culture advances, the more we get pampered with amenities that are supposed to “make life easier.” I would argue that it’s making life harder. In fact, the more we advance, the more estranged we become from the loving presence that is the self. Ancient wisdom traditions offer systems of practices that provide accessible yet challenging strategies that undo the neurotic entanglement that  modern living in a modern society often perpetuates. Learning to accept painful feelings rather than avoiding them can be a vehicle for liberation. It can seem radical to even propose that we are fine the way we are and really don’t need all of the social accessories that mistakenly bring us closer to happiness. These ancient teachings demonstrate that the happiness is already inside as well as an entire universe. 

Ancient Tools for Modern Living is an attempt to gain a more embodied understanding of what it means to be human. It seeks to explore, unpack, and assimilate the inherent wisdom present in contemplative traditions such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and spiritually oriented practices while closely examining some of the modern contributions of neuroscience that occupy a mutual space in the field of integrative healthcare. By venturing into the cultural wilderness as truth seekers, our collective psyche can begin to unfold and reveal  more of what it means to be human in a modern society. 

Now....A little about my own unraveling. Thank God it happened, because the knot is no longer as tight.

As I approach the ripe age of 40 (big gulp and a deep breath), I am beginning to expand my awareness in ways that I only thought were possible through the consumption of mind altering substances.  I am sure I am not the only one who thought this at one time or another. At the expense of sounding like a cheeseball, I would not have been able to move forward and begin the process of rewriting  my narrative without the path of yoga. Yoga isn’t just about fancy poses and tight sparkly leggings as cool looking as they are. Yoga is about cultivating a sense of union of body and consciousness by way of calming the mind. It was  a way of integrating all of the disembodied, fragmented pieces of myself that had been denied a presence in the landscape of my life. Ultimately, it was about freedom.  Based upon the teachings of the Yoga Sutras, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute asserts that until the mind is calm and no longer distorts our sense of reality, consciousness and the body cannot arrive at a state of true unification. Therefore it is important to examine the consequences of living in and within fragmentation. We all do it to some extent and many have perfected this approach as a primary survival strategy in a society where "feelings" are highly feminized and therefore subjugated and avoided. I lived with a suitcase full of distorted perceptions of myself and others for most of my life. In our current cultural context, we refer to this suitcase as “baggage.” The emotional grime and residue we let infiltrate our interpersonal relationships so that we remain disconnected from the truth. If I maintain the same distorted perception of myself, then I will continue to engage in the same habitual patterns of behavior that keep me stuck in circumstances that I cannot accept and continue to judge as unfavorable. I know. It's not as easy as it seems. Human behavior is one of the hardest things to change because we are irrational beings by nature.  For me it was about ripening my awareness through cultivating a strong witness function and surrendering to the ebbs and flows of life with grace and acceptance. It was about no longer believing the stories I was told about myself by teachers, parents, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and the list goes on.  It was about rediscovering the light of my infant self and rediscovering that my beginner mind (which doesn’t actually get thrown out with the diapers) is what allows us to bathe in the the divine lightof sensory experience, opening up to the fullness and richness of our lives.

I am also discovering that I am much more of an introvert than I thought. For many years, what I defined as an introvert is in reality what I now have come to understand as a person on a tantric path. All introverts are not students of tantra and not all students of tantra are introverts. The reason I associate my newfound introversion with tantra is because the introspection that tantra fosters is mostly a solitary practice that prepares me for deeper connections to others. Tantra means “to weave.” Currently the concept of tantra has been culturally misappropriated to represent erotic sexual encounters. Tantra is one of several yogic paths that involves a “being with” the ebbs and flows of experience, rather than avoiding it or giving it over to a higher source. In other words, our culture is saturated with constant strategies for avoiding pain rather than befriending it. This may sound like a radical concept. I mean, who would actually want to sit down with their suffering and have coffee with it, gazing lovingly into its eyes. The idea however is that when we realize that our feelings are transient, a part of the ebb and flow of the universe’s pulse, we can better intercept the thoughts that hijack the mind and distort reality which breeds more suffering.  By learning toweave together my life experiences and memoriesinto a comprehensive tapestry, I am working to undo the pervasive sense offragmentation and displacement that was present for so many years. The awareness of how strongly I was bound to patterns of habitual functioning  allows me now to better tolerate the non-duality of my rich and earthly human condition. 

Discovering the path of yoga, after a tumultuous career as a theatre artist and dancer,  was like embarking on a major archeological excavation. At that time, my basic knowledge of yoga was much like the common Western consumer. Poses that involved twisting and bending the body into routines designed for a seasoned contortionist. No problem. I came from the dance world and fancy tricks was what got you seen and hired. No one would notice the barren inner landscape where clouds of self-loathing constantly hovered. Where needing to be seen was like an insatiable, crippling hunger that wasn't satisfied in childhood.  It didn’t matter if you kept your food down or not or whether you stayed high or intoxicated to numb the pain of rejection.  Layer upon layer exposed and revealed. Rich jewels buried under rubbish and refuse. Somatic memories that illuminated my core beliefs and the striking conclusion that my perception of the world was that it was a very unsafe place to be.   Habitual patterns of self-destruction, self-doubt, and emotional mutilation that always seemed to resurface no matter how many shots of bourbon or beers I consumed. Oh and the fear. The relentless fear. The fear of rejection and failure and armageddon style catastrophe. In my mind, I would envision scenes of homelessness and starvation if I was 5 minutes late for work. The paralyzing internal siren of panic and the distorted image of myself in an unsafe world that would inevitably drive me to construct some story of why I wasn’t good enough or smart enough. For years I felt like a passive receptacle where others could unconsciously toss their projections into me like a newspaper into a recycling bin. I know I am not alone. As a psychotherapist, I sit with stories that are messy and full of relentless attempts to numb painful feelings, all of which worsen the suffering that already exist as an ancient relics of childhoodghosts.  Here is the good news though. Yoga teaches us that from darkness light emerges. But we have to grow comfortable first sitting in AND with the darkness. Even to its farthest edges. I guess that’s Tantra for the modern day reader.

Now, as a licensed healthcare provider, I know that it can’t be all revelation backed up by personal testimony. Fortunately there is enough neuroscience that can provide an evidence base for mind/body transformation through practices such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.  This embodied knowledge is what we refer to as an “inner resource”, and can be the catalyst that leads to the fountain of healing and better health. Insight that is cultivated through the embodied practices of yoga, meditation,  and mindfulness and reinforces the yogic idea that we already have everything we needinside. When the inner universe speaks, it sometimes reveals the truth in wind like whispers and other times like lightening bolts. Strengthening our containers, meaning the body, allows us to contain and manage high levels of energy, including the emotional effects of personal truths.

“Mind is the ground for both bondage and liberation.”-The Yoga Sutras