This semester, I’m learning quite a lot about over-commitment. Over the past month or so, I gave three talks across the country while trying to find time to teach, run the Race, Ethnicity and Inequality workshop at SBU, mentor undergrads and graduate students, fulfill treasurer duties for SREM, handle service obligations, write peer reviews and make progress on several papers and the book project. Oh, and then there’s also the writing group I’m part of, and, gosh, everything else. Finances. Self-care. Family. Social life. Romance. Unexpected crises. SLEEP. Or rather, insomnia. I got very, very little sleep during the entire months of February and March. When I started feeling the ill effects on my health, I realized it was time to take a step back and recommit to my well-being.
So, one of the very exciting things going on in my life these days is hot yoga. I’ve been to six (90 minute) sessions so far and I’ve already begun to experience profound spiritual insights – insights that I had already glimpsed before but that are now beginning to settle more deeply as embodied realizations. Now, I’m not a yogi by any means — I’ve dabbled in yoga but have been seriously out of practice. The prospects of doing yoga in room heated to 120 degrees seemed so absurd, intimidating and frankly impossible that I put off trying it for a very long time — until now. Anyway, I’ve decided to do a series of vlogs chronicling what it is like for me to climb this hot yoga mountain. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on combining the physical practice of yoga with spirituality.
So last weekend I said I would try to get through the next few steps of my life without my spiritual practice.
This was kind of an odd thing to do, given that for the last year and a half, my spiritual practice has consistently provided me with a sense of peace, contentment and joy even through the drama of my everyday life. But suddenly, I wanted to see how life would look without being mindful. I’d begun to worry that my spirituality had become an existential crutch.
Perhaps at this point it would help to briefly explain what my spiritual “practice” looks like. Generally, I’m not big on practices. I don’t like rigid routines and rules. My approach to practice is in fact less about what I “do” and more about my on-going state of conscious awareness. Rather than meditating at particular times, I’ve aimed to live in meditation and cultivate stillness. I use techniques such as self-inquiry (Advaita Vedanta), conscious breathing and the intense experience of sense perception (e.g. focusing on the sensation of touch, the pre-conceptual experience of vision, the inner silence brought on by acute listening) to “remind” my “mind” of its own non-existence and align my attention with the All-There-Is. In addition to these practices, I would read spiritual texts and watch related videos on a semi constant basis.
Anyway, over the past week, I stopped watching videos and for the most part stopped reading spiritual texts. I dropped the intentional practice of self-inquiry. I dropped most of my techniques of mindfulness. And I generally went back to what I call conventional living. While I was aware of my emotions and my inner state, I did not take the second step of being aware of my awareness. It is this second step which allows for de-identification from the mind.
During this week-long experiment, I consciously allowed myself to identify with the mind – for the first time in over a year.
So what were the results? Well, it was basically a disaster. I found myself immediately plunged into the depths of despair. Not because my life was objectively worse, but because I began to take my mind’s egoic tormenting seriously. Mindfulness allows me to fully experience my emotions and thoughts, but also to know that I am not defined by them. During my mindless experiment, I felt the sting of my mind’s critical and fearful thoughts. And it stung like a m..fucker. I felt small. Mindfulness had allowed me to live beyond the confines of my egoic “self” and to identify with the expansiveness of the Universe. But living as a ‘person’ again meant defining myself as an individual entity, with individual fears, hopes and dreams. I felt small and anxious – like I had to defend my own turf. It sucked.
Now, in the interests of science, I should probably tell you that I was PMS’ing this week. Therefore, we are unable to know whether the depths of despair I’ve just described were brought on by my conscious mindlessness or by my spiked hormone levels. I’m inclined to think it was a little of both . . .
* * *
I have the great fortune of having a wonderful therapist I’ve been seeing for almost a year and a half. Did I mention that he’s Asian? Yes, I, Dr. Black Woman, have an Asian male therapist. Anyway, he’s awesome. And what’s particularly awesome about him is that he works with other academics and is deeply familiar with the demands of “the profession”. The best thing about him, though, is that he’s very supportive of my spirituality. And his therapeutic approach, which is grounded in mindfulness, has been very compatible with nonduality. He doesn’t seem to know much about Buddha or Mooji, or if he does, he skillfully feigns ignorance, but when I talk about their teachings, he is able to reframe them in a way that highlights the compatibility of ‘spiritual’ and therapeutic approaches to well-being and awareness.
I used to feel more self conscious about having a therapist, until I found out that almost everyone I know in academia also has a therapist . . . or is on antidepressants . . . or both. Just the other day, another colleague told me that a good therapist helped them manage the stress of the tenure process.
[Interlude. We’re now in my weekly therapy session. ]
Me: So I decided to give up my spiritual practice for a week. I stopped trying to be mindful, stopped reading books, watching videos, everything.
Therapist: And how did that go?
Me: Terrible. I’ve just been incredibly sad, which is unusual. I’ve been really good at managing my emotional life over the last year in large part due to my meditation practice. Mindfulness has really be instrumental in helping me dis-identify with my emotional states.
Therapist: But mindfulness is also about acceptance. You don’t want to negate how you feel. There’s a logic to your feelings.
Me: I know, and you’re right. But my way of being mindful is to fully accept and experience whatever comes up, but also to take that second step of awareness that involves knowing that I am not my emotions. I am not my thoughts. And just that step alone brings me such great peace. Maybe there’s some negation going on that I haven’t explored. I’ll have to give it more thought. I usually don’t try to analyze my feelings as I’m experiencing them. I might talk about them with a friend at some point, or sometimes on my blog or here with you, but otherwise, I try not to delve too deeply into the logic. My peace of mind comes from knowing that I’m not defined by the logic — that there’s an observer. Does that make sense? Do you kind of get it?
Therapist: Yes. I get it. You know, one year is not that long to practice mindfulness. You want it to become second nature.
Me: You’re right. I hadn’t thought about it that way. One year isn’t very long.
Therapist: It takes time, right?
Me: Yes. I guess it does. But I also feel like it was becoming my second nature — it’s the way I’ve been living on a regular basis and it’s brought me great peace. I just started to feel like I was, perhaps, overly dependent on my spirituality.
Therapist: So what are you going to do?
Me: I’m going to go back to my spiritual practice. I suppose I just wanted to see what would happen if I took a break and went back to how I used to live. I gave it a try and I don’t like it. At all.
* * *
What was so surreal about all of this is that I knew that I could end my suffering instantaneously. I knew that I could simply choose to “see” the truth at any moment – that I could take that second step of dis-identifying with mind. But I chose not to. Instead, I deliberately sat in the hell of my mind’s illusions. I chose self-immolation – but I didn’t let the fire actually burn the “self”. I let the small “I” – the personality – survive and even thrive in the flames. I kept it hooked up to an oxygen tube. I refused to take it off of life support. And even more bizarrely, I felt bad about wanting to put it out of its misery. I found myself worried that wanting to wake the mind up from its illusions was a form of escapism – as if the hell of living life egoically as a ‘person’ was the higher, more auspicious road. It made no logical sense, but of course it was the mind’s way of encouraging resistance to awakening – of urging me to allow the dream to carry on, while knowing that I could choose to wake up from the nightmare at any moment.
Anyway, all this to say: I’m going back to conscious mindfulness, spiritual practice and yes, even back to my beloved Mooji. The fact of the matter is that I do want to escape samsara and illusion and the unreal. I’ll keep my crutches until they fall away on their own. And today, those crutches include Midol. Lots of Midol.