It’s been said that we never really experience the world, just our own nervous systems. Everything we come into contact with, we see through the distorted lens of our own life experiences, beliefs, impressions, prejudices, likes and dislikes, ego-identifications, hopes and fears. The Eastern philosophies of Yoga and Buddhism are systems to help us to wipe a little of the muck away from the lens, to help us to see more clearly. Practice is the process of understanding just what we’re up against, comprehending the ways in which our view is clouded, and noticing where we get tripped up again and again by our own special cocktail of distortions, so that we can wake up to life as it really is.
Awakening can happen in increments and it can happen in flashes. When it happens incrementally, we become gradually more self-aware. We start to see that there is muck on the lens, rather than perceiving the muck as the lens itself. We become more responsive (skilfully doing what the situation requires) and less reactive (leaping into ill-conceived action at the behest of egoic demands). We still misapprehend the muck as the lens itself a million times a day, but gradually we see the muck for what it is more and more often.
When there’s a flash, a moment when the chattering and analytical mind and ego-clinging is suspended and we are immersed, however temporarily, in the ocean of pure being-ness, we can use the memory of that to remind us again and again what we woke up to, and perhaps wake up momentarily again, perhaps stay awake a little longer this time.
It’s helpful, I think, to understand a little about what the muck on our lenses is made up of. The yoga tradition calls the muck-stuff samskaras and kleshas.
A samskara is an impression – a conditioning. Samskaras are the ideas and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us that we pick up from infancy and all through our lives and which get reinforced over time, much like car tyres wearing ever deeper grooves in a mud track. The deeper the grooves get, the harder it is to get out of them. These impressions can come from society, family, experiences – just about everything we go through leaves some sort of impression on us.
The kleshas are a collection of five afflictions which cause us suffering. They are:
Avidya – misapprehension; misunderstanding; ignorance.
Asmita – mis-identification; mistaking the transient for the permanent; ego-identification.
Raga – clinging; attachment.
Dvesha – aversion; dislike.
Abhinivesha – fear; insecurity.
Even without going into detail, it’s easy to see how any one of these could mess up our ability to see clearly. So it’s little wonder that we’d struggle if we were at the mercy of all of them, all the time. Which we are! Every one of us is a bundle of these impressions and mental afflictions, dealing with everyone else who is their own unique blend of their baggage. No wonder we get into conflict. Honestly, it’s amazing that we’re still here at all when you think of it like that!
But to quote Don Henley’s ‘New York Minute’: ‘what the head makes cloudy, the heart makes very clear’. When yoga speaks about the heart, it means not the romantic heart, nor the physical organ, but the still centre of presence which is inside each of us. The place where we begin and end, which gets obscured by the muck of our samskaras and kleshas, but which is always there. By learning to regulate our nervous systems through breathing; learning to concentrate and steady our minds so that we can observe our thoughts and realise that we are not them, we get in touch with that heart. Maybe incrementally, maybe in flashes, maybe a combination of both. We can wake up at any time from this dream, this confusion, this sleepwalking through life. Everything can change, in a New York minute.
That’s why I sit. That’s why I meditate. To meet myself with this question: can I be awake, alive to what is in front of me, all around me, instead of caught up in the dream world of my thoughts? Can I see that what the head makes cloudy, the heart makes very clear?
Can I wake up?
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