Yoga Psyche Dialogue Series

I’m excited to be part of an innovative research project on Yoga and Psyche; integrating Western psychology and ancient yoga practice.

We are conducting a Dialogue Series, lead by Mariana Caplan, interviewing the leaders in the field of new trauma research, advances in somatic psychology and neuroscience, and Classical Yoga.

The interviews are underway and include:

Richard Miller

Rick Hanson

John Friend 

and many others.

We plan to release the series early in 2013.

Over these weeks together you will witness our living research, conceived by Mariana Caplan and midwifed by a team of Masters and Doctoral researchers, who are working together to create a book, academic article, scientific research, and a workbook on this subject.

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We talk about “ego” but what are we really referring to?

According to Freud, the ego is part of personality that mediates the demands of the id, the superego and reality. The ego prevents us from acting on our basic urges (created by the id), but also works to achieve a balance with our idealized standards (created by the superego). Using  this psychological definition it can take a strong ego to let go and transcend the ego. A weak and fragmented ego clings on and struggles to survive, using valuable energy to feed itself. But like any good hungry ghost, it can never be satisfied and always looks for the greener pasture, or darker night, to fuel it’s craving and aversion cycle.

Ego strength is often used in psychology to described a person’s ability to maintain their identity and sense of self in the face of pain, challenge and conflict. The ego is our vessel that keeps us afloat in the sea of consensual reality.

Often in non dual understanding, ego is defined as a part of us that maintains a separate sense of self. But this is only one quality of ego. Where does the teaching of the Buddha of ‘to know the self is to forget the self’ fit into this?

Adyashanti speaks about the ego waiting for us after spiritual experience. It is often wounded and wanting to appropriate spiritual awareness. Who wouldn’t want to claim that lush experience of oneness with all things? So ego waits in the wings in order to get it’s share of the feast.

I am not sure ‘knowing’ ourselves implies a mental knowing. The Buddha, with experience in both worldly and non dual states, could be pointing to a bridge between ego strength and the ego structure falling away.

According to Adyashanti, awakening can be misunderstood.

He speaks of a difference between transcending ego -this has a sense of conflict, duality; attraction and aversion- and the ego structure falling away as a result of awakening.

He uses a definition of ego that implies a division between different thoughts, emotions, beliefs values within myself, a mediator of sorts. If there is fragmentation in these ego parts, there is an underlying sense of resistance and unease. This resistance can erupt into explosive suffering.. a sense of self indulgence and obsession that blocks us off from the spontaneous and intuitive action that life requires. What our practice can give is to bring us back to our centers.. our centers of presence that is a mindful return to this moment as it is. A return to ego after spiritual awakening can be jarring and disturbing or just a part of the necessary, unfolding process.

The ego structure can reestablish itself, fighting against transcendent vision. Ego can see this as a threat. It is our work to not get caught in the struggle to resist and separate, but to surrender to a process of ego death as we know it.

We cannot eliminate ego. It cannot get rid of itself and if it tries it only strengthens itself. We cannot transcend ego through ego; spiritual experience if not grounded and integrated, can be fodder for a separate sense of self.

Continue reading “What is ego anyway?”

Gestalt Revival

This summer I participated in a Gestalt Retreat. The kind of many years ago. Gestalt had its hey day in the 1970’s and seems to have faded to the background.. an influence of many modern day therapeutic models, but in itself, largely unrecognized.

I am grateful to have this foundational influence in my experiential tool belt. It brought about much deep inner work and healing. The experience of doing 7 days of Gestalt in nature with a group of 15 people I had spent a year with, was extraordinary. On the 7th day a wounded deer came to the tent where I camped. It was as though it visited from a dream… I had a very powerful dream and did Gestalt dreamwork on it the night before.

That morning this deer visited my tent and scratched its hoof near my head. It remained in one position near me for hours. I got IONS staff to call the humane society and he was taken away for care. Later released into the wilds, he touched my heart forever, reminding me of gentleness and inviting a woundedness into my home and heart with acceptance. 

Gestalt is fundamentally relational. Relationship is based on contact and is inherently sought by mostly everyone. Gestalt views neurosis and pathology as a result of an inability for sufficient contact or organized withdrawal. Boundary disturbances are symptoms of this distortion of the point of contact. Human beings seek contact and connection, and it is at the point of contact that we can find how our boundaries work or fail to serve our wholeness.

Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt, maintains that neuroses occur at this contact boundary. Gestalt therapy regards neuroses as disturbances of the contact boundary. The self arises in contact and is largely defined by relational contact.

When our boundaries are disturbed we develop ways of coping to survive and survival becomes paramount sometimes trumping real contact. We shut down, withdraw, disassociate, project, merge all in the name of protecting our selves. Through Gestalt therapy we explore these mechanisms to bring more awareness to our patterning. Boundary disturbance impairs our ability to accurately perceive the present moment and it is this present moment that holds awareness and the key to healing. It is believed that with awareness of this, real change and growth can occur.

Continue reading “Gestalt Revival”

Rod Stryker at Wanderlust 2012

My time at Wanderlust in Lake Tahoe this year reacquainted me with the teachings of Rod Stryker. He really stole the show for me. With a bustling, bursting schedule of hundreds of teachers, I found myself taking several classes with him. It was a chance to delve deeper into one tradition and not skim the surface, getting caught up in the frenzy of a consumer driven yoga festival.

His teachings on the use of asana to allow us to experience a full life were very concise. His integration of tantra into our modern lives is one of the most practical, insightful and far reaching I have found.

The word Tantra means “to weave.” In tantric system we can weave spiritual experience into the fabric of everyday life. According to Stryker, the goal of Tantra yoga is three-fold: to thrive, to prosper, and to tear down the wall between the spiritual world and the material world. Tantric yoga practice shows us what is blocking us from thriving, and offers techniques that will help us reveal our spiritual nature as well as ways to become more materially supported.

He proposes that each of us has our own unique dharma–who we are supposed to be in this lifetime. Rod says, “According to the Vedas, you can’t be happy with who you are unless you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. Any attempt to be other than what we are will bring unhappiness.”

Through Tantric practices we “reweave” the fabric of our consciousness to our original state so we can know what our dharma is and be the best that we can be. Rod describes it as a science of energy management. “There is no energy in your body that is not in the world,” he says. “If you can master the energy in your body, you can master the world.”
First of all we need to ask ourselves why we practice yoga. If it is to become calm, we must ask, why we want to become calm. Why do we want peace?

Rod says one of the most common reasons for coming to yoga is that it gives us a “high.” We run away from our stressful lives into a yoga class as a distraction. Through asana practice, we have reduced the symptoms of our anxieties and stresses, but we have not reshaped the causes of our stresses. We leave class feeling peaceful but as soon as we are challenged the peace is gone. The real purpose of yoga experience has to reach into our everyday lives if we are to be truly happy and fulfilled.

Continue reading “Rod Stryker at Wanderlust 2012”

Embodiment: Somatic Intelligence and Following Our “Gut.”

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Being in the body or embodying a quality of being.. what does it mean? Embodiment is described as a felt sense of knowing that cannot be held exclusively by our rational minds. Our concepts about the present moment are broken down by simply being present with whatever arises. We discover empty, open awareness when we don’t mentally project the past or future on the present. This is the tantric yogic view where we reside in this open awareness; being with life as it is, being with what arises, being in intimate relationship with all of life.

This immediate direct perception is found in many disciplines: phenomenology, anthropology, sociology, spiritual studies, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and mindfulness to name a few. Different disciplines have similar themes: embodiment is practical and challenges conventional understandings of ‘self’ and ‘world’ as separate. We have the capacity to allow our thinking minds to be a servant to the body, or embodied wisdom.

Body and mind offer unique intelligences and recent studies in neuroscience reveal that the body perceives much faster than the mind. The body therefore can lead the mind. I have been reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell talks about our ability to determine what is essential from a very brief period of experience. Spontaneous decisions connected to embodied instinct are often as good as—and often better than—carefully planned and considered ones. It is our (often unconscious) programming mixed with prejudices, projections, cravings and aversions that block us from following this gut instinct.

This study makes me think of the study of Somatics. Somatics is a therapeutic modality that uses body awareness to bring about psychological and physiological well being. It is most profoundly and effectively used in working with trauma. Soma is an ancient plant medicine first written about in the Rigveda, the oldest Hindu text written approximately 5000 years ago. Soma was used ritually to induce ecstasy and god-like realization. Perhaps this points to a connection between embodied awareness and Divine realization. Soma has ancient Greek origins as well, defined as body and mind intelligence together, not separate from one another; both are part of a living process. Many of the approaches in the field of Somatics address the body-mind split found in Western culture and body-mind synchronization is explored.

Continue reading “Embodiment: Somatic Intelligence and Following Our “Gut.””

What is Empathy?

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There is a lot of talk about empathy and its importance in building strong relationship, but what is it and how do we maintain it? Often empathy can be developed when we are having an easy time with others close to us, when we can be in our comfort zones, but empathy can be most powerful in bridging apparently conflicting views.

Empathy can be defined as understanding another from within.. it’s as though we can see things from their perspective, dropping our own. It makes another person feel deeply understood and this brings about deep bonding and care in relationship. There is a feeling of belonging and that we are all in this together. It is one of the most powerful indicators of healthy relationship.

When we witness our own experiences of sensations, feelings and thoughts with another without judgment or evaluation from them empathy is felt.  We develop compassion towards ourselves and others, regardless of what we are going through. Compassion can be characterized by an acceptance of whatever is happening. When we experience another person feeling compassion towards us, we can feel a more calm and open presence in ourselves. A sense of collaboration prevails. 

It is theorized that empathy might have its roots in maternal instinct, which is geared toward protection of offspring. Empathic behavior can be seen as an extension of that maternal caring which has advantages for survival.

But we may ask: who are we willing to empathize with? Does that person’s experience need to be similar to our own for empathy to occur? Or can we find ways to empathize with people whose behavior and world view are extremely different or even contrary to our own? How far does our empathy extend?

There is the ability of an empath to put themselves in another’s experience and to create meaning out of this experience. Empathy can be seen as being non verbal, immediate and with emotional resonance. Can we develop it or is it something that occurs as a result of embracing our own experience? It may depend on how attentive and present we are to our own feelings. As a result we can extend this presence to another and feel what they feel. 

Through developing a sense of acceptance and compassion towards ourselves, we are more likely able to extend this towards those close to us regardless of what they are going through. Initially one may think that it would take a lot of energy to be empathic, but maybe it is easier to accept and not resist what is actually happening. I like to think of this as a responsive curiosity which embraces each moment as a gift. This curiosity can be described as: an availability and openness to all aspects of our (an other’s) experience, openness to one’s own experience in being with another, and the capacity to respond to another from this experience. This takes the intention away from doing and more into being, which gives us a more relaxed and open presence. 

 

Terror, Trauma, and Transcendence: an East/West approach

I recently took a weekend intensive with Steven Goodman at CIIS called Tibetan Compassion Practices: Working with Terror, Trauma, and Transcendence.

Through Tibetan Buddhist compassion practices we found ways of accepting and integrating difficult memories and emotions into our lives. We looked at practices such as calming relaxation, mindful awareness, and Tantric visualization that helped to create a context for identifying and integrating painful, emotionally conflicted aspects of our psyches.

We explored a western somatic-psychotherapy model called Somatic Experiencing (SE) to help us find ways to access emotional holding and free up the energy that is bound up in it. Below is a brief summary of trauma and SE, after I read Peter Levine’s Book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.

What is trauma?
Trauma is considered within the context of each individual’s perception. What may be traumatic to one individual may not be traumatic to another: it is the subjective perception of “threat” that determines the intensity of each person’s reaction.

Traumatic events are classified as degrees on a continuum: “big-T” trauma and “little-t” trauma were defined. Big-T trauma is associated with specific, identifiable events and usually involves a distinct memory that the individual can recall. Violence, abuse and war are examples of big-T trauma. Little-t traumas are more cumulative and associated with continual or recurring situations. Examples include: dog bites, criticism or verbal abuse, repeated failures at school or work, or intermittent childhood neglect or isolation, being bullied or teased, etc.

Trauma is created when a devastating moment is frozen in the body. A surge of adrenalin and chemicals is released when we are faced with such a threat. If not discharged or let out, this experience can stay within us and lead to destructive beliefs and actions. Our rational mind interferes with our natural ability to heal by somehow blocking or changing normal reactions to the event. Trauma symptoms are caused by this blocking or immobilizing of reactions that would help discharge the energy from the body.


By building tools of awareness, we can go into the trauma slowly and gradually to allow our bodies to discharge and release the frozen emotions held in the body. This often leads to a more free sense of being in the world, letting go of destructive behavioural patterns and beliefs. 


Continue reading “Terror, Trauma, and Transcendence: an East/West approach”