the multitude of selves

Am I changing? Is a man’s character changeable? Imagine an immortal. Revolting to think he might be making the same old boo-boos over the centuries. To think of the immortal on his 700,552nd birthday still touching the plate even when someone has told him it’s hot – surely we have deep capacity for change but our 80 years doesn’t give us ample opportunity. You have to be a fast learner. You have to cram infinity into a handful of lousy decades.
This morning passed horribly deformed beggar who was for all practical purposes merely a torso rattling a cup. Was it really me who have him 100 francs & said Take the day off? It wasn’t me, not exactly. It was one of my selves, one of the multitudes. Some of them laugh at me. Others bite their nails in suspense. One snorts with derision. That’s how they are, the multitudes. Some of the selves are children & some are parents. That’s why every man is his own father & his own son. With the years if you learn enough you can learn how to shed your selves like dead skin cells. Sometimes they come out of you & walk around.
Yes I’m changing. Change is when new selves come into foreground while others recede into forgotten landscapes. Maybe definition of having lived full life is when every citizen in the hall of selves gets to take you for a spin, the commander the lover the coward the misanthrope the fighter the priest the moral guardian the immoral guardian the lover of life the hater of life the fool the judge the jury the executioner, when every last soul is satisfied at moment of death. If only one of the selves has been nothing but a spectator or a tourist then the life is incomplete.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz


judgement day

I woke this morning to read about a 27 year old Sudanese woman, Meriam Ibrahim, who gave birth this week whilst shackled in jail. She has been granted a two year suspended sentence to nurse her newborn, after which time she will face 100 lashes with a whip and then death by hanging. As Sudanese expert, Eric Reeves states, the lashings in themselves can be a fatal punishment, ‘the very idea of lashing someone,’ he said in an interview with Sky News, ‘and then hanging them is beyond grotesque. There is no possible justification, other than the most extreme ideological fervour.’ Despite the fact that she was raised as a Christian, by a Christian mother and a Muslim father, she is being punished for marrying a Christian man. According to the Islamic regime, she is regarded as a Muslim and therefore marrying a Christian is considered to be an act of apostasy and adultery.

How is it that these archaic practices are still going on? And other than the blatantly abhorrent human rights issue – which deserves all the attention it is getting and more – why did I get so riled up about this case, today, here and now?

I understand that this is a very complicated and sensitive topic, and certainly one that I am graciously removed from, however, it brings to the fore this notion of judgement that seems to keep bubbling up in front of me lately. Unfortunately it often takes an extreme event, such as in Meriam’s case, for these wafting ideas to form a more malleable shape.

In my cushy, centrally-heated, coffee-cultured, iWorld, who am I to open my mouth about women’s issues in Sudan? Who the hell do I think I am, making comments about religious and cultural practices that surely I know very little about?

But I can’t help thinking, who are they to say that what she is doing is wrong? Who are they to make the rules? To deem that her actions are in line with a certain level of punishment? How do you scale actions against consequences? And who says who gets to create that scale – and why them? Why do the rest of us listen? On a base level, aren’t we all just humans – all made of the same stuff? Why do we place so much importance on power and hierarchy when it so often leads to misery?

Perhaps the more important question is: why do we feel so powerless?

E.E Cummings wrote, ‘To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human can fight – and never stop fighting.’

Being authentic, staying real, even in the face of judgement, is one of the most courageous battles we will ever fight.

While judgement seems to occupy a vast majority of our time, I would argue that when it comes to being judged by others, people aren’t necessarily as concerned about your actions as you might think. Rather, our stories about ourselves are really what we are seeing as reflected by their behaviours and decisions – we really are inherently that self-absorbed. I love when my girlfriends tell me they had a second helping of cake, for example. I feel stronger when I hear a story about social awkwardness. I’m completely ok when someone cancels on me because ‘something came up’ as being alone is often so much easier than putting myself out there.

So when we feel judged – who’s actually judging who? Does the judgement start or end with them or you? And is your reaction to the judgement a story you’ve created about yourself or about them?

Brene Brown talks about ‘numbing down’ as something we all do in reaction to feeling powerless. But the difference in how this manifests in each of us changes with our awareness of the when and why it occurs. We can learn to understand this by asking ourselves:

Does our (insert behaviour here: eg sex, eating, drinking, working) get in the way of our authenticity? Does it stop us from being emotionally honest and setting boundaries and feeling like we’re enough? Does it keep us from staying out of judgment and from feeling connected? Are we using it to hide or escape from the reality of our lives?

Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let ourselves be seen.
Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.
Authenticity demands Wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.

– Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

I don’t want to be afraid of love, I want to fall into that intense joy. And yet I am. And I don’t.

I don’t want to live my life backwards – trying to have more things, more money, to do more in order to feel happier. And yet I do.

I want to be myself first, to do what I need to do in order to have what I want. And yet the fear of rejection paralyses me.

Judgement – whether it starts or ends with you – is killing us all. We need to let it go. I need to let go…

She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was move forward and make the whole beautiful.

So it’s time for me to dig deep. To get deliberate – to stand on my own sacred ground. To get inspired – to be brave so that others around me can be brave also. And to get going – if the goal is authenticity and they don’t like me, that’s ok, but if the goal is being liked and they don’t like me, then I’m in trouble.

And trouble only creates more trouble.

When two people meet and fall in love, there’s a sudden rush of magic. Magic is just naturally present then. We tend to feed on that gratuitous magic without striving to make any more. One day we wake up and find that the magic is gone. We hustle to get it back, but by then it’s usually too late, we’ve used it up. What we have to do is work like hell at making additional magic right from the start. It’s hard work, but if we can remember to do it, we greatly improve our chances of making love stay.

When we’re incomplete, we’re always searching for somebody to complete us. When, after a few years or a few months of a relationship, we find that we’re still unfulfilled, we blame our partners and take up with somebody more promising. This can go on and on – series polygamy – until we admit that while a partner can add sweet dimension to our lives, we, each of us, are responsible for our own fulfillment. Nobody else can provide it for us, and to believe otherwise is to delude ourselves dangerously and to program for eventual failure every relationship we enter.

― Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question is whether to kill yourself or not. Tom Robbins wrote that the only serious question is whether time has a beginning or an end. Camus clearly got up on the wrong side of the bed, and Robbins must have forgotten to set the alarm. There is only one serious question. And that question is: ‘Who knows how to make love stay?’

1. Tell love you are going to Junior’s Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if loves stays, it can have half. It will stay.

2. Tell love you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a moustache on your face. Find love. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.

3. Wake love up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure love that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Love will be there in the morning.

― Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

X-Ray Visions of Love

REAL FRIENDSHIP OR LOVE IS NOT MANUFACTURED or achieved. Friendship is always an act of recognition. This metaphor of friendship can be grounded in the clay nature of the human body. When you find the person you love, an act of ancient recognition brings you together. It is as if millions of years before the silence of nature broke, his or her clay and your clay lay side by side. Then, in the turning of the seasons, your one clay divided and separated. You began to ride as distinct clay forms, each housing a different individuality and destiny. Without even knowing it, your secret memory mourned your loss of each other. While your clay selves wandered for thousands of years through the universe, your longing for each other never faded. This metaphor helps to explain how in the moment of friendship two souls suddenly recognise each other. It could be a meeting on the street, or at a party, a lecture or just a simple, banal introduction, then, suddenly there is a flash of recognition and the embers of kinship glow. There is an awakening between you, a sense of ancient knowing. Love opens the door of ancient recognition. You enter. You come home to each other at last. As Euripides says, ‘Two friends, one soul.’

In the classical tradition this is wonderfully expressed in Plato’s magical dialogue on the nature of love, the Symposium. Plato adverts to the myth that humans in the beginning were not single individuals. Each person was two selves in one. Then they became separated; consequently, you spend your life looking for your other half. When you find and discover each other, it is through this act of profound recognition. In friendship, an ancient circle closes. That which is ancient between you will mind you, shelter you and hold you together. When two people fall in love, each comes in our of the loneliness of exile, home to the one house of belonging.  At weddings, it is appropriate to acknowledge the gracious destiny that enabled this couple to recognise each other when they met. Each recognised the other as the one in whom their heart could be at home. Love should never be a burden, for there is more between you than your mutual presence.

– Extract from John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World

Relax! (for goodness sake)

Did you know?
The officers of Napoleon, the 17th century general and emperor of France, have reported that he possessed an unfathomable and tireless source of energy and inspiration. At the very height of battle, just when the outcome was in balance, he would hand over his command to a subordinate, leaving instructions that he was not to be disturbed for twenty minutes under any circumstances. Then, retiring to his tent and stretching out upon an enormous bearskin, he would enter yoga nidra. Within seconds his loud, regular snores would be emerging to mix with all the desperate sounds of battle. Precisely twenty minutes later he would emerge, fresh, invigorated and inspired, remount his horse and inevitably lead the French army to a decisive victory.

In his book, Yoga Nidra, Swami Satyanananda Saraswati tells of his experience with hardened criminals at a detention camp in 1968…
He was invited to the camp to teach the criminals yoga. However, when he arrived the six hundred odd prisoners converged on him, hooting, laughing, pulling his dhoti, one even gave him a packet of cigarettes – total dishonour and disrespect rained down on him. He decided there was no way that he would be able to teach them yoga in this state. So he asked them to lie down quietly on their backs and get ready for the practice. They could not lie still – they kicked and pulled each other, shouted and spat. For half an hour all he persisted with just these words ‘Please close your eyes. Don’t move your body.’ He waited for them to become quiet, but they never did.
He resolved not to return the following day, assuming it was a lost cause. However, the man in charge begged him to reconsider. ‘You have cast a spell over them. They have been quiet ever since you left.’ And so he returned. The prisoners attitudes towards him were completely transformed. They didn’t want to practice the physical asanas of yoga, they wanted the yoga nidra they had experienced the day before. For the six days that followed, he taught them yoga nidra, how to relax from top to bottom, outside to inside, every part of their being. Daily reports came to him about their improved dispositions and the dramatic reduction in quarrels.

What is the secret of this transformation? Sermons? No. Admonitions? No. Release of tension, relaxation and peace of mind are the secret of transformation. When a man is under tension, his behaviour is influenced, and when he relaxes, he becomes natural. He knows the reality, the truth. Then he also knows how to behave, because the knowledge of truth is necessary for right behaviour. And knowledge of truth only comes when you are free of tension.

Saraswati says that ‘During the last hundred years or so, the way of life has changed throughout the world.’ He believes this has left us in a dramatic state of imbalance, which has led to a spate of stress-related illnesses caused by ‘our inability to adapt to the highly competitive pace of modern life
Psychosomatic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, migraine, asthma, ulcers, digestive disorders and skin diseases arise from tensions in the body and the mind. The leading causes of death in developed countries, cancer and heart disease, also stem from tension.’
Modern medical science is struggling to care for those people as ‘the real problem does not lie in the body; it originates in man’s changing ideals, in his way of thinking and feeling.
The international problem today is not hunger, poverty, drugs or fear of war. It is tension, hypertension, total tension. If you know how to free yourself of tension, you know how to solve your problems in life. If you are able to balance your tensions, you can control your emotions, anger and passions. You can control heart disease, high blood pressure, leukaemia and angina pectoris.’

The three basic types of tension that yogic philosophy claims are responsible for all the agonies of modern life are:
1. muscular tension – caused by physical exertion
2. emotional tension – caused by not being able to express our emotional selves freely and openly
3. mental tension – caused by excessive mental activity
Unless you are free from these three tensions, no amount of sleep will leave you feeling revived, refreshed and relaxed. Think about a time when you’ve seen people who seem to be happy and calm, but they have a habit of biting their nails, scratching their head, can’t sit still, can’t stand still. Most of the time they don’t realise they are doing these things until someone else points them out – they are unaware of their inner tension, and believe that they are relaxed. Even while sleeping, unless these tensions are dissolved, you will continue to wake up exhausted. In order to relax completely, the inner tensions of the body, emotions and mind must be released.
However, Saraswati states that if we adopt the yoga nidra technique, a single hour of practice is as restful as four hours of conventional sleep.

So if you find yourself hopping from one foot to the other when you’re having to talk to a group of people, or perhaps you’re like me and have issues with insomnia and waking up still tired, give it a go. Notice how you feel before, during and after. And then try again the next day, and the next, and see how it not only changes within each session, but also from session to session, week to week, and so on.

Go on…it’s for your own good. So be good to you.

Basic Outline of a Yoga Nidra sitting

Prepare yourself for practice
– find a comfortable position (either lying down or sitting) and close your eyes

Set an intention/resolution or mantra

Rotate your conscious attention around the detail of your physical body
– left and right sides
– front and back

Become aware of the body in contact with the floor

Awareness of sensations
– awaken the idea of heaviness in the body, gradually becoming heavier as you travel through the different body parts
– awaken the idea of lightness in the body, gradually becoming lighter as you travel through the different body parts
– alternate between heaviness and lightness
– awaken the experience of heat as vividly as possible
– awaken the experience of cold

– you may choose to take yourself on a journey somewhere or to focus on a colour, a chakra, your initial intention or mantra


The Sounds of Prana

As I race towards the final week of yoga teacher training, I have been madly writing essays, reflecting on my practice and prepping for the final practical elements of the course. This weekend I am scheduled to host a meditation session – something I have never done for a group of people before. Sure, I feel very cosy in my little yoga family bubble, however, this only inspired me to want to make the experience extra special. There’s been a variety of relaxation and visualisation practices in my fellow trainees sessions, but I decided I want to opt for something a little different. Step outside my comfort zone. I can hear my mentors’, Ari and Elina’s, voices in my head saying ‘You can’t control your students’ experience, Erin…!’ Yeah, yeah… I know! But it did make me reflect on when my experience was a little bit different – when I allowed myself to try something new. And loved it.

Back when I first discovered yoga, one late Sunday afternoon, I sheepishly walked through the door of my local studio  to what was entitled a ‘Sea of Om’s’ group meditation class. I felt like a total hippy – but not the calm, cool and collected ones you just want to while away the afternoons with, I’m talking the far-out-dude-I’m-totally-wacked-out-on-love-juice-bro(-wanna-toke?) ones. Yep. I went there. Judgement 101.

What I experienced though, was something really special.

I spent a lot of my childhood with music – either listening to it, singing it, bashing it out on a piano or tootling it on a clarinet – it was and always has been a huge part of my life.

I lose time with music. And I find my self.

So I have decided to take on The Sea of Om’s with my meditation session. I have been on an investigation to get to the bottom of why we chant in yoga and what it actually means to integrate this love of music and sound into my teaching and my practice.

What follows here are extracts from the Prana and Mantra chapter in Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati’s Prana and Pranayama. I believe it goes some way to explaining why chanting and music has such a profound affect on me.

An intrinsic relationship between sound and prana underlies all creation. At the beginning of creation, when the first movement arose within the field of dormant consciousness and mahaprana manifested, sound also came into being. With the first movement of cosmic energy the first sound manifested, which was Om. This transcendental sound is also called nada, the highest level of sound vibration. From nada came kalaa, the manifest universe of time, space and object. In scientific terms, this may be related to the event of the Big Bang.

In the Bible also it has been said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” In order to become manifest, the unmanifest and indivisible has to take on form. The first form was sound, and it came into existence through the medium of energy or prana.

Aren’t we all just looking at the same world through our own lens and making meaning out of the song that resonates deep inside our ‘self’?

Sound is a form of energy that has frequency, pitch, volume, and tone, as well as subtle qualities. Scientifically, sound is a vibration at a particular frequency, and it is able to produce physical changes in an organism. Some vibrations can be harmful while others are beneficial. Sound can be concentrated to such degrees of intensity that it can shatter and destroy objects. Holes can be driven into solid metal by using sound alone. It is thought that the great stones of Stonehenge, Easter Island and the Mayan monuments were moved into place using the principles of sound.

The principle behind the use of mantra in pranic practices relates to this intrinsic relationship between sound and energy. Every movement of energy manifests sound, and every sound carries energy. The pranas are activated with the chanting of mantras, and the orientation of existing pranic flows are altered or emphasised, so that the mind and perception changes.

Ever wondered why music makes us feel so good?

In scientific terms, mantra repetition regulates and balances the autonomic nervous system. It facilitates synchronous breathing, directly resulting  in cardio-pulmonary resonance, which is indicative of autonomic balance. The powerful and coherent electromagnetic heart field of one person can affect the heart fields of others, leading them to coherent synchrony. There is a greater concentration and the mind can be utilised for higher flights. Therefore, when pranayama is performed with mantra, the practice is more effective.

The best mantra is Gayatri, as it corresponds to the ideal breathing pattern of pranayama. It is comprised of twenty-four syllables which contain the entire form of prana. As it appears in the Rig Veda (3:62:11) is:

Om tatsaviturvarenyam

Bhargo devasya dheemahi dhiyo yo nah prachodayaat.

Om. We meditate on the divine light of that adorable Sun of spiritual consciousness. May it stimulate our power of spiritual perception.

Gayatri is created from Om. In the order of creation, this sound is further developed, and the developed state of the mantra Om is known was Gayatri.

According to Vedic philosophy, prana has three forms. So Gayatri, as the presiding deity of prana, is seen as a little girl, innocent and childish, in the early morning; as a charming young woman in full bloom at noon, and as an old woman, embodying wisdom or jnana, in the evening. The colour of Gayatri in the morning is red like the rising sun; at noon she is golden, and in the evening smoky grey. These are the characteristics of prana, represented by the different forms of Gayatri, and this is how Gayatri worshippers may visualise her during their thrice-daily worship.

Some believe that the Gayatri mantra is directed  towards the external sun, but ultimately it is directed towards the brilliance of the internal sun. The internal sun must shine so that the consciousness becomes enlightened. In the external firmament, first there is darkness, broken only by the flickering light of stars. Then a dim light shoots forth from the horizon, indicating the break of dawn, and finally the brilliant sun rises, lighting up everything. As it happens in the external horizon, so it is in the inner horizon. That breaking of light is called Gayatri. It represents the sun which illuminates the whole world and also the inner self which illuminates all the planes of existence and consciousness. The external sun only illumines the gross world, but when inner enlightenment takes place all the planes of existence become perceptible.

Gayatri is referred to as the Mother of the Vedas and the Gayatri mantra appears in the Rig Veda, the oldest written literature  int he library of humankind. Thus, human beings have been chanting the Gayatri mantra for a long time.

The Upanishads say that Om (or Aum) is the primordial sound. Everything has come from Om and, at the time of dissolution, everything will revert back to Om. The word Om is the universe. Everything that exists in the past, present and future is Om, and that which exists beyond the threefold division of time is Om.

And so there you have it. Our course it set. Come Saturday, I shall endeavour to set sail with my yogi crew as we take on the Sea of Om’s. Who knows where – or when – we will end up.