Yoga in Action: inner listening

To listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed by what you hear. 

This morning I listened to Tara Brach speak about active listening. Like, really listening. Listening is a real skill that requires effort.

Oftentimes we have to teach ourselves how to be listeners, how to be active participants in conversation. In the podcast, she talked about ways in which we avoid active listening: our propensity to multi-task while we are in telephone conversations, our tendency to try and shape the way that someone views us while we converse with them (rather than actually listening to them), and the need to develop skills of listening, which can eventually impact our deeper meditation practices.

This meditation application eventually becomes an act of inner listening, though it often begins with acts of outer listening. There are some meditation schools which encourage that you note the environmental sounds around you as you sit. There are some forms of meditation which encourage concentration on a sound or chant. Sometimes in the beginning stages of our meditation journey, even awareness of our thoughts can feel like outer listening as well. I have been inclined to think "who is that person thinking those thoughts?" a time or two in my own sitting work. In the yoga realm, we typically begin our practices by following the instruction of a teacher through outward listening.   

And then through time and regular effort, listening for sounds/thoughts/instructions outside of ourselves can be replaced by inner listening. Listening to our own thoughts for instinctual feelings and habit patterns of the mind, and listening to our bodies for signs of our overall health, clues about injuries/disease and effectiveness of our practices. Inner listening is how we can know us. By taking time to get quiet, go inward and tune in to us, we can better understand ourselves and what we want, what makes us happy, what our true expectations are for not only us, but others. Sometimes through listening, we hear things that are unpleasant. But then we have the opportunity to work with those challenges rather than avoiding them. 

Sometimes through this inner awareness, we begin to move toward silencing. Not necessarily silence as the goal, but pleasant quieting, softening of the typical clamor of the mind. 

In her amazing Bringing Yoga to Life, Donna Farhi notes:

Just as the impressions left by the constant stream of thoughts and sensations tend to propel more of the same, the impressions left through participation with the silent substrate of consciousness generates a flow of itself. Silence begins to flow through us as our fundamental state of being. This is as it as always been. Nothing new has been created; we simply have cleared a pathway through which this silence can flow and regenerate itself.
— Bringing Yoga to Life (p.72–73)

So, how can we move from being a so-so listener, to an active listener to inner listener? 

spending quiet time in the woods is a great way to listen

spending quiet time in the woods is a great way to listen

One of the main ways to become a more active listening with others is to be present. I regularly find myself planning my day or my dinner or just generally caught up in my own thoughts when I'm talking with someone else. I think it happens to all of us. But it doesn't feel that great to me. When several moments into my distracted thoughts I re-emerge, I always feel a little like a jerk. Like my brain was telling me that another being is less interesting to it than my own being.

This is just a point of awareness. If you can first create awareness around presence in conversations with others, you can begin to work toward greater and greater presence generally.

Through deepening awareness moment-to-moment in our daily lives, we can create ease around the same work, the same desire for presence when we're on our mats or cushion. It will be easier for us to be active listeners of ourselves, to be inner listeners, if we're willing to be present with what we hear. And if we're willing to really hear what the inner teacher is offering, then we are more likely to make positive change. Or at the very least, to be open to the possibility.

Going In

If I were to make a guess, I would say that this post will get about 7 reads, whereas my posts about asana are read by dozens. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Namely the current craze of yoga as a workout and a purely physical activity to enhance the sculpt of your abs. We as Americans are constantly trying to better ourselves not through reflection or introspection, but rather by weighing less and looking more beautiful on the outside.

I think it stinks a little, but also it's very much cultural. With the constant distraction of smartphones, money, bigger and better "stuff" it's no wonder that we aren't particularly capable of "going in" and doing internal work. Why is that? Because it's hard.

chakra system, very much "in"

chakra system, very much "in"

It's a heck of a lot harder to sit down and watch your breath than it is to go to a yoga class with rockin music where you are constantly moving and doing. In other words, modern yoga is commonly just another distraction for our already "monkey" minds.

The process of going inward is outlined in the last 4 limbs of the 8-limbed yogic path. The first of those limbs is pratyahara which is the "turning-inward" of the senses. It's essentially the process of quieting the mind by turning off your awareness of that which is outside of you and moving toward awareness of what is happening on the inside. From here, your work moves into concentration meditation (dharana), meditation without a point of focus (dhyana), and finally samadhi which is full absorption into your current task at hand.

So, what to do?

The work of coming regularly to your meditation cushion to quiet the senses takes a mature and sophisticated student. This person has to be willing to sit still, be quiet and examine the nature of their own mind. This is scary business at times. Part of living on the surface and not delving too deeply into the depth of the mind has to do with our notions of keeping ourselves safe. If we can just cling to tangible "real" physical things and keep our mind preoccupied with those, then we don't have to go deeply inside and see the shit that makes up our minds. Sometimes what's in there is crummy and needs some tending to, which can be painful.

Me, going in.

Me, going in.

Now, don't get me wrong. I do the physical practice of yoga on an almost daily basis. I am firmly committed to keeping my body healthy and well as I age. But, at the same time, I use my daily practice as a way to examine myself. I watch my breath. I watch the whirls of my mind. I watch the sensations happening in the body. I pay attention to me much as a scientist would. Constantly observing and at  the same time, constantly trying to stay present with what is.

If you are someone who is not ready to commit to a regular meditation practice, all is not lost. There are ways to be reflective and introspective without a daily practice (though, the work is much more satisfying if you can make it every day!). For more accessible internal work, try just noticing when you experience something truly joyous or beautiful. Observe the sensations in your body/mind that arise as a result. Observe the thoughts that come up and whether you cling to the "goodness" or whether you can let it all go.

You could also journal 5 good things and 5 difficult things that happened to you each day. Reflect upon why you consider them good/bad and how you reacted to each of the experiences. That work should take you about 5 minutes before you go to sleep.

If even that is too challenging, next time you're in the car or riding the bus, do the same sort of work but just mentally. Scan the events of your day and notice how you categorize them (good/bad) and why. Did you react as per usual, or did you experience a new type of reaction?

The more you can tune in to the inner-workings of the mind, the closer you will be to understanding your choices and decisions along this path of life.