Sunday, October 26, 2014

Practicing Selective Attention

"Can I help you find anything today?" goes the refrain of the Shoppers' Welcome. "Did you find everything you were looking for?" Sometimes you shop for goods or food looking for a particular item, and other times you're just browsing. Sometimes you see what you want and other times you pass everything by, simply observing without taking something away. Shopping can be a metaphor that extends to your life. So what are you looking for today? Each day, in each experience, what are you hoping to see? 

"What we see depends mainly on what we look for." This popular quote from John Lubbock aptly describes the power of our expectations to shape our reality, for better or worse. There's a name for it, actually: the "Observer/Expectancy Effect." So much happens within and around us all of the time, most of which we cannot control, but the question remains, "what are you looking for?" What do you notice as you're browsing through life? 

This question leads me to a West African folktale about the experience of two travelers: 

There was once an elderly and wise gentleman who lived in a village. He would often spend his days sitting in the shade of a big tree in the center of the village, reading books and talking to passersby. One day, a traveler came upon his village and stopped and said, “Old man, I have been traveling across the countryside, and I have seen many things and met many people. Can you tell me what kind of people I will find in your village?”

The elderly gentleman looked up at him and replied, “Certainly I can, but first tell me what kind of people you have found on your travels.”

The traveler scowled and said, “Old man, I have met people who cheat, steal, and aren’t kind to strangers, and people who don’t look out for one another.”

The elderly gentleman looked up and, with a faint look of sadness in his eyes, said, “Oh my friend, those are the people you will find in my village.” The traveler kicked the dirt under his feet, scoffed, and marched off towards the village.

By and by, as the elderly gentleman continued to enjoy his day, another traveler came walking through the village. Once again, the traveler stopped and asked, “Please kind sir, I have been traveling across the countryside, and I have seen many things and met many people. Can you tell me what kind of people I will find in your village?”

The elderly gentleman said, “Certainly I can, but first tell me what kind of people you have found in your travels.”

The traveler replied, “I have found people who are kind and welcoming of strangers, people who care for one another, and people who love. These are the people I have met in my travels.”

The elderly gentleman looked up and, with the faintest smile in his eyes, said, “My friend, those are the people you will find in my village.” 

Where we place our attention determines a lot about what we experience, in our travels, in our relationships, even in a yoga class. A psychological process termed "selective attention" makes us notice certain things, words or ideas more often when they are new and interesting to us. Another process called "confirmation bias" reaffirms the prevalence and importance of what we keep seeing. We've probably all heard of the blue car syndrome; when we're contemplating buying a certain color or make of car, suddenly we see that car everywhere. 

With what we know about our biases and tendencies in observing phenomena, is it possible to find more of what we're seeking? Can we effectively train ourselves to maintain our attention on what we want more of in life? There is limitless variety in the world happening around us, yet we have a choice on where to place our attention. While remaining open and truthful in each moment, we can consciously direct our focus, so we're being honest with ourselves about what's happening, but only buying into the things we really want. We can see what is, what's possible and what's desirable, all at the same time. Maintaining this vision, we can transform ourselves and the world. 

Yoga is an excellent training ground for focusing our attention where we want it. In your practice today, consciously set an intention before you begin. Ask yourself what you want more of in your life, and actively look for that quality as you practice. Maintain an open awareness of each breath, each thought and each movement. Use selective attention to keep building on what you want more of: strength, joy, peace, ease, comfort. When you experience unappealing sensations or thoughts, see them for what they are but keep browsing, and return to your intention. 

Happy shopping! 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Embracing Idiosyncrasy

This week I read a story from NPR about a female attorney who hired a voice coach and worked for nine months to change her voice. In evaluations with male law firm partners, her high voice had been identified as an obstacle. The article is entitled, "Can Changing How You Sound Help You Find Your Voice?" It made me think about my own voice and the voices of some people I have known, both men and women. I used to work in a law firm with a male lawyer who also felt that his high voice was an impediment to success.

Our society likes to define and perpetuate standards and norms. Nothing wrong with that, right? We rarely question the need to adapt to widely accepted norms in our behaviors. Nonetheless, there are certain individual qualities we each have that make us stand out in some way. Voice can certainly be one of those. Part of what determines our voice quality is genetic. Another part is based on conditioning, environment and personality. The same can be said for our posture, our gait and our facial expressions. 

When is it worth the effort to change some of our instinctual physical and emotional traits? Can we recognize the value in some or all of our idiosyncrasies? 

One way we can develop awareness of our individual qualities and work on them is through the practice of Yoga. As we acquaint ourselves deeply with our breath, our bodies and our minds, through pranayama (breath work), asana (moving through poses) and dhyana (meditation), we begin to see more deeply into ourselves. We learn to bring neutral observation to the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. We learn to accept each part of ourselves, and as we do that, we begin to transform. The transformation is both conscious and unconscious. We practice, we wait, we grow, and we transform. Some parts of us we identify as needing work, but we learn that we must accept those parts before we can change them. 

The article about changing our individual voice to become more successful made me think about self-critical tendencies. Criticism serves a valuable purpose in all areas of life. It helps us identify what we can improve. The caveat to criticism is that it needs to be balanced with appreciation, or it can become destructive. This process of balancing criticism with appreciation made me think of Sutra 2.33 in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam, "When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana." 

We can use pratipaksha bhavana as a method to work with our idiosyncrasies, like our voice, our posture, our breath, and the way we move. We are each unique and all of that uniqueness has value. Yet, there are certain traits we may wish to change or adapt from time to time. How can we identify these and approach them constructively? Each time we find something to criticize, we can balance the criticism with appreciation. So in the example of the lawyers with the high voices, we can find something to appreciate: I thought my lawyer friend's high voice made him approachable, playful and distinctive. We can apply this same perspective to our yoga postures. Two of my teachers speak often about how tight they were when they first practiced yoga and how this physical quality of being tight helps prevent injury. We don't have to be bendy Barbie Dolls to practice yoga. We can notice that we are tight and appreciate what the tightness brings us. If we decide we want to become more limber, we can work towards that quality with an accompanying appreciation of the tightness. 

Today in your practice, pay particular attention to your own idiosyncrasies, the way YOU do yoga: What do you think about in yoga class? How does your breathing sound? What does your down dog feel like? Where do you like to put your feet, in spite of what the teacher says? Notice your individual practice, and each time you feel critical, find something to appreciate. 

We are transitory beings and in time all things about us will change and fade away, so there is no need to be impatient about what won't change right now. As we see more deeply into ourselves through practicing yoga, let's bring awareness to every aspect, balancing any criticisms with appreciation. In this way, we can own our practice and our voice with awareness and compassion. 


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Yoga to Bless Your Heart

My grandmother always said "bless your heart(s)" to everyone. I never thought about what she meant by it. I often hear people refer to following our heart instead of our head, or knowing something in the heart, as opposed to the intellect. In yoga classes I have often heard "bow your head to your heart." In church I have heard that God knows our hearts, even that our heart is the place where God resides. A favorite verse of mine is "People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart," (1 Samuel 16:7).

What is our heart, other than our most vital organ? Do we have an emotional heart, or a spiritual heart? Is it possible to be heartless? When we say that a person is heartless, do we really mean that they have lost the connection to their spiritual heart?

We are taught in yoga philosophy that the spiritual heart is where our deepest wisdom resides and our deepest longings are fulfilled.

In the city of Brahman is a secret dwelling, the lotus of the heart. Within this dwelling is a space, and within that space is the fulfillment of our desires. What is within that space should be longed for and realized. 

As great as the infinite space beyond is the space within the lotus of the heart. Both heaven and earth are contained in that inner space, both fire and air, sun and moon, lightning and stars. Whether we know it in this world or know it not, everything is contained in that inner space. 

The Chandogya Upanishad, Chapter VIII

In the third book of the Yoga Sutras we read about perfect concentration on the heart. In studying the chakra system, we learn about anahata, the heart chakra. When we open our heart chakra we activate the core of our compassion and our ability to live from our higher self, the part of us that is pure love. 

Practicing yoga gives us a chance, should we choose to take it, to experience our spiritual heart. The focus on our breath and the linking of the breath to physical movement pacifies our busy minds; when mental activity slows, we can access parts of ourselves we may otherwise neglect. We train ourselves to turn compassionate awareness towards our experience, feeling instead of analyzing, staying present instead of chasing external distractions. 

In your practice today, and everyday, invite yourself to experience your heart, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Tune into your heart beat. Notice and allow emotions that arise as you practice. Explore the idea of a spiritual heart if it has meaning for you. When you do this, may you find an inexhaustible source of love that heals you from within and pours itself out to touch everyone you meet. 

Amen. Om. Peace. xo