Every day, as soon as I wake up, I wash up and head downstairs to my cushion to start my day from a centered place. But when I arrived at my meditation seat one morning, all I could feel was my pounding head. I had not had enough sleep, and woke up with a headache. For most of us, our knee-jerk reaction to pain is to either try to push it away with denial, medication and temporary distractions, or run towards it by projecting judgment or anger at it, as though it were a roadblock to our happiness.
In a meditative mood, I welcomed my headache into my field of awareness and allowed it to be part of my practice. After all, it was what this moment contained. Sitting quietly in a relaxed yet attentive manner, I opened to it, as though it were trying to communicate something to me. I did not prod. I did not dig in. I did not poke at it or try to push it away. I just sat quietly in a relaxed yet attentive manner. Rather than getting entangled in not liking it, or trying to change it or fix it, I allowed myself to be receptive to what it was telling me. I let go of any notion that it was an obstacle to my sense of contentedness.
In order to not get entangled in things we like and dislike, we need to cultivate the skill of witnessing. This requires practice. Witnessing is foreign to the way our mind usually works. The mind is driven by the ego, which can only exist in separateness. Our ego and mind thrive on resistance and againstness. We habitually get so involved with what we think, that we fully believe our thoughts to be absolute. In essence, we are used to buying into the illusion that our thoughts are permanent.
Meeting this moment, as it is, is not something most of us do. We overlay our thoughts onto everything. The mind is constantly interpreting information gathered through our senses and categorizing it to suit our version of reality. We then believe that what we perceive is fixed truth. This in turn motivates our behaviour, which determines our experiences. Witnessing is different from observing, because in observing, we tend to narrate to ourselves through our likes and dislikes, rather than being impartial to what we are observing. At the heart of witnessing is a neutral impartiality that is spacious, relaxed and engaged.
Enlightened masters remind us that we are not the doers. The self we consider so permanent is just our ego tricking us into feeling separate and in control. When we witness, we see that in order to continue the illusion of being separate, our mind tends to pull at things we deem valuable and push at things we wish to repel. So with a headache, my tendency would be to want to get rid of it as fast as possible. But in this moment, my approach was different. In witnessing, we learn to neither run from nor run towards the point of our focus. In this case, it was my headache.
By really listening to what my body was telling me, I soon found myself letting go of the idea that my meditation practice had to look a certain way, that is, sitting upright on a cushion. As I listened to the intelligence within my body that is a part of the wisdom of Nature, my headache began to show me ways in which I was not in balance. I listened, without agenda, to a natural impulse that rose effortlessly within my being. Its agenda was to guide me into greater integration.
Staying present with what was here and now, without judgment, what naturally arose was the impulse to uncross my legs and roll onto the floor. My habituated mind said, “No. Can’t do that. That is not meditation. That is naptime!” I let go of any distracting thoughts and proceeded to trust the unfolding. While I lay on my back, watching my breath, with open arms, knees bent and feet flat on the floor, soon the notion floated graciously in front of my mind’s eye in a field of possibility: “What if I could totally relax, in this moment, now?” It felt like a divine invitation.
The quality of my breath effortlessly deepened. I began to feel my whole body soften like melting butter into the ground. I felt totally supported by the Earth. As my body released towards the floor, I could feel an equal, upward energy move to carry me. I noticed my reaction: part of me wanted to still keep the tension in my body, as though it were my identity. I lovingly acknowledged this thought and let it go, as though I noticed a cloud pass through a clear sky. I continued to soften, and open to the possibility: “What if I could totally relax now?”
While still very connected to the sensations within my body, I began to witness a pathway of information take shape and express itself through layers of my being – within my tissue, electrical and nervous systems. My ego was getting out of the way, and giving my soul voice, my true nature, room to express itself through me. I could see how part of my mind would want to become engaged in what was happening, own it, take authorship – as though my ego could have authority over this moment. (That is such a funny thought!) I knew, more deeply, that none of that mattered. I continued to soften.
This unraveling process went on for some thirty minutes, bringing with it the unexpected, the graceful, the light and the profound. Waves of tears rolled down my cheeks, then my lips broadened into a smile, a giggle spilled out, then my jaw dropped into deep sighs… one moment after the next – fresh, new, unknown, perfect. I did not need to know what caused any of this. I did not need to know what it was, how it got there or where it would go. I did not need to have a story to it to narrate or understand what was happening. I just opened in love, in trust, in possibility.
By the time this process had moved through, my headache had completely dissolved. It was clear that through this past half hour the backlogged information that was traffic-jammed in my energy system and had become a headache, was somehow processed, digested and released. All I had to do was give it space to be and get out of the way.
Like an Earth-bound creature, I rolled slowly back up onto my cushion, sitting in the way I normally meditate. This time, no headache, still meeting the moment, just as it is.
Next time you find yourself feeling uneasy in some way – headache, stressed, sad, depressed, anxious, angry – whatever it may be, try these steps:
- Find a quiet place where you feel safe to take a moment and tune in.
- Give yourself room to trust the right here, right now. Let yourself know that you are completely supported. Let go of any resistance to this moment, and see if you can welcome it exactly as it is, beyond your likes and dislikes.
- Give room for whatever is causing you distress to make itself known to you, allowing it to rise from within your whole being, through your breath, through ease, through effortless being. Let it be part of this moment, just as it is. No need to make it bigger or smaller than it is. No need to poke or push at it. Just let it be and listen with loving presence.
- You don’t need to know what it was all about. If you do, fine. Honour it and make those changes. If you don’t, it does not matter. You have just been witness to a form of non-verbal communication. The universe heard you, even if your brain did not. All the support you need is in place.
- Give thanks to yourself and to nature for the opportunity to grow into deeper awareness and love.
PS: If you are looking for a supercharged grace-filled experience, join me in spending time with the humanitarian and spiritual leader Amma, who is on her last North American tour stop in Toronto, Canada, until Wednesday, July 11. If you are in town, I would love to see you!
Since 1993, I have watched Amma embrace people one after the other for hours on end, established in an unshakable presence that expressed both an immense fortitude and exquisite gentleness. This inspires me to try to practice that presence in every moment. I experience Amma as the living embodiment of yoga. She is totally free from the divisive sense of “I” that churns our wanting minds. Just by being in her presence, my mind grows quiet, and meditation simply happens. It is as though I am close to an energy center that amplifies my inherent connection with all things. I find myself able to see my habitual thoughts as passing clouds and find more space around them. This internal spaciousness allows me to witness the many ways in which my mind and ego tend to lead me away from the greater good and cause suffering to myself and others. Give yourself – and the world! – the gift of presence, while guided by a realized master. For more information and to register for the meditation retreat, go to amma.org.
PPS: The first of three eclipses this summer happens on Friday. These times can be deeply beneficial to your spiritual practice. Click here to find out how.
Thank you for reading! All my music, yoga and words are dedicated to MAPS, the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary. MAPS is an urgently needed global intervention to protect the polar ice that keeps our planet cool and weather stable. The ice caps ensure we have the food and water we all need to survive. Please support MAPS at Parvati.org for the sake of all life on Earth. From my heart to yours, it literally means the world.