On Knowing Our Own Minds
This weekend I led a retreat during which we focused on meditation and writing. To teach well, to teach at the height of my abilities, there are things I need to do –– ways I need to feel about myself, my writing life, my own practices. I need to be clear, rested, my mind settled before I can begin to think of helping a roomful of people settle their own minds and dig deep to find their own stories.
My group met at Kripalu in a large hall that had just been used for a yoga teacher training, and so, the walls were hung with educational posters. As my seventy students broke into smaller groups to share their writing exercises, I paced the room, listening to snatches of their stories. Often those who are drawn to a retreat such as this one have intense material –– the stuff of life –– and are looking for a way to understand it, to express it. Meditation becomes a powerful tool in this regard, a way of coming to know our own minds. As I walked barefoot through the great hall, I noticed one of the posters from the teacher training in particular. It was a list of the five Yamas –– the character building restraints central to yoga philosophy.
These are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (not stealing), aparigraha (non-possessiveness) and brahmacharya (energy management).
I stared at that last one: brahmacharya. Energy management. How was I doing in this regard? I felt pretty much okay about the other restraints. I had those down. But energy management? (I should mention that brahmacharya in its most orthodox definition refers specifically to sexual energy, but the more open, modern interpretation raises question of where – generally speaking – we put our energy.) Where was I putting my energy? Lately I had been feeling like a leaky vessel. Saying yes to invitations I should have declined. Spending time with people who were draining. Worrying too much about other people’s opinions. Reaching for social media rather than opening a book that might nourish my soul. Staying up too late at night. Burning the candle at both ends.
As I continued to make circles around the great hall, I found myself stopping in front of brahmacharya again and again. I think so many of us feel this sense of being drained of energy. We’re working twenty-four hours a day –– how many of us actually turn off our cellular devices when we go to bed at night? Our sleep –– even our sleep –– is punctuated by the sounds of beeping, vibrating, push notifications, texts. The world is always with us. Our weekends, our vacations, even our Sabbaths, are hard to make sacred. In the past three weeks I have been on six flights. I’m on one now, as I write these words. I look forward in my calendar and see no empty weeks, no long stretch of days. For a writer –– for anyone! –– this is not a good thing. Our most creative thoughts and ideas spring from a ritualized dream time. In the absence of this dream time we become mechanized, robotic, detached from our inner lives.
Energy management. This is the yama looking me straight in the eye. You, it seems to be saying. Know your own mind.
One of the things I most love about teaching is that it keeps me honest, because I simply cannot preach that which I don’t practice. So whenever I teach it brings me back to the truth of my own nature, my own foibles, my own resistance, attachments, insecurities.
Near the end of the retreat –– which had been successful even by my own overly harsh and self-judging standards –– I went around the room and asked each participant, one by one, to call out a single word. At the beginning of the retreat I had also asked for words to be called out –– and it was heartening to see how the feelings of nearly everyone in the group had shifted. I wrote these words down in green magic marker on a large piece of white paper. Peaceful. Hope. Energized. Joy. The words continued in a warm cascade. Content. Amazed. Home. On they went. There was one woman in the back row, though, who had looked miserable all weekend –– angry, frustrated, literally rolling her eyes at me. When it was her turn to offer a word, it rang out: disappointed.
I added her word to the cloud of words, and tried to let it go. But instead, for the rest of that final session, she hovered in my mind. Disappointed. She kept walking out of the room when I offered prompts or instructions, until finally, she just simply left. But what was I doing? I was that leaky vessel –– allowing someone who was, as I once heard a healer describe this kind of person, an energy vampire –– to climb inside my mind and sap me of my own strength.
She didn’t have the power to do this to me.
I was doing it to myself.
And so I’m telling this story on myself –– this story of my own struggle with brahmacharya –– because I invariably finish leading these retreats with new lessons I have needed to learn. I want to say thank you to that woman in the back row for reminding me that I’m responsible for my own energy management. There are a thousand ways we can waste our energy –– and only one way I can think of to harness it, which involves paying careful attention to our own hearts and minds.