We live in a world full of distractions. Texting, social media, new television shows, new movies, the next “big” life drama…the list goes on and on. As a yoga teacher for the past 14 years and a practitioner for the past 18, I have seen the state of the distracted mind get seemingly worse and worse. It was challenging for students to hold their attention through five rounds of pranayama back in 2004, now it is nearly impossible to get my newest students through even three rounds without someone checking their phone (no phones are allowed in class), looking at the clock several times or staring down everyone around them.
Just this week several students spent an entire 90 minute class texting, checking their Facebook pages and talking to one another during class – even when asked to refrain from doing these activities. They just couldn’t stop themselves from pushing the button on their phone and seeing who had texted them even though their phones were off. And this morning’s commute was snarled by a four car fender bender that happened because two of the drivers were texting and on the internet while driving in traffic. In some ways these situations bring up in me the thought that it is not entirely their fault – our culture and society have created a world of distractions and encouraged us to use them!
This state of being in the modern world has taught me to be more patient with my students as they learn how to re-train their attention to be present with one thing at a time. I continuously focus my classes on guiding students into the present moment through feeling the movement of their breath and the sensations in their body. But it has also left me curious about the nature of distractions and how we can work to improve our attention.
Every year for the past 5 or so years I have taught a class on January 1 to kick off the year. I’ve set a yearly intent to guide us through our practices as a community along the course of 12 months. We revisit the intent of the year in a few practices every month to stay connected and track how it is changing our perceptions and actions across a whole year. Several years ago I came across the Sanskrit word avikaritvam as I was reading an article about the Bhagavata Purana (a classical Indian text about Krishna). Translated as either “clarity” or “freedom from all distraction,” this word really stuck with me. It felt at the time, as it does now, like something my community needed more connection to. I set it as our yearly intent when I came across it…and it fell flat on its face. Every mention of it made my students fidgety, uncomfortable and, well, more distracted! I felt at the time like it failed to inspire anyone.
Enter today. I have returned to teaching about this concept more and more – perhaps this time around more skillfully myself. I started with my own life to inspire the teaching. Instead of just using a concept I was interested in and a word that felt wise, I looked at the distractions in my own life as a place to study this in action so that I could teach about it better. What I found alarmed me.
My social media habits were a major distraction. I love Facebook. I used to check that thing all the time. And I got into a nasty habit of comparing myself to every other yoga teacher in my feed, feeling most days like a total failure. Instagram? Love it. Who doesn’t love a cute puppy photo? Twitter…I have no idea why it is important, but I was addicted to scanning through those little snippets. I used to justify my time spent on social media as “a place I went to for inspiration” or “the way I kept in contact with friends from afar.” The truth: it was a major distraction. Nowadays I’ve broken that distraction cycle by only looking at social media sites once per day and for a time allowance. I unfriended or stopped following people that genuinely made me unhappy. I wrote down and redefined my own rules of what I post on social media, when I post it and why. I revisit those rules every few months to see if they need updating. And when I am working on something that needs my attention, I close off everything else that could distract me. I leave my phone away from me so I am not tempted to look at it.
My work habits were a major distraction. I used to book myself solid. 14 hours a day for 7 days a week? No problem! Running from client to client through traffic in rush hour at opposite ends of the city? No problem! … Wait! HUGE problem. In keeping myself so booked with work engagements, I left myself zero time (or energy) to engage with the really important things in my life. I essentially distracted myself from my own growth and delight in life by being unnecessarily busy. Today I’ve hired a “coach” and re-evaluated my schedule really honestly. I’ve let go of clients and classes in the last year – many of them. I no longer take a client when I can’t actually teach them well. I have opened up my schedule to have stretches of time for writing, being with my partner, walking my dog and hanging out with friends – activities I used to “distract” myself away from.
My mind’s creation of dramatic stories about my life was a major distraction. Unless you know me really well, you might not know that beneath the surface inside my mind used to be an incessant string of dramatic critical stories about myself and others. I could waste hours of sleep time, yoga practice time and even loved-one time by re-hashing gossip, failures, mistakes and stories I had created about who I was that I didn’t like. Talk about exhausting! And also a huge distraction away from the things that are going well in my life, that are near and dear to me, that I want to grow into and that are the actual reality of the world around me. This one was a bit harder to get around. The mind is a slippery place and gets so settled in its ways. I started by letting go of the people in my life who gossip and who want me to engage in gossip. This was easier than expected! They didn’t actually like me – they just wanted someone to collude with. Then I started recognizing when I was talking in stories that were not actually true – mostly about myself but sometimes about others. Every time I caught myself in this action, I stopped, rewarded myself for catching the behavior and moved on to something in the new habit I wanted to cultivate. Finally, the best way out of this distraction was to get back into a daily meditation practice every single morning. It’s amazing how we can rewrite our stories, untangle them and quiet our critic with just a small meditation time each day.
I’m sure there are many more ways I encounter distractions in my everyday life. These stuck out for me! When you look to your life: where do you sink into distractions? Sit with the fact that as they exist now, they are sapping your power, energy and focus. Channeling your focus through small changes in your social media habits, putting your phone completely away when you drive, re-evaluating how you keep yourself so busy, cutting out the gossip from your conversations, adding in some daily meditation and cultivating healthier habits for your mind can make all the difference. It’s so worth it! Every day feels more fresh, clear and spacious without my distractions.
In my last blog I recounted a synchronous occurrence a few weeks back on my flight home, when I met Bhupendra Badhe, MD, and we spoke about yoga philosophy. He let me know that his teacher’s name, the one who taught him about the formula for happiness, is Vedic scholar and teacher Jaya Row of Vedanta Vision. She spends her time interpreting and teaching ancient Vedic wisdom so that the current, modern populations of the world can understand and use its immense wisdom in everyday life. I’m so happy to have learned more from Bhupendra (who is now a friend on Facebook – thank you social network for connecting us even though we live on opposite sides of the planet) and to be able to share the source of some of the wisdom of my last blog with you.
Apparently what I wrote was a HOT topic! I have heard from many of you readers in emails, comments, and conversations at class about how much you liked the last blog and wanted to know more. Shortly after my last post, I taught a series of classes and sessions here in Chicago themed around desire and happiness. I wanted to explore with yoga postures and breathing exercises the conscious connection to the formula for happiness in my last blog via Jaya Row and Vedanta Vision – happiness = number of desires achieved divided by number of desires total. What came up from the student perspective was incredible.
Some students said it was inappropriate of me to speak about desire in a yoga class – that it was a topic not spiritual enough to be associated with yoga practice. I think they might have only associated desire with sexual intimacy and not in any greater realm or definition.
Other students said they left classes feeling completely and utterly empowered to go after long hidden wants in their life. That feeling into their desires on the mats led them to great insight and motivation into desire in their life that they had not previously recognized.
Still other students said the classes left them feeling hollow because they had no idea what they desired truly in any arena of their life. They realized that what they went after in their poses, practice and life had nothing to do with what they really wanted, but rather more to do with what was expected of them or what was “correct.”
This really affected me – and made me think about the extreme power of desire to shape our lives. As a follow up to my last blog, I wanted to share with you some ideas on harnessing the potent force of what you most desire, refining it into a smaller number of big true desires, and then going after them!
Desire is not a dirty word. As living creatures we are highly motivated by desire – and if we do not consciously examine what and why we desire, then these wants will control us mindlessly. By studying and examining what we want, when we want it, and distilling the pieces of why we want it, we can learn how to use desire to propel in a direction of delight. If we suppress or avoid desire, maligning it as something “unspiritual” or “wrong,” we risk cutting off a piece of our personal power, a piece of our motivation, and really a huge chunk of our Spirit. When refined, desire can become delicious Spirit food.
My own teacher, Ana Forrest, creatrix of Forrest Yoga, speaks often about desire. She does so in a very particular way. In her work with me, she has had me very clearly imagine, visualize, and write about the person I most desire to be. In doing so, she has taught me how to see whom I most want to be and then to craft steps to become that person – even as that person is evolving. This exercise has also shown me “false desires” – those desires like having a certain amount of money, or owning a big house, that are not my own but are ingrained in me from outside influences like culture and upbringing. By envisioning the qualities of the person you most want to be, you can quite literally sculpt a future self out of your current experience base and take steps to be anyone and anything. Without acknowledging who you deeply yearn to be, you simple absorb the desires marketed around you and take them up as your life. This taking on of someone else’s desires chokes off the voice of your Spirit and the wisdom of your deepest self. As an example, the person I most desire to be is a healer, kind, honest, full of integrity, compassionate, passionate, teacher, inspiring, among many other qualities. Because I consciously know that I desire these qualities in myself, I take action in my everyday life to practice healing, to be kind, to speak the truth, to act within the boundaries of my own integrity, to define and embody compassion in my own way, to stoke passion, to practice teaching, to create ways of inspiring and being inspired, etc.
“To discover what we truly desire we must first strip away what we’ve been taught to desire: a certain weight, a certain clothing, a certain mate, all the things that mean we are successful and happy. Out of love and concern, your parents might have inadvertently imposed their desires on you to become a doctor or to make a certain amount of money rather than follow your innate gifts and skills. We have to look beyond surfaces and discern a true desire. Perhaps you think you want to be really rich, but what you really desire is to live free from the fear of want.” – Ana Forrest
Ana also guides her students deeper into desire by exploring all the facets of a seemingly simple desire in daily life – like food, sleep habits, book choices. I’ll give you an example. Some of you who know me well know that I love chocolate – borderline crazy about chocolate. Several times over the course of the last 10 years, I’ve experimented with not eating any chocolate for significant chunks of time even though I desire to eat it all the time. Now this may seem like I’m thwarting my own happiness according to the desire formula above, but really what it has afforded me is a view into what I REALLY desire. And what I really desire is not a caffeinated combination of sweetness and antioxidants wrapped in a brown package, but a physical manifestation of a delicious way of combining bitterness and sweetness in a desirable way. My life has had a lot of bitter moments (whose hasn’t!!) and a lot of incredibly sweet moments, but one of my challenges – and one of my deep desires in life – has been to evolve enough to combine them into a meaningful life. Chocolate was a physical way I was expressing that desire. And now that I know this about my great desire, I still enjoy chocolate but I do not crave it or need it in the way I used to. Maybe you have a sleep desire or a TV show you always desire to watch that holds for a you an actual deeper desire – a much bigger desire that encompasses not only the TV show but something greater in your life. Learn the bigger desire that houses all the other little desires, go after it and knock it off your leaderboard, and a different kind of happiness will surely abound.
The next time you feel desire tugging at your mind-strings, or your heart-strings, take a deep breath and listen. Feel inside – what does that desire really ask of you? What do you really want from your moment or life? Acknowledging and welcoming desire, harnessing its powerful ability to motivate and inspire you is an important part of your development of Self. “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” – Rumi