Off the mat: Raja yoga

Beyond the mat with the four yogas
Part II: Raja
By Nancy B. Loughlin

Published in News Press on April 21, 2015.

 A great yogi told me a story.

When he was in elementary school, he tore up the classroom like a monkey, so the teacher confined him to a chair with duct tape.  When he was finally calm and quiet, the teacher removed the tape, but, instead of staying serene, he just resumed tearing up the room.

“Because that’s what monkeys do,” he said.

This is the problem when you try to calm the mind’s fluctuations with meditation.  You sit, confine yourself to silence and stillness and om your way to serenity.  When your timer rings, you go back to bouncing off the walls.

There’s more to meditation than sitting with your eyes closed.  But you can’t learn to swim without getting in the water.

Monkey mind is a time traveler, overwhelmed by the past and by the future.  Desires yank your senses in all directions, and it’s impossible to connect with your authentic self.

This is raja yoga’s playing field. Raja yoga encompasses many aspects of practice, but it’s commonly understood as getting to know how your mind works.

This is spiritual work.

Beginning raja

1.  The goal of meditation is not for you to live in blissed-out self-absorption on a mountaintop isolated from our world. Meditation is a process of focusing rather than emptying your mind so you can live in our world and serve your purpose without being controlled by your emotions. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche has written that through the practice of meditation, you are able to synchronize your world and yourself.

2. There are many meditation traditions, but begin with basics. Choose a focal point outside of the body: a candle, a mandala drawing, your reflection.  Hold your gaze without blinking, and, when you must close your eyes, hold the image in your mind.  Five minutes on your timer will suffice, and it may take months to make it that long.

3.  Accept the fact that your mind is going to wander not only during meditation but throughout the day when you are trying to live your purpose. Identify your monkeys, the moods and emotions and memories that distract you.  Remember that they are your friends and Know Thyself tools, so don’t be mean. Separate from your mind, and become its observer.  This is difficult, and it’s why it’s called practice.  Once you can observe your mind without responding to it, the monkeys can’t push you around.

4. The most common mind monkeys are fear, guilt, shame, grief, denial and attachment. Your favorite monkeys were established by old programming and life experiences.  Everyone has drama. But is it necessary to inventory your demons, past hurts and humiliations?

Work from feeling rather than thought.

Remember, even if you intellectually understand what programmed your desires, knee-jerk responses, distractions and triggers, that understanding won’t help you deal with your emotions. That’s where raja practice comes in. You might consider releasing all the stories about yourself (there are so many, anyway), and find the way out. That’s the way in. And that’s the work.

Personally, I think revisiting and dissecting trauma can be overrated and indicative of attachment to the ghosts of the past, but it’s your call.

5.  Change your speech so you don’t equate yourself with your emotional states. Instead of, “I’m afraid,” say, “Fear’s knocking.”  Answer the door and find out what it’s trying to subvert.  Respond affirmatively, “I trust that the universe will help me through this,” and close the door. You’ll probably have to say it more than once.

Recover trust in yourself.

6.   As you grow in your seated meditative practice, move your point of focus inside your mind with a mantra synchronized with the breath.

A mantra is a word or sound you repeat as a meditative tool, and “om” is the most common. Try “so-ham” (I am that) with so on the inhale and ham on the exhale.  When the monkeys arrive, acknowledge them, honor the path that brought you to this point and let them pass.

You have work to do.

Next week:  Karma yoga

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