Powers of Observation


If you have watched musicians, you may have noticed that most have unique patterns of holding their body as they go deeply into their music in order to really concentrate on the sound. Some stick their tongue out of their mouth sideways, and others bite their lip, make an odd facial expression, or start tapping their foot wildly. These external physical expressions are fixing a body pattern of sensation to support the focus of the musician’s mind. In a less noticeable manner we all do this much of the time: sauntering down the street when we are nervous, speaking loudly when feeling bold, slumping at work when overwhelmed, or gritting our teeth in the face of an argument.

When we practice yoga we cultivate the ability to concentrate the mind so that as we move into various physical postures, we begin to notice our habitual patterns of holding within our own body. Say, for example, you are doing a twist. As you deepen into the pose, your attention drops down and you observe the processes going on within your body and mind. You may also start to explore different movements you always make and theories you have regarding the composition of this particular pose. Churn these thoughts, feelings, and sensations back and forth as you would blend butter with an old-fashioned hand churn, folding them into the pose and drawing them back out with your mind to mix them back in again.

As you work the pose you may start to experience unfamiliar sensations, patterns of deep conditioning that are buried deep within your body. You may have sensations of attachment and also of repulsion to whatever is arising. These habitual patterns and sensations are called samskaras. Sam means “to collect together” and kara refers to activities, deeds, or, in this case, things that are made of patterns. Samskaras are the subpatterns that are collected together into universal patterns and then held deep inside the body. Our ego structure is intimately tied into these unconscious configurations, and any good yoga practice takes us right into the heart of our own samskaras: it takes us into our deepest pockets of habit.

Any good yoga practice takes us right into the heart of our own samskaras: it takes us into our deepest pockets of habit.

The initial impulse for most of us when faced with our own samskaras is to turn away: “Anything but this!” The urge is to run in the opposite direction as fast as possible rather than to deal with habitual ways of perceiving and reacting, because our chronic ways of responding are familiar and comfortable. We tend to be creatures of habit, and each of us has unique ways of looking at ourselves and at the world, ways that probably long ago settled within us. These patterns of perception are the result of grasping onto certain things we believe we need or want, and rejecting other things we believe to be of no use to us or things we imagine are going to hurt us.

Deep in the core of the body there is often a kind of anxiety that bubbles up right under the surface of our conscious experience because of our preconceptions about what is good or bad, right or wrong, needed or not needed. The anxiety emerges because a genuine perception of what is actually happening in the present moment is arising, but it is colored by our habitual ways of perceiving—our samskaras. Consequently, much of our life is spent avoiding the undercurrent of anxiety that surfaces as we place a mask of happiness (or tragedy) over what, on a deeper level, we are actually aware of—the present moment.

With practice we learn to observe these brief little moments of anxiety before they are covered up by the avoidance habits of the mind. The content of our observation could be wonderful, bright, and happy, or it could be absolutely miserable, but nonetheless we stick with it and watch it with an open mind and an open heart. This is the foundation of the practice—that we simply train ourselves to observe the presentation of the mind, the vritti, whatever it is and whenever it drifts into our conscious awareness.

Honing this observational skill within asana, pranayama, and meditation practice, we eventually discover that there is far more to the practices than we might initially have thought. We find that more important than getting into a remarkably deep backbend, or holding our breath for five minutes, or chanting an entire ancient text from memory, is the power of clear observation. We notice that with practice we become increasingly skilled at noticing the content of our mind before we project its pattern out into our bodies and the world. Most important of all is that we observe our vrittis as they surface, witnessing what is actually arising through the haze of our samskaras of perception.

We find that more important than getting into a remarkably deep backbend, or holding our breath for five minutes, or chanting an entire ancient text from memory, is the power of clear observation.

With this type of “in the moment” observation, which is an essential technique in any yoga practice, we slowly begin to break through the most deeply rooted and intimate forms of conditioning that keep us stuck in unhealthy, ineffectual, and unhappy circumstances within our life. The breakthrough happens when we fully comprehend that our conditioned ways of perceiving the world are not only habits of memory, as if we were haunted by dreams, but that they are also physical patterns that over time have rooted themselves in our flesh and in the deepest layers of muscular patterning within our body. When we have a direct experience of this intimate connection between our mind and our physical body, we can then let go and recondition the body, enabling us to be receptive to whatever is arising rather than reacting to it habitually and thereby potentially missing its essence. This process unravels our experience in a way that is exhilarating and joyous, releasing all the accumulated tensions, anxieties, and incomplete experiences that have built up over our lifetime.

As we pay attention to what is arising in this way, we create what is called tapas,or heat. This is not necessarily a physical heat; it is a metaphorical burning, an awakening to what is really happening within the mind or the perceptions. When people first experience tapas, there is often a sense of discomfort, a desire to squirm away from the situation because it is so authentic; it is as if the border of life is being eaten away by fire. But if we stick with the observational practice, if we do not run away when we reach the juncture where tapas first arises, then we can gain an incredible insight into the fact that all things do change.

Simple, clear observation allows us to cut through our own layers of programming, preconception, and habitual perception. When our samskaras are suspended, instead of experiencing a sense of anxiety due to tension between our projections and the truth, we may experience a deep sense of physical relief within the body—the glorious feeling of the residue of truth. It is really quite straightforward.

As we continue to practice yoga we find that sometimes we are able to observe closely without much influence from our habitual patterns, and we also become aware of those times when we are driven completely by our old habits of mind and body. Gradually we train both body and mind to be awake, and, little by little, we decondition ourselves from the habits that keep us dull and stuck in the routine of our own suffering. We cultivate the ability to observe clearly rather than using an iron hand to squelch the urges driven by our samskaras. Our very own body, which is immediately available to us, becomes a laboratory of consciousness, a field of exploration into the truth of our own existence so that, figuratively speaking, our body becomes a temple for open awareness.

About the Teacher

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