Mindfulness of mindfulness

I have been itching to continue to share some of the conversations started at the yoga australia conference. Last newsletter I shared from the panel I was part of Power abuses. I hope you managed to hear the interview on the spirit of things on Radio National. Yoga has been getting a lot of good press lately, not just on RN, but generally. And another very hot topic has been the health benefits of yoga and meditation, but there are some things we need to be aware of when pursuing these practices deeply.


The physical benefits are well known – fitness gains, and the mindful extension of range of movment and strength in the body. Generally the mental health benefits are reduction in anxiety and depression and there has been a lot of research on the meditative side of yoga. What has interested me for a while though is how meditation has been taken out of it's spiritual context – for better or for worse?


On the upside, leaving out the spirituality has made meditation accessible to folks that are not interested in the spiritual side of things or who have specific religious beliefs. Yoga based meditation is focussed on relaxation of the body, acceptance and non-judgemental awareness. Used as an adjunct to psychological therapy or within the context of meditation based therapies which have their own directive, meditation can bring clarity to the mind that aids management of many psychological disorders. In life coaching, schools and business take advantage of this clarity to reduce stress, bring better work/life balance and lead to greater efficiency in our activities.


Be aware though that the activities we choose to focus meditative benefit on may not always be in line with social harmony. For instance, the japanese army used meditation to improve the focus of their soldiers for killing. Also meditation doesn't automatically make us 'better' people. Lynne Malcom's interviews on RN spoke about how meditation taught in prison lead to a reduction in psychological distress of participants, but by itself didn't necessarily decrease violent tendencies or criminal offences. Of course the nature of research is to isolate and control influential variables, rather than respond to individuals that would happen in a normal clinical setting. The complex social and personal circumstances that land people in jails might require more than group meditation to address. So these may be some of the possible misuses that we need to be aware of.


Traditionally yoga has been a spiritual practice shared as a path of awkening, knowing 'God', realizing a unity beyond the individual self. Although acknowledged to have therapeutic side effects, the intention is still on this awakening. In most instances there are clear ethical guidelines that go alongside and often are pre-requisite to deeper meditation practice.


In our innocence current applications of meditation for physical or mental health benefit are providing a great service to people in need and are alleviating suffering. I think it is very important though to consider who the teachers of these practices and what the intention behind the practice is and to have a check of a trusted teacher on our own intention.


For instance well qualified are:

  • psychologists/therapists/counsellors that are using the practices within the construct of a selfless psychological therapy and are trained to do so, with people with mental health issues. Ideally they have walked to hard ground in their own meditation practice.

  • yoga and meditation teachers in transparent lineages that have many years of training and supervision with their teachers and many, many more years of practice also under guidance of their qualified teachers.

  • If it's within a spiritual context religious leaders from respected 'churches/ashrams' that have the appropriate training within their doctrine and may be delivering it within a shared religous framework.


Keep your discerning mind active when getting involved with teachers that are a little more fringe to the mainstream. Many will be fine. Can't find the book to quote directly, but Jack Kornfield gives some very good guidelines for those seeking teachers. (A Path with Heart).


My pointers are:

  • Don't sign over your life savings or promise your first born to anyone promising a quick path into secret mystical, magical teachings that will take away your suffering.

  • Look at the behaviour of the teacher and their relationships with their current students.

  • Be aware of anything 'secret' that requires you to slowly (sneakily manipulates) give away your power, discernment and possessions.

  • Be very suspicious of such lines "...so lets keep this between us... you are the only one ready for these teachings" spoken by the charismatic teacher who is sleeping with all his students, telling each of them they are special.


Returning to intention. The path of yoga is to know yourself. "What you are you already are. By knowing what you are not, you are free of it and remain in your own natural state" (Nisardagatta Maharaj). It may sound harsh, but often we come to yoga to avoid some physical or mental suffering and in desparation we may take on anything to alleviate that suffering. The practice of yoga is to realise your innate perfection. If we are using teachings outside this context of yoga we need to remain vigiliant to be aware of the values that are driving us and the motives and clarity in regard to this in the teachers we consult.


Good writers/teachers on this topic are Jack Kornfield – books 'A path with heart' and 'After the esctasy the laundry'. On facebook check out Love, Serve, Remember – Ram Das' blog and my favourite meditation manual is Red Hawks Self Observation.

RN The Spirit of Things - Yoga Ethics

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