Dedicated to Frances Basham 1
The world is changing rapidly once again. Within two weeks, we are now witnessing a whole new world order. We’ve barely had time to re-orient ourselves to the seismic shifts of the last two years and now we are facing more alarming developments. As the media churns out really distressing scenes of the invasion of Ukraine, it might be helpful (if we are able) for us to take a little break from the news. The practice of breath awareness and meditation can help us to take ownership of where we place our attention, regulate our nervous systems and enable us to find much-needed balance within and without.
Responses to Threat
When faced with a threat, humans tend to move into one of two fear states. Put simply, we gear up to flee or fight, or we curl up and play dead. If these states are heightened and prolonged, this can lead to anxiety or depression. If we, or our loved ones, are actually facing the threat these reflexes do have some useful purpose. The sympathetic mode (fight or flight) allows us to mobilise our resources and do what needs to be done in an emergency. The dorsal vagus mode (curl up and play dead) helps us to rest, hide or process deep losses.
Choosing our Energy State
Most of us reading this are not directly affected by the invasion of Ukraine. Yet, the constant barrage of harrowing news will affect our autonomic nervous systems in a similar albeit less intense way, particularly if we have a high level of empathy. At this time, we really need to be rational, engaged and open to solutions. Going into either of the two fear states weakens our ability to think clearly, calmly and compassionately. However, if we are privileged enough to be able to choose our energy state at this time, and we choose wisely, we can become agents of deep and positive change. The ventral vagus mode of our nervous system enables us to “listen to connect” and in this process find common ground. In this state, we can find pathways to peace.
Fears and Illusions
In yoga philosophy, the whole manifest reality is viewed as illusory. This is a fairly difficult concept to grasp for most people. Easier to accept is the idea that if we are in a fear state, when we are not facing an actual threat, then we are certainly caught up in an illusion. These days our nervous systems are hijacked by the news, social media, violent films and computer games, all of which simulate reality and cause us to respond to them as if they are real. The Sanskrit term for illusion, maya means magic or sorcery. Maya is akin to the world created in the Wizard of Oz. In this technicolour dream world it is easy to get caught up in delusion, danger and dazzling beauty, but nothing is quite as it seems.
Is the New Normal Hypernormal?
These simulated realities are part of an extreme version of maya that is embedded in our culture, what Adam Curtis calls: Hypernormalisation. This is a term invented by a Russian anthropologist, Alexei Yorchak, to describe the paradoxes of life in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. Hypernormalisation is the process of maintaining a sense of a fake functioning society, a delusion accepted by everyone as there was no alternative. In his documentary films, Curtis explains how we in the West are subject to our own version of hypernormalisation. We are faced with massive problems such as climate crisis, global pollution, rampant corruption in government and yet no one seems to be able to do anything about it. We have not yet found an alternative, but our current systems are clearly failing abysmally.
Being on the Eagle’s Perch
Hypernormalisation is like a double whammy of illusion layered over illusion. Yet in the yoga philosophy the way to meet the problem is the same. We find the part of ourselves that is not illusory and thus, step out of the illusion. If we are able to observe reality, from the perspective of the witness consciousness we are able to see more clearly (free from our own desires, prejudices and fears). In this way we have a more powerful effect as we don’t feed the illusion. This takes awareness, self-regulation and compassion.
Stepping Out of Illusion
So, as tensions mount in the manifest world, (maya), we might take some time out from being subject to these fluctuating changes by becoming aware of our true nature, our individual consciousness (atman). This is of course the process of meditation. Through engaging our five senses and interoceptive awareness, we start to get a sense of being the observer. As we sense our body, breath, thoughts, feelings and environment, we witness the changing nature of maya. By becoming the witness, we realise that this part of us that is observing, is our unchanging ever-present awareness or atman.
The simple practice of breath awareness helps us to see the effect of consciousness on our physical environment. When we turn our full attention towards our breath, it spontaneously starts to slow down, becoming more smooth and fine. We are not making this happen with our mental, or physical being. Our breath slows down when we bring attention to it because maya (matter) responds to the light of awareness emanating from atman (consciousness).
Balancing the Field of Maya with Awareness
By observing our own field of energy we can create more balance within us. This is my understanding of the physical practice of yoga, using breath and our awareness to clear stuckness and find balance within our koshas (the illusory layers of that make up our manifest self – see my article here for a description of the koshas).
When we step out of the illusion and see our true nature (as Dorothy saw through the external appearance of her friends, and saw through to their essential nature within) we are able to witness the best part of ourselves, the place where we are whole, perfect and interconnected. This creates a shift in how we feel; we become less tense, contracted and fearful and more open and illumined. This is the state in which we are able to listen to connect and find the pathways to peace. We’re no longer subject to the illusion of our separateness.
Awareness of the Illusion of Business as Usual
The idea for this article came to me after meditating deeply within the field of illusion that is “business as usual” outside Parliament in Westminster last Monday morning. It is my hope that the invasion of Ukraine will expose much of the hypernormalisation that we are currently living with and lead us onto a path of positive change. Certainly, we will have to cut down our use of oil and gas. If any good at all can come of Putin’s action perhaps it will wake us up to the illusion of infinite growth on a finite planet. I hope so. If we can become aligned with the principles of truth, compassion and flexible adaptation, we might be better able to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Dear Yoga Student,
I hope you liked this week’s article. You are welcome to join the free meditation circle on Zoom on Monday mornings. This is a guided practice that will help you to establish your own practice.
Yoga itself is a moving meditation that balances your mind, body, energy and emotions. Choose a class that suits you here (both in-person and online)
A longer class helps to unpeel deeper layers of holding, leftover patterns from the fears states we’ve entered into through the course of our lives. Try a half-day workshop, or a full-day retreat. There are plenty of spaces left in both
Half-Day Workshop on Yoga for Neck Stiffness and Pain
Three-hour workshop at Union Church, Crouch End 1:15pm – 4:15pm; £35.00
Full-Day Retreat Deep Unwinding of Tension, Finding Peace and Clarity
Lauderdale House, Highgate, North London 10am – 5pm; £70
Please let me know if finances are a barrier to your attending yoga, we can work something out. Hope to see you in class soon!!
With love and good wishes,
Meditation and Activism
Last Monday’s 8 am Zoom meditation circle was live from the pavement next to Parliament Square as I sat with an incredible activist called Helen, from Beyond Fossil Fuels Together. If you feel inspired to join the vigil, you can sign up here, let me know and I’ll see if I can meet you there!
This article is dedicated to the late Francis Basham, a student and friend, who died on 7th June 2021. She often talked about the metaphorical meaning of the Wizard of Oz with the many young people she would give guidance to along their paths in life. Sending love and blessings to her soul, and to her daughter Tinuke.