Healing as Transformation
healing - reconnecting body, mind, and spirit as a vibrant whole - requires
us to break out of our confining habit patterns. The key lies in transforming
how we experience our energy-and how we use it.
We all have acquired deeply rooted habits of energy deployment. Since, for the most part, our use of energy is not conscious, neither are those habits. The whole matter is managed outside awareness-automatically, so to speak. This can sometimes make our emotional and energetic patterns seem inevitable. We say, "That's just the way I am." While self-acceptance is the hallmark of maturity and wisdom, there are certain aspects of personality that cause so much grief and suffering they merit a different attitude.This is a case where I defer to the insight and skill of traditions such as the Tantric, which have made an intensive study of energy dynamics and have distilled techniques for breaking out of confining habit patterns. The core maneuver here is based on an appreciation of the nature of energy and its characteristic tendencies-specifically, what it will do if not automatically expended.
Tantric masters observed that if you let the urge to act build, it gathers more and more intensity and energy. If not able to express in its usual way, it will eventually "explode"-burst out of the confines of the habit pattern. There's a lot of power in this explosion, and like the combustion of vaporized gasoline in the cylinder of an automobile engine it can be harnessed. I'd heard about this, but only grasped its full import when I stumbled on the phenomenon during meditation:
I was in Lucknow, in northern India, living in the household of a professor at the Ayurvedic College. Sitting cross-legged for my evening practice, I had adjusted my posture so that I was upright, and would not require effort to maintain the position, aside from a minimal exertion of the muscles along the spine-which was fine, since that brought my attention to the central axis of my body. I went through my program of systematic relaxation, releasing, as much as I could, the tension in all the other muscles. Then I regulated my breath so that it was essentially diaphragmatic and smooth. Then I turned my attention to my mind.
It was not quiet, the way it should be after all that laborious preparation. In fact, it was fit to be tied. It assailed me mercilessly. "What is the point of this? How can you be so stupid? Can't you see the absurdity of sitting here like an inanimate object? Are you going to let yourself be talked into self-torture? Just get up and forget about this nonsense!"
The urge to move was like a physical irritation. The building crescendo of voices was overwhelming. Doggedly I focused on relaxing my body, which had begun to tense up again. I tried to quiet my tightening breath. Like the parent of restless, screaming kids, I rushed about, calming, soothing. But the rising tension was undeniable. I felt hot, almost on fire. I was sure something would burst. And then it did.
After what seemed like an explosion in my head, I suddenly found myself in a quiet place. A wave of tranquillity and bliss lifted me to a place where I could see myself more clearly. My body was at peace. I was amazed by what had happened. In a fraction of a second, everything had shifted.
What I had experienced was a taste of tapas. It involves bringing into play an energy-invested impulse, in this case the urge to move, and then electing not to express it in routine or habitual fashion.
Tapas is like an internal
version of Gandhi's passive resistance strategy. You refuse to be moved, and
the immense power that is mobilized around your refusal to move tends to get
transmuted. Only here, it's all playing out inside you. Your past actions are
prompting you for continuation, but you're declining to cooperate, to accede
to the impulse. All the force connected with that behavior, and more, builds
and builds the longer you decline. Finally it turns into liquid fire-a potent
stream of powerful energy.
At some point the energy you're choosing not to express finds another route. What typically happens is that you feel sudden heat. It's like a fire. The word tapas carries the connotation of burning, and it's perhaps from the use of this technique that we get the idea of "burning off karma." Your past actions, or karma, are pushing for control and you're blowing their circuits. It may be a sexual feeling that is arising, or it could be hunger, or anger, or anything surrounded by a significant charge of energy.
So, once more in a nutshell, here's how it works: You feel the energy, you contain the energy, consciously and deliberately choosing not to express it in the customary way. When it attempts to move through its habitual channel, toward its usual goal, you say, "No, I don't think so . . ." and you wait. It boils. It rattles its cage and gets furious. Finally it explodes upward to find another outlet. If a bit of foundation has been laid, for example, by practicing breathing up the spine, its movement will be in that direction, bumping the energy up to a higher chakra. It's an exhilarating and empowering experience.
When I describe the containment aspect of tapas, audiences are often skeptical. "Isn't this just repression?" I'm asked. "Denying your impulses can't be healthy." But the energy isn't denied here-or the action it's trying to push. You've just made a conscious decision to deactivate a particular habit. And the energy is contained, amplified and allowed to force open a new pathway.
By contrast, when you repress or deny, you simply shove the impulse out of your awareness. It keeps trying to express itself, and if you refuse to let it have its usual way, it will find another indirect way. That expression may look different on the surface, but it's really only a new version of the same old behavior. You don't notice that because you've turned a blind eye to the whole matter.
The energy transmutation of tapas, on the other hand, demands total awareness. You are very conscious of the impulse and your usual response to it. You simply choose not to let it move into expression. This choice brings your inner impulse back to life. Spanda (the spontaneous expression of your deepest, most authentic urge) is revived and empowered. The energy it needs for expression is rescued from its circular trap. You contain the building energy and allow it to move you only when your sharpest discrimination senses that it is ready to burst forth into an authentic and fulfilling course of action or thought-one that will propel you into a new way of being.
As a result, you will enjoy a freshness and genuine spontaneity to your actions that makes each moment both authentic and surprising. Without this, what passes for spontaneity is only a counterfeit. It's not the adventurous creativity that is the essence of life, but instead the dull routine of ingrained habit carrying you toward ennui and loss of vitality.
Although even your most genuinely spontaneous response is to some degree a reflection of your unresolved issues, what is creative about it is the way it contributes to living through the experiences needed to move past those issues. Without employing some version of tapas, you remain prey to habits you wish you could change because they carry you nowhere. Without some radical measure, those habitual patterns, rooted in the unconscious, are continually reinforced by the actions they prompt, so that the lion's share of your energy is tied up in a circular chain of action, reaction, frustration, and resentment. Breaking out of this only requires a bit of skillful attention.
Energy moves where you
have created a groove for it. Breathwork establishes pathways that are familiar
and well traveled. The movement of energy up the axis, the central nadi, becomes
freer as you lend the sweep of your attention to sharpen and accentuate its
flow. What interrupts that current is diverting energy out into issues related
to a specific chakra. For example, you may decide to contain the energy at the
second chakra, and not to expend it through habitual, no-longer-satisfying sexual
activity, when suddenly you'll notice a lot of activity one stop up, at the
solar plexus. You'll feel aggressive, irritable, fiery, and want to hit your
roommate over the head.
That doesn't mean you've somehow failed. Maybe you need to hit your roommate over the head-figuratively if not literally. Maybe expressing the assertive energy of the third chakra is the next item on your life's agenda. But at some point that, too, begins to get old. So you say to yourself, "Hmm, I've run through three roommates now, and this is a bit of a drag." What was an exploration has become a self-defeating habit. At that juncture, you may choose to haul out the tool we've called tapas and jack up the energy another notch. Now you're set to deal with the matter of compassion and nurturance (fourth-chakra issues) in your life.
Of course this is a cartoon-like oversimplification of a sequence of events that will be much more complex, and therefore considerably less obvious, in real life. Boredom is not always conscious, and not every transmutation moves up to the next chakra. There will be multiple challenges at each, and they mesh and interdigitate in intricate ways, so that any given crisis or struggle may reflect issues that stem from several centers. Sometimes the shift has a more global feel, and often it's an illness that provides the occasion. This was true when Sky, my eldest son, came down with a severe case of chicken pox.
He was just hitting his teens and was discovering his considerable magnetism. Classmates adored him, and a movie talent scout invited him for an audition. He was especially attentive to his complexion-teenage zits were anathema. Then the chicken pox hit, and he was told that if he scratched the sores that covered his face, he would have scars. That was the last thing he wanted.
But Sky was not used to restraining himself. His desires were generally not unreasonable, but when he wanted something, he didn't take no for an answer. And he was a very physical type-athletic and always on the move. So, lying in bed, wanting desperately to scratch the intensely itchy chicken-pox pustules on his face, was torture. It could not have been more perfectly designed to arouse powerful impulses, with equally strong motives to resist them-a match, as it turned out, made in heaven.
Sky lay in bed for ten days, and he did not scratch. "I knew every movement of the leaves on the oak tree outside my window," he said, "and there was one branch, the closest, that become my friend." He had never had the experience of being so quiet and reflective for so long.
"It was the hardest thing I ever did," he observed afterwards. But he did it. The urge to scratch, and the energy that powered it, were contained, and rechanneled. And the effect was transformative. He became more thoughtful, more responsible. On every front, at school and at home, he matured in visible ways.
The atypical and unsuspected situations one is thrust into during illness can provide opportunities for significant developmental leaps. Moreover, often the disease itself is an expression of the habits in which you are stuck. The symptoms may represent repetitive, unconscious-driven, counterproductive patterns, evidence of stagnation and thwarted growth.
Simply staying with the discomfort unleashes all the impatience, the urge to escape, and the inner voices that demand quick-fix medications and an immediate way out. Containing and transmuting the energy beneath those impulses provides the heat, the fire, that powers the healing crisis. It may be only a shift in consciousness that lifts you out of the illness, or it may involve an actual fever that "cooks the disordered humors" or annihilates the microbes associated with disease.
We might say that disease is tapas thrust upon us when we have put it off endlessly. We have turned away the opportunity when it was optional, and now it's become mandatory. Of course, we can use suppressive medications to postpone it yet again. But each time it returns, it comes back with more insistence, with less room to escape.
In any case, it's the transmutational process of tapas that is the essence of the healing experience, whether it's the transformation and healing of a psychological disorder or the resolution of a physical illness. A magical confluence of polar opposites mix together here to create the mystery of healing.
The process hinges on your being fully in control, totally able to make a choice about how you deal with the crisis; at the same time, illness gives you the gift of helplessness-the overwhelming awareness that your way of being has, at least in some respects, failed.
You have pushed to your limits and you have come up empty-handed. This creates a moment when you are receptive to a spontaneous response from a much deeper level of being-what one might call grace-an inspired vision of the heretofore unimagined. It seems necessary to experience a certain sense of giving up, of surrender, in order to discover a totally new way of being and functioning. A homeopathic remedy-even the most skillfully chosen and deepest acting-cannot replace or obviate this process. Neither can the best acupuncture. But they can help you move through it more expeditiously and more gracefully. Cleansing can remove obstacles to this process, too, and breathwork can prepare you to let go more skillfully of the obstacles you might throw up that prevent energy from shifting and refocusing. Meditation allows you to discover the transmutation that can occur, and to taste a more encompassing consciousness.
The greatest leverage for
healing is found at the subtlest levels of function. If the specifics of physical
ailments are expressions of a hitch in a process of moving along life's path,
which is ultimately about the flowering of consciousness, then the mind can
either contribute to or sabotage this movement. If we can go directly to
the mind and deconstruct those automatic sequences that interfere with that
movement, and enhance those that are freeing, we will have a most effective
and efficient tool for healing.
But first it's necessary to stop identifying with the mind. The first step toward freeing yourself from the tyranny of mental habits is to realize that you are not limited to your mind. Without an experience such as meditation to familiarize you with consciousness beyond the mental, it is difficult to envisage the potential for "mindwork."
Contemporary man operates from such a firm assumption that he is his mind, that he is hard pressed to conceive of himself as distinct from it. Perhaps the biggest challenge for teachers from the East has been to address this issue effectively. A student with serious psychiatric problems once approached Swami Muktananda: "I've been hospitalized three times," she explained. "The diagnosis is schizophrenia or manic psychosis, they can't be sure. But I just lose it. My husband found me in the bus station at 4:00 a.m. It made sense to me at the time-going there, I mean. But then I was so upset when he tried to take me home that he had to call an ambulance and they put me in restraints." She stopped, out of breath. "I guess I'm a mess," she said plaintively, expecting, it seemed, for the Indian teacher to either deny that or to share her hopelessness. But he did neither.
Instead, he nodded his head in agreement. "It's true," he said. "Your mind is crazy." Then he paused for emphasis and added, "But you're not."
Muktananda was inserting a wedge between the mind and its owner. Instead of being dragged back and forth by the mind's currents and crosscurrents and acting or reacting to them, by simply entertaining the possibility of a consciousness broader than that busy activity, you open new doors. But this possibility hinges on your ability to maintain a clear distinction between the limited, ego-dominated mind and the larger, more encompassing consciousness, of which this mind is only a small part. Beginning meditators often express frustration at their inability to "empty the mind." But emptying the mind is not necessary. Simply sitting and beginning to experience the functioning of the mind from another awareness is the revolutionary move that is the basis of genuine awareness.
I struggle with words to communicate this sense of a consciousness that includes the mind, but does not separate itself from it. Some traditions speak of a "witness," and that term captures one aspect of the encompassing consciousness-that it can grasp the mind without being confined to it. But, like the notion of the "observer," it is tricky and can lead you off on a tangent. It is of very limited use to withdraw from the mind, to create a new-and again separate-consciousness that "sees" the mind, but only from outside.
Such splitting is contrary to the principle of healing as reconnection and making whole. In this case, separating off an observer may result in a detachment that undermines your capacity to experience fully, or to absorb in an integrated way, the impact of your emotional experiences. In other words, you may end up "in your head," and not entirely present to life's lessons. What is needed is a "relationship with the mind" that subsumes it at the same time it goes beyond it.
Should we call this new, more encompassing awareness "the witness," "the observer," "the expanded ego which is no longer egotistical," or what? Each one fails us in some significant way. Confusion stems from the fact that your sense of "I" is constantly evolving during healing work. Always seeking to disentangle yourself from a more limited identity, to contain it, and yet be larger than that, you will forever be discarding one label after another.
In any case the limited mind is the part of you that gathers and collates information, and it may misrepresent or distort that data according to its idiosyncrasies and disorders. Because of its potential for distortion and confusion, your limited mind has become an obstacle to your growth and evolution, leading you off on tangents and creating unnecessary crises and conflicts that drain your energy. But, running well and cleared of glitches, it can be a vital asset, for the mind also serves as a gatekeeper for the vaster consciousness that lies beyond it. Since it takes in information, or turns away from it, it can be a valuable filter. If garbage is let in, it not only comes out later as speech and behavior, but also clogs the inner world with distractions and impediments. The mind can learn to function as an efficient checkpoint officer-letting in only what might be of benefit and screening out what would not. Just as you learn to pick and choose what you eat, you can train your mind to pick and choose what it takes in. When you move on to explore the inner recesses of the world of consciousness, much of what you will stumble over is what you carelessly put in.
The mind also needs cleansing, exercise, and rest. But it needs these in the lighter, less effortful mode of releasing negativity, and of letting the mind find its natural rhythms of dance and rest. Once the mind is in reasonable condition, functioning well, without chaos and crises to preempt your attention, you will find it easier to allow your awareness to be shifted out of the mental field, to cease identifying with it, and to establish your consciousness in a position from which much healing integration can be accomplished. This shift results from movement to a more inclusive perspective.
To extricate your identity
from the chatter and busyness of the mental field requires a new "relationship
with yourself." Though you cannot will it into existence, you can create the
conditions that will encourage that to happen.
Eliminate distractions. Sit quietly, relax your muscles-at least the surface muscles. The core or intrinsic muscles along the spine will need to be exerted a bit to hold you in that erect posture that encourages the energy to move up-and, of course, using them tends to bring your consciousness to the axis of your being. This encourages an integrated consciousness-one that will help you rise above the apparent contradictions of polarities. A position that will allow you to align your head, neck, and trunk comfortably will prove most effective.
Regulate your breath. Make sure the breath is diaphragmatic-this is a time when a calming breath is essential. Focus at a point between the nostrils, to equalize their flow as much as possible. Then breathe up the spine on inhalation, feeling the higher centers wake up a bit. Once your physical body is at ease, and your energy body is humming along rhythmically and comfortably, you might focus your attention on a mental sound, or mantra. If you've never been given one, use the universal mantra so hum, thinking so on inhalation and hum on exhalation. This draws your point of orientation upward and inward, so that your ability to be conscious of the inner world is enhanced. If you wish, you can also rest your attention on the space between the eyebrows, the area of the sixth chakra, to support your ability to see clearly within.
Once all that is in place, your posture, breathing, sound, and point of orientation established, you are well positioned to fully experience the inner you. You may survey your body-is it calm and relaxed? What's going on with your heart, your intestinal tract, and your breath? What is happening with the currents of energy? Is there a perceptible upwelling of energy when you inhale? If not, can you "allow" it to happen more? And finally, check out your mind. What's it up to?
Chances are, it will be chattering away. Your job, remember, is simply to be with it-as though you flipped channels and happened to tune in to your own mental process. The more you are free from doing, the more is revealed to you. This non-doing establishes a beachhead beyond the mind on the shores of a vast inner consciousness that remains to be explored. Already, from this new vantage point, you can begin to assimilate the simple but revolutionary fact that your mind is not you. Your mind may be an instrument, but it is not who you are. Its faults and foibles may be silly or endearing; they can be seen through or appreciated, as you might appreciate a drama acted out before you, or the squalls and storms, sunrises, and cloud formations of the weather's spectacle.
Declining to operate from a single, ego-related level of awareness allows another to "flow in" and replace it. This is tapas in action: a limited consciousness gives way to one that is more encompassing. If you stick with this inner exploration, you will increasingly discover a new identity-one that is less separate because it's more connected to a pervasive Spirit, to a buoying matrix of universal and unconditional love. This discovery is at the core of your radical healing.
Rudolph Ballentine, M.D.,
Is director of the Center for Holistic Medicine in New York City. He lectures extensively in the United States and abroad and has written several books including Diet and Nutrition: A Holistic Approach and Transition to Vegetarianism: An Evolutionary Step, and is coauthor of Yoga and Psychotherapy.
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