I love this short BBC documentary from 1974 featuring sound healing pioneer Jill Purce, who I had on the podcast recently. Jill’s early work on the mystic spiral in various traditions (and nature) influenced everyone from German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to molecular biologist Francis Crick who discovered the helical structure of DNA. I love the slow pace of this film, how they allow the story to unfold gracefully, kind of like a spiral :-)
My teacher Mark would always say, “Be a flower blooming in your own garden.” It’s a lovely statement and I remember when I first heard it that it landed for me and felt like a truth but it’s taken me a long time to come to my own understanding of what it means. I find that sometimes the things we read in spiritual books or hear from teachers can take time to fully understand. “Be a flower blooming in your own garden” was a seed that was planted when the ground was fertile and took root. Over time, by cultivating that seed through daily practice, it has blossomed into my own understanding. Recently while teaching at an ayahuasca retreat I had the following insight.
When we are children, we are a small delicate seedling growing in the garden that our parents or caregivers cultivate and tend. For many of us, this ecosystem lacked all the nourishment and space we needed to grow into our fullest expression. As we grow older and go to school and enter into society, we often find that we’ve been transplanted into environments that restrict our growth or fail to provide nourishment in other ways. It’s not until we’re adults and out on our own that we finally have the opportunity to create our own garden that will provide us with everything we need to grow into our full potential. This is our responsibility as adults and it’s what is required if we want to grow beyond the limitations of the family and culture we were born into.
The soil of this garden is the unconditional love and acceptance that we may not have had when we were growing up, but which is needed for our true self to blossom. The nutrients for that soil are the lifestyle choices we make and the relationships we choose to engage in. The energetic and emotional release that happens through the breath and movement practices are like removing the weeds from your garden to create space to grow and light to come in. The awareness you develop is like the light of the sun, showing you not only your potential but also the areas that are restricted and need tending. A daily practice sends your roots deep, providing the resilience and support needed to survive challenging conditions when they arise like a storm of wind and rain.
Some people are naturally more like sunflowers, big and strong with a thick stalk. Some are more delicate like an orchid. Each person requires a different approach to practice just like every flower has different requirements for care. Sometimes if the garden hasn’t been tended to for some time, or if the environment we were raised in was especially harsh, we need to do some heavy labour to restore the nutrients in the soil and remove the overgrowth of choking weeds. This is where plant medicines like ayahuasca can be very helpful. A powerful medicine like ayahuasca has the ability to clear away the thorny brambles that we’ve cultivated as a protective barrier but which eventually block the light and restrict our room to grow. A daily practice is a way for you to maintain your garden, keep the weeds at bay and nourish the soil in which the flower of your true self can bloom into its full expression.
Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe
This morning a fellow teacher posted on Instagram about how a student recently asked her, “How does my yoga actually help with the conditioning that makes daily life difficult? And why does it matter how I do the yoga, exactly?” It’s a great question, and I thought I’d attempt to answer it based on my own experience.
On one level, a regular yoga practice can help to relieve the physical tension and mental-emotional stress that causes so much unnecessary suffering for many people. At this level, it’s a matter of basic self-care that everyone can benefit from if the practice is adapted to their particular needs.
On a deeper level, much of our suffering is due to a lack of meaning and purpose in life. Psychologists and philosophers are even saying that we’re currently experiencing a “meaning crisis” that’s responsible for the rise of anxiety, stress, depression, addiction and suicide in our modern world. But what do we even mean when we talk about “the meaning of life”? When I think about the question, “What is the meaning of life?” it seems like an intellectual exercise. It’s all in my head. And I don’t think the answer can be found in thoughts and concepts.
In Spanish, instead of “meaning of life” they say, el sentido de la vida — the sense of life — which gets us closer to understanding how practicing yoga in a particular way offers an answer to the meaning crisis. It’s something that is felt rather than understood. When I practice yoga by moving in unison with my breath, my awareness merges with the breath and my movement becomes an expression of the breath. I am fully embodied and at one with the pulse of life as it enlivens my whole being. At that point, the question “what is the meaning of life” simply dissolves. I am filled with el sentido de la vida, the felt sense of being fully alive. There are no more questions, and my mind settles into an alert and restful state. I am open to the fullness of life.
I think in our culture we’re conditioned to believe that life isn’t meaningful unless we’re suffering. Even the Buddha said, “Life is suffering”. No wonder so many Buddhists I meet are so solemn! Indian philosopher UG Krishnamurti said, “The plain fact is that if you don't have a problem, you create one. If you don't have a problem, you don't feel that you are living.” Sadly, I think this is true for many of us. Suffering = meaning.
A daily yoga practice, when approached with an attitude of non-striving and care, makes us more sensitive to our own condition and to the condition of others. We become more empathic to the joys and sorrows of life and realize that we only suffer when we become too attached to either pleasure or pain. We learn to relax into the flow of life and take things as they come. We find meaning in simply living life to its fullest. As my teacher Mark Whitwell would always say, we stop looking and start living.
You can also listen to this post at: https://medicinepathpodcast.com/podcast/s02e08-wakingupgrowingup
“There is a crack in everything,
that's how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen, Anthem
There are two aspects to personal transformation that are equally important: waking up and growing up.
Waking up starts with the recognition that we’re not living life to our fullest potential and that we’re suffering unnecessarily. For me, this was waking up to the fact that I was stuck in emotional and behavioural patterns that were causing conflict within myself and in my relationships. I could see that these patterns were causing me to react to things people said and did in a way that was creating a great deal of stress and anxiety for myself and others. I could also see how my attempt to manage that stress and anxiety through drinking and other behaviours was just adding to my problems. Being tired and hungover all the time made me more reactive and less able to handle the pressures and challenges of my job and personal life.
My coping strategies were no longer working for me and it was clear that I needed to find another way to live if I wanted to find happiness.
My coping strategies were no longer working for me and it was clear that I needed to find another way to live if I wanted to find happiness. Deep down I knew that it was time to take control of my life and free myself from the patterns that had been running the show for too long. I needed to turn off the autopilot and take the wheel, but I had no idea how to even find the off switch.
Like many people who have had a wake up call, I began to seek out ways to understand what was going on below the surface and find out what was causing all the turmoil in my life. This lead me to working with a counsellor who focused on dream analysis, committing to a regular yoga practice, and eventually working with ayahuasca for many years. Through these experiences I became aware of the deeper aspects of myself and began to make the connection between what I experienced in my body and what was going on in my mind.
As I started to unravel the tension and stress that I’d been holding in my body through a regular yoga practice, it brought up even deeper levels of anxiety and fear.
As I started to unravel the tension and stress that I’d been holding in my body through a regular yoga practice, it brought up even deeper levels of anxiety and fear that I experienced as panic attacks, which often came on while lying in shavasana. Because I didn’t have a relationship with a yoga teacher or somatic therapist to help me understand that this was all part of the healing process, it was a confusing and scary time.
I realized that I need some outside help and found a counsellor who had been trained in Jungian dream work. I’d always had a vivid dream life and somehow knew that I might find some pieces of the puzzle within my dreams. In my sessions with him, I discovered that my unconscious mind had been desperately trying to speak to me through my dreams and show me aspects of myself that I’d been hiding from for years. Through analyzing the images and symbols of my dream life, I began to see how the painful experiences of my childhood were the source of the fear, anger and resentment that had been causing so much distress and disharmony in my waking life.
Through analyzing the images and symbols of my dream life, I began to see how the painful experiences of my childhood were the source of the fear, anger and resentment that had been causing so much distress and disharmony in my waking life.
Encouraged by this work and wanting to go deeper, I returned to psychedelics, which I’d experimented with since I was a teenager, but never with the clear intention to learn about myself. In the first ayahuasca ceremony I attended, I had a profound experience of death and resurrection and a reawakening to my heart, which I realized I’d been disconnected from for many years. This experience gave me a taste of the freedom that was possible and put me back in touch with who I really was at my core, underneath all the stories and beliefs I held about myself. It was an incredibly freeing experience and after that, like magic, the urge to numb myself with alcohol simply evaporated.
This kind of awakening experience can certainly be, as it was for me, profoundly transformative and even create immediate shifts in how we think and behave, but it’s not the end of the road. As I came to see in the following days and months, “waking up” was just the beginning of a much longer process that I’ve come to think of as “growing up”.
As I came to see in the following days and months, “waking up” was just the beginning of a much longer process that I’ve come to think of as “growing up”.
My waking up experiences helped me break through the protective defenses I’d constructed early on to help me deal with the pain of the trauma I experienced as a kid. Breaking through allowed me to reconnect with my true self, but it didn’t make all the thought and behaviour patterns that I had developed in the wake of trauma simply go away. I came to see that early on in my life, I had made an agreement with myself that I would keep people at a distance to avoid further hurt and betrayal. Over the years I built a wall around myself, like a fortress protecting a wounded child king. Every defense mechanism, every avoidance tactic, every coping strategy was another brick in that wall. My awakening experiences may have briefly opened up an aperture and given me a glimpse of the freedom and potential for deep connection and peace that was possible, but it would take years to dismantle the wall, piece by piece, brick by brick. Every callous word that came out of my mouth, every emotional overreaction, every judgment and criticism, was showing me just how much work I still needed to do.
After we’ve had a taste of freedom, we need to do the work of unravelling the stories we tell about ourselves and the world and uncover the source of our reactive patterns and coping strategies if we want that freedom to last.
This is where ongoing psychological work comes in. After we’ve had a taste of freedom, we need to do the work of unravelling the stories we tell about ourselves and the world and uncover the source of our reactive patterns and coping strategies if we want that freedom to last. What I’ve found is that this is really a process of growing ourselves up, so that we’re not perpetually repeating the patterns that were programmed early on in our childhood. Whether we learned them from our parents or developed them to fit in with our family and schoolmates, these adaptations worked when we were kids, and in some cases were even necessary for survival, but at a certain point they keep us from developing real intimacy and experiencing lasting peace and fulfillment in our adult lives.
There are many ways to do the work of growing yourself up, and over the past number of years I’ve explored many of them, from The Work of Byron Katie, to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to Internal Family Systems, to body-centered psychotherapies like Hakomi and Somatic Experiencing, and most recently, an approach developed by Dr. Gabor Maté which elegantly synthesizes many of these modalities into something he calls Compassionate Inquiry.
So, if you’re wondering how to integrate your awakening experience and truly transform your life, I encourage you to explore all the myriad tools now available and seek out an experienced guide to help you navigate this process, preferably someone who has had an awakening experience and done the work of growing themselves up. If you want to improve your relationship with your spouse or find a life partner, seek out a guide who is in a long term relationship. If you want to learn how to be a better parent, find someone who has a good relationship with their kids. If you want to get along with co-workers better and find more fulfillment in your career, find someone who has been there and done that.
Whatever route you take, the bottom line is that while the profound awakenings experienced through yoga, meditation and psychedelics can offer us a taste of freedom and provide us with much-needed inspiration and hope, we need to get our hands dirty and do the work of dismantling the walls that limit us, piece by piece, brick by crumbling brick. It’s often uncomfortable and difficult work to face the fact that we’ve constructed our own prison, but it’s also liberating and empowering. After all, who’s better equipped to plot the escape from prison than the person who built it?
If you’re interested in going deeper into this work and think I would be a helpful friend and guide, I invite you to reach out and book a coaching session with me.
Painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1830
There’s a question that’s been floating around the yoga world for the past few years that asks, “what are we actually doing in asana?”. The question comes wrapped up in a whole critique on what’s been called modern postural yoga, and a movement to reassess the way yoga is taught and practiced in the West.