Before working on a problem, one must first admit that it exists. America’s most recent slew of police gun violence against people of color brought this conclusion from The Daily Show’s Noah Trevor, and I couldn’t agree more. But what I think this and most other analyses of violence in America fail to see is that violence is not only external. It begins inside each of us. Whatever appears in our words and actions first appears in thought. And our own reactions to life are really responses to internal experiences. In order to bring about the revolution toward love and compassion for all beings on our tiny planet, humans must first know their own internal landscapes. Certainly, we should all be working to change the world through exercising our rights as citizens. But in order to make wide-spread change that will stop the impulse toward violence, we must also set aside time to identifying and observe our own reactions.
Let me back up a step and explain how I got to this point. For the past ten years, I have practiced yoga. In my first savasana I felt comfortable in my own skin–a strange sensation since at that time I was immersed in clinical depression. I began craving yoga classes and gobbling up different types of yoga, from Kundalini to Vinyasa. After seeing how my yoga practice was moving me quite naturally toward self-acceptance and self-awareness, I decided the best way to guarantee that I would do yoga every day (which I recognized as necessary for my own health, sanity, and personal growth), was to become a yoga teacher.
What began from a very selfish place soon transformed. While I was indeed a happier, more centered person from practicing yoga regularly, I also noticed a special energetic echo from teaching yoga. I cherished observing students in what I consider their best moments–moments of struggle, challenge, doubt–moments when it’s so easy to run away or numb out. I was inspired to see people striving to stay present to all of it, the pretty and the ugly parts of themselves. I soon felt as “addicted” to the bliss of helping others practice as I was to my own practice.
My awareness of the importance of regular, personal yoga and meditation practice grew through a retreat experience. Over the winter holidays, I spent ten days in silent meditation, learning and practicing Vipassana meditation. That style of meditation teaches that any action we take is precipitated by an internal response. Whatever strong emotions arise, we can move toward purposefully choosing our own responses by dedicating time every day to seated meditation.
That retreat reiterated the importance of personal, daily practice, and upon returning I prioritized regular seated meditation. Of course, it’s not always easy for me to set aside time for sadhana (personal practice). But I notice when I am able to practice regularly on my own (in addition to taking classes) I am much kinder to others and myself. I am better able to see my own negative mental and emotional patterns. And I am better able to take a deep breath before blurting out a hurtful comment or automatic judgement.
This fall, I will be sharing tools for inner awareness with elementary students in NE Portland at a local elementary school. In a part-time position teaching yoga to K-5 students, I will have the chance to teach breathing exercises, yoga postures, and mindfulness techniques to help students stay present. I will be focusing on how yoga can help us learn to stay present even when big emotions and automatic reactions arise. It is my goal that this work will help influence the next generation to choose awareness over violence. I hope that my work helps others feel more peaceful and more compassionate toward themselves and others.
These days, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by and powerless in the face of violence. Taking political action, volunteering, educating family members and friends–these are all healthy ways to feel better about the state of our world. But the ultimate shift toward worldwide love will not come until we also learn how to effect change from the inside out, through personal awareness practice, whether that is seated meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or other practices that help us feel present to our own physical, emotional, and mental experiences.
How do you stay present in the face of overwhelming emotions? How do you practice peace in your daily life? I would love to get a conversation started! Comment below.