Feeling Mind / Thinking Mind

One of the particular strengths of yoga and tai chi is the way that each helps us to become more consciously connected to the feeling mind, the part of us that tells us how we are feeling and often prompts us to do something about it.  At its most basic, it tells us things like “drink some water, you’re thirsty” or “move that leg or it cramps up.”  It is the sensing and motivating part, the purpose behind action or non-action.

If the feeling mind is about our needs and desires, the thinking mind is about our decisions, abstract ideas, creativity, and reasoning.  It is the mind that makes plans, imagines, tells stories about the past and future, problem solves, and anticipates threats.  It makes the plan to drink water or stretch the leg.  It is the doing and creating part, taking action (or resisting action) in response to a purpose.

While the thinking mind and feeling mind are two sides of the same coin, we tend to privilege the thinking mind because we DO a lot in the modern world. Our schedules give us little time to pause and notice how we are feeling, what we need, and why we are doing what we are doing.  As a result of this neglect of the feeling mind, we sometimes reach a point of pain or injury, like getting a headache because we didn’t have enough water, or a leg cramp from sitting at a desk too long.  You can even imagine how the habitual neglect of the feeling mind could lead to chronic problems in the body, especially when coupled with stress from worrying about problems with the thinking mind.  Neglecting our deeper emotions can create even more serious issues.

Practicing yoga, tai chi, and other mindfulness exercises can potentially help address this imbalance.  Not only do they promote health, they also require an attention to the feeling mind in each posture or movement.  Through this attention, we, as practitioners, can become more conscious of our bodies in daily life, learning to better address imbalances before they become problems–or to mitigate problems if they arise.  We also learn to move the body in healthier ways and develop good enough posture to be still without creating undue stress on the body.  Thus, the feeling mind can become wise and instructive, ideally leading to better self-care.

Additionally, when we take good care of the body, it becomes a more stable, comfortable platform for developing the feeling mind in meditation. Through meditation, we can settle the thinking mind for a time and allow the feeling mind to potentially recognize deeper needs and desires for what they are and develop insight into their origins.  Ultimately, that insight can help us to recognize how the thinking mind should respond (or not respond) to our deeper feelings, which are less accessible than thirst or stiffness.  At that level, we can potentially see what actions are worth taking and when simply feeling without reacting can lead to better outcomes.

The Art of Beginning Again

The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions is a good one.  It’s all about leaving behind the baggage of the previous year and deciding to improve at something, add something positive to our life, or otherwise change for the better.

Most of us who make them, though, don’t keep them longer than 6 months, and about a quarter of us don’t make it through the first week, according to Statistic Brain.  This sounds a lot like my own experience; even when I set a reasonable, specific, achievable goal, I have never made a life-long habit out of the resolution.

So is there a point to making them?  Certainly.  Resolutions are almost always about making a positive change in our lives.  Even if we “fail” at them, we have lost nothing by trying, and, for the vast majority of us, we’ve gained at least one week of positive change, whether that’s eating healthier, spending more time with family and friends, starting a new hobby, volunteering more of our time or doing some other activity that helps us or others. The only negatives of New Year’s resolutions for most of us are that we feel discouraged when we don’t keep them–possibly leading to abandoning them entirely– or we put off returning to them until the next New Year.

Of course, annual self-criticism doesn’t need to be a part of the tradition, and we don’t have to wait until the next trip around the sun to hit the New Year’s reset button.  In fact, we’d be better served if we could make any day we want the beginning of a new year, a time to accept our losses, and start anew.

Fortunately, there is no limit to the amount of times we can restart from the beginning.  Meditation is sometimes called “the art of beginning again” partially because meditation teachers realize that failure is inevitable when we do something challenging.  Given enough time, we all make mistakes, we all falter on our path, and we all fail to achieve perfection.  The beautiful thing about the New Year’s tradition is that it reminds us of this basic fact, that we can begin again and do better.

We can carry this awareness with us each day.  Moreover, if you practice yoga, tai chi, meditation, or any other art that requires dedication and focus over a long time, the art of beginning again is essential.  It’s essential not only because we sometimes lose motivation, don’t have the time, or have other events take precedence in our lives, but because there is little, if anything, we can do continuously.  We can’t hold a posture forever, every tai chi sequence comes to an end, and our minds inevitably drift when we sit on our meditation cushions. Our practice of beginning again is necessary for all kinds of human endeavors, and self improvement is no exception: it is a natural pattern, perhaps as necessary as having to breathe out so we can breathe in.   

Pre-Finals Stress Relief!

Karissa Spiller, a resident assistant at UW-Platteville, invited me to teach a yoga and meditation class on December 13th.  It was a great time, and I was encouraged by how readily residents agreed to set aside the pressures of studying to take care of themselves.  So often in our daily lives we get “too busy” to sleep, eat, exercise, or spend time with family or friends.  We learn to ignore the wisdom of our bodies to get more done, not realizing that we are far more efficient, intelligent, creative, and effective when we are rested, calm, and healthy.  These students have a lot to teach us!

I write this conscious of the irony that I spent most of yesterday working on this website, frustrated, delaying my meals, hardly standing up to walk around, and certainly not taking the time to practice yoga or meditation.  While I got back on the horse this morning with my yoga routine and a short meditation, it’s a good reminder about two things in our yoga practice: 1) we generally need it most when we are least inclined to practice, and 2) we will inevitably fall out of practice from time-to-time,  perhaps especially when we need it.

These two points are intimately related because every time we “fail” to do something, including doing yoga, we can stand to learn something, and since we are mostly likely to fail at practicing yoga when we most need it, we are presented with the opportunity to learn every time we find ourselves overwhelmed, overworked, or over-stressed.  We either stay on our schedule and more fully appreciate how yoga supports us in difficult moments, or we fall out of our routine and more fully appreciate how the absence of yoga feels in our bodies and minds.

But perhaps the most important thing is to not chastise ourselves for not doing what we feel we should have.  While we are taught by our culture that punishment corrects behavior, in fact, research suggests that being hard on ourselves actually makes us less likely to be motivated to change and that practicing self-compassion is more likely to help us improve.  This reminds me of a meditation teacher I had who said that meditation is “the art of beginning again”; since we are imperfect and sometimes our schedules and life pressures don’t allow us to be our best selves, we are best served by an ability to accept our failure, learn from it, and start over fresh.  And do it again. And again.  And again.  Eventually we will develop a habit that helps us to change for the better, and when we inevitably fail, we’ll “fail better,” to quote Samuel Beckett, and become more skillful and compassionate with ourselves and others.