In recent years there has been great research and development in the fields of psychoanalysis, transpersonal psychology, and inter-personal growth. Each of these has had significant impact on me personally and from what I can see, culturally and globally as well. Just because you see a therapist or counsellor does not mean you are sick – at least no more than any person is. Just because you practice Asana does not mean you are healthy and integrated on an inter-personal level.
Personal growth work is one of the most vital and vibrant paths to self-realisation. This area of work is an aspect of spiritual practice that is often ignored or underrated by many Yoga practitioners.
The following article is asking you to view the word “feeling” in a new light. My aim is to push you to see beyond a limited view of spiritual practice, and to feel, as best you can, what I am writing.
There is nothing you do not feel. Whatever your experience may be, from sensation, to emotion, to thought, to pure awareness, there is always a base feeling there. At the highest level, there will be an absence of mind, yet undifferentiated consciousness has a “feel” to it. Being-ness is feeling-ness.
I would like to stress that observer consciousness is one important pathway – and is the masculine aspect of spirituality. The feminine aspect is through “undifferentiated feeling”. Although this phrase has a different slant to undifferentiated consciousness, it is a parallel and complementary path. It is important to embrace both of these energies and practices fully.
The risk of many observer consciousness practices, often unwittingly, is to be trapped in more mind, rather than its goal – the absence of mind. That is, the tendency to intellectualise everything and to disconnect from feeling, and therefore disconnect from the here and now. The risk of many feeling based practices, whether interpersonal work, Tantra Yoga, or devotional practices, is to romanticise the effect, to roll in the feeling state without some objectivity – to become emotional and attached to the experience.
I would like to make a point on the difference between emotion and feeling. If you can accept that feeling is a base experience, an emotion is where the mind has grabbed hold of the experience and manipulated it in some way. This tends to create an explosion or reaction that may be disproportionate to your actual reality. We either become disconnected and intellectual or emotional and dramatic. There is a middle way.
The three layers of Self
In traditional literature the “Self” is defined in three interweaving layers, the standard being Gross Body, Subtle Body and Causal Body. These three areas can also be termed Physicality, Feeling and Consciousness. There are a number of techniques for the first and last of these (Asana and Meditation) but in terms of “technique” the feeling body is a tricky thing to fully embrace. In the traditional Yoga system the Seven Chakra describe the Subtle Body, but often falls a little short of the full picture. As the Chakra system is usually taught intellectually, rather than through experience, through feeling, it is easy to miss what your Subtle Body is actually doing.
By practicing awareness in action through your relationships to others, the deeper aspect of the Subtle Body – your fear, anger, control, guilt, shame, hate, depression etc – will begin to heal. As almost all of these core feelings and emotions are caused by the relationships you have or had, they are best healed and transformed through authentic inter-personal contact. For example, trying to heal your relationships through Meditation can be helpful, but does not usually offer a lasting solution. Only by actually practicing intimacy in action, with another, does your real capacity for intimacy grow. There are times when Meditation will tend to take you away from real intimacy (with other people) rather than directly into connection with others.
Having said that, a consistent meditation practice should help you to be more intimate with yourself. That in itself can be truly profound. As you develop awareness in sitting, observing and contacting the different layers of yourself, your awareness and connectedness will grow. What is crucial to address is that it takes even more work and awareness to be in true spiritual intimacy and vulnerability with another human being.
Meditation practice, in my opinion is useful for every Yoga practitioner and is essential for every Yoga teacher. In terms of developing some aspects of your relationship to God and for cultivating observer consciousness, sitting still as a part of your daily routine is ideal. Although it can take years to fully develop a consistent meditation practice, do not be daunted by this. Keep at it, and inevitably the discipline will flow naturally.
In terms of complete spiritual development (for an individual or for a culture) we must learn to embrace all the levels, not just one or two. By practicing Asana you begin to establish a deeper relationship to your physical body, and become more sensitive in general. Through inter-personal work you can be in truly connected and intimate relationships with your fellow human beings, and a complete connection to your Subtle Body. Through Meditation and Bhakti Yoga you establish a direct personal relationship to higher consciousness and the Divine.
Many practitioners seem start at the bottom (with Asana) then jump to the top (with Meditation) and then mostly avoid everything in between – because that is where it hurts, and that is where a lot of the real work is. From my own experience, this aspect of spiritual practice begins with the resolution of your issues with your relationships. The way the Chakra system is often taught is by a kind of rote learning – an intellectual description about each Chakra, even a description of the emotion of each Chakra. Rarely will you meet a teacher who actually talks to you about how he or she is actually feeling, and using that as a medium for connection and discovering the real person inside. This is the Subtle Body, in feeling, in relationship, in all its wonderful mess.
Detachment vs Non-Attachement
Detachment commonly implies withdrawal or distancing and can indicate a kind of spiritual laziness. It is not the same as non-attachment. In Yoga practice detachment often becomes a way to become uninvolved and unaware and an excuse for a non-relational viewpoint. That is, an avoidance of feeling and an avoidance of responsibility. It takes a great deal of attention to become aware of any tendency you may have to withdraw, and therefore avoid contact with certain experiences each time they occur. In other words, the common trend with so called Yogic detachment is usually an avoidance of something awkward or uncomfortable. You cannot be non-attached to something you do not feel in the first place! It has been my experience that the majority of Yoga practitioners when using the term detachment actually mean withdrawal or distancing, and unwittingly do not realise their error. Non-attachment does not mean non-feeling, just not reactive to the feelings you do have.
The middle-way or Sattvic state I would frame as ‘contact’. That is, when you come into contact with your own experience, or contact with another person or group. There is no distancing or merging, no detachment, nor any confluence. You can completely accept your own experience, and completely accept your experience of the ‘other.’ As a result of this attentive witnessing, and being completely ‘in’ your own experience, the quality and dimension of that experience can radically shift.
States of super-consciousness, both in your awareness of Self, and in your awareness of the loved ‘other’ become increasingly likely. This is the Sattvic state of rhythm. As the Buddha once said “If the musical string is too tight, the string breaks, if the string is too loose, you cannot play.” Relationships are like music, and require some tension and attention for the vibration to become truly profound. To maintain a spiritual state of awareness within yourself is one thing, to maintain it with your lover and loved ones is a whole new dimension.
Contact implies holding your hand out to your experience, and accepting whatever that may be. It also means being fully connected to the people around you rather than disconnected (or detached).Yoga is whatever you are experiencing right now. The Sattvic state requires a very real and authentic admission of what you feel in any given moment rather than a distancing from what you feel. It means feeling it! But it does not mean rolling in it. The so called temporary and ‘illusory’ state of these fleeting experiences remains one of the most valid and authentic points of contact for practicing Yoga.
Pratyahara is another Yogic term that can be easily misunderstood or taught in an intellectual way. It means ‘withdrawal of the senses’ and can be mistakenly taught to mean avoiding all sense contact. That is, that somehow feelings and therefore emotions are bad and to be avoided at all costs. I would suggest that this is usually the male patriarchal way, and is imbalanced. As you learn to be more contact-full rather than less, you feel more, rather than less. This is a universal law of authentic Yoga practice – you get more sensitive rather than less. As the feeling body opens up, your Subtle Body opens up. If you try and slow that down, control it, or get rid of it, greater illness occurs in the Subtle Body.
The stage of Pratyahara, in terms of Patanjali’s Sutras, indicates your awareness of the senses and what you are feeling in any given moment. This stage of Yoga means that you begin paying more attention to your inner world, the inner life, rather than attachment to the sense gratification of the outer world. Yoga is not what you have achieved in life, or how much you have of food, sex, money or some other goal. It is having a clean and integrated relationship to the role each of these things play in your life – the inner feeling is more important than outer gross accumulation and sensory addiction.
Pratayahara indicates a stage of maturity in the spiritual practitioners development, where the mind is no longer in control. You have a thinking mind, but it becomes subservient to the inner feeling, to the Spiritual Self. The withdrawal of sense contact does not mean you no longer feel, rather that the judgment and response to the sense contact no longer applies – it is not the ego or the mind in control anymore, it is the Divine. And that feels great! It is impossible and unwise to try and stop feeling or sense contact. The body feels; I see, I hear, I taste. Those things are so simple and wonderful. However, the judgment and control that can arise from the discomfort of feeling does need to shift. As you learn to observe your sensations more and more, without fight or flight, you can learn to stay in contact, to be non-attached. As you stay in feeling, the less your mind will manipulate your feelings, and either lock them down or dramatise them. In essence, most times we become emotional is the mind grabbing hold of a basic essential feeling and throwing it around in some manner – whether projecting it onto another person, or turning it into something it is not, or rolling in it to the extent that any pain we feel is greatly amplified. And all this is our own doing, it comes from no one else.
Pratyahara is the absence of judgment, and on the most basic level the absence of the mind being in control. It is the first of the four higher aspects of Patanjalis 8 limbs, which then flows into Dharana, concentration, Dharana, meditation, and Samadhi, absorption of Self.
A Spiritual Feeling
In the Chakra system there is one Chakra for the Gross Body, Muladhara at the bottom. There is one Chakra for the Causal Body, Sahasrara at the top. There are five Chakra for the Subtle Body. This demonstrates the vastness of the Subtle Body system – the physical body is relatively limited, and the Subtle Body is many and varied. Although the highest Chakra is but one, Sahasrara denotes the absolute, so actually includes all aspects of the Gross Body and Subtle Body and all seven Chakra. Awareness at the highest Chakra brings union of Shiva and Shakti, the complete melding of feminine and masculine energies.
It is critical to accept and work with all three layers simultaneously. No one layer is more important than the other; they are inter-twined in any case. So with any diligent practice, by working on one layer, you begin to open up and the other layers are revealed in turn.
These three levels of Self; body, feeling and consciousness can also be expressed in terms of the relationships I have. What is my relationship to my body, how does it feel? Do not simply look at the physicality of your body, judging what it is capable of, or merely how it looks. Be in relationship to it.
What is my relationship to my lover, friend, mother, or child? How do I feel about each of them? How do I connect or disconnect from the people around me? What is my relationship to God, how does it feel to have a relationship (or not) to the Divine? Do you intellectualise the Divine, or place ‘it’ outside yourself? Do you love God as it loves you, unreservedly? Do you recognize the Divinity within you, ever-present, and do you recognise it in others?
How can I establish these relationships, and allow them to grow, rather than either disconnect from them or try to control them? This is the work of Yoga, not simply as an exercise for the body, or isolation from humanity. It is in consciousness, in feeling and in your relationship to all of it.
Energy is feeling, the two are in fact synonymous. A healthy Subtle Body is one that feels, allowing the flow of energy without impediment or blockage. The blockages each of us carry are not surmounted by greater control or effort of the mind. By letting go of the thinking mind altogether, higher consciousness can evolve. This is one important path. Another parallel path is though feeling, and by allowing the possibility of spiritual love, transformation takes place.
In terms of spiritual practice there is never a time you should not be in contact with your feelings. Else you are disconnected. For example, a thought always comes after a feeling or sensation, so the thinking mind points back to a feeling every time. A physical sensation is simply a Gross Body feeling, and an emotion is a feeling that has been changed, charged, or heightened in some way. The term feeling is impossible to separate from any true spiritual practice.
At the higher consciousness level what we are experiencing is a feeling that is so refined as to be difficult to describe in normal human terms. It can be called Ananda, bliss, or even annihilation, the absence of base lower Chakra contraction. My own experience of this is as a vibration, a fundamental shift of the universe that allows me to dissolve into it. This vibration has a tacit feeling to it, call it expansion, and an experience quite different from the normal mundane world. At undifferentiated consciousness you are infinite expanded feeling.
By utterly connecting with your present feeling you can transform all that you are, and begin to realise one universal truth. You are perfect already, here and now, and what you are experiencing in every moment is a Divine gift.