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Feel Your Way

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Last summer—as mars hovered close to the earth, power blackouts darkened the Northeast, and car bombers wreaked havoc in Baghdad—everyone I met was talking about how intense their lives were becoming. There seemed to be too much of everything: arguments, explosive feelings, weird dreams, and intrusive thoughts. I received scores of e-mail messages about how to handle the accelerating energies. More meditation and self-inquiry, some advised. Time for political action, others said. Connecting with one another through the heart was the thing to do, according to one Web site; another suggested we gather water supplies and start growing our own vegetables.

In the midst of all of this, I kept remembering a verse from the Vijnana Bhairava, a meditation manual in the Shaivite tradition. The verse says that pure consciousness—the heart-stopping brilliance that composes the core of reality—is especially close to us in moments of emotional intensity, even though those moments might seem like the very opposite of peaceful. The text goes on to give examples: “When you’re angry, or overjoyed, or at an impasse reflecting what to do, or running for your life, find within that state the perfect condition of the primordial energy.”

This is a deep clue about how to practice in our speeded-up times. It’s no secret that strong feelings and experiences carry a lot of energy. Why else would people go to raves, become war correspondents, or provoke their lovers into screaming matches? But there’s a big difference between using strong energy to feel more alive or to get high, and consciously using it to move deeper into our own essence. That movement is what the inner life is all about.

And it’s the radical truth behind the Vijnana Bhairava verse: If we choose to practice with our strong energies, they can lead us into the very source of our own power. Entering a strong feeling is like splitting an atom, except that the energy released from the core of that feeling is essentially that of brahman, the “vast expanse” itself.

Peeling Away the Layers of the Heart

Linda has been meditating for several years, doing retreats with one of the hard-core Indian teachers of the older generation. Her basic M.O. was always the straight, classical, citta-vritti-eroding yogic approach of stilling the mind.

Recently, however, she went to Mexico on vacation, met a guy, and fell in love. Her heart flung open; detachment melted. There was, as she put it, “big soul-mate energy” between them. They were together for a while, then it was over. She found herself on a plane back home, roiling around in an emotional stewpot of feelings. The pain was extreme. But Linda decided to dive in, to bring her practice-honed attention into the pain itself and look into her own heart space.

She said it was like peeling an onion. Layers of boggy sadness. Layers of hurt pride and bitterness. A big, thick shell of indifference. More sadness. Then she dropped into a huge, open stillness: One minute her heart was an emotional swamp; the next, it was pure spaciousness. She told me that once she had tapped into that spacious heart energy, it stayed available. Ever since, her basic practice has been “sitting” inside her own heart space.

As I listened to Linda’s story, my first thought was that she had discovered the power of meditation in the heart. Yet the deeper point of her experience isn’t simply that it’s nice to meditate in the heart center, or even that there’s a better way of dealing with unrequited love than wallowing in it or trying to be stoical. Her story illustrates how inner spaciousness can be especially present and available when we’re going through something that feels horrible—like having our heart broken, getting fired, facing our own capacity for anger, or dealing with a personal loss and the grief that attends it. It’s almost as if a balancing principle is at work, a secret gift that our inner self can offer us during times that wring our soul.

Energy collects strongly at intense moments. If you don’t know how to work with it, it can spin you into confusion or stress you into adrenal overload. But if you understand what intense energy is and practice working with it, it can and will transform your consciousness.

This is one of the deepest and most liberating truths that yoga offers us. I would even go so far as to say that it contains the gist of why we do inner practice at all. The whole yogic paradigm is based on the idea that there’s something vast, loving, and spacious in the heart of reality, an awareness that connects all of us and that we uncover when we turn our attention inward. As we practice, we keep waking up to the source of our energy, moving past our fixed perceptions, feeling how it is to live from that vast, loving, and spacious source.

The Practice of Inclusion

Yet on the way to the spaciousness at our center, there are, as we all know, many roadblocks. Between our ordinary state of awareness and our deeper being, we sometimes encounter distractions, emotions, intellectual barricades, fantasies, and just plain dullness. The big question is what to do with these obstacles when we come across them. The Vijnana Bhairava’s approach to practice aims to take us to the core of ourself by working with these roadblocks—by including everything in our experience yet reducing each experience and emotion to its essence. So the way it advises us to deal with obstacles is to move right into them and allow them to transmute themselves.

The enlightened sages who originally taught this practice were not just theorists. They actually lived in a state that allowed them to experience the pure awareness within the heart of everything, including the aspects of life that the rest of us regret. Their great realization was that everything we experience in life can provide us with a connection to the Divine. Since we are all, at our core, made of the same subtle loving energy, there is no part of us that can’t lead us back to what we are. Even our thorniest feelings—anger, greed, fear—can take us there if we know how to distill them to their essence. Loving energy and angry energy are both, at the bottom, just energy.

We need to understand this in the right way, however. Loving actions lead to very different consequences than angry actions do. But at the deepest level, the core level, we can recognize that anger is not just anger, that fear is not just fear, that depression is not just depression. When we sit quietly with an emotion and go deeply inside it without acting it out, we find that it dissolves into pure consciousness. This is true of every feeling we have, especially when that feeling is strong and when we can let it mount to a peak but not allow it to explode. One of the most self-empowering choices we can make as yogis is to view our tough feelings as doorways to inner freedom.

The Inner Shift

Sam runs a video documentary company with a business partner, Paul. In last year’s tight economy, their company was on the verge of going under. Then Sam was asked to make a proposal to a big corporation. If it was accepted, their business would be saved.

On the morning that Sam was scheduled to make the presentation, Paul had a meltdown—he said he wanted to do the presentation; he was tired of having Sam be the star of the company. Sam refused, and the two wrangled painfully until it was time to leave for the business meeting. Sam’s mind was churning, his adrenaline was up, and he was wading through his own swamp of confused feelings, not the least of which was extreme guilt over losing his temper. For a moment, he panicked; how was he going to face the potential investors in his emotionally disheveled state?

Then Sam took a few deep breaths. As he did, he found his attention powerfully drawn into the feeling of anger. He held steady with it for a while. Suddenly, he said, there was a kind of implosion. It was as if a skin had come off his awareness and something large, strong, and centered had unfurled itself inside.

It sounded to me like a spontaneous experience of what is sometimes called witness-consciousness—some deep inner stillness and presence had revealed itself. Throughout the crucial meeting, Sam’s mind was unusually clear and focused. The presentation went so well that he ended up taking a long, companionable walk with one of the client’s principle negotiators.

Several hours later, Sam phoned Paul. To his surprise, Paul reported that he too had experienced an inner shift. He had realized how much he valued his friendship with Sam, how much more important it was than their differences. He did not care what it took to work things out, Paul said; he wanted them to preserve the partnership.

Sam’s experience is not so unusual for people who are willing to work with their emotional energy. When we have the fortitude to hold steady with negative emotions without getting caught up in our thoughts about them, they actually collapse—all on their own—into the energy of which they are made.

I’ve found that when I’m serious about this inner practice, the external circumstances that triggered my emotion often get resolved as well, just as Sam experienced. Misunderstandings get cleared up, sticky relationships dissolve or disentangle themselves. When we get to the core energy inside ourselves, we open up to the force that some people call grace and that Carl Jung called synchronicity. It’s a power that transcends duality, and it’s one of the great natural forces for positive change.

Some issues aren’t so easy to resolve, of course, and we can’t expect that making a one-time inner shift will take care of everything that’s difficult in our lives. Sam and Paul had to do a lot more negotiating to make their partnership work smoothly; Linda needed to take a hard look at why she kept becoming involved with men who weren’t available. And sometimes, the dive inside can turn into a way of escaping the hard work of digging through the issues in our outer lives. (How many frustrated husbands and wives have said to their yogi spouses, “Will you stop acting so damned detached and talk to me”?)

But working with the energy of negative emotions is the exact opposite of avoiding them, resisting them, or trying to make them go away. When we enter into the energy of our feelings, we are looking for the transcendent by facing directly into our emotional winds.

Start With Yourself

If you want to practice with intense energies, a good way to start is with your own feelings and moods, and to start small. Stephen Levine once wrote that working with heavy emotional issues can be like getting into the ring with a 500-pound wrestler—if you haven’t trained for it, the wrestler will throw you in the first clench. One of the best ways to train for working with energy is to practice during private moments of meltdown.

One of my favorite times for this kind of practice is the onset of road rage. Like many otherwise reasonable people, I have an inner road warrior who emerges only when I’m alone behind the wheel. He’s mouthy, cynical, easily offended—a cross between a New York City cabbie and one of those eccentric hit men from a Quentin Tarantino film. There’s a lot of energy in this persona, however. So when I notice myself having snarly private dialogues with a driver who has cut me off at an exit, I try to use the occasion for exploring the energy inside my anger.

You can do this too, anytime. First, take a moment to remember one of your characteristic heavy emotions or the last time you were very angry, grief-stricken, or scared. When you’ve found the feeling you want to work with, here’s what to do:

Acknowledge Your Feeling: Notice and identify the fact that your inner world has been rocked by an intense, primitive feeling. This is especially important when you’ve been ambushed by an emotion. It helps to say clearly to yourself, “I’m feeling angry,” or, “I’m sad,” or, “I’m upset.” You don’t have to analyze the feeling or even think about where it’s coming from.

Pause: Stop yourself from acting on the feeling. To do this, focus on your breathing, following your breath as it moves in and out through your nostrils.

Get Grounded: When we’re experiencing strong emotions, we often lose touch with our physical body. To get grounded inside your body, bring your attention to the sensation of your feet on the ground; if you’re sitting, feel the contact between your buttocks and the cushion or floor.

Bring Your Awareness Into your Heart: Once you’re grounded, find your center in your heart—not your physical heart but your inner heart, the subtle energy space in the center of your body. If you touch your finger to the spot on your breastbone right between your nipples, you will probably find that there’s a slight hollow there and even an achy feeling. Behind this little hollow lies your inner heart. Drop your attention into this center, using your breath as an anchor. Breathe in and out as if you were breathing in and out of your heart. Do this for a few minutes.

Explore the Energy in the Feeling: Once you have found your center like this, focus again on the feeling you are working with. Where is it in your body? How does it feel? This is not an analytical process; it is more of an exploration. You are giving yourself permission to fully feel and explore the inner sensations created by anger, sadness, injured pride, or fear. Feel whether the emotion is hard or prickly in your body. Notice if there’s a color field around your mood. Someone told me that his depressed feelings actually feel grayish.

Let Go of the Story Line: At this point, you’ll notice that certain thoughts are attached to your particular emotion, thoughts that frequently begin “How could he?” or “I always…” Acknowledge these thoughts and then let them go, keeping your attention on the feeling rather than getting caught up in your personal story line.

Some people ask, “Suppose there is content in my feeling that needs to be dealt with psychologically or practically? Am I supposed to just let it go?” For the moment, yes. For this particular process, it’s important to let go of believing the story that your thoughts and feelings are telling you. If you sense that something in these feelings or in the situation that provoked them needs specific action or attention, take note of it! You’ll come back to it later on.

Hold the Feeling Inside Your Heart Until It Dissolves Into Awareness: Consciously bring the feeling-sense of your emotion into your heart. Hold the feeling inside the energy space in your heart. As you do, let your heart space expand, gently and slowly, until you have the sensation that there is real space around your feeling. Now notice what happens inside you, how the energy inside your anger or grief shifts. It might become sharper and more intense for a while, or it might begin to soften around the edges, to become less specific, less prickly or swampy.

It’s important to realize that you aren’t just trying to make yourself feel better. You are in a process of shifting your perspective about this feeling. Your intention is to explore its energy and to let that energy resolve itself back into its root, into the core energy of every feeling.

When we bring our heavy emotions into our heart space, it is as if we are bringing them into a place where they can be safely cradled. Psychologist Rudy Bauer has a great way of describing this. He says that holding our intense feelings in our consciousness is like holding hot coals in a basket. The basket contains the coals and allows heat to build up so that we can warm ourselves by their fire, but it also keeps the coals from burning us.

In this way, we can harness the energy inside our intense emotions and use it as a vehicle to move beyond our ordinary mind and toward the source, the Self, where we are powered and supported by something much larger than ourselves—something impersonal and yet loving, something that has no content and yet is full of wisdom. Abiding in this place, we understand what Rumi really meant when he said that fighting and peacefulness both take place within God. Whatever the quality of the times we live in, when we know how to enter the energy of intensity, we have discovered a doorway to the infinite.