Every year, beginning a day or so after Christmas, and ending New Year's morning, I lead a retreat at Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, MA, called the "New Years Spiritual Renewal Retreat." It's wonderful to be able to get away and do a retreat like this in a yoga resort and educational center like Kripalu, but how can we initiate spiritual renewal wherever we are, and sustain it throughout the year? What are the "spiritual" approaches to change that go deeper -- and are far more successful -- than the mere making of resolutions? In a five-day retreat I cover a number of approaches, and would take a book to share them, but most important is the practice of meditation. I call meditation the "laboratory of life," that indispensable period we take out of our day, not to "self improve," but rather to uncover our underlying divinity. During times of transition, such as the approach of the New Year, many people especially focus on their identity, how to become a new and improved version themselves, and in this retreat I try to show how meditation can deliver a deeper transformation than what we normally think of as self-improvement.
Most of us live in a piece of territory called "me" -- a personality who seems to live inside the boundaries of its skin, separate from all that surrounds it. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says that when the sense of an "other" arises, fear (of suffering) arises. This separate personality thus involves itself in a constant strategy of minimizing any potential discomfort or pain, and maximizing its pleasure. It hopes for a happier future filled with good things and experiences.
The spiritual path of yoga, of which meditation (dhyana) is central, seeks to purify us of the five kleshas (obstacles). These are abhivinesh (fearful clinging to life); raga and dvesha; (attraction and repulsion.); asmita (false placement of our sense of identity); and avidya (ignorance of our real nature.)
The beginning of meditation is to relax our minds and bodies to open up a space between our chronically fused patterns of stimulus and reaction. There are many ways to meditate, but we can begin with a simple technique of noting the rising and falling of the diaphragm as we breathe, and allowing all other thoughts to pass without engaging them in any way, returning to our point of focus again and again. Ten to fifteen minutes every day is a great start.
In this newly opened space of consciousness, we increase our capacity to observe without prejudice, and free our mind from being a ping pong ball bouncing between the paddles of conflicting thoughts and emotions. We will soon begin to notice that most of our thoughts are occupied in some way with attraction to the pleasant (raga), and the repelling of the non-pleasant (dvesha): the mind is found to be dwelling on past pleasures or planning new ones, or remembering past pains and strategizing how to avoid them the future . These forces fuel our urge to create an identity whose happiness is optimized, and whose pain is minimized. The problem is that we are stuck in a stressful, swinging pendulum of duality when we try to become someone who can stabilize the one, and prevent the other. (And, unfortunately, the making of resolutions usually arises from this very dynamic.)
Meditation is aimed not at becoming a person with masterful control over attraction and repulsion, likes and dislikes, but rather to soften the hold of such obstacles so that we may regularly experience our underlying divine nature now, while allowing the conditioning of the obstacles (kleshas) to hold less and less sway. And what is our real nature? According to yoga it is Sat Chid Ananda -- existence, consciousness, and joy. This is not an achieved state. It is simply who we truly are, the light which illuminates the film character with whom we currently identify.
A primary klesha we work with in meditation is asmita. Though often translated as "egoism;" this tells us little. The Sanskrit root of "asmita" is "asmi," meaning "I am." Asmita is the process of placing our sense of "I am-ness" in that which we are not. (At the New York Open Center I often share with my students the story of walking behind a man whom I overhear saying "there's me over there." Was he pointing to his divine nature -- or even his own body? No. The "me" to which he was referring was his Mercedes! ) Asmita is placing our identification in objects of perception, including material things, memories, beliefs and concepts -- the ultimate concept being the thought of a being separate "I." Placing our sense of self in that which we are not, prevents us from being anchored in our true ground of being.
Simply having insights into our real nature from time to time is not enough to weaken the hold of asmita. It needs the constant meditative exposure to the light of awareness, where we get to notice the mistake of placing our "I am-ness" in that which we are not, and observe that constant tendency to "become" someone.
And what is the focus of this becoming? It is driven, once again, by the force of raga and dvesha -- attraction and repulsion. We seek to maximize satisfaction and minimize discomfort by becoming someone "better" -- a thinner, richer, healthier person; a more respected, together, successful, lovable, and -- yes -- "spiritual" person.
If we don't engage in this identification process, what we may begin to notice is that there is a radiance and energy increasingly present. It is of the nature of joy -- not a "happy positive" feeling -- but something deeper and more abiding. Then something wonderful happens; the force of asmita (identification) begins to actually work for us. We begin to identify with joy itself -- at least for small moments -- and it starts to inform our bodies, minds, creative impulses and our relationships; we find ourselves making healthier, more creative and loving choices, naturally. It also illuminates our calling in life -- our dharma, and our service to the world, and alleviates the quandary of struggling to choose the "right" path. The pull to self-improve that drives us to make New Year's resolutions is fulfilled on a grander scope, and in a deeper way, through the conscious transformation of our identity made possible through regular meditation practice.