The Nature of Awareness
In working with clients, we will meet with people who are suffering. Their lives have been altered because of emotional and physical pain, illness, or disability. These changes bring people to a crossroads, where the ways in which they used to meet life may no longer be available or serve them. Identities may shift as the way the body functions, mental states or beliefs, and even social networks or available activities change.
If we consider the potentially transformative nature of pain, illness, or disability, yoga can help facilitate a process whereby the very relationship to life changes to lessen the experience of suffering and instead heighten well-being. To mitigate suffering, we can bring to the fore the qualities of equanimity, contentment, tranquility, and a steadfast expression of happiness stemming from the innate unity that lies within. Yoga’s wisdom teachings have much to offer as we help clients meet, and shift the way they encounter, obstacles. The yoga therapeutic practice becomes a mechanism through which to explore habitual ways of responding to life and to find new relationships with the body, mind, and environment.
Yoga teaches a path that is meant to help the individual connect with unchanging awareness beneath the constructs of our bodily experience, thoughts, emotions, beliefs, personality, and even social or environmental contexts. Chapters 3 and 4 more completely define the constituents of material nature, such as the components of the mind, as distinct from awareness. Here, we explore unchanging awareness with its emergent experiences of equanimity, steadfast joy, and contentment. Yoga facilitates connection to this unchanging internal recognition to mitigate suffering.
The direct experience of awareness is essential to achieve liberation from suffering. Yoga therapy, rooted in this philosophical foundation, intends to help individuals reconnect to underlying awareness. The yoga therapist’s focus is not the medical diagnosis or condition of the client. Rather, her process facilitates an unpeeling of the layers that obscure the recognition of equanimity, steadfast joy, or contentment; in the therapeutic relationship, the yoga therapist and client walk a journey together, creating space for the connection to awareness to unfold.
An Individualized Shared Language
Speaking meaningfully about the idea of awareness can be difficult in healthcare contexts. We may even be uncomfortable discussing such concepts, which can seem nebulous at first, with clients. However, we can work with ideas of unity or reconnection alongside the experience of steadfast equanimity and contentment while honoring each person’s unique path and beliefs.
One client wanted to learn yoga but was guarded because she felt she would be working with spirituality outside the existing framework of her strong religious beliefs. She was torn, as she wanted to explore her connection to suffering and well-being while honoring her belief system. We discussed ideas of spirituality, including the attributes of equanimity, contentment, steadfast joy, and compassion, and how she connects to and understands these concepts. She shared with me her relationship with Christianity. We were able to create a common language to work with her pain and suffering and to explore her relationship to life through the beliefs that held personal meaning for her.
I have worked with others for whom the language of neurophysiology provided the translation needed to speak to this connection. In my experience, once a shared language is found, people become receptive to how yoga can help them in alignment with their own beliefs and needs. Given an appropriate shared language, the concept of connecting to another layer of who we are beneath our pain is accessible to most and can be done with respect of each individual’s experience of unity.
Being in conscious relationship to awareness underlying our day-to-day experience is the core of an explanatory framework of yoga therapy; rather than shying away from a discussion of this concept, we need to find accessible ways to describe and teach it. Key to this framework is the concept that who we truly are differs from the subjective reality we are experiencing. How do we find unifying language to speak to this concept and allow everyone space for their individual beliefs? How do we reliably use this shared language to express the nature of awareness? How do we make these ideas accessible? Throughout this book, my intention is to share these different ways of articulating the wisdom of yoga for use in both research and clinical contexts.
When Arjuna is overwhelmed by confusion and doubt about the correct path, Krishna offers this teaching on the nature of unchanging awareness:
Indestructible is the presence that pervades all this; no one can destroy this unchanging reality. Our bodies are known to end, but the embodied self is enduring, indestructible, and immeasurable...
(Bhagavad Gita, 2.17-2.18)
It is not born, it does not die; having been, it will never not be; unborn, enduring, constant, and primordial, it is not killed when the body is killed.
(Bhagavad Gita, 2.20)
It is called unmanifest, inconceivable, and immutable; since you know that to be so, you should not grieve!
(Bhagavad Gita, 2.25)s
This teaching is also found in the Upanishads:
Beyond cause and effect, this Self is eternal and immutable... Hidden in the heart of every creature exists the Self, subtler than the subtlest, greater than the greatest....
As the same air assumes different shapes when it enters objects differing in shape, so does the one Self take the shape of every creature in whom he is present.
The Self is the source of abiding joy...When one realizes the Self, in whom all life is one, changeless, nameless, formless, then one fears no more. Until we realize the unity of life, we live in fear.
As a lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and cannot be taken out again, though wherever we taste the water it is salty, even so, beloved, the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal. Separateness arises from identifying the Self with the body, which is made up of the elements; when this physical identification dissolves, there can be no more separate self.
These teachings describe awareness as an eternal presence within that cannot be harmed or changed and that differs from our changing experience of the body, mind, or environment. The experience of these phenomena can unfold in awareness without identification or fusion with them. This understanding is paramount in exploring the meaning of suffering and working toward its alleviation. Connecting to awareness is an essential foundation for the yoga therapy framework.
The concept of a steadfast, unwavering equanimity and contentment that emerges from connecting to awareness in any moment can be esoteric or incredibly practical and tangible. We can ask clients about their understanding of concepts such as soul or spirit. We can also look to the texts above, which describe awareness as imbued with connection, joy, and unity. Delving into a process of inquiry with clients about an experience of connection to another person, some other being, or with the world, may help them to embody this concept. Asking about an experience of joy or unity may initiate a process of remembering an aspect of themselves that lies beneath their pain or suffering.
Glimpses of this realization remind us that separateness is an illusion; our journey to recognize innate unity is the truth. Embodying unitive awareness gives rise to steadfast and unwavering joy amidst the fleeting phenomena of body, mind, and environment. Helping people experience this is a way to speak to the spirituality and connection inherent within us. Clients working with me have described this experience in many ways, including visually as colors like blue or bright violet; as feelings of expansion or lightness; as a being that supports them; as their favorite animal; and in words like peace, love, or compassion.
Although awareness can represent a challenging exploration, it is essential to define as the foundational concept in our yoga therapy process; we are working to facilitate this very experience of connection, equanimity, contentment, and steadfast joy within. Moreover, we will begin to explore how such experiences bring about potentially important physical and mental health benefits. Understanding some of the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying these effects can help us to open a dialogue with clients and help them find their own language for expressing these experiences. Note that a discussion of physiology is not meant to reduce spirituality to physiological processes, but rather to offer another door through which clients may become comfortable with concepts of connection, joy, and so on.