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Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi by Brian Leaf
Brian Leaf : Becoming Most Real

Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi

Becoming Most Real

By Brian Leaf

The highest achievement is seeing what is already there.
— AMRIT DESAI

In the Gymnasium of Sharing during the Kripalu Spiritual Lifestyle Program, I noticed how often I disapproved of and therefore tried to change my reality. For the previous decade I had been experimenting with how to eat (mindfully, healthfully), how to breathe (from my diaphragm rather than from my chest), how to sleep (without a TV on, in the dark) — basically how to live — so it made sense that I was sculpting my environment with care. I’d realize that staring too long at a computer before bed disturbed my sleep, so I’d rearrange my schedule to use a computer earlier. I’d realize that I wanted a living space that had close access to the woods, and so I’d move to have that.

But I also controlled what I thought. In meditation, I began to see that I was sculpting reality moment to moment — trying to re-imagine it. I noticed that at each moment, as reality showed itself, I was rejecting that reality and imagining a new and improved version.

For example, if I felt hurt, an uncomfortable feeling for me, I might convince myself that “Zach didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, so I should just let it go.” Worse, I might just repress and deny the feeling altogether: “I am NOT hurt...(quick, think of something nice: birds chirping, Seinfeld, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, a shiny summer day at the beach)...Serenity now! SERENITY NOW!”

I wondered how it would feel, instead, to sit with the truth for a time rather than rejecting reality and calling for a more pleasant version. My mantra became “I live in Truth.”

As I sat in meditation, whenever I noticed that I was disapproving of reality and trying to hatch up a new one, I would say, “I live in Truth,” and just notice and sit with the truth of the actual reality that was already there.

At first this was very difficult, especially with thoughts and emotions — it was difficult to sustain my focus on an uncomfortable thought or feeling. So I took it down a notch and decided to use physical sensations, which would be easier to notice and stay with. I’d sit in meditation, and when I’d notice a slight discomfort in my body, perhaps in my neck, hip, or knee, rather than adjusting I’d just watch and allow and experience the discomfort.

My mind would, of course, sometimes wander, and I’d forget about what I was doing — watching and feeling a discomfort in my shoulder. But sometimes I could stay focused on the sensation for a long time and see it through, and that’s when I split the atom. I found that when I stayed with a physical sensation long enough, eventually there would be a burst of energy. My body would flail up and then back as though from a chiropractic adjustment, the tension would release, and there’d be a delicious new comfort.

Eventually I could sustain my focus on an uncomfortable emotion as well. The emotion would take on an almost palpable feel with substance and texture, like a cloud. I could feel and nearly see it in or around my body. And as with physical sensations, when I could stay with it, there’d be a burst of energy, though the emotion bursts were actually larger than the physical sensation ones.

My original intent of this practice was to allow reality rather than deny it by imagining a new version. In allowing reality I was present. But over time, “I live in Truth” became “Wait for it, wait for it...” and I went from watching and accepting a sensation to staring it down, waiting for the burst.

I was no longer accepting reality as it unfolded; I was slyly rejecting reality by staring it down until it shifted. I was dominating rather than accepting and loving the moment. I did this for quite a while, and eventually I wound up pretty depressed.

The depression snuck up on me. Depression can be like that. Things just seem gray. When I finally noticed it, I didn’t know why I was depressed. I suppose all along I had an idea that something in my model was off. But I was so excited about it, it seemed like a special gift, and the burst was so exciting. Finally, I put things together: I was depressed because I was denying reality by staring it down.

This was different from how I had previously ignored or re-imagined reality, but it was still a way of denying reality. Investment in the present, in reality, brings vitality, but denying reality disassociates and depletes and ultimately brings depression. So as I denied the present so many times every day, I was digging myself into a hole.

When I finally recognized this dynamic, I decided to bring some love into my meditation. Instead of staring reality down, I decided to love it as it was, to unconditionally accept the truth of my actual reality there and then.

I’d sit in meditation and notice a sensation and want to stare it down as I had for so long. But instead, I’d just hold it and notice it and allow it. I’d even notice and allow (although not pursue) my desire to stare it down. My mantra changed from “Wait for it...” to “I see you.”

Not “I see you” in a threatening way like in a horror movie, but in the way the Best Buddies nonprofit organization uses it, “I see you; I acknowledge you; you matter to me.” In fact, whereas “Wait for it” says, “You don’t matter to me, and I can wait this out until you disappear,” my new mantra, “I see you,” says, “You matter, I love you.”

After some practice, my new mantra gave me a burst, but a very different kind of burst. If the “staring it down” burst was pure white sugar, this one was warm baked apple — less unsettling and more nutritious. Rather than flailing with the burst, my muscles would soften, drop, and relax. I’d involuntarily sigh a sweet, contented sigh.

Imagine your favorite relative, maybe your grandma from when you were young, giving you a warm, soft embrace, stroking your hair, and sweetly saying, “I love you.” That’s how it felt.

I call this process becoming most real. My aim is to see not my imagined or desired reality — not the one I’m cooking up to soothe my discomforts and fears — but the reality that actually exists, the one that is most real.

One day I was meditating and feeling lethargic. I was asking, “What is most real?” and looking for the burst of energy. I was hungry for it, wanting to shift my sluggish state. I couldn’t see anything beyond the low-energy daze I was in. I thought, maybe there is no most real right now, no high-energy state. And then, bang, it hit me. “The low-energy state, my fleeing from it, and my search for a different, higher-energy state is, in this moment, most real.” With the realization, my muscles softened, my breath calmed, my mind relaxed, I smiled involuntarily, and I felt a renewed vitality.

Most real doesn’t look a certain way. It is not shifting from one undesirable state to a different, more desirable one. It is only acknowledging and feeling whatever thoughts, emotions, and sensations are most true at any given moment. You acknowledge not the state you are trying to achieve but the state you are in. That is where true vitality lies.

Vitality comes not from a certain set of experiences but from simply acknowledging the truth of whatever is most real right now.

Yesterday I was stressed about a deadline for a few chapters I owed my agent. I was all worked up and feeling pretty miserable. I figured that if I could just stop feeling stressed and feel relaxed instead, then I’d be happy. So I breathed deeply, I meditated hard. I struggled. I pushed and fought — trying to talk myself out of it, trying to shift awareness, trying to trick myself, if necessary, into switching from feeling stressed to feeling relaxed.

But then I asked, “What is most real?”

I noticed that I was feeling tense and stressed. That I knew already. But I also noticed that I was struggling to change things, trying to force myself to feel relaxed. And that was the key. Because then I went from being lost in the struggle to being aware of the struggle. I went from identifying with the struggling to identifying with my deeper self that sees the struggle. For a moment I was grounded in the unflickering flame of my true self. For a moment I achieved the very aim of yoga and touched God.

In struggling to feel relaxed, I am rejecting how I actually feel. I am turning my back on reality and trying to cook up a new one. And this turning my back on reality denies the energy, the vitality, that is available in reality. In noticing, however, that I am feeling stressed and that I am struggling to feel differently, I acknowledge and experience that which is most real.

If I can find most real for even a moment in my morning meditation, or if during my day I am present for a few seconds with my struggle to shift reality, the struggle dissolves, and I am connected to my true self. I feel happier, more energetic, and more loving for the rest of the day. •

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Excerpted from the new book Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi © 2012 by Brian Leaf. Published with permission of New World Library.

Brian Leaf Brian Leaf, M.A. is the author of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. He draws upon twenty-one years of intensive study, practice, and teaching of yoga, meditation, and holistic health. More »

12/20/12