Sri Ramakrishna was a spiritual seeker and teacher from India who was known by many as one who lived his life as an ongoing contemplation of God. He says “When the divine vision is attained, all appear equal: and there remains no distinction of good and bad, or of high and low.” When we are unable to hold the ebbs and flows of life in a space of equanimity, we stray from the nature of reality and live in spaces of delusion. The definition of delusion is “an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.” It’s interesting that what is defined and maintained as being characteristic of a mental disorder, is the path by which most people are living their lives. Rejecting the idea that many things can be true at once, isn’t idiosyncratic; it’s simply the essence of reality. This is the essence of living in the threshold of non-duality. Duality IS reality. Duality is like a lens with which we view life. The willingness to “be with” circumstances as they are and not how we envision them to be can radically shift the way in which we relate to the ever changing states of both internal and external consciousness.
There is often a sense of fragmentation that arises in the spaces of duality that leads to deep suffering. In the mental health world, we refer to it as “cognitive thinking errors” or simply “black and white thinking.” It is the way that most people think and perpetuates the “us versus them” mentality that justifies war, destruction of the planet, racism, oppression, and social injustices. If something falls short of perfection, or lies slightly outside the margin, it’s regarded as a failure or atypical. All or nothing thinking gives paves the way for anxiety to spiral out of control which fuels our fear driven society. Unchecked fear leaves us trapped in our limbic system, unable to gain access to the frontal part of the brain which is responsible for empathy, non-judgment, and compassion. It is the part of the brain that allows us to consider other choices of responding, rather than habitual reactive patterns. The fragile mind, with all its tricks and strategies, struggles to hold multiplicities of truth, while resisting the essence of reality. Ironically, the body is a container and vehicle of dualities all of the time. Hot/cold, tension/relaxation, pushing/pulling, gripping/releasing, arousal/fatigue, hunger/fullness, and resisting/yielding. We cycle through many dual states all day long, often experiencing them as transient states without much focus or attention. When we consider historical patterns of how knowledge is valued, knowledge arising from the body, has often been subjugated and determined to be a non-viable source of knowledge. We see those patterns continuously played out in gender politics and through the destruction of the planet.
Oftentimes there is an unconscious fear that we are “too small” to contain more than one truth at a time. In trance like states, we believe that if we cling to one single truth it will somehow simplify the overwhelming nature of gently holding two dialectically opposed constructs in the same river of truth. We see it etched upon the patterns in which we show up in relationships. We willingly accept the parts and pieces of another that validate the ego, but we are quick to discard and resist that parts of another that rub up against and challenge the ego. In yoga, when we use the breath to soften the muscles, open the joints, and shift the relationship we have to our thoughts, we offer light to the darkest corners of ourselves, widening the space and stretching the limits. Every inch of that space holds the power to give birth to a thousand suns, moons, and stars. Universes unfolding in radiance and reverence. Duality is reality.
Duality means we make space for it all while trusting with deep conviction that bandwidth and capacity for that space exists within each of us. Forests make space for all living things to flourish and thrive. Let that external truth be reflection of our inner universes. The human spirit is powerfully willful and driven to seek out freedom. The spirit will find a way to seek refuge in acts of liberation. Such examples can be found in artwork created by incarcerated individuals. Kenneth Hartman, is the author of Mother California: Story of Redemption Behind Bars.” He served 38 years in the California prison system and recalls his experience of a fellow inmate who was able to draw upon his artistic skills and make sketches on an old paper lunch bag.
“I could feel him slip back inside the terrifying isolation of a cell, alone, unsure how long he would be held out of touch, out of the healing rays of the sun. That he could call on his training as an artist is a wonderful thing, to be sure. That he was placed in a situation where all he could do to maintain his sanity was draw on the inside of a crumpled bag is a damning indictment of the system of mass incarceration.This state, all of this country, still has miles to go to achieve something like a system that values human beings more than the infliction of pain. We must not ever forget that sad truth.”(Hartman). In 2015, Suliman Abdul-Mutakallim was shot in the back of his head, as he walked home, carrying food for himself and his wife. After two teenagers joked guilty and were sentenced to prison terms, the victim’s mother offered to hug them. “Vengeance solves nothing”, she said. “Those young men – although they took my son’s life in the manner they did – we need to fight for them. Because they are going to come back out. And they will be older. But if they have no light, then this same disease is going to repeat itself and they are going to take another person’s child’s life and eventually their own,” Rukiye said. “And every mother’s heart must feel this.” The powerful ability to hold grief and compassion in the same moment is a refection of the human capacity for resiliency, without clinging or grasping to a single truth.
Even in the face of profound suffering, there is potential for seeing the light beside and within the darkness. There is a time just before sunrise and just before sunset where the crack between the two worlds opens, and the two opposing, energetic forces of night and day create a palate of color, reflecting back to us our potential for reverence and transformation outside the dual nature of our habitual thoughts patterns and social environments. I’d like to close with a poem by Rumi:
The Guest House
“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
I often end my yoga classes with the Compassion Meditation. The words I recite are these: “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from suffering, and may you know peace.” The words themselves often expand to other hopes and blessings I hold for my students. They emerge from the infinite and the sacred pauses between the breaths.They hold no agenda. They are simple and spoken from the heart. I have recently started to add the words, “May you continue to share your gifts with the world.” We all have gifts. Some unspoken and some unseen. What if we could acknowledge and receive our own unique gifts, our individual tidings in the same way that the sea receives each drop of sunlight, cascading like river bound jewels on a journey of tranquility? What if we could recognize that our capacity to love is as spacious as the moon’s light filled embrace? What if we could sense the connection to others in the same way that trees touch their roots beneath the earth’s surface? It’s all here and our universe mirrors back to us our potential for seeing our gifts in their simplicity.
Regardless of your lineage, your creed, your tribe, or your namesake, yoga lets the light get in. When the light gets in, our gifts are illuminated. Yoga provides a containing space to experience our gifts through the practice of active attunement. As we surrender to rest and release, we take refuge in the reality of what is actually here. Sensations, breath sounds, endless rivers of thoughts, and somatic memories all invoke and invite resting in the present moment. The nervous system is conditioned to remember. For example, when the body senses sun on the skin, it remembers the warmth which can burn away the coldness of isolation. When our bodies experience the embrace from a beloved friend or family member, an imprint of love remains. The power to remember love is the antidote to hate. When evoked, it can burn away the barrier that hate perpetuates. Our ability to challenge and oppose suffering with these inner gifts, fosters empowerment and efficacy on many different levels. So how do we reconcile with and offer our gifts both freely to ourselves and others in a world that uses a quantification as a means to measure value?
Our society has a deeply embedded pattern of stratifying, labeling, and categorizing just about everything. There are contests and competitions that celebrate the prettiest, the smartest, and the richest just to name a few. Often times the individuals deemed worthy of these accolades are celebrated and distinguished from the masses. It is through this process of categorizing that leads to a system in which some are acclaimed and others devalued. This takes a toll on the human psyche. Ways of knowing, other than the dominant cultural paradigm, have historically suffered subjugation and social marginalization. Women, people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender variant, poor people, people with disabilities, refugees, and immigrants have all had their ways of knowing pushed to the margins and denied a voice in the public sphere. The great feminist psychotherapist Laura Brown says that “the radical notion that silenced voices of marginalized people are considered to be the sources of the greatest wisdom.” The prolific feminist writer Gloria Anzuldua says:
“The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian--our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the "real" world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”
It’s the power to imagine what we want for ourselves and our communities and in that way, we can share our visions with the world. Some of the world’s most profound social movements were born out of space, where there was a letting go of the shackles that kept humanity stuck in a force of oppressive structures that dictated the standards of living. When we access our gifts, we have the strength and clarity to challenge these structures and then dissolve them.
Yoga is the practice of dismantling and leveling these structures, uncovering the gifts that are hidden, suppressed, and denied. Shadows are strengths too. They are simply mirrors of truth. They reflect back to us what we fail to see in the light. Social scientist Brene Brown says, “Discovering, developing, and sharing our gifts is a spiritual practice; it’s one way for us to grow stronger in our faith.
So how do we cultivate our gifts in a way that is separate from the way in which “gifts” are socially defined (i.e jobs, possessions, merit, achievement). These socially defined gifts are not accessible to everyone, therefore it is through collective illusion that they continue to define self-worth. I will often ask clients to identify the things they loved to do as children. Which activities were they most drawn to? What experiences excited you the most? Where did your attention linger for hours? When did you find yourself losing track of time? Whenever I connect to my childhood, I imagine myself standing outside and staring in awe at the sky. I remember feeling the wind on my face and feeling a deep reverence for nature. We begin by touching our awareness through meditative practice. In that space of stillness, we become the silence and our true nature can emerge. There is a powerful realization that our gifts are always inside of us and the ability to be present, allows our bodies to capture the essence of each moment, savoring the richness of sensory input and encoding them as vibrant echos that can always be called upon for strength and stability. These living remnants offer us a way to meet and join with others in a way that dissolves the sense of a separate self. We do not experience emotions in a vacuum. There is a universality to human emotions, just as there is a collective vision for safety, peace, and sustainable happiness. In order to share your gifts with others, you must be able to honor and experience them in the silence that is our essence. May you continue to share your gifts with the world, those which allow you to share with others the embodied richness of your being.
Tzipporah Gerson-Miller LCSW C-IAYT Ryt500
Tzipporah is the founder and executive director of the Southern Yoga Therapy Association. Tzipporah currently works in the clinical counseling department at Jewish Family & Career Services in Shalom Bayit, a grant funded program that serves victims of abuse and domestic violence, in addition to providing community outreach and education on domestic violence in the Jewish community. Tzipporah has a woman centered private practice in which she works with women and teenage girls who struggle with complex trauma and chronic pain, in addition to providing an array of services focused on maternal mental health and women's spirituality. Tzipporah is a huge advocate for reducing the stigma of mental illness. It is for that reason she started the podcast, “Ancient Tools for Modern Living” which promotes and supports mental health recovery through practical yoga and spiritual growth.