Wednesday, August 30th, 2006
Pattabhi Jois speaks of “the mind in the heart”. When he says it, he puts his hand on his heart (which is also what he often does when people bow to him in respect). What can be said about this?
One amazing fact: Krishnamacharya- the modern father of the lineage, whom I consider the primary inspiration behind perhaps 75 per cent of the asana practice on the planet- could stop his heart at will and suppress it for two minutes. He had incredible control of his own physiology, a control that went deep into his autonomic nervous system, generally considered beneath the level of will. (Check the book Sri Krishnamacharya the Purnacharya, available through the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, www.kym.org, the school established by his son Desikachar, for testimony by Western scientists who were seeking valid verification of supposed yogic tall-tales.)
We can use the term “liminal line” for the transition zone between that which is conscious and that which isn’t. Above the liminal line is everything of which we are aware: even if we don’t understand it, we can still have some grasp of its existence and can to some degree manipulate it with our will, for example, raising your arm. Beneath the liminal line…this is where it gets interesting. Biologists have explained countless physiologic processes operating with astounding complexity, which almost always work perfectly, in our own bodies, over which we have next to no conscious awareness or control. Systems and complexity theorists have refined this understanding in an inspirational way under the concept of autopoiesis which means: organization or self-renewal which happens by itself, exchanging elements but maintaining the same basic underlying order, with a limitless potential for new kinds of order. Incredible.
The basic access tool for experiencing these underlying physiologic processes is felt internal sensation, including but not limited to kinesthetic sensation: the muscle sense and proprioception: the stretch and bodily positioning sense. Both of these are processed in the somatic cortex of the brain. Basically, this is the act of feeling that which is going on inside our skin, which is related to but different from touch of the skin with outward objects. This internal sensing can be summed up under the Sanskrit term: vedana.
I previously belabored the process indicated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras about quieting the chatter mind, the thinking mind. (Check July 2006). When this is successful, vedana is revealed. When the thinking mind gets quiet, a field of internal feeling presents itself to conscious awareness. It was there all along, underlying the thoughts; when the thoughts are quieted, it remains. In turn, anything in this somatic field may become the object upon which the yogi can choose to focus. If she chooses to focus on the sensations of the heart, as it beats, as it responds to life events such as romance or fear, she will begin to get a little smarter about the heart. If she keeps this focus up, “over a long period of time without interruption, earnestly” (that’s yoga sutra 1:14) what can happen?
My answer to that is that the liminal line will begin to drop, and she will slowly get a degree of control over the actions of the heart. Actually stopping the heart is intimidatingly deep yoga, but it operates at the same level as simple asana practice: the first time you tried handstand, what happened? Chaos theory. But, if you apply yourself over time, order begins to emerge from within the chaos, as strength is built and nerve circuits created. The potential was there all along, you just couldn’t contain it yet, your physiology just wasn’t ready, just like a child’s physiology is not yet ready to walk.
Controlling the mind is harder than handstand. And it doesn’t just happen because we want it to, we have to apply ourselves just as we do in handstand. Over time, psychic strength is built, nerve circuits created, we can gradually quiet thoughts when we want to. And one of yoga’s great tools to achieve this is to focus on vedana, the sensations in the body, as a place to redirect conscious attention away from the chatter in the mind and toward a perception of the profound intelligence of autopoiesis happening in our own bodies at all times. Asanas are an excellent means for this because they make physical sensation obvious in an orderly, progressive manner, presenting blatant stable sensation fields. Focus on the body and the mind will discharge its load and get out of its own way.
So, the mind in the heart: if and when we fall in love, (to use one of the great dopamine drenched passages of life as an example) we find that the heart responds vividly to that which passes through our minds, and often responds to things of which the mind in our head knows nothing. But, to put it philosophically, there is a referent to that heart experience, there is something real out there to which it is responding: the heart knows things the intellectual mind does not: the heart is often that which introduces these things to the intellect.
As the story circulates in Mysore, Pattabhi Jois was learning to stop his heart and Krishnamacharya eventually instructed his pupil to forgo that quest and have a family, which has been known to do a thing or two to the hearts of the parents. The teaching here seems to be: use yogic techniques to gain access to that which others may not have access, this yogic attention will begin to alter and mature and gain control over the internal phenomena which it pays attention to. And these yogic techniques include that of living a “normal” life and observing what this does to the heart. And through the heart, sharing life with others.