We all face discomfort on the mat, whether in the body, emotionally, or in the mind. As soon as we have the sense that something is askew, we can’t help but say, "I don't like this feeling.” Or, “I don't want to have this feeling.” And it is so subtle when it happens. It is usually just a split second. There's a very subtle part of our awareness that is constantly asking, "Is this pleasure? Or is this discomfort?" And if it's discomfort, then we immediately need to do something about it. The time between noticing pleasure and discomfort is so subtle and elusive that we are rarely responsive. Mainly we are reactive to these sensations, especially those that do not feel good. There's a saying in yoga that suffering can be the doorway to wisdom. And so our discomfort, pain, hurt, and, even anger can be used as an access point into truth. If we will stay with the experience--not necessarily the thoughts about the experience, but the direct experience of what's occurring--then what tends to unfold is deeper insight and learning. But the lessons won't emerge until we apply a quality of curiosity and presence to whatever is arising, from moment to moment.
And I say, moment-to-moment, because what happens is that all experience is constantly in a flux. It's constantly changing. There isn't one fixed experience we have. While some feeling states last for extended periods of time, if we apply consciousness, we'll notice that they're constantly shifting. That is, they're not fixed. Even in this moment, what you felt 30 seconds ago doesn't correspond to what's occurring, now. And so by being in the now, we end up noticing a constant flux, a constant change. Applying this quality of present moment consciousness unsticks us. What keeps us stuck is that we identify ourselves in fixed modes, like "I am an intense person;" or "I'm a Capricorn;" or "I'm a materialist;" or "I am a vegetarian."
When we begin to notice the qualities of the five elements that arise in the body and throughout our experience of life, we start to develop the visceral experience that nothing we experience out in the world is, in fact, is fixed, static, or eternal. So, for example, we may experience a lot of fire in one moment. In that moment we might feel anger, frustration, and warm, hot, or burning sensations in the body. Many of us have a hard time being with these feelings. They're uncomfortable. But if we apply a quality of curiosity to them, if we stay with our experience long enough without looking to express or repress the feelings that come up, we'll notice them morph into another element. Maybe we'll experience some water element; we may be become sad, weepy, heavy, and maybe even tearful. It isn't that the elements follow an orderliness, but they do shift from moment-to-moment.
The elemental approach is useful in that when we get a feeling we are either uncomfortable with or simply cannot be with, we can disentangle ourselves from the "I don't want" response, which leads to more "I don't want." Patanjali's notion of asmita, which is commonly translated as ego, is really an excessive sense of I or me. Two things comprise this false and excessive sense of I or me: the parts that cling to pleasure (raga) and the parts that avoid pain or discomfort (dvesa). Instead of being led around by the asmita, the five elements give a different lens to simply see what it is that we experience. While all personal experience can never be truly objective, the elements do give a quality of neutrality. As a result, they take us out of the propensity to think that whatever we are experiencing is either right or wrong. They take us out of the land of raga, dvesa, and asmmita and, instead, put us in touch with curiosity, openness, and discrimation (viveka).
So when we're awake to our discomfort, instead of seeking solutions, we can immediately start to ask, "What am I feeling here?" "Where is it?" "Is there a metaphor in nature I might use to describe it? Is it hot or cold? Heavy or light? Moving or fixed? Wet or dry?" "What is the primary element here?" "Are there any other elements present?" And then we can stay with the feelings as they shift by asking, "What am I noticing, now?" And then after a few moments, we can ask the same question, "What's happening, now?" Throughout the process if we remain open and curious to whatever shows up, we can begin to unravel and awaken to a deeper experience of wisdom.
Five Element Series
This is one part in a nine-part series that explores the five elements and its application to yoga practice. Be sure to check out the other posts!
- Part 1—Intro
- Part 2—Getting Unstuck
- Part 3—The Five Elements in History
- Part 4—The Ether Element
- Part 5—The Air Element
- Part 6—The Fire Element
- Part 7—The Water Element
- Part 8—The Earth Element
- Part 9-Transformational Breakthroughs