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April 27, 2016

The Uphill Battle with Impermanence

I’ve been taking more care with my words these days. Having learned from my yoga and meditation practices over the years not to identify with my thoughts, I try hard to no longer say I’m tired, I’m furious, or I’m over it.

Yoga philosophy teaches us that the world is in perpetual motion and that all realities are always changing, whether they’re our bodies, relationships, or thoughts. That underlying notion of a permanent me? Simply an illusion. That’s impermanence for you.

With that in mind, rather than saying I’m exhausted, I’m angry or I’m sick of this, I decided to consciously practice saying I feel exhausted, I feel angry, or I feel sick of this.

I am mortified became I feel mortified.

Let the negative thoughts fade

In that little shift from I am to I feel, you let go of the stuckness of any of those feelings and acknowledge that yes, right now in this very moment, you might be experiencing sensations of exhaustion, anger, or stress. But you are not any of these sensations. And just like a feeling of hunger arises and then fades, so does anger, staying for a moment before it passes on.

It’s similar to what happens while you’re holding a challenging yoga pose. Say, for instance, you’re spending five breaths in Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance pose) and you keep falling out. You’re impatient with yourself and you just can’t figure out how to pop into that back-bending standing split right away.

The chattering narrative in your mind becomes one big sweeping soap opera of how terrible you are and how you totally suck at yoga. You might as well give up because look at that one girl up in the front row, and how does she do that and why can’t you just be still? And then you wipe out and land on your butt, and surely everyone in the whole room is watching. Now they’re definitely laughing at you because did you see how you fell out of that pose?

“And you still have three breaths left to go.”

Those are the moments wherein yoga practice is all about witnessing, about watching the thoughts and saying to yourself: Isn’t that interesting? I feel self-conscious. Or, isn’t that interesting? I feel wobbly, inadequate, small, or tight.

Say no to self-doubt

Rather than being inadequate or tight, in that moment, you are just feeling those things. If there’s one thing we learn from yoga, it’s that there is no essence and no inadequate, unworthy, unlovable, fill-in-the-blank-with-your-own-self-doubting-adjective, capital-S Self.

This notion is called anatman or the idea that all aspects of self are fluid and ever-changing. They are always contingent upon the relationships in our lives.

You were once an infant, and now you are not. You were once a high school student, and now you are not. You were once a Nebraskan, and now you are not.

“None of it stays.”

Everything you think you are in the most solid of ways—even seemingly solid identities such as being a mother—you haven’t always been, and won’t necessarily always be.

Change is the only constant

Let go of language that asserts that you are, especially when it’s in reference to states of mind such as anger, fear, exhaustion, or irritation. Because you aren’t any of those things, you are just breath and consciousness. These feelings are simply sensations that will come and go, and you have the power to associate with them.

Or you can step back and recognize their impermanence: Well, isn’t that interesting. I feel clumsy and useless in this moment. But I know those feelings aren’t me, and they will pass, along with all of my stories about who or what I am.

Maybe your ego is fed by your amazing arm balance skills or maybe you are a total yoga ninja, in a Handstand on every Sun Salutation. That’s great. But you have to learn to really be present with those things and know that they might very well change the moment you fall off your bike and break your collarbone and both wrists.

Who are you now?

Then who are you, if you’re no longer the Bakasana-into-Handstand person? You are still you, because you were never arm-balance man. Just like you’re not your house or your car or your abs or your hair, because all of that will change.

So drop your stories. I see the suffering that comes with identifying with our stories on so many faces in the course of a single yoga class. They tell themselves with furrowed, self-judging brows: I’m too fat to do this pose, I’m too weak, or I’m too uncoordinated. And they are not.

At the base of all those sensations, identities, and stories that arise, you are basic goodness. You are a particular shining spark of divinity. You are a bodhisattva, a unique and beloved person.

“The rest is all just tissue paper, cream filling, and cosmic bubble wrap.”

So practice it. Notice your words. Offer some gentleness to your anger, your fear, and your weariness. Feel them rather than be them. They will all pass.

And what’s left? Bright, beautiful you.

Rachel Meyer
Rachel Meyer
Rachel Meyer is a Portland-based writer and yoga teacher who believes in keeping things real. She has a heart for the sacred ordinary.

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