by Cristie Newhart - Thread teacher, mentor, and contributing writer
Before I would sit, I would do different rituals.
I would roll my mat out before my altar and begin. I would do physical yoga, pranayama, mantra. I would read uplifting poems and passages from sacred texts. Sometimes the actual sitting time would be drowned out by all the pre-meditation activity.
One morning I had an experience that shocked me, and changed my whole mind set. I had done my rituals, lit my incense and sat in front of my altar. I closed my eyes and shifted my inner gaze to my breath. The first few moments, perhaps the first minute there was a sense of stillness but of course thoughts arose. One in particular enchanted me.
Ice cream. Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Chocolate. In my freezer. Right now. It was 8:00am in the morning. I had spent 45 minutes preparing to sit. I didn’t experience myself agreeing to ice cream, nor getting up from my cushion, nor opening the freezer door. I became aware when I reached my arm in the freezer. Ten seconds ago, I was meditating. Now I’m going for ice cream. Wow.
To say this was a pivotal moment is an understatement.
I had had a whole-body experience of the reactive state of my mind. There was no pause between the thought that arose, and my action. They were joined. I was my thought. It scared me that a random thought had so much control over me. I was frightened not just for myself, but I wondered how this reactive state played out on our planet.
It was startling to discover how often we live from this controlled state. This lack of embodiment leads us to choices and decisions that keep us disconnected and discontent. We habitually cling to thoughts that direct us outward; we seek comfort, nurturance and direction from outside sources. No wonder I couldn’t bear to sit alone with myself for more than a few seconds. I had been trained to follow thought and ignore my body.
There is a saying, “how we approach anything is how we approach everything.” I approached meditation as another task on my list of self-improvement techniques. It was my habit to view the world through the lens of “not as good as everyone” and “better than everyone.” This left me in a constant state of arrogance and need.
I had no other goal that to just sit with myself.
After the ice cream experience, I decided to start over and reimagine meditation. I let go of everything I had read. This included scripture, how to manuals and writings of favorite teachers. I needed my practice to be an inside job, not following what others instructed or experienced. I chose techniques that truly resonated and allowed those choices to change and evolve. I embraced the idea of process rather than destination. It was a challenge at first, to let go of all I had been taught and everything I read, but I stayed my course. I had no goal other than just to sit with myself. And not by force. But by Love. It occurred to me if sitting didn’t point me toward love, then why do it?
I stopped considering how and why and just sat.
I started to worry less about thoughts and started to listen. I listened deeply to my whole experience, the way I would listen to a friend who was sharing something important and tender. I listened and silence began to take up more space in my experience. As I continued, the intimacy strengthened. Silence was close like the breath. Of course, thought noise filled my mind, (as you know thoughts can be determined to be thought on), and when I saw I had wandered, I just continued to listen deeply and the space between the thoughts emerged again and again.
The reactive mind and thoughts weren’t a reflection of anything, and I didn’t need to do anything about them. I didn’t need to study them or learn from them. They were simply part of the experience. Mantras help. Asana helps. Reading uplifting passages also helps. All these things can make our transition to stillness richer and easier. They uplift our lives in many ways. Meditative techniques are just that, techniques. But it’s important to keep all the tools and techniques in perspective. The beauty of meditation is that you don’t need anyone or anything to explore your experience of you. I recognized the sacredness of any practice occurs because I do it. I’m the sacred one, I give the tool or practice meaning.
My teacher Yoganand Michael Carroll used to say,
“Don’t worry about thoughts or belief, be the sky.”
I love that. The sky doesn’t concern itself with changing weather patterns, or movements of clouds. Some days it's covered in gray, other days the sun is bright. But always, sky remains sky. Aware or not, we remain ourselves.
Cristie Newhart is the former Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga, overseeing the 200-, 300-, and 1,000-hour yoga teacher training programs. A teacher’s teacher, Cristie is comfortable and confident leading a wide array of students, from beginners exploring the basics of asana practice to aspiring teachers investigating the subtleties of the Yoga Sutras. Cristie has been a faculty mentor at Kripalu for 20 years, she exudes equal parts warmth and wisdom as she makes some of yoga’s deeper philosophical aspects engaging and accessible to modern-day practitioners. No matter what she’s teaching, or to whom, Cristie imbues her classes with meditative inquiry, detailed alignment principles, and playful humor.