What You'll Learn in this Talk
A TALK WITH YOGACHARYA ERIC WALRABENSTEIN
I think as most of you know, the title of the talk for this evening, the subject matter, is Awakening Your Spiritual Superpower. And in the weeks since we first announced the program, I’ve been getting a lot of emails from people wanting clarification and offering suggestions on what would be helpful.
And there was one thing in particular that really struck me in receiving these emails and that was the wide variety of interpretations on that word spiritual.
For some it meant higher rather than lower, for others it meant closer to God or spirit or soul than something else–and various other permutations as well. And so, I thought that maybe the best place to start this evening would be to offer a definition that we could use for our purposes here this evening.
I’m not trying to convince anybody to change their definition, but for our purposes here I think it would be helpful to be on the same page.
So, when we’re talking about a spiritual superpower, much like a spiritual practice, the idea is not that the practice itself is spiritual or that the power is spiritual but more it’s like it’s designed to yield a spiritual result.
And that spiritual result is called many things. Some traditions call it enlightenment; some traditions call it God-realization; some traditions call it self-realization.
And if we strip off some of the different dogma and perspectives form the different traditions, I think we can agree that it really has to do with coming closer to our truest essence, whatever word you might give that–could be soul, could be spirit, could be God, could be nature.
Some traditions, they don’t give it a name at all, as a matter of fact that’s the biggest sin of sins, is to call it a name.
And so from this understanding, or at least this perspective, that these spiritual practices, or a spiritual superpower, is aimed at helping us to—I was going to say reconnect, but that’s not the most helpful word—recognize that part of ourselves that is always, already filled full, peaceful, spacious, at ease. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
The most essential part of ourselves. The part that isn’t subject to the ups and the downs and the dramas and the ‘thises’ and the ‘thats’ that seem to torment so many of us these days.
And so, if we are interested in creating this recognition—or facilitating this recognition—and the reason that I, by the way, little side note, the reason that I backed away from the word "reconnect" is because oftentimes it is conceptualized as a disconnect or that I need to get back to myself or that I need to get back to God.
And if you think about it logically, we’re talking about accessing our most essential self. And if that is your truest essence, how could you ever not be that? Does that make sense?
So it’s really not a matter of becoming disconnected or separate from that which you are; it’s more about being distracted from it. And there’s a term that’s used a lot, it’s called spiritual ignorance. And I like to pronounce it in a slightly different way: spiritual ignore-ance. Because it’s literally that we are ignoring that part of ourselves—not intentionally.
But that is always happening, it’s always here; it is the most essential part of you but we’re ignore-ant.
And the spiritual ignorance, it’s important to note, is different from what we conventionally think of as ignorance. Conventionally, if you’re ignorant of something, we think, “oh, you don’t know it.” And spiritual ignore-ance is not about knowing or not knowing; it’s about perceiving or not perceiving. Literally ignoring. Again unintentionally.
And so, the practices of spirituality and the superpowers–there’s more than one–of spirituality are designed to cure this ignore-ance.
And in order to do that it makes sense for us to really understand what’s causing the ignore-ance of what we are. And the short answer, I’ve already given it, is distraction, primarily of thoughts and feelings.
That’s why every spiritual tradition has somewhere in its core objectives, the creation of profound stillness. In the Yoga Sutras it says, “yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” With the recognition that when the fluctuations, the thoughts—and by fluctuations we mean all thoughts: good thoughts, bad thoughts, thoughts of God, thoughts of…dung, and anything else on the planet—when those are stilled, it presents an opportunity for us to perceive this thing we have been ignoring. Namely, that which is aware, which we could call spirit or soul or God or Self.
And so that brings us to this idea of stillness and the question we need to ask is: how is it created?
Oh, and by the way, irrespective whether or not one is interested in spiritual endeavors, so-called, and this recognition of one’s true self, this thing called stillness is what we all crave anyway: this relief from inner turmoil, the relief from a desire for something, the relief from loneliness, the relief from worry, the relief from anxiety, the relief from the struggle.
So, independent of whether or not you have a particular spiritual bent or not, the creation of the stillness is really the secret sauce of a life well-lived. Or maybe said better, the life that you want.
So back to the question that we need to ask if we want to be able to reliably create it, and that is to ask: how is it created? And of course the answer is it’s not created; it already is.
Right now, my words are swimming in this stillness, and even on your worst days when you are beset by all sorts of emotions and feelings and thoughts and anxieties and worries, all of those phenomena are swimming in this same space of stillness and silence.
It’s a lot like the sky. No matter how many birds are flying through the sky, the sky is still the sky. It’s still this still space. But the trouble is that when we have all of this commotion coursing through this stillness, it becomes really easy to ignore the background, the spaciousness, that which you are, that with doesn’t change or go away.
And so, the answer to how do we create this stillness is somewhat oblique. Because we don’t create the stillness, we uncover the stillness. And if we want to uncover the stillness, we need to stop the distractions. And it’s that simple. Stop the distractions. Simple, but not necessarily easy.
And if you want to stop the distractions, you need to stop the madness. There a really appropriate image in the Yoga Sutras, all of these thoughts, the word they use, that Patanjali uses, in the Yoga Sutras, is vritti, which literally translates as wave. Still the waves of the mind.
If you think about yourself in a little wading pool, and your goal is to still all the waves in this pool, if you go around slapping all the waves down in order to stop them, it’s pretty obvious that all you’re going to be doing is making more waves.
And yet, this is not that far off from the strategy that most of us have learned to stop the waves, the disturbances, the anxieties, the frustrations, the emotions, the feelings that are poisoning our lives is by more activity, doing more: slap, slap, slap… best of intentions but with unfortunate results.
So, the key to this whole thing, it’s suggested, is if we want to stop the distractions, we need to know where the distractions are coming from and the fact of the matter is these distractions are coming from the brain: the brain and the nervous system.
And this is where we face a really interesting quagmire. Because if anybody has ever been lying awake at night with the thoughts. Anybody? Right? Again and again and over and over.
The mind and its thoughts are an exceedingly difficult thing to manage. Particularly in the moment.
Over time, we can train the brain to be more and more and more what we might think of as well-behaved. To be more and more spontaneously and effortlessly on our side. In other words, more still. But in any given moment, the truth is that the things and people around you have more a control of your thoughts than you do. And I can prove it: a purple squirrel in a top hat riding a unicycle. You’re welcome. Right?
Because the fact of the matter is that the brain is an associative mechanism. That every input has an effect of creating an output. And when we try to manage it directly, we end up slap, slap, slap… and having lackluster, at best, results, which then raises the next question—a lot of questions it seems. Which is if we can’t control thoughts directly, if there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to grab on to that brain in order to manage it directly, at least in this moment, how do we begin to minimize the distractions.
And everybody understands what I mean by distractions, right? I mean the distraction of worry, the distraction of anxiety, the distraction of frustration, the distraction of loneliness, the distraction of fear, the distraction of anger, all of that turmoil that happens with us is what I’m referring to.
And of course, make no mistake about it, all of those things are manufactured moment by moment by your brain and your nervous system. This stuff is not coming out of nowhere. It’s manufactured by the brain and the nervous system based upon what it’s seeing or hearing or tasting or focusing on in some way.
So, if we can’t manage the mechanism directly, the mechanism that creates these distractions, the only option that we have, or let’s put it this way, the best option we have, is to stop feeding the mechanism.
And you’ll see that most of us are not very good at that: again, reference the lying in bed, the thinking and the this-ing and the that-ing—where’s all of your attention in that moment? It’s on the train of thoughts. And you’re focused on it, zeroed in. and every time you’re focusing on it, what you’re doing, that’s another input for the brain. And you’re going to think more of that.
It’s not an accident—huge change of topic—that we are beset with mass shooting in this culture. And I’m going to argue, and I’m not making any pronouncements on gun control, so don’t write letters, but I’m going to argue that the biggest contributor to this is what we see on TV and our phones. Advertising works. Because the brain is an associate mechanism.
I remember when I was in high school, I don’t want to say how many years ago—a long, long time ago—no matter how upset I got, it would never have occurred to me. But it occurs to people now to go shoot things up because the brain is exposed to that over and over and over and over and over again. And that’s how the brain works.
So, one of our most important things in terms of managing our lives, our evolution, is to recognize how the brain works and then be able to take advantage of that and head it off at the pass when it’s working in a way that’s not serving us.
So, back to the feeding of the machine.
Your brain is fed by where you place your attention. Right now, in your experience right now, there are thousands, tens of thousands of things that you could be attending to. There are sensations in your ankles. There are sensations in your back. There’s the feeling of your breath. There’s the sound of the air conditioner. There’s the lovely statue up behind me. There are the people to your left. There are the people to your right. There are tastes.
But your attention, for most of us at least I hope, is up here. Right? So, all of those other things are not being attended to. And this is where it’s important to make a distinction and to be really clear on the difference between your thoughts and your attention.
And this is something that most of us, not necessarily most of us in this room, but certainly most of us on the planet, haven’t really made a conscious delineation between those two.
Because your attention is that which is aware of things. So right now, you are aware of the sound of my voice. True or not true? True, yes? And you’re also aware of the sensations in your legs. True? And you’re also aware of the thought of a purple squirrel in a top hat on a unicycle. True? So those are things literally, now—arguably the sound and the sensation are more solid, gross, tangible things than a thought. But they’re things.
Is that fair?
And there is something else that is aware of those things. Yes? That’s attention. Or at least what we’re calling attention. Alternatively called consciousness, awareness. But were going to call it attention.
And when I place my attention on something uplifting like my little chihuahua at the back of the room, that is the raw material that my brain uses in order to manufacture the thoughts and feelings that happen to me now. And when I place my attention on a dwindling bank account, those are now the raw materials that my brain is using in order to create the thoughts and feelings that I’m experiencing now. Does this make sense?
And so, where I choose to place my attention matters immensely when it comes to how I feel. And like we talked about last time, how I feel is the only thing that matters to me. And it’s the only thing that matters to you.
All of those things we want whether it’s a car or relationship or money or saving the whales, you only want them because you believe they will make you feel better. If you won a million dollars, you make a million dollars and you’re still wracked by angst, you’re off to the races for another thing because that’s not what you wanted.
You wanted to feel better, you wanted stillness, you wanted inner peace.
So, this thing called attention is your Spiritual Superpower.
Or maybe said more specifically, your developed ability to consciously place your attention one place or another is your spiritual superpower.
And it’s also your secular, mundane, everyday superpower as well in terms of your well-being and your wellness and how you feel.
Because there is a huge limitation to this thing we call attention. And that is it can only really focus on one thing at a time. This whole thing called multitasking? It’s a myth. The men and women at MIT debunked that years ago.
When you are multitasking, what you are really doing is something called rapid toggling. Your attention is focusing on this and then that, back and forth, back and forth really fast, which by the way puts a huge toll on your nervous system which has all sorts of other ramifications for another time.
But suffice it to say that your attention can only focus on one thing at a time. That’s why you can’t text and drive safely. Right? If I’m focusing on the phone, I cannot focus on the road, period.
And it’s also by the way why movies work. Anybody ever had a pissy, gripey, grumpy day? And then your friend calls up and says, let’s go see some sweet little rom-com…like….what’s out right now….Toy Story? If you think that’s a romantic comedy, we’ll talk after! Ok fine, Woody finds love. We’ll leave it at that.
In any event, it doesn’t matter what movie it is; if you enjoy the movie, you’ll notice how for that 90 minutes, or however long it is, all of your problems evaporate. Isn’t that remarkable?
I mean, you could be struggling mightily with relationship problems, with finance problems, with health problems, none of which go away, change in any way, shape or form for that 90 minutes, but for those 90 minutes, it’s as if they didn’t exist. It’s because your attention can’t attend to the movie while it attends to these problems.
Now, if it’s a terrible movie, at least to you, that only means it doesn’t have enough horsepower, it’s not interesting enough for you to capture your attention fully. And so you sit there, still flitting between your problems, the fact that you paid twelve dollars and your recliner’s broken or whatever else first-world problem you might have in that moment.
And it’s only because attention hasn’t been captured, so it’s allowed to go and focus on all of these things that then become the raw material that are creating more of the unwanted feelings.
So, the key is something that we call in the yoga business dharana, which means concentration.
But it’s not just concentration per se, because the fact of the matter is that everybody in this room and most people on the planet are phenomenal at concentrating on what the mind wants to concentrate on.
And the mind wants to concentrate on, in case you haven’t noticed, what’s wrong.
And this is not an accident; it’s hardwired into your nervous system by Mother Nature, it’s called negatively bias. It’s designed to keep you alive. Because Mother Nature understood back in the cave-man days, if you’re there smelling the flowers instead of paying attention to the saber tooth tiger, you’re gone.
And so, there is a bias, hardwired into every one of us, to focus on the problems, on the negative, on what’s not working, despite the fact that you may be swimming in a sea of blessings.
But here’s the good news. Because attention can only focus on one thing, if you can put it on something that’s positive, just like in the movie, all of those things that are so-called negative, all those things that are the raw materials for the thoughts and feelings that are assaulting you, fade into the distance, and the brain begins manufacturing uplifting, helpful, hopeful thoughts and feelings, just by virtue of the fact that it’s placed here and not there.
But the problem is that very few of us have trained our attention in such a way.
Even those us who have advanced degrees. If you think about schooling, when we’re in school, our focus isn’t on training attention, it’s on filling the brain full of data, for the most part. And being able to do various different types of cognitive gymnastics. All of which are helpful things, but it’s a different game. It’s a different skill set.
So, most of us on this planet end up with what I like to think of as free-range attention.
Attention that can wander and peck anything that it wants. And as a result it does. And generally what it pecks is problems. The stuff that’s identified by the nervous system as a threat.
And that’s all the raw material that’s feeding into your brain, and that’s why you feel miserable. When you do—I’m not saying you do all the time. But what I am saying for sure, for everybody in this room, you feel miserable or angst-ridden or frustrated way more often than you need to. This I guarantee you. And that includes me.
So, the trick is taking back control of your attention.
At the very beginning when we did our little meditation you probably noticed, if you didn’t doze off, that I asked you to place your attention on the feeling of the breath and you probably immediately complied and brought your attention to the feeling of the breath.
But how long did it stay there? If you’re honest? And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll see that it was seconds.
Because it’s breath, breath, breath, oh maybe after this I’m going to go get some chicken wings. Or, for the really advanced practitioner, it’s breath, breath, breath, oh, look at how good I am at focusing on my breath. And the thought about focusing on your breath is a different animal than focusing on your breath.
So, we have this attention that is supposed to serve us, but we’ve become its servant. It wanders around and latches on to things, creating desires in the brain which sends us on wild goose chases in order to placate the brain’s desires. Because desire is nothing more than an uncomfortable feeling that we don’t want around. Which is why we’ll do just about anything to fulfill the desire to get the relief.
So where we can make the greatest impact—and again, this is from what we call a so-called spiritual perspective—in creating stillness to notice who or what we really are, or to recognize our truest essence, or our spirit, or our soul, or whatever nomenclature you choose to place on that. Or it also serves us in our everyday life to create the state that we are chasing 24/7.
I want the perfect relationship to be relieved from the uncomfortable turmoil of loneliness. I want to win the argument to be relieved from the uncomfortable inner turmoil of feeling wrong. I want to make an impact in the world to be relieved from the uncomfortable inner turmoil of feeling insignificant. But it’s all driven by uncomfortable feelings. It’s all we want.
And when we can recognize that and recognize the power of attention and how that can serve us to not create that state but to uncover that already always-existing state, the background through which the turmoil moves, that changes the game.
So here’s the practice. And I’ll warn you it’s laughably simple. Which is another trap that a lot of people fall into, dismissing the simple as impotent.
Because we do live in a culture that lauds complexity over simplicity. More is better. More complicated is better. More technology is better. More bells and whistles are better. And so when we talk about something as simple as what I’m going to suggest, it’s really easy for your modern-day brain to go “pffft.”
Or even the most well-intentioned will understand it and mistake that the understanding of the practice is somehow a substitute for the mastering of the practice.
And so one of the most helpful practices in training your attention to obey you, to serve you, to be able to be placed on something that lifts you up even in the midst of it getting distracted by something that is causing turmoil, is a meditation practice called anapana.
And anapana is a very, very simple focusing on the feeling of the breath, not the thought of the breath—that’s something else—not a visualization of the breath, that’s also a thought—the feeling of the breath in the nostrils and the upper lip.
And the process is this: I sit tall, I close my eyes, and I feel the breath. And it’s: breath, breath, breath, breath maybe I get some chicken wings…maybe buffalo wings….no too spicy….
And the moment that I notice that my attention is free-ranging, I say the magic yoga word: aha! There’s that habit of allowing attention to run the game instead of me running the game. And I come back to breath. Breath, breath, breath, breath, we’re out of toilet paper…there’s a sale at Wal-Mart….I don’t like Wal-Mart though…aha! Back to the breath.
And it’s really important that every one of those deviations first of all is recognized as a victory. Because there are people who will be on all these wild goose chases and all of these distractions never recognizing that they are disconnected from their life in this moment, which is the only place their life is lived.
And so when you notice the deviation, that’s a big victory. And then when I come back, that’s the second half of the victory. And then when I deviate again that’s a victory, and then I bring it back that’s the second half of that victory. So it’s victory, victory, victory, victory, victory – and that word’s important, because otherwise it’s….damn. And other words I shouldn’t be saying on the Internet.
And then that starts a whole other thing, because as soon as I say, “I can’t believe that I’m not able to focus on my breath,” that‘s the raw material for the next thought, isn’t it? And that starts a whole narrative. Each word in that narrative is another deviation from the breath. Even, as I said earlier, the thought of, “oh I’m doing really well.”
So it’s just a matter of training. And it’s not that different from training a little puppy. Because after all, a little puppy is a brain and a nervous system on a stick—four sticks. And you’re a brain and a nervous system on two sticks. But you’re remarkably similar, no matter what you would like to think about yourself. And the fact of the matter is that brain training for puppies and for people, for adults and for children, requires repetition and consistency.
So, when the little puppy of your attention starts to wander—no, no—sit and stay. And then it wanders again—no, no—sit, stay.
You could say “it’s not learning.” But every time, if you’re really paying attention, you’re noticing it’s staying an extra beat. It’s staying an extra three seconds. It’s considering whether it should leave before it leaves. Right?
So, there’s these little incremental movements that are happening. That if we just look at it and go, “oh the puppy’s not learning,” because we’re judging it from the big picture as opposed to looking for the little incremental changes.
So, it’s the same with you and your nervous system. And here’s another thing to keep in mind. You can’t teach a puppy to sit and stay when it’s sitting and staying. So if the puppy falls asleep, it’s not learning to sit and stay. It needs to deviate and then you go, “no, no, no, stay.” It’s the deviation that provides the opportunity for the training. Is that clear? Because it’s really important.
If you wanted to train your attention to sit and stay and you figure out that you’re really good at focusing when you’re sitting in a hot tub with a glass of chardonnay, I’m going to recommend that that’s not the best place to train your puppy mind. Because if it’s easy, the training opportunity doesn’t exist. Important.
So if you’re motoring along with some sort of meditation technique that’s easy for you just to lock on, it means that you need a more difficult technique. Because it is in that tendency to wander, that tendency to deviate, including the actual deviations, that the opportunity for growth exists. So, celebrate and use please, your deviations.
When the mind is uncooperative, a lot of people say, “oh this is not a good time to meditate.” That’s the best time for you to train your brain to sit and stay.
Now granted there are some times when it’s so wander-y, so out of control, that it might not be the best time. But waiting for the mind to be calm as the time to meditate is defeating meditation’s purpose as a growth exercise, namely the growth of you taking back your attention, and therefore you providing your brain with the raw materials that are going to lift you up as opposed to pulling you down.
Your attention can be your biggest enemy or your biggest ally in living the kind of life that you want.
If nothing else tonight, that‘s the thing to walk away with.
I’ve been doing this for coming up on 30 years, helping people with this technology of mind-body stuff, and there are an awful lot of people who are really, really expert at the tools, like how to do a yoga posture and how to do this meditation technique.
But their competency at the tools are somewhat divorced from what the tools are trying to accomplish and why it’s important to accomplish those things.
And the understanding what we’re trying to accomplish, specifically, namely, I’m trying to accomplish the control of my attention because the control of attention is what feeds my brain, and what feeds my brain is what creates the kinds of thoughts and feelings that I have.
Understanding that chain is the most empowering thing.
And then understanding how this simple practice of anapana—and by the way, the breath doesn’t have, in this case, any superpower. It could be a candle; it could be a flower that you’re looking at; it could be the sensations in your body; it could be your right knee.
It’s really just about focusing on one thing, and one thing that’s kind of boring.
Because if it’s really interesting, the mind doesn’t want to wander, and there’s no opportunity there. So understanding that principle is where we make our money, combined with repetition, daily practice.
It doesn’t have to be huge—fifteen or twenty minutes every morning is enough, and I’ve heard every—anybody can carve out fifteen or twenty minutes if it’s important to you.
But I promise you this practice done regularly will change everything. It will put you in the driver’s seat of how you feel. Which changes how you relate to people. It changes how you’re able to focus. It changes how productive you are. It changes everything.
As one of my teachers said, this is the one thing that will take care of everything in your life. If you’re willing to invest.
That is all.
Eric Walrabenstein is a best-selling author, ordained Yogacharya, and nationally-renowned educator in the fields of yoga and mind-body wellness. His work focuses on helping people to practically apply the lesser-known aspects of yoga and mindfulness to solve some of the most urgent and immediate problems of our time.
He is the founder of Yoga Pura, one of Arizona’s largest yoga wellness centers, the creator of the BOOTSTRAP Yoga System developed for the U.S. military, and the creator of the BrightLife Method, a first-of-its-kind program to help heal addictions of every kind. Eric's work has been widely featured in the media including on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, Success magazine, Yoga Journal, and beyond. Learn more at www.EricWal.com.