To understand more about oneself through self-observation it helps to have something in particular to focus on.
There's a lot here so go slowly. It starts with the basics then gets interesting later on.
There's a lot here so go slowly. It starts with the basics then gets interesting later on.
Every moment in life is a play between dualistic forces, and the dualistic nature is why what we experience is always changing. Even when things seem to stay the same for some time, there is always momentum, and where there’s momentum there’s always potential for change.
Prana - vital energy; life force
Nadis - channels in which the pranic energy flows, primarily in:
Pingala - one half of the duality of personal prana: positive polarity, masculine, hot, solar force. Relates to extroversion, action, linear thought. In the right side of the body-mind
Ida - the other half of the duality of personal prana: negative polarity, feminine, cold, lunar force. Relates to introversion, concept, holistic thought. In left side of the body-mind
Sushumna - the so called spiritual force, transcending ida and pingala, through which kundalini passes when ida and pingala are balanced and harmonised.
Samskaras - Impressions from experience stored up in memory. They have energy, and a strong influence, often unrecognised, on character and personality.
Prana - the life force
All creation, all life, is multiplicity, seeming many forms. In the yogic view, multiplicity is considered to be the outcome of the play of duality - a potential for infinite outcomes between two polar opposites.
To understand better the underlying presence of duality, you can look more closely at a well recognised dynamic in yoga. It relates to prana, the life force, and the energy cycles in the mind-body.
There are two active forces that influence both the body and mind, which are known as ida and pingala. The way we experience everything in life has something to do with the outcome of the interplay between these two forces in the personal energy field. So experientially, they are very much a part of us, part of our life, all the time.
Each energy force rules a certain disposition or expression in both body and mind. An interesting way to understand ida and pingala is to separate them completely into their two polar opposites and imagine one without the other (something that never normally happens). Like feeling only one half of the body, or using only one half of the mind.
Pingala as Action
Pingala governs the right side of the body and the 'right side of the mind'. Pure pingala can be summarised as Action. Now imagine what Action would be without thought: Much energy, very much movement, but nothing actually gets organised or done. Like the behaviour of a hyperactive child - lots of energy, lots of activity, but no method, no aim, no plan and therefore no achievement.
Ida as Concept
Now go to the other polarity and consider Ida, the 'left-sided’ energy, which can be summarised as Thought or, if you like, Concept. And then consider Concept/Thought without Action: Amazing imagination, wonderful ideas, but nothing actually happens. The dreamer, the fantasist, builder of high ideals, but no action to make it happen.
This is the essence of our makeup as an expression of the play between two polar forces, Concept and Action. This is keeping it simple to get started, but experientially it goes way deeper. (You have to get around the idea of Action and Concept in both the body and the mind, which includes Concept in the Body and Action in the mind.)
The search for equilibrium
Of course it's never just the one or just the other, but some combination of the two - that’s what gives rise to all the complexity. We are always under the influence of these energy forces. The outcome, in our thought and behaviour, is a result of the interplay between ida and pingala at any one time. It is so very much there all the time that we take it for granted and may not recognise it.
Learn from the energy pattern
The ida/pingala matrix manifests in such an individual way that it is an ever-present opportunity to get a handle on the unknown forces within us. And if I consider myself to be a good self-observer, then my own changing moods and attitudes become very useful in giving awareness a focus, and learning about myself.
It may start with, I’m feeling so restless today, because of over-activity in pingala, or I’m really not into doing that right now, because of predominant ida; but we can soon move beyond that into very interesting levels of self awareness where you can get to see thought and action interacting with each other at very fine levels.
The relationship between ida and pingala
It’s also understood that the expression of the two energies, while never only just one or the other, are almost never at a point of perfect equilibrium.
As mentioned already the balance is always shifting; one of the two is always predominant. We are more under the influence of pingala, action, for some time and then under the influence of ida, concept/thought for some time.
In a relaxed mind and healthy body the pranic energy cycle changes between maybe every hour/hour and a half, from ida to pingala, or from pingala to ida.
However, when the cycle transitions from one to the other, there is a moment when they are momentarily in equilibrium, like scales in the balance.
Usually we miss these moments, but they are rich in wisdom. At that moment everything is as right as it can be; we feel tapped into ourselves, in touch. But we have to learn to trust it in the moment. Because its soon passes as the momentum of the energy cycle moves on.
The purpose of yoga practice is to raise, balance and harmonise the pranic forces. With knowledge and experience of these energy patterns we gradually move toward harmony and equilibrium. The extent of the swing of the cycle between excessive thought and excessive action gets less and less, and the length of time of the balance between the two begins to extend. This is how we progress in yoga. As a result the body becomes less restless and the mind becomes more calm.
Where it gets interesting
Although ida and pingala go on exchanging day in day out over the years, we never really get to know them.
Firstly, we take them for granted - just one of many changing moods. Or they have become their own cliche and we bounce off them without seeing any deeper.
Secondly while ida is predominant, I am that. I am so much that that I don't know know the other at that time. Then later the same is true with pingala. When it is one I don’t see the other as it is, from the other side as it were. I may have a a memory of what it was like, but at that moment experientially I don't know the other, at all!
So ida does not know pingala; pingala does not know ida, because they are almost never there with equal status at the same time. Thought and Action are forever at a remove from fully knowing and understanding each other.
But when in a moment, there is equilibrium, and ida and pingala are present, balanced, at the same time, then you don’t just know them as they have always been. Each one is reflected by the other and you see them both more in perspective. In a manner of speaking they kind of cancel each other out.
You draw an inference out of each one seeing the other at the same time. Both are true in their own time and place, but neither are completely true, because if I’m this in pingala, I’m also that in ida, so how can I definitely be either or both.
It brings a certainty that neither ida nor pingala represent who I am definitively. This is when a third, unified field which has been there dormant all along, comes into play.
Keep in mind that this unity remains unknown while experience is limited to the duality of ida and pingala. But with practice and patience, the right time comes when for a moment both ida and pingala are present, and seen and known together for some time.
Putting the same thing a different way
When pingala is seen and experienced as a part of a polarity with ida, and ida is seen and experienced as part of a polarity with pingala, rather than as individual forces vying with each other, then the two are understood in a way like never before. Not as worlds in themselves but as part of a much broader canvas - seeing the two leads to transcendence of both.
And you come to understand then that the search for anything permanent in either one alone is going to be pointless, because it will always change. For most of the time we are experiencing some kind of imbalance, so we struggle with a partial vision that is always changing. That’s the nature of the problem.
Breaking the cycle
And the way out. If we can get to know the ida/pingala exchange as a continual living experience rather than as a concept, we begin to see our personality expressed through them.
It seems that samskaras - our accumulated experience in the memory - have a way of gravitating toward either ida or pingala according to their nature. Or, the other way round, samskaras are created and selectively stored by the very individual nature of our ida or our pingala. Either way the point is it is really worth getting to know them intimately and, by close self observation, you can see how they manifest.
But they remain elusive because of their all-embracing nature when either is dominant. The so-called illusion we live under is the strength and familiarity of the experience when either one is active, to the relative exclusion of the other - which is pretty much all the time.
In normal circumstances, unless we reflect on it, we take each one to be who we are in that moment, even if it is only temporary, and even if intellectually we understand it is only temporary. But there is always change, back and forth. Nothing remains constant that one can hold onto to be reliable in any one circumstance.
In yogic terms when there is equilibrium between ida and pingala, the third energy state begins to be experienced. This is sushumna, which runs centrally in the spinal column. When there is balance, the excesses of both ida and pingala are levelled out.
It’s like the exact point in a magnet where (theoretically at least) the iron doesn’t move because it lies exactly equal between the two magnetic poles. That’s when sushumna becomes active. And just as a reminder, in normal health that happens very briefly once every hour/hour and a half. It’s a David Attenborough moment! Catch it when you can.
We are all self aware in some measure, but there are many ways that self observation can shift to another level completely. It takes only a moment of insight or inspiration, what works for you, and then a consistent-but-relaxed, persistent-but-forgiving, with-intent but without-expectation, measure of the right kind of effort to develop and maintain an open mind on oneself.
Some other ideas
The energy matrix of ida and pingala is just one example of the variety that can be observed in duality. Try these too:
Thought and emotion - most people find on close examination heart and mind run like currents in different directions.
Already mentioned, but requiring more thought, Like and Dislike - why do these forces operate? They have a purpose beyond the obvious? In a nutshell self-observation is the observation of Like and Dislike / Preference and Rejection. Trace them back to their source. It’s not so obvious as it seems.
Individual and Universal - Discover how the mind individualises the Universal and universalises the Individual, usually for its own convenience. The Universal carries more cliches than anything else. Cliches come about either because they are 'too well known’, or as in this case not known well enough.
Just to be clear, reference to ida and left side of the body and 'left mind’ are references to the pranic energy forces in yoga. The actual brain hemisphere, you probably know, is the right side. But that is academic knowledge; spontaneous self reference is to the yogic body-mind in the left side. The same is true for the right side with pingala, which corresponds with the left hemisphere of the brain. Of course brain and mind are not the same, but that’s another matter.
Environments also influence the play of these forces within us. Pingala, Action, is much like the behaviour as a result of stereotyped 'modern life' - acting on impulse, action for action’s sake, with Thought running a clear second. It’s the way it’s come about, what we were born to, and so we probably think there’s no alternative; or know within ourselves there is another way but don’t know how to get there from here.
And Ida, Concept, in modern life is either suppressed to some degree through the longstanding predominance toward Action; or alternatively in the midst of so much Active influence Thought, fantasy, becomes a refuge, when life itself becomes like an allergy that we want to retreat from.
Health and happiness are directly related to balance in the personal energy field.
And lastly, if it happens that the pranic energy does go out of balance, breaking the usual cycle, and either Concept or Action become predominant for a longer period of time, then the mind and body are prone to dis-ease, either as sickness in the body, or turbulence in the mind, or both.
And finally, something practical
Breath and prana are not the same. But, the best way to connect with and manage the prana is through the medium of the breath. In pranayama, breathing practices, breath is the medium, prana is the effect. In this way there is a direct relationship between the flow of the breath in the nostrils and the effect experienced in the prana: the flow of the breath in the left nostril, ida; and in the right nostril, pingala. So through the medium of the breathing in the individual nostrils the pranic flow in ida and pingala can be contacted and experienced.
One simple way to get a handle on the actual experience of the two nadis is to practise simple nadi shodhana - a pranayama practice where, in its simplest form, by controlling the flow of the breath with the hand, the breath is drawn in through one nostril, then exhaled through the opposite side; then inhaled through the same side (as the exhale), and then exhaled through the opposite, making one round. But practise this, breathing quite gently, not for three or five rounds but for fifteen or twenty minutes.
Once the breath and rhythm are established and you hardly have to think about doing it, pay particular attention to the subtle effect of the alternating stimulation of ida and pingala now taking place quite rapidly, with each breath, first one side then the other. This speeds up the rhythmic cycle of the nadis, and after practising for some time the separate experiences of ida and pingala become quite noticeable, then noticeably closer together - like almost but not quite at the same time. This gives a different experiential reading of the two nadis and their energy patterns.
The effect of nadi stimulation
Sometimes while practising this, after some time, there may be a temptation to stop. If a nostril is blocked then that is the reason. If you are running out of breath, then you can breath more gently more naturally - after all you're only breathing almost normally just guiding the breath alternately - should be easy. If you just get bored then the awareness of what is happening could do with some fine-tuning. If none of these, then you have to examine more closely.
Nearly everyone is unconsciously inclined to being either introvert or extrovert. Ask an introvert onto a stage and wild horses couldn’t drag them up. Invite an extrovert up and you can’t get them off. There will be at least some inclination in either direction. And because of that subconscious choice we tend to encourage the action of our chosen one and possibly suppress the action of the other. Being action orientated, pingala relates to extroversion, and being thought orientated, ida relates to introversion. And a person with an extrovert/pingala tendency does not like so much the ida experience; and an ida/introvert tendency does not so much like the pingala experience.
So when we practice like this for some time the nadis become much more equalised, then the pingala-preference meets more ida than they would normally have chosen and the ida-preference meets more pingala than they would have chosen. Then there is a subconscious stand-off, which can translate into an unfamiliar experience moving you outside the comfort zone. Of course the purpose is to balance nature’s forces so these preferences have to be understood as a subtle form of imbalance which can be rectified. To arrive at a balance the experience has to be met with somewhere sometime - no need to wait to be dragged on, or hauled off a stage!