Yoga Book Club – The Untethered Soul
Dr Legumes hosted another fabulous supper for us at the last Folkestone bookclub meeting, and as usual I had so much fun that I forgot to take any pictures except for one of the food, which was delicious. We were discussing The Untethered Soul, A Journey Beyond The Self by Michael A. Singer.
In a nutshell, you can pretty much summarise the whole book with the following mantra “Relax and let go”. As a group we agreed that we found the author’s tone slightly condescending and we felt that many of the points were laboured although, this is probably because it is written for someone who has never come across these concepts before. However, we felt that overall the points made in the book were certainly useful on an everyday level. I do wonder though when “relax and let go” turns into apathy, especially when it comes to bigger issues. We discussed how it might not be so useful in instances such as grief or homelessness.
The book begins by talking about the voice inside your head referring to that voice as your roommate. We talk about this constant chatter in the mind in yoga, sometimes calling it the monkey mind. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali there is reference to modifications of the mind stuff and yoga is the way to restrain these modifications. I liked the way Michael A. Singer put it in this quote:
“You are locked in there with a manic.” Imagine that inner voice personified. How would you feel if someone spoke to you that way usually? You can’t trust the voice.”
Once we become aware of the voice, the thoughts and emotions passing through the mind, we can start to notice who it is that is experiencing these thoughts, who is hearing the voices, and we become aware of who we really are, behind the distractions. In yoga we refer to this as the Atman, or the true self.
“Yoga is not really about getting your body healthy although it does that too. Yoga is about the knowledge that will help you out of your predicament, the knowledge that can free you.”
So if we are not our thoughts, the voice in our head, our emotions who are we? The book asks this question stripping away the layers such as our name, our body, what we see feel and think and what is left is pure awareness, or consciousness – that which sees and experiences all of those other things.
When we get caught up in all of the other layers of the self, consciousness or the true self gets harder to comprehend. The author defines meditation as contemplation of consciousness, turning the awareness inwards and by doing this he suggests that you become awakened.
The book talks about thoughts and emotions as energy, going on to say how conflicting thoughts and denying emotions can be draining on our energy.
This energy he talks about doesn’t come from calories so where does it come from? Again, going back to the Yoga Sutras Patanjali talks about Prana or life force and how this can be developed through our yoga practice and in Chinese medicine they refer to an energetic force called Chi. The book goes onto bring chakras into the mix describing them as energy centres that can be open or become closed.
The book states that it’s as simple as deciding to stay open or to close, that we have learnt to close for protection. A sense of openness is described as love and enthusiasm and other people can pick up on that energy, both positive and negative. When we become caught up in thoughts and emotions about a particular incident we hold onto this energy and don’t simply release and let pass. The blocked energy circles around itself, and this is referred to as a samskara – a stored belief, memory or emotion. These past impressions get stimulated and bother us. The key is to let them go.
This is where it got a bit sticky for me – I couldn’t quite get my head round him comparing the behaviour of this type of emotional energy to atoms and planets in orbit, it seemed like a huge assumption to me. I would have loved a more clear explanation, which wasn’t so loosely linked to scientific principles.
Yes we feel things through in certain areas of the body, perhaps most strongly around the heart, and I can get on board with the fact that sensory input from the world around us becomes data in the form of electrical nerve impulses. It makes sense then that there is a constant flow of information we are not always aware that we are receiving and processing. I guess then that this would mean that the author is saying that the reoccurring beliefs/thoughts are stuck energy circling on itself.
Does this resonate with you at all? Do you have any beliefs that bother you, or cause emotional disturbance?
This reminds me of the way that hypnotherapy works – by identifying limiting beliefs and releasing them through relaxation and visualisation. Yoga Nidra uses a similar technique. I shared an article on facebook from Psychology Today about how many of the techniques talked about in the book are supported by modern clinical science. I was interested to read about cognitive diffusion, or stepping back from the thoughts, an idea used in many clinical techniques to promote psychological health.
The book goes on to talk about how in our modern society our fight or flight response now causes us to protect ourselves by closing, creating a shell around us. We become hypersensitive to attacks to our psyche. In our society these sensitivities are the norm, as we don’t need to worry about food clothing shelter. As we protect ourselves more and more we lose our freedoms and are unable to grow. However, according to the book, we can release all the parts of the psyche which are protecting ourselves and which are scared. Let them go and come back to the true self. We are then able to notice the energy disturbances more clearly and relax and let go. Not get caught up in the feeling. When we focus on the disturbances they grow in importance and take up more energy.
We try to protect ourselves from fear and control everything so we don’t have to feel bad. When our stuff gets hit and we get caught up we lose time and perspective, everything takes on a new negative tint. It knocks you. This can make us want to take drastic action to fix things – the response to run, to move, or leave a partner. This certainly struck a chord with me, does it sound familiar to you?
The author uses the analogy of holding onto the blockages, the fear, the beliefs, the negative emotions being like protecting a thorn in your side and how that can affect and influence your whole life. He instead suggests becoming an explorer of and a witness to the thoughts and emotions. Then allowing them to pass to achieve a sense of freedom.
My favourite quote of the book was:
“If you mistreat an animal it becomes afraid, this is what happened to your psyche. You have mistreated it by giving it a responsibility that is incomprehensible. Just stop for a moment and see what you have given your mind to do. You said to your mind “I want everyone to like me, I don’t want anyone to speak badly of me, I want everything I say and do to be acceptable and pleasing to everyone. I don’t want anyone to hurt me, I don’t want anything to happen that I don’t like and I want everything to happen that I do like.” Then you said, “Now mind figure out how to make everyone of those things a reality. Even if you have to think about it all day and night.” And then of course your mind says, “I’m on the job, I will work on it constantly”.”
We are constantly trying to avoid inner pain. We create layers and layers to avoid feeling the pain. To become free we must learn not to be afraid of the inner pain and disturbance. Insecurity, embarrassment, jealousy are all feelings that can pass through. It cannot touch you unless you touch it. Stop fighting feelings. Relax and let go.
Letting go of false solidity is recognising the psyche that we have built is not all that there is. It is a protective shield, a package of beliefs and ideas that make up who we think we are. And other people want you to have that so that you remain consistent with what they expect from you.
I wonder if anything has ever happened to you that made you question the layers of psyche you have built around yourself?
The author talks about the true meaning of spirituality as the ability to go past where you are, to push boundaries and get out of your comfort zone. He also discusses how we can choose to be happy:
“Billions of things could happen that you haven’t even thought of yet. The question is not whether they will happen. Things are going to happen. The real question is whether you want to be happy regardless of what happens. The purpose of your life is to enjoy and learn from your experiences. You were not put on this earth to suffer. You are not helping anyone by being miserable. Regardless of your philosophical beliefs you were born and you are going to die. During the time in between you get to choose whether or not you enjoy he experience. Events don’t determine whether or not you are going to be happy. They are just events. You determine whether or not you’re going to be happy.”
Again this is easy to talk about if your problems were manageable however how useful would it be to someone suffering from clinical depression?
The book finished with a chapter on the middle way or the Tao – finding balance and equilibrium in life and discusses the benefits of contemplating death. This reminded me of our last book – Mans Search For Meaning in which the author came up with a theory that we should examine each moment as if we have already lived it and now have the chance to live it for the second time. How would that affect our actions and behaviour? Through contemplation of death we can live life in a more present way.
I would recommend the book as something to dip and out of. There were a lot of useful concepts, well explained but as with a lot of these self help books I felt that it could have been a lot more concise.
At the meeting we decided that it might be time for a fiction book next so if you have any recommendations post them on the facebook group page and we can have a vote for the next book.
We will be discussing this book at the Canterbury meeting on Sunday, February 24th at Westgate Tower so if you missed this meeting but have read the book then come along and join us there xx