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How We Change - On Pratipaksha Bhavana

One of my students is concerned for the health of their child and asked me for advice about how they could go about compartmentalizing those feelings in the presence of the child. My advice about this is an elucidation of the yogic principle of pratipaksha bhavana which I thought might be useful to share.

The mind has a thing it is concerned about. That is what is happening. The brain's fear/safety center, the amygdala, gets first dibs on responding to thoughts; this keeps us safe and alive. So the tendency is for fearful thoughts about the thing the mind is concerned about to arise. That's natural, and that's fine. What comes next, that's where we practice. In yoga, we use pratipaksha bhavana to shift mental tendencies that are not useful; a common translation is "cultivation of the opposite thought."

So! The mind has a concern and you do not wish to be awash in fear? Cultivate hope, or cherishing of the now, or whatever else you choose that feels like what you aim toward feeling in relation to this situation. This is not denial. Go ahead and acknowledge that fear, tenderly, as if that emotion were a sad or frightened child itself: "Yes, little one, I see you there. I am holding you." And then cultivate what you aim for: "Here I am now, in the sunlight, watching it shine on this child's beautiful hair." Or, "Here I am, in the car in heavy traffic, listening to my children bicker on this glorious, miraculous, everyday day. How lucky we are to be here now, for even this mundane moment, in all its glory." Or ,"I cultivate bravery, hope, and cherishing of the now in honor of myself and this beautiful spirit, my child." You see what I mean, and the key is to consider your own heart, mind, imagination, and choose something to practice regularly that moves you. Let it grow deep until it becomes a habit of its own; eventually it can become the first response when we retrain our thought patterns over years.

Your original query was a thoughtful ask about compartmentalization, which stores things for later. So often we forget to unpack what we store until we run out of storage and the boxes knock us over. Or we lose the key to the box and we don't know how to open it again. So let us not compartmentalize. Let us acknowledge -- which might need a space of its own: shrieking under water, beating the couch with a tennis racket, sobbing on the shoulder of a dear friend. Let us make space what needs to be felt. And also, in other moments, let us transform with pratipaksha bhavana. Take the energy of your concern and turn it to cherishing, to savoring, to wishing, to prayer. Let it become a force for good within you and around you, that energy. This is what we mean when we speak of spiritual alchemy: emotion arises. We could become lost in the story of that emotion. But if we go back to the root, which is always love, we can shine right out past fear into more love, into cherishing, into the glorious beauty of the shining, endless NOW. Impermanence is terrifying; the mind cannot grasp it. Impermanence is also that which makes the eternal now so beautiful, so beautiful.

As for me, I will be practicing what I teach here, and turning my concern for you and yours into loving prayer for your peace and wellbeing, over and over. My heart is with you.