Churning the Ocean: Thoughts on navigating difficult emotions

riding the waves of change

churning emotionsI’ve had to think long and hard about what to write this week.  It’s been hard to digest what is happening in the world, and harder to work with the emotions it’s brought up. The yoga psychology course I’ve been facilitating has a whole unit on dealing with difficult emotions, and so this week I’m taking a cue from Michael Stone in sharing the tale of how Shiva’s throat came to be blue.

In Hindu mythology the azuras (gods) and devas (demons) were often locked in a battle for supremacy, but now and then they would cooperate in the hopes of attaining some boon or greater power (the way countries will cooperate at Olympic games even when they’re not getting along).  Both groups were in search of the nectar of immortality (or compassion, depending on who you ask) and were told by a higher power that they could find this nectar (amrit) by churning the ocean—just like making butter. They placed the holy mountain, Meru (a metaphor for the human body), on the back of a huge tortoise and used a divine snake as a churning rope. The gods took hold of one end of the snake and the demons took the other and they began to churn.  As they built up momentum and the ocean became a wild and frightening whirlpool a terrible stench arose from the centre of the mountain, and poisonous gases filled the air. The end of the world was imminent, so they called upon Shiva, who symbolizes pure awareness, to come and save them. Shiva flew down and sucked up all the poison, but he didn’t swallow it (desire) and he didn’t spit it back out (aversion). He held it in his throat with equanimity. The poison, halahala, is meant to symbolize delusion, or avidya, which means a refusal to see things the way they are.

Shiva with his blue throat (sometimes his entire body is depicted as blue)

Shiva with his blue throat (sometimes his entire body is depicted as blue)

Sometimes when we go deep into a practice of yoga or meditation we start to churn up old emotions or traumas that we’ve repressed or never acknowledged. Often students will leave a practice at this point, because if there isn’t enough support the vulnerability that gets accidentally unearthed can feel toxic.

The metaphor also holds true when it comes to political movements: in the seeking of change all kinds of poisonous and unacknowledged stuff comes up.  We have to deal with this personally and socially. Adding fuel to the fire doesn’t help, but neither does curling up in a ball and pretending everything is fine. What I’m trying to work on is awareness, compassion, patience, and readiness to step in if and when I see opportunities to promote reason and kindness. Sitting in this place is really difficult, and I have to practice starting over a lot.

Everyone has their own methods of coping (I’ve watched more cat videos than usual this week), and discovered that some lucky people don’t worry about the world at all. But for me I’m trying to worry about one day at a time, and to breathe, and to enjoy the warmth of the sun, and chocolate, and reruns of The Vicar of Dibley. I’m hoping that if a crisis that I can actually do something about arises, I’ll be able to respond appropriately and from compassion rather than anger.

Surfing, breathing, and practicing equanimity,


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Yoga and meditation teacher, writer, reader, cat-momma, environmental warrior, friend


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