Self-discovery in the key of om

Yesterday Erik and I attended a five-hour-long workshop with meditation teacher and former monk Sally Kempton. I’d never meditated before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but since I’d never done anything at City Yoga that wasn’t fun and worthwhile, I was looking forward to it.

I had sort of thought we’d spend the workshop sitting cross-legged and looking inward — which we did, sometimes — but mostly Sally talked, with participants also contributing to the discussion. I never thought a former monk would say things like “shit” and worse, but Sally did (not often, I should add). It was refreshing, and her voice slow and soothing. Erik said he felt that being at the workshop was kind of like attending a really long poetry reading. Not everything Sally said made sense to me, and even what did, didn’t provide the burst of clarity I’d hoped to get from the workshop. But the atmosphere was open and supportive, and overall it was an interesting experience, and one totally unfamiliar to me.

We only did a couple of meditations, but both times I was surprised at how light and peaceful I felt afterward. We would align ourselves in an upright seated position, breathe, and listen while Sally talked us through questions like, “Without thoughts, without emotions, without ideas, without memories, who am I?” During the meditations, I felt a bit fidgety, though I had less trouble reining in my thoughts than I would have a couple of weeks ago. I kept feeling like I was just sitting there with my mind wandering, not really meditating. But afterward, I’d open my eyes and look around the room in surprise, realizing that actually I’d been quite far away in my mind. I don’t know if that’s what meditation is supposed to feel like, but I definitely haven’t done anything like that before. It did feel rather present-moment.

I guess I’d expected a meditation workshop to have more instruction in it, more guidelines on how to start a meditation practice, things like that. Instead we just tried it a couple of times, and talked, and I honestly can’t even tell you most of what we talked about. If the workshop had only been a few hours long, consisting of the meditations we did in the first half, I would have said it was interesting but I didn’t learn too much.

In the second half, though, we did “voice dialogues,” which were very interesting. I have to tell you, voice dialogue sounds kooky and insane. The idea is that we all have many personas within our self, which are often in conflict, but which can be taught to integrate into a more complete, more aware self. Sally laid down a couple of ground rules and then started talking us through the dialogue. She asked us to assume a different body position for each persona, and respond to her questions as if we were those people and not the person we usually think of as ourselves. Many of the participants had done this before (including what appeared to be the entire current cohort of City Yoga teacher trainees), so they knew how it worked and helped set the tone for the rest of us. The dialogues would go something like this:

Sally: I would like to speak with the part of you that is the Controller.
Everyone moves into a different position. Some people stand up.
Sally: Who am I speaking to?
Everyone: The Controller.
Sally: And what do you do?
Everyone: I control.
Sally: What do you control?
Everyone: Everything.
Guy: The people I love.
Woman: Everything the Self does.
Sally: Why do you control?
Man: So I won’t get hurt.
Sally: You mean, so the Self won’t get hurt? What is your name?
Man: Jeff.
Sally: You control everything so Jeff won’t get hurt?
Jeff: Yes. I’m watching out for him.
Sally: So you, the Controller, are actually helping Jeff.
Jeff: Yes, I’m protecting Jeff.
Sally: Does this sound familiar to the rest of you?
People nod.
Sally: Does the Self appreciate what you do?
Everyone: No.
Girl: Sometimes. It’s mixed.
Sally: It’s mixed. Talk more about that.
Girl: Sometimes the Self is glad I’m there, because I protect the Self from pain. But often the Self thinks I’m in the way.
Sally: Ah, yes…

Kind of weird, right? But it was intense for me, and I’m still not completely sure why. After the Controller we moved on to the Protector, the Skeptic, the Wounded Child, the Vulnerable Self, the Voice of Desire (meaning more than just sexual desire), the Mind of Pure Awareness, the Voice of Truth, the Awakened Self, the Lover (again, not just sexual), the Beloved, and the Integrated Self. I had trouble getting into some of these personas, while others were almost revelations.

For one thing, I discovered that I hardly ever listen to the voice of Desire. This came as a surprise. I’m so accustomed to catering to my wants, how could I not know my desire? But finding this voice was tough and unfamiliar. I feel like it’s a different question to ask, “What do I truly desire?” than my more usual question, “What do I want?” Desire implies hunger, necessity, urgency. Desire is all-consuming; you can’t desire half-heartedly. Wanting is more prosaic, like wanting a snack, and superfluous, like wanting a new pair of shoes. When Sally asked to speak to the voice of Desire, I realized that I didn’t even know what that voice sounded like (whereas the Controller was very easily accessible!). It made me wonder whether I should start asking myself more often about my heart’s desire.

Something about breaking myself down into various “people” really worked for me (well, when I wasn’t just sitting there confused, trying to figure out who “The Mind of Pure Awareness” is). I guess I’ve always sensed that the more controlling part of me isn’t all of who I am, but sometimes that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. When we got to The Lover, we all responded that we felt very powerful and even complete. Love is more powerful than the fears that lead us to control and protect ourselves, and yet we live with all these tendencies within us. According to Sally, once we’ve learned who these voices are, we can call them up at any time and ask to speak with them, until we get used to hearing them and learn to recognize them when they pop up. So, for instance, if you feel an urge to shout at someone you love, you might recognize that it’s the Controller speaking, and you can then adjust your actions accordingly. Or if someone says something that makes you want to curl up and go fetal, you might recognize that this is your Wounded Child responding, and you can take the necessary steps to make yourself feel safe, reassured, and loved.

I guess overall what I got from this workshop is just that the mind and self are very confusing and complex, and even though I’m starting to figure out who I am, there’s still a lot to be explored. I don’t know if I’ll start meditating regularly or even at all, but at least now I know how to begin if I decide that’s something I want to do. Certainly it did feel good. It was an interesting experience, being in the presence of Sally and all these yogis and meditation practitioners, trying this out for five hours. And my whole being does feel a lot more peaceful and quiet today. I’m glad I went.

(Bay Area yogis take note: Sally is doing another workshop in Los Gatos in June.)

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]