Sometimes you just need to get out of the city, even if you don’t have a car. Lugging a pack almost as big as myself, I wound my way through the crowded Port Authority Bus Terminal en route to a meditation retreat at Ananda Ashram in upstate NY. As the mountains began to rise in the distance, I felt myself start to calm as I eagerly anticipated my retreat with Joan Suval who is known for making the profound wisdom of the masters accessible to the rest of us. She was a disciple of Guru Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati who founded Ananda Ashram in 1964 and is referred to as the ‘Mother of the Ashram.’
I’d heard about Joan’s signature meditation, called ‘witnessing,’ which is simply becoming consciously aware of our body, our thoughts, and our surroundings without judgment and was excited to experience it.
Arriving, I set up my tent in the woods and gathered with a group of twenty or so spiritual seekers in the Ashram’s temple for a 30-minute guided meditation with Joan where she spoke about moving into a state of witnessing by allowing ourselves to relax, let go, and notice the sounds and light around us and inside of us.
After the practice, Joan sat in a big armchair in the living room of Ananda’s Main House like a mother hen, gracefully fielding our questions with ease and humor as we sprawled around her on the floor. Hands shot up at every opportunity.
Seeker:“You said in the meditation to enjoy the peace of witnessing. But often when I meditate, I am in physical pain and I don’t feel peaceful. What can I do to make meditation more of a peaceful experience?”
Joan: Not all parts of a guided meditation apply to everybody. When you hear me saying to ‘enjoy the peace,’ you can silently say ‘Yeah, right?!’ and continue witnessing what you are experiencing.
Pain can help you in a way, because one of the outcomes of a continued meditation practice is realizing that we are not our physical bodies. When you feel blissful you tend to get attached to that. When you feel pain it is easier to separate from the body which actually brings you closer to the truth than when you are fully identified with the body. When you practice this regularly you’ll be in marvelous condition for the later years of your life because it’s inevitable that the body will be in pain at some point.
Seeker:“What should I do when I am trying to meditate and my body feels weak?”
Joan: If you feel weak, just witness that. Notice the tendency to judge the state you’re experiencing and try to shift to simply observing. It’s like with jurors: if they have pre-conceived notions or biases, it wouldn’t be a fair trial. You learn to see yourself clearly by becoming an impartial observer of your condition.
You don’t have to stay in a seated position. When you are practicing with people you don’t know you need to be more formal, because they may require that – but here you can lie down in the back. You’re still meditating.
Seeker: “When things don’t go according to my plans I feel panicky and worried. What can I do about that?”
Joan: From the perspective of the impartial witness you’re able to assess what you’re worried about and see if it warrants getting hysterical. A super-duper witness says, OK, is this a flood or a fire? Yes? Then leave the building. No? Then stay in and see what this emotion is like.
You see, the witness is uncontaminated. When you observe anything in your life without expectation, the process can only lead to peace. Expectations never lead to peace, because reality is always either less than, or more than we expect, and we’re never happy with that. Meditation is a surprise. Don’t think; don’t plan; trust.
Seeker:“I know I should meditate more often, but I’m often too restless. How can I stop procrastinating?”
Joan: You can observe anything in your life – even if it’s that you can’t meditate. You can just say, ‘I’m going to take you for a walk, restless body, until you calm down.’ If your mind is too active, you can see a therapist or talk to a friend. It’s like taking care of a teenager – if you try to force them to do what you want they’ll eventually rebel. Let your body and mind be what they are, and take the parts of the process that can work for you in each moment.
Maybe you can notice how your feet feel touching the ground, or witness the sounds around and within you. Or you can close your eyes and observe the light or colors you see. Even a blind or deaf person can see or hear these things, because these inner sensations transcend the physical mechanisms of eyes or ears.
Seeker: “I’m realizing that a lot of our stress comes from wanting to control everything. How can I let go of my ego?”
Joan: The idea isn’t to get rid of the ego. To get here, you had to make plans and logistical arrangements. The ego is good for that. With witnessing, we learn to let go of the ego when it’s not helpful. There’s a great force that’s in us when we learn to get out of our own way by letting go of control.
It helps others too, when they can see us encountering a shock or an unexpected situation in a calm way. Of course initially we’ll have a reaction – but it’s very helpful for those around us, whether children, parents, or students, to see that we’re able to deal with disappointment or other strong emotions and not remain upset. It opens the door a little bit to others trying yoga and meditation because it will help them too.
Seeker: “What if you tend to be a martyr in relationships?”
Joan: When you’re witnessing, you become more aware of your internal state, and you can see clearly when you’ve had enough. Maybe your thinking mind tells you it ‘shouldn’t be’ enough, and you try to force yourself to stay in that relationship putting up with things while the pressure and resentment build up. But if you let go of your expectations of what’s enough, you’ll know and you’ll be able to say: enough’s enough. Arrows are set forth from our past actions. Where they land may cause pain, but we can decide whether we choose to continue suffering or not.
In the end, you don’t need anything more than the perfection you already are. Life is a game and we should enjoy it instead of getting frustrated by it. It’s called “lila” in Sanskrit – the interplay of our own sense of individuality and the ultimate truth that we are all one.
Joan Suval teaches twice per month at Ananda Ashram and holds a “Satsang in NYC” on the first Wednesday of every month. The sessions include readings from the works of Shri Brahmananda Sarsvati and other great masters. She also has a website where you can listen to readings and download her talks.