How to Move Through Resistance to Something Beautiful

Yoga asana’s and meditation is a morning ritual I follow most mornings. Of the many things I get from regular practice is a lesson about dealing with challenges in life that I find yoga continually teaches beautifully.

While meditation, Qigong and Taiji are practices I have done for a number of decades, one of the unique moments that yoga offers, is creating the space, stillness and time to relax and breath into specific discomforts in ways that gets more subtle, deep with progress.

It occurs in a way that really opens up mind and body energy for the day ahead. Forcing or processing physical, mental or emotional blocks and resistance, is not necessary.

The principle of relaxing into discomfort can also be applied to daily feelings of conflict or tension on emotional, mental and physical levels in daily situations. Yoga can help train you to notice even subtle disturbances or disharmonious feelings and sit with them, making them your friend rather than something to avoid, then using breath and observation with your whole being to enable a wonderful shift.

Bringing breath and consciousness to the exact point or edge of discomfort in a particular pose is all that is required to intimately feel and shift energy or tightness, releasing tension to gain clarity in the moment. It is about surrender with intent, allowing the dissolving of energetic resistance in body and mind in a way that takes you more deeply into a place of formlessness and freedom.

Practices that utilise breath and meditation in movement unite mind and body, allowing a real inward journey that opens up inner awareness. They also combine controlled exertion with deep relaxation, and both combined provide a powerful process of building resilience and depth of relaxation of mind and body.

Yoga presents an opportunity in many asana’s (prolonged postures and body positions) to find a point of resistance deep in a joint or soft tissue that is ready to let go. Traditionally developed systems of yoga work through all of the body and energy channels in a systematic way so a progressive process may unfold of balancing, stretching and strengthening the body in every nook and cranny.

Maintaining continual release of thinking for awareness of breath, while performing controlled movement and relaxed determination required to hold balance, strength or co-ordinated flexibility serve to calm and strengthen relaxed focus of the mind.

Often, in the beginning, there may be many points where there are obstructions to reaching the shape and position of poses or asanas. As practice progresses over time, asana’s that were once impossible or difficult begin to happen as movement and openings occur, the points of resistance becoming more fine and deep. Yet the level of physical performance is not the point.

By spending time breathing and consciously connecting to points of resistance while also maintaining a sense of how the whole body and mind are responding, is part of the art. Subtle shifts in resistance or discomfort takes you on a progressive journey long before a visible change occurs in range of movement and depth of balance.

What is apparent is correct practice and intent combine to activate usually hidden points of tightness, blockage or immobility. All it needs is continued gentle intent and practice to release, while the breath and light of consciousness do the rest. An unwinding of these historical and unique stress patterns then can occur also impacting shifts in perception, body awareness and state of consciousness.

We tend to judge discomforts and want to stop them and cling to feelings we prefer. In this process, there is no resistance to the discomfort, nor attachment to an outcome. It is about acceptance, surrender and being fully with what is in the moment and allowing a transition to spontaneously occur.

The results show that processing or judging issues are often not required to move through them. A calm and open heart and mind with gentle focus and acceptance are often enough. The light of consciousness itself provides all the transformation we need if we can get our own conditioned thinking and self image out of the way.

In the inner practice of yoga, while inner body experience, breath and synchronised movement bring you to a point of maximal stretch in a certain pose, the feeling of resistance may be on many levels. We can use this approach to more gracefully move through difficulties and enjoy the process within ourselves.

Being able to be present and calm with discomfort, allowing it to transform into something else is a learned skill. It need not involve any controlling or forcing. Instead working at the edge of the comfort zone is where we can be in discovery and change rather than suffering in a space we don’t want to be.

The willingness to allow shifts to happen is required. Old tensions reflect old survival mechanisms so tapping into abiding inner peace is where we can feel energetically safe to let old protectiveness go. It is powerful to let go of preconceived ideas of what shift or outcome we think we want, and be open to what presents itself in any moment or situation as the here and now process.

It is often tempting to want to hurry up and manifest what we want, and yet the greatest treasures lie in attuning to the process where we learn not just what we want but also what we need.

Enjoying and expressing ourselves more openly in the present moment is where our creativity and discovery can really happen. Conscious movement and breath can be a safe way to find and release unconscious patterns in ourselves. Through practice we can be better positioned to attune to that process as they are activated in relationships, emotional ‘ups and downs’ and demanding life situations.

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Ways “The Zone” and Mindful Presence Help You Triumph – Part II

In Part I of this article looked at a the shifts in consciousness associated with ‘the zone’ or ‘flow performance’ which are terms referred to in the sporting context. In this second part, I explore the relationship and transition of this conscious shift into ‘mindfulness’ or ‘conscious presence’, which are terms used in a spiritual context for a specific state of consciousness.

The conscious states in these various contexts can enhance wellbeing and performance not just in a demanding situation, but also in normal daily life. They are indicative of a deeper conscious state we can access that provides a deep quality of awareness and enables us to deal with life’s challenges without stress, pain and suffering. What are the elements we can incorporate into our physical activities and lifestyle to help us achieve these conscious shifts?

In this article, I cover three key elements that make physical activities most effective in shifting consciousness and releasing stress.

Shifting Consciousness and Releasing Stress

A different scenario to high acuity and elevated states of awareness during adrenaline sports and activities primarily activating the sympathetic nervous system, are the relaxing synchronised activities that activate the parasympathetic nervous system and train the mind to achieve subtle but sustained states of awareness to those discussed in Part I.

Activities like Tai Chi, Yoga, or Hiking in nature can provide prolonged experiences of this type of awareness. With the right practice and inward focus, they can provide a conscious release from the thinking mind with body movement and mind-body awareness as a transitional focus to get there.

In these instances, a ‘flow performance’ or in ‘the zone’ experience can also occur, albeit not as intense and brief, with gradual progression in stability and duration of the experience, beyond the activity that facilitates it, into normal daily life.

Nonetheless, occasional intense experiences arise at unpredictable times just as they do with more adrenaline oriented activities. I have had some peak moments of flow and awareness arise on days when I was not feeling so good and there was a need to draw more deeply into myself to focus and perform. Such unexpected peak moments may not have even correlated with an unexpected peak performance but left me with a shift that enriched more energised practice over the following days and weeks.

Three Key Elements

There are three key factors that provide a powerful combination for practicing and developing mindful awareness which are shared in a great range of disciplines like those mentioned above. They are:

  • Controlled body movement or posture, synchronised with
  • conscious and purposeful breathing, along with
  • focused but relaxed attention with full inner-body awareness.

In adrenaline sports or dangerous activities, as in high concentration work and activities, the mind is highly focused in the immediate moment and every second. Training oneself to voluntarily be fully focused in the here and now and immediate experience, body awareness and activity at hand, with a mind clear of thought and heart open in presence is the key here.

To do so with a sense of alignment and harmony (the state of mind as primary to the experience as the activity itself) is a universal theme of philosophies and spiritual teachings like zen, buddhism and other approaches that make inward focus and personal experience their primary focus. This is why Tai Chi is often associated with Zen and Taoism, or Hatha Yoga and Pranayama breathing exercises with inner Yogic meditation and Indian Vedanta.

The basic elements however, can be applied to any activity or non-activity like simply sitting which is at the essence of zen practice, or pouring a cup of tea like the more elaborate tea ceremonies of China and Japan. This is simple but subtle, which is why it is hard to conceptualise and is better to be contemplated through practice rather than theory and intellectualising.

The dimension where such practices become truly spiritual, is in the consciousness that opens the practitioner to an authentic sense of deep peace and expansive presence that can overcome suffering (emotional and mental turbulence and pain) and putting the ego in its place as servant rather than master. Becoming immune to anxiety and stress through this transcendent state is coupled with access to a sense of unity with life with a feeling of abiding peace, love and even a consistent underlying blissfulness.

From Movement to Mindfulness

The key in all of this is the super high acuity of the present moment while the sense of self is replaced with an immersion in the entire experience based in the interaction occurring between self, the environment at hand and any interaction with others without separation between them. The experience of all three is occurring within, in the conscious mind. This is where the term ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ is relative. Sages throughout the ages have communicated deep insight into the nature of everything being an experience in consciousness itself.

In this state of high acuity, identification with a self image dissolves. It is replaced with a sense of being the space in which your enhanced experience is occurring, rather than identification with the content of the present moment experience. This comes with a sense of accepting connection or unity with it all. Mental narrative and thinking is replaced with a still open receptivity, that provides for spontaneity and responsiveness that is not consciously premeditated.

This is not a zombie-like state, but a surrender to an innate intelligence and consciousness that alert and full of life. When it is found repeatedly, there is a sense of returning to a home base of consciousness that is there whether we tune into it or not. It is the life and conscious essence of our existence.

Even when a brief insight and awakening is achieved, for example with some professional athletes as discussed in Part I, if the whole focus at the time (and following) for the person is on winning or losing or some external outcome, then it may not transform into anything more than a psychological zone for optimal performance. It either becomes part of the high of winning or is discounted and negated in the disappointment of losing and the conditioned identification with mind content is not transcended.

If the focus of the experiencer is on the pleasure, connectivity and fluidness of the experience as a primary outcome in and of itself, then such a peak state can be appreciated and recognised as a deeper state of being. Being lifted from the conditioned and mundane sense of being a separate self reveals or validates a profound sense of life that many describe as spiritual.

Such peak experiences can be a time when we drop our usual familiar mental constructs and ‘points of reference’ spontaneously. Just a few, or even one experience like this, can open up a new sense of what ‘conscious’ being and doing is. It is certainly a profound shift when a person feels irreversibly, albeit subtly and obscurely changed, and peak moments like these have produced this kind of impact for many.

A sporting challenge, prolonged or extremely acute stress and suffering or a spontaneous and blissfully perfect moment can all provide for a few, an portal to those peak moments when we spontaneously experience a shift in being and awareness that translates into a new level of perceiving and performing something in our life. In a sense, it could be perceived as the purpose for the challenges and struggles of life. Meditative movement or stillness can nurture and train mind and body awareness to be more attuned and prepared for such moments.

These moments can be termed as states of heightened mindfulness or ‘the conscious practice of presence’ as they can produce a recognisably high acuity of here and now consciousness. Other benefits of this sense of higher self is that it imbues life experience, beyond good or bad, with a greater appreciation of beauty, goodness and excellence as intrinsic qualities in nature, other people and life in general.

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Ways “The Zone” and Mindful Presence Help You Triumph – Part I

Many people adopt long term, even life-long, practices of some physical activity because of the physical, mental effects of well-being as well as a love for the activity itself or the skill sets acquired by doing it. Long term practice and participation in a certain discipline or activity can provide a rewarding journey that contributes to self development and enrich your life.

In addition to many health benefits, the outcomes of focused and demanding physical activities provide many incentives such as muscle tone, cardio fitness, improved energy levels, a rewarding endorphin hit, a better body image or the experience of stress release. Outdoor activities have the additional rewards as a healthy and invigorating way to get out in fresh air, sunshine, sometimes in country-side, beach, river or ocean.

Can such activities provide even more profound benefits than those of health, wellbeing and life balance in terms of quality of life? This article and Part II to follow briefly explore how deeply these activities assist us in terms of quality of consciousness, and even transition into spiritual awakening and redefining ourselves. Also covered below are four factors identified by professional athletes and sport psychologists that are characteristic of the high or flow performance states referred to as being in ‘the zone’ or ‘the flow’.

Impacting Quality of Life

A common saying is “what you put in determines what you get out” and in line with that, the answer to the above question certainly hinges on intention and focus to make a physical activity more than, well … more than just a physical activity.

The experience and recognition of a deeper and more profound sense of self while performing a loved activity can arise in spontaneous peak experiences or can by a gradual and consistent part of something which has become an aspect of someones way of life. The personal rewards gained can then translate into other areas of their life.

Accessing or drawing on deeper levels of strength and endurance for example can translate into mental and emotional strength and endurance as well as physical. Similarly, tapping into deep and diverse personal resources to maintain training regimes and disciplines, simply because of the value gained by keeping them up consistently, can translate into being more prepared to face other life challenges and vice-versa.

It is facing and overcoming any life challenges that facilitate personal development on all levels, so having a regular practice that you enjoy can provide challenges by choice that help us with the challenges we don’t enjoy as much or for those unexpected challenges we face and don’t consciously choose.

The same applies to spiritual endurance and depth. Physical activities can be a great vehicle for awakening consciousness if the quality of consciousness while doing it becomes part of the practice and a purpose for the activity in and of itself. An outward outcome like competitive success or attaining prowess in a physical skill, that may have originally been a primary motivator, can become an added bonus or consequence when initial goals have been met and deeper value and reward from the discipline and practice begins to be revealed.

For example, striving for and at least partially achieving a level of excellence in anything in life can also have positive ramifications in other areas of life. When a level of excellence begins to be attained it can have the impact of transforming the outlook and mentality of the achiever. They now have a level of excellence and expertise in something to personally take ownership of that becomes part of their outlook on the world and other aspirations and lifestyle endeavours.

When personal values and qualities are developed and internalised, they can be incorporated into a person’s sense of life and self generally. When career success, long term competence in a hobby or personal pursuit is only externalised to that specific task or goal to measure oneself by, it can only have a limited benefit to the person and other aspects of life. Such transitory externalisations can be financial or competitive, attention or status seeking. These can provide validation, enjoyment, a sense of achievement or create more opportunities. Yet, without a context of internal values to ones sense of character and awareness, they may not deliver long term meaning, purpose and ongoing value to ones sense of self and life fulfilment.

High Performance States as Peak Experiences

Peak experiences among professional sportsman are often documented and discussed. Terms such as being in ‘the flow’, ‘the zone’ or psychological ‘sweet spot’ in sports is still associated in the mainstream with maintaining a state of being psyched up, challenged and goal focused while enhanced by arousal of the nervous system and mind.

However, from understanding associated brain patterns and endorphin releases along with athlete experiences, I do not think these specific states rely on being hyped up. This can help adrenaline release but is not an essential element of the four phases of ‘the zone’ below. The science developed around these states is relying more developing the skill to enter an alert meditative state while embracing outward challenges.

When you listen to more seasoned athletes who experience ‘the zone’ spontaneously and repeatedly to varying degrees as a result of their focus and natural state of performance, especially when doing something elite or even groundbreaking, their descriptions and explanations tend to be inwardly reflective and profound.

American basketball player Kobe Bryant set a record in 2003 with 12 three-pointers in a game with nine of them in a row without a mis-fire. He was quoted as saying about his state of mind during his high point that “It’s hard to describe. You just feel so confident. You get your feet set and get a good look at the basket – it’s going in. Even the one’s I missed I thought were going in.”

Like many players in the zone, Bryant was relatively quiet with a neutral expression going into the game and throughout. He displayed his optimum performance with almost trance-like composure, experiencing acutely high awareness of his body and his environment, the whole court and players as well as the rhythm and flow of the game without being self consciously focused on it all. These are demonstrative physiological signs of alpha brainwave states associated with ‘the zone’ among many sports psychologists and researchers.

Four phases acknowledged by American NFL sporting commentator Kevin L. Burke for athletic peak experiences of ‘flow’ or in ‘the zone’ [1] are:

Firstly, that most athletes will say it is not predictable or controllable. [However, the science of training the mind are developing and this will likely change in the future.] Ironically, the experience itself gives a sense of being in control, due to a sense of being in harmony with the flow of the game or activity and a sense of knowing or certainty with each action.

Secondly, most flow performances occur when an athlete is feeling intensely challenged.

Thirdly, there is a clear understanding of what they are to do, even a clear image of the actions ahead which includes a lucidity of their objective and how they will achieve it.

Finally, they are not concerned about scores, trophies, fame or money from a win in the moment. What is most valued is the actual enjoyment of participation rather than any outward objective.

Many people have experienced everything happening in slow motion while in this space. Also of interest is that there are many instances in competitive team events of team mates thinking there may be something wrong prior to the peak performance, because the athlete had become unusually quiet and focused with a neutral expression rather than the usual hyped up aggression and determination.

After a few years of martial arts training, I have had a similar experiences, a stand out one when defending myself in a real situation. I responded non-aggressively but effectively in the same way some sportsman report paying their game in their peak state. The experience seems profound and lucid, the greatly heightened awareness including an experience of 360 degree vision and slow motion so I had a sense of abundant space and time as I observed my responses. The lucidity of the experience has remained with me in a positive sense in every detail even decades later.

Unconscious competence lends itself to this state also. Someone unskilled or inexperienced in an activity are not likely to perform highly in this state. Regular runners, tennis players, cyclists and many others have written about transformational states they have gone into during endurance training or in the intensity of an important event. The normal egoistic sense of self is gone, as super acuity expanding the senses and awareness takes over.

This is greatly facilitated by adrenaline sports that have an element of danger as they really require great focus in the moment and this can be quite addictive with the the rush of mood elevating chemicals along with mental sharpness. However, meditative activities can bring practitioners into the same state, so maybe it is not about the demands of the activity as much as it is about becoming free from identification with the thinking mind?

The next article will look at the key elements to activities that provide shifts in consciousness and awareness that contain elements of ‘the zone’ and ‘flow’ but go deeper in supporting conscious awakening.

Reference:

[1] (http://www.sportingnews.com/us/other-sports/news/what-does-in-the-zone-mean-athletes-peak-performances/1kugz4tuad8j513rgnpophp65q)

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How to Deal with Obstacles to Loving Awareness and Presence

In addition to comments like “I can’t meditate, my mind is too active”, I also get many questions about how to deal with mental and lifestyle obstacles to practicing presence or mindfulness during daily life, as well as during meditation sessions. What I offer here is a very simple approach that I believe is the basis of good advice on mindful presence and meditation from many practitioners and teachers that I also apply on an ongoing basis.

The short and simple answer may sound basic but there a lifetime of refinement involved and once you practice this approach for a relatively short but consistent time, it takes out the frustration factor many experience in trying to force or use their will in controlling the mind. Frustration only compounds the mental obstacles to being present and enjoying relaxed deep meditation.

The key is to make any distraction or disturbance, thought pattern or other obstructions, your focus of observation rather than fight it or let it drive you. This is best done in combination with relaxed conscious breathing and inner body awareness to help centre and anchor you. In other words, include mental chatter or outside disturbances in your conscious field of observing with loving or non-judgemental awareness.

Especially in the initial seconds or minutes of resetting yourself, combining conscious breathing and fullness of inner body awareness not only helps relax mind and body but also provides an anchor for you be still and present (the eye of the storm) amidst mind activity, stressors and pressures of the moment or environmental disturbances. A dissociation then occurs between you as the observer and these active elements which helps train the mind in maintaining undisturbed presence while being amongst the continual flow and changes of form and activity of life in general.

A disturbance may be noise or activity around you, inner turbulence or mental activity, an emotional upset or a mounting feeling of pressure that there is too much going on at the time to pause and really be present while you deal with it. It can be a countless array of things that the mind hooks on to in its habitual mode of activity and having to have an ongoing narrative when your focus is away from the true essence of consciousness.

Once you have taken enough breathes combined with inner body awareness to begin to settle (even if you only have minutes for the exercise) you can then give yourself permission to observe your mind activity in a detached non-judgemental way as you continue. This helps the mind to settle further and can be done eyes open or closed.

Even if it mind activity remains agitated for a time, affirm you are not your thoughts and that this is only the activity of mind which will pass. When you continue to observe mind activity while present with breath and inner body awareness, a subtle shift of identity occurs. Consciousness of being as the thinker of thoughts becomes more primary to the unconscious identification with the effects of thoughts and feelings that are our inner reaction to a situation. Low energy levels and mood of the day can also require us to be more consciously present than usual in order to experience mindful presence, feel ourselves and be on top of things.

Whatever it is, the fact something is challenging you to feel stillness, calmness and be fully present in the moment means that ‘something’ is the training you have been gifted in that moment to go deeper and become more adept at mastering your psychology, awareness, effectiveness and wellbeing.

A semi-conscious allowance to be pre-occupied, distracted with inner tension, or waiting for something to pass before you take a breath and relax mind and heart into a conscious state of being, is a symptom of identification with, and being sucked into, the narratives, conditioned perceptions and mindset of the conditioned mind. It can also come from investment in an outcome so that we loose ourselves for a time in some mundane pursuit that seems vitally important in that moment.

The conditioned mind is based on past programming and future concerns. Our true consciousness or state of being is always fully present in the here and now. Being disconnected to that full presence is a sign of reactivity, avoidance or attachment to some aspect of what’s going on in relation to past experience and future concerns. The only true remedy is to let go of concerns and break the loop by practicing some mindful presence for a time. Then when you go back to dealing with whatever is going on you can feel more present, aware and bring that sense into your actions and way of dealing with things. Often, perspective and perception shift and we can then deal with things better, less reactively and with more awareness.

Another prompt to take a moment to practice conscious presence is when you find yourself taking a conflictive position on some matter, opinion or stance. This can take us out of presence and into our mental projections of beliefs, opinions and reactions. Whether these are right or wrong, good or bad, we are more empowered, clear and on track if our identification is not centred on an opinion or resistance to external matters and instead rests in timeless and non-judgemental consciousness while we deal with the relativities of life.

Internalising a sense of conflict and non-acceptance with something, even if it is not involving you, get’s in the way of feeling whole, balanced and open in the present moment.

Even at this moment take some deep breathes, being present and aware of your entire body from within. In the precise moment affirm all is as it is including yourself and you can be fully present in heart and mind. Does this simple intent and action help you feel more present and aware of yourself and your surroundings?

Consider the last time you got caught up in a situation or train of thought (it can be positive or negative). Continuing a few conscious breaths of body awareness here and now, imagine being more fully present with an open heart at that time you are recalling, so you can experience and respond to it with more of your deeper consciousness. It may mean enjoying a good moment more or dealing with a difficult moment better, feeling the empowerment of not losing yourself in it and applying yourself consciously.

Come back to any distractions or stressors that may be current in your day or evening and be present with it fully – observing with a relaxed, open heart and mind. Affirm that “It is what it is”. Simply by more fully illuminating our experience in any moment with a full and present consciousness not identified with it, choice and transformation become more possible within and through you. This is subtle yet becomes more and more empowering and awakening with practice.

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The Backbone of Health and Happiness

When it comes to diet, stress management, dealing with any health and lifestyle issues or deepening your own personal spiritual life there is one common key factor. If you have high levels of stress, churn over repeated discussions in your head about certain things, procrastinating about certain compulsive or ingrained habitual behaviours you want to change or have a persistent ongoing concern, then the following is especially relevant.

The backbone to all of these areas is self-love, because it impacts our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. Before you assume that is just rewarding and nurturing yourself, which is great, the self love I am referring to goes deeper than that.

We really cannot receive or convey love fully unless we are open and accepting within ourselves to fully experience our own love, independent of our personal and unique expression of it.

The body and mind are only fully healthy when there is an accepting and loving foundation to our state of being. Cell function, hormonal balance, brain function, immunity, digestion, the microbiome in our bodies as well as cardio vascular and nervous system health are all impacted by our emotional and mental tone and what messages we are giving ourselves each and every day. It is a feedback loop between mind and body so balance or imbalance can be self-reinforcing. Self-love is a tonic for stress, anxiety, physical imbalances and the key ingredient to personal wellbeing.

To explore our own potential in having a personal and experiential spiritual aspect to life, requires a sensitivity to frequencies of love, compassion and good-will. Our sense and expression of these can only be authentic or deep if we draw on these qualities of consciousness regularly within and towards ourselves as well as others. Our relationships or sense of connection is also empowered, as people recognise and are drawn to someone who emanates comfort and self acceptance with love in themselves.

So what is self-love at its foundation? If we contemplate love aside from specific associations with romance, love of family or friends, love of a pet or a life passion, then we must look to what all these contexts (and any others) have in common in terms of what we recognise and know as love. If love is inclusive of these different relationships and feelings, it is also deeper and more universal than what distinguishes each of them.

In line with many spiritual teachers and traditions, I relate to the essence of love as being the recognition and spontaneous sense of oneness. When we recognise a living aspect of ourselves in another living being or in nature or life around us generally, then there is a sense of connection and unity that underlies all form and differences which are temporary and changing.

We can feel a sense of oneness when on our own and it is possible in any situation with others. It may be conscious or only semi-conscious at times but we respond positively nonetheless when this feeling arises from within, and especially when it is a mutual experience with others. There is a pure beauty, happiness and goodness that comes with a deep sense of unity as our being-ness includes our own world and others.

This is where meditation or coming back to simple mindfulness can be of great assistance. The mental narratives of our conditioned mind are often negative in tone. This is a primary cause of stress or disturbance and can be tied in with chronic illnesses. Even if they are positive, identifying with our commentaries and conceptualisations is losing ourselves in a mental construct rather than being in an alert state of presence in the here and now and experiencing it as it is. Absorption in mental constructs creates a sense of disconnection from ourselves and others. It is a tension of misalignment which may have become subtle in its normality and is a root cause of underlying discontent and unhappiness.

Our mental narratives and conceptualising are generally conditioned by the past and projected onto the present or into the future. This puts us out of sync with feeling love and oneness in the here and now because true love and presence is a living and spontaneously arising feeling from the nature of our consciousness which is timeless rather than a projected concept or time-bound thought.

Being aware of our thinking and narratives then shifting gears when they are not useful or positive is a great practice of self-awareness and beginning to adjust old thinking patterns. In most cases, they are actually not that positive or useful, unless part of a creative or problem solving process. The greatest practice we can do in our busy lives, is to take opportunities every day to not think at all and just ‘Be’.

This does not mean putting pressure on ourselves to have no thoughts which is a practice of frustration and inner conflict. It means that we take time to just be and observe. If that observing includes an open hearted acceptance and mindful awareness of each thought as it arises, as well as our breath, body and immediate surroundings, then the mind will settle down and we can begin to feel a deeper peace and be restfully energised.

This is a practice of self love in and of itself. Unity and connection within ourselves wherever we are at the time arises from the conscious space in which you are reading this now. Even if there are things about ourselves or a situation we would like to change or improve in time, in any single given moment we can practice letting go of our attachment to an outcome or future-based projection we have constructed, and simply accept be here and now. Trusting issues can be resolved out of this presence is a totally different way of going about life for someone who is constantly pre-occupied.

Positive thinking can be a great means to an end, as it can make thinking more constructive and absent of self-sabotaging and limited conditioning. The thinking mind tends to focus on what distinguishes things from each other and whether they are favourable to us or not. This is the dimension of separateness where fear and concern, attachment and aversion become more activated. It is also how we get drawn in and become reactive to life.

However, settling into the essence of our living being and consciousness through mindful presence can be an end in itself. Its value is in the moment as well as being cumulatively and progressively beneficial.

Free of our narratives and concerns about past or future allows the unchanging and continual primacy of being become the foundation of our doing. Allowing time to practice and experience this regularly leads to recognition of a wonderful quality and sense of being. This spectrum of feeling is pervaded with love and compassion for it is a unified field of awareness. It does not need to be willed or manufactured, as many practitioners confirm generation after generation, because it arises spontaneously when we give it mind and heart space.

Even if you know this conceptually, it is not the same as actually allowing yourself to ‘be that space’ here and now. Applying it daily develops the art of being and doing without getting lost in the doing. When we are in conscious being, we experience the primary essence of ourselves and others as the same universal essence.

In a state of conscious being, what we may like and dislike about ourselves or others becomes transitory, relative and superficial. It doesn’t define us in any moment. When an issue arises that actually matters, it can be approached without reactivity because it no longer matters completely. The primacy of conscious being keeps things in perspective.

There is an inherent perfection in formlessness that helps us accept and work with the relativity of form. The way we face and perceive life situations may reflect aspects of our character but are not absolute truths or who we really are.

In presence we don’t become anaesthetised, but rather more perceptive, accepting and capable of acting creatively without reaction. We can more deeply love with a penetrating awareness.

Ultimately, conscious awakening is a deepening understanding through personal experience that unlimited conscious love is what we are at the core of our own living essence. Complete love is always here and now – self love is about opening up to it here and now from within, then letting it fully infuse our awareness and ‘doing’ with each breath.

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Important Tips on Vagal Toning for Complete Health

Much about good health and a healthy long life is now being linked to the ‘tone’ of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Because the sympathetic nervous system which invokes ‘flight or fight’ response is also commonly over-activated in stressful and fast paced living, it is more important than ever to tone the parasympathetic system for mind and body, in addition to high activity exercise.

Toning the parasympathetic system assists in repair and rebuilding to all cells and tissues in the body, quicker recovery and shifts into relaxation, lowering blood pressure, and helping recovery from adrenal fatigue. Having both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems toned and balanced is important for mitochondrial functioning, lowering inflammation, regulating hunger and hormonal balance and boosting immunity.

The importance of regulation and health of microbiome in the body is tied in with the parasympathetic system health. Much is now being found out about the critical role bacteria plays for health regulation in the body and immunity. Consider the mass of our bacteria is greater than our own body cells, and our body cells contain 3000 genes while there are 2.2 million genes in the DNA of our bacteria with a cross-over of information between our body and brain and these critical bacteria. Microbiome, along with mitochondrial functioning will be covered in another article, but these are now considered two key factors in energy production, disease prevention, brain health and long term anti-ageing for healthy longevity and are also linked up with the tone and functioning of the vagus nerve.

The Vagus Nerve

A key component to the parasympathetic system that is now taking centre stage amongst many practitioners of health and healthy lifestyles is the vagus nerve. This is a two-way highway of energy and information between body and brain. Taking its name from the latin word for “wandering”, it is the tenth and biggest cranial nerve extending directly from the medulla (brain stem) to most of the body. It affects facial muscles and eyes when we relax and smile, connecting to our digestive system from our throat to all digestive organs, and connects with our heart and lungs. It’s connection to the digestive organs of the liver and kidneys mean it is not only impacting our digestion and metabolism but also detoxification and elimination of waste and by-products of what we eat, breath and put our bodies through with stress and over – or under-activity. A toned nervous system supports stability in mood, memory, and overall brain health. So there are many systems of rejuvenation and body functioning that the vagus nerve impacts, to indicate it is a key factor in a holistic approach to health.

Here are some conditions and health factors that are associated with the level of tone of the vagus nerve:

  • the bodies inflammatory response: many chronic as well as acute conditions are now understood to be associated with inflammation
  • Repair and cell growth of brain cells and assisting in memory
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Immunity including the level of T-cell and killer cell response to disease and body repair
  • Various addictions and compulsive disorders
  • Mental health disorders
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Vagal tone can be indicated through the many bodily systems it affects and is generally measured directly through combined testing of heart and breathing rates, as well as heart rate variability (HRV) which is associated with the adaptability of your body to changes in external and internal conditions. HRV and vagal tone are closely correlated to one another – if one is functioning highly, then so is the other.

Vagal Toning

How do you ensure that you have good vagal toning? The same key factors recognised for vagal toning match most of the key factors recognised for acquiring and maintaining good health and healthy longevity! Here they are:

  1. Cold Exposure

    Acute cold exposure is shown by many researchers to activate the vagus nerve. It is a key factor to the Wim Hof Method which uses exposure to cold and breathing techniques for activating health and vitality. Just using ice cold water on the face is enough, or incorporating a brief cold shower into your usual shower routine. Within two weeks or less, most people notice a decline in the deep inhale or breath hold reaction to sudden cold, and notice a more relaxed response to the sudden exposure to cold. This indicates neural adaptation and vagal toning.

    Vagus nerve stimulation increases parasympathetic activity throughout the body and stimulates digestion and metabolism. Our bodies evolved to rely on such stimulation and environmental stressors like cold, which we now lack in the modern world of controlled environments. It only takes a little to strengthen and activate important functions of resilience towards these stressors which in turn enhances our resilience to stressors in general.

  2. Deep Slow Breathing

    The direct correlation between breath and heart rate (as well as HRV) and the vagus nerve that modulate or regulates them, means conscious breathing is also a quick, powerful and easy way to activate the vagus nerve. Research shows benefits to blood pressure and hypertension with breathing exercises alone. High breathing rates activate the sympathetic nervous system while slow deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and so helps autonomic functions like the respiratory and cardio-vascular systems to go into repair and recovery.

The most basic exercise is to do 1-3 minutes of inhaling for a count of four, holding for a count of four, exhaling for a count of four, then waiting for another count of four before repeating. Doing this when your getting stressed at home or office, car or shopping mall will help brain function, effectiveness and comfortability go up and stress levels go down by releasing calming chemicals to feed your brain rather than stress chemicals to your muscles.

  1. Synchronised Movement and Breath like Yoga, Tai Chi and Xigong

    Just like what is said above, breathing itself activates the vagus nerve. Breathing associated with movement that stretches fascial tissue, muscles and joints while opening up energy channels have been found to be very effective in producing calming neurotransmitters like GABA in the brain and body. The traditional forms of yoga that incorporate activity with regular intermittent relaxation in poses like ‘sivasana’ can produce deeper and deeper levels of relaxation and endocrine production for relaxation and mood elevation. Also, particularly activating for the vagus nerve are relaxed movements with deep breathing that are expanding the thoracic (chest) region, inversions (legs up against a wall, various head stands, hand stands and shoulder stands) as well as sustained twisting postures with spine straight and chest out.

    In addition to those who have discovered the great benefits of yoga and Tai Chi, these types of activities are being used more and more by high performance athletes to assist in recovery and improved resilience to ongoing physical demands while the same holds true for resilience, good health and mood elevation throughout the challenges of life.

  2. Meditation and Conscious Presence

    After nearly fifty years of scientific studies, vast amounts of research has now been done on various types of meditation and the many benefits. In addition to increased vagal tone, positive emotions and thinking, and feelings of goodwill, studies done in schools and universities also show increases in concentration and brain functioning, and decreases in mental disorders and violent interactions.

    Meditation as well as general practice of conscious presence trains the mind to function effectively at brain frequencies that reduce sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ stress responses and increases vagal modulation. Greater insight, creativity, calm awareness, appreciation and mood elevation are among the many other benefits are confirmed in studies. So is the ability to respond and act in situations with less or little stress and adrenaline involved through this type of mind training.

  3. Exercise or High Intensity Activity

Exercise also has many studies showing it to be an effective way to increase the brains growth hormone, stimulate human growth hormone production during deep sleep, increase important receptor sites for mitochondrial functioning in and on cells, and help reverse cognitive decline and other aspects of ageing.

Exercise as a great stimulator of the vagus nerve may explain some of these benefits.

Walking, weight bearing exercise and high intensity training are all good. Weight bearing is especially good for reversing decline in bone and muscle density and decline of certain hormone levels in the body associated with ageing. So is interval training, in addition to being a very time effective way to build fitness. For interval training, try 10-30 minutes of walking, jogging or cycling 3-4 times a week, with periodic 1-2 minute bursts at maximum pace during each session.

  1. Probiotics and Dietary Factors

    There are many new studies in the last ten years indicating strong associations between brain function and immunity as well as vagal tone with microbiome (micro-organisms in the body) – especially bacteria in the gut.

    In addition, dietary factors like essential fatty acids (fats the body can’t make itself like Omega-3 and -6) are critical for cellular integrity, brain and mental health and nerve function. This includes vagal tone, which may be also why dietary fatty acids can help reduce heart rate and increase heart rate variability. A great source of these are in certain fish oils (organically farmed or wild-caught salmon are an example or Australian northern river fish like Barramundi are rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils).

    Zinc is also a key dietary mineral for vagus nerve stimulation and preventing or improving various certain brain function disorders, mental health and anxiety. Good food sources include oysters, pumpkin seeds, cashews, mushrooms, spinach and grass-fed beef for meat eaters.

  2. Intermittent Fasting

Many health benefits are being documented and studied now on fasting, with more attention lately on short-term intermittent fasting. This also is being shown to help improve brain function and growth hormones, mitochondrial function, brain ‘fog’ and cognitive issues. Fasting and caloric restriction is also being associated with increased HRV again indicating vagal tone improvement.

The ideal is to not eat at least two hours before bed, which also improves sleep patterns. Best results are if most days, people can have a 12 to 16 hour window of not eating between dinner and breakfast. Immunity increases, detoxification and cellular cleansing (cellular death – apoptosis- and cellular reproduction cycles) are also stimulated. The 16 hour window of fasting (with an 8 hour window of healthy eating) is a great way to sustainably lose weight. The 12 hour fasting window is great for general health and weight maintenance (helping to keep down accumulation of unhealthy fat). Once every week, fortnight or month also try a 36 hour fast by only having fluids during one day to reset the body, stimulate many healing processes, increase resilience to disease, environmental and other stressors.

  1. The Power of the Voice

    Vagus nerve expert, Dr. Stephen Porges established Polyvagal Theory. He talks about the hard wiring in our evolution towards flight-or-fight stimulation including response to social communication which encompasses verbal and body language, vocal tone and non-verbal cues.

    A soothing voice for adults and children in gentle, slow and rhythmic tones coaxes the brain into a relaxed state faster and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, including the vagal nerve. This is true whether you are the speaker or listener. While the voice is powerful and effective for adults, it is great for young children for whom a modulated and calm voice is powerful for vagal and parasympathetic development and toning during years where much neural programming or conditioning is happening. It is powerful also for babies (especially combined with skin-to-skin contact) and can be utilised regularly and daily in combination with other approaches mentioned in this article.

    Singing, humming, chanting and even gargling all stimulate the vagus nerve which connects to the vocal chords and muscles in the throat. These all are shown to also increase the hallmark sign of vagal toning which is increase of heart rate variability.

  2. Social Lifestyle and Laughter

    Quite a few studies on social factors have linked healthy, active and supportive social life with healthy longevity as well as recovery from illness or trauma. In addition, laughter has been shown to be strongly related to good health as well as healing and recovery. Both socialising and laughter reduce cortisol and other stress related hormones, stimulate the vagus nerve and HRV while improving mood and happy hormone production. Unfortunately for some, excessive or heavy alcohol consumption is somewhat counter effective, so moderating consumption while having as much fun and shared frivolity is great for one and all!

  3. Acupuncture and Massage

Both acupuncture and massage stimulate the vagus nerve, increasing its activity and tone. Specific points and areas like the sole of the foot (reflexology), auricular (ear) acupuncture, points along the side of the neck (near the carotid artery) are especially good for this. They are also effective spots to assist people coming off anti-depressants and other psychiatric medication, assist people with neurodegenerative diseases, as well as general stress related issues.

In closing …. my intention is not to write a scientific paper here. There are many references related to these ten points above which be can provided for specific points on request. Many supporting studies can be found through a simple online search on any term or specific topic. Much is common sense and there’s enough information here to help you take control of stress levels and steer your way into better mind and body health. Having all points above as part of your lifestyle will help disease prevention, increased resilience, promote total health while increasing enjoyment and quality of life.

Facing Death to Better Face Life

There are three big benefits from contemplating death in a positive sense. Firstly, it adds to appreciating every living moment, making the most of it, and not taking things and others for granted. Secondly, it adds a sobering depth and motivation to contemplating the big picture of life and contemplating spiritual meanings. Thirdly, it gives perspective on what the little things and big things are in life and worth your energy and focus. In other words, what is important and not taking too much too seriously.

In terms of spiritual growth and general maturity, as we let go of fear and embrace life more fully, one of the final fears to face and move through is the fear of loss and death. It may not be the concept of death that is frightening but times in your life when you come close to it personally or with someone close, or when you get a sense of letting go fully into something unknown where your own sense of self is put to the test, then facing death and fear of death can seem pretty close.

Spiritual awakening as a transformation ultimately hits the chord of any fear of death, because true awakening marks the end of identification with the ego self. This can feel like a type of death for the part of us we are letting go. In the Bhagavad Gita (Gita 6:37-39), Arjuna’s question reveals one of the final fears and anxieties in the mind of one who has recognised the truths in Sri Krishna’s teachings yet still has doubt in himself to fulfil them. Self doubt feeds this final fear when we are poised to let go of what is tangible and familiar to the ego mind and step in faith towards the values and consciousness of the higher Self. Essentially Arjuna is asking what happens to a person who is unsuccessful in yoga (spiritual union) who has let go of material identity but has not mastered his mind, so ends up short on union of consciousness as well as material success and identity. It is a fear of being lost between worlds, of failure and loss in gaining nothing.

Sri Krishna’s answer (Gita 6:40-44) reveals the Gita’s view of life and death. He reflects on the immortality of spirit as consciousness and that anyone with good intentions and actions will never meet with an evil plight or death. The idea of reincarnation is a strong part of Indian thought and culture, providing a context and karmic rationale for both heavenly and worldly, life and death consequences for choices about living one’s life. Whether you are of a culture or personal belief in reincarnation back in the material world or incarnations through higher levels of spiritual realms beyond this world, the same principles apply, whereby salvation does not arrive by merit of a heavenly pass at death. Rather death is just a portal to further ongoing existence and where we continue to reap what we have sown, playing the main role in our own salvation and development towards true awakening.

Similarly (Gita 2:27-28) is less poetic but very clear and applicable to all of us whatever our faith, convictions or belief. Considering a universal truth in this world for those prescribing to different views of life beyond death, no one can argue about the inevitability of death. Krishna notes this and the veiled nature of existence before and this material life as a fact of life, so “why lament about it”?

That everything material changes and passes is cause to ponder the big questions about reality, before and after the fleeting time we have in our current physical body, and the profoundness of experience and consciousness accessible to us. Whatever our lifestyle, bodily deterioration is occurring gradually and is ever present on a physical level, until at some point the body will be cast aside (Gita 2:22).

Easwaran in his Gita companion says “It is good to face death with courage, but that is not enough; we must learn to face it with understanding.” (p.191). In a spiritual sense, through meditation and practice of presence generally, we can become familiar with consciousness that transcends sense organs and objects, including projections of mind. This transcendent awareness brings with it a sense of living awareness and identity independent of the body and thinking mind. Thus, an intuitive sense or even knowing of death as a doorway to another state of pure consciousness comes as a natural part of insight and realisation of the nature of this unchanging consciousness from which our ever-changing perceptions and responses arise.

Being mindful of death can be a means of making the most of each living moment, of the profoundness of every moment. Some saints and seekers do things to deepen this mindfulness. Saint Teresa of Avila kept a skull on her desk. Yogis, saints and masters in India sit before cadavers to meditate to help them transcend mortal mindedness. Warriors (spiritual and military) or those living in harsh conditions often use the inevitability of death to fuel their conviction and focus on their conscious choices, actions and life path. It fuels comradeship. It heightens the focus, conviction and mind power of shamans.

In the Gita (8:12-13), Sri Krishna gives Arjuna a crash course in how to die which is the basis for various meditations and mudras for unifying mind and soul, as well as preparing for optimum consciousness during death. Basically, the meditation describes withdrawing the vital energy and focus from body and senses into the mind where a mantra and intention towards the divine or consciousness of consciousness itself is the sole awareness accompanied by the sound of Aum. This is full immersion in pure awareness and presence. From there in Gita terms the consciousness transcends mind “into Buddhi, the higher mind, and finally into what is called the causal body, the seat of I-consciousness. Easwaran discussing this verse describes the process “like taking off an overcoat button by button, then removing your jacket, and finally your pullover, folding each piece carefully and setting it aside.” (p.194).

In normal meditation, some vitality is kept in the body to keep it living. Experienced meditators will vouch for a heightened sense of aliveness and awareness when in this state than normal body consciousness. Whatever the details of after death existence, Sri Krishna notes the unchanging nature at the seat of consciousness itself, which can be realised in life and continues after death.

Uniting all faculties “by the power of yoga” or the biblical “loving God with all your heart, your soul, your strength and mind” to achieve deep awakening requires sustained devoted and dedicated effort. It does not have to be complicated, done always with closed eyes, but rather a consistent part of being present while we attend to living our lives fully present in our selves, our environment and others. It does require a balanced character and approach to life. Spiritual teachings universally view development of the soul and ‘awakening’ as a cumulative result of mindful practice while living a meritorious life as the key to fulfilment and happiness, as well as readiness for when it is time to go.

Arjuna asks Krishna ‘what if we aren’t ready and haven’t got there?’ The assurance is when death is understood through contemplation and knowing the nature of consciousness itself, it looses its terror. Much of the problem with dying is the inability to let go, along with regrets about life. As Easwaran points out, in conscious dying “all attention is on where you are going: there is no attention on what you are leaving behind, which means no clinging. It’s not so much that you’re not afraid of death; the question simply does not arise”. In other words, like in deep meditation and practice of presence, the process is less about letting go of identification with thoughts and body and more an engagement with a known existential state of being.

Many people who have been in a dangerous instant where they thought they were about to die, experience no fear and an instant acceptance. I have experienced this a few times. My daughter experienced it when she fell from a cliff and thought that was it. As an observer in that instance I confronted my worst of fears as a parent then went into protect and rescue mode when I saw her mercifully injured but okay below. It is different for the person facing this moment for themselves, when all of life has lead to one key instant.

The cumulative effect of spiritual effort contributes to our level of consciousness at death. Meanwhile, we can enhance the experience and depth of conscious choosing in our daily lives as the layers of conditioning stored in the material mind is unravelled in the light of that consciousness and spiritual identification. The opportunity for continued learning and discovery, facing challenges “calmly, courageously, and compassionately” is part of our purpose.

I’ll finish with a final note from Easwaran that the getting of wisdom is not just learning more, but the capacity to learn from past mistakes while facing new difficulties by ‘detached intellect’. “Detached intelligence is the very source of wisdom … that acquired wisdom awakens us to the extent we listen to it, not so much in the head as in the heart.” (p.203).

Photo credit: h.koppdelaney via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND

Recommended Reading:

God Talks To Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, by Paramahansa Yogananda (Self Realisation Fellowship, 2nd Edition 1999)

The Bhagavad Gita, by Swami Sivananda (Divine Life Society, 15th Edition 2015)

Essence of the Bhagavad Gita: A Contemporary Guide to Yoga, Meditation and Indian Philosophy, by Eknath Easwaran (The Blue Mountanin Center of Meditation, 2011).

True Life Riches That Bring Love and Freedom

The Fullness of Love

Having a life full of love means being able to receive and feel love in ourselves along with a life of sharing it with others. There is an undying and causeless love we can draw on at anytime which gives our relationships and occupations meaning and purpose when we can love each other and what we do. Knowing and doing what you love with love is fulfilling in and of itself because it is embodying, expressing, sharing and channeling this love into the world as you experience it.

The Bhagavad Gita 13:27 says: “He sees truly who perceives the Supreme Lord present equally in all creatures, the Imperishable amidst the perishing.” Swami Sivananda describes someone with this view as self-realised. Sivananda likens the divine essence in us all as like the heat that is common in all kinds of fire, the gold that is the same in different ornaments and light being the same from different lamps.

Paramahansa Yogananda refers to the ground of all creatures who share the same substance of life which is the Lord as consciousness (chit in sanskrit) and existence or being (sat). Yogananda goes on to equate our identity as creatures and mortals with delusion and perishing, yet “as children of the Most High, sons of the Creator, we partake of His uncaused and indestructible nature.”

The cosmology of the Gita can be brought down to ourselves as the centre of the universe as we each experience it, not as isolated orphans, but as part of a living conscious universe with the capacity to live in a way that benefits and harmonises the rest of life. According to Easwaran, the Gita proposes the whole in each of us, as each of us is an expression of universal consciousness in which is contained the entire universe. Thus we can see ourselves in each other and in all “which is the basis of universal love”.

To put it dramatically, the whole cosmos is a setting for us to rise above it and go beyond time, place, and circumstance into the supreme reality that is God”. Easwaren (p.52)

True Freedom of the Muni

The Gita 2:55-57 describes the freedom of the muni (one who can dissolve his mind in divine presence or God) as relinquishment of worldly desires, entirely contented in the Self, not shaken by anxiety under afflictions nor attached to happiness in favourable circumstances, free from worldly loves, fears and angers – he is settled in wisdom and steady discrimination.

Part of the practice of this relinquishment can be in the small things in life. Easwaran brings it right down to basics, using eating your broccoli as an example of weakening the conditioned mind which is happy only with what it likes. With practice and maturity “you find yourself no longer compelled to do what you enjoy, but instead enjoying whatever you do.” (p.160). Another aspect is what I described in a previous post as “embracing the good, bad and the ugly”. Meanwhile, another attribute of the muni is to absorb worldly desires into oneself then dissolve them in the vast ocean of presence.

Yogananda refers to pure bliss from meditative and spiritualised actions as the source of complete satisfaction and supreme happiness of the muni. It is this that enables us to embrace all aspects of our life with equanimity and absorb all desires into a greater and stronger bliss. Yogananda gives us the ideal of the perfect sage, whose outer nature still retains some egoity as an individualised consciousness in the form of a spiritualised ego retaining the bliss of presence even after meditation and while performing actions in life.

Many of us do not realise there is no pleasures of the flesh without a soul identifying with the body for it to happen. Yet instead of identifying with soul presence, we cling to bodily and worldly pleasures for satisfaction and relief from the rigours of life – “just as a mad lover, identified with his beloved, thinks his happiness dependent on her and her alone!” The wise man perceives all bliss is contained in the inner self, the nature of the soul being different to the nature of the body. “As fear is caused by a sense of impending misfortune, the wise man, identified with the soul, knows no such desires. Anger results from the nonfulfillment of a bodily or mental desire; the muni harbours no such desires.”

Finally, Yogananda explains the neutrality of the wise in all circumstances, is not a heartless indifference but conscious control and calming of the faculties of consciousness. The conditioned mind is as a “puppet of nature”, actions and reactions an excitable yet predictable mix of delusive influences. The key is in recognising the distinction between the blessed nature of the soul and the excitable and transitory nature of body and mind.

Easwaren describes being truly free as when no mental state or “emotion can overwhelm you, no craving can drive you into action”, where dependence on others and outside circumstances and the tides of fortune no longer hold any sway, there is no compulsions or need to manipulate anyone. The “heart is full of joy and your mind full of peace” and whatever occurs you always experience true completeness. (pp.57,58). The recognition of the depth if these attributes is where we can access them through authentic and consistent practice of presence in stillness and in action.

Commenting on a similar verse in the Gita, Yogananda explains (Gita 2:70) that the ability to absorb all desires within, keeping an inner ocean of quiescence filled to the brim, does not mean abandoning good aspirations – “in spiritual life giving is receiving.” He quotes Jesus words in Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Actively pursuing a desire to give joy and peace, or any acts of goodness to others will bring more joy and peace to the doer. The deeper we go in drawing on inner love and peace in living and sharing our life, the more vast an ocean of divine Self is made available to one and all to commingle in the universal ocean of divine life and consciousness.

In this post I draw on the wisdom of two saints and master yogi’s Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Sivananda as well as the wise and much loved devotee of the Gita, Eknath Easwaran. It is always good to draw on the pearls of auspicious and venerated teachers to whom I give thanks.

Recommended Reading:

God Talks To Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, by Paramahansa Yogananda (Self Realisation Fellowship, 2nd Edition 1999)

The Bhagavad Gita, by Swami Sivananda (Divine Life Society, 15th Edition 2015)

Essence of the Bhagavad Gita: A Contemporary Guide to Yoga, Meditation and Indian Philosophy, by Eknath Easwaran (The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, 2011).

Embracing the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It goes without saying that most religious and spiritual practices and systems have their pearls of wisdom and approaches to gaining spiritual experience and realisation. Foundational pillars for building a spiritual life, aligning our lives and actions with divine truth and presence, are initially morals and ethics. It is the positive inner response to morals and ethics as children that first initiates our spiritual journey. Later we begin to feel our personal convictions around them and let them shape and define our decisions and actions. Ethics and morals can be conditioned by beliefs and culture or they can be more universal.

Attitudes and convictions around human rights are an example of what is ethical or moral in one culture can be seen by another culture as immoral or unethical. Religion and culture, history, and how harsh or conducive life conditions are, have an effect on the mores evolved in a civilisation. Thus, we see in some cultures, a disparity between how they treat their ‘own’ compared to outsiders. This is particularly strong in those cultures and religious sects that still retain their links to a long history of tribal life and warfare, or having to have strict codes of conduct to survive harsh conditions. Similarly, attitudes of rights even within a sect, tribe or community can be in conflict with ethics and morals of outsiders when it comes to things like treatment of women, children, the old and sick, the influence of security and ware fare as well as trade.

As our personal spiritual characteristics mature, ethics and morals become part of a more integrated and universal set of convictions which is what I refer to as values. No matter what the conflicting ethics and morals between different cultures and people, there are common values of love and support within the family, codes of courage and honour, ideals of love, compassion, beauty and the sense of truth, as well as values around codes of conduct to do with honesty, goodness, and considerations of the sovereignty of the individual inclusive of consideration of the wellbeing of the group.

I am of the view that personal spiritual maturity raises an individual’s values above the conditioned mores of his or her own culture to more universal values that are the shared ideals of most major religions and globally influenced modern philosophies. The more values can be applied universally to all peoples at all times, be applied equally to all so that unity (not uniformity), wellbeing, prosperity and sustainability are promoted equally to all as well as to the resources required for the future, the more those values resonate with the true nature of life and living consciousness itself. The individual and the group must be sustained and given the opportunity to thrive on the basis of mutual co-operation, love and liberty. Obviously, if society and each of us individually compromise our codes of conduct, morality and values in order to manage the lowest denominators of human nature and conduct, then our systems and approaches to life are more limited in scope. A remedy is to uphold ideals truly set on universal values that apply in a fully harmonious and friendly universe.

Maintaining high ideals is the only way to gain insight into how they operate and apply in an evolving world. We can then better adopt insight in applying universal values to everyone at all times in our life. In this world of contrasts, where ignorance often still prevails, how do we apply our ideals and values to perceived evil in the world or as it arises even subtly within ourselves? How do we apply these values while in inner conflict or conflict with another, such as when we feel threatened? How do we apply these values when we feel common human emotions like anger, hurt, or sadness? What about other emotive states like self-absorbed pride, self-loathing, jealousy or guilt?

Love of God and all beings as brothers and sisters is the Christian golden rule as does seeking first the ‘kingdom of heaven’. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita also teaches that oneness with the divine comes first, before the cares of the world. This is because, when we are in a state of pure presence in the moment, where our sense of being and existence transcends thoughts, feelings and actions, we are immersed in the living essence of life and consciousness itself. It is not a mindless, void that eliminates any sense of divinity, humanity, purpose or meaning. Connecting to the living essence of what we are is a connection to something profound rather than just a disconnection from the material world or from our projections of self. Being in the world but not of the world is obviously not identifying with an empty and lifeless void that leaves us robotic or zombie-like.

True awakening into the living light of our own life essence and pure consciousness does equate to connecting to spirit. When we can be immersed deeply in that place then all our feelings, thoughts and actions are external to the consciousness that is our true essence. Feelings and thoughts are inner projections, while the perceptions of the physical senses and the external world they perceive are also experienced as objective occurrences in the medium of our boundary-less consciousness.

Thus, part of spiritual practice is learning to accept all positive and negative thoughts and feelings in ourselves and perceived around us equally. Personal attachments and aversions are all by nature perceived through the conditioned mind. Spiritual identification comes with identification with the substance of who or what we are and not with the projections of self, whether they be good or bad, positive or negative. Being in true presence creates the space for abiding compassion, goodness and growing receptive understanding that is more capable of universal love and discriminating life situations by how they resonate with divine presence rather than how well our reality is conforming to conditioned ideas of good or bad or how they serve our preconceived self-biased agenda’s.

All arising feelings and thoughts can be equally witnessed in the light of clear and true consciousness with presence. A loved one, a stranger or someone causing conflict around us or within ourselves can also be experienced in undisturbed equanimity depending on the power and depth of ones own state of presence This offers greater proactive choices of response, that is not reactive or based on fear or threat.

Being able to sit with positive highs and uncomfortable or painful lows of thoughts and feelings equally is part of renunciation. Handling life in the moment this way, from the inclusive love we find in deep ‘being-ness’ itself, happens when conscious presence of being becomes an end in itself. When it becomes the core of our existence and identity it allows us to do what is termed as loving God and others universally. Progressively doing it within ourselves without being selective enables us to apply spiritual presence to the good, the bad and the ugly within and in the world. Even more, it gives us the insight that the relativity of positives and negatives is a less enduring reality than the true essence of life and consciousness in which it occurs.

In this way, as anger or grief, excitement and happiness, melancholy or disengagement occur, we can open up to these experiences honestly and consciously without identifying with them. Allowing ourselves to experience the full spectrum openly requires having a solid centre that does is inclusive, not prone to attachment or aversion, yet unaffected by the partiality perceived in the moment. That place is the pure essence of our life and consciousness in the here and now. It can be termed at some point of realisation as spirit-consciousness.

I remember once, after spending time with some remarkable yogi’s, gaining the insight that even the masters feel the full spectrum of human emotion in an exquisite way where any level of pain can be contained in an even greater bliss. It is not what we think and feel that defines us, but what we do with it reflects the level of our spiritual identification at the time.

Identifying with the living consciousness from which all emerges is the high path to gaining spaciousness of consciousness. This awareness provides more choice, greater wisdom and perspective on the nature of our human thought and feeling projections. All becomes meaningful when we deal with it in the resonance of consciousness of consciousness. Negatives and disturbances dissolve faster based on the ability to be present with them consciously. The transformation that occurs is an increasing quality and frequency of thoughts and feelings that resonate with the transcendent inner sanctum that is available to us. Conscious processing becomes less necessary.

Rather than rejecting uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, people and situations, we can embrace them as a practice rather than fighting them, or trying to find an answer or fix for them to go away. Gradually, a transformation and shift will occur where full presence is less shaken and we can respond to positive and negative elements in equanimity with the full spectrum of who we are intact , more alive and conscious.

Practicing letting go within ourselves to be present and consciously embrace all aspects of ourselves and life, builds trust in what we are without our own separate manufacture. With that progressive knowing and trust, through practice and attention, our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and actions can be offerings in this presence. As it becomes greater than our own sense of a separate self , divine providence will help us to continue and lend us strength even when we are amidst a major challenge or “the valley of death”. A deepening and expanding sense of calm alertness, an open mind, body and heart and a unified sense of connectedness are the guide posts for our progress. The thoughts, feelings, perceptions and actions that arise and harmonise with this bring abundance and happiness. Learning to conquer our own demons by practicing this in the face of our negatives and pains will bring unimaginable rewards and a sense of personal freedom.

Photo credit:jin.thai on VisualHunt.com/CC BY (modified w quote)

The Inevitabilities of the Evolving Self and World

Disappointments and challenges are a part of life and dealing with them positively becomes a key part of success and maturity as we get older. Many of them we create for ourselves through our decisions, our actions and their consequences. By ‘we’, I mean each of us personally as well as ‘we’ as a community or society. The relativity of life and the suffering we experience ourselves, that fills the pages of humanity’s history or we see happening in so many places around the world in current times, can make us question the justice and nature of the reality we live in.

It is only with a big picture view, while paying attention to the most profound sense of life that insight has provided us, can we appreciate that for evolving creatures of free will, free intelligence, to exist in this vast miraculous universe, there is a sense of existential purpose behind the existence of evolving life and consciousness. It is in these modern times of exponential growth in our understanding of life and reality, that we can also appreciate with that knowledge and understanding comes a greater sense of the nature of things, including ourselves and the inherent purpose to reality. Love, friendship and the beauty of nature – these things alone do so much to make life worth living.

These current times are showing us more and more clearly that we have a responsibility with real consequences as caretakers on a planet that is becoming smaller and more impacted by the things we as a civilisation. Do we learn to co-operate and do things sustainably for future generations and gain the immense gifts a global awakening promises? Or do we fall short of responding to the signs of pending crisis and the calling of evolving ideals and potential while exploitation and degeneration of each other and our world brings us to global conditions unable to sustain us further?

I have faith in the triumph of our deeper natures over the temporary and more limited conditioned mind on a personal and global scale. Crisis has always been the activator for leaps and bounds in evolution in biology, culture and intellect – and these times are no exception. In terms of our history and current challenges, themes of the battle between true righteousness versus ignorance and intentional evil is layered throughout our evolution into our psyche and continually reflected in our evolving philosophies, arts, and now all forms of modern media. It is a battle fought on subtle and gross levels, on brutal and sophisticated levels, on personal and collective levels.

However, spiritual awakening and principles remind us that none of the drama and adventure changes the divine essence from which reality arises and from which life and consciousness itself arises. In our core being is a living force we all share that is life, therefore life-affirming as are the values of goodness, beauty and truth. The process of our evolution and lives at stake is a powerful one of adventure for the spiritual warrior. As survival becomes more sorted in modern times of technology, the quality of life and consciousness will become the major factor in how well we move forward and shape our future.

A book with much controversy is the Urantia Book. Whatever readers views are of the details, what I love most about it is the sophisticated way it discusses spirit and deity and the picture it offers about how immense and grand the universes and the plan of life could be. In discussing the primacy of a unifying and central cause of all reality in this vast universe, for us on our fragile planet of many uncertainties, certain factors described as “inevitabilities of evolutionary creature life” are mentioned (Paper 3, section 5). These are listed as points of consideration in reconciling the challenges and seeming disasters of life with the concept of a universally sovereign divine and just intelligence and plan:

1. Is courage — strength of character — desirable? Then must man be reared in an environment which necessitates grappling with hardships and reacting to disappointments.

2. Is altruism — service of one’s fellows — desirable? Then must life experience provide for encountering situations of social inequality.

3. Is hope — the grandeur of trust — desirable? Then human existence must constantly be confronted with insecurities and recurrent uncertainties.

4. Is faith — the supreme assertion of human thought — desirable? Then must the mind of man find itself in that troublesome predicament where it ever knows less than it can believe.

5. Is the love of truth and the willingness to go wherever it leads, desirable? Then must man grow up in a world where error is present and falsehood always possible.

6. Is idealism — the approaching concept of the divine — desirable? Then must man struggle in an environment of relative goodness and beauty, surroundings stimulative of the irrepressible reach for better things.

7. Is loyalty — devotion to highest duty — desirable? Then must man carry on amid the possibilities of betrayal and desertion. The valour of devotion to duty consists in the implied danger of default.

8. Is unselfishness — the spirit of self-forgetfulness — desirable? Then must mortal man live face to face with the incessant clamouring of an inescapable self for recognition and honor. Man could not dynamically choose the divine life if there were no self-life to forsake. Man could never lay saving hold on righteousness if there were no potential evil to exalt and differentiate the good by contrast.

  1. Is pleasure — the satisfaction of happiness — desirable? Then must man live in a world where the alternative of pain and the likelihood of suffering are ever-present experiential possibilities.

Throughout the universe, every unit is regarded as a part of the whole. Survival of the part is dependent on co-operation with the plan and purpose of the whole, the wholehearted desire and perfect willingness to do the Father’s divine will. The only evolutionary world without error (the possibility of unwise judgment) would be a world without free intelligence. In the Havona universe there are a billion perfect worlds with their perfect inhabitants, but evolving man must be fallible if he is to be free. Free and inexperienced intelligence cannot possibly at first be uniformly wise. The possibility of mistaken judgment (evil) becomes sin only when the human will consciously endorses and knowingly embraces a deliberate immoral judgment.”

The spiritual nature in us provides a sense of altruism and universal love, not the primitive creature mind from our primitive past. From deep in our higher consciousness comes the compassion, empathy and mercy for one another’s suffering. At the same time, becoming conscious and fully present in our existential and living loving awareness, awakens us to the temporary nature of material existence and any suffering associated with it. In contrast, yet all embracing of this relative existence created for a great universal purpose, is the timeless nature of the essence of us that remains untainted and indestructible throughout life’s trials. Life experience offers to shape and develop those who would engage the best they can call on in themselves in goodwill. Through faith and our psychology we must draw on the power within to remain connected and intact to participate in this journey of life. Part of the point of the journey is to reside fully in awakened loving consciousness and thrive as we learn to embody, express and flow the unity and uniqueness of our essence into the life we live.

In compassion for ourselves and each other, it is good to remember that there are no mistakes in the greater scheme of things. All of time and the resources of the universe gather to allow us this planetary life for our greatest purpose and destiny to unfold as it is. It is up to each of us with what we are and have, and where we find ourselves, as to what it is to mean and how it is to count. Gradually, we must come to know and trust in a living and friendly universe, consciously identifying more fully in the the spiritual nature within in order to transition to the next stage of our evolution. Our technology and pursuits must better flow sustainable universal laws and we better understand the consequences of our collective and personal actions. It is then our intellects and physicality can truly blossom as reflections of our true and emerging inner nature. From this turning point, more and more people will consciously recognise the subtle light and love that beckons from within consciousness itself. The true agent of change is emerging from within us. Quality of consciousness, serving our personal and collective greater purpose and greater good more fully, are becoming primary factors that connect us to what is real and authentic.

Photo: gusdiaz on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA (modified with quote)