Hello – It has been so long since my last post!
While many articles on this site touch on health, longevity, performance and quality of life much of the content comes back to quality of consciousness and state of being. This requires meditative reflection and opening up to inspiration for the words to flow. However, the truth of the subject matter is not in the written words is where those words come from. My hope is they inspire being present in yourself. Time away from the words can also be important to keep some perspective.
To better establish living in multiple countries with a mobile income has been taking some focus from preparing books in progress and general writing. Now I’m back, may the writing here keep the channel of writing flowing and add some value to you – this one with a possible theme for the year.
Recognition of conscious presence is where I find personal empowerment and meaningful living arises, which includes communicating that aspect of living to others who resonate with the message and enjoy developing its potential in their own life. It is an aspect that raises us beyond the purely sensory and material world and life to address the most profound aspect of who we are.
Being consciously in the moment when still or in action empowers our doing in whatever activity is going on, making it meaningful and unavoidably an expression of our values. Complete absorption in doing and thinking requires a balance of conscious being, otherwise it becomes too easy to get drawn into identification and lost in that thinking and doing.
When we are completely surrendered, still and silent – mind and body – there is more space in our personal experience to open up to and notice the subtle essence of living reality or existence. The formless consciousness that is experiencing this moment discloses nothing beyond thoughts, feelings and sensory content that we can put our finger on, yet we can feel a shift when experiencing these things as a living consciousness that transcends them.
Spacious presence here and now is where we can feel closest to a sense of absoluteness and oneness of being. Through co-operative receptivity and conscious stillness the essence of who we are finds clarity in our awareness and expression of it. At the same time we can allow a deepening experience of who we are at any time and place by our choice to be fully present. From depth of presence we can open up with intent to the formless essence of living reality in and around us.
There is an accessible and tangible essence of living consciousness to be personally known and expressed through us. It is an evolving manifestation in all others and all things. Thus we can not only feel more connected within ourselves, but also to life around us, by consciously engaging in it. With practice, we can more consistently and deeply sensitive to feeling aligned with the creative and living essence of life.
Expansive and profound consciousness is subtle yet simple and accessible. It can draw us beyond the little self which is limited to sensory pre-occupations and worldly concerns.
Reaching beyond form and opening up to a greater subtle reality is the essence of any spiritual path. Applying oneself through a feeling of authentic attunement is primary to forming concepts or beliefs that can only be useful in partial and limited ways. Applying authentic attunement to meaningful values like our own sense of love and trust, goodwill and other qualities that invoke a sense of higher purpose in all we do, are examples of this kind of conviction.
Personal experience and application of such values is beyond our sensory and thinking minds, yet can be consciously cultivated and developed. We can find inspiration in our own stillness and spacious receptivity to a personal sense of our life and consciousness, because conscious volition is inherent in our living essence. So are the values that help us feel the richness and beauty of life. This is something we all share, albeit described differently.
Through success and disappointment, joy or sense of loss, our indestructible base can be gained from faith and alignment to what is there when all of the mind, body and heart are surrendered in wakeful, knowing love and trust. This space is unaffected by the content – what is going on around us and in our minds – it is deeper than where we are affected by such things, even things that matter a lot in our life. The power of love is in love itself. The power of consciousness is in consciousness itself.
Our need to being truly fulfilled, is a need beyond the animalistic need for food, shelter, company and security. It is the natural need to resolve the tension created by consciousness itself irrepressibly expressing itself more and more fully through us as our true nature, and our own conditioned developing sense of self based on separating and defining itself to survive or thrive. Progressively resolving this tension through surrender and conscious presence can be our path to be less limited and self defined, while consciously experiencing something greater living in and through us in whatever we do and wherever we are. The are no ordinary moments and countless opportunities for spontaneity and creativity within.
Suffering and feeling limited is a calling to break beyond our own attachments and aversions, mentally and emotionally. But what do we connect with as a means of letting go from within? Faith and trust in the essence of love, compassion and connective-ness, as we can most deeply feel it, is where the answer lies. It is given many names, yet beneath the responsibilities and needs of our human life is the hidden agenda that our true essence be embodied and expressed. When this is recognised, the form it takes or doesn’t take is less important. However partially we may feel and embody this essence in our daily life provides the assuredness of progression towards meaning and purpose, versus conditioned and unconscious grasping for things or others to help us feel fulfilled.
Meditative mindfulness in simple moments in stillness or conscious actions helps develop applying these ideals during life’s ups and downs. We can enjoy ourselves, life activities and others more fully when we bring in generous openness, a transcendent wholeness to them all in shared reciprocity as unique reflections of the same living essence in oneness. This is living in and from love.
May this year unfold to be one of dissolving obstacles and barriers to abundance and peace through living and holding the space of conscious presence.
Photo on VisualHunt.com (modified with quote)
How many times do you do you have a sudden realisation that you were not present at all when you were just doing something and now barely remember doing it? Common moments like this can be driving home or doing a domestic chore. Even worse, is having that realisation after doing something really important for someone, or only partially paying attention when a loved one was talking with you or doing something with you that could have been a special moment?
Allowing ourselves to get lost in our stream of thoughts too much of every day is even easier now with the cacophony of distractions in modern life on top of over-thinking and lack of time or care to just sit and be fully present. Not balancing ‘being’ with ‘doing’ means we can be cut-off from the most important aspect of who we are within ourselves and with each other – and that is love.
To help reconnect, there is a resurgence and redefining of ways to practice consciously being present in the ‘now’ on a daily basis. A specific chosen mindful activity serves best when it is a self-nurturing and quiet activity. A regular and particular time of day, is most effective when it is the start and end of each day.
One of the ways our thinking mind can draw us out of our deeper self, is through our unconscious acceptance of assumptions which come out of long term habitual thinking, as do our automatic or reflexive opinions and stance on things.
It is natural to categorise things as good or bad, right or wrong, important or not important, likeable or dislikable and even spiritual or non-spiritual because these dualistic points of view become part of our moral identity and character.
This is okay when we are open to adjusting and refining our boundaries and views as our knowledge and maturity develops. However, making them a rigid and unquestionable part of our identity, turning them into a universal truth everyone must agree to in order to be acceptable to us, is what can have our past conditioning run the show, so we are seeing old projections rather than what is truly before us. This can get in the way of our ability to listen more deeply to ourselves and others in the present moment.
When our points of view come into conflict with other people’s views, the inner tension can alert us to turn up our state of being present. With presence, we can review how to deal with even subtle tension and conflict in a way that maintains our own integrity to presence here and now, while being respectful and open to other people’s points of view. This is part of living from the heart and exercising wisdom. It is putting trust in our own deeper nature, rather than than identifying primarily with an opinion or belief which may have some merit, but is a projection of mind and not our true selves.
Treating our viewpoint as a universal fact leads inevitably to making other people wrong or manipulating them into thinking ‘our’ way as the only ‘right’ way, because no two people have exactly the same ideology. Many people have vastly different views on certain matters. When we are unconsciously judging and manipulating, we are removed from our innate wisdom and love.
If we are identified with the living presence that is doing the thinking, then we can loosen the hold and be free from the compulsion to take a strong position on every opinion and thought to defend our identity. This is because when our identity transcends our thoughts and beliefs, it is not defined by them. We can then take our view points and reality as relative and feel less threatened when they are challenged.
I imagine that you recognise certain conditioned beliefs and their matching experiences are your own and not necessarily the truth or experience of everyone. Yet many people have a mindset or have decided certain views are simply the way they are, things are and that is it. When we do this, we close ourselves to new positive experiences and awareness of new possibilities in relationships and life situations that are part of our life path and life lessons.
I have come to the point of view that the only way to truly bridge differences between people, and move through our own defences and unconscious walls, is to commit daily to coming from love with everything, including ourselves.
While there are many types of love in life, what characterises true love is a heartfelt sense of our own oneness with whatever or whoever inspires or requires our love. From the point of view of spiritual awakening, that means everything and everyone, but it does not mean becoming passive and easily manipulated to other people’s views.
It does mean looking beyond differences to a sense of common essence with others as a primary mode of operating, and then dealing with any issues only once that sense of oneness is found in that moment. Being centred there within our own hearts, then connecting with that essence in others as first base is required to then apply love in communication and engagement.
A person or relationship, an activity, an object or sensory delight that we may apply the word ‘love’ to is usually where we feel a bond, emotional investment or a strong sense of pleasure. On a deeper level where we become more identified with our universal self, the essence of ourselves as a living being, love becomes more broadly the sense of unity or oneness within our own inner essence, which is the same living essence expressed uniquely through all other living beings in a living and animated universe.
This love transcends, yet does not exclude romanticism, sentimentalism and pleasure seeking. Nonetheless, these can draw us away from real love when invested in from the conditioned and conditional mind. They are transformed to something beautiful when embraced with presence and essence.
From this view, oneness exists every microsecond whether we are dealing with pleasure or pain. Suffering comes when we cannot accept, when we struggle with or resist pain. Being in oneness means learning to have a sense of connection to life and reality no matter what is going on, so that good or bad, pain or pleasure, do not draw us into rejection or attachment. In this way, our depth of oneness and presence enables us to experience greater depths of pleasure or pain without being drawn away from its great breadth and strength.
We all have great reserves of untapped strength, wisdom and compassion. Only the vast spaciousness of presence can give us the ability to be open heartedly present with deep pain in ourselves and in others.
On this basis, it is helpful to be reminded or inspired to feel our love and oneness or connection to people and the world by tuning within to our own soul with heart and mind, having a conscious choice as to with whom, when and how we express or flow this conscious love and sense of being into the moment.
I often reflect on a principle that to a non-spiritually minded person, nothing is spiritual; but to a spiritually awakened soul, everything is spiritual. Spiritual here is implied by conscious presence that transcends the thinking mind. Much of the time, our hearts and minds serve us best when clear and reflecting our true essence like a still pond reflecting the moon. Clearer thoughts can then arise than when we are locked in our own stream of thinking and reacting to mind disturbance and mind content.
In this state, our own unique character and body are outer garments of expression to be used consciously to express our deeper essence. The living conscious essence that is experiencing the mind, body and character we have, is intimately with us every second yet impossible for us to really define intellectually. It is closer than our own thoughts. It is where we can find a profound sense of transcendence and authenticity of being while observing our life experience in the present moment.
Greater potential and challenge for pleasure and fulfilment arises when we can engage this consciousness in any situation with anybody, and in specific moments with a specific somebody. This requires equanimity and non-attachment to our own position and stance in life, so that many battles once fought over various points of view are no longer engaging us. Yet it also means living with conviction to whatever task, behaviour and principles are in alignment and engage us at the depths of our being with full consciousness.
Being more present, appreciative and open with conscious depth, enables exploring greater depth of experience and having the courage to meet challenges as well as many simple and special moments with an open heart. All experiences and actions can benefit everyone, including ourselves, when approached with a heartfelt and conscious intent.
It is our thinking mind that labels people, situations and things so that they become over-familiar and taken for granted. This happens when we are perceiving them through a conditioned mindset of associations that have become habitual. Being in the present moment tunes us in to even common or familiar settings as if we are there for the first time, enabling a timeless appreciation of things, like a long term relationship or elements of daily life, as a gift.
The conditioned and thinking mind cannot provide this because it defines everything into its own self image and time bound set of thoughts and feelings. Living presence experiences the living moment directly. The conditioned mind experiences everything through its own constructed content, narratives and conclusions. Even things that were once precious can become part of what feels like ‘ground-hog day’ to the conditioned mind. It is then we unconsciously become distant and only partially present while our mind goes into a blend of auto-pilot and distraction with unrelated streams of thoughts. Meanwhile, we miss being fully present in a relationship or situation.
It is a challenge to notice when we have a limiting thought and shut down. It is also a challenge when we are drawn into a thought stream, then realise we are not fully present, to then awaken ourselves with a deep breath and ‘re-set’ in the here and now. It is time for us to rise above our own conditioning when it is activated and decide to be present with our own love.
Open hearted presence is enough to transform a conditioned thought or feeling in ourselves that is causing a ‘shut down’ and distracting us from being more present, loving and embodying our authentic true selves. It is not the situation or person causing our ‘shut-down’ but our own inability to respond consciously.
When you notice you are taking a position against something, or else feeling mental, emotional or physical resistance with someone or a situation, see if you can use breath and body awareness to relax and become open from within to deal with the situation from a strong and open heart. Be open to whether the resistance or tension is arising from within yourself or is something you are picking up from around you. Transforming such moments requires self-honesty, being non-judgemental and trusting in the power of presence in the world before launching into any action or expression.
The power of presence is available once you have found the sense of oneness with self and all of life in the moment revealing not only love but that you are love.
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.
Photo on VisualHunt <“https://visualhunt.com/re2/276d13“> (quote added)
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.
Photo on Visual hunt
Are your living and work spaces conducive to the mind space and tone you want to develop in your life?
I was recently visiting an ancient Buddhist temple in Kyoto-Ohara, Japan. It is called Sanzen-in Monzeki and is beautifully maintained. It is magnificent in every season and this northern hemisphere summer setting meant I have now seen it in all four seasons – the spectacular red maples of autumn (or fall), snow covered beauty in winter, colourful flowers of spring and the incredible greenery of summer.
Having green matcha tea and serenely overlooking a garden that looked as if it was out of some celestial heavenly realm, made me feel like I was in heaven. I reflected on the beauty, harmony and peace it emanated and how conducive it was for attuning to the same qualities within. I could see some people who were also calmly present while others were less settled and preoccupied even in such a beautiful and sacred site.
Such places are so beautifully designed as places for meditation and cultivating conscious presence in every moment. The indoor-outdoor design of screens and walkways of beautiful timbers set amongst gentle water ways and many decades of detailed gardening have such a unique beauty.
There are many ways we can deepen and broaden our sense of living-being by cultivating qualities that become more meaningful as we mature and develop. Such qualities of peace, beauty, connection to nature, and harmony rate more with age for some, more so as modern life becomes more intrusive and busy. Reading or listening to inspiring people, quality time with friends or loved ones, inspiring or deeply resonating music are other delights that inspire such qualities, as can the environmental spaces we live in or frequent.
I am so grateful to people who create places that inspire a feeling in me that stays well after I have been there, because it appeals to a quality of experience that already resides in the presence and being-ness that we all share deeply within.
In any wilderness setting it is easy to feel such a harmonious connection with nature that also resonates with a strong inner consciousness of being in the moment. When we feel alert calmness of mind and heart, with a sense of connection without and with all things around us, such a moment reflects a happy state of presence.
In art, architecture and garden design there are some wonderful examples around the world of inspired human design and refinement of detail that invokes a similar sense of sacredness, beauty and harmony. Isn’t it great how ancient and modern, famous and unknown private finds can gift us a subtle and deep reflection from within the creator or artist through the medium of their trade, impacting all who experience it. We can all be universal consciousness expressing and enjoying itself through us. My favourite examples of art forms that combine human ingenuity and nature, are the many traditional gardens throughout Japan I have visited and are yet to visit.
In our modern world, we have even more means at our disposal to create and control our living environments. Blending natural elements into human design and manufacture that are conducive to spaciousness, calmness and peace are places that can make people stop and take note, take some breathes and become fully present in appreciation of the space they are in. It does not have to be extravagant. How many times has a simple inexpensive yet thoughtful setting inspired you to stop and reflect in appreciation for a moment? In truth, at such times people can be enjoying being brought out of their stream of thinking into conscious presence even for a just a few moments.
There are also countless examples of people who find simple small ways at home or work places to create an arrangement and space somewhere that is consciously or unconsciously there to connect them to a state of being while going about their day or evening. Does your living space reflect this to a degree or could you nurture yourself and others by addressing this more in your own space?
While some chaos and clutter can be unavoidable, it can also be contained as organised mess in storage and out of the way areas. Otherwise clutter can induce cluttered mind activity through association, the hidden anxiety that goes with accumulated disorganisation and the mounting neglect and ‘clean up’ it infers.
Most people set up and maintain their living spaces in a way that reflects how they want to feel and as well as the most practical set up for their belongings and space available. However, sometimes it can take on a life of its own until it reflects old aspects of yourself that can be good to move on from. Or maybe a refresh assessment and decision to transform a living space is timely and can be done simply with what you have access to already?
A simple flower arrangement can communicate a present time and changing element that communicates beauty and care. Some degree of empty space and simplicity punctuated with a few items that reflect your own taste and lifestyle themes can inspire calmness and creativity. It may not suit everybody right at this time, but simplicity is a theme that I hear again and again from those refining their living space as part of a positive shift in energy and mindset.
Yogic vedanta and ayurvedic principles contain useful concepts of the three gunas; sattva, rajas and tamas. They are applied to consciousness, health, environment, lifestyle and all aspects of reality.
Sattva reflects calm energy and refinement of spirit that invokes purity and balance. As it infers balance, any imbalance is associated with negative symptoms of the other two gunas.
The quality of rajas is activity and excitement. Imbalanced, rajas can be associated with attachment, excessiveness, fickleness, reactivity and compulsiveness.
The quality of tamas is inactivity and inertia. Imbalanced, tamas can be associated with depression or suppression, envy or infatuation, fatigue or stagnation, feeling stuck and unmotivated.
All three are required in a positive sense as we are human doers as well as human beings. High excitement and busyness can be embraced from inner stillness and with periods of inactivity. Balance is not getting lost in activity and attachment, nor is it indifference to things and others by tamasic detachment. A sattvic state embraces all three gunas if they are balanced – rajasic energy not becoming over-active and dominant, nor tamas becoming stagnant and obstructive.
It may be a helpful to assess the presence or absence of sattvic aspects of your own living and working environment. Does your living space inspire balanced energy with an aesthetic sense of homeliness? Do various objects or overall content and design refine and energise in a calming way? Does anything or any aspect distract or deplete your energy from being fully present and where you want to be in life? Is something there to make a statement or cultivate a genuine quality? Could disorganisation and clutter be further minimised?
Likewise, does your desk or work pace have elements to reflect being as well as doing in aesthetic ways? Is it organised with some area of space rather than cluttered and jam packed.
Bedrooms should invoke peace and calmness and be absent of stressful associations with work and activities as well as free of clutter and stagnant energy. They should be conducive to rest but also good to wake up rested and ready for the day. Lighting, colours as well as content and design can be considered this way rather than just aesthetic value. Living and work spaces can encourage a mood and mindset that suits you and your lifestyle inducing a sense of calm positivity and goodwill. Objects and images associated with negative, reactive or dysfunctional themes would not be sattvic.
Updating and aligning your personal and work spaces to reflect the quality of consciousness and results you want to cultivate, can be a powerful part of shifting energy and flowing more of who you are into your life and impacting others.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
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).
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).
It’s been over forty years since I first put on a Gi and started martial art training. Shin Kyu Sik, my first instructor (in Tang Soo Do) many years ago said to me, “If you are unlucky these days you may get into a fight once or twice in your life, but you fight battles within yourself every day”. That simple message applying my training to the inner game of life has stayed with me all my life. Since then I have studied various forms of Karate and Kung Fu spanning soft internal styles as well as hard external styles. Martial arts for me has not been about fighting another opponent as much as training mind and body to face large and small everyday battles of life effectively with alert calmness and equanimity. Of course proficiency in techniques is part of the art, but its greatest practicality in modern life is as a vehicle for strengthening mind and character. In the last ten years especially, passing this on to others as an instructor and coach is immensely rewarding.
In these interesting times as more momentum builds in social progress, the pressure to keep up with technology and social trends. At an entrepreneurial level to stay relevant in how we communicate and offer products and services we must also keep abreast of diversification and new niches of business. Information and knowledge is becoming as much a high demand and major commodity as is any material commodity product or service. Our times are becoming characterised by designer lives, where customised controllable environments, homes, transportation, fashion and interests are more accessible faster. Our mindset is also more important in adapting and thriving among more and more options, complexities of challenges, with a greater emphasis on competing and performing with our minds rather than just working with our hands. Self-doubt, negative beliefs, emotional and mental resistance to change, susceptibility to stress and many other challenges to psycho-emotional wellbeing are things we must combat in our lives more than ever. Creative thinking and cutting edge knowledge in a particular field of interest is becoming more important. Thankfully there are also more supports and sources of information on how to combat personal obstacles and build knowledge and skills than ever before.
The growing demand for insights and skills on playing the inner game of life is beginning to catch up with the expanding demand for tools of developing the skills, processes and knowledge needed to move forward in any given industry. Many of my posts refer to ‘conscious presence’ because it is a passion I have and I believe it is at the root of mastering one’s inner game, whatever the journey, as well as providing for spiritual growth.
Ancient philosophies such as Taoism and Zen, are perhaps easier to couch in modern terms than main stream religious sources, for their minimal religious terminology and universality in presenting principles for truth, righteous living and heightened consciousness. They make a play of paradoxes and opposites to help us pierce the dualism of mind and form to get to unity of pure consciousness and presence in the moment. In this way, practice and understanding promises a better conscious observation of mind-stuff as it arises and more conscious choice as to what we take on or let go in our individual approaches to life. Conscious observation of self is transformational in itself while also providing an inner platform from which to consciously re-design our own thinking and focus.
In the meantime the age-old clues as to what that foundation is, behind thoughts and feelings – conducive or not so conducive, still provide apt guidance towards the self awareness that enables self-transformation and development. In the end, contacting and aligning with the true substance of what and who we are beneath it all becomes the most authentic and rock solid foundation to being solid, happy and empowered. It is connecting and living from a deep conscious self awareness that enables us to know who we are, what we really want and know our purpose. It is where we can find fulfilment in what we are and do, as well as create lives where we can be and do more fulfilling things.
Because this seat of ‘self’ is beyond concept (thought) and form, words like ‘space’, ‘presence’, ‘pure consciousness’ ‘mindfulness’ , ‘essence’ and ‘state-of-being’ are modern terms for an awakening experience that might have once had associations with terms like ‘spirit’ and ‘God’. Whatever the words, for words are only words, it is an authentic and immediately personal experience that is relevant, liberating and empowering, that people are increasingly looking for (knowingly or sub-consciously). The age old trend for increasing peace and prosperity is becoming real for more and more of the worlds population.
As has often been the case historically, it is often in the face of challenges and adversity where we are most likely to go beyond our familiar dependencies and escapism to get to a new depth and breadth of being, because a real crisis occurs when the old familiar ways become inadequate. It is discomfort, inner tension and real life needs that drive us to dig deeper and open up to a greater source of strength, clarity or sense of purpose and connection in life.
This is where the training I began to discuss above can come in handy, as does the way we live in general. Practical training and philosophies can offer a form of view and experience that brings us to lucid moments at times we would otherwise go into ‘flight or fight’. Certain mind training provides reference points for the formless, where our ‘aha’ moments can arise. A principle that is referred to in the paradoxes and play of opposites in martial arts, Taoism and Zen is ‘non-action in action’ and ‘action in non-action’.
It is not very ‘zen’ of me to conceptualise this principle. .. however … it applies to an experience that could be described as meditation in action. In a pure moment of being present we can perform an action with full clarity and consciousness, rooted in the space and consciousness from which the action is occurring. If we are fully aligned and attuned in an action being performed, and identifying with the space or ‘non-action’ in which it is occurring, a quality of ‘nowness’ enables purposeful, creative and fulfilling focus to occur. Also conscious alignment and attunement with the stillness and being-ness from which any given action has arisen, is an inner action in and of itself – the action of aligning and attuning the consciousness itself.
This awareness in action while knowing the reason and benefits of what we are doing at any time in the day, nourishes the consciousness of feeling in the flow of life and energisation by doing something that invigorates a sense of purpose. This is compared to the dullness of biding time, doing something for the sake of it, being in a mindset of ‘having to do’ something we don’t want to do or really care about. These negative types of mindsets take us away from being empowered and conscious individuals living in sync with life in general. Transformation of consciousness and reality occur together.
A simple example comes from Zen in the form of Zen walking. Walking can be a mundane thing we do unconsciously to get somewhere we want to be or maybe would rather not be. However, even this simple process can be used as part of enjoyment and self-mastery, especially if we try it as a conscious practice a number of times. Try this version of practice on a weekend, start or finish of the day and go barefoot on wet sand or grass to get the full benefits of earthing and restorative electron flow in and around the body in addition to the exercise for mind. This helps balance and replenish mind and body as well as practicing mindfulness:
- allow the breath to become open, flowing and fully relaxed
- stand still and balanced, gaze slightly down along the nose, feeling through the legs and feet into the ground, breathe in the lower belly, arms relaxed by the sides or finger interlocked comfortably at the lower abdomen where you are taking the breathe.
- Begin to walk slowly, steadily and purposefully in a circle or straight line with a soft steady gaze and calm natural breath.
- Allow your steps to be slow enough to feel the point of balance on each foot rolls from heel to toes and the other foot lifts and moves forwards.
- Try adjusting the speed until the walk feels slow, steady and natural – encouraging a strong sense of balance and being with each step and the movement during each step.
- Do this long enough (5-20 minutes) that your inner body awareness and outer awareness feel unified (no boundaries) with breath and movement.
Once you do this you can subtly do it while browsing in a shop, walking from the desk to printer or table to refrigerator – any moments through the day to train oneself towards consistent mindfulness.
Waking up in conscious presence each day and appreciating the song of birds outside my window, bringing that wakeful presence into body awareness, the living space around me and then my actions throughout the day, adds so much to what I consider my quality of living and enhances my relationships. It is an aspect of where spiritual practice and daily living are one and the same. The accumulated store of conscious moments over days, weeks and years bring you to an enriched space where (to quote Dan Millman) “there are no ordinary moments”.
Photo from Visual Hunt (quote added)