|Becoming a Meditator|
The incessant trashings of my mind blocked expression of The Intuitive Self. As a more active witness developed, I noticed how rehashing the past and fantasizing about the future preoccupied my consciousness. When the witness was present, it noticed how my interactions play out against the backdrop of the ongoing mental chatter. Often when I talked with someone, part of consciousness focused on the internal dialogue while ignoring our exchange.
The Frenzied Mind
This fragmented condition has been given many names. I prefer "chattering mind" while others use "monkey mind." Huston Smith described what he called the "frenzied mind" in graphic terms:
I discovered attention was an antidote for my chattering mind. A disciplined effort to bring awareness into the present excluded past regrets and future hopes allowing attention to rest in the moment. I was drawn to the power of attention by Aldous Huxley's novel Island. In this utopian spoof, Huxley explored the possibilities of a spiritually based society. On an isolated island in South Pacific, Pala banned intrusion from the outside world to pursue a contemplative life.
The novel opens and closes with a call to attention ringing through the air from a mynah bird. "'Attention,' a voice began to call, and it was as though an oboe had suddenly become articulate. 'Attention,' it repeated in the same high, nasal monotone. 'Attention,' . . . and a semitone lover, 'Attention.'" The mynah birds were trained to repeat these words over and over. Wherever one went on the island, the birds were a constant reminder to bring attention to here and now. The story of the mynah birds reminded me to focus on the moment.
To develop my sense of attention, I explored meditation in its many forms for techniques that suited my personality. Lawrence LeShan's How to Meditate helped me sort through the bewildering variety promoted in the West by teachers from the East. (Note 47) Of the eleven forms he described in his chapter on "The How of Meditation," I relied on breath counting. Of the many variations within this type, simply focusing awareness on the movement of breath at the opening of the nostrils was most powerful.
Self Observation and Remembering
Deeper insight into the insidiousness nature of the inattentive mind came from Charles Tart's Waking Up. He pointed out consciousness becomes so conditioned that mind, body and emotions resemble an automated airliner. Continuing with this analogy, Tart observed:
Given this scenario, he asked "Where can you get a pilot?" He recommended self observation and self remembering processes adapted from the work of G. I. Gurdjieff. The first sought to understand how one's psychological machinery works, and the second focused on creating a conscious pilot.
In its most general form, self observation was the practice of paying attention to everything, both internal and external, noticing whatever happened, and being open minded about what was noticed. This practice yielded astonishing revelations about the chaotic nature of my mental and physical presence. Finding that my mind would range over two dozen thoughts, sensations, images, and feelings in the space of 60 seconds was staggering.
An identification exercise developed my Roberto Assagioli helped me begin a recovery from the tyranny of the mind. The version I used was an adaptation by Molly Brown. In a series of affirmations, I first recognized that I had a body, emotions and a mind. These were followed by assertions that I was not those things and concluded with: "I am a center of pure self-awareness. I am a center of will." This laid the foundation for self remembering work that followed.
Self remembering gathered dissociated parts of the self into a unified whole. This included developing a center of consciousness outside the automated pilot. In its earliest form, that piece of consciousness was my observer self who judged and reacted to what it sensed, saw or heard. Though better than lack of attention, its judgmental attitude was detrimental. My witness evolved from the observer to a neutral reporter of experience. I explore the self remembering task of assembling my subpersonalities in another thread.
Yoga and Imagery
The first four lines in Part I "The Settled Mind" of Pantanjali's Yoga Sutras read:
Through study of the inner path for growth, the ancient science of yoga discovered and clearly articulated dimensions of the spiritual journey. Tapping into the deepest level of being opened a connection to unbounded Consciousness. Developing The Intuitive Self built a bridge to this essential nature at the core of my being. The wisdom of the third and fourth aphorisms could not be overemphasized.
As my interest in yoga developed, I explored the yoga approaches to quieting my mental turmoil. Because Huston Smith was influential in my introduction to spiritual traditions, I returned to his writings to learn about the paths of yoga: jnana (philosophical), bhakti (devotional), karma (work) and raja (experimental). I was more philosophical than devotional with a strong experiential approach applied in daily life. My explorations of three of the four paths gradually evolved into my Meditator in the World orientation. To round out my experience, the devotional path has taken on more meaning in recent years.
Hatha yoga by which most Westerners know the discipline corresponds to the third (posture) and fourth (breathing) steps in raja yoga. Studying these physical practices with various teachers, I experimented with first one then another set of yoga exercises adapted from traditional hatha yoga sequences. I was looking for a combination to relieve the physical tension that stood in my way of self realization. As I explored bodywork modalities, I incorporated those exercises with my use of hatha yoga.
Although I had little success with sitting meditation that focused on quieting the mind, I found imagery useful. I developed a guided imagery exercise around one of my drawings. The blue star came into being as an object for a relaxation exercise. The image in its blue and complementary yellow version served as objects for guided imagery.
While in a meditative relaxation posture on the floor, I imagined breathing in the blue star energy from the earth up through my feet throughout my body. I would exhale the tension out of my body before taking the next inhalation. In a sitting meditation posture, I imagined breathing in the yellow star energy from the heavens. On exhalation, I distributed that energy throughout every cell in my body.
In everyday terms, the blue star carried the earth energy of the great mother represented by the Willendorf goddess while the yellow star bore the heavenly energy of the sunflower. The Willendorf goddess and sunflower came into my life as clarion calls for bridging the chasm between these disparate life sources.
In archetypal terms, the goddess and sunflower, abstracted as the blue and yellow star respectively, were messengers of the moon and sun. What a fantastic panorama of images flowing from the infinite reservoir of primal truths in my unconscious mind. The images below are from the opposite sides of a mobile in my apartment. It was a house warming gift to myself. When I saw the mobile in a store, I was compelled to buy it even though I walked away from it several times.
In his book Increasing Executive Productivity, Phil Nuernberger applied practices derived from the principles of the yoga sutras to enhance personal effectiveness. Focusing on business management, he explored the detrimental effects of the chattering mind among other themes critical to management effectiveness. Nuernberger introduced the candle gaze exercise in his chapter on developing concentration which he referred to as "the executive's ultimate skill." The gaze exercise gave me a powerful practice on letting go of attachments.
A Day of Mindfulness
Although yoga and guided imagery were useful, my most successful meditations involved direct contact with the everyday world. Tart's practice of self observation was appealing for this reason. Sitting by myself in a quiet room was not my idea of meditative practice. The most compelling description I found of practice in daily activity appeared in Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness.
For encouragement, I reread Chapter Three "A Day of Mindfulness" again and again. As Nhat Hanh said, "Every day and every hour, one should practice mindfulness. That was easy to say, but carrying it out in practice was not." Given the difficulty, he suggested setting one day a week aside to practice mindfulness. Following this practice on specific days and remembering it on other days, brought the relaxed, attentive presence of The Intuitive Self into daily experience.
As mindfulness moved to center stage, responses to situations became more appropriate to the moment. Yielding to the guidance of The Intuitive Self connected me with the larger realm of being. This brought the expression of will in the explicate order into congruence with the pattern of life inherent in the implicate order. Living the actual moment released life. Rather than fighting life with my shadow self, my actions became life itself. tat tvam asi - That art thou.
This slow, challenging transformation that will hopefully continue until the day I die was beautifully described by Robert MacPhail in Aldous Huxley's novel Island:
Discovering the powerful role of breath in the meditative attitude focused attention on my body. This was reinforced by a chronic stress pattern acquired as a teenager and aggravated by my intense approach to school and career. Stress was so severe that I routinely suffered migraines. Since the traditional medical response was tranquilizers, my doctor prescribed valium. That began years of addiction while I hid from dealing with the underlying behavior. Occasionally awareness penetrated my drugged fog to suggest deeper issues. Through it all, my intuition consistently pointed me in the direction of bodywork!
For my first bodywork experience, I had the good fortune to attend a workshop with Moshe Feldenkrais. Although not ready at a conscious level for his work, my intuition nudged me in that direction. His book Awareness Through Movement outlined a self study program with the key components of his training. (Note 54) Although I did not follow up, the experience planted a seed about the significance of posture and physical tension in my well being. I was not conscious The Intuitive Self was priming me with these incentives.
In The Potent Self, Feldenkrais presented his philosophy of the relation between action and acture or posture in action. I understood his ideas at the level of individual muscles. Actions were inhibited by habitual responses plagued by parasitic actions robbing me of energy and depriving me of spontaneous competent action. I began to notice standing tension in my body that conflicted with my actions. Typing these words, I sense tension in my right shoulder distracting from the smooth flow of my fingers across the keyboard.
My struggle with tension was reflected in my diary. Several entries focused on personal stress patterns and my responses to them. In one entry, I wrote an account of my general stress pattern. In another, I wrote about one downward spiral where I increased my stress trying to back off from my stress response. In the final entry, I listed causes that seemed to underlie these catch 22 situations I created for myself.
I continued to experience high levels of stress reaction to situations. My next bodywork was with an Alexander therapist. Working first as a counselor, he suggested augmenting our dialogue with physical work. This was the beginning of a commitment to reintegrate mind and body. The Alexander method featured slow, gentle movements to release tension and blocked energy. Since my rational mind let go a bit, this experience was modestly successful.
As holistic, alternative medicine gained recognition, acupuncture caught my attention. A friend had dealt with a personal trauma through acupuncture treatments. The more familiar I became with the tension in my body, the more I recognized a concentration in my left neck. An acupuncture therapist completed a series of treatments on that part of my body. Talking with her about the theory, I added energy as a third component to my body and mind view of being.
In terms of time and depth, Soma structural re-education was the most extensive bodywork I undertook. This Rolfing offshoot consisted of ten basic sessions and continued with advanced treatments. The work acquainted me with tension behind the tension in the myo-fascial tissues but did not include the psychological component. I learned the physical and mental should proceed together to insure that blockages once released did not return. Old blockages returned without a corresponding change in my psychological outlook.
Learning to Relax
Becoming aware of the energy component coincided with readings in Eastern yogic practice where I learned about the chakra energy centers. Of many descriptions, one that caught my attention was "The Seven Centers of Consciousness" in Swami Rama's Yoga and Psychotherapy. His explanation of the chakras as the inner playroom stuck a responsive chord. In this metaphor, a quiet core lies at the center of each chakra. By analogy the core of my being, The Intuitive Self, stood ready to guide my path at each moment.
Periodically I used hatha yoga for bodywork. With a local teacher or at an ashram, I took part in physical exercises and breathing practices that comprised the fourth limb of Raja Yoga described by Patanjali. I found The Sivananda Companion to Yoga was a well written and beautifully illustrated guide to postures and breathing exercises. (Note 57) Rather than follow a standard set of asanas, I selected ones to complement my bodywork. Listening to The Intuitive Self, I chose postures to target specific tensions in my awareness. I adopted methods to suit the needs of my unique spiritual path. Progress came from maintaining a discipline not following a specific set of practices.
Of all yoga postures, the relaxation pose worked best. I experimented with audiotapes on differential relaxation. But it was not until I discovered the relaxation pose that relief came for my migraine headaches. Combining this pose with a 61 points exercise finally turned the tide with my headaches. Moving from point to point in the body while focusing the image of a blue star at each location induced an extremely deep state of relaxation - so deep that the diffused tension patterns behind the migraines were released momentarily.
The foundation component for learning to relax was awareness of breath. Yoga postures taught me to coordinate breathing patterns with physical action. My relaxation exercises were enhanced by following breathing techniques to evoke the relaxation response. Although it sounded easy to pay attention to my breath, the task turned out to be quite challenging. Kevin Hoffman pointed out doing the practice in daily life required a number of skills including:
Since I often forget to pay attention to my breath, I called on Ganesh as one of my guides in learning to relax. As a part of my daily routine, I recited the following prayer: "Gahesh, son of Shiva and Shakti, help me transcend the obstacle that I am to my Self." His image had added meaning for me since I already had a strong affinity for Shiva and Shakti. I have much more to say about their Divine Union in later Threads.
Phil Nuernberger's presentation of the breath awareness practice as a meditation technique was especially useful. This seemingly easy technique was challenging. After some progress, I learned breathing patterns had distinct effects on my degree of relaxation. Some patterns encouraged relaxation, others relaxed attention while others actually caused tension. The key was the effect a pattern had on the sympathetic and parasympathetic balance in my autonomic nervous system. Increased sympathetic tone led to heightened tension, increased parasympathetic tone, relaxation.
The attention needed to bring my awareness into the present was difficult given my body's attachment to fight or flight responses. Recognizing three basic ways of breathing helped me sort out the difficulties. Chest breathing correlated with my stress response to experience. Anxious reactions to daily demands were reflected in muscle tension as well as reliance on chest breathing. My diaphragm had gradually lost its tone from relative disuse. To muster the body's cooperation, my diaphragm needed weight training. (Note 62)
While learning the relaxation posture, I was introduced to the sandbag method for toning the diaphragm. Beginning with a ten pound bag, I gradually increased the weight in five pound increments. At twenty pounds my diaphragm received a good workout. As muscle tone was restored, diaphragmatic breathing was easier to initiate and maintain. The positive sense associated with an attentive presence encouraged my weight training and reminded me to breathe diaphragmatically.
Numerous breathing exercises are recommended in the yoga tradition. One version of alternate nostril breathing was especially useful. The flow of breath in the nostrils alternates from side to side first easier on the right, then easier on the left. The alternate nostril exercise encourages a balanced air flow through both nostrils. A constricted left nostril indicates sympathetic body tone while a constricted right marks parasympathetic tone. When I wake up naturally, the left is relatively more constricted as the body moves into the sympathetic phase.
A full yogic breath involves in sequence a full diaphragmatic, full abdominal and full chest breath. The lungs expand to maximum capacity to admit the most oxygen to the body. When swimming, full breaths are necessary to supply the oxygen needed for my favorite exercise. Sitting at a keyboard only requires diaphragmatic breathing to meet the oxygen needs of the task. The Taoist breathing practice expands the full yogic breath to include the whole body breath. Adding whole breathing deepened my response in the relaxation pose.
Doing It My Way
After completing basic and advanced Soma deep tissue work, my bodywork reached a plateau. I was learning to tailor yoga and bodywork to suit my needs. To continue I experimented with cranio-sacral therapy and related energy release methods. My yoga asanas included the child's pose and several postures focused on the head, neck and shoulders. I returned to the deep tissue work and advanced practices including subtle energy release. It was time to combine physical and mental approaches to deal with energy blockages.
As my explorations had broadened into various disciplines of body and mind, my daily routine acquired an eclectic pattern. As a result, I used a variety of exercises and practices to encourage a meditative quality in my daily life. The range is suggested by a list of daily activities that proved useful at one time or another. I found the best meditative path was one tailored to suit my individual needs.
Frank Sinatra's signature song "My Way" was much in the news the week he died. Though self centered, I found a kernel of truth in the title. Following the letter of the practice was imperative in initial explorations. A different perspective evolved as I adapted learnings to my circumstances. I gradually replaced the external guru (teachers) with the inner guru that knew everything I needed to know about anything I would ever do. The name for my inner guru was The Intuitive Self.
In designing my own program, there was a danger some obstacle like fear or desire would come through instead of The Intuitive Self. But as trust in my intuition matured, choices were less contaminated by smaller parts of myself. As I begin a new adventure in advanced bodywork, I will cooperate fully with my therapist. But The Intuitive Self will decide what I do with the treatments. Eye ball to eye ball with many gurus, I discovered they too are still searching.