Life is a seamless and intimate experience with many trials and tribulations. We often liken our lives to ‘a movie’ or ‘a soap opera’ but unlike television or the cinema there are no demarcation in our lives in ‘the scenes’. Night blends seamlessly into day with no obvious break between the two. Similarly, each moment of our lives blends seamlessly into every other moment.
Let us consider what our life experience consists of, really break it down experientially:
1. Thoughts and mental images. Thoughts often take the form of a dialogue in ones native tongue but often take the form of mental images. Each thought is discrete. Short lived and on its own incoherent. It is in fact the intellect that makes sense of the constant stream of thoughts that arise.
2. Sensations of the body. If one’s eyes are closed, and no reference made to a memory of a body then the body is experienced as just discrete sensations or vibrations. You can try this for yourself now. With no reference to your memory, when you close your eyes can you feel a discrete arm or leg or any body part or does it seem like you are just an amorphous mass of vibrations?
3. Perceptions of the world. Through the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
There is nothing in the whole of human experience outside of these three.
We are bombarded with literally millions of sensory stimuli from these three sources each second but where we place our attention helps in filtering out the redundant sensory inputs through a process known as sensory gating. The pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus is considered the gatekeeper in the process of attention in preventing irrelevant sensory information from reaching the higher cortical centres of the brain.
Okay, I hope this helps in part to explain why when you are negotiating a crowd you are unaware of the feeling of hunger or when you are reading you may be oblivious to conversations going on around you, or how you are unaware of the smell in the room until now.
It also helps to explain the reason for much of the stresses that we experience in the world today. There are two factors that take us away from the present moment – which is inherently peaceful (from a psychological point of view).
1. Thoughts of the past. Often this is in the form of negative ‘commentary’ about past events, how you could have done things differently, interpretations and reinterpretations of situations. However, do not be fooled, even positive thoughts about past events can lead to stress or misery through clinging, wanting to relive moments, and wanting to return to a past that no longer exists.
2. Projections of future events. This leads to anxieties and a subtle ‘resistance’ that is sometimes felt in the body, usually the abdomen. This seeking of a future event often enlongates one’s perception of time making the day feel longer. Also a lot of actual time can be wasted ruminating over problems that can rarely be solved except in the present moment with the problem and the means to solve it both at hand.
Unfortunately, attention is a subject poorly taught at school, it seems intuitive that we all have it and know how to use it (with certain clinical exceptions) but a normal variance in attention is seen in the general population and attention is something that can be refined.
Meditation is the focussing and training of attention. The object of ones focus is usually the breath but any single object (including visualisations and mantras) can be used as an ‘anchor’. Meditation helps one recognise the thoughts that continuously arise, and create a space between the thoughts and the thinker. In the early stages of meditation the practitioner gets lost in thought often and often for long periods, but returning to the anchor reinforces the focus and is thought to be responsible for changes in brain density that have been seen in studies worldwide following as little as six weeks of a daily meditation practice.
Through teaching meditation, I have come to recognise that this is not a practice that suits everyone or that everyone wants to do, nor is it something that can be forced. I have also learned many principles through meditation that can applied to those people who don’t want to take up a daily practice but do need respite from the constant commentary. Two simple techniques are described below
1. Conscious breathing. All 7.6 billion of us breathe but how often are we conscious of our own breathing? Inspired by mindfulness meditation, conscious breathing is becoming recognised in the mainstream through smartphone apps and wearable devices that prompt the user to breathe at regular intervals.
The principle is straightforward. Anything that stops the constant stream of thoughts, weakens their hold over us, weakens our identification with the thoughts.
For breathing to be conscious you need to stop what you are doing and play close attention to at least six breaths. Observe how it feels in your nose, throat, chest, abdomen. The sound, the variation between the breaths. When you stop observe the peace – it may be short-lived, but it is enough to weaken our bond to thoughts. The changes can be so subtle as to be imperceptible, but practiced regularly, over time, this technique which requires no financial investment and the most minuscule amount of time is a game changer for many.
2. Returning to present moment awareness. We are aware 100% of our waking lives but how often are we aware that we are aware. Awareness of awareness is considered in many traditions to be the highest meditation however many are deceived by this statement because of its simplicity.
How do we practice this? The process is outlined below.
You ask yourself the question ‘Am I aware?’. The mind answers ‘Yes’. Both the question and the answer are thoughts arising in one’s mind but something happens in between the two – attention goes directly to the experience of being aware.
Now ask the question again, recognise the experience of being aware. This is the same as the feeling of being, the feeling of existence. This is what we refer to when we say the word ‘I’. Instead of letting the mind answer this time, stay with the experience of being aware.
This technique has been well described as ‘Atma Vichara’ or self abidance in Hindu literature but it is often referred to in other traditions such as Christian contemplative prayer. I am grateful to my own teacher Rupert Spira for teaching as well as reinforcing this beautifully simple technique.
Do not make the mistake of expecting changes to happen immediately or have any expectations of the nature of these changes. It may be friends or loved ones who first notice the changes in you and this is a good pointer but the greatest barometer to our progress is the inherent sense of peace which is less and less easily disturbed.
Thank you for your attention reading this article that I hope you find useful. If you have any questions then please don’t hesitate in contacting me. Wishing everyone all the best over the holiday season. See you in 2020!
Article written by Vikas Pandey
Merry Christmas from Pandey Integrated Healthcare!