Sometimes life has a way of exposing and pointing things out to us in not-so-subtle ways, doesn’t it? When there is resistance to the growth process and to our own personal evolution, we may have an unhealthy attachment to poor attitudes, self limiting thoughts, petty beliefs, bad relationships and self-destructive behaviors, in other words, to ‘life as we know it.’ Even if we know in our heart that life as we know it is not conducive to our highest good, we may hold on for lack of direction or lack of foreseeable options. Letting go and moving into the void of the ‘unknown’ can be more threatening to our subconscious mind than staying in the unhealthy ‘known.’ If this is the case, often life will send us some kind of message to shake us out of our slumber and force us to pay attention and make the necessary changes. If we refuse to pay attention and change, the message becomes more forceful and often has more severe consequences. We are all destined to wake up eventually, to learn our lessons and to release self-limiting thoughts…to do those important things we know deep down we should be doing for our own highest good and ultimate spiritual unfoldment. So why not make the move to wake up beforehand? Why not head off the wake up calls by learning to be awake now?
At a certain turning point in our lives we may be compelled to ask the most important questions:
Who am I?
What is my purpose for being here?
What is life?
What is God, the Supreme being, ultimate reality?
These questions are a great blessing, often occurring in or after moments of a certain impetus: an event that shakes us and impels us to look past the transitory and superficial meanings and appearances to the deeper meaning of our existence. It can be a health crisis, a relationship gone awry, an accident, the passing of an acquaintance or loved one, etc. There are also serious collective wake up calls: world events that humanity is facing that include political, social, financial and environmental problems that we need to pay attention to as the consequences are mounting and are here now.
Many spiritual teachings have referred to this ‘shaking’ as necessary to wake us up. Neuroscience research on advanced meditators indicate that when one enters an authentic spiritual path (one based on a systematic practice of spiritual discipline, meditation, cultivating the virtues, surrendering the ego, etc.), over time the brain of the individual literally becomes more awake.
For the most part, the brain is an energy conserving organ. There is a neural network called the default mode network (DMN) that functions as auto-pilot, keeping us from having to actively think about everything we do. Once something is learned, be it an attachment, aversion, behavior, etc., it is programmed in our brain’s DMN and we do not have to think about it for future reference; it becomes automatic and requires no conscious thought. Much of the brain’s energy and chemical resources (glucose, neurotransmitters, etc.) are doled out according to what our subconscious perception views as important events in our environment. The more of a shock, or out of the ordinary, the stimulus, the more awake our brain.
Great inspirational beauty and profound spiritual experiences trigger ‘awake moments, however, so does trauma.
Some spiritual teachers point out that this brings us to an important point: In order for us to wake up (to begin the process of seeing and experiencing more to life than just a sleep-walking existence), it is necessary for us to recognize and realize that the majority of the time we are in a ‘sleep condition.’ And therefore, the need to make efforts to wake up rather than be at the mercy of events in our lives to produce the shaking or the occasional inspirational moment.
Recent neuroscience research reveals a disturbing fact: for subjects studied, the average attention span is 3 seconds! Sounds discouraging to say the least! But do not be discouraged. Attention is a brain function and involves pathways in the brain; exercising these pathways can be compared to building stronger muscles – the more you exercise and train ‘attention’ pathways, the stronger they will become. More and more areas of the brain will devote connections and neurons to this function if we know how to train it. This is crucial to understand if we are engaged in a spiritual growth process whose stages include practices that require us to learn to control and direct our attention.
The final goal of the stages of spiritual practice can be summed up in the following:
We are, at the core of our being, pure awareness, or pure consciousness. This pure, unconditioned state is behind our thoughts, behind our minds, behind our emotions, and is the silent witness. It is always here but due to the nature of our attention we do not experience this very subtle aspect of our being. Pure awareness is our very nature and is what is referred to as the ‘Self’ or God, the Supreme Reality, manifesting as us. This is our deepest essence of being, and whether we are conscious of it or not, this is the reality of our existence. The goal of spiritual practice is to remove all that clouds the ‘superconscious’ experience of this.
This is why we have various spiritual paths that have been delineated over the ages. Sages, saints and enlightened teachers have mapped out the process of awakening. Indeed, neuroscience is now corroborating this by documenting the physiologic changes in the brain that occur as we go through the process of waking up.
A spiritual teacher in the 1920’s pointed out an obvious fact mentioned earlier: Before one can awaken, one must first of all realize that most of the time, one is asleep. One must engage in a process that will help one to wake up. Why? There are many, many glorious things we miss in this sleeping state. If you have ever experienced a moment of true reality, where divinity is spontaneously recognized as a presence (and this presence in fact is not something separate from you, but your own presence) then you have had a glimpse of what lies beyond the auto-pilot state. The more powerful this divinity is realized the more potent, overwhelming and all-embracing the divine love is….to the degree that this is experienced, one’s life and world is touched and transformed beyond measure. This experience is here for all of us to live now – but to experience it for greater and greater periods requires brain changes. Again, that is what spiritual practices are for.
The phrase “be present” has become cliché. Unfortunately the term has been overused and many miss the profound implications of what it really means. Indeed being awake requires that we learn to be present and all that this state implies – if we are simply not present to ourselves and to our environment then how can we consciously experience our own inner divinity (our Self) which is always present? Because of the brain’s DMN we are literally shutting off the pathways in the brain required for our attention and awareness to be present.
In Sanskrit the word used to define the state of consciousness when we are fully present, awake, when we are conscious of our divinity and the divinity as all that is, is called ‘Samadhi’ (definition: ‘union’ or ‘absorption’). When we begin to experience Samadhi during superconscious meditation practice, our individual awareness is inwardly revealed and recognized as a unit of the total divine presence. No separation – we are indeed one with God just as a drop of the ocean is one with the entire ocean.
The path, stages or steps to Samadhi are described as:
Attention > Concentration > Meditation > Contemplation > Samadhi
1. Awareness must be stabilized by strengthening attention: attention to being present.
2. Awareness can be focused, avoiding distractions and held to a point through concentration – gradually extending moments of being present.
3. Awareness is then directed deeper within and held steady in meditation, quieting the mind, and going beyond the mental fluctuations.
4. Awareness is directed towards an object, truth, idea or knowledge in contemplation.
5. Awareness is turned back upon itself: ‘being aware of being aware’ eventually leading to a progression through the levels of Samadhi resulting in the highest states of consciousness where subject and object merge. (The small ‘self’ merges with the larger real ‘Self.’)
I cannot stress enough that this process is a neurological process… Parts of the brain are refined so that the gradual training of awareness can progress through these stages.
The process of spiritual awakening is not just a metaphysical event and does not happen ‘out there somewhere.’ There are certainly transformations happening at subtler and subtler levels of our being; these are at the root of what we can measure in this physical/material level and the subtle changes do reflect in our nervous system and physiology. It happens to, and in, our brains and this body temple.
The practices we have been given by the great spiritual adepts are to facilitate this process. Paramahansa Yogananda said at the Congress of World Religions in 1926, that the human nervous system and brain is the altar of God and by refining it through spiritual practices one is naturally led within to the highest states of enlightenment, Self and God realization.
There is an important point regarding this whole process that is often missed or overlooked: to start, our awareness has to be trained. Our awareness is silent, witnessing, but gets pushed and pulled this way and that way by wherever our attention strays. Our awareness attaches itself to things, thoughts and ideas (every 3 seconds!). Therefore, the first thing we must learn and train our brains to do is to practice being present: to train our awareness to stop attaching and identifying with thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that are simply programmed into our brain’s software. This is not easy. This requires training attention and a conscious directing of attention, beyond 3 seconds! There is tremendous inertia we must overcome to do this. Our brains want to do the opposite – our brains want to remain on auto-pilot.
I invite you to try something until the next newsletter to verify for yourself.
A Practical Exercise in Being Present:
All work on oneself must be practical: it must give one a tangible, verifiable result. If it does not, then it is mere ‘theory’ and ‘philosophizing’ – what is referred to as ‘being in your head.’
First release all notions and everything you have learned and heard about what it means to ‘be present.’ This is important to start anew; clean the slate.
Being present begins as a very simple exercise in making efforts to be conscious of yourself in a given moment. The first thing we realize is just how difficult this is – I wake up in the morning and say to myself, “Today I will make efforts to be conscious, to be present.” Then, that afternoon, for about 5 seconds, I remember this commitment I made and I wake up! But then it is the next day and I realize, “Oh my God, I completely forgot to be present since yesterday!” What happened?
The brain’s DMN puts us back on auto-pilot, back to sleep! Try this yourself, you will be able to verify very quickly: it is very difficult and it requires a certain amount, and distinct quality, of energy for one to create moments of awake consciousness, of truly being present. And if we just depend on wake up calls or on our own memory to remind us to be conscious and awake, we will often be discouraged.
Pick a day to try this:
Get a watch, or a timer, that has an alarm that you can set to sound every hour or two. For one full day, have this with you and when the alarm goes off, make an effort to be conscious, be present. Divide your attention between what is going on inside and what is going on outside. Conceptually try 66% of your awareness within and 33% without. Witness and observe the process. Do not judge, think, analyze or do anything with your mind. Consciously use your attention to direct this process. The key to this is to be aware of your breath while you do this for breath is always happening in the present. Observe the rhythm of your breath…breathe from your lower belly, and watch and be with your breath. Just be there. Observe and be aware of all your senses. Look and see the environment around you: hear it and feel it with your body. Be aware of being aware. If you can do this for 3 to 4 seconds then that is great! Try to gradually hold the state for 5+ seconds, but do not strain and do not get frustrated if you find it difficult – Your brain ‘muscle’ has to build new pathways to do this, and that requires time.
After one day of this exercise see how often you can remind yourself to do this, to be silently present-awake, without any external prompting. Over time you will experience more and more spontaneous moments of clarity and presence. This is the beginning of the awakening process and is the crucial first step to the gradual refinement of the brain and nervous system.
Please try this. This exercise brings many interesting results – see for yourself.