As you approach 2016 take some time to write down your intentions, goals, hopes and dreams for the New Year. Let your spiritual aspiration be the guiding principle. By holding this intention everything else, all your needs, and even greater blessings than you can imagine will be forthcoming. Live a life of service. Every day find a need and fulfill it. Let go of ego driven thoughts and behaviors. Repair the past by being present, creating only positive and uplifting thoughts and attitudes. Forgive if need be and let go of everything that is burdensome and not in line with your highest good. Turn it all over to your higher power. Above all nurture your heart and soul. The most important resolution we can make is to take time every day to keep our appointment with our innermost Self. Pray, meditate and let divine love and devotion from the core of your Being fill your life.
“The Inner Light is the presence of God that lives within us all.” – Quakerism
The actual experience of Divinity, God, absolute consciousness, is not a far off reality but is an ever-present experience that is available in every moment. Science and many world religions seem to have created a divide between this physical reality and the world of spiritual truth. To bridge that divide is possible and there is knowledge of the ways and means to make the journey. Many of the spiritual paths, sacred temples, spiritual traditions, myths, gods and goddess’ represent this inner journey. They serve as external representations of what is within us and not as anything separate and apart from us – they are reminders. Enlightenment is not a metaphysical event – it does not happen outside the body but rather the key lies within the brain and nervous system. Spiritual awakening need not be relegated to only those who can withdraw from the world and devote all their time and effort to the spiritual life. Spiritual awakening is indeed a mystical science and in fact can be understood and facilitated by information modern science is beginning to corroborate and uncover.
The Inner Light perception referred to in the last couple of sutras is mentioned many-many times in the various spiritual literature of the world. So much so that the deeper meaning is often lost or overlooked. We take for granted the references to the ‘light within’ as just flowery and poetic symbolism. Such descriptions for the most part are spoken of as if the light is purely symbolic. However, in this context the real meaning and identity of the light is not symbolic – the light perceived within during surrendered meditation and moments of spiritual experience is the concrete ‘form’ of the Divine in expression and not different or separate from the Divine Source. It is divinity in the ‘form’ of light, the essence of being. The ‘light’ is the background consciousness that is always present. Accompanying the light is the primordial sound – the sound and light are simply different aspects of the same thing. This sound is the steady hum of the vibration of manifest creation. It is behind all sound, perceived internally as the sound, ‘Om’.
Some theorize that the experience and the perception of Inner Light occurs in the brainstem. This part of the brain is considered as the most primitive – often called the ‘reptile’ brain by modern science. However, yoga science offers a different perspective: consciousness enters the physical dimension through the brainstem and emerges into the physical plane to animate the body. At this level consciousness is pure and unmodified. But as pure consciousness filters up into progressively higher areas of the brain, it takes on the ‘impurities’ – the characteristics and the corresponding mental modifications inherent to those areas. The light is the luminous nature of pure consciousness. However, as it moves away from the source, it is colored by the definitions that are the content of our brains programming. We become identified by, and with, those contents. In effect, ‘the one becomes the many’. We then falsely perceive ourselves as being defined by the contents rather than by our true identity as the light, the Self, pure consciousness.
The cells in this part of the brainstem have projections that ascend up into the brain and descend down the spine. The ascending tracts reach up encompassing the entire brain. Neuroscientists define areas in this lower part of the brain purely as an activating source and is why it is called the reticular (meaning net-like) activating system (RAS). It is considered to produce arousal and consciousness. As a subconscious scanner it looks for things in the environment that require the activation of the brain. These include things that are unique, familiar or problematic. Why? Because from an instinctive and survival perspective our brain is programmed to pay attention to these types of triggers. Otherwise, for the most part, we remain in autopilot, not requiring the energy expenditure and the need to be more aware. When the brain is in autopilot there is a predominance of electrical activity in the EEG called alpha rhythm, the brains ‘idle’ frequency. The RAS finds no need to waste energy so the cortex is in a relatively neutral state. However, as soon as something is perceived as ‘unique, familiar or problematic’, the RAS sends activating electrical signals to the cortex to PAY ATTENTION! In those moments we are more ‘awake’ as the brain is producing faster brain wave activity called beta in preparation for appropriate action. The brainwaves themselves are tiny electrical pulses of light moving along intricate networks in the brain. The RAS is the pacemaker of the brainwaves and virtually all the electrical activity registered in the higher brain is turned on and off by this system. Brain death occurs when the RAS stops sending the signals and all electrical activity eventually cease. This does not happen all at once but is a process that occurs within minutes after cardiac arrest.
A recent experiment intended to measure the EEG (brainwaves) of the rat brain after cardiac arrest caught neuroscientists by surprise. The findings are detailed in a National Geographic article, “In Dying Brains, Signs of Heightened Consciousness”. This information is providing a different perspective on what is happening in the brain during the dying process. Scientists are being extremely cautious about how to interpret this and the implications. This information potentially opens the door to understanding how the brain is involved in the mystical experience as well since the brainwave activity has similar characteristics.
Some neuroscientists argue that the light phenomena that is perceived within, during the near death experience (NDE) and in deep meditation, is just the effect of chemical changes, oxygen deprivation and other mechanisms occurring in the brain. They tend to disregard the profound spiritual changes many who have NDE’s have, as well as the profound spiritual experiences reported by beginning and advanced meditators alike as this inner light is perceived.
Many mystical teachings state that the light perceived within is the source of all living beings – it is our mutual home. It is the common core experience shared no matter the race, religion or belief system. It is the profound meaning of the often spoken phrase, “We are one.” It is the well-spring of our deepest inner-most source of life. We can learn to perceive the light, immerse ourselves in the divine consciousness therein, and meditate in it. Different cultural myths of sacred rivers, i.e. the Ganges, the Jordan, represent this sacred flow of life. We can learn to merge with and receive the inner revelation of Divinity and pure grace the light (the river) carries. The light within is Divine Consciousness and will lead the individual to discover the depths of the soul.
Reversing the Flow of Attention
Normally our awareness flows out to the external world. The nervous system has been trained to scan the external environment, to translate events as good, bad or indifferent and to act accordingly. However, in order to perceive the Inner Light, attention must be redirected. This was discovered many thousands of years ago by spiritual adepts and is where many meditation traditions find their roots. There are ancient writings detailing the cranium, the spine and other specific areas of brain anatomy as the ‘palatal house’ with ‘doors’ to the Divine consciousness. There are meditation techniques designed to access these areas within the brain and to reverse the ‘normally’ outflowing consciousness driven by the RAS and redirect it back to the luminous source.
How to See the Inner Light and Hear the Inner Sound
Occasionally both beginning and advanced meditators spontaneously perceive the inner light during meditation sessions. Along with the light the sound of Om is also often heard as well. Some do not see any light at all, just a field of darkness and specs of light nor do they hear any sound in particular. However there are techniques passed down from spiritual adepts that can enable the meditator to see the light and to hear the inner sound. In the Kriya Yoga tradition there is a light and sound meditation, using the sound ‘Om’, described below. This technique is one of the preliminary Kriya Yoga methods and with practice by itself will result in the inner perceptions. There are several additional stages to this technique that I will offer over time for those who are interested – stay tuned.
Sit in the ideal meditation posture: upright, firm but comfortable. Legs can be crossed or seated in a chair with feet on the floor. If possible sit with your back away from support so that your spine is erect. Chin should be pulled slightly in so the neck is not craned. You should feel as if there is a string pulling up the crown of your head toward the ceiling so your spine and neck are extended. Eyes gently closed. The room should be as quiet and dark as possible. If there is any light in the room then an eye mask can be useful. However, be sure the mask does not put any pressure on the eyeballs – pressure on the eyeballs will produce light phenomena in the eyes themselves. There is a product called iMask available on the internet and it is designed with a space between the eyes and the mask so there is no pressure on the eyes. Earplugs can be used too to block out distracting sounds and to enable you to listen ‘within’.
Sit for a few moments just to relax as you bring your attention to the natural and gentle rhythm of the breathing pattern – slow, gentle inhalation and slow gentle exhalation. The length of inhalation and exhalation should be approximately equal. This is natural breathing, no attempt to overly control the breath – just smooth, natural ‘belly’ breathing.
After relaxing, when feeling calm and centered, bring your attention to the point at the center of the forehead between the eyebrows. This is known as the location of the ‘spiritual eye’, in Sanskrit, Kutastha Chaitanya. This area also corresponds to the location of the brains prefrontal cortex: the brain area associated with executive functions such as concentration, attention, goal planning, decision making, and impulse control. Do not cross or strain the eyes. Just gently lift the gaze as if looking at a slight angle up and out into the distance through the forehead. Imagine that the breath is moving in and out through this point.
When the breath is calm and quiet begin to mentally repeat the sound ‘Om’, three times with inhalation and three times with exhalation. Feel or imagine as though the sound Om is knocking at, or tapping, the spiritual eye point. Like this: as you inhale, Om-Om-Om and with exhalation, Om-Om-Om. Gently allowing the sound of Om to resonate and ‘tap’ at the spiritual eye with each Om. Gradually and without discomfort, try to extend the number of Om repetitions up to six with inhalation and six with exhalation. As you do this look into the spiritual eye as if you are attempting to pierce it, as if looking through a veil to the other side. Try this as a meditation for at least 10 minutes, longer if desired. Afterwards, if you have another form of meditation that you use then just do that or whatever feels natural to you.
The light often appears in cloudy or misty shade at first with different colors flowing and melting into one another. The light is not actually being seen with the eyes but perceived in the ‘minds’ eye. Eventually as concentration improves certain specific colors and shapes related to different manifestations of consciousness begin to become more stable and clear. (More on what the colors, shapes and other sounds indicate in later sutras). The mental repetition of the Om is gradually replaced by ‘hearing’ the internal sound of Om. The sound of Om begins to arise along with the light and both become more distinct. The sound ‘Om’ is actually a manifestation of the light and vice versa – they are the same. Many other sounds too may become noticeable but some of these can just be sounds of internal physiologic processes in the body. Eventually, however, the sound of Om becomes quite clear like a steady low frequency hum in the background. Some meditators report that even after meditation they perceive the sound ‘Om’ when relaxed and in an environment that is quiet and relatively free of loud noises. Both the light and the sound have a quality that becomes more and more tangible and recognized as the Divine presence, a benevolent, gentle, uplifting and assured sense of the omniscient presence of God within.
When the light and sound begin to come forward the objective is to merge with the light and sound. Have the gentle intention to go beyond the initial perception and go through the light and sound to the origin. This is done by following the stream, as it were, looking and listening within, tracing back to the source.
“He who finds his happiness within, his joy within and likewise his Light within, realizes one-ness with the Divine and the beatitude of God.”
– Bhagavad Gita 5:24
“In the undistracted gaze
Appears the Light
Gaze and gaze to heart’s content
And mingle one with it;
The Heavenly Stream will surge
To the spaces infinite of Void Space
Then may the Uncreated Being (pure consciousness) witnessed be.”
– Tirumantiram verse 600
The only difference between an enlightened person and an unenlightened person is the enlightened person knows they are enlightened – the unenlightened person simply does not know it yet. However, at the core, they are both the same: complete, whole and fully enlightened. This is the simple truth. The one who knows it is not ‘higher’ and the one who does not know it is not ‘lower’.
If anyone believes their enlightenment makes them superior to anyone else, then that is not enlightenment – that is ego. If anyone believes they are enlightened as if they are special and unique, as if they have ‘attained’ something, then this too is ego. Do not bow to anyone out of a notion of superiority, but do bow to everyone acknowledging the same Divinity resides within. The homeless person scrounging through the trash is just as Divine as the ‘great master’ teaching in the ashram. Never doubt this.
There is no saint, no bodhisattva, no great mystic, no guru, no holy person, no avatar, no ‘ascended master’ and no great yoga master who has attained anything more than you have this very moment. This very existence is enlightenment. We’ve made a long sojourn to be in these bodies. We are here now and this is our opportunity to wake up to that which we already are and always have been.
The Divine Light that is perceived inwardly in deep meditation at the top of the brain stem, (RAS) mentioned in the last sutra, IS the manifestation of the One, Pure Consciousness as it comes into expression in the body. Usually this is ‘seen’ with eyes closed as if it were in the center of the brain or at the inside of the forehead. This physical location is considered to be a trans-dimensional portal – the spiritual eye. The perceived ‘light’ is that which is ‘life’ and therefore is not separate from the Divine source. You are that Light. At this source we are fully in enlightenment. So, you might ask, why is it that we can have so many different experiences? And, how can some behave so ‘unenlightened’? The problem is the rest of the brain that is layered on top of this so-called primitive lower brain structure. The layers are the vast neural networks and, just like computer software, get programmed with information, obscuring the Light that is essentially illuminating it. The rest of the brain provides the content but the light we call our consciousness is what is behind the content – and this comes from deep within the brain. We diffuse and differentiate the pure being-ness of the Light as we identify ourselves with the various conditionings (rather than identifying ourselves with the Light). Just as the light from a movie projector is pure but as the film strip is passed before the projected light, we see every variety of experience from the film strip projected on the screen. Our brainstem is like the light of the projector and the rest of the brain is the film strip, coloring our experience with the content and conditioning.
“You have to ask yourself the question ‘Who am I?’ This investigation will lead in the end to the discovery of something within you which is beyond the mind. Solve that great problem and you will solve all other problems.”
– Ramana Maharshi
“That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”
– John 1:9
Is spiritual awakening and the experience of enlightenment a metaphysical reality, transcendent, unexplainable and beyond the physical existence of our brain and body? Or is there a physical correlation, somewhere that is not ‘other than’ these bodies where our enlightenment happens. Some teachings say these bodies are a gift, a microcosm, in “His Image,” and are necessary vehicles for our incorporeal souls to awaken to the highest spiritual realization possible.
The common core mystical experience shared by all religions, all spiritual paths, all mystics and nearly all people who have a NDE (near death experience) is the experience of the Divine Inner Light.
The light is always present in everyone as the root of consciousness, it just simply needs to be uncovered. In this sense everyone is already enlightened; if there is life, that ‘life’ is divinity in expression. Animals too, at the core, obviously are this ‘life’ in expression. Therefore as is said over and over again by saints, sages and seers: the awakening path is simply the revealing of what is already there within! All life is the expression of the One Divine Being!
The Great Discovery
In the 1870’s, Liverpool physiologist Richard Canton first identified the spontaneous electrical signals of the living mammalian brain he called ‘brain waves’. It was, however, not until the early 19th century, German psychiatrist/scientist Hans Berger took Cantons discovery further developing the human electroencephalogram (the EEG). Berger was in fact an avid devotee of the 16th century Dutch philosopher-mystic, Spinoza. Per Spinoza’s philosophic writings claiming that what is referred to as God is within all life and is the root of all life. Berger was convinced that the EEG rhythms were the expression of the one Divine Reality and that this Divine Reality somehow expressed through the body, pulsating as these waves, giving life to the brain and body. He believed that brainwaves are the electrical language as it were, of the one Divine life and is what makes matter ‘alive’. Unfortunately his original hypothesis was lost in the ‘science’ of EEG. Nevertheless his discovery of the EEG paved the way for the many current technologies used to scan and measure the brain and the various neurological parameters. In fact neurofeedback would not be where it is today if it were not for his discovery. We continue to explore the relationship between higher consciousness and its manifestation in the brain.
There is self-knowledge that knows how to heal and regulate the mind-body inherent in consciousness. EEG neurofeedback is a way to reflect consciousness back to itself. This is what is called self-referral and this is what produces healing.
Centuries prior to the discovery of the EEG, and unbeknownst to Berger and his predecessors, Yogic science elaborated on the medulla oblongata as the physical ‘doorway’ to the infinite. The Rishis found that the brainstem is the actual physical location where the perception of the Divine Inner Light occurs. Within the brainstem is the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS is the regulator of our consciousness – like a pacemaker it activates or deactivates the brain by sending or inhibiting discharges as electrical pulses, brainwaves, which carry information throughout the rest of the brain and subsequently to the body. The RAS is always ‘awake’ in the background – it has to be – it is conscious in that it is source of the life force and the regulator of all our vital functions that make us ‘alive’: this includes the heartbeat, the cycle of the breath, blood pressure, etc. This explains why at deaths doorstep (when the brainstem is shutting down the body functions) the Inner Light is perceived. The brainstem holds the key to the fourth state of consciousness described by seers and in Sanskrit, known as Turiya. Turiya is our ‘background’ state that ‘witnesses’ the other three states: waking, dreaming and deep sleep states. The EEG brainwave of Turiya is called delta rhythm: the slowest bandwidth, oscillating between 0 and 4 Hz. For all intents and purposes the higher brain regions of the cortex are ‘offline’ when delta is the dominant rhythm. While in this deepest state the ‘I’ that is our ego sense of individual identity is dissolved in the universal omnipresent spirit – all sentient beings go into one-ness with the Divine consciousness during the delta deep sleep stage whether they know it or not. The RAS is in the so-called ‘primitive structure’ of the brainstem and is known in mystical language as the location for ‘the mouth of God’ – where the omnipresent universal life force enters into the body, individualizes as the soul, and animates the inanimate flesh. When the life force is withdrawn and the soul moves on in its journey, the vital functions cease and we call this physical death.
Certain enlightenment traditions teach techniques, thousands of years old, that are intended to guide the seeker within to the experience of the Inner Light. Kriya Yoga, expounded by Paramahansa Yogananda in his classic book “Autobiography of a Yogi” is an ancient system, resurrected in the mid 1800’s. The methods taught in the Kriya Yoga system are designed to guide the practitioner to this state of awareness/consciousness. During Kriya yoga superconscious meditation, attention is directed to the brainstem by various techniques. The practitioner indeed begins to behold the Inner light. In effect we begin to inwardly perceive the emanation, the radiance, of our soul in the brainstem as it first enters and manifests in the physical plane of existence. By the repeated experience of the perception of the Inner Light we naturally become increasingly aware of the inherent Divinity and the ensuing ‘self-revealed’ knowledge resident within and carried by the light. The “light that lighteth every man/woman” is the manifestation of superconsciousness in the brain. It is the higher mind, transmitted from the source. This is the knowledge that arises from, and resides, within us all. This inner perception is accompanied by the vibratory hum of creation perceived internally as the sound, Om. This is what is referred to as “The ‘word’ made flesh” – John 1:14.
Much more on this to come…
Every experience we have leaves a trace upon us. In a very real way, the body keeps score. This score is like a tally of various experiences, both positive and negative. Most of us know someone who shows the signs (the score) of the negative effects of stress. Abraham Lincoln remarked, “Every person over forty is responsible for their face”. Each experience shapes the physiology of our body – negative experiences take a toll as the score ads up as well as the positive experiences. It is up to us to be aware of this and to use our experiences for learning the lessons necessary for our growth.
The traces left by experience are electro-chemical patterns imprinted in the brain/body. Negative experiences such as trauma do not necessarily have to be the source of all the imprints. There are of course significant traumatic experiences that create deep wounds but there are also seemingly harmless events that create equally strong impressions that can have a domino effect throughout our lives. We may blame our current feelings and reactions on people or circumstances in the present as the source. But the truth is we may just be juxtaposing feelings from former events on to our current experience.
Do you have particular negative behavior patterns in relationships with loved ones, friends or anyone else that keep recurring? Do you ever find yourself saying, “Why does this always happen to me? What am I not getting here?” Do you feel uncomfortable around certain types of people or places? Do you have fears or phobias? Do you startle easily? Do you have insomnia? Do you have to stay ‘busy’ all the time? Are you lacking or struggling in any area of your life? Do you have chronic physical issues that clearly are exacerbated by stress? Addictions? Do you have to search for your true feelings, do you feel out-of-touch at times? This can all be the result (and the accumulation) of responses to past experience that is being triggered, repeated and ‘blamed’ on, and attached to, current circumstances, people or events. This is not to blame the past but rather to identify the current issues and see the connection with the past. This enables us to break the cycle – it makes it conscious.
Ram Dass said, “If you think you are enlightened, go spend some time with your family!” Not only do we get pulled into virtually all the conditioned patterns developed over our lives when we are with the people who were around us during our crucial developmental years, but the people who we knew at the various stages project all their notions and opinions about us, on us as well! This can be very unsettling – our voices may change, we may regress and feel like children, we may feel old behaviors and self-conscious beliefs about ourselves emerging. These family get-togethers can be a great opportunity to observe the ‘acting out’ of patterns!
Do Not Blame Past Lives!
According to enlightenment teachers, our experience now is the carryover from past lives – our lessons continue on until we have resolved them all, realizing life’s ultimate purpose and finally experience liberation of consciousness. The effect from the past is the cause of the present and if not resolved will keep creating the same effect-cause-effect-cause cycle over and over. When we learn the lessons and make the appropriate adjustments, we consciously eliminate the negative effects and introduce new positive causes. It is in the ‘here and now’ that we have the ability to respond (response-ability) to repetitive patterns (karma). Looking for past life sources can be nothing more than a distraction from dealing with the ‘here and now’.
The Body Remembers
When we recall a past negative event in our life, if it is unresolved, we will experience a similar body chemistry to the original event as we remember the incident no matter how long in the past it occurred. If we feel sadness, hopelessness, regret, guilt, anger, shame, remorse or any uncomfortable emotion then it is likely the memory and emotion associated with it has not been resolved. When we recall a positive experience, the same applies: the positive chemistry can be intentionally brought about. There is a growing awareness in the therapeutic community that along with other appropriate interventions, body centered approaches to healing trauma and stress responses are essential. The body keeps score and takes on stress and emotional patterns (chemistry) that reflect the stress in the form of poor breathing patterns, muscle tension/stress patterns, gastro-intestinal reactions, auto-immune illness, aches and pains and many others. These body patterns can be released by using breath combined with body awareness practices.
There are however, individual differences and needs for different psychological makeups that should be taken into account before one engages in a meditative practice. A recent study reported that 7.9% of people who try meditation or some form of contemplative practice have a negative experience. There is even a growing movement called ‘The Dark Night Project’* that looks at the negative experiences that occur with this percentage of people who try contemplative or meditative practices. It is notable too, however, that a 2010 paper published in American Psychologist points to dramatic instances where psychotherapy has caused serious harm to a patient.
To be clear though, not all negative experiences as a result of meditative and contemplative practices are part of the same category. Some are actually desirable and intended as one moves through different levels of the mind – they can serve as a way to identify, desensitize, integrate, neutralize and thereby resolve internal conflict – in effect peeling away the layers that obscure the purity of the soul. But some of the negative experiences are perhaps caused by premature opening and a misunderstanding of the proper procedure for persons who have deeper unresolved conflicts and/or a history of traumatic experience.
Why are there negative experiences if meditation is supposed to turn on the ‘relaxation response’, make us calm and more focused? Why do some people just give up on meditation? The reason is if there is unresolved issues or trauma, it is not necessarily a conscious memory. In some cases it is just below conscious awareness, lurking in the background as a vague (or not so vague) anxiety or uncomfortable feeling. As an example if one was raised in an environment where there was discord and unpredictable behaviors from family, acquaintances or friends, then this can trigger parts of the brain to either learn to disassociate from the stressful environment and feelings or to be hypervigilant to avoid potential threats in the future. Disassociation has a wide range of severity but essentially it is a defense mechanism – a detachment from the environment and/or from one’s own feelings and thoughts – this is the ‘freeze’ response. Hypervigilance manifests as always being on guard as a defense to the unpredictable – always ready for ‘fight or flight’. In the EEG (the electrical activity of the brain: brainwaves) you can see the difference: dissociative patterns will show an excess of theta waves and sometimes alpha waves as these people’s brains have learned to go ‘offline’ on occasion to avoid negative feelings. The difficult thing about this is these people may not even know that they do this since they sort of disappear by tuning out. The other pattern will show an excess of high beta wave activity which is an indication of extreme over-activity as the brain maintains the state of hypervigilance. Dissociation usually tend towards depression while the hypervigilant towards anxiety, over-arousal and other agitated conditions.
We all develop different ways to manage stress. To avoid (or disassociate from) negative feelings some people will engage in almost constant activity, keeping themselves incessantly busy or constantly talking. Some will resort to comfort eating, drugs and/or alcohol as a way to self-medicate. With the aforementioned 7.9% who try meditation, mindfulness or some other form of relaxation training, the repressed memories and/or feelings may begin to emerge. Sometimes the memories are conscious but many will not have the memory of a specific event but rather will have the non-verbal memory in the form of a physical symptom like a headache, disorientation, dizziness, GI upset, insomnia and some will have an emotion of fear, sadness, anxiety, or panic. Some will experience sweating or body shaking, or other uncomfortable feelings associated with the stressful event. These people should not begin with types of meditation or relaxation where one has to keep the body still – this only deepens the uncomfortable feelings and can create (or make one recall) feelings of being ‘trapped’. This is crucial to the deeper healing of the after-effects of the trauma and these uncomfortable responses and reactions are indications that a different approach is indicated. Professional counseling by someone trained in trauma recovery is important. Moving forms of meditation can also be beneficial – getting the stress patterns out of the body and thereby releasing the pent up emotion/memory. Some of these include Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Hatha Yoga. These are movement oriented practices that use breath combined with body awareness to decongest stagnant energy in the body, release frozen emotion, relax muscle patterns, reduce stress, boost the immune system and many other benefits.
The late Subramuniyaswami advised that people prone to anger or violence should not try to do sitting forms of meditation or contemplative practices at first. It is advisable for these people to practice Karma Yoga (learn to perform self-less service for the good of others without attachment to, or expectation of, reward) and/or Bhakti Yoga (devotional forms of practice where one surrenders one’s self to a higher power). These paths help one to remove the egotistic tendencies and to develop empathy, compassion and humility. Fear and instinctual drives fuel the anger and violence. Eventually as one learns to cultivate compassion, empathy and humility the negative patterns will be extinguished and meditation practice can ensue.
Find Your Breath
0ne of the simplest and most efficient methods to neutralize negative programming and reaction patterns is to shift awareness to the breath. With awareness on the breath, breathe from the belly, smooth out the breath, eliminate any pausing. With practice, the chemical patterns will change relative to the breath. Breath and mind are intimately connected. The breathing pattern will reflect the content of thought and emotion: i.e., if there is disturbance in the mind there will be disturbed breathing – breathing patterns will be irregular, some will actually hold the breath and there is also something called hyperventilation syndrome where panic creates excessive breathing resulting in dizziness and confusion. By using conscious breath awareness the mind can be brought into a less scattered condition.
“Once an affliction of the mind has been conquered, it cannot return.”
— Thrangu Rimpoche
I recently met with a former convict who was incarcerated nine times in both state and federal prisons over his lifetime. He attributed his ‘new life,’ and his success to the two-times-a-week hatha yoga classes he attended while in prison. More specifically to his learning to, in his words, “find my breath.” He had a violent childhood, scarred by devastating experiences leaving him with extremely violent reaction patterns – when he was in his ‘child’s mind’ he interpreted events that to him, life taught, ‘violence is the only way to survive.’ Now, in situations that would have triggered significant violent responses in the past, he found that by just shifting awareness to his breath, he changed the reactions, permanently. In his words now, “It was hard a first, but it (breath) saved my life.”
Recall the gap exercise in sutras #14, 15 and 18. If you need to please reread. As this former convict learned and as neuroscience tells us, there is 1/10th of a second delay between an outside event and our internal reaction – the 1/10th of a second is the gap. In the 1/10th of a second our brains scan vast memory reserves for ‘how we should react’ based on past experience. If we have negative programming and negative reaction patterns then we will unconsciously react according to those habitual memory patterns – these patterns automatically tell us how we ‘should’ react. Pausing, recognizing the gap, using breath to be present-awake in the 1/10th of a second, is how we can change the unconscious reaction patterns.
Spend time every day watching for repetitive patterns, for moments when you recognize a familiar annoying feeling – see it as a memory. Observe yourself when you feel frustration, anger, disappointment, or when you feel like a victim, have a disagreement, poor communication or impatience with yourself or others. These are usually indicative of a pattern, of a domino effect of similar situations and incidents like ripple effects from past programming effecting the present.
Be conscious of the ‘score’ your body and mind is keeping. Are you tallying up a positive life -affirming, stress-free, prosperous and spiritually fulfilled scorecard? Or is stress and negativity from old worn out patterns taking a lead? It is truly up to us once we understand our role. Make a commitment to practice over the next day: find your breath and you will find your freedom.
* The ‘Dark Night Project’ name is taken from the title of the classic mystical text, Dark Night of the Soul written by the 16th century Carmelite monk, Saint John of the Cross. Unfortunately, the Dark Night Project dwells almost entirely on the ‘darkness’ and leaves out the very purpose and explanation for the process of moving through the ‘darkness’ – the culmination of which leads to the deepest soul awakening as described by St. John:
This enkindling and yearning of love are not always perceived by the soul. For in the beginning, when the spiritual purgation commences, all this Divine fire is used in drying up and making ready the wood (which is the soul) rather than in giving it heat. But, as time goes on, the fire begins to give heat to the soul, and the soul then very commonly feels this enkindling heat of love. Further, as the understanding is being more and more purged by means of this darkness, it sometimes comes to pass that this mystical and loving theology, as well as enkindling the will, strikes and illumines the other faculty also—that of the understanding—with a certain Divine light and knowledge, so delectably and delicately that it aids the will to conceive a marvelous fervor, and, without any action of its own, there burns in it this Divine fire of love, in living flames, so that it now appears to the soul a living fire by reason of the living understanding which is given to it.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD