Ocean of Light

 

Never could I have dreamt
of the Beauty
of floating in an
Ocean of Light
enveloping gently
all that I am

But
where it starts or ends
is not skin
or centre of sight
which lends itself
to the perception
but merely is
a contraption for
the centreless centre
the stuffless stuff

The One Light
that gives itself
to all
to see itself
and laugh

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A Christmas Story

This story was read aloud on the US National Public Radio show, “This American Life.”

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Well, it all began at Christmas two years ago when my daughter was four-years-old. And it was the first time that she had ever asked about what did this holiday mean. And so I explained to her that this was celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she want to know more about that, and we went out and bought a kid’s Bible and had these readings at night. She loved them– wanted to know everything about Jesus.

So we read a lot about his birth and about his teaching. And she would ask constantly what that phrase was. And I would explain to her that it was, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And we would talk about those old words and what that all meant.

And then one day we were driving past a big church, and out front was an enormous crucifix. She said, who is that? And I guess I’d never really told that part of the story, so I had to sort of, yeah, well, that’s Jesus, and I forgot to tell you the ending. Yeah. Well, you know, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.

It was about a month later after that Christmas. We’d gone through the whole story of what Christmas meant. It was mid-January, and her preschool celebrates the same holidays as the local schools, so Martin Luther King Day was off. So I knocked off work that day and I decided we’d play, and I take her out to lunch. And we were sitting in there and right on the table where we happened to plop down was the art section of the local newspaper.

And there, big his life, was a huge drawing by like a 10-year-old kid from the local schools of Martin Luther King. And she said, who’s that? And I said, well, as it happens, that’s Martin Luther King, and he’s why you’re not in school today. So we’re celebrating his birthday. This is the day we celebrate his life. And she said, so who was he? I said, well, he was a preacher. And she looks up at me and goes, for Jesus? And I said yeah. Yeah, actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.

And you’re trying to say this to a four-year-old. This is the first time they ever hear anything so you’re just very careful about how you phrase everything. So I said, well, yeah, he was a preacher and he had a message. She said, what was his message? And I said, he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like. She thought about that for a minute, and she said, well, that’s what Jesus said.

And I said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And that is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And she thought for a minute and looked at me and said, did they kill him, too?

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The start of the disciple’s journey

For the longest time I had always imagined that the only reason one goes to a Guru is because one is unable to deal any longer with the blows Life has meted out to you. The blows can be various: a deep existential crisis, a broken relation, a persisting physical pain, an emotional imbalance, the death of a loved one, a sense of meaninglessness or a complete lack of direction. Life has no shortage of presenting us with difficulties. And yet, we all devise ways to learn to live alongside this pain till one fine day having spent all our strength trying to deal with it we give up. We are left with an aching empty space right inside of us and a deep sense of fatigue and resignation. It is this complete acceptance of defeat and failure that finally makes us humble enough to ask for help from a higher Source. And then at last we begin our journey to find Someone who can help us figure out the mess we have become. Apparently it is in this state of complete misery that one is ready to become a disciple.

But my study in the Guru Disciple Relationship (see my first blog) proved this assumption quite wrong. Before the interviews I was sure the most common answer to the question, “Why did you look for a Guru?” was going to be, “because I was in pain.” I was completely wrong.

During the interviews, one of the areas we spoke about was how did the journey of the disciples begin. And to me the answers to this query were the most unexpected and revealing. To begin with most of them did not go out to seek a Guru; according to them it was the Guru who found them. The common belief in the Indian tradtion says that when a disciple is ready then the right Guru comes along. And this is excatly what happened to most of them. Exploring further I realized what it meant for a disciple “to be ready.”

To give you an example, X was a person leading a normal, succesful life. Having studied in Oxford, he was doing the work he loved, earning well, did not have any major difficulties. One day a friend asked him to parcel a book to India. While packing it he glanced at the cover. The cover had a photo of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Just by looking at the photo something stirred deep inside him. There was an instant recollect and a reconnection that took place and before he knew it he had found his way to the Ramana Ashram in Tiruvanmalai. The next 40 years were spent in the Ashram, serving the Guru. In an instant the entire course of his life had changed. The right place, the right time and the right circumstances lead him straight into the loving presence of his Guru.

And this was the case with almost all of the disicples I spoke to. For many of them it was one chance meeting, or one powerful experience or a set of simple co-incidences that helped them start their journey.

But their “readiness” also included another, more hidden aspect. They all spoke about an innate aspiration, a deeper urge to understand the meaning and purpose of their lives. They were looking for something, not sure what, but the search was on. Many of them, since their childhood, had a natural opening to a vaster and deeper approach to life and the world. An inherent faith in something beyond themselves and this world kept their quest alive.

And this quest was supported at times by their family, or a teacher or a series of experiences or regular visits to the Himalayas or simply by reading books. These outward aids helped them continue to explore the “not so apparent” aspects of life. The simplicity and sincerity towards their quest is what made them ready for their Guru. It was clear that before they became disiciples they were already seekers. And once the Guru found them… the rest was history!

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Where is Martin Neimoller?

Televangelist Pat Robertson said Trump was a “harbinger of the Apocalypse” and the return of Jesus was imminent.

“Now we have a man of God back in the White House, Jesus Christ will soon return,” said Robertson. “Sure, he’ll massacre all the atheists, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, yoga practitioners, witches, psychologists, Scientologists and alien worshippers, but once that’s done we will have 1,000 years of peace on Earth.”

**********

I grew up an atheist. I was a Sufi (Muslim) for 2 years. My background is Jewish. I have “practiced” within Hindu traditions. I have been a yoga practitioner for over 40 years. I know people who are devoted Wiccans, and I am a psychologist (don’t have much contact with Scientologists and alien worshippers, though).

*********

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Neimoller

PS: Robertson didn’t really say that, by the way. The quote is from a satirical site. But did you think for a moment he really did?

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The art of communication – through the lens of Equanimity

How much ever I wish and hope telepathy to be the official channel of communication, the role of language and active communication cannot be denied in today’s world. We all live together, grow together and it is human interactions that keep us alive. Exchange of ideas, sharing our happiness and sorrows, the feeling of being there for someone and the awareness that there are people who will always be there for you no matter what, these are the things that makes life a joyous ride. We interact with the world on a daily basis but we all know that these interactions are not always happy ones; there are times where we feel distant from the world and even from the people who are closest to us. At times we get the feeling of being misunderstood or even we ourselves face the inability to understand a person who is close to us. One can think, when and how miscommunication and the sense of being distant creep in and where is the misfit?

From my little experience and observation, what we often miss to see is that any interaction is a human interaction first and then the role that person plays in our life steps in. If we are able to see the human being behind that role, we will be in a better position to understand the other person. The problem starts when we see that individual not as who he/she is but rather through what role he/she plays in our life and our construction of the mental image of that person based on expectations. For example, we have the mould of a mother, an individual represents that in our life and while growing up we have been conditioned to the ‘supposed’ qualities of a mother. We forget that this is just a part, a role she plays, its one part of her identity and existence. She is more than that, she is an individual, a human being who comes with her own set of ideas, beliefs and fears and her particular way of dealing with things. Every human being has his own path to walk on and comes with a unique identity that has to be accepted and appreciated and not judged or discarded based on some ideas and expectations. The mould of fixed role-relationships is for our reference and not a survival guide; one should with time develop one’s own ideas and understanding by being more self aware and then interact with the world from ‘that’ space. We should develop the art of human interaction and not one role interacting with another. We should give our expectations a break, and focus on building relationships that are free from expectations and are based on genuine love and empathy. It will improve our living and automatically strengthen our relationships and give us a fulfilling life as we expect nothing and our interactions are based simply on love and care. It will give people space and comfort to express who they are without being compared to or subjected to any prejudices and it will enable inner connections beyond our surface nature. To do this, it is essential to be centered in oneself and what equanimity does is give you the lens to view the situation and the person independent of their role, to see through the covering of relationship and connect to the human being behind that and that’s when the real connection happens. It’s always when we react from our surface nature and are too much in the situation, we simply miss the possibility of a real communication and get lost in the ideas and expectations. Being equanimous helps us see the situation without frills and help us to be able to improve the quality of the communication as we are not impulsive in our reaction but calm and peaceful in our interaction.

Also, another important thing to understand is the source of our expectations and to take any interaction as a window to our inner selves. When we view the situation from a calm state, this in a way shows what we want and helps us understand the why behind our expectations and accelerates our journey of self growth.

Constant practice of being equanimous and working  on improving our very own world view and cultivating an in-depth understanding of our relation with the world around contributes to a large extent and acts as a catalyst to a progressive universe where people interact and engage with a sense of fulfillment without any superficiality to their communication. And that is the world I have always imagined.

 

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Neuroscience and Integral Yoga

John Yates, in his book, “The Mind Illuminated,” presents a way of understanding the mind that many have found supportive of their efforts to concentrate in meditation.

He’s describing two basic ways our brain has evolved to engage with the world. One is through “selective attention” (SA) – our brain selects out of an infinite array of information a specific object to attend to. “SA” tends to be conceptual, very much concerned with “me” and my desires and fears, and excludes much of the rest of experience. It is very much the kind of attention that we are conditioned to in our education, and if there is too much emphasis on it, it tends to lead to a great deal of tension and anxiety.

The other form is “peripheral awareness” (PA) and is holistic, takes in the whole field of experience at once, is much less “self-centered,” more connected to the body and to others.

One very important aspect of these two modes of engagement with the world is that selective attention tends to be more active, whereas peripheral awareness is generally a relaxed, passive, open engagement with the world.

Because of our education, many of us, when we turn to meditation, and we hear of Mother or Sri Aurobindo’s emphasis on the importance of concentration – concentrating on an aspiration for the opening to eh Force, for example – somewhat reflexively employ selective attention. If we overemphasize this, we end up in a battle with “distractions.” Culadasa has a brilliant, extremely practical and ultimately quite simple description of a gentle way of balancing SA and PA.

Ultimately, as one learns this, the “effort” to balance gives way to an effortless integration – an integration that is finally so seamless that SA and PA “merge” into “something else.”

*****

I’ve been reflecting on how this relates to integral Yoga. I just happened, this morning (11-30-16) to turn ‘at random” to a passage from the Mother’s ‘Questions and Answers” that i think may be a distant parallel to this integration of “active” selective awareness and “passive” peripheral awareness.

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“If you want to get true inspiration, inner guidance, the guide, and if you want to have the force, to receive the force which will guide you and make you act as you should, then you do not move any longer, that is — I don’t mean not move physically but nothing must come out from you any more and, on the contrary, you remain as though you were quite still, but open, and wait for the Force to enter, and then open yourself as wide as possible to take in all that comes into you. And it is this movement: instead of out-going vibrations there is a kind of calm quietude, but completely open, as though you were opening all your doors in this way to the force which must descend into you and transform your action and consciousness.

Receptivity is the result of a true passivity…

…the two things can go together, you see, there is a moment when the two — aspiration and passivity — can not only be alternate but simultaneous. You can be at once in the state of aspiration, of willing, which calls down something — exactly the will to open oneself and receive, and the aspiration which calls down the force you want to receive — and at the same time be in that state of complete inner stillness which allows full penetration, for it is in this immobility that one can be penetrated, that one becomes permeable by the Force. Well, the two can be simultaneous without the one disturbing the other, or can alternate so closely that they can hardly be distinguished. But one can be like that, like a great flame rising in aspiration, and at the same time as though this flame formed a vase, a large vase, opening and receiving all that comes down.

And the two can go together. And when one succeeds in having the two together, one can have them constantly, what- ever one may be doing. Only there may be a slight, very slight displacement of consciousness, almost imperceptible, which becomes aware of the flame first and then of the vase of receptivity — of what seeks to be filled and the flame that rises to call down what must fill the vase — a very slight pendular movement and so close that it gives the impression that one has the two at the same time.”

The Mother, Questions and Answers, 1954, p. 115

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Integral Yoga and the Buddhist Stages of the Path

I was just studying John Yates’ (also known as Culadasa) marvelous book on the “stages of the path” in traditional Buddhism (the book is ‘The Mind Illuminated”). Jan and I have been looking at it, as it has a number of suggestions we will be incorporating into our meditation e-course that we’re developing.

I suddenly “got” how extraordinarily simple it is, in essence. Culadasa says that by following this guide (not necessarily his version; he’s not that self involved) it is possible for any diligent person to reach complete mental silence within a few years, perhaps even a few months.

One of the keys is the distinction he makes between selective attention (very much McGilchrist’s ‘left mode”) and peripheral awareness (bottom up processing, non linear, holistic, etc; “right mode”).

Most meditators – in modern times, that is – thrust themselves into the process brutally employing selective attention, and spend months or years fighting with their minds. Many teachers advise “relaxing’ but then, we moderns “relax’ with the same mode, and end up struggling with that like everything else.

Culadasa has a description of a balanced process so brilliant that it is extraordinarily simple. We do engage with the meditative object – the breath, or whatever – with selective attention, but “mindfully” balance that with an open, gentle, soft peripheral awareness.

He goes into tremendous detail – even explaining how the instinctive and ancient emotional programming (more closely associated with the archaic, magical and mythic structures) – originally served a very good purpose (“originally” meaning several hundred million years ago for our animal ancestors and 10s to 100s of thousand years ago for our human ancestors) but now serves primarily the apparently separate mental ego, which distorts the whole process.

He portrays a process over the 10 stages of the Buddhist path toward “shamatha” – an effortless state of inner silence, peace, happiness, and utter contentment – as an increasing (and natural!) integration of attention and awareness, and by stage 8 or 9, a shift from effort to increasing effortlessness, as “something” takes over (something that is ever-present!).

One of the most practical, immediately effective meditation manuals I’ve ever come across.

It was particularly remarkable to me to compare it to Alan Wallace’s “Attention Revolution” (terrible title; the publisher’s choice, not his) which outlines the same path, but from a Tibetan Buddhist/Dzogchen perspective. Culadasa uses breath as the main object throughout all the 10 stages, though in subtler and subtler ways.

Alan introduces “settling the mind in its natural state” at stage 5 (in stage 4, you’ve reached the point where every time you sit to meditate, you can fairly easily stay with the breath the whole 45 minute or hour session, though thoughts and other distractions still are very present). At stage 5, for Alan, you shift – now you simply rest in “the space of awareness” and observe rising and passing away phenomena in the mind. by stage 8, you shift to “awareness of awareness”, not even attending to the mental phenomena at all, and with this, thoughts begin to die out altogether, as they are not fed by attention.

This is the stage when effortlessness begins to be predominant. Something else begins to guide the whole process, and beyond stage 10, a self-perpetuating inquiry occurs which reveals what Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present Origin,” and ultimately, results in the non-dual realization of “One Taste” (Rigpa, the Self). Beyond that, Sri Aurobindo tells us of a Divine, Intelligent “Force” or Shakti which profoundly transforms every aspect of our mental, vital and physical consciousness, resulting ultimately in a perfect integration.

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One thing that particularly struck me was Alan’s description of the effects of increasingly stable concentration from stages 5 to 10. As i was reading, something seemed very familiar. I took a break, looked at Bases of Yoga, and I realized the description, not only of “settling the mind in its natural state” but of the effects of concetnration was almost exactly the same as Sri Aurobindo’s descriptions of the “quiet mind.”

In fact, the instructions Sri Aurobindo gives for developing the quiet mind are in some cases identical as Alan’s guide to “settling the mind in its natural state.” I found this fascinating because Dzogchen is not actually a Buddhist practice, but a meditative tradition indigenous to Tibet that predates the 7th century introduction by the Indian Padmasambhava. Furthermore, the qualities that emerge, as described by Alan, from stages 5 to 10, sound very much like Sri Aurobindo’s descriptions of quiet, calm, peace and silence (I don’t have the page here but it’s early in Bases of Yoga – free online at Auro e-books).

Sri Aurobindo has many times written that it is in the silent mind that one finds the conditions most favorable for surrender, which speaks to me of the vital importance of the understanding of the (non linear, of course) “progression” from the quiet to the silent mind.

I know there’s a lot of ambivalence about getting inspiration from “other paths,” (though Mother herself found the Dhammapada useful enough to offer commentary on it in the early 1960s), but being rooted in integral yoga, I find that it can be extraordinarily helpful to get insights like this that have very down-to-earth, practical ramifications.

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Here’s Alan Wallace’s description of the first 4 stages, with regard to concentrating on breath awareness, plus a little bit more on the later stages.

STAGE 1. You’ve completed this stage when you realize how noisy your mind is! (generally, before people start meditating they actually beleive their minds are fairly stable. After meditating for a few weeks, you realize you’ve got a psychotic roommate living in your head who never shuts up!

STAGE 2. You’ve completed this stage when you get to the point where, when you completely lose track of the breath, you realize it within 10-20 seconds of the time you got off track.

STAGE 3: You’ve completed this stage when you have – say, within a 20 minute meditation session – at least several instances when you can stay with the breath for at least 1 minute. You may still have all kinds of thoughts and other distractions you’re aware of in peripheral awareness, but your main focus of attention remains the breath. Alan estimates that most people who are reasonably stable psychologically can get to this stage within a few weeks of dedicated practice.

STAGE 4: You can reliably sit to meditate at any time, and you will stay with the meditative object throughout your meditation session. At this point, in Alan’s description of the stages, you’re ready for “settling the mind in the natural state” (which uses a subtle object, the contents of the mind, as the focus of attention, rather than a gross object, the breath, as the focus).

STAGE 5: Now your practice shifts to what Sri Aurobindo calls “the quiet mind”, in which the “substance” of the mind remains still, and even if a thousand thoughts pass through the mind, the stillness remains.

The practice from hereon becomes noting subtler and subtler distractions, rejecting or gently letting them go, sinking deeper and deeper into utter stillness and silence until the whole process becomes effortless. What makes it integral rather than Buddhist practice is that the meditative focus is undergirded with the aspiration to open to and surrender all of the mind, vital and physical to the Divine Force.

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Some reflections on mindfulness

(Jan and I just came back from a meditation retreat. On the retreat, someone we met asked for some links to websites that would provide information on scientific research on the benefits of mindfulness practice. I suppose, being on a retreat with a (relatively) clear mind, something was sparked in me and I ended up writing the following in about 20 minutes. I thought it might be fun to post, so……)

just posted this and see the links don’t show up – if you go to Michael Taft’s site, you can find all the links. Please note that all of this is aimed at someone not consciously involved in doing yoga – in fact, skeptical of it)

MINDFULNESS RESEARCH AND INFO

I’ve included a number of links at the end to articles providing information about the physiological and psychological benefits of meditation.

To help put them all in context, I’m providing a “naturalist” explanation of what mindfulness is. In scientific research, “methodological naturalism” involves refraining from accepting any supernatural, magical, or non-physical means of explanation.

So here is a brief description of what mindfulness is, how it works and what its effects are in purely naturalistic language.

Put very simply, mindfulness involves training attention and awareness to free our consciousness from the constraints of our evolutionary conditioning in order to experience a unified state of consciousness.

Let me provide a bit more detail to help you understand what I mean by “attention,” “awareness” and a “unified state of consciousness.”

Selective Attention and Peripheral Awareness

In every moment we are awake, there are two basic aspects of our consciousness which are functioning. Say you’ve gone out to eat, and you’re looking at the choices on the menu. Your capacity for “selective attention” allows you to tune out the sound of other people talking, the slight pain you may have in your hip or lower back or neck, the sights of the waiter walking by, the people at the next table, as well as the various thoughts and emotions that may be passing through your mind that are not related to your meal.

While you are focusing on the menu (unless you’re an extremely advanced mindfulness practitioner!!) all of that – the sounds, sights, physical sensations, passing thoughts and emotions – are still present in your consciousness but they’re on the periphery – they’re in your “peripheral awareness.”

Something may arise on your periphery (the waitress drops a plate and spatters some tomato sauce on your new shirt, or on the bag holding a vitally important flash drive) and even if you wanted to hold your attention on the menu, all kinds of emotions will rush up – annoyance, irritation, etc – to draw your attention away from the menu. Now, what was peripheral has become central!

For most of our lives, our attention is pulled this way and that – we want to be focusing on developing a new computer code, and any number of external (“I just have to check my email for the 18th time) and internal (oh my god, did I remember to turn off the stove) distractions are fighting for our attention.

The primary source of these distractions is really not the external things or obvious internal stuff we pay attention to. There is always something going on “under the surface” that has to do with ancient evolutionary programming, that is for most of us, much of the time, the real driver of our actions, emotions and thoughts.

Our Instinctive, Emotional and Mental Programming

Our instinctive programming – exquisitely designed through the extraordinary evolutionary process of random genetic variation and natural selection – worked for several hundred million years in very simple circumstances to keep us safe, to motivate us to master our environment, and guided us through pleasure – what helped us survive – and pain – what is dangerous to our physical survival.

But that old programming is no match for the sophistication of 21st century marketers. High class scientists are paid huge sums to study our instinctive programming and come up with just the right combination of salt, sugar and fat to override the evolutionary mechanisms that are supposed to protect us, leading us to eat what makes us sick rather than what makes us healthy.

Our emotional programming – particularly that which developed around 250 million years ago – emerged because mammals evolved who found greater survival benefits in forming strong bonds, and tight social groupings.

This emotional programming is at the root of the profound bonds of love and caring in human beings. But because of our complex society and the complex mind and self-identify we have developed, the programming is twisted and used to exploit, manipulate, control the people we perceive to be important to us, develop over-dependence, and all kinds of other problematic relationships.

Our mental programming – particularly that which emerged in early primates as well as in homo sapiens between 250000 and 50,000 years ago, leading to the prefrontal cortex, the most highly evolved part of our brain – has been immensely important to our survival and the development of civilization. It allows us to create a kind of simple heuristic, a shortcut, a complex web of stories, narratives, worldviews, etc which give us tremendous power in terms of navigating our world, and is largely responsible for the fantastic developments in science that have come about in recent centuries.

However, living in a world of stunning diversity, our “stories” and “worldviews” have developed enormous complexities, distortions, mistakes, and deviations which lead us to be in conflict, to hate people we have never met just because of our ideas about them, to have confused and conflicting ideas about ourselves, what we are capable of, what we cannot do, etc.

Mindfulness, selective attention and peripheral awareness

Over the last several thousand years, meditation practitioners in virtually every culture the world over have experimented – often for hours a day, over the course of decades of their lives – and made the amazing discovery that cultivating the abilities of our most highly evolved brain structure, the prefrontal cortex (PFC for short) has the capacity of “deconditioning” our ancient instinctive, emotional and mental programming, and reconditioning it in a way which makes it more harmonious with our complex 21st century society.

Mindfulness

Selective attention helps us to hone in on an object of attention, noticing the fine details. It tends to interpret things in terms of what we know from the past, and generally works by “serial” or linear processing. If we over-focus with selective attention, we “see the trees but miss the forest.” This tends to make us tense and anxious, and can even bring about physiological problems.

Peripheral awareness helps us step back and see the larger picture, the “forest” within which the “trees” exist. We are able to understand the context of things, and are open to the new and the unknown. Peripheral awareness appears to involve massive parallel processing, which brings together many disparate functions of the brain.

Mindfulness helps us know how to make best use of each. We can step back even further and get a sense for what each moment requires for us to act most effectively. By balancing selective attention (on the breath, for example) with peripheral awareness (gently aware of but not reacting to the arising of thoughts, emotions and sensations impelled by our ancient programming) we are able to recondition that programming, the brain becomes more coherent, and we begin to discover a more spontaneous way of acting, that emerges naturally and intuitively.

Those times when an athlete’s hand just “glides” up to a basket, sinking the ball effortlessly, or when a scientist, pondering the solution of a problem in quantum physics, for decades, suddenly just “knows” the answer – it turns out this simple act of balancing selective attention and peripheral awareness leads to a state of harmony in the brain which allows such experiences of “being in flow” or “in the zone” to occur more often and more easily (this is why Phil Jackson decided to have all his basketball players learn mindfulness).

Unified Consciousness

Ultimately, at the most advanced stages (but glimpsed by everyone in moments of deep peace, letting go of concerns and often in moments of great fear or overcoming some great challenge) there is the experience of what Jan and I like to call “open heartful awareness. (some call it “pure consciousness;” others give it a religious name; it doesn’t matter what words you use or what you believe about it; people have reported this experience for centuries as well as the extraordinary benefits it confers).

When the capacity to balance selective attention and peripheral awareness is so well developed that the two become perfectly integrated, one experiences oneself and the world as seamlessly connected and one’s thoughts, actions, and words begin to emerge from that state of integration.

I say “begin” to emerge because for most people, it is a lifelong process of developing that kind of integration.

THE BENEFITS OF TRAINING THE BRAIN THROUGH MINDFULNESS

In 1999, I completed my doctoral research investigating the effects of mindfulness on physical pain. Since then, hundreds of subsequent research studies have been conducting reaffirming not only my work but many studies throughout the 1980s and 90s, showing that mindfulness practice can lead to a profound ability to reduce physical pain of all kinds. The effects are not only subjective, but show up in quantitative measurements of brain and nervous system functioning.

Mindfulness research in the last decades of the 20th century was often not of the highest quality. However, in the last 16 years, several thousand studies have been done at major research centers around the world, often of a quality equal to that of studies in most scientific fields.

Among psychological illnesses, mindfulness has been found to either reduce or eliminate symptoms in:

• Depression
• Anxiety
• Bipolar disorder
• Eating disorders
• Posttraumatic stress disorder
• Obsessive compulsive disorder
• Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
• Borderline and other personality disorders

In physiological conditions, mindfulness has been found particularly effective in reducing virtually all kinds of pain, including migraines, back pain, cancer-related pain, foot and knee pain, fibromyalgia, etc.

In various walks of life, mindfulness has been able to improve performance in a variety of sports, including basketball, golf and even among a number of Olympic activities.

There are now thousands of programs around the world employing mindfulness and mindfulness-related practices in schools from pre-Kindergarten to graduate school, and studies have shown repeated positive results in terms of improving test results, improving overall social-emotional skills, reducing bullying, and overall greater engagement and interest in learning.

Is Mindfulness a Panacea?

Did you think I was going to say no, or fudge the answer a bit? In fact, a simple short answer is “yes.” It is compatible with virtually any kind of psychotherapy and all forms of education. It has been found to be helpful in every kind of workplace (improving productivity and collaboration and reducing absenteeism) and has even been used in governments to facilitate greater cooperation and understanding between competing or conflicting sides of an issue.

Over a century ago, William James said that a method for training attention would be the single most important feature of an excellent education. Near the beginning of the 20th century, he brought a Buddhist monk into his Harvard psychology class and told the students, “This man has what will be the foundation of education 25 years from now.” It seems that Professor James was off by about 90 years, but his prophecy now appears to be coming true.

PRACTICE

This is only the briefest of instructions. There’s a lot that can be very helpful, such as information about preparation, timing, posture, etc.

But you can still do 10 minutes of simple breath awareness to get at least a glimpse of what was just written.

1. Sit with your neck and back aligned, upright and relaxed.
2. Bring your attention to the feeling of the breath flowing in and out of your nose.
3. Before focusing on the breath, take just a moment to reflect on your motivation.
a. Understand that you are going to be practicing using a very gentle mode of selective attention on the feeling of the flow of breath, while allowing your peripheral awareness to take in but not get carried away by the various other aspects of your experience – sounds, body sensations, memories, desires, internal conversations – all will come and go, arising and passing away, and you don’t have to anything about them. Simply let them be and let them pass away. Remember also that even in the first practice session, or soon thereafter, it is possible (though not guaranteed!) to have at least a glimpse of that state of greater, more harmonious, unified consciousness.
b. Recognize that this gentle act of balancing selective attention and peripheral awareness is not a skill you’re developing in order to become a “better meditator.” It is something that will serve you at every moment of your waking life (and if you ever become interested in “lucid” or conscious dreaming, at every moment of your dream life too!).
c. Recognize that if you decide to persist in this practice, you are likely to begin to experience glimpses of a calm, peaceful unified state of wide open awareness, in which your whole field of experience feels to you to be one, unified whole, in which you are more receptive to intuitive promptings (as a result of a highly coherent brain) which can provide guidance in whatever you wish to do, from cultivating vegetables to cultivating deeper relationships to increased productivity to gaining a deeper sense of life’s meaningfulness and purposefulness.
4. Very gently bring your attention to the feeling of the flow of breath in and out of your nostrils.
a. If your mind is particularly distracted, you can use a word to help focus the mind – breathing “relax’ as you inhale, and “peace” as you exhale, or any words of your own choosing.
b. If you need a further aid to concentrate, you can count your cycle of breathing, counting “1” on the inhale, “2” on the exhale, up to “10,” then start over again.
5. As your mind gets quieter, let go of the counting or words, and just “be” with the breath. Before you finish your practice, try letting go of selective attention altogether and just rest, alert but relaxed, in that calm, quiet state of awareness. Be grateful for even the slightest measure of relaxation and calm that emerged.
6. Conclude by thinking of people you care about, and extending good will to them, wishing for them also to experience whatever measure of calm and peace you have experienced. If you wish to spend a bit longer at this, you may imagine as many people as possible – even ones toward whom you feel neutral, or even ones toward whom you have negative feelings! – to share in this experience of calm, quiet peacefulness.

That’s it!

Just 9,999 more hours, and you’ll be an expert.

(But don’t do it with any goal in mind; just enjoy the feeling of sitting quietly, the pleasant sensation of the flow of breath, the delight of knowing you are on the way toward mastering one of the most important skills any human being can develop).

Here are some excellent links for scientific research regarding the benefits of mindfulness:

From: “The Mindful Geek”: https://themindfulgeek.com/benefits-of-mindfulness/

Feel Better, Be More Effective, Relax
Mindfulness meditation revolves around paying attention to the present moment. Done properly over time, this simple practice can produce some dramatic results, including a surprising number of health benefits.
Get a free guided mindfulness meditation with Michael Taft and start your practice today.
Under the guidance of a seasoned coach, and with a committed practice mindfulness meditation can:
Improve Your Focus — Focus is a trainable skill, and meditation systematically trains you to focus. What’s more, your focus isn’t just better when you’re meditating, but all day long as you go about your business. Mindfulness’s positive effect on concentration has been proven in this long-term study, and this study, and has even been shown to make a big difference in novice meditators after only ten days.
Reduce Your Stress — We’ve all heard that meditation can help you to relax and become less stressed out. It is a proven way to deeply relax. Science shows that it can even make very stressful situations easier to handle. It lowers your cortisol levels—the hormone most responsible for stress. A 2010 meta-analysis of 39 studies found that mindfulness is a useful intervention for treating anxiety and mood disorders.
Enhance Your Empathy — Mindfulness will help you connect to other people. One mindfulness practice is called “loving kindness” meditation, in which you focus on feelings of love and compassion. Experiments show that over time this can dramatically boost your empathy (sense of emotional connection) with other people. Medical students under intense stress report higher levels of empathy when they meditate.
Reduce Your Emotional Reactivity — How long does it take you to recover from an upsetting event? Mindfulness can reduce that time measurably, and get you back on your feet faster after emotional upheavals.
Increase Your Cognitive Flexibility — Tired of being stuck in the same old rut? Mindfulness has been shown to increase “cognitive flexibility,” which means it allows you to see the world in a new way, and behave differently than you have in the past. It helps you to respond to negative or stressful situations more skillfully.
Boost Your Memory — How many facts you can hold in your head at once, what scientists call “working memory” is a crucial aspect of effectiveness in learning, problem solving, and organization. A study of military personnel under stress showed that those who practiced mindfulness experienced a boost in working memory, as well as feeling better than those who didn’t practice. Another study shows that it not only improves memory, but boosts test scores, too. Even practicing mindfulness for as short as 4 days may improve memory and other cognitive skills.
Make You Less Sensitive to Pain — Mindfulness meditation changes your physical brain structure in many ways; one is that it actually increases the thickness of your cortex, which reduces your sensitivity to pain.
Give You a Better Brain — Mindfulness trains the prefrontal lobe area of your brain (it actually gets bigger!), as well as enhancing other areas which give the benefits of an entire package of related functions such as self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation.

1. http://www.remember-to-breathe.org
2. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx
3. https://nau.edu/research/feature-stories/mindfulness-training-has-positive-health-benefits/
4. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/mindfulness-meditation-benefits-health_n_3016045.html
5. http://www.mindful.org/the-science-of-mindfulness/
6. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201303/benefits-mindfulness
7. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition

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A taste in the mouth

O unknowable land
of familiar stories,
your secrets concealed
behind invisible masks
for us to uncover.

A teasing now and again,
sparkles and glimpses
that hide before they show.

A taste in the mouth
just enough to know
there’s nowhere else to be,
nothing else to do.

Lured by your mystery,
holding in a wait
that never ends
and never begins.

The louder you whisper
the less I know,
the less I know
the more I am.

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Invitation

By Sri Aurobindo

With wind and the weather beating round me
Up to the hill and the moorland I go.
Who will come with me? Who will climb with me?
Wade through the brook and tramp through the snow?

Not in the petty circle of cities
Cramped by your doors and your walls I dwell;
Over me God is blue in the welkin,
Against me the wind and the storm rebel.

I sport with solitude here in my regions,
Of misadventure have made me a friend.
Who would live largely? Who would live freely?
Here to the wind-swept uplands ascend.

I am the lord of tempest and mountain,
I am the Spirit of freedom and pride.
Stark must he be and a kinsman to danger
Who shares my kingdom and walks at my side.

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