I have practiced meditation of various sorts for 35 years. What began as a spontaneous event in my teens as I perched on a cliff staring out to the sea, later came to be a regular part of my day. I discovered Transcendental Meditation (TM) when I was living in New York City and came to rely on it. As it was a profoundly stressful time in my life I took to TM like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood. I needed it, 20 minutes, twice a day. It was no sacrifice; it was a necessity.
One of the basic tenets of most meditation techniques is to watch your thoughts and rather than fight the mind, to gently allow the thoughts to subside and then return to the mantra or the observation of the breath. In so doing, you create an observer, an objective reference point, a non-judgmental witness.
Then, the moment you notice that you have veered off into a pattern of thought in your meditation, you can inhabit the observer perspective to direct yourself back to the observer perspective. There, by witnessing your breath and its regularity and letting ‘thought’ ebb, you can slip into deeper states of consciousness. It may seem dreamlike, but it is not sleep.
At times in my waking life, I will ask myself, ‘what am I thinking?’. I use this question to change my state of consciousness. It is in the moment I ask that question that I step into the observer perspective and into the non-judgemental, neutral position of my Soul’s perspective. This allows me to view my mental process from that wonderfully wise and calm vantage point.
In my book, THE MESSAGE: A Guide to Being Human, the difference between the Soul’s perspective and the perspective of the ‘altered ego’ — the identity that is derived from our conditioning, judgments and limitations is discussed. The altered ego is our limited self that is identified with the body and with our mortality. The Soul’s perspective, on the other hand, is based in immortality and the profound nature of simple beingness — being essential in the universe — unique and timeless.
It is the altered ego that worries about money, body image and competition. It is responsible for the majority of so-called negative emotions that we feel and most of those emotions are the result of time consciousness — thinking about something from our remembered past or our conjectured future. The Soul, on the other hand, simply is and dwells in any given human incarnation for the experience and for the wisdom that will be gained — without judgment.
A woman in a recent event asked me if I thought that she should learn to meditate to help her distinguish between her altered ego and her Soul’s perspectives. My response was, “Yes, and while you are learning how to access the observer perspective you will find that you sleep better, your blood pressure will lower, you’ll reduce your stress levels, your digestion will improve, as will your memory, your creativity and your attention span.”
Here’s what a team led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers reported about the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter.
The analysis of magnetic resonance images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.
Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany had this to say in Science Daily January 21, 2011: “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”
So, even scientists are proving clinically what meditators and spiritual teachers have been saying for time immemorial — meditation improves the quality of one’s life and can be a key element to greater physical as well as mental health.
But let’s return to the client’s question about distinguishing between the altered ego’s often-insane utterances and the quiet calm of the Soul.
She was having trouble sleeping and it had become chronic. In session, we went through a process that I call “Present and Accounted For.” It is extremely simple. Place both hands over the heart and repeat slowly to yourself ‘Here. Here. Here,’ all the while drawing the energy of thinking down out of the head and into the heart. Letting go of the thoughts that are time-based, and coming to present tense. ‘Here. Here. Here.’
What she discovered through this process was that it was the altered ego’s dialogue kicking in at 3 a.m., which was then prompting the emotional body to be activated, raising the heart and respiration rate and preventing her from falling back to sleep. When she practiced Present and Accounted For, she was able to drift back to sleep because she was directing her attention to the observer. From there, she was able to step out of the altered ego’s time-based fears and anxieties.
She was also able to employ this in the course of the day when she would find herself worried about her children, or her career, or her mother or the myriad of things that she was inclined to fret about. It’s not as though she then began to neglect her duties or her loved ones. Rather, she was able to arrest the over-amping that was causing her distress. Instead of simply worrying, she began to identify what she could affect in that moment and what was really time-based worry that was a waste of her energy.
The meditation technique I suggested she use focuses on following the breath. Once you are seated comfortably and all distractions have been quieted, notice the rise and fall of your breathing. In the mind’s ear, as you inhale, say so which in Sanskrit means ‘I am’ and as you exhale, say to yourself hum which means ‘that.’ Your mind will likely insist on getting into the act, trying to drag you off in different directions but when that happens, all you do is gently bring your focus back to So-hum following your breath. You can set an alarm if you want, to notify you when 20 minutes have passed.
A daily meditation practice is the single most effective way to establish the ability to observe your thoughts in every moment.
So, what are you thinking? If you find yourself stressed out, ruminating over the same repetitious problem, walking down the same path of regret or recrimination, worrying about a situation that hasn’t even presented itself, try starting with that simple question. From there, it is relatively easy to recognize that the ‘you’ that has asked the question is the part of you that is wiser — the part of you that is not time-based but that is still deeply connected with the Divine. That’s the beginning of an effective meditation regimen. It will shift your perspective immediately from altered-ego to the observer and identifies the perspective from which you want to see — your Soul.
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