The Nervous system and the Fire element

Good memories of being with people on a campfire several years ago have recently returned to mind bringing back shared experiences of warmth, colour and joy. It happens in those moments when warm energy circulating between people creates connection, laughter and lasting memories.

Fire in the form of light, warmth or heat have their place in human experience, as much as the other elements such as water, air, space and earth have. Try thinking of a warm sunny day and how that may influence the mind and mood. What is in the nature of sun light that makes one feel more alive? What comes to your mind when you think of fire? What memories are showing up? Is the fire element and its heat something that is pleasing to you, or may be difficult to be around?

There is an internal fire in each of us and in any life form, making it possible for us to get going and maintain some enthusiasm alive. And there are external fires, like a fireplace, or campfires that people warm up around and have a good time together singing, dancing and telling jokes, or those that get out of control and can destroy entire forests and regions, like the recent wildfires in Greece and California.

Unlike the external fire or wildfires, the internal fire may not always be seen or heard until it reaches a level when the person living with it it feels something like some of the following symptoms and sensations: burnout, heartburn, burning sensation, having a fiery reaction, burning ears, feeling on fire, hot and bothered, being under fire, etc. Or, some can be experienced as healthy and positive, such as having a sunny disposition, warm-hearted, feeling fired-up about something, getting along like a house on fire, etc.

For example, the expression “to have fire in your belly” indicates a positive use of the fire element, while “adding fuel to the fire” refers to an excess of fiery energy in a situation. It is so interesting how the various degrees of the fire element in our constitution, feelings and actions have so much influence over people and situations.

Maybe you can remember a recent scenario that brought some heat to your mind, causing you to feel overheated mentally or physically. Anger is usually associated with intense mental heat, while calmness with feeling coolness, although we are all different and can experience emotions in atypical ways as well.

Some people like to gaze at an open fire or just at a candle light, and this gentle gazing can bring on a meditative state.  Meditating on a certain object such as a candle light can have a cleansing effect both on the vision and the mind. This reminds of the connection between the above effects of the fire element in meditation and the ones of the catharsis concept as a therapeutic process of “burning” and releasing of emotions and behaviours associated with unacknowledged trauma; the word originates from a Greek term meaning purging and cleansing.

Follow this link https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/fire-good-make-human-inspiration-happen-132494650/ for an informative article offering a perspective on the effect of fire on human life and the development of the mind over time.

The fire element, called Pitta dosha in Ayurveda, in a person’s mental and physical constitution may be associated with tenacity, strength, warmth, compassion and light-hearted disposition when balanced, while an excess of fire tends to lead to hot emotions, anger, agression, skin disorders and impatience. Follow these links to access more information about understanding the power of the fire element in somebody’s constitution: https://www.banyanbotanicals.com/info/ayurvedic-living/learning-ayurveda/understanding-your-constitution/pitta/, and https://www.banyanbotanicals.com/info/blog-the-banyan-insight/details/exploring-the-elementsfire/.

It goes without saying that Fire does not exist in isolation either in nature or in living beings, but is complemented by water, air, space, earth and perhaps many other elements in various forms and degrees. Together they create a dance of energy that is unique to each place and each individual. Imagine the sound of flowing water, the sight of a big campfire, the soft touch of a gentle breeze on your face, the spaciousness of an open field, and the solidity of the ground beneath your feet. What are the unique experiences felt when being in contact with each of these elements?

A balanced degree of fire in somebody’s temperament and physical body contributes to a harmonious functioning of the nervous system, while an over-heated mind may lead to insomnia, intense emotions, restlessness and an attitude of intolerance.

Being curious about how the nervous system is impacted by various states of mind and how they are naturally connected, I have come across interesting information, which I am sharing in the link below. An over-heated state of mind manifests certain tendencies, which are described in the same article, with suggestions regarding how to harmonise the fire element internally. https://www.joyfulbelly.com/Ayurveda/symptoms/Mind-Stress-Sleep

Meditation, as an ancient tradition remains one of the well-tested methods of cooling the nervous system and that internal fire that may be burning too much energy in the mind or body. It is particularly useful for creating a calming internal mental space away from the daily pressures or demands, or indeed, the ones we put on ourselves. Using the anchor of the breath as a focus for your sitting meditative practice can be particularly helpful when experiencing an overactive mind state. And, like any other practice, investing time in it will show the results.

As Fire lives in all of us, for what it is, a part of the synergy of all elements forming our collective, yet unique human physical, mental and spiritual make-up, it deserves warm 🙂 attention.

Here’s a synergistic creation of the elements of fire and water with sounds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ftm2uv7-Ybw

May your Fire burn bright.

The Nervous System and our relationship with water

Included, “Inner Sea Sounds Meditation” step-by-step instructions

Do you remember a time in your childhood when placing a large spiral seashell over your ear you could hear a sound reminding of the waves rolling onto the seashore?

It is one of those sounds that, once experienced, may remain in the long-term memory. The most common scientific explanation for this kind of sound seems to be that the ambient noise caught into the shell creates the wave-like sound frequency inside the ear.

For many people, being beside a water body, be it a lake, river, the sea, or the ocean, can be an experience that relaxes the body and mind bringing a sense of peace and calmness. You may be one of many who can access a water body physically and tune into its energy, movement, colour, smells, sounds and sights. Water has the gift of bringing the human mind back “home”. And if you do not have a water body on your doorstep, or cannot travel to the water, there are other ways to access the ocean or the sea by going Inside rather than Outside, which will be described further on in this Blog post by inviting you to experience a meditation practice.

Whether it is the stillness of water or the wild wave that is enchanting you, what have you noticed about how your mood or thoughts change in the presence of water? Some people feel more meditative, artists more imaginative, children more playful, families more connected, sports people more adventurous, or simply laying down by the water with nothing to do and nowhere to go can bring about a sense of wellbeing.

Other gifts of water are its fluidity and ability to nourish. Like no other element, water can get anywhere and move through anything overtime. No wonder human life begins and develops in the safe medium of water. In human history the oceans have been a source of nourishment as well as being essential to the continuity of life; water is also the main component of the human body.

How could it be possible that being in, around or on water can make us feel more calm, connected or creative?

Developing an interest in the mysterious effect that water has on the human mind, I came across the “blue mind concept” introduced by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist who wrote the book entitled “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do”. His theory backed up by neuroscience and real stories told by people from different walks of life suggests that being in contact with water is like medicine, and in many ways restorative to humans’ health, relationships and communities. One of his messages is that enjoying and taking care of the water bodies, for the benefit of our mental health and the planet, we protect that which sustains life carried by the water element.

In the video below, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols describes the “blue mind” concept in an interview.

Blue Mind: Water is medicine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMi-vlAmSEg.

More information about the blue mind can be found in the Resources at the end of the Blog.

How does this all apply to daily life in practice?

When life shakes us up, to push us to change at the right time and in the right place, with the precision of the moving hands of a clock, there is no escape from the ensuing chaos, anxiety or confusion settling in pretty quickly. The nervous system is then challenged while the entire human system is seeking homeostasis.

Indian Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine have fascinating approaches on the element of water. According to Chinese medicine, in times of stress, if the water element becomes unbalanced in the body, certain organs may be affected: kidneys, urinary bladder, knees, bones and joints. The corresponding psychological symptoms may be: a sense of isolation, fear, detachment, or feeling scattered and disconnected. A healthy flow of the water element in the body manifests through feeling unconditional love, a sense of being in the life flow, sensibility, inclusivity, tenacity, tolerance, endurance and humility. Working at bringing the water element back into balance in relation to the other elements seems to be important in the process of self-regulation.

The same idea of helping a stressed nervous system back into balance but through meditation, reminds me of one of the instructions given at a meditation retreat led by Sogyal Rimpoche, which I attended over 10 years ago in Dzogchen Beara Retreat Centre, Beara Peninsula in south-west Ireland, and it sounded like this:

“Water, if you do not stir it, will become clear”. Clear minds are like clear waters.

Over the past few months, the Inner Sounds Meditation came about spontaneously while I was practicing in an environment that was less conducive to what I thought was needed for inner peace and introspection. Life is such that sometimes we have no choice but to work with what is.  The following is what resulted from the practice. Below, are the step-by-step instructions for the meditation. Enjoy!

The Inner Sea Sounds Meditation

With the help of today’s sophisticated human body technology :), and making use of the following supports listed below, you can be with the sea sounds without holding a sea shell, physically being on the sea shore, or accessing the sounds digitally. There is a lot going on inside the body, and that is inclusive of the sea sounds.

This meditation may be helpful anytime and particularly when experiencing tiredness, stress or anxiety.

Please note:

If you suffer from head/neck/ears injuries or vertigo, or are unsure if this exercise is suitable for you, please seek medical advice before commencing.

What you need:

  • a reasonably quiet room
  • your presence and some of your time
  • a light scarf, hat or fabric head band to wrap around your head and cover your ears
  • ear plugs
  • a mat to sit on or a comfortable chair
  • a pashmina, or light blanket to wrap around your body& neck or use clothing that reaches up to the back of your head

Introduce the ear plugs in your ears, put the scarf on and wrap up the pashmina around you.

Begin by sitting in a comfortable meditation position or on a chair, with your back straight. Directing your attention inside the body. Taking a few deep conscious breaths, relaxing your shoulders, the head and the neck. Allowing the hands to rest on your knees or laps. Allowing the breathing to move through your body from the head to the toes. Closing your eyes if that feels good. Feeling the weight of your body as it is fully supported by the ground or the chair.

Slowly& gently begin rolling your head by moving it down towards the chest and to the left ear, rolling it to the back as far as it is comfortable, and to the right ear, making a smooth, full circle. Continuing to making circles in this anti clockwise direction a few times or as long as it seems appropriate. Paying attention to what you are hearing inside your ears. After some time pausing to rest.

Changing the direction, bringing the head down and towards the right ear, and to the back, and continuing rolling it in a clockwise direction. The circles drawn with your head can be as wide or as small as it feels comfortable. Listening from the inside and taking in the sounds. What are the sounds like? Do they remind you of anything? Whatever the memory, image, sensation, thought or mood, take a moment to notice it arriving, maybe lingering for a while and moving away in its own time. Noticing how it feels in your body to be with this experience.

Beginning to include the awareness of your breathing in the exercise by consciously allowing it to flow naturally through your body during the head rolls. If any tension is present in any part of the body, you may choose to pause and rest, or make an intention to bring the attention to that part of the body with kindness or a soft approach, and make the necessary adjustments.

Allowing your head to return to the middle position and coming to an end of the meditation. Bringing your attention back to the entire body, how it is sitting, sensations and moods that may be present. Making small movements with your fingers and toes, opening the eyes and returning your full attention to the here and now. Congratulating yourself for making the time to re-connect with your “inner sea” sounds.

Links for resources:

Irish Coast Sounds video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUURHJnztJM

Saying Goodbye to stress video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIyz1lGS2zs

Introduction to Blue Mind with Dr. Wallace J Nichols video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bqy7xRPnp9I

Do you know what the sea is able to do? A poem by Irish poet, Pat Ingoldsby: https://www.marine.ie/Home/sites/default/files/MIFiles/Images/Comms/Pat%20Ingoldsby.pdf

The Nervous System and Hatha Yoga

Acknowledgements:

I am grateful to all yoga teachers whose videos are posted here, and who have shared their teachings and passion for what they do, so that others can benefit from the goodness and joy of yoga.

Continuing on with the theme of the nervous system from the June blog, this time is about introducing a bunch of Hatha Yoga asanas that ca be added to your “tool box” as another way to support wellbeing.

My engagement with yoga has many times challenged me to look and feel beyond the physical movements themselves, which is what we can see when watching somebody practicing. Do you wonder sometimes what happens inside the body and mind during any deep physical, mental or spiritual practice? This blog addresses just that question with the focus on how the nervous system can be practically supported through hatha yoga; the answer is to be found in your use of the teachings below.

Hatha Yoga is a traditional system of yoga that teaches physical postures designed to bring balance and connection to the mind, body and spirit so that the energy can flow freer in, out and between. The use of breath, awareness of one’s intention and mental attitude are central to this type of yoga.

The Sanskrit word hatha means willful and can also be translated as two separate words: ha meaning Sun and tha meaning Moon. The image of bringing the energies of sun and moon together in body and mind as one, may serve as an inspiration for your practice.

Hatha Yoga postures are suitable not only for general fitness but also have particular benefits on the functioning of body organs, as you can see explained in the videos below. Regular practice with careful attention to your bodily limits can lead to transformative effects.

From the more experienced hatha yoga practitioners to those just beginning to explore it, this yoga system has something to offer to everyone. The following asanas are known to have several benefits, and particularly supporting the nervous system and brain functions.

Note before the practice:

While some of the videos in the links below include information about cautions and contraindications for the asanas, please remember that the information does not substitute any medical advice or treatment and that you make use of these videos at your own risk.

Because of individual differences in physical and mental states, please consult with your doctor and/or your mental/physical health practitioner in the following situations:

  • If you have any doubts regarding the suitability of the practices for you
  • If you suffer from any illness that may be impacted adversely by the practices
  • If you experience any form of discomfort during the practices

As with all physical exercise, warming up the body prior to yoga is necessary and gives you an indication of how the body feels at a certain time and what your mind is experiencing from moment to moment.

Wearing comfortable clothes and enjoying the practice in a comfortably warm room, ideally away from distractions, is recommended.

The links below present instructions for a gentle warm up yoga sequence. Feel free to try these or follow the warm up that works best for you.

A gentle yet comprehensive yoga warm up:

A shorter version of yoga warm up, with fluid movements:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xudX1K4i4m0

As the body has entered a flow of movement and you now feel ready to experience more, the following sequence of suggested asanas in the videos below can follow.

The yoga teachings from around the world were carefully selected to suit different levels of physical ability and fitness. Like with all physical exercise, use your own judgement call in what you ask your body to do and in meeting with the expectations that the mind presents to you. With time and practiced regularly, the postures will become part of your long-term memory that can be accessed when needed.

Each asana is an invitation to create an art piece as it moulds your body and mind into shapes and states that are probably different from your ordinary day to day experience. Care needs to be taken that the power of attention is directed towards your physical/mental limits and level of comfort. Taking your time to notice the effects and to allow the body to relax between each asana will enhance the experience.

The yoga sequence ends with a final relaxation in the Shavasana Pose, which will conclude the practice and return you safely to your normal routine, hopefully with a fresh drop of peace in your smile.

Kurmasana (Tortoise pose): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-6r0KKehts

Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold):

For beginners: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPt1RvFAkps

For advanced practitioners: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6Ce6TAdFE0

Setu Bandha Sarvāṅgāsana (bridge pose): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JY9TLhKIQdE

Bhadrasa (butterfly or throne pose): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPQFnyjO2Wk

Halasana (Plow pose): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOZumZ_lD1c

Supta Virasana (reclining hero pose): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Kozcox4T2U

Sarvangasa (Shoulder stand): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyonopnxEW8

Balasana (child’s pose): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MJGg-dUKh0

Shavasana (corpe pose): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1j3erpSErE

If after dipping into the asanas sequence above, you feel like sharing some of your experiences, please post them below in the comments space. Sometimes I see yoga as a two-way street. Without all the people who offered their knowledge of yoga, this blog would not have been possible.

It is my hope that each person has the innate ability to heal oneself and such to support and be supported by others while harnessing the possibilities and potential available in the world we live in and staying in connection with each other in this unique melange of “the old” and “the new” that we find ourselves navigating each day.

Happy Yoga journey!

The Nervous System and Meditation

Have you ever wondered about the role the nervous system has on our overall well-being?

What happens when it is under stress and what can support it? According to science, meditation is one of the ways of re-balancing the network of fibres that form the nervous system.

Some of the science-based benefits of meditation include strengthening areas of the brain responsible for memory, self-awareness, attention and self-regulation. Due to its wide usability in the area of mental health, mindfulness has been one of the most studied and researched meditation types.

As simple as it may sound, this practice is about bringing a quality of non-judgemental awareness to the present moment. When the natural tendency of the mind to jump from thought to thought under the influence of internal and external stimuli is consciously met by the intention to be more present and attentive, meditation happens in that space between nature and nurture. This is often the space where spiralling up to wellness begins.

Consistent practice of meditation has been scientifically proven to benefit the autonomic nervous system by calming down the sympathetic branch responsible for the fight or flight responses, and turning on the parasympathetic branch, which brings the body back to its normal functioning after the perceived threat has passed.  

Whether choosing mindfulness or a different type of meditative or contemplative practice, providing a space for the mind and the body to relax and recharge, invites also a possibility to connect to a wider field of Universal energy.

Easy mindfulness practice to soothe the nervous system

One of the distinguishing features of mindfulness is the non-judgemental witnessing aspect of the practice. Unlike other types of meditation, here the practitioner is encouraged to embody an active receptivity towards the unfolding experience: staying awake and aware as far as possible. Abiding with what arises supports emotional resilience, creates a space for working with any tendency towards reactivity, and increases the ability to centre oneself when feeling ungrounded.

The meditation instructions below offer a simple map to follow. The map is not the territory, and so, taking this journey will uncover your natural steps leading to increased awareness of where you may be at internally, what may be needed to go further, or becoming familiar with your physical, emotional or mental boundaries at a given time.

Preparation:

Creating a quiet space and putting aside some time for the exercise invites a good start. Begin by setting an intention for your practice and noticing what expectations might be there in your mind, whatever they may be today. Allowing yourself to be with this unfolding experience as best you can.

Step 1

Settling into a sitting or another comfortable position of your choice, bringing the attention on the body by feeling the soles of the feet on the ground and sensing the weight of the body being held by the chair or the ground. Being receptive to the presence or absence of sensations in your body.

Take a few moments to shift the focus of your attention to your inner experience. Noticing what might be happening in your thoughts. Watching the thoughts as they come and go like clouds on the sky. Are there any particular feelings there? Any mood or mental state on the surface of your awareness?

If you find yourself getting drawn into any thoughts, feelings or internal chatter, remember to gently escort your attention back to just witnessing your experience.

Step 2

Redirecting your full attention to the breath by finding a spot in the body where the breath is felt most clearly. Following the breath flow all the way in and all the way out.

Taking a few conscious breaths, bringing the attention to the belly and how the breath is flowing naturally. What do you notice about it? Whatever its pace, quality, strength, or the sensations felt where it passes, make a point to be present with its ever-changing flow.

Knowing when you are breathing in……. and when breathing out…….. 

Step 3

Expand the field of your present attention to incorporate a sense of your body as a whole, and sensations in certain areas. Including an awareness of your facial expression and posture and other things that may come to your attention, such as smells or sounds.

Closing

Returning your attention to just being here now, noticing your breath, the body and your general state of mind. In your own time, opening the eyes and noting where you are, and, with your full attention returning to being here.

Other meditation options:

For a quick pick-me-up, here’s a guided mindful breathing practice from Mindfulness in Real Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feeDQw9K5xY

If feeling more adventurous to experience a taste of another kind of meditation, please click the link below to watch the video of a brief introduction to meditation techniques from Edgar Cayce’s A.R.E.: https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?height=314&href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fedgarcayce%2Fvideos%2F3252989354716062%2F&show_text=false&width=560&t=824

When the eye contact lenses are falling out…

The transition from social separation to connection seems like a “road less travelled”. The freedom of movement and connection with the outside world is finally allowed to happen, yet, the subtle and less subtle effects of the lockdown on people’s minds are less obvious or talked about. In the middle of trying to break out of the imposed separation, it may be easy to miss out some psychological aspects.

If it is possible to search your memory for experiences you have been having during the lockdown, that have moved or changed you in any way, apart from maybe being physically away from other people, services, facilities, hobbies, or other things that used to be part of your life, then why not look at some of the new layers that have been added during that time to the person you knew yourself to be in the past.

In case you were fortunate to avail of some quiet time during those days, weeks and months that seemed to have no end in sight since the beginning of 2020, you may have noticed not only what was changing or missing in the external world, but also something that was happening inside you. Maybe it was fear, worry, doubt, loneliness, disconnection, loss, some emotional churning, past mental content being dug up, or perhaps also some joy, peace and acceptance.

As hard as feeling imprisoned can feel, literally and metaphorically, there is also a benefit in having a chance to consciously or unconsciously turn towards one’s own mental and emotional content which can surface more especially during periods of pausing from the habitual movement and activity. This reminds me of being on a meditation retreat, when the pausing from the daily routine can bring up many new discoveries.

Then, what happened during the never-ending lockdown that led to this new kind of separation created by the differing views and beliefs about how fast to move forward “back to the past”? I wonder, is experiencing separation a new road to creating new connection? Whatever connection means for each of us. Fortunately, life is naturally moving forward rather than backward, and some old layers of our beliefs and values are unavoidably falling off during this process. The flow of life cannot be forced return to the past, no matter how comfortable the past used to be. That is a view, of course.

And so the contact lenses are falling out, symbolically speaking, when we begin to see our perceptions of the reality through own eyes, and maybe borrowing less other people’s views, that may be useful for them to hold. And it can be almost earth-shattering sometimes, when you discover that there are other ways to live life than the ones you were used to.

Ajahn Sucitto, Buddhist monk and author calls these beliefs ‘programs’ that people end up adopting based on upbringing, experiences, past or existing social values, and other influences. And these factors are useful, too, in helping discover and shape a person’s natural inclinations and aspirations. We cannot but influence each other all the time, and perhaps we are constantly changed through relational interactions, yet, sometimes the differing views can cause conflict and thus create divisions, internally and externally.

Writing about “Floods of Views and Ignorance”, Ajahn Sucitto unpacks the meaning of views and looks at their effects on human mind:

“ ’Views’ refers to the instinct we have to hold beliefs, opinions and dogmas in order to gain a standpoint. […] There are several salient features to the flood of views. One is that it puts life into the abstract, sums people into groups, and makes a ‘something’ that we can stand back from. From this perspective the mind can form neat divisions: between my party and the others. The flood of views therefore isolates; and more tellingly it draws a dividing boundary across which negotiation, empathy and at times even ethical standards, do not cross. […] With the adopting of views, empathy and ethics are under threat.” (p.19, 20, 21)

The discussion on views goes on to suggest ways of engaging with the challenge:

“A remedy that is recommended then is to note a view as a starting place from which to investigate or enter a dialogue with others. In this we acknowledge that we have a personal perspective and can’t avoid having one. This is already a breakthrough, because the fallacy that supports the flood is that any individual can have an all-encompassing view – whereas the very act of holding a view immediately places the viewer in a state of isolation from scrutiny. To acknowledge subjectivity may lead to the recognition that ‘my’ position isn’t really mine, but one that is conditioned by the information I’ve received or an experience I’ve had, and is therefore capable of being reviewed and moderated. […] Thus we overcome the sense of division, and specific kindness gets established.” (p. 21, 22)

In case you are wondering what the word ‘floods’ refers to in the above context, the author describes them as follows:

“The term ‘floods’ speaks for itself: the overwhelmed, swept-along feeling that comes as we get plunged into stress and suffering.” (p.16)

The mouth is covered literally and perhaps symbolically, too, in whatever way one wishes to perceive it. Whether the mouth covering is experienced as a necessary measure of self-protection and protection of others, an object limiting self-expression or sharing through verbal communication, or maybe as something else, it is up to you. Now, having an experience with the covering, one can really begin to question one’s views on other types of face coverings, such as the hijab worn by women in certain cultures.

The eyes, though, are not covered, unless done intentionally. What can be seen when, so to speak, the eye contact lenses are falling out? To pause for a moment and watch one’s own “flood of views” in relationship to others’ may be a starting point in an ongoing conversation about how to move forward into the future.

References:

Sucitto, A. (2012). Parami. Ways to Cross Life’s Floods. Amaravati Publications, Amaravati, UK.

Ajahn Sucitto is a Buddhist monk born in the UK, who writes on life topics and travels internationally on teaching engagements. His book, “Parami, Ways to Cross Life’s Floods”, is available for free download from www.forestsanghapublications.org.

Blossoming through a broken place

An online mindfulness meditation retreat attended earlier this month was an event that came at a good time of the year and brought with it renewed space for reflection, kindness and connection. Practicing meditation in a group can be one of the most enriching experiences. The Retreat was organised by the Passaddhi Meditation Centre, https://www.passaddhi.com/, and taught by Marjó Oosterhof, Meditation Teacher. Something from this experience I would like to share about here.

An exercise, we, as a group, were invited to do in our own physical space was to do mindful walking meditation and notice three aspects of the walk that brought joy to each of us. Off I went on my walk. The sun was shining outside and its light pierced through any leftover thoughts that were there internally before beginning the walk.

In mindfulness meditation, whatever comes to the attention of the meditator, is part of the landscape of awareness: no need to add or take away anything. The practice can bring up some pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral parts of life, and it is worth taking the risk to let all of it in. And this time, being asked to notice things that brought joy, was something like being invited to dip into the jar of honey, for those who love honey.

Walking by a line of trees along the road, the first thing coming to the attention was that they looked so young; the same trees, dry and brown, and that had no leaves on them just two months before. Such a transformation! Then, the mind found an explanation for what was seen, and it said quietly: “It is spring, after all”.

Being close to the trees felt like a privilege. So, the next natural step was to come even closer to them. They seemed quiet and grounded, enjoying the peace around, and as if nothing was able to move them. The tree closest to me was just like the others, the same type and hight, yet, something was different about it. On one of its branches, a twig looked almost ready to fall. Half split from its branch at a lower angle, it gave the impression that it was broken but still hanging in there, yet, a bud was blossoming from it, like from all the other twigs on the tree. Quite confusing. Moving in closer, I could see that the broken place had already healed and the twig was now securely attached to the branch although it did not look like it from a distance. Then I “twigged” that it was healed enough for the life energy to travel from the roots of the tree, to its branches, to the twig and into the bud. It felt joyful to see how life found its way in.

Can a twig that had been previously broken become securely attached to its tree again? This one did. Nature has such a quiet way of practicing being alive! Had I not moved in closer, the truth of the twig would not have been seen. And, who knows, how many other twigs share the same story? Who knows how many minds are tempted to judge things as they seem, only to discover that there is something else hiding behind the surface? Or, could it be that it is in human nature not to give up on hope for life even when the reality appears to be broken at the surface?

“Under a cherry tree, there are no strangers”. (Kobayashi Issa, Japanese poet)

From Responsibility to Control

There is a lot of talking about ways of managing the current situation regarding safety, health and wellbeing, locally and internationally. Depending on what Life is giving each of us to deal with, in terms of day to day experiences and relationships, there are certain values, beliefs and expectations around caring and being cared for that we are all holding, whether being aware or not.

Watching the current events, as they unfold and are presented in the media, one can notice many different initiatives, reactions and decisions on the Responsibility-Control spectrum, taken in the name of caring.

So, how does the intention to care for oneself and others, in dealing with real life challenges, may start in the mind and manifest in the practical reality, when one does their best to live and enjoy life?

Thinking about responsibility and control, my thoughts went to the ideas of Virginia Satir, American author and psychotherapist, known for her contribution to family systems therapy, and whose book “Peoplemaking” written in the 1970s, describes fully human but problematic patterns of communication between people. These patterns were derived from her family therapy work, and in summary they consist of four stances:

Placate: always agreeing for the sake of peace, submissive.

Blame: finding fault, pointing the finger at somebody else, dictating.

Compute (Super reasonable): say the right words, coming across as a machine, being correct, show no feeling.

Distract (Irrelevant): words do not connect, being on the move, the response is off the point.

Satir suggests that a 5th stance, which she calls “Levelling response”, would add ease to relationships, it is honest and free of blame.

“In this response, all parts of the message are going in the same direction. The voice says words that match the facial expression, the body position and the voice tone. […] The levelling response is real for whatever is. […] The message is single and straight.”(p. 72-73)

“So when you are leveling, you apologise in reality when you realize you’ve done something you didn’t intend. You are apologising for an act, not for your existence. There are times when you need to criticize and evaluate. When you do this in a leveling way, you are evaluating an act, not blaming the person, and there is usually a new direction you have to offer. “(p. 73).

The link below shows Satir leading a role-play of the four communication stances in a family, with their potential implications on the mind – body and the other people involved. It shows the effects on the group dynamic and on the individual, when people “fall” in certain roles.  

In our times, the above classification of patterns of communication may seem to the reader somewhat clinical and focused on pathology. In the same book though, Satir also wrote about the family of the future and how she imagined and wished the world to be a place where acceptance of diversity and more conscious communication between people would be practiced more freely.

It is interesting that in the 1970s she wrote that the family of the future “[…] would be people coming together, trying to make life richer for each other and at the same time for themselves, with the kind of understanding that variation is an important adjunct to the stimulation of life.” (p. 302)

“[…] In the light of this, what do we seem to be heading for? A more responsible human being who can make choices, who can plan according to his needs, and not according to someone else’s plan for him; someone who will recognise that there are differences concerning people as well as predictable similarities.” (p. 303)

Another writer who comes to mind, touching on psychological and spiritual ideas regarding roles in communication, is James Redfield. Many years ago, a friend introduced me to The Celestine Prophecy, a best-selling novel written by James Redfield in 1993. Recently I picked it up again and was surprised to find new meanings on the same old pages.

“The little theatre of control” presented in the novel’s “Manuscript” consists of “four dramas” or main roles, and anything in between, that people take in communication in order to gain attention or energy:

The Intimidator: behaving aggressively or threatening

The Interrogator: showing subtle aggression, questioning, looking for weaknesses and slowly undermining somebody else’s world

The Aloof: attract energy to themselves by behaving withdrawn and being reserved

The Poor me: seeking help from somebody else in a passive way, their message may be intended at making you feel guilty or responsible for their troubles.

According to James Redfield’s novel, the theatre of control begins in one’s family of origin and is perpetuated by repeating the patterns one has grown up with.

It needs to be said here that, while it may be easy for anybody to recognise themselves in certain roles at certain times, fortunately, there are also useful and constructive patterns of communication that one learns from their family or other relationships. It is not about placing people and their behaviours in boxes with labels on them. Yet, slowly sorting between the constructive and less constructive roles, one finds help to figure their way through the realtionship maze, over and over again. Anything can get entangled from time to time in the flow of life.

As a way to move forward from the power struggles that people experience in relationships, the book introduces the reader to 9 Insights, which the main character experiences and understands during his journey in Peru. You will find the Insights presented in the film, which can be watched by clicking the link at the end of the blog.

It is much easier to point at the shortcomings of another person, a group, a system or social structure, as they appear to us, although those shortcomings might be real, than to look in our own minds and hearts,. And even pointing the finger can lead to new understandings. The reflection that appears does not fail to show the truth of the matter, in the eyes of the one who points, if they are also looking inside, not only outside. After all, according to science, approximately 60% of the human body is water.

Without suggesting that either Satir’s 5th stance or Redfield’s roles in communication and Insights are the answers to the questions around the caring theme, their ideas are presented here to generate reflection.

Often there is a fine line between responsibility and control, depending on each specific context, and sometimes taking control may be necessary. On the other side, it can be hard to get it always right for everyone involved or those affected by the decisions.

And if you have not yet read the Celestine Prophecy book and would like to know more about the Insights, there is a film released in 2006 and based on the best-selling novel of the same name; the link below is available through the generosity of the person who shared it online.

Let’s imagine that you have a gas heater and you switch it on and off from the Control knob when needed. Suppose taking Responsibility was at the Cool end of the heater’s thermostat, taking Control was at the Hot end, and the Medium was everything in between. If you found yourself having to make decisions and choices in the name of caring, where would you place them on the Responsibility-Control spectrum on the thermostat?

Warm Easter wishes!

References:

Satir, V. (1978). Peoplemaking. UK: The Guernsey Press Co. Ltd, Guernsey, Channel Islands.

Redfield, J. (1993). The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure. New York: Warner Books

‘Off-grid’ thinking

Early this year, before spring was officially on its way to the external world, inside the Earth there must have been a lot of activity going on, unheard and unseen. From my window, on one surprising morning I could see the raised head of a little crocus flower just beside some dog’s waste on the grass.

A very strange site to look at. With one eye closed, just letting the crocus only into my visual field, I could see beauty. Leaving the crocus out, only the dog’s waste was visible in an unexpected place. And with both eyes, the objects together created a mixed feeling.

It is interesting that nature made us with two eyes, and we can see the beautiful and the ugly at the same time, if we choose to. Is that why we have two eyes? To be able to learn how to balance it all out, and not get too carried away with one way or the other? That surely happens in real life, too, it is not just a window view.

Then I suddenly remembered the time two years ago when deciding to plant a small crocus bulb into that very spot, and hope for the best. The new flower was my hope blooming two years later!

There was something else that was more metaphorical, to see from the window view. Minds, too, can offer similar perspectives. One part of the mind holding on to some waste thoughts and beliefs, while there will also be other parts like flowers blooming in just the right places where new life and beauty is needed. And, even if not being a pleasant view, the dog’s waste can enrich the soil for plants to grow stronger.

Hmmm, Nature has its magic solutions. And, I guess, a new perspective was there to be taken in by anybody walking mindfully by the site. A thousand words would not have spelt the message better than Nature itself. Sometimes nobody has to lift a finger for this to happen. A planted seed will be taken care of.

Maybe we are too driven to make things happen, bringing to an extreme the understandable need for protection of self and other from viruses, thieves, crooks, and other types of invaders. As if we did not want to find out how, if we surrender to uncertainty, life can take care of itself inside us. And yet, there are potential dangers lurking at every step.

Maybe we are too quick to return to our old ways and the lifestyles being created over time, believing they are good, true and forever lasting. At the same time, it can be hard to let go of something one has been very fond of in the past. It is only when some waste thoughts, beliefs and their resulting actions become visible, a reminder to tidy it up appears, too. It depends on which eye you are looking at it with.

Thinking as if we are the centre of the Universe, and can manipulate life energy is one way of going into the future.  Is that the only one possible, though? And yet, given the time, support and trust, life will flourish by itself anyway on its own terms, just like a plant.

Returning down–to-earth, there are plenty examples of how real life situations can be viewed in different ways, as if looking with one eye, the other, or with both. Have you noticed how you look upon things and situations? And have you been wondering how to make meaning of what is obscure, uncertain, insufficiently experienced or researched?

To invite further reflection on the question of ‘how we see what we see’, below is a link of the film, ‘One night with the King’ based on a version of the biblical story of Queen Esther.

Some see the stars, others think separation. Light and shadow, co-existing. Enjoy this journey through time and history to the end!

Befriending the “Monkey Mind”

You may have come across the expression of the “monkey mind”, which is often used to describe the way ordinary human thinking works, not too dissimilar to the jumping of a Monkey from branch to branch.

If you ever happened to see a real monkey in its natural habitat, or watched monkey’s behaviour in animal documentaries, you may remember how playful and full of tricks they can be.

The mind, with its ever changing thoughts and emotions is a landscape worth observing. Not unlike watching with fascination the stars on a night’s clear sky, the mind offers so much material to observe night and day, if you are curious. Curiosity, though, may not be the only reason for paying attention to the workings of the mind. Psychological and physical pain and suffering would be another common motivation.

The expression says it all: the mind can be as unsettled, capricious and changeable as a monkey jumping from tree to tree. Great metaphor! However, this animal’s name was chosen for the expression to describe only a fraction of its behavioural tendencies. What lies beneath the surface? Besides the above aspects, there seems to be a lot of morality in a monkey’s behaviour. Something worth looking at.

Another use of the monkeys, and not for an expression but for their bodies, is in animal testing and research. This is because monkeys are primates and biologically so similar to humans. It seems that they are still used in the creation and testing vaccines. But having the monkey’s name in an expression is probably the least harmful way that these animals are used to support humans’ life on Earth.

To connect the monkey with our current realities, the following is what I am wondering about.  There is a lot of conversation in the media these days about the trauma that the current pandemic has caused to people. Not disagreeing with this view, but adding another perspective to the ongoing conversation, motivated me to ask several questions about the involvement of our minds in how the pandemic is managed both at a collective level, and at an individual one. Perhaps the wider pandemic situation has also triggered old, un-acknowledged and un-resolved traumas that people experience in the present under the pressures of the changes.

How often do you look at your thoughts? Do you always believe them? How much do you believe from what is in the media?  Do you experience an exhausted mind that would just not relax or feel content? If any of these questions ring a bell for you, then, the monkey can come to help.

With this in mind, I am posting below the following link of a Ted Talk about monkeys and not only, which may throw some light on the idea: the presence in the monkey’s mind of more constructive tendencies.

There are a myriad of ways for tapping into the unexplored richness of our inner thinking Universe. Every day I am both challenged and fascinated by this ongoing exploration, not without suffering at times.

Meditation is one of the tools readily available to us in today’s world. It can aid the work of taming the so- called “monkey-like” aspects of the mind and cultivating those that we wish to see more in ourselves and others such as: presence, kindness, empathy, co-operation, altruism and fairness. Maybe there is hope for each of us out there. Now, what thoughts do you have about monkeys?

Lighting up your candle this Christmas

Approaching Christmas time this year running around, walking, strolling, driving, flying or just staying at home, whatever route you choose to take to arrive, is a journey in itself. This Christmas is different for most people who have been touched by the changes of 2020.

Not knowing can be as painful as knowing something that feels painful. But the not knowing how life will turn out has the surprise element added to it.

I wonder if a rose bud feels any pain in the process of opening into a rose. Does it ask itself when and how it should open? What would happen to it if it opens?

Unlike the rosebud, many of us think a lot about opening up in new and uncertain circumstances. Maybe some questions asked deep inside the mind are:

Would it be safe? Will I be protected? What would happen to me and my family? What would people think of me?

This is also the beauty of an inner creative space. A space where personal and collective choices become essential.

If you feel that this year much or some of the experiences, people or things you hoped to have in your life have been taken away from you, then it is natural to also feel grief, sadness and loss.

Yet, looking around, there are many people who seem happy and content. At least in those moments of showing themselves, they were enjoying a loving partner, satisfaying work, the support of their family, a comfortable home environment, or just appreciating nature by taking in the sight of the green grass and the birds’ joy to be alive. Is joy as contagious as sadness is?

The shaking up of our inner and outer worlds this year has led to more inequality and gaps in the outer systems and the supports needed for those most in need of care and attention. And the shaking up reaches places deep inside, too. Maybe, you too, feel deprived of something, it does not have to be material things, it may be around missing a relationship, a place, or being unable to be with those close to you. And what is it like for you when you meet or see somebody who has what you would like? Rather than getting annoyed or envious, or allowing anger to grow in your mind and heart, why not consider something different?

When you experience some of the above, it may help to let other perspectives in, to widen the narrow or dark spaces where the mind can get caught up in for too long sometimes. Meditation surely helps to widen those spaces.

Mudita is a practice originating in the Buddhist meditation tradition. A Sanskrit word meaning joy, particularly sympathetic joy or the pleasure derived from delighting in the good fortune and well-being of others. Cultivating the feeling of altruistic joy through the practice of Mudita not only helps you to experience a more peaceful state of mind, but may also transfer to whoever or whatever you come in contact with during the festive season.

Feeling happy for those who are still enjoying the blessings of material abundance, high spirits, good health, family or loving relationships may be a place to start lighting up some joy in your heart.

Create your own miracle. Light up a candle inside yourself this Christmas and be curious about what happens!

Merry Christmas everyone!