If you have traveled on the spiritual path even a little way, you have probably come across some version of “love what is”—a reminder that you should accept your experience as it is. However, this teaching easily becomes another injunction. Notice the should in the earlier sentence—it is always a red flag that the judging mind is at work.
The conditioned mind cannot accept unconditionally. It always has an agenda, even if it is well hidden. It secretly bargains and sends the message, “I will accept you [sotto voce] if you change or leave.” This approach is akin to welcoming guests at your front door while secretly hoping they will exit out the back—the sooner, the better! Guests—our unwanted thoughts, feelings, and sensations—will certainly feel this conditional invitation, even if it is unspoken. As a result, they will be much less willing to enter, relax, and reveal themselves. The result? What we resist, persists. So when your new arrivals show up at your door, put away your timer and share some aromatic green tea and a raspberry scone with them. Settle in and let them tell their stories and share their feelings. They just want to be heard and understood. Once they feel genuinely received, they will be open to a new perspective.
Are you willing to be with your experience just as it is, even if it never changes? This is a critically important checking question. Take a few minutes to inquire with the following practice.
Are You Willing to Accept Your Experience Just as It Is?
Sit quietly where you won’t be disturbed, close or lower your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Feel the weight of your body held by whatever you are sitting on and relax. Feel your attention settling down and in.
Think of a troubling aspect of your conditioning—an unwelcome pattern of behavior, reactive feeling, bodily tension, or invasive thought. Then ask yourself: “Am I willing to accept this just as it is?”
If your response comes from the strategic mind, there will be an honest no. This is good to see. If this is the case, try asking the question a little differently: “Is there something in me that already accepts this just as it is?”
If your attention has settled into the Deep Heart, you will find a yes.
Journey into the depths of your own heart with Dr. John J. Prendergast’s guide, The Deep Heart: Our Portal to Presence.
It can be helpful to begin with some retraining of the relationship between our eyes, our small mind, and our small self. We can begin to return our eyes to their natural condition and have the information move to awake awareness.
According to the American Foundation for the Blind, “vision is the product of a complex system of which the eyes are only one part. The processing of visual information—the receipt of visual stimuli through the eyes, its interpretation by various brain centers, and its translation into visual images—has been estimated to involve as much as 40 percent of the brain.”
When our eyes are darting around or scanning for a specific threat, we are on alert. Sometimes our attempts to focus ourselves by narrowing our eyes and concentrating can keep our brain in a fixed, task-positive mode. Our goal in practicing effortless mindfulness is to be able to shift to another operating system, the end point of which is open-hearted awareness, in which all our senses and systems—including vision—are functioning in their natural state: open, relaxed, clear, and integrated. To do this, we need to learn how to shift our awareness and live with our eyes open.
Here are some helpful hints for sustaining an open gaze while shifting awareness. You don’t necessarily need to experience all of them as I describe them. Use any of the following hints that work for you:
Relax your eyes and soften your gaze so that your eyesight is not dominant and all your senses are experienced equally.
Instead of looking through a narrow tunnel of vision or in a pinpointed way at one object, see the forest as well as one tree. Put your pointer fingers together up above your head in front of you and then part them to either side, drawing a big circle in front of your body. Let your gaze open to include the entire circular area all at once so that you are seeing in a more open way.
Rather than looking at one object, create a diffused view like a soft lens of a camera by looking to the wider scene of what’s in front of you.
Extend one hand in front of you with your palm facing you at the distance you would be looking at a friend’s face. Look at your hand and the space around it. Now drop your hand and look at the open space. If your eyes habitually focus on the first object you see, repeat the previous steps until you get a feel for resting your eyes on objectless space.
Notice that your eyes do not operate like your hands. You do not go out to see something as your hands go out to pick something up. Your eyes work in a similar way as your ears. Just as your ears are receiving sound, light is reflecting off objects and coming into your eyes. What does it feel like when seeing is receiving?
Rest back as the light comes to your eyes and then goes to open-hearted awareness while all your senses are open. Feel like you are equally aware of all your senses rather than focusing on seeing or thinking as primary.
Feel like you are receiving light as you soften your eyes while having a wide-open view of the periphery.
Loch Kelly, MDiv, LCSW, is a leader in the field of meditation and psychotherapy. He is author of the award-winning Shift into Freedom and founder of the Open-Hearted Awareness Institute. Loch is an emerging voice in modernizing meditation, social engagement, and collaborating with neuroscientists. For more, visit lochkelly.org.
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Find a quiet spot in nature or in your garden where you don’t feel observed. If you choose a forest, look for a hiding place or a protected area. A high boulder, hill, or mountainside also works well for meditation.
Find a sensory impression that appeals to you and generates positive feelings, ideally one that fascinates you. Either a sound you hear, an object that appeals to you and you can hold in your hand, or maybe something else that you can see but not touch, like rays of sunshine cutting through the trees or a line of ants hiking across the forest floor.
Concentrate completely on your nature object. How does it feel? Notice the details. Get into your sensory perception and concentrate only on this perception. Try to put other sensory impressions in the background.
Try to assign your sensory impression an emotion. How does it feel in your mind? What does it remind you of?
Invite these feelings without forcing them. After a while, redirect your attention more and more to these feelings and toward your inner self. Do this knowing that your nature object triggered these feelings in you and represents itself in this way inside you.
Once you feel that your meditation is complete or that you can no longer maintain your concentration, you can thank your nature object with an inner or outer gesture and gradually direct your attention to other stimuli in your environment, one by one, until you see nature as a whole again.
Born in 1980, Clemens G. Arvay is an Austrian engineer and biologist. He studied landscape ecology (BSc) at Graz University and applied plant sciences (MSc) at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. Arvay examines the relationship between humans and nature, focusing on the health-promoting effects of contact with plants, animals, and landscapes. He also addresses a second range of topics that includes ecologically produced food along with the economics of large food conglomerates. Clemens G. Arvay has written numerous books, including his bestseller The Biophilia Effect. For more, please visitclemensarvay.com.
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the twenty years I lived in a meditation center, I rushed through my morning
coffee. After all, if I didn’t drink it fast enough, I’d be late for
meditation. It was important to get to meditation on time; otherwise, one had
to endure the social stigma of being late (obviously lacking the proper
spiritual motivation), as well as the boredom and frustration of having to wait
outside the zendo to meditate until latecomers were admitted.
moved out of the center, I had to learn to live in the world. I had been
institutionalized for nearly twenty years. Now I was out and about. What did it
mean? There was no formal meditation hall in my home. I could set my meditation
cushion in front of my home altar, or I could sit up in my bed and cover my
knees with the blankets. There were no rules.
I stopped getting up at 3:30 am. Once I did awaken, I found that a hot shower,
which had not really fit with the previous circumstances, was quite
invigorating. Of course, getting more sleep also helped.
was ready for coffee—hot, freshly brewed, exquisitely delicious coffee. Not
coffee in a cold cup from an urn; not coffee made with lukewarm water out of a
thermos; not coffee with cold milk, 2 percent milk, or nonfat milk—but coffee with
heated half-and-half. Here was my opportunity to satisfy frustrated longings
from countless mornings in my past. I would not have just any old coffee, but
Peet’s Garuda blend—a mixture of Indonesian beans—brewed with recently boiled
water and served in a preheated cup.
by the time I finished the coffee, I had been sitting around so long that it
was time to get started on the day, but I hadn’t done any meditation. With this
heavenly beverage in hand, who needed to meditate?
solution was obvious: bring the ceremoniously prepared coffee in the preheated
cup to the meditation cushion. This would never have been allowed at the center
or in any formal meditation hall I have visited, but in my own home, it was a
no-brainer. Bring the coffee to the cushion—or was it the other way around?
light the candle and offer incense. “Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the
Lovely, the Holy,” I say. “May all beings be happy, healthy, and free from
suffering.” I sit down on the cushion and place the coffee just past my right
knee. I cross my legs and then put the cup right in front of my ankles. I sit
without moving so I don’t accidentally spill the coffee. I straighten my
posture and sip some coffee.
my weight settling onto the cushion, lengthen the back of my neck, and sip some
coffee. Taste, enjoy, soften, release. I bring my awareness to my breath moving
in, ﬂowing out. If I lose track of my breath, I am reminded to take another sip
of coffee—robust, hearty, grounding. Come back to the coffee. Come back to the
distraction? A thought? Sip of coffee. Enjoy the coffee. Enjoy the breath.
Focus on the present moment. Remembering the words of a Vipassana teacher of
mine: “Wisdom in Buddhism is defined as the proper and efficacious use of
stabilize my intention. “Now as I drink this cup of coffee, I vow with all
beings to awaken body, mind, and spirit to the true taste of the dharma. May
all beings attain complete awakening at this very moment. As I visualize the
whole world awakening, my mind expands into the vastness.
Friends, this is one of the teaching stories that is shared in my new book, The Most Important Point. This offering comes to you with my gratitude for the efforts of Danny S. Parker, who edited over 60 of my Zen talks for inclusion in this volume.
Many people know about meditating during the day, but few are aware of the “nocturnal meditations.” They’ve been around for thousands of years, tucked away under the blanket of darkness. Until recently, the nocturnal practices have been secret, deemed too subtle for the West. But with the mindfulness revolution in full swing and meditation now in the public domain, these “dark” practices are finally coming to light in the modern world. What surprises most people is how deep and vast these nocturnal meditations are—and how applicable to daily life.
The practices start with lucid dreaming, which is when you wake up to the fact that you’re dreaming while still remaining in the dream. Once it was scientifically proven in 1975, lucid dreaming has gained traction in the West. Initially, lucid dreaming isn’t much of a meditation. Most people use it to indulge their fantasies—to fulfill their wildest dreams in the privacy of their own mind. At this entry level, lucid dreaming is the ultimate in home entertainment, where you become the writer, producer, director, and main actor in an Academy Award-winning production of your own mind.
But the higher levels of lucid dreaming have extraordinary psychological and even physical benefits. You can transform nightmares, rehearse things, resolve interpersonal issues, even improve athletic performance. Neuroscience has shown that you can use your mind to change your brain (neuroplasticity), and modern dream research continues to show that you can use your dreaming mind to enhance a host of daily psychological and physical activities. Lucid dreaming at this higher level is like going to night school.
With some proficiency in lucid dreaming you can progress into dream yoga,which is when dreams are used for spiritual transformation. While lucid dreaming is largely about self-fulfillment, dream yoga is all about self-transcendence. It’s been around for thousands of years, and the Buddha (the “awakened one”) was really the ultimate lucid dreamer.
Dream yoga, like lucid dreaming, progresses from beginning to advanced stages. A beginning yogi starts by addressing the question, “What are dreams made of?” They’re made of your mind. So, by working with your dreams at this refined level, you’re working to transform your mind. One early stage of dream yoga involves transforming the objects in your dreams, like changing a dream flower to a dream chair. In so doing, one discovers the malleable nature of mind and the truth of the saying, “Blessed are the flexible, for they are never bent out of shape.” This is the “yoga” or “stretching” part of dream yoga, which develops increased pliability of mind.
One amazing quality of both lucid dreaming and dream yoga is that the benefits of what you do in your dreams don’t stay tucked into the nighttime mind. By changing a flower into a chair in your dreams (not as easy as it sounds!), you realize you can change anger into compassion in your life. In other words, your emotional states are not as solid as you think. They’re essentially as solid as a dream, and therefore as workable.
At higher levels of dream yoga, you use the “example dream” or “double delusion” of the nighttime dream to wake you up from the “real dream” or “primary delusion” of daily life—which is precisely what the Buddha did. You eventually come to the shattering conclusion that this is a dream. When seen properly—when you’re lucid to it—your waking reality is no more concrete than a dream. So a dream yogi lives by the maxim, “This is a dream; I am free; I can change.” It’s a liberating wake-up call, with profound implications for all of life.
For most people, lucid dreaming and dream yoga are enough. But for those wanting to go to “graduate school,” one can advance into sleep yoga(related to yoga nidra in Hinduism). As incredible as it may sound, this is when you learn how to become lucid in deep, dreamless sleep. In Buddhism this is called “luminosity yoga” and adheres to the teaching that fundamentally there is no darkness within—only light unseen. Sleep yoga turns on this nightlight, a luminosity so radiant that it eventually illuminates even the day. Scientists are currently trying to prove this outrageous claim with advanced meditators and dream yogis.
“Lucidity” is a code word for awareness. So, by working with any of these three practices, you’re working to cultivate greater awareness. And what doesn’t benefit with more awareness? All three of these practices engage the principle of bi-directionality, which is all about opening a two-way street between the daytime and nighttime mind. What we do during the day affects how we sleep and dream; and what we do when we sleep and dream affects how we live during the day. By becoming lucid to our dreams and to dreamless sleep, we’re secretly becoming more lucid or aware of our daily lives. So lucid dreaming leads to lucid living.
As fruitful as these three practices are, there is one final step for those wanting to take the deepest dive. With some proficiency in sleep yoga, one can advance into bardo yoga(“gap” yoga), which is when the darkness of sleep is used to prepare for the darkness of death. In Greek mythology, Thanatos (the god of death) and Hypnos (the god of sleep) aren’t just brothers—they’re twins. Death and sleep are intimately related. In Buddhism, death is referred to as “the dream at the end of time.” So bardo yoga, which is a Tibetan contribution, engages the tenet that dreamless means formless, and formless means deathless. Bardo yoga therefore introduces you to your formless/deathless nature—to who you really are. It points out the deepest part of you that doesn’t get old, sick, or die. Bardo yoga is a “dead end” practice that points out eternal life.
We spend a third of our lives in sleep. If you live to be 90, you’ve slept for 30 years. Imagine what you could do if you had even a fraction of that time. We spend 25% of our sleep time in dreams, which adds up to about a month a year. Think of what you could do if you added a month to each year! That’s real “overtime.”
The nocturnal meditations are cutting-edge practices. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker writes, “It is possible that lucid dreamers represent the next iteration in Homo sapiens’ evolution.” How evolutionary does that make lucid sleepers, let alone lucid “die-ers”? Do you want to be the first one on your block to take the lead in evolution? Then open your eyes to the dark, engage the nocturnal meditations, and discover the leading light within.
Mind wandering is associated with the DMN (default mode network)—areas of the brain that are active when the mind is in its default state of rest. In this phase, the mind seems cluttered with thoughts and feelings all scrambling to be at the center of attention. The meditator may remain distracted by what seems like an endless barrage for some period of time. The brain remains in this state especially when it is not engaged in a specific task.
Becoming aware of mind wandering occurs when we mobilize a conscious mind-body practice. This phase involves purposefully placing our attention in order to steer our practice, and this effort reveals itself as activation in the insula. As noted previously, the insula is characteristic of interoceptive awareness and self-awareness. In this way, cognizance of the mind’s habitual wandering is a form of metacognition—thinking about thinking—that sets the stage for neuroplasticity. Just to arrive at this stage of meditation is quite an accomplishment, as most people never cultivate any sustained awareness of how their mind meanders from one topic to the next. Practitioners should recognize the value of this second phase because it can take years to arrive here with any regularity. Without knowing this, beginners often become discouraged.
Shifting out of wandering is like flexing a muscle or changing gears in a car. This phase involves the executive function of the brain, recruiting regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the posterior parietal cortex. The practitioner arrives at this phase through consciously and consistently bringing their attention out of unfocused wandering. Much like training a muscle, we go through high and low points of practice, and—as in the previous stage—it is easy to feel discouraged. Unfortunately, meditators can judge themselves harshly at this stage, lose interest, or give up entirely if they do not recognize just how important this phase is in training the neural muscles of concentration.
Focusing means that the practitioner has gained some meditative stability and can remain for some time in a concentrative state. This achievement shows up as sustained activation in the dlPFC. At this phase, progressive layers of our mind reveal themselves—both within a practice session and “off the cushion” over time. When the mind eventually starts to wander again, the cycle begins anew, and the practitioner passes through the phases once more to regain focus. With practice, the amount of effort, time, and repetition it takes to go through the cycles decreases, with less time occupied in the earlier phases and more time spent in a focused state.
Mariana Caplan, PhD, MFT, E-RTY 500, is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, and author of eight books in the fields of psychology, spirituality, and yoga. She has been teaching workshops and trainings online, in yoga studios and universities, and at major retreat centers throughout the world since 1997. She is the founder of Yoga & Psyche International, an organization created to integrate the fields of yoga and psychology globally, and lives in Fairfax, California. Learn more at realspirituality.com and yogaandpsyche.com.
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