One of the big divides in the God/No God debate is between those who have had some kind of ‘peak’ experience and those who have not. By peak experience, I mean an opening of the heart, an experience of unity, or an awareness of pure being beyond thought. Often with such experiences there is an underlying sense that everything is perfect, as well as of the existence of a guiding intelligence greater than ourselves. In our survey of the top 101 health scorers, 48% had had such an experience, and 18% hadn’t, while 28% were not quite sure.
Whatever camp you are in, what is clear is that many people do describe similar experiences of a connection to something greater than themselves, from the profound to the everyday. For example, musicians talk about a state in which they become ‘played’, less the doer and more the instrument through which the music comes. Athletes talk about being ‘in the zone’ where every action and movement flows naturally. I had a similar experience last year when I reached the summit of a mountain. Apart from the spectacular views, for several hours I felt completely present. Everything in my life seemed obviously perfect, just the way it was. Gone was the negative self talk of my mind. Many people connect to something greater through experiencing the awe-inspiring forces of nature.
How do you connect with spirit? Do you meditate, pray or have a spiritual practice of some sort? Do you connect through nature, through service, or through sport when you get into a state of flow? What has been your relationship to spirit, or a higher power at different times in your life? Have you, like many people, found yourself in danger or difficulty, feeling at the end of your resources, asking for help from a higher power? Or perhaps that’s when you developed the belief that there is no such thing – you are on your own. I remember hearing the story of an Arctic explorer who got holed up in a blizzard for days and was running out of supplies. He prayed for help but nothing happened. Several days later, at the brink of disaster, some Eskimos appeared and rescued him. “So much for a benevolent God,” he thought. "If it hadn’t been for those Eskimos I would have died.”
For many people, the connection with Spirit is sensed as a connection with an unchanging Self, a strong sense of who you are, or a feeling of simple 'beingness' that exists beyond the personality or ego. In eastern traditions, this unchanging beingness is often described as a recognition of our own pure capacity for being aware, or awake to life. Sally Kempton, in her excellent book The Heart of Meditation describes this as follows: “The way I find this easiest to understand is to think of myself as composed of two different aspects: a part that changes, grows and ages, and a part that doesn’t. This changing part has various outer personalities and as many secret selves. There are aspects of us that seem ancient and wise and other parts that seem impulsive, undeveloped and foolish. They assume different attitudes as well. There is vast detachment along with a large capacity for emotional turmoil; there is frivolity and depth, compassion and selfishness.
There are, in short, any number of inner characters inhabiting our consciousness, each with its own set of thought patterns and emotions and each with its own voice. “Yet amidst all these different and often conflicting outer roles and inner characters, one thing remains constant: the Awareness that holds them. Our awareness of our own existence is the same at this moment as it was when we were two years old. That awareness of being is utterly impersonal. It has no agenda. It doesn’t favour one type of personality over another. It looks through them all as if through different windows, but it is never limited by them. Sometimes we experience the Awareness as a detached observer – the witness of our thoughts and actions. Sometimes we simply experience it as our felt sense of being; we exist and we feel we exist.” In much the same way that you can do exercises to promote and maintain physical health, there are simple meditative exercises that you can do to nurture your connection to that essence of ‘I am’, or spirit – that which is beyond the mind or the limited sense of self.
Exercise: “I Am” meditation
1. Set aside 20 minutes and find a quiet place.
2. Sit in a straight chair, or on a cushion on the floor. Your back should be straight, but not rigid. You may wish to start by doing Diakath breathing, a deep breathing exercise explained in many of my books and taught as part of Psychocalisthenics, to bring yourself into a still place.
3. Set an intention, for example, “During these 20 minutes I will turn my attention inside in meditation.”
4. Bring your attention to your breath.
5. Inhaling, have the thought “I am".
6. Exhaling, have the thought “I am".
7. With each breath allow your attention to relax a bit more,
8. When thoughts come up, notice the thought, and label it ‘thought’. This allows you to detach from thought, so you don’t get carried away. Bring your attention back to the breath.
A variation on this meditation is to ask yourself the question “Who am I really?” to help invoke the sense of a deeper presence.
Begin your meditation as in the last exercise, focussing on your breath – being aware on the sensation of air flowing in, and out of the nostrils. After a few minutes, ask yourself ‘ ......
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