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 ‘ Who am I really? As you ask the question, verbal answers may arise. But you are not looking for an answer in words. You are looking for a sense of subtle presence. Perhaps an ‘answer’ may come as a feeling of blankness. This is not a negative experience, though it might be surprising. That sense of apparent blankness is one of the ways we touch into the underlying presence of our non-verbal awareness. When you relax into that feeling, it reveals itself as great peace.
Perhaps what arises is an emotion, like tenderness or longing. Perhaps an image, or even a light. Keep asking the question with real curiosity, using the question as a trigger to allow your attention to settle more deeply into the self that is beyond the thinking mind and personality.
Another way of connecting with spirit is by opening your senses and mind to nature. This you can also do as a meditation, either when you are in a natural environment or in meditation, by imagining yourself in a beautiful natural place.
For example, right now, you could close your eyes, and imagine yourself sitting on a mountain, or in a green valley, or a meadow, or by the ocean or under a starry sky. Feel the beauty and the presence of the natural world around you, in whatever form you find most powerful or lovely. Now, become aware of the life force that runs through everything in nature. Consider the ways in which the Earth nourishes all of life, how trees and plants grow and offer their gifts to the earth and to us, how the tides flow. Consider the vastness and magnificence of the ocean, the awe inspiring vastness of the sky with its stars, the life giving power of the sun, the cycles of the seasons and the profusion of insect and animal life.
Become aware of the Divine Intelligence that runs through nature. Become aware of how you are part of that Divine Intelligence, the exquisite design of your body, the beat of your heart, the ebb and flow of the breath.
Feeling Gratitude, Compassion and Love
The more you connect with spirit, the more love you feel. At its essence, love is a vital aspect of the health equation. The more you connect with the awe-inspiring design of your body, and the healing power of eating natural foods, the more you take care of yourself. All this is a manifestation of love. So too is saying grace, having gratitude for the food you are about to receive. Having a purpose greater than your self is an act of love. All human beings depend on love. This is not just a nice idea. It’s a fact. When a child is born, the brain and nervous system are still fluid, still developing. Our internal wiring, our development, depends exquisitely on the selfless love and interaction, especially with the mother.
In her excellent book Why Love Matters, Sue Gerhardt explains what the latest discoveries in neuroscience are teaching us about the vital role of parenting and how the right parenting sets up the potential for happiness, emotional intelligence and fulfilment as an adult. Here’s a simple exercise taken from Sally Kempton’s book The Heart of Meditation, to connect you with the experience of love.
Exercise: Focus On An Experience Of Love
Close your eyes. Focus on your breathing, following the breath for a few moments to let your mind calm down. Then think of someone for whom you feel love or whom you have loved in the past. Imagine that you are with this person. Visualize him or her before you or beside you. To anchor yourself in the memory, you might notice what this person is wearing or become aware of the setting. Let yourself feel love for this person. Open yourself to the feeling. Once you are fully present with that feeling of love, let go of the thought of the person. Focus entirely on the feeling of love. Allow yourself to rest in it. Feel the energy of love within your body and within your heart.
You may need to repeat this exercise a few times before you get the hang of it. Once you have experienced how the felt sensation of love and happiness remains, even after you let go of the idea of the person inspiring it, you will begin to realise that your love is actually independent of anything outside yourself. This is one of those insights that can change your relationship to other people, and certainly to yourself. The Dalai Lama’s religion, as such, is simply loving kindness. The practice of being kind to yourself, and to others, both those you like and those you don’t, is another way to connect to spirit.
The Buddhists have a simple practice called the Loving Kindness Meditation to awaken the sense of connection to others. The purpose of it is to awaken the feeling of compassion and kindness towards yourself, towards those you know well, to people you don’t like, and even to strangers. This practice is a powerful way of activating that in you that is deeper than your personality and the mind, your essential nature.
Exercise: Loving Kindness Meditation
1. Sit quietly, with your spine straight but not rigid. Find a comfortable posture, either on a chair, or sitting on a cushion on the floor.
2. Focus on the breath, perhaps starting with a few rounds of Diakath or deep breathing.
3. As you inhale think: ‘May I be happy.’ As you exhale think: ‘ May I be healthy.’ As you inhale think: ‘May I be free of suffering.’ As you exhale think: ‘May I be at peace.’
4. Do this for 5 rounds.
5. Then bring to mind someone you love or for whom you feel affection. Inhaling think: ‘May (name) be happy. As your exhale think ‘ May (name) be healthy.’ As you inhale think: ‘May (name) be free of suffering.’ As you exhale think: ‘May (name) be at peace.’
6. Now think of someone to whom you feel neutral, perhaps a co-worker or neighbour. Repeat the same sequence for them.
7. Finally, think of someone you dislike, who has offended or hurt you. Do the same process with them. Repeat this whole sequence at least once, if not two or three times.
During the day, return from time to time to this thought of loving kindness, always starting with yourself. This meditation helps open the heart and awaken the feeling of kindness. As you do it, you will find yourself feeling more connected to your own love, as well as to others. If you would like to develop the practice of meditation, but find it hard to do, you might find it helpful to work with a sound-wave meditation practice. One method I like a lot, delivered via CDs, is called HoloSync.
Through the use of specific sound vibrations it helps to bring you into a meditative state associated with a significant change in the pattern of brain wave activity. In effect you follow the instructions on the CDs, best done through a pair of headphones. Your commitment is to set the time aside. The Holosync CDs are available at www.holosync.com. Also, Sally Kempton has recorded some excellent meditations on CD that lead you into a deep meditative state and also help to teach you the art of meditation. There are also books you can read. The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (Hodder & Staughton) is very good. As is Sally Kempton’s Meditation for the Love of It (See www.sallykempton.com).