Guide to developing presence
This page takes you on a journey through everything you need to start cultivating mindfulness in life and in practice; connecting with the mind from each part of your being. On this page you will find:
Introduction to Mindfulness
It feels important to recognise that basically everyone has a different understanding and definition of what ‘mindfulness’ is. This realisation, in and of itself, is an expression of the emptiness that mindfulness can lead you to.
The emptiness part is realising that everything can be looked at in an infinite number of ways and there is no one final, ultimate or true way of perceiving things that you can arrive at.
Every meaning, thought, idea and concept depends on the context it arises in; two people will look at the same thing and see or understand completely different things from it.
If you combine an opening to this kind of nebulosity, with a sense of spaciousness and non-dual thinking – you start to realise the emptiness of all perceptions.
A good sign of realised emptiness, is that it creates a sense of humility, open-mindedness and curiosity about other people’s experience; as well as a deep relaxation that you can’t really get things wrong.
In this guide, when I say mindfulness I am mostly talking about a sense of clear awareness, where you feel that you are able to stay open to receiving experience as it is, as well as being able to see it clearly.
This is inextricably linked to the heart state of friendliness, or loving kindness. Your heart and mind work together to create an open, spacious and welcoming mood combined with a clear-seeing.
The biggest killer to mindfulness is when you are in opposition to the world – then you get into a reactive state where your only priority is to identify the ‘bad’ thing and get to safety as quickly as possible.
If you fall into opposition with life you narrow down on the thing that you are in opposition to. Your perspective becomes clouded and you put all your energy into defending yourself or attacking what you are in opposition to, rather than understanding the situation and making space for it to be as it is.
The mind can only become open, happy and aware of what is really going on after it knows it can be safe. So a lot of good mindfulness practice is teaching the mind to relax and open.
Mindfulness is about remaining open to a situation, whatever it brings, and being aware of what is happening. It has become a bit synonymous with paying attention to a very slim subset of experience. I think it’s more meaningful to aim to become aware of what is going on, whatever that is.
A lot of deep and productive mindfulness practice is about proactively opening your mind to aspects of your experience that you usually resist or aren’t normally aware of – the more mystical or challenging aspects of life, for example.
Friendliness helps with this because it creates a way of opening to the world where you can assume that you are in in together with life or with people around you. Rather than going into opposition with the world and adopting fixed mindsets, you retain a curious, calm and open mind to what is happening.
When you are open to receiving the world, this gives you the capacity to understand a situation and respond in a way that feels wise and loving.
If you feel your safety is at risk, your brain starts to shut down and your reactive system takes over; you become entirely focused on trying to navigate yourself to safety either by:
- Fight – destroying your opponent
- Flight – running away
- Freeze – freezing you in place or disassociating
- Fawn or Flop – placating the situation in some way
It’s important to recognise that people have developed these responses because they are vital for keeping us safe. You don’t want to make an enemy of these processes, but to start to notice them and move towards calmer more open ways of being over time.
The modern world is incredibly confusing for people’s minds. Mostly, humans are physically safer than they’ve ever been but often people’s minds feel less safe.
You are constantly being triggered into a reactive state when you’re not in appropriate situations to release the adrenaline and physiological changes in your body that this is designed to do. This gets stuck inside of you in the form of trauma or habit energy.
You need to revisit some of the ways in which you have learned to protect yourself, in order to rebalance your system and feel more empowered in life.
If you can cultivate your capacity to meet more of life with a sense of friendliness and mindful awareness, then you reduce the amount of time you are in opposition with the world and increase the amount of time you are open and aware of what is happening.
This can be one of the fastest ways to cultivate mindfulness and ultimately, a sense of emptiness, and I talk about this more in the practices.
Creating an Environment Conducive to Mindfulness
Modern society is a cognitive dissonance nightmare. It is flooded with things that constantly trigger people’s ‘danger’ signals: strangers, crowds, conflict, alerts, bad news, bullying, imagery of violence.
If something triggers you into a reactive state, it can already be too late to calm yourself down. Huge swathes of your rational mind can shut down and you can turn into an angry lizard pretty quickly.
You need to start by removing yourself from the situation, even just mentally, to give yourself the time and space to calm down, release what you need and come back to yourself.
This could be as simple as taking a few slow breaths (which can also have a very strong calming effect on the nervous system), or it may be needing to take an extended break from being in connection with people.
If you’ve been in a fight or flight response for an extended period of time (for some people it’s their whole life), it may be that you need to do some deep somatic therapy to help you release the habit energies that can get trapped in your system and to find calm in your body again.
Exercise or sleep can also help you release the physiological effects of a reactive state.
Long deep out-breaths are the best way to calm your nervous system and come back to your body. There are two main parts of the human nervous system:
- The sympathetic nervous system, which you use when you are in a reactive state
- The parasympathetic nervous system, which you use when you feel safe and relaxed
Doing a deep belly breath and a long slow breath out of the nose that lasts at least four seconds will take you out of your sympathetic nervous system and into your parasympathetic nervous system. It is a signal to your body that you are safe.
Whether you are in your sympathetic nervous system or parasympathetic nervous system is one of the things that changes how we see the world around us most intensely.
If you can create the conditions to feel safe in your life, then you are less likely to end up in a reactive state. A huge part of this is creating a sense of radical self-acceptance towards your own inner world. To allow your mind to express what can be inappropriate for your bodies to express, in a way that feels safe and liberating.
Pure Heart, Dirty Mind
Your mind’s job is to process everything that is going on in your experience into something you can understand and to come up with creative solutions and ideas.
Your thoughts don’t belong to you; the mind is like a sense organ that is receiving information and transforming it into something that makes sense to you. Even just this perspective can create a lot of freedom.
A lot of what is considered ‘dhukka’ or mental suffering is the mind tying itself in knots. Getting stuck in the anxieties, constrictions and limitations of fixed perceptions certainly creates one kind of samsara for lots of people.
Fixations in the mind, and strong judgements about what is bad and good are where a lot of the suffering comes from. There’s a way to release some of this pressure, by embracing the idea of the mind as the hell-realm.
With this perspective, rather than resisting ‘bad’ thoughts, you can actively make room for them, which simultaneously allows you to see more of the truth of a situation and for the challenges to pass through with more ease.
Here are some practices that may help you do that:
- Learn to observe the the dark stuff that arises in your minds and take it as funny or interesting.
- Release the grip of fearing fear itself. Fear and excitement are physiologically exactly the same, it is your mind that distinguishes between the two. If you can relax into something being scary in an exciting way rather than a life-threatening way, then it can be fun.
- Spend some time thinking about what the worst thoughts you can imagine having are. Realise that they don’t have a power over you.
- The best ideas often start life as the most ridiculous. Don’t reign your mind in too much as that is what stifles creativity.
- Remember that you don’t need to feel bad about having ‘bad’ thoughts, as long as your behaviour is safe, thoughtful and appropriate.
Harnessing the Thinking Mind
The thinking mind gets given a bad rap in meditation and spirituality. Being in your mind can take you away from your body and being in the present moment.
Almost everyone is far too in their mind in our society, so being in your thoughts is often considered a ‘bad’ thing in spirituality, but I prefer to include a balanced approach. Once you have learned to be present in your body and to open your heart more, you can come back to the mind to realise the potential of its amazing capacities.
It’s good to be able to be more present in the body and in the moment. It can be pleasant and it helps you realise that you only ever have this moment to experience life. Another reason is because it actually gives the chance for the mind to rest, which makes the mind a more effective and fun place to be when it is online.
Everyone is constantly multi-tasking and its one of the worst things you can do for your brain. It’s like having hundreds of browser tabs open all running automatic videos and music. It’s a nightmare.
If you can learn to close some of the tabs, by letting those thoughts flow through you and out, then you can create a bit more of a spacious and pleasant space in your heads.
Another metaphor is noticing how thoughts are like clouds moving across the sky. There is an aspect of experience that is more like the sky – vast, open, pristine awareness – and an aspect of experience that is more like weather – cloudy, changeable, different moods, thoughts, ideas etc.
The aim is to create more space for the weather to move through unfiltered, so that you aren’t bottling up the thoughts, or identifying with them.
Here are some ways of creating a bit more spaciousness in your mind:
- Accept that your mind can be totally full of nonsense. This is one of the best mindsets for helping yourself lean back into awareness and watch the show of thoughts moving through. You can’t control your thoughts, a bunch of them are going to be weird or ‘bad’, so it’s better to make space for them and be curious about watching it unfold.
- Accept that your mind is often too full to give your full attention to something. You can either push through and get the thing done that you need to get done (adding more stuff to your already busy mind) or sack it off and go and lie down for a couple of hours to let your mind rest. The more you are able to choose the latter, the easier mindfulness is.
- Minds can be beautiful, creative refuges. Daydreaming can be deeply relaxing and pleasurable. It’s not something that gets valued much in our society but it can be lovely, really good for resting the mind and also good for creative thinking.
- When you resist thoughts, they persist. The more you can allow them to flow freely through you the less sticky they will be. If you’re really resisting a thought, ask yourself what is at risk to your belief system or being if you allow yourself to think it? Find some time when you are alone when you can unpack the thought and what it means to you, perhaps by writing it down.
- When you feel emotionally and physically good your thoughts are more likely to be pleasant. Make space for the other practices in your life so that your mind is built on a good base of presence, joy and acceptance.
Having a growth mindset allows you to stay open even when things aren’t going as well as you’d hoped. It creates space around the concepts of failure.
This is about learning to see the gap between where you are and where you would like to be as an opportunity for growth, rather than a negative reflection on you.
- Understanding that lots of life is largely out of your control will help with this. Minds like to think that it is their job to be in control of situations and it can make people feel like failures when things don’t go well. Try and enjoy the company of uncertainty; to see it as an exciting and interesting part of life.
- One of the best responses you can have to life is to cut yourself and other people some slack. Unless their behaviour is genuinely unsafe, then people can act out, do stupid things and make big mistakes and it is not the end of the world. Sometimes those mistakes work out for the best, so accepting them with a light-hearted attitude and an open-mind will help you weather the storms.
- Learn to ask a thousand questions like a child, not even necessarily to get an answer, just to practice being open minded. People’s fear of looking stupid is one of the biggest thing that holds them back.
- Curiosity is the beginning of wonder. Your minds have the amazing capacity to reach outside their boxes through visualising and imagining and creating ideas. If you’re thinking about something, let go of the idea of whether you can or will find a right answer or even a sensible answer, open your mind to just being curious, exploring and not knowing again.
- Believe that everyone is creative and you will discover that they are, including yourself. People put the reigns on ideas and expression because they are afraid of looking stupid, of not knowing or because they believe that they already understand something. Allow yourself some freedom to start a line of inquiry that you are interested in and follow the thread to see where it goes.
- Your mind may meander through a load of weird and unhelpful ideas and thoughts, but this is part of the process of creativity. At some point it will hit on something that resonates and bring that back into reality to share or turn into action.
- Find the things that spark an interest or a sense of fun in you and follow this thread. This is how all the great inventions and discoveries and pieces of artwork came about.
- Negative thoughts and voices are welcome in your experiences too. They can provide really useful information for how you need to grow or change. Learn to listen to what they have to say, without buying fully into it or taking it personally.
- Remember that you have to be willing to be bad at things in order to get good at things.
Impermanence in Life
Having a felt sense and perception of impermanence allows you to keep an open heart and mind to the situations you find yourself in. Recognising that how things are now is not how they will always be helps you to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
When things are bad, it is useful to think about how things have been bad before and how they will be bad again. This is just one phase of bad in a series of changing circumstances. Equally, when things are good you can learn to appreciate them for how they are now, as you know things will change.
This impermanent nature of things is interacting at all the different levels of life. It could be a momentary feeling, the mood of your day, how your decade is going or the current global situation.
Another important part of embodying a sense of impermanence is coming to terms with death. Remember that fear is the biggest enemy to mindfulness. So if you can spend some time contemplating death and coming to terms with it, it can buy you a huge amount of freedom.
We all only have a given amount of time on this earth. Accepting that you and your loved ones will all die someday means that you can approach even this fate with a certain amount of spaciousness and welcoming.
When you are more aware of and in touch with what is actually happening in your experience, you can start to move from a place of heartful wisdom.
You can adopt a way of being where you are open and curious in relationship with both yourself and others and have the clarity to be in touch with what really matters.
These practices are about coming into relationship with the world and others in this open way.
People have this concept that they are able to categorise their relationships. Certain people are colleagues, certain relationships are transactional, people love their families and like their friends.
Reality is much more fluid than this. There is a saying in spiritual circles that everyone you encounter is a teacher. There is quite a lot of truth in this, everyone is constantly modelling ways of being and learning from each other, but it is more true that everyone and everything we encounter is an emotional connection.
If you can cultivate the capacity to greet more people as if they are a friend, it opens up a huge amount of space for you to be more aware and mindful of the way you are interacting.
Friendliness is ultimately a way of opening to receiving the world that doesn’t assume that others are in opposition to you. You can stay calm, present, kind and aware of the situation, rather than being reactive and clouded. This can extend even when there is a misunderstanding or a disagreement; you can agree to disagree.
- Are there relationships in your life that you ignore or treat as transactional or formal? Is there a way you could be more present in them?
- Asking one slightly informal or more personal question and genuinely listening to the answer can shift the mood from a more formal attitude to something more human.
- Acknowledge that relationships are always fucked up in one way or another. Taking one person’s fucked-up-ness and adding another’s, there are bound to be weirdnesses. Adopt the mantra, ‘I’m weird, you’re weird, and that’s ok.’
- Do you have any frenemies? It’s like enemies that you secretly have an underlying affectionate feeling towards. Can you learn to love your enemies a bit more by seeing it as a bit of fun.
- Can you adopt a friendly attitude when people are being unfriendly towards you? Can you meet it with patience and tolerance and not taking it too heavily?
- Are you able to be honest in your relationships? With good friendships you are able to express yourself fully, even if what you need to share is in some way negative or challenging. Being able to share challenges with people without using blame or shame is a super power.
- The wisest responses – an ability to listen, a well-timed joke, the capacity to change the subject, clarity on what’s important – arise more naturally around good friends. Hopefully, you can learn to adopt this attitude in a wider range of situations.
When you are more open to and aware of your subjective experience, you can start to notice how reality isn’t as fixed as you might have thought – ideas, sensations, emotions and meaning are actually resonating through your being at different levels and then coming to life in experience.
There are things things that resonate at a body level, things that resonate at a heart level and things that resonate on a mind level. It is good to get in touch with these things and to get some clarity on which is which.
Things that resonate at a body level, like music, physical wellbeing and surrounding environment will partially shape your thoughts and experience. If you are stood in a beautiful landscape your experience will feel different to if you are standing somewhere stressful, like a noisy city street corner. It is worth being aware of this as it will shape your perceptions of the world. You could be thinking about the same idea and attach completely different valence to it if you are in a pleasant situation compared to if you are in an unpleasant environment.
The heart’s resonances are the things that really move you. It is what you feel most deeply and enduringly, the things that make you feel like you are coming home. Sometimes you find this in a person or place or activity where you can sustain this feeling or sometimes it is something like a poem or song that touches on something in the core of your being. When something resonates at a heart level, it can cause you to cry or smile or laugh.
The mind’s resonance is more like a fleeting moment of inspiration. It’s the moment where you recognise something important. Like seeing an on-point meme that you can relate to and smiling to yourself. If you want to be creative, letting your mind wander until you hit on a moment of resonance is really useful.
Learning to distinguish between the body’s resonance, the heart’s resonance and the mind’s resonance is one of the most powerful things you can do in life.
The mind’s resonance isn’t going to give you any long-term sense of happiness or fulfilment, it is very fleeting and not something you can chase, it comes to you. If you buy things or buy into ideas or make decisions based on what your mind wants, you will find that the happiness soon fades. The moment of recognition doesn’t automatically translate into long-lasting emotional nourishment.
This is where addiction comes from and it is what Buddhism talks about with the concepts of craving and aversion. You are chasing a high, instead of allowing yourself to be open and waiting to receive these gifts from life.
Investing in the things that resonate with your heart is how you create a joyful and meaningful life. Understanding the heart’s deepest desires and dedicating your life to these is what matters most in life.
The body’s resonance is more like a long-term investment into wellbeing and the conditions that will support you to feel happy and safe.
Being aware of these different types of resonance happening within you and befriending each for the information it is giving, helps you use them to make wise decisions.
Reflecting on Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be described as the ability to pay attention to what is happening in your experience and the biggest barriers to this are fear and judgement.
Cultivating mindfulness is about creating room in your experience for seeing whatever is here, without shutting down or rejecting aspects of it. Through this you can access a level of clear-seeing.
In practice you are undoing your automatic judgements and fear-based responses to things so that your perceptions become less narrowed or clouded. Simultaneously, you are opening our hearts to connect with what is here.
Ultimately, the way to mindfulness is through embodying a clear mind and an open heart. This allows you to engage with the world in a way that increases love and understanding.
Here are some questions for helping you reflect on your practice and how you could develop more mindfulness. Choosing one or two to focus on is a good way to start.
- How do you make room in your experience for challenging stuff to express itself? What type of content are you most judgemental towards yourself for being there?
- Describe some approaches you use to navigating your relationships with skill and wisdom. Which relationships do you feel are most challenging for you and what does it trigger in you?
- Free write about all the aspects of experience you are aware of, both inside and around you. Describe some situations when this range becomes narrower, for example, situations that cause you to become very self-involved.
- Name some of the things that feel most important in your life and in your practice. What situations or events tend to pull you away from these things.
- Describe what you would consider to be a wise perspective on life. When is this most accessible to you? When is it least accessible?
- Create as much spaciousness as possible in your experience – how does this feel to you? Describe how it feels in your body, heart and mind.
- Feel into a very closed, narrow perspective. Describe how this feels in your body, heart and mind.
- What does the word emptiness mean to you? How does it impact your embodied experience to be in touch with a sense of this?
- Name some ideas and opinions that you love thinking about, hearing about or imagining different perspectives on. Name some ideas and opinions that it’s hard to imagine wanting to hear the opposite perspective of.
- Describe what you consider your ‘normal’ state of consciousness to be. How does this feel in your body, heart and mind?
- Describe some altered states of consciousness that you have experienced, either through meditation, psychedelics or normal life. How do they feel in your body, heart and mind?
- Describe what you are aware of during an ideal meditation practice and during a typical meditation practice.
Mindfulness Meditation Practice
It is having an open heart and an open mind (and a healthy balance between the two) that allows you to be engaged with the world in an open, spacious way. These practices all help you with that in different ways.
There are a number of ways to access emptiness and deepen into open-mindedness. For example, things like talk therapies or imaginal practices can help open up parts that were stuck.
When it comes to meditation, meditating either directly on emptiness or doing vipassana with the three characteristics are both very effective at creating the baseline awareness you need to see life in this way.
To learn this practice I would recommend:
- Michael Taft’s guided meditations
- Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha
Metta (or loving kindness/ friendliness) meditation is traditionally done by imagining a series of people, starting with your loved ones, and saying scripts in your mind like, ‘may you be happy, may you be well’. This works for some people, but I find it a little formal.
I prefer to teach the practice as an embodied relaxation into a state of friendliness. Thinking about children that you love or animals that you find cute is a good way to access this state. If you’re feeling tense, looking at pictures or videos of some cute animals or some trees before you start can really help. Place your awareness in your heart space, imagine something that opens up that sense of warmth and enjoy embodying this state of being relaxed and open.
During walking meditation you could welcome in aspects of experience with a friendly greeting, ‘hey tree’, ‘hey snail’, ‘hey stranger walking down the street’.
While you are meditating and in this state you can also imagine some people or situations that you find more challenging and see if you can retain a feeling of relaxed friendliness.
With this approach you are trying to practice being in this heart state as much as possible so that you are more likely to be able to stay in it throughout the day.
It’s also important to treat yourself with the same care and kindness, but this can be the hardest part for some people. If this is a challenge for you, take some time to describe yourself as if through the eyes of a kind friend. During meditation practice you can use this description to conjure positive feelings towards yourself.
Concentrating on Spaciousness
Meditating on spaciousness can help you open your mind. Instead of fixating on things, you are creating space for them to be there.
For this meditation you are creating an embodied sense of what that spaciousness feels like. You can make space for your thoughts, sensations and emotions to arise in your experience.
Step 1: Body
- Start by taking 2 – 3 deep slow breaths into the belly and out through the nose. Allow yourself to arrive where you are.
- Notice where your attention is located, for example, behind the eyes, inside the head, floating above you.
Step 2: Heart
- Expand your sense of awareness to include the space around you with a kind of open, soft focus.
Step 3: Mind
- Allow everything within the space around you to relax itself. For example, if you are in a room, allow the furniture to relax, allow the walls to let go of their tension, allow the floor to soften. If you are outside do this with the ground, the trees or whatever is around you.
- Play with expanding this space of relaxed awareness to different sizes. Can it grow as large as the room? Larger?
Step 4: Soul
- Settle into an awareness that feels like a pleasant, comfortable size and stay here. If you notice you are back to contracted awareness at any stage, just open up to a more spacious perspective and allow things to relax from there.
- Once you have a felt-sense of this, you can either continue practicing this or purposefully bring in thoughts, emotions or sensations that it feels like it would be helpful to feel with this amount of space for them to express themselves through.
If you can cultivate enough spaciousness in practice, you can allow all thoughts and feelings to be expressed without needing to resist them. This may cause your sense of separate awareness to dissolve into the space around you and you can notice that your minds don’t exist separately from it. You get access to experiencing your mind as a sense organ.
This can create a huge amount of spaciousness in how you perceive the world and yourself. When you realise that these thoughts and feelings don’t say anything about you in the way that you thought, it can open up a completely different perspective on life.
Connecting the Heart and the Mind
Wisdom is founded on an experience that includes a healthy conversation between your heart and your mind.
But in order to survive, humans create a split between their hearts and their minds. Your heart wants you to be authentic and loved, your mind wants you to be safe. When both are not possible, a sacrifice is made and mostly this is not a conscious process. This subconscious process becomes habit energies and beliefs that can shape your entire worldview.
People are constantly in a dance to try and get these different needs met – being authentic and being safe – from when they were children learning about the world right up to the present moment.
Part of this is the ways you have learned to behave and the judgements you have adopted in order to be accepted; by your primary caregivers when you were growing up and by your peers as adult. Mostly to feel safe in life, people want or need to be accepted by their tribe.
In order to stay safe and loved, people learn to adopt the perceptions and ways of being that keep them alive, even if it means rejecting parts of themselves or others. This then creates shadows and implicit conflicts between the different parts of you. When something inspires strong feelings in you, combined with a situation that you have learned is unsafe, you get triggered. Depending on whether you are more likely to collapse into the heart or the mind, the trigger plays out differently.
If you believe that the way that your mind behaves is the ‘right’ way, as that is what you have learned is going to keep you safe, this reactive, triggered state creates a lot of black and white thinking and a strong sense of what is right and wrong, as opposed to an open curiosity or a compassionate understanding of the situation.
If you have learned that connecting with others is the ‘right’ thing to do, because that is what you have learned will keep you safe, the triggered state causes you to self-abandon and chameleon into what will bring you connection.
The idea is not to beat yourself up for having these responses (these are what you have learned to stay safe) but to recognise the underlying pattern and the subconscious emotions. When you don’t have space to be both authentic and safe, the underlying feelings and thoughts can then manifest as an inner critic or a predator inside of you; when this manifests you can either let it eat away at you or you turn it back around on the outside world.
The inner critic or predator creates a ‘big’ part of you, that is the judgemental critic, and a ‘small’ part of you, that is a helpless inner child. Unless you are able to revisit the trauma and release the script that says you have to maintain these judgements to keep yourself safe, this whole eco-system gets stuck inside you and you keep repeating the cycle.
These practices help you to explore this dynamic, get a bit more space around them and maybe process some of the habit energies, so that you have more freedom in your system.
When there is more space and awareness and less splits and habit energies within you, there is more of a natural flow between the heart and the mind, which feels good and creates more wisdom and compassion in your response to the world.
Step 1: Body
- Do 5 long slow breaths and get as absorbed in the breath as possible
- Start by connecting to a sense of resilience, safety and positive feeling in the body. If this is not accessible, it may be better to do this practice another time.
- Within this container of safety, evoke a sense of how you feel when you are triggered – for example, angry or afraid.
- Where does it feel like this exists in your experience?
Step 2: Heart
- How would you describe the feeling?
- Does it feel big or small?
- Could you give it an archetypal representation or a colour and shape? For example, a child, an animal, a parent figure or a scary monster.
- Can you identify the other side of the dynamic of the big and small? How would you describe it? Can you give it an archetypal figure to represent it?
- If you were to imagine a scene or location that these big and small parts are in, how would you describe it?
Step 3: Mind
- Can you create enough space around you so that neither message feels too overwhelming? So that you can recognise that they are present in your experience and see them for what they are – learned behaviours in your system that are not necessarily true or helpful representations of reality.
- What message is the big part giving you? What message is the small part giving you?
Step 4: Soul
- From this place is there anything you would like to do?
- Imagining destroying the big part can be a really helpful exercise that can liberate some energy.
- Or imagining sending in an ideal figure to support the small part and give it what it needs to heal and release can also create some freedom.
- Is there anything else you would like to happen or share with yourself from this place?
An example of this in practice:
Step 1: Body
- When I am triggered I feel afraid
- I can feel it in my heart – it’s like a fluttering around the outside of the heart-space
Step 2: Heart
- There’s a small, scared child hiding in a black hole
- There’s a big, critical demon in a grey coat that is standing over the child and telling it it is worthless
Step 3: Mind
- The demon wants to turn everything in the world into dust
- The child is very scared it is going to be abandoned
Step 4: Soul
- I imagine crushing the demon into a grey paste that needs time to be washed out of my being
- I imagine going in and helping the child out of the hole and giving it a safe space to rest until it is ready to go back into the world
Practices like this can be deeply transformational. They can work on an archetypal and energetic level freeing up space in your system and allowing you to let go of trauma that shapes your experience on a subconscious level.
They can also just be useful for becoming more aware of the processes that are inside of you.
Deep patterns and dynamics that are entrenched within you will probably require therapy and support in order to process them fully, but this is a useful way to become aware of these patterns and perhaps heal some aspects of these dynamics in a creative and non-judgemental way.
Altered States of Consciousness
There are many varied states of consciousness that you are able to open to in practice. Lots of traditions see specific states as the highest forms of realisation that you can have, but I prefer to see them as different and interesting ways of experiencing reality.
If you have an open mind about these experiences it creates a sense of spaciousness that means you will be more likely to be able to reach them with a sense of ease and you can more safely adventure into them.
Lots of people claim to have the ‘one way’ of reaching certain states. It is true that there are specific practices that you can do that will make it likely to experience the world in a certain way, but I find it more useful to perceive these states like a friendship. They are not something you can ‘get’. You give yourself to the practice because you are developing your relationship with both the world and your own consciousness and if you experience something pleasant or interesting as a result, you can appreciate that. You can build a stable relationship with certain states where you can access them more easily and deepen in intimacy.
In order to relate in this more intimate way, it really helps if you can balance the feminine and masculine qualities of love and understanding within you.
If you can feel things and let the meaning of things resonate through you alongside analysing things and looking clearly at them, you will be able to experience and appreciate both the beauty and insight that these states can create.
Some examples of the things that I am talking about are the jhanas and dissolving your body into pleasant sensations; shamanic journeying and visionary states; feeling like you are love and unity consciousness; cessation and dissolving into the void.
All of these are fun in and of themselves to experience. They can also give you access to deep insight and meaning in life, but the more you can let go of the idea that you are there to ‘get’ those things, the more you can appreciate the process itself.
These are all part of your relationship with yourself, with life and with the Universe. They are a way for you to understand experience and the world better and to find more intimacy with it. Deepening this relationship naturally gives you insight and changes you as a person, like any close relationship.
Altered states give you an opportunity to open into the mystery of life. A lot of it is inexplicable and can only be expressed through poetry or words that convey a meaning and a resonance, rather than the details of what is experienced. If you get too excited about or fixated on the specifics, you can lose touch with the magic of the wholeness of the experience.
These states can also increase your capacity to meet your every day experience with more awareness and spaciousness as they can be deeply resourcing, increase your sense of safety in life and reveal something to you about the fundamental nature of reality.
When you can see deeper into the nature of reality, you start to realise that things aren’t always as they seem on the surface. You have access to fundamentally different ways of experiencing the world that can reduce how attached you feel to your thoughts, feelings and perceptions.
Psychedelic drugs also give you access to these states. The benefit of reaching them through meditation is that you are more likely to be able to bring back the insights and meaning into your daily life, because you have opened the pathways in your heart and mind in a sustainable way. However, safely taking psychedelic drugs can be a profound and useful experience for deepening your relationship with the world, experiencing new ways of looking and having some fun.
While all these meditative states do need to be treated with respect, I don’t believe that being secretive about them is particularly helpful for anyone. People experience these things by accident in their daily lives and often in meditation without realising it. It is important for people to be able to find a way to connect with their experiences and make sense of them in a way that is meaningful. Without a safe space to hear and talk about them, people will repress their experiences and be much more likely to be disturbed by them.
The resources that I have found particularly helpful when approaching and understanding these states are:
- Daniel Ingram’s book ‘Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha’,
- Rob Burbea’s recorded dharma talks on emptiness and imaginal practice
- Michael Taft’s podcast ‘Deconstructing Yourself’.
All of these are very open in the way they talk about their topics and allowing and friendly towards altered states of consciousness.
Daniel and I also recorded a conversation in which I speak openly about some of my altered states of consciousness and we discuss and describe the best ways for people to support others who are accessing these states so that they feel safe and rewarding.
Altered states of consciousness can offer some of the deepest insights into emptiness – helping you realise that reality can be completely different to what you assumed to be true about it – especially if you are able to experience them without reifying them into a new fixed way of looking.
Explore more about the mind in the whole being awakening framework