My Story

 MY STORY

 

 

CHILDHOOD

 

Born in England in 1940, I am very much a child of the Western mind, growing up in its intellectual tradition and painfully sharing its late 20th century crisis of meaning. I was blessed with a secure and loving, if somewhat over protected, childhood. Wedwelt among the untrodden ways” of English Fen country. Miles upon miles of reclaimed marshland yielded lush pasture for “Lincolnshire Reds” and the rich black soil cut through with dykes and ditches was the endless horizontal map of my childhood. Alone with the larks and the family dog I would wander off for hours on end. The corners of a dried up ditch became my secret cubby house. I would lie on my back there feeling totally at home with the sounds and smells of my English countryside. The flatness of the fens meant that on a fine night the sky was a natural planetarium. A dome of starlit brilliance would span the horizon and it never failed to fill me awe and wonderment.

Astronomy became my passion in those pre-puberty years and it constantly nourished the mystic in me. I took myself off to Evensong most Sundays, catching the bus to attend a particular Anglo Catholic church which had a fine choral tradition.  The poetry and mystery of the liturgy and hymns, like my starry heavens, inspired in me an alluring blend of ecstasy and humility. My parents viewed my rather isolationist enthusiasm for Christianity with a mild benevolent concern, being reasonably confident that I would grow out of it and settle down to share their middle-class Anglican view of churchgoing as a seasonal occasion and God as an entity believed in but not felt and certainly not discussed.

My family was the nuclear ideal. Father was the emotionally distant but honourable breadwinner, always deferred to as the final arbiter of disputes. In contrast my mother and I enjoyed an open and volatile relationship. I adored her.  She was warm, witty and elegant. Apart from successful excursions into amateur theatre, she did little with her many talents except dedicate them to the needs of her daughter, son and husband. It is no wonder that she found it so hard to let go of her children later on. Sadly she succeeded in alienating both my brother and myself with her possessiveness.

My own distancing process began with my grammar school experience and the distractions of peer group pleasures and passions. My secondary school years were ordinary and yet delicious. Interestingly I journeyed back to my hometown with one of my sons a few years ago. It hadn’t changed much and he was quite appalled by its dreariness and ugliness. And yet I have such happy memories of my childhood there, memories shared by several lifetime friends.  By modern standards we were short on luxuries. But this is a common story. Happiness can flourish in the simplest, most basic lifestyles, if the soul is nourished.  And in our case our material needs were very adequately met.

Academic success came easily to me, as did friendship and sporting skills. My best friend and I were tennis partners and the grass courts of the local cricket club were our favourite meeting place. Throughout my sociable teenage years, my discretely veiled love of Christ and my delight in solitary excursions into nature persisted and my passion for astronomy deepened. My religious beliefs became increasingly subject to intellectual scrutiny however. Seeds of doubt were sown by the atheistic leanings of my physics teacher and others whom I held in high regard. The concept of God as a Final Cause and the awesome mystery of that starry firmament continued to sustain my faith but my feelings gradually became less finely tuned to the mystical.

 

 

ADULTHOOD

 

Our society is sick with adultism..A tired, pessimistic, patriarchal adultist culture has projected its own weariness and exhaustion onto divinity-and we wonder why our youth are dying.

Matthew Fox (1988:23)

 

In 1960 I set out in fear and trembling to take up a course in anthropology at University College London. I understood all too well that I had been a big fish in a very modest pond. The ocean was now my challenge and I really did not feel equipped to deal with it. University College was known as “the godless institute of Gower Street”. The “in” word while I was there was “meaningless”-a term liberally applied to any proposition which was not amenable to scientific scrutiny. Exit all religious beliefs. I was initiated into this fashionable school of thought-known as logical positivism-on the night of the fresher’s ball, when I was flattered by the attentions of a seductively intelligent and articulate postgraduate psychology student. As an ardent logical positivist in love with words, he delighted in grinding others down to his way of thinking. My insecurity, naivety and impressionability made me an easy convert or should I say victim. Two years later I married him inspite of, or perhaps because of, passionate maternal opposition.

Much of my time as an undergraduate student was spent in the company of intellectually impressive postgraduate philosophy and psychology students who argued that anyone countenancing religious beliefs had to be either stupid or emotionally crippled. Naturally I was doing my best not to come across as being either of these. Generally speaking I listened attentively and said very little. In this intellectually awesome company the young lass from Lincolnshire lost her faith and her Lincolnshire accent as well as her virginity.

Thought became my new god. To my lasting shame I learnt to measure people‘s worth in terms of their intellectual abilities. Years later, when I discovered the joys of meditation I came to know for myself that. “If the power to think is a remarkable gift the power not to think is even more so”. (Satprem 1968: 9) I have come to understand what Krishnamurti meant when he said that thought and time are at the root of all suffering. It is a message that is being well received across the planet at the moment through the writings of Eckhart Tolle. We constantly stress ourselves with thoughts of what happened yesterday and what may happen tomorrow. In the process we fail to connect with the power of the present, the power of NOW. The next stage in our evolution is a capacity for pure awareness, free of thought.  Strange notions indeed for the Western mind.

After graduation my psychologist husband and I migrated to Australia. He took up a lectureship at Adelaide University and I taught maths and science at a local high school. I had a good rapport with the students and loved teaching but I was restless and unhappy.  My unease manifested itself in an excess of flirting and drinking. Inevitably one of my romantic searchings led me into divorce and instant remarriage to someone at the opposite end of the personality spectrum from my logical positivist mentor. Western culture has separated mind and body. (Cartesian dualism)2. True to that conditioning I moved from mind into body, from intellect to sensation. The days of wine and roses and guilt fell upon me-not I think therefore I am’ but “I sense therefore I am.

My second husband was an Australian anglophile so soon after our marriage we visited London for a few years. I completed a master’s degree at my old college. The research topic was tribal religions. I had been drawn to anthropology in the first place because of my interest in what was at the time referred to as “primitive” religion. In my thesis I sought, in my intellectual arrogance, to demonstrate that tribal beliefs in magic and ritual function as pseudo scientific explanations in cultures less sophisticated than ourselves concerning natural causation. I was obliged in the course of my studies however to acknowledge that it was not quite that simple. Tribal ritual had a great deal more to do with internal states than external reality. Ritual action and symbolism are geared to the controlled expression of complex mental energies and social imperatives.  I also realised that our externalised Western worldview has much to learn from them in that regard.

 

MOTHERHOOD

The mother’s battle for her child-with sickness, with poverty, with war, with all the forces of exploitation and callousness that cheapen human life- needs to become a common human battle, waged in love and in the passion for survival.

Adrienne Rich (1977:280)

The lure of the gum trees brought us back to Australia and I became pregnant. This event had been “sensibly” postponed for economic reasons but I desperately wanted a child and I was not prepared to delay the experience any longer. I hoped that the satisfaction of that particular desire would ease the restlessness in my soul, as indeed it did for a while. Joy consumed me during my pregnancy. I experienced something of the long lost harmony, self-respect and contentment of my summer evenings in the Lincolnshire countryside. I had been caught up in confusion for so long that I hadn’t even recognized that I was disturbed. The fulfilment of pregnancy gave me an alcohol and nicotine free nine months and planted a seed of transformation, a new awareness of what might be.

Childbirth was an explosion of love. It was as though my natural feelings had been dammed up for years and the stimulus of this utterly dependent, beautiful and deliciously alive infant dissolved the blockage. Gratitude and goodwill flowed from my every pore. And he was a gorgeous baby.

During my pregnancy I had enrolled for a Ph D in behavioural sciences having been persuaded that the accompanying scholarship would be invaluable during my unpaid early mothering years. Eight years later, including three years leave of absence to bring baby boys into the world, I was awarded a doctorate.  Predictably the thesis topic was religion. This time I looked at the grounds for belief in God, comparing the experiences and personalities of ex- Roman Catholic atheists with those of Catholic converts from non-religious backgrounds.

Again, the findings surprised me. Intellectual considerations had very little to do with it either way. The scars and voids left by inadequate parenting of one kind or another were of course relevant, especially for embittered ex-Catholics and emotionally needy converts. Many of the converts however had enjoyed loving, secure and happy backgrounds. They had been drawn to Catholicism’s liturgical richness and mystical dimension. These believers exuded a softness and sensitivity which made me feel I had lost something precious although I continued to call myself an agnostic (a person who neither believes or disbelieves in god).  The logical positivism of Gower Street had taught me that it was the only tenable option in these matters and I still liked to see myself as being impeccably rational.

In spite of my deep love for my sons and my interest in the subject matter of my research, I was far from happy. Like the little girl who so wished to please her adored mother, I tried hard to be what others expected me to be- intellectual and extremely capable in all respects. Superficially I did a good imitation of superwoman but beneath the successful academic, middleclass facade there lurked a guilt ridden, angry, self effacing, confused soul. I suffered pre-menstrual tension so my frustrations surfaced with a vengeance monthly and whenever I touched alcohol. I drank too much and too often, either for the euphoria it induced or the anger it released. The hangover of sickness and guilt lasted for days and was usually followed by a brief period of optimism and enthusiasm for life.  Somehow however, resolves and hopes always faltered and frustration and sheer fatigue would build up again. And so the cycle continued:

 

Ye suffer from yourselves, none else compels,

None other holds you that ye live and die

And whir upon the wheel and hug and kiss its pokes of agony

Its tire of tears, its nave of nothingness. (Quoted in Watts 1951: 152)

 

Had it not been for the love I felt for my children, which reached like a fine thread into a deeper level of my consciousness, the agony of nothingness would have driven me to suicide. As it was, before the children came, alcohol induced cries for help had landed me in hospital needing a stomach pump on two occasions. No one listened of course and unlike Psyche I failed to listen to my inner wisdom. I simply did not at that time have the necessary skills or the inclination to pursue any inner exploration.  My indulgence merely fed my sense of failure and guilt.

My second son was born with a serious heart condition and I became convinced that this was a consequence of a drinking episode during the early stages of pregnancy. He was subjected to a barrage of tests and had to have open heart surgery at the age of four. His suffering awakened a level of compassion in me which transcended my own guilt and my own needs. It called me to do something about myself urgently and irrevocably.

 

 

TOOLS OF TRANSFORMATION

 

The cultivation of our greater attributes is not an easy task. At this step in our integration of extraordinary experience, the way can be difficult and full of dead ends. Synchronistic flow requires our transcendence of limiting habits and scripts, narrow desires and mechanical responses to life’s graces

   James Redfield (2002:151)

 

On first coming to Australia I had been moved to take up yoga. This was fairly unusual back in the 1960s.  I suppose I saw it as being a more intellectually respectable spiritual enterprise than going to church. Unfortunately my efforts there got lost during the upheavals of divorce and re marriage. Twenty years on I tried again. I was particularly taken with the relaxation practice at the end of the class known as yoga nidra. I began doing it every day. It is a technique where, usually with the help of voice guidance, you lie on your back and rotate your awareness passively through your body, letting go of tension. You drift into a semi hypnotic state of harmony and whole body consciousness. At the beginning and end of the practice you repeat a resolve to yourself. Doing this in a state of deep relaxation is very powerful.  It acts like a post hypnotic suggestion. My resolutions have ranged successfully from the specifics of losing any desire for alcohol or cigarettes to the generalities of creating feelings of wellbeing and self esteem. The deep relaxation experienced in this practice in itself is profoundly therapeutic. It painlessly releases unconscious anxieties and the state of whole body consciousness which it induces is very healing. You begin to experience a flow of subtle energy: of life force. I am convinced that it is a therapy for the future, once mainstream medical negativity around such practices begins to thaw and once much greater emphasis starts to be placed on prevention rather than cureNothing worth doing comes easily however. Two steps forward are usually followed by one and a half steps backwards. Nevertheless, once you start to honour yourself as a spiritual being, once you become enamoured of the Infinite, there is no going backwards;

 

Nothing can return to its previous lesser state. No mirror can become iron again, no bread again wheat. There is no return to being a little green apple after you have gotten the blush of the Beloved upon you! (Houston 1987: 207).

 

In my case, steady progress did not come about until I took myself and my children off to the Blue Mountains of New South Wales to create a new life. It is all very well to argue, as many do, that overcoming difficulties is a growth process (one should work through one’s “karma”) but if those difficulties are not being overcome it makes sense to distance yourself from them and create a deliberately nourishing and nurturing environment-at least during the initial stages of transformation. The caterpillar won’t turn into a butterfly unless it has a cocoon. Leaving the old familiar ways requires self-confidence, however, and that can be a Catch 22.

My self-esteem grew gently with bodily purification. Inspired by a brilliant shiatsu massage I followed the advice of my practitioner and radically changed my diet. I cut out red meat, sugar and dairy products and called myself macrobiotic. My avoidance of sugar instantly did much to mellow my emotional excesses and curb my abuse of alcohol.

The amazing healing I experienced through that first and subsequent shiatsu treatments persuaded me that I must learn the skill for myself. My training as a shiatsu practitioner deepened my experience and understanding of the flow of life force in my body that I was experiencing in yoga nidra. In turn the rewards of yoga practices inspired me to train as a yoga teacher and   awakened my interest in meditation.  For meditation techniques I turned to Buddhism.  All these ancient Eastern tools of transformation helped to prepare me for my connection with Dr Samuel Sagan.

It is said that when you are ready your teacher appears. This was certainly true in my case. Shortly after my move to the Blue Mountains I met Samuel. He had recently arrived in Australia with the intention of founding a school of esoteric studies in the Gnostic tradition of Christianity. I attended a yoga seminar he was giving on a meditation practice for awakening the third eye. It was very clear to myself and my fellow yoga students that this newcomer was an exceptionally gifted spiritual practitioner and teacher. I lost no time in establishing a further connection with him. Given that he is the source of so much of the esoteric wisdom that I share in the book it seems appropriate to tell you more about him.

Dr Sagan’s skills and qualifications are formidable. He has a medical degree but also trained in traditional Chinese medicine with a Taoist Master. He studied sanskrit at the Sorbonne (He is French born) and has acted as a translator for Hindu and Tibetan Masters visiting Europe. Above all however, he is a spiritual giant, a visionary.  He radiates an extraordinary vibrancy. When I first met him I was still a sceptic around non-physical phenomena. Auras and psychic abilities were well outside my field of experience. I was totally taken aback by one early encounter when I actually saw a halo of brilliant light around him. He has spent years in full time meditation. His clairvoyance is indisputable. His knowledge, both sacred and profane is truly vast. His output in terms of books and tapes and videos and lectures over the last twenty years is formidable. Not only is he a scholarly authority on the great philosophers and sacred texts East and West, but he actually designs his own computer programs. Nothing technological daunts him.  Intellectually he is undoubtedly a genius. Not surprisingly, his school has been a phenomenal success. He now has hundreds of dedicated students, not only in Australia but across the world, working with his techniques and with the energy of his tradition. I am deeply grateful for his guidance and inspiration on my journey of spiritual awakening. Through him I have come to realise that if you are to bathe safely in the life giving energies of the Infinite it is important to give your spiritual aspirations sacred roots. Serious exploration of the inner realms can unleash powerful energies and should not be undertaken without the guidance of a spiritual master and an authentic spiritual lineage.

 

ACKNOWLEDGING THE DIVINE BELOVED

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.

The Soul that rises in us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come…

 

Wordsworth

Something within us, which for want of a better word we can call our soul, houses a seed of the Divine or some memory of It and yearns for re-union. For years I was like a fish out of water, an exile, until I reawakened my repressed mystical sensitivities. Once I allowed my soul to seek solace in the Divine Beloved I began to live with a sense of an inner connection with something grander, more sublime, more real than my little self or ego. The concept of a dual self is found again and again in myths and stories,  Distinguished American mystic Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Divine “other” the “oversoul”. His reflections on his experience of it in early childhood resonates with my own:

 

I recognize the distinction of the outer and inner self; the double consciousness that within this erring passionate, mortal self sits a supreme, calm immortal mind, whose powers I do not know; but it is stronger than It is wiser than I; it never approved me in any wrong; I seek counsel of it in my doubts; I repair to it in my dangers; I pray to it in my undertakings. It seems to me the face which the Creator uncovers to his child. (Quoted in Wei 1982 :122)

 

When I first read this passage I was reminded of the inner friend I had as a child whom I called Gillian. She was everything I wanted to be-wise and kind and exceptionally skilled in everything she did. When I was playing a ball game for example I would know when “she” had taken over. It felt so right. I lost touch with her around the age of ten. It was about that time that I moved into my religious phase and began to sense the Presence of Christ in my life. He became the Beloved of my soul,  the face which the Creator uncovers to his child”.

With the help of spiritual practices, the inner relationship with the Divine begins to blossom. We begin to emulate the Divine Beloved. We begin to embody the Transcendent. (The Dalai Lama has spoken of the aim of life as being to “embody the Transcendent”)  The love has of course been with us from the beginning but for most of us a journey of self-discovery through personal pandemonium is required before we are able to lift the veil of ego and taste the fullness of that love:

 

As the owl opens his eyes all night to the moon,

we live as the great one and little one.

This love between us goes back to the first human;

it cannot be annihilated. (Kabir 1977:7)

The whole concept of what it means to be religious or spiritual is transformed once we begin to actually experience the Divine Other instead of merely having faith in, or believing in, some notion of “God”. What I now call the Beloved of my soul manifests most tangibly as inner Light and an all-encompassing love that awakens causeless joy-a joy unmoved by the vicissitudes of life. An experience of the Beloved of the soul is a holistic experience that transcends thought. It is felt viscerally uniting body and mind.

 

God guard me from those thoughts I think

In the mind alone,

He that sings a lasting song

Thinks in a marrowbone.

W.B Yeats

Expressed one way or another, a spiritual awakening is an endless opening to the Beloved, allowing more and more of the exquisite energy of the Divine Other to flow through and guide the little self: “I live, yet, not I, but Christ liveth in me” (St Paul). For the Christian, Christ is the Beloved of the soul.  It is an awakening that moves us into the service of the greater good.  If an encounter with the Divine Beloved, fails to enrich in some way our capacity for human love then we must question its authenticity as an experience of Divinity:

 

…contact with the Divine Lover is never complete until some other human being feels more loved and cherished as a result of that contact . . . .you cannot love the Beloved of the soul without increasing your capacity for loving another human being. (Father Morton Kelsey 1987:133)

 

THE INNER QUEST

 

Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rue

From outward things, whate’er you may believe.

There is an innermost centre in us all,

Where truth abides in fullness. . . and to know

Rather consists in opening out a way,

Where the imprisoned splendour may escape,

Than in effecting entry for a light

Supposed to be without.

Robert Browning  (Paracelsus 1835)

 

There is no well-trodden way to spiritual awakening but there is no escaping the inner journey in our process of transformation. The poet’s words here are so profound. They carry the message that, contrary to commonly perceived thinking, the inner journey does not isolate us from the world but enriches our participation in the world by “opening out a way where the imprisoned splendour may escape.” Everything in the manifest universe is bringing forth in its beingness, the Divine Light that is both its Source and sustenance. This is the essence of our new story. The uncreated Light shines forth into the world through all its wondrous creations and becomes conscious of itself in the transpersonal human.

Our evolution into that story requires us to awaken skills for plumbing the inner depths of our psyche. Only then will we be able to perceive the universe and our relationship with it in a radically different, more sensitive and harmonious way. Our masculine dominated culture worships externality and the conscious realm of the rational-the horizontal dimension of consciousness. There is nothing wrong with thought and reason and analysis. They are remarkable tools but they become dangerous if they are severed from the vertical dimension of consciousness-from our inner depths and heights. It is through the vertical dimension that we liberate the imprisoned splendor that is the Beloved of the soul. Without an inner spiritual  connection we can do nothing more than drift aimlessly on the ocean of existence. In the words of Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna “The winds of grace are always blowing but to catch them we have to raise our sails.” 

Each person has to have the courage to lose themselves in the unchartered territory of the inner realms and learn to surrender to the winds of Grace. This is another reason why it is so important to find, someone whose authority rests on an authentic spiritual tradition and who therefore understands something of the perils of your journey and can monitor the progress you are making. The key to success, as with anything that is worth doing, is undoubtedly practise, practise and more practise. Brother Wayne Teasdale uncompromisingly agrees:

 

Without a spiritual practice of some kind, spirituality is a hollow affair. It has no substance and is reduced to the formalism of external religiosity. Daily spiritual practice is the ‘technology’ of inner change. Without it, such change is inconceivable. (Ibid: 128)

 

Spiritual practices require discipline, dedication and persistence in the face of adversity and disappointment and pain. This is understood in all spiritual traditions. The message of my story however, is that it is great deal more painful to live without spiritual connection.  As the journey progresses, the rewards far outweigh the hardships. And there are always spiritual allies on hand.

Let us be clear on this. There can be no vitality, no joy, no emotional resilience, no lasting sense of well being, no dancing to the music of creation, without an inner journey that leads you to your mystical centre- your Buddha nature, your Christ consciousness, the Beloved of the soul, God or simply Consciousness with a capital “C”. Call it what you will:

 

The goal of the hero trip down to the jewel point is to find those levels in the psyche that open, open, open, and finally open to the mystery of your Self being, Buddha consciousness or the Christ. That’s the journey. (Campbell 1991: 23.)

 

And make no mistake about it, if, one way or another, our spiritual  yearning is repressed, the universe will conspire with our soul to make life difficult for us.. The negative behaviours and emotional reactions that sabotage our lives can so often  be understood in this way. They are nothing less than manifestations of the repressed energies of our Unique( divine)  Self yearning for liberation, yearning to be expressed as your true story. It is a theme powerfully elaborated upon by Marc Gafni

 

 

Until the story of your life is lived, you will go on desperately yearning for it. When your desperate yearning is not nourished by the Eros of your story, it devolves to desperate craving, which is filled by the pseudo Eros of addiction……. Once you have realized and integrated your shadow, which is your unlived life, the shadow qualities lose their raison d’etre and begin to drop away. (ibid:205)

 

 

 

FLOWING WITH THE TAO

 

Nothing in nature is so lovely and so vigorous, so perfectly at home in its environment as a fish in the sea … We take it out and at once a poor, limp, dull thing, fit for nothing, is gasping away its life.

 Evelyn Underhill (1904)

 

The idea that a spiritual connection brings a feeling of flow into existence is well expressed and understood in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism. The Tao is the eternal harmony of all things in all places and all times. It is “the intelligence which shapes the world with a skill beyond our understanding” (AlanWatts).  It is the vitality and power that is the energy of the universe. When you are flowing in the current of the Eternal Tao you are like the fish in the ocean. You are tapping into that power. Life begins to abound with synchronicities. You find yourself to be in the right place at the right time. You go through the doors that open for you. Suffering on the other hand arises when you lose touch with your spiritual roots and hence with your natural role in the intrinsic order of existence. You lose touch with the Tao.

For nigh on twenty years of my adult life I disconnected from those life giving energies causing unecessary suffering to myself and loved ones and greatly diminishing my capacity to be a creative and caring human being. I am convinced that this was in no small measure a consequence of my Western education and cultural conditioning. In my search for wholeness and healing I had to look beyond my Western heritage and discover spiritual wisdom and spiritual practices from other traditions. Thanks to Samuel and in no small measure to my early love of Christ, I have since returned to my Christian roots, my Christian tower, with a whole new appreciation of its hidden mysticism and its core message of love.

My story will I know be understood by many as reflecting the story of our Western culture. With its intellectual and technological successes Western culture is rapidly becoming a global culture but it is like a fish out of water. It has severed its connection with the Tao, with the sublime mystery that is the universe. It is a disconnection that has led to our shocking abuse of nature. We are in the throes of a cultural mid-life crisis that is calling for a spiritual revolution.

Writing over forty years ago the Jesuit priest and scientist Teilhard de Chardin warned that humankind was fast approaching a time when it would have to commit itself to either worship or suicide. The onus is on each and every one of us to hoist our sails, not just for the sake of our own sanity but, more importantly, to help humanity flow in the current of the eternal Tao.

 

 

 

Benefits of Yoga Nidra

Most of the relaxation sessions on Gillian’s CDs are based on the ancient Indian practice known as yoga nidra or psychic sleep.

The many benefits of the deep relaxation practice known as yoga nidra deepen as you learn to let go more and more and move deeply into yourself. This is best achieved by regular daily practice with an audio recording, preferably at the same time and in the same place. Most yoga nidra recordings last for about thirty mins. I am always amazed when people- usually excessively stressed people- declare that they don’t seem to find the time to do it. A half hour practice has the rejuvenating effect of several hours sleep.

It doesn’t shorten your day, it lengthens it by giving you more energy and greater efficiency . When I was a single parent of three young sons, I found the practice invaluable as an enjoyable late afternoon recuperation strategy before the boys came home from school. They soon came to appreciate how much more easy going ‘mother’ was after her yoga nidra and positively encouraged me to do it whenever they detected any fatigue inspired irritability. I was ordered to go and have a yoga nidra!.

They did not feel the need to do it themselves in those days but much to my delight two of them have now incorporated it into their daily lives as an antidote to the stresses of young adulthood. In other words, it must not be seen as a practice best suited to women. On the contrary, men, once they do apply themselves to it, probably get even more benefit from it than women but don’t quote me on that!

Physical Benefits

Any machine needs to be stopped periodically for servicing and repairs. Seen as a machine, the body is no different. Yoga nidra slows down body metabolism and allows deep rejuvenation. Sleep has a similar function of course but is much less efficient because the unconscious mind continues during sleep to cause bodily tension.

In the conscious tension release process of a yoga nidra, heart and breathing rates slow down reducing blood pressure. At the same however, blood flow is increased because the blood vessels dilate when the body is relaxed. Cellular process of absorption and elimination are therefore made more efficient.

The relaxation of the entire muscular system brings relief to aches and pains caused by body stiffness and over exertion.

The endocrinal ( glandular ) system, which coordinates all the body’s functions and which becomes constantly overused and abused in the course of our daily activities ( especially the adrenal glands in their response to anxiety), are given a chance to recuperate and normalize bringing them more into balance.

Above all, regular practice of yoga nidra improves the quality of your sleep and can even reduce the time of sleep that your body usually seems to need. It is a brilliant antidote to any form of insomnia if done immediately before to going to bed.

Psychological Benefits

The mind as well as the body is rejuvenated by yoga nidra as it is given a rest from its daily barrage of external stimulation. Furthermore, yoga nidra, like meditation trains the mind to be more focussed. This overflows into daily life, reducing energy loss through constant undisciplined thinking.

Our body is a storehouse of mental tensions. In this sense, body and mind are inseparable. A lasting reduction in stress levels in the body helps to releases deep seated anxieties in the mind. During deep relaxation the boundary between the conscious and unconscious mind becomes very fluid.

Fears and anxieties surface painlessly, releasing you from their unconscious bondage. You are able in your state of relaxation to observe them coming up but you don’t get caught up in them. This is the secret of a less reactive and more balanced consciousness in everyday life.

There is something very special and mysterious about the interface between sleep and waking consciousness. Many spiritual traditions honour the special significance of interfaces as being opportunities for openings in consciousness. This is why sunrise and sunset, the interfaces between day and night, are understood as being the most appropriate times for meditation practices.

The interface between life and death is especially critical. It is seen as being a time when momentous awakenings of consciousness can arise. In yoga nidra you are surfing the interface between sleeping and waking consciousness. You may fall asleep several times during the practice. Voice guidance keeps bringing you back to a semi conscious state. This movement in and out of sleep can bring wonderful inner experiences which leave you feeling deeply refreshed, like a child awakening from a magic dream.

Spiritual Benefits

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.
Joseph Campbell

In the inward journey the mind begins to connect with deeper levels of knowing and being. As a consequence, in your daily life activities you become more fully who you are instead of being a passive victim of external conditioning and tensions. Your intuition is sharpened and your self esteem and capacity for love is deepened.

There is no argument these days about the desirability of including some stress management strategy into ones daily life. Gymnasiums in particular have become very fashionable places in which to chill out after work. In keeping with our ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ conditioning strenuous physical activity is perhaps the most popular choice when it comes to the release of tension in our body and mind.

As an overall tonic however, the most beneficial one in my view is a daily practice of yoga nidra and /or meditation. Given its many benefits, including ease and convenience, yoga nidra surely deserves to be a more important feature of our stress manage management palette of activities, at least as an optional extra.

The Buddha is said to have been asked one day if he was God. He replied ‘No I am not God’. He was then asked if he was some angelic being and again he said ‘no’. ‘What are you then?’ he was asked. He replied ‘I am awake’.

The primary aim of spiritual practices is surely to awaken us to our true nature. I can pay no greater compliment to yoga nidra than to say that it serves that end uniquely, powerfully and painlessly.

Yoga Nidra and Subtle Bodies

Most of the relaxation sessions on Gillian’s CDs are based on the ancient Indian practice known as yoga nidra or psychic sleep.

The soul is not in the body but the body is in the soul.
Meister Eckhardt

The healing power of the deep relaxation practice known as yoga nidra is best understood using the Eastern model of subtle energies and subtle bodies This time honoured model sees us as having not just a physical body but a number of non physical or ‘subtle bodies’. This is a strange notion of course for the average Western mind, which is steeped in the materialism of a Newtonian universe.

The most tangible of these subtle bodies is known as the etheric body. The etheric body carries the life force energy or ‘qi’ energy that acupuncture and martial art practices tap into. In yoga it is known as prana. Most people these days have heard of the special energy centres on the spine known as charkas. Chakras are structures in the etheric body that act like gateways between the physical body and the more subtle bodies that infuse and surround it.

Acupuncture points (tsubos) can be understood as mini charkas. There are thousands of them on energy channels known as meridians that carry the life force (prana, or qi) to the vital organs of the body in much the same way as arteries and veins transport blood. Meridians can be experienced in deep meditation and often in yoga nidra, as fine lines of energy flow and can be felt by sensitive practitioners of shiatsu (finger pressure) massage.

The health of the body of qi or prana ( etheric body) is essential to the health of the physical body. The etheric body however is constantly agitated by our thoughts and emotions. In the Eastern model these mental agitations belong to what is known as the ‘astral body’ In order to maintain adequate levels of qi throughout the physical body, the etheric body needs to be regularly released from the wear and tear imposed by our astral (mental/emotional) ‘body’.

We could use the analogy of a moistened sponge to illustrate the interactions of these bodies of energy with the sponge as the physical body. The water in the sponge is the qi of the etheric body. The mental and emotional agitations of the astral body are like a hand squeezing the water out of the sponge. The endless stimulation of modern life means that the astral body not only continuously distorts the sponge, it also dries it out over time. The flow of life giving qi becomes blocked and depleted causing exhaustion to the physical body, an acceleration of ageing and a weakening of the immune system.

This whole process of qi deterioration is also exacerbated by our diminished connections with the natural world. Our etheric bodies have always been nourished by the energies of nature. In city living we can so easily become like a plant in need of water.

Ideally our night time sleep releases the etheric body from the grip of the astral and helps to restore our life force energy. In other words, during sleep the sponge is allowed to regain its shape for a while and absorb more water. However, more often than not, the relentless excessive stimulation of the astral body in our modern world means that it doesn’t adequately release its grip even during sleep. Our natural sleep patterns are disrupted with restlessness and, all too often, anxiety induced levels of insomnia.

In the face of all of this, the healing and rejuvenating benefits of any practice of conscious relaxation are hardly surprising. I would go so far as to say that a daily deep relaxation practice is essential for the health and well being of anyone living in the modern world. In other words, healing, or, better still prevention of, serious eroding of our etheric body requires us to consciously release it from mental and emotional agitation for a reasonable length of time each day.

Scientific Scepticism

Most of this of course is very strange, if not absurd, for those who are conditioned into a traditional scientific worldview (as indeed I was until I discovered yoga). In the microscopic world of quantum physics however energy fields rather than particles of matter have become the substratum of the physical world.

The metaphysical implications of such discoveries have not yet been adequately addressed by our scientific masters. Most of them refuse to see any parallels between their revelations and those of the ancient sages of the East. Conventional science continues to remain adamantly opposed to any notion of subtle energy or ‘life force’ and hence to any notion of an etheric body let alone an astral one.

I have the utmost respect for scientific models and the amazing technology that has flowed from them, but in the end, they are only models and in the inner domain we can all be experts. The etheric body can be experienced quite tangibly in states of deep relaxation and meditation, not to mention the energy flows that can be felt acupuncture and shiatsu treatments.

Any experienced yoga or martial arts practitioner can tune into his or her flow of qi. In the East wholistic healing systems have been built on the reality of life force energy and are rapidly gaining respectability in the West because of their proven efficacy.

One of the delights of yoga nidra for me is that it brings me in touch with my subtle energy. After years of yogic practice and meditation and of course a daily yoga nidra, my etheric body has become as real to me as my physical body. Anyone applying themselves to the discipline of yoga nidra will soon appreciate what I mean. Yoga nidra becomes like a self administered acupuncture treatment. You can consciously feel and release energy blockages in your body while you are in your state of deep relaxation.

Beyond the etheric and astral bodies, we are immersed in what is known as the causal body, or causal sheath. It transcends space and time and death. Ancient Hindu scripts (known as Vedanta) speak of the causal body as being made of bliss consciousness. It carries the blueprint of the Self or our Divine Source.

This shines forth through us when the physical, etheric and astral bodies are healthy and free of blockages:

If right now you and I were in virtual reality, I would show you the highest peak of the Himalayas, then all the oceans of planet earth as seen from space, and then the sun, the Milky Way and gigantic clusters of galaxies. And I would hammer in the eternal message: this-all this! is nothing compared to what you are. You, the real you, is infinity.

How could you-you, infinity- end up believing that you are only this ridiculously small body?
Samuel Sagan

Befriend your Breath

We all enjoy a party from time to time but imagine one from which there is no escape! For many, modern living has become like a nonstop party. In our waking hours there is no relief from the sensory onslaught of relentless noise and chatter coming from either our own minds, or from the world around us.

The stress response that served our ancestors so well in times of danger has gone berserk. We are enmeshed in high alert situations from which we can neither fight nor flee. Is it any wonder that our body reacts to this level of agitation with stress related disease of one kind or another?

It is becoming increasingly apparent that in order to get the best out of living in the high tech, high achievement, mansion of modern life we have to counteract the effects of excessive stress by creating for ourselves some place of refuge-that place of refuge can be as simple as a practice of deep conscious breathing.

It is well known that deepening your breathing has an instant calming effect on your the mind and emotions. In slowing down your breathing you are consciously short circuiting the stress response by giving your brain the message that all is well and that the body can return to normal functioning, for a little while anyway.

On the whole, Westerners are very bad breathers. We underestimate and underuse the most essential ingredient of what it means to be alive. We have much to learn from Eastern traditions on the healing and rejuvenating power of the breath. Their understanding goes well beyond our Western perception of breathing as a means of supplying the body with oxygen.

Mastery of the breath is seen as the key to controlling the life force energy in the body . Accessing and balancing this energy, (known as prana in yoga, qi or chi in china, ki in Japan) is viewed as being essential to good health and well being . It is also the gateway to higher levels of consciousness.

This vital energy flows in channels ( meridians) throughout the body. A deep conscious breathing practice enhances the flow and can even release blockages in those channels. It acts rather like a self administered acupuncture treatment.

There are lots of ways in which you can play with the power of the breath, For example visualizing it as an energy akin to light which you can move around the body amplifying its healing effects. Feeling the stillness between the inhalation and exhalation can be used to bring about a profound sense of letting go.

Using the exhalation to release tension in your body is also a common practice. Gentle sustained focus on your breathing can take you out of normal mental consciousness into more expanded states of being. In other words, conscious breathing is a form of meditation.

The yogic ability to affect physical processes in the body through breath control and concentrated inner focus, has been well documented. Mastery of the emotions is also achieved through the control of prana. The ability to hold the breath either in or out is critical to the mastery of energy exchanges within the body. It is said, that a yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days but by the number of his breaths.

Returning to our Western understanding, the lungs are not muscles. They only expand when given the space to do so through the movement of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles of the ribcage. It makes good sense to deliberately exercise these muscles from time to time. They will then work more efficiently in your natural ( unconscious) breathing. Deliberate expansion and contraction of the ribcage as you focus your awareness on your inhalation and exhalation is all that is needed, and it can be done with great ease throughout your day.

So, next time you are stuck in a traffic jam, don’t grit your teeth and tighten your grip on the steering wheel, breathe deeply. Next time you find yourself lying in bed unable to sleep, switch onto your deep conscious breathing. Even if it doesn’t put you to sleep it will make you feel better and help to take your mind off the anxieties that may be keeping you awake.

It is a common misconception to believe that we need a certain level of stress in our lives in order to feel motivated to do anything. This is simply not the case. The stress response is always debilitating. Our creativity and efficiency flourishes when our bodies are enjoying the polar opposite of the stress response – the relaxation response. And the good news is that once you move into it, relaxation is a state of being that reinforces itself by flooding the brain with chemicals that induce a natural high( endorphins).

One of the great joys of yoga teaching for me has been the sharing of some of the basic yogic breathing practices that have done so much for my own health and well being. Students never fail to appreciate how much better they feel after them and very often question why they are not taught in every primary school.

The Inner Quest

In ancient myths and legends the inner journey is symbolized as a journey into a wilderness of some description. Any serious process of Self discovery and spiritual transformation requires you to remove yourself one way or another from the safe and familiar surroundings of community life. In Joseph Campbell’s words, you go in search of the ‘jewelled centre’ of your psyche:

The goal of the hero trip down to the jewel point is to find those levels in the psyche that open, open, open, and finally open to the mystery of your Self being, Buddha consciousness or the Christ. That’s the journey.

Very importantly, the goal of the hero’s journey is to return to the world and gift it with the jewel that is your own precious individuality for ‘in loving the spiritual you cannot despise the earthly” In other words we connect with the Divine in solitude and then the challenge is to hold that connection while being in the world.

The transformimg power of solitude is honoured in all spiritual traditions. Withdrawal from the world for long periods of time continues to be commonplace amongst Eastern sages. And of course in Christianity we have the precedent of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness.

It is simply not possible to be a mystic without also being something of a hermit. I believe that periods of solitude are fundamental to the human condition. In other words there is a hermit as well as a mystic in all of us. We see this in the way that young children delight in having some secret hide away or cubby house where they can be alone with their imagination.

One of the saddest and most worrying things about our Western civilization is the ever increasing intensity with which it pulls us out of ourselves and into a relentless barrage of external stimulation, a cornucopia of noise, action and information- most of it signifying nothing. Life has become like a nonstop party. I have nothing against parties but a party from which one can never escape is surely a nightmare.. In the endless party we become caught up in artificiality and superficiality without even realizing it because we have no external reference point from which to observe ourselves. We don’t have the space and time with which to reflect on what the party is all about and our place in it.

Times for silence, stillness and solitude, generally speaking, are simply not on our Western agenda. Even amongst those who pride themselves on being health conscious, time out is more likely to be equated with a work out at the gym than with any desire to stop and smell the roses for a while. The idea of going into silent retreat for several weeks let alone several years, as spiritual aspirants regularly do in the Buddhist tradition, is seen as being at best misguidedly eccentric and at worst a self indulgent waste of time.

I like to use the symbol of the lotus flower to convey the beauty and challenge of the spiritual quest.

The lotus plant is a cross cultural symbol of spiritual awakening:

As a symbol the lotus is very significant. Man must pass through three different stages in spiritual life, which represent his existence on three different levels; ignorance, aspiration and endeavour, and illumination. The lotus also exists on three different levels- mud, water and air. It sprouts in the mud ( ignorance) grows up in the water in an effort to reach the surface ( aspiration) and eventually reaches the air and the direct light of the sun ( illumination) . The culmination of the growth of the lotus is a beautiful flower. In the same way the culmination of man’s spiritual quest is the awakening and blossoming of human potential.
Satyananda

The lotus flower also reminds us of our interconnectedness. The flower appears to be floating alone in all its perfection but in the muddy terrain beneath the water its roots are shared with those of many other flowers. It is a powerful image.

Let us be clear on this: withdrawing into a spiritual retreat is not an escape strategy . In the early stages it can be extremely challenging. You are bringing yourself out of the mud. Your emotional problems and deep seated anxieties are no longer cunningly concealed in distractions. A few of them will be obliged to emerge from their hiding place and confront you. Dedication to your spiritual practices however will sooner or later be rewarded with a significant deepening of silence and stillness and an awakening of blissful states of consciousness. ( illumination) . Retreats then become precious opportunities to enjoy the riches of your inner life and to strengthen your communion with the Divine. Moreover, you begin to tap into an ocean of psychic energy.

The Iroquois Indians use the term “Entering into the Silence’ to describe their vision quest experience:

I listen and hear the silence
I listen and see the silence
I listen and taste the silence
I listen and smell the silence
I listen and embrace the silence

The ‘silence’ is the silence of the chattering mind. With your attention internalised and your thoughts calmed you begin to tune into the subtle energies of the universe and your own body. You no longer feel alone. Above all, when you embrace the silence with an attitude of humility and receptivity you become a receptacle for Divine Grace.

Finding the right balance between participation in the world and opportunities for solitary contemplation, even among the well intentioned, is difficult in our culture- we are so busy with our work and family and household duties. One of the great blessings of growing old I find is the ease with which you can chose to withdraw from the party any time you like.

Silence, stillness and solitude do not have to involve a period of withdrawal from the world however. They can be honoured on a daily basis with a practice of meditation. Without any doubt, meditation is the crown jewel of spiritual practices. It is the most powerful tool for the blossoming of consciousness.

Close your eyes and you will see clearly
Cease to listen and you will hear truth
Be silent and your heart will sing
Seek no contacts and you will find union
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit
Be gentle and you will need no strength
Be patient and you will achieve all things
Be humble and you will remain entire
A Taoist Poem

Meditation

It is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storms and cannibals….
Than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans of one’s being alone.
Henry David Thoreau

Meditation does not come easily in a Yang dominated culture like ours. Carl Jung warned against meditation as a spiritual practice for externalised Westerners. He felt that it was not only exceptionally difficult for us but also dangerous. Opening ourselves up to a possible direct experience of the Divine was in his view foolhardy for minds so unschooled in the deeper levels of the psyche:

Although the intellect has brought well-nigh to perfection the ability of the bird of prey to espy the tiniest mouse from the greatest height, the gravity of the earth seizes him and the samskaras entangle him in a world of confusing pictures if he no longer looks for booty but turns at least one eye inwards to find him who seeks.

Jung believed that we need the protection of religious ritual and symbols on the journey inwards. In other words we are best advised to stay with time tested indirect experiences of the Divine. This could well have been true half a century ago but our collective consciousness is evolving. In this post-modern era, we are ripe for mystical experiences and there are now many responsible teachers in the West ready to guide us through our experiences.

A mere ten years ago I kept pretty quiet about my spiritual practices for fear of being dismissed as a New Age nut. I still run the risk of that of course but it is certainly not because I meditate. Meditation has become an acceptable and even admired discipline in the most unlikely quarters. For example, I recently spent a few weeks meditating on my own in a National Park in the middle of the Australian outback.

After 10 days or so I was visited by the park’s wardens – a couple of very down to earth chaps. They had obviously been alerted to my presence and were concerned for my welfare. I explained that I was doing a meditation retreat. They appeared to be very understanding around this. Maybe they were just being polite but they did not seem to perceive it or me for that matter as being in any way weird.

The growing respect for Buddhism in our culture, which owes much to the popularity of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is undoubtedly putting meditation on the mainstream menu of acceptable therapies. We are embracing it as a secular rather than as a spiritual practice but nevertheless we are at least beginning to acknowledge the power of the mind and this is a great plus for consciousness in its race against catastrophe.

It is still the case however that busy Westerners find sitting still and doing nothing for any length of time very difficult. Meditation is about the experience of’ being’ not ‘doing’. We are very much human doers rather than human beings. And, ironically, the more difficult we find it, the greater our need for it. The same applies to the relaxation practice of yoga nidra. At the best of times, our ordinary mental consciousness is not easily subdued.

We are so engaged in doing things to acheive purpose of outer value, that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive is what it is all about
Joseph Campbell

Samuel tells the story of a spiritual seeker who found himself a master and asked him what he must do to become enlightened. The master told him that he must meditate. On asking how he should do that the master told him that all he had to do was to go and sit under a tree somewhere but not on any account was he to think of monkeys. The disciple, delighted that it was going to be so easy, sat himself down in the shade of the nearest tree only to discover that the more he tried not to think of monkeys the more they kept coming into his consciousness. Finally he gave up and returned to the master saying ‘ I think you first have to teach me something about the nature of mind’

The human mind is inherently restless. Out of control thinking plagues our every moment and is counterproductive to our health, well being and creativity. This is because our consciousness has become chronically externalised. We suffer from what Samuel has described as ‘centrifugal malaise’. Consciousness in our culture has been thrust outward- the non-stop party.

Meditation is about turning consciousness back into itself and allowing it to rest in its natural state undisturbed by even ripples of thought. In that sense meditation is the ultimate ‘deconstruction’ process. This is a strange notion for thought worshipping Westerners but sagely wisdom tells us that we must liberate ourselves from domination by our thoughts before we can move into the unconditional non-reactive mind of our buddha nature or Higher Self. Ken Wilber writes:

Having used thought to transcend the body, we have not yet learned to use awareness to transcend thought, That I believe will be the next development in men and women.

So how do we enter a state of pure awareness? Traditionally meditation requires first of all some practice of concentration. When presented with a particular task the mind automatically lets go of agitating distractions. I have always found playing the piano an antidote to stress- I can’t play without music and I have to concentrate on every note. In meditation, unlike my piano playing, the concentration is one pointed. You focus your mind on something that does not require thought.

In yoga this can be your navel, or your breath or a repetitive sound ( a mantra) In the Christian tradition, repetitive prayers can be understood as mantras- Hail Marys for example. In the Tibetan Buddhist practice of shamatha meditation you sit and look at an object, traditionally a blue flower. You discipline the mind by constantly bringing it back to the point of concentration. Thoughts begin to subside and the lengthening periods of silence become the pristine awareness that is a state of meditation. Stillness, mentally and physically is its core experience. Out of that arise the many wonders of pure consciousness.

Meditational practices focussing on the third eye are foundational to the many tools of transformation developed by the Clairvision school:

The third eye has always been regarded by those who seek to know themselves as a most precious jewel, hence the precious stone placed on the forehead of Buddhas .
Samuel Sagan

Third eye deepens your connection with subtle energy in your body. From the space of the third eye, you can help to withdraw your sense inwards by observing the movement of subtle energy in your body. Once your awareness is turned inwards, you can let go of all practices and simply rest in the inner space. This inner space of the third eye is experienced as deep purple or blue, or simply as an expanse of space. When you see or feel the space in depth your mind is still. In the silence and stillness you begin to connect with deeper levels of yourself:

Truth cannot be attained by the Mind’s thought but only by identity and silent vision.
Truth lives in the calm, wordless Light of the eternal spaces; she does not intervene
in the noise and cackle of logical debate.
Sri Auribindo

Samuel uses the analogy of a superconductor to illustrate the energetic power of meditation. At normal temperatures the molecules in a substance are in constant motion. This is the nature of heat. Similarly the ordinary mind is in a constant state of agitation with thoughts moving in all directions. If an electrical conductor is cooled down to near absolute zero, the molecules in it more or less stop moving.

At this point surprisingly, the flow of current through it does not freeze, on the contrary, there is zero resistance to the flow so the conductor can carry huge intensities of current. It becomes a superconductor. In the same way, in meditation, the mind becomes still and then again, ” surprise, there isn’t boring dullness, there is ‘being’ -an experience which sanskrit texts compare with the rising of a million suns”:

Meditation isn’t just about relaxation. It raises the voltage of consciousness. It reveals completely new dimensions of yourself- levels of immense creativity, joy and fun, levels where you are alive, awakened and, even more interesting, levels where you just are. To be, to just be is something that people rarely think about.

People want to be happy, want to be successful, want to be rich. Sometimes they want to be parents or be of service, things which in reality are more about doing than being. But who wants to be, just be.

This is not part of the common palette of aspirations and yet states of pure being are experiences of phenomenal magnitude. They put you in touch with parts of yourself which have a flavour of Infinity.

The ordinary mind, like a light bulb, can only take so much voltage whereas in a state of pure being there is a state of total simplicity, zero entropy, zero resistance and a potential for infinite voltage. …….. In our lives we constantly hit limits- the resistance of the material world……..but inside a human being there is being and being is a state of Infinity.
Samuel Sagan

Four Week Breathing Program

For many years now I have been recommending a four week breathing program that uses the deep breathing technique offered on my CDs.

The program invites you to take time out each day to do at least sixty rounds of a deep breathing pattern. You can count the rounds on your fingers. Ideally you do the practice lying on your back in your yoga nidra relaxation pose.

Week One

Inhale and exhale to the same count for your sixty rounds. For example, if you inhale deeply for a count of six then you slowly exhale to a count of six.

Week Two

Inhale, hold the breath in and then exhale all to the same count.

Week Three

Inhale, exhale and hold the breath out for the same count.

Week Four

Combine the patterns. Breathe in and hold your breath in and then breathe out and hold your breath out, all for the same count.

DO NOT STRAIN

If you are having difficulty with any of your breath retentions please drop to a lower count.

If you are lying in bed doing your deep breathing, it is a good idea to help to open up your chest by turning your pillow around so that it supports your head as well as your chest.

If you are lying on a firm surface, try putting a telephone book under your chest and under your head. The head and chest should be at the same level. Unlike your yoga nidra practice where it is so important to lie in a” letting go” position, free of tension, your breathing practice can be done satisfactorily with your knees bent and some people find it helpful to rest their hands on their chest to feel the movement of their rib cage:

It is a joy to introduce this program to people. It never fails to induce a whole new sense of wellbeing and the benefits are long term. It massages the heart and rejuvenates the nervous system, giving greater resilience to stress. Above all it improves the efficacy of your ‘normal’ unconscious breathing and makes you more breath conscious.

Get the whole family doing it! Children respond well to learning the breathing. It is particularly beneficial for anyone who suffers from bronchial problems, including asthmatics.

You are guided through these four deep breathing patterns on my CD Relaxation for Healing.

NB It is not advisable to practice breath retentions during pregnancy

A Spiritual Parable

If spiritual practices are working for you they bring a lightness of heart and a twinkle to the eye. Authentic spirituality is richly endowed with laughter. Tibetan lamas, for example, seem to exude infectious good humour as well as joy. The Dalai Lama certainly does. There is not doubt that one of the many qualities that endeared me to Samuel as a spiritual teacher is his ever present sense of humour.

Once you taste the Infinite, the world of duality loses its sting. It becomes nigh on impossible for you to take your little self and its many foibles all that seriously. You learn to laugh at yourself and that is extremely liberating. This does not mean of course that your compassion for the suffering of others is diminished.

On the contrary, you become more sensitive to that suffering and are better placed to help to alleviate it. In Joseph Campbell’s words you are able to ‘ participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.’

The following excerpt from Anthony Mello’s delightful anthology of humorously charged spiritual parables says it all:

The Master was in expansive mood and his disciples sought to learn from him the stages he had passed through in his quest for the Divine. ‘God first led me by the hand’ he said ‘into the Land of Action. There I dwelt for several years. Then He returned and led me to the Land of Sorrows; there I lived until my heart was purged of every attachment.

That is when I found myself in the Land of Love whose burning flames consumed whatever was left in me of self. This brought me to the Land of Silence where the mysteries of life and death were bared before my wondering eyes.’ ‘Was that the final stage of your quest?’ they asked. ‘No’ the master said. ‘One day God said ‘Today I shall take you to the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, to the heart of God himself. And I was led to the Land of Laughter! (1989:17)

A Good Night’s Sleep

Sleep, the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care!
Shakespeare’s Macbeth

Why is a good night’s sleep so elusive for so many people? There are many reasons but undoubtedly a significant factor is an overactive mind. Mental agitation of one kind of another causes a build up of stress in the body and inhibits the relaxation response.

Body and mind are inseparable. Our body is a storehouse of mental tensions and anxieties. Relax the body and you relax the mind. In traditional yoga, increasing the health and flexibility of your body is only important in so far as it helps you to master your thoughts and emotions.

Benefits to the body are secondary. Stilling the restless mind is the challenge. Clearly, in this sense, the ancient practices of yoga have much to offer 21st century Westerners overdosed on mental stimulation.

For the yogi of course, stilling the mind is a pre-requisite for experiencing union with the Divine. On a more mundane level it can also be seen as a pre-requisite for a decent night’s sleep!

Conscious breathing

A classic yoga strategy for relaxing your mind is to Befriend Your Breath. Conscious deep breathing is instantly calming. Consciously directing the energy of your breath to stressed parts of your body or simply becoming aware of the movement of your breath in your body serves to give your brain the message to chill out. All is well. No need to stress.

Instead of allowing your thoughts to incessantly take you on labyrinthine excursions into what happened yesterday and what might happen tomorrow, you come to the present moment by staying with your breath and letting it soothe your body. Voice guidance in this process is invaluable.

It enables you to move into a more passive mode, gradually surrendering mental control. One of the main techniques on my CD Relaxation for Sleep is to focus your mind on the soothing power of the breath.

Yoga Nidra

When it comes to improving the healing quality of your sleep, the most powerful gift from the yoga tradition is undoubtedly the deep relaxation practice known as yoga nidra or psychic sleep. All my relaxation CDs are based on this technique. I believe it to be a Therapy of the Future.

The secret of success with the practice is to do it on a daily basis, preferably at the same time and the same place. If you are having problems sleeping it makes sense to do a yoga nidra practice last thing at night and to have your recording on hand to use during the night if you are in the habit of waking up and not being able to get back to sleep.

Meditation

It is now well understood that a daily practice of sitting meditation is a powerful antidote to the build up of stress and anxiety. Meditation is much more than a tool for pacifying for the mind however. Regular practice brings you closer to your spiritual source or essence. You become more fully who you truly are and are able to flow creatively with the vicissitudes of life, rather than reacting negatively to them.

On a more mundane level, a daily meditation practice can help to give you the skills to be more objective about your problems. In meditation you observe your thoughts rather than becoming caught up in them. You begin to develop what is known as a ‘witness consciousness’.

This allows you to adopt the attitude ‘this too will pass’ when you are in the grip of emotional upheaval. Taken into your marrow bone, absorbed as an attitude of mind, a ‘this too will pass’ attitude can make even the most distressing situation less painful.

When it comes to using meditation to help serious sleeping problems, we do meet a catch 22 situation however. Most people find it difficult to meditate at the best of times. If you are tired and irritable through lack of sleep it is well nigh impossible. The challenging word discipline comes in at this stage.

Making the effort at the same time and same place each day even for only 5 minutes is better than nothing and you will be surprised how soon you are able to lengthen the time of your sit and how addictive the practice will become.

Please note, meditation is not a replacement for yoga nidra. Ideally the practices complement one another. If you are having problems sleeping your priority would be a yoga nidra at night. Meditation would be your morning practice. I discuss the differences between the practices in my article Therapy of the Future.

Diet

In the second half of the 20th century a saintly woman, who became known as Peace Pilgrim, abandoned all material comforts and spent the last 25 years of her life walking across America in the name of peace. When asked how she could account for her spiritual courage and tenacity she always replied ‘I don’t eat junk food and I don’t think junk thoughts!’

These days there is a great deal of controversy over what constitutes a healthy diet. It makes a great deal of sense, however, to avoid stimulating foods for a few hours before retiring. This means eliminating all caffeine, alcohol and sugar. From personal experience I would also suggest avoiding foods containing artificial colourings, preservatives and spices.

There is an old saying, breakfast like a king, lunch like a servant and dine like a pauper. Your body does not need the job of digesting a big meal in the evening. Eating late may make you feel sleepy in the sense of less alert, but it is counterproductive to restful sleep.

The Power of Ritual

To help to give your brain the message that it is time for rest, I strongly recommend that you ritualise your bedtime preparations. Before lying down in bed and doing your yoga nidra practice, put in place a routine of restful activities.

These may include an evening walk, a warm shower, a relaxing ‘night cap’ of herbal tea while you read something uplifting for your soul or simply reflect with gratitude on the positives in your life while enjoying your ‘cuppa’. Burning some soothing aromatherapy oil and lighting a candle by your bedside can all help to bring you into a receptive state of mind for your yoga nidra.

Experiment with your routine until you find one that works for you. If possible turn your attention to it at the same time each evening. Consistency is a key element of success.

And, remember, nature intended us to go to bed shortly after sundown just like the animals do. The restoration processes that go on in your body are biologically geared to early nights: “Early to bed, early to rise , makes you healthy, wealthy and wise!”

A Night Time Mantra

In the words of the Buddha: Be vigilant, guard your mind against negative thoughts. In all the great spiritual traditions this is understood as being especially critical before sleep and before death. Reciting a mantra can help to discipline your mind and keep anxiety provoking thoughts at bay. A mantra does not have to be given to you by a spiritual teacher.

It is simply a phrase or a few words strung together which you repeat to yourself over and over again to calm your mind. You can make up your own. It doesn’t even have to be meaningful, although it is nice if it resonates with a spiritual aspiration. For example ‘In stillness I AM’ or ‘My soul is love’ or simply ‘All is well’

Sleeping Space

It is undoubtedly true that some spaces are more conducive to sleep than others. If your disturbed sleep persists seriously consider repositioning your bed or try sleeping in another room.

Some people are very sensitive to electromagnetic radiation. It makes sense to keep it to a minimum in the vicinity of your bed. The bedroom is not the place for televisions, phones and computers.

Very importantly sleep in complete darkness or as close as possible to it. Light inhibits the relaxation response in the brain.

Natural Sleep

Sleep is a great healer. To stay healthy and serve us well, our body and minds must be given adequate rest time. Given the increasingly stressful nature of our everyday lives, it is very understandable that so many people find themselves having to use sleeping pills to achieve this.

As a onetime user of mogodon and valium, I can vouch for the fact that drug induced sleep is nowhere near as beneficial as natural sleep with its cleansing dreaming and its waking clarity. I urge anyone suffering insomnia or unmanageable levels of stress to persevere with drug free strategies, especially yoga nidra and meditation.

I realize of course that the roots of insomnia can often lie very deep in the unconscious; unresolved grief, chronic fear or repressed trauma of one kind or another. If this is the case then it makes sense to combine your yogic practices with professional counselling or psychotherapy. Do not underestimate, however, the power of daily yoga nidra to dislodge and gradually dissipate even deepseated anxieties.

One of the many practical gems offered in Buddhist teachings is the understanding that negative experiences can be welcomed as opportunities for self transformation. Try seeing your insomnia as an invitation from the universe to deepen your self understanding and self nurturing. It could prove to be the catalyst for significant changes in your life. If it moves you to do a daily yoga nidra and a morning meditation that is definitely a positive outcome!

The Benefits of Yoga Nidra and meditation are subtle, cumulative and holistic, bringing about a gradual integration of body, mind and spirit. Not only will you sleep better but you will think better, play better and discover a whole new level of health and well being.