At the same time, the unprecedented conditions of reduction in trade and travel, the shutting of borders and even confining people to their cities, their suburbs and their homes have brought a kind of slowing down. Ex-pats from around the world are returning to their countries of origin, parents are staying home from work with their children whose schools have closed, families spread out across different countries and cities are heightening their connections through increased calls and video chats. Friends and neighbours are reaching out to each other and developing innovative ways to support each other despite physical distancing measures.
Many workplaces are realising that productivity can continue with workers at their homes. Families and teachers are discovering the children may not have to go to an institution every day to receive an education and experience social connection. With workplaces and educational institutions being forced to rapidly invest in remote productivity, maybe some of these investments will lead to lasting change. Is it possible that this situation will give rise to a new social consciousness and new ways of being in the world? After all, this pandemic has shown us that we can press pause on the global capitalist system and drastically alter what we do. An action we could not fathom even when wildfires across the world highlighted an ever-growing environmental crisis only two months earlier has suddenly become a reality. Almost overnight we shut down the economy and review the ways we move across the planet.
But whatever happens in the wider society, at the individual level this current period of enforced isolation (and thus time for introspection) could offer a beautiful opportunity to take some extra time to connect with ourselves and the subtler dimensions of life, so that perhaps we will emerge from this period inwardly enriched and more ready to change course in our life regardless of what happens in the world around us. In saying this I want to acknowledge that I say this from a place of privilege. My living conditions are conducive to such an inward focus and I am free from immediate concerns for my survival, circumstances that I know are not the case right now for many millions of people in the world who may be locked down in crowded conditions, poverty or other circumstances that can make it very difficult to devote time to our inner life.
If you can use this time to change gears, or perhaps deepen your existing practice, I offer three suggestions of how to take practical advantage of the current situation for your personal psycho-spiritual development.
I was talking with a close relative who shared with me that he had woken from an anxiety attack a couple of nights ago. He was in the middle of an obligatory 2 weeks home quarantine after returning to his home country from overseas. He said he had not realised that he was feeling anxious up to that moment, when he found himself waking in deep panic with a racing heart and intense agitation in his body.
It is very easy for us not to know how we are feeling. Especially when it comes to feelings of fear, uncertainty and anxiety, so many of us have had those running subtly in the background to various degrees long before the current crisis. We have learned to soldier on. To shut ourselves off from these challenging emotions and give control to those parts of us that can get on with things, that are achievers and that manage life despite our underlying feelings.
And of course we can continue to allow those parts to run the show, managing our emotions with alcohol, Netflix or other distractions. But this does come with the risk of those emotions bursting through when we least expect it: through a sudden anxiety attack, a gradual slip into depression, or sudden uncontrolled temper outbursts. This risk exists always, but it is greatly amplified in a context where our usual coping mechanisms are interrupted, or we are perhaps even experiencing complete loss of our identities derived from work or our social life.
Anxiety, grief, insecurity, frustration, and anger are all very natural responses to a situation where we have lost control over much of our life and are experiencing so much uncertainty. Instead of denying those feelings, we can connect with and really allow ourselves to feel and honour them as appropriate responses. If we are proactive in contacting our emotions we can do so safely on our own terms instead of having them burst out in ways that may shock and upset us or those we love.
As someone who only learned later in life how to move from his head to his body, I would like to offer a technique with which to build a connection with our emotions. By using breath and our observation we feel into our body and notice what we find there. Instead of thinking about or working out our feelings, we allow ourselves to experience them where they live, in the very tissue and nerves of our body.
The term meditation tends to conjure up the image of sitting still and letting go of thoughts, feelings and so on, usually by focusing on the breath. This kind of meditation is widely taught, either with a goal of quieting the mind or even connecting with some kind of transcendent reality (God consciousness, Emptiness, the Buddha mind etc.). While there is a place for such practice, it can actually be something that takes us away from ourselves. When it comes to looking after our buried emotions, what we want is an active form of meditation that deepens our connection with our body and the feelings we have buried within it.
There are a range of techniques that can help us go into the body rather than away from it. I encourage you to have a look for exercises taught by the psych-spiritual teacher Jeff Brown in his book Grounded Spirituality. Intense breathing work as taught by Wim Hof or holotropic breathing as developed by Stanislav Grof are also powerful tools to help us connect with the body and you can find guided processes for those on YouTube and the Wim Hof app. The technique I am suggesting here is an adaptation of a tantric practice that I developed with my partner.
Please note: If you suffer from trauma deep breathing may not be appropriate as it may be aggravating. Please consider your personal circumstances in deciding to apply this technique.
Sit comfortably with your eyes slightly open so you don’t lose yourself in the sensations or your mind. You want to stay firmly present with the body.
- To support this you can start with bringing your awareness to your feet, rolling them up and down a few times and really feeling them connected to the ground. If you are sitting cross-legged, bring your awareness to your bottom and legs touching the ground.
- Breathe deeply through your nose into your belly and into your genital area expanding your abdomen.
- Breathe out through your mouth, letting your abdomen fall back without force on the out breath. As you exhale, contract your perineal muscles (ie the ones you use to stop yourself peeing) and “squeeze” the breath to the area of your heart.
Take a number of breaths like that. With each breath feel into your body, especially your abdomen and chest and notice any sensations or impressions that may be present there. Maybe a tightness or a tenderness, some pressure or a nervy tingling sensation. Maybe you even come up with a label such as anger or grief. Whenever you connect with a sensation, a feeling, or a label bring your presence to it and breathe “into” it, amplifying it and inviting understanding. Do this steadily but without force. Maybe the feeling will increase. Allow yourself to express any feelings through your voice or through physical movements or both. You may want to moan, groan or whimper, shout or cry, sway your body or rock back and forth. You are creating this space and you can allow yourself this freedom. Without forcing anything and without suppressing anything. This is a practice of deep self-care, giving yourself permission to feel, and holding space for yourself as a loving act of self-compassion.
Of course it may be that at first you do not feel much. This is very natural if we have been keeping our painful feelings at bay for a long time. In that case do not force anything, but deepen your breath and just stay with your body for the duration of the exercise and then have another go the next day.
I would suggest setting a timer for 10 minutes. If at that stage you are in the midst of deep emotional experiences, of course you can just keep going. This is your process and you are in control.
If you do connect with deep emotions I encourage you to be patient. Such emotions often come from the early beginnings of our life, and our current circumstances of uncertainty and change are likely to amplify and reactivate any sense of anxiety or grief we may already carry. This is long and patient work, but the rewards are immense making us more resilient and able to truly take care of ourselves, and deepening our connection with others, even if those connections are at a distance.
Not having to commute to work or get the kids ready in the morning can give you some extra time and mental space in bed. Instead of simply “sleeping in”, we can use this time to “sleep in with conscious awareness”. Bringing awareness to our sleep gives us access to our dreams and may even allow us to experience an altered state of consciousness known as the out-of-body experience, a state where we experience ourselves fully consciously aware with the sense of being separate from our physical body.
Although it is generally agreed among researchers of the out-of-body experience that we can all potentially have such experiences consciously, in practice there is significant variation in people’s success rate. That said, it may be largely a matter of persistence. There are certainly plenty of accounts of people who applied themselves for some months and eventually succeeded to experience the freedom of out-of-body travel.
We can definitely all become conscious of our dreams, and that is itself enriching and a great first step towards expanding our consciousness further. Recalling and reflecting on our dreams can give us access to our subconscious processes, and especially at times like this may give us access to anxieties, concerns or hopes we have not allowed to surface in our waking consciousness. In that sense, bringing awareness to our dreams is complementary to the first practice of connecting to our emotions. Much like out-of-body travel, dreams can also be a source of deep joy, and memories of some dreams can bring smiles to our face even days after the event. Especially when we are cooped up at home, experiencing freedom of “movement” in our sleep state can offer great psychological relief.
The steps you can take to bring more awareness to your night life can be summarised as follows:
- Developing an intention throughout the day
- Bringing consciousness to the process of falling asleep
- Generating opportunities during the night to increase memory of your experiences
- Recording your experiences when you wake
One of the things we discover when we start paying more attention to our dreams is that all stages of our life are connected. What happens during our day colours our dreams, and how we wake up in the morning can influence how we show up for the rest of the day. If we are not naturally aware of our dreams, such awareness won’t arise just by us wishing it to before we fall asleep. Instead we want to start conditioning our mind during the waking stage to notice its circumstances and check whether it is in a waking or sleeping body. This conditioning will eventually carry over to the sleep state and help us become aware in our dreams. The following are some simple techniques you can use to condition your mind:
- Throughout the day, from time to time, pay close attention to your body and its sensations, for example as you are typing on a keyboard feel the touch of your fingertips, as you are picking up a cup of tea feel the warmness on your hand and the sensations of the cup touching your lip. Or really focus on things around you, the person you are speaking with or your environment. Take in minutia you would not otherwise pay attention to. And as you are increasing your awareness ask yourself: am I awake or am I asleep?
- Throughout the day, from time to time, do a little jump with the honest intention of seeing if you can fly.
- Throughout the day, from time to time, go over your day to remember how you got to the present moment. What was the sequence of events? In particular, do you recall getting out of bed in the morning?
- Throughout the day, from time to time, check in with yourself whether you are sure you are in your body, or whether your body is in bed sleeping.
While these exercises may seem absurd to the waking mind, they are really designed to help the mind of the sleeping body snap into awareness. The more earnestly you can engage with them, the more likely you are to carry this awareness into your sleep.
Finally, another good way to prime your mind is to read over your own dream journal or to read descriptions by others who have had lucid out-of-body experiences or lucid dreams. I will reference a selection of books on the topic at the end, and there are also numerous Facebook groups where people share their dreams and other nightly altered states of consciousness. Saturating your mind with this reality will prime you to also enjoy such experiences.
Falling asleep with awareness
Intention is key when working with the subtle dimensions of life. Holding the intention of maintaining awareness and possibly leave the body when we lie in bed and are falling asleep is simple and powerful. We can also combine this with deliberate techniques to fall asleep with intention, such as the following breathing technique:
- Lie down in a position most comfortable for you to fall asleep and close your eyes.
- Breathe in slowly to the count of five.
- Breathe out slowly and relaxed to the count of ten.
- Stay without inhaling to the count of five.
- Repeat this six times.
- After the sixth exhalation hold the breath out for as long as you comfortably can, and focus on the idea of floating out of your body.
- When you feel the urge to inhale do so and then repeat the cycle. Do this until you fall asleep.
The counting calms and focuses the mind and the breathing relaxes the body by reducing the oxygen levels. Eventually you will fall asleep or experience a sense of separation from the physical body.
Generating opportunities for recollection
If you have more time in the morning, this is the perfect opportunity to experiment with a scientifically tested method (link to Denholm’s study) to increase dream recall and nocturnal awareness. Set your alarm for 5 hours after going to bed. For me this usually around 4am. When you wake up, get up briefly to make sure you are properly awake. I like to go to the bathroom and do a little stretch. Then spend between 15-30 minutes either meditating (recently I have been doing the practice to connect with my emotions I described above) or reading something related to lucid dreaming or out-of-body travel. Of course if you already remember anything from your previous sleep phase this is a good time to make some notes. Then lie back down with the intention of staying lucid in your sleep and recalling your experiences. If you have any trouble settling down you can apply the breathing technique again.
Recording your experiences
When you wake from your next sleep, take your time recalling your experiences. Ideally don’t move until you’ve gone over them in your mind, then roll over and write them down on a notepad (or tablet) you have handy at the side of the bed for that purpose. As already suggested, you can use your own notes to prime your mind for dream recall by reading them again later in the day.
At a time of social uncertainty, nature can offer a reassuring presence. I say this despite the fact that nature has been changing throughout our lifetime, at least in part as a result of human behaviours. But spending time with trees, insects, the sky, the ocean and other natural spaces can be a soothing balm for our emotions. I am in the very privileged position of living in a house with a garden surrounded by many old trees, and easy access to walkable bushland. If you find yourself limited to an apartment in a big city or a small unit on a busy street it may be harder to connect with nature. But I would suggest in that case making a conscious effort is even more relevant.
This is a time to allow yourself to simply be – be present to yourself and what is around you. If you can, just sitting in your garden and tuning in to detail can be uplifting. What insects do you notice, what different plants? Do you have a spot where you can feel the earth under your bare feet and sit on the ground? If so, just sit and really feel the earth, feel her holding you. Really take in the trees and any birds. Look at things with new eyes, noticing details you have never seen before. If you are in an apartment and have pot plants, spend time with them. Touching them, feeling their energy and paying detailed attention.
If you have no access to natural ground and no trees or plants to speak of there is always the sky. Explore the sky, the clouds or lack of clouds, its vastness, its changeability, the various hues of color.
Again 10 minutes of this is a good start, but if you get into it, give yourself permission to go longer. Despite our conditioning to the contrary, we are part of nature and if we open up to her, she can nourish us energetically and emotionally.
Finally, nobody is an island. I have found myself reaching out to friends and family I have not spoken with for a long time. I have noticed that sometimes I only really experience how I am feeling when I am connecting with others. Over the last couple of weeks, I have found beautiful loving support, from some through lightness, from others through deep sharing, via social media, messaging and video calls. If there was ever a time to own and appreciate our interconnectedness it is now. May you be safe, happy and connected with yourself and the world around you.