A Shift in Perception

October 31, 2012

The majority of my students come to learn meditation for one primary reason – to relieve or better manage stress.  In our society stress has come to be the accepted byproduct of a life lived in the fast-paced, frenetic, modern world.  We’ve all experienced it at some time in our lives; acute or chronic, real or imagined.  As more and more research reveals the correlation between a stressful lifestyle and the chronic health conditions that afflict our society, people recognize that they must take action to manage their stress or face the physical, mental, and emotional consequences.

Stress, as familiar an experience as it happens to be, is often vaguely defined as a sense of tension, pressure, or anxiety, or a constriction that feels as if a powder keg within is poised to explode at any minute, but never does.  However, stress pretty much boils down to one thing – the feeling of not getting your needs met.  Whenever we have a desire we wish to accomplish, we set out in a particular direction, but occasionally we run up against an obstacle.  When we encounter resistance, we seek a way around, over or through that obstacle.  Unfortunately, we can’t always get past the barrier and that causes a blockage in the otherwise uninterrupted flow of our energy.  This experience we interpret as the familiar sensation of stress.

Once the stress arises, it triggers a chemical cascade through our physiology that we have come to know as the fight or flight response.  This response, first studied by American Physiologist Walter Cannon, consists of an entire symphony or biochemical changes to our normal relaxed state of being.  It is the equivalent of a complete rewriting of our mind-body software.  Within the span of a few heartbeats our entire system is rewired to run or fight.  We secrete stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, increase our respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and breathing, redirect circulatory function, release additional blood sugar into our system, increase the stickiness of the platelets in our blood, and decreases the blood supply to the frontal cortex of our brains.  All these things happen almost simultaneously, preparing the body to go into battle.

This response evolved over millions of years as a survival strategy and has been used with great success to ensure the continuation of our species.  However, our current dilemma is one in which we activate this response for non-life threatening situations, anywhere between 5-15 times a day.  A hectic drive to work, too many emails, a confrontation with a coworker or spouse, a work deadline, the evening news; all these and countless other situations send us spiraling into the stress-based world of fight or flight on an all too frequent basis.

However insidious stress may be though, it is simply the effect, not the cause.  Stress and the fight or flight response is just our body’s automatic coping mechanism.  If this is true, then what actually triggers the stress to manifest; where does it all begin?

In a word, it begins with Perception.   What is perception?  On the surface level, perception is the process of using our senses to acquire information about the surrounding environment or a specific situation.  But ultimately, perception encompasses our attitude or understanding based upon what is observed or thought.  So perception governs how we view and understand the world we live in.  It informs and helps to build our worldview and to a great extent determines how we live and the choices we make.

In regards to stress, perception is the primary cause.  Stress doesn’t exist independently of our interpretation.  It’s not as if a cloud of stress is hanging over the highway as you drive to work and you become stressed as you pass through it.  Instead, stress begins with the perception of a threat.  This threat can be either physical or emotional, but usually involves the crossing of a boundary of safety.  Once the threat is perceived, the very act of perception activates the chemical messengers that instantly transform the physiology into fight or flight mode.  No perception of threat, no stress response.

In the words of Dr. David Simon, “Reality is a selective act of attention and interpretation.”  This means that what you consider to be your reality is really the culmination of what you put your attention on and the meaning you give to it.  We all pay attention to different things; we look at one object or situation and ignore another.  Our conditioning and experiences have programmed us to look for some things and not others, and when we become aware of those things, people, or situations we interpret them and give them a specific meaning for us.  I say for us because this process is a completely subjective one.  Your experiences based upon your actions, memories, and desires will be different than mine and will therefore lead you to notice things in a different way than I do, thereby creating a different experience of reality.

This is worthy to note because we can all remember an occasion when we were with someone and experienced the same objective situation in completely different ways.  Imagine for example, that you are at a restaurant with a friend when suddenly across the room, you notice your Ex, with whom you experienced a turbulent breakup a few weeks before.  That situation causes a shift in your awareness that isn’t shared by your friend because your memories of your Ex are different than your friend’s.  Your mind-body system may perceive this situation as a threat and kick into full blown fight or flight while your dining companion has a completely different experience of that same event.

This is the power of perception.  How we perceive the world shapes our understanding of who we are, what the world feels like, and if it’s a safe or dangerous place.

Change your perception, change your world

So, we can understand now that perception has an incredibly potent effect on how life unfolds for us.  But if we want to live life fully, we need to learn how to shift our perceptions away from a worldview in which life seems threatening and dangerous to a worldview that is uplifting and supportive.  Fortunately, meditation it the perfect tool to accomplish this goal.

Through meditation we gently settle down into a more relaxed and peaceful state, our thoughts gradually become more and more abstract, and may even stop for a time.  Through this process the effects of the fight or flight response are reversed, allowing the mind and body to shift into a state of growth and healing rather than protection.  The perception of a threat is also relieved and the physiology receives an unspoken signal that everything is all right.  If this isn’t amazing enough, the effects of meditation aren’t localized to the time spent in meditation alone.  Instead, the stillness accessed during meditation spills over into your regular daily activities, allowing you to be less stressed on an ongoing basis.  But the real beauty is that through regular meditation, you begin to retune your perceptual software so that the world doesn’t look as dangerous.

When we meditate, we slip into the stillness, often referred to as the Gap between our thoughts.  This Gap is powerfully transformative because by entering into it on a regular basis, you embody that stillness, that space, and it begins to infuse your life on every level.  To a certain extent you actually become that silence and it changes how you perceive and thereby react to the world.  At first it’s a very subtle difference, but as you continue to practice, you notice that rather than perceiving the world and instantaneously interpreting it a certain way, (i.e. good, bad, supportive, dangerous), you find that there is a slight glimpse of stillness, a little space between perception and reaction.  That little space is all that’s necessary to see the situation from a different, more reflective perspective.  In that pause, you realize that you have choices to how you will respond to what you perceive.  You’re no longer trapped, imprisoned by conditioning and forced to react in a repetitive robot-like manner.  You can choose differently.

According to ancient wisdom traditions, this process is known as cleansing the windows of perception.  When we can see things clearly, as they really are, the world takes on an entirely new quality.  It is fresh, new, and undistorted by our preconceived notions.  We can see things in their simple purity, unclouded by our beliefs or prejudices.  This is true freedom.  In the end, nothing has any meaning until we give it one.  There is no ultimate good or bad, right or wrong, only the interpretations we assign to the external situations and circumstances of our lives.

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

-Edgar Allen Poe

The magic of meditation is that through the process we are not only relieving the stress of our lives during the real-time practice of meditation, but we’re also causing a shift in perception that alters the interpretation of potentially stressful situations in the future.  Some students, reluctant to make the commitment to a daily meditation practice, often use meditation in times of crisis to help manage the stress of the issue they are facing.  However, if meditation were to become a regular part of their lives, they would find that due to the shift in awareness that comes through extended time in stillness, the perception of a “crisis” might change altogether, revealing an opportunity, a deeper clarity, or a moment of transcendent awareness.

Regardless, we can see that by changing our perceptions we are literally changing our world.  When we see our experiences through new eyes, we’re no longer condemned to stress and anxiety; we see things as they truly are, free from the burden of judgment, and from an enlightened viewpoint.  In that enlightenment lies true liberation in the embrace of the timeless present.

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Thoughts on Action Strength

October 24, 2012

This past weekend I had the unique pleasure to attend the Action Strength Level 1 Certification workshop in Boca Raton, FL.  It was taught by Harinder Singh Sabharwal, CEO and Chief Training Officer of the Jeet Kune Do Athletic Association.   Action Strength is a specific training program that develops functional strength in a manner that aligns the body, mind and spirit as an integrated whole.  It’s a system that is truly beyond compare in its ability to unify the body as one coherent unit to channel and deliver enormous amounts of power for any athletic endeavor.  On the whole, the weekend was one of the best training experiences of my life, one that will forever change the way I understand what it truly means to be strong, healthy, and fit.

I don’t make these claims lightly, either.  I’ve been weight training and training in the martial arts for over 25 years, practicing yoga and eating a plant based diet for over a decade, and have been doing some kind of workout 6 days a week for the last 5-7 years.  I thought I understood fitness and what it meant to be in shape.  I was wrong.  Action Strength was unlike any training I had done before and I learned very quickly that rather than being strong and fit, I was really just scratching the surface of my perceived abilities.

I had rudimentary understanding of the type of exercises involved in the Action Strength program from DVDs I had watched over the last year.  Tai Chi, Bodyweight, Kettlebells, and Gada (Indian Mace) exercises made up the physical portion of the system while the mental aspect was deeply rooted in the philosophy of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do and Malavidya, the ancient Indian science of strength and power.  However, having never trained with Harinder, I had yet to have the true experience of this practice in action.

One of the first and primary insights we learned was that strength is a skill.  This was a new concept for me.  Honestly, I don’t think I had ever given it much thought, other than to assume that strength was a given or genetically predetermined.  As a tall and small framed guy, I believed that the length of my bones and muscles had a significant impact on how much power and strength I could generate.  The idea that strength could be learned and developed through a progressive approach to training was quite literally something I hadn’t considered before.  And after listening to Singh describe the different progressions and the science of numbers and repetitions, I began to realize that perhaps my physical limitations were dependant not upon my genetic makeup, but more on my training method which, up to this point had been based upon the conventional model of exercise and fitness.

The modern fitness and exercise model relies heavily on the western materialistic approach which breaks the body in to separate pieces or systems; muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, organs, etc.   From there it uses exercises that isolate and work each muscle group or system individually.  For example, to build muscle you would perform a weight lifting exercise for just one or two primary muscles while the
bulk of the body’s other muscles are at rest.  In a similar fashion, to increase aerobic capacity, we are taught to isolate the pulmonary and respiratory systems through running, biking or swimming.  This may sound like an over simplification, but the point is that contemporary fitness programs lean more toward working the body’s pieces rather than the whole body, let alone the mind.

In contrast, Action Strength is about the exact opposite.  In every exercise, we are striving to engage and recruit as much muscle as possible.  In this way, the body becomes a unified whole integrated through posture, breathing and intent.  As such, the exercises generate much more power and strength than conventional exercises.  The entire body is moving in harmony as opposed to disparate individual parts that break the chain and thereby disrupting the body’s energy flow, known in Eastern traditions as Prana or Chi.  As you might imagine, utilizing the entire body can make for an intense exercise experience.  However, one of many benefits of this type of approach is that since the exercises are so focused and concentrated, more can be accomplished in a shorter amount of time.  In as few as 15 to 20 minutes, the entire body can be worked out, energized, aligned, and unified for overall strength or for sport specific activities.

In addition, Action Strength incorporates a specific breathing cadence for each exercise.  Known as pranayama in India, this steady, deep breathing combined with the repetitive nature of the exercises (especially the Dand and Bhetak ) sets up a unique mind-body feedback loop that quiets the mind and enhances overall mental focus and awareness.  This is especially beneficial in the realm of martial arts in which your breathing determines your overall level of endurance and relaxation when physical stress is at its highest.  But even for those not inclined toward the martial arts, the exercises and their breathing component help to establish a state of stillness during intense physical activity which becomes a form of moving meditation.  Training in this manner helps us to understand that we lift the weights to condition the mind; as the mind comes more under our control, we can use it to hardness the tremendous power of our muscles for whatever task is at hand.

This mental shift can lead to a powerful transformation in the recognition that our physical limitations have their roots not in our bodies, but in our minds.  As Singh reminded us, when our breath is steady and controlled, our minds are brought to a focused intent that allows us to override the internal dialogue that keeps us rooted in the perceived limitations of our bodies.  Every time we push a little further, refocus our intention and breathe, we bypass the mental static that says, “I can’t do this”, or “I think I’m going to die!” and tap into our true potential that lies beyond the level of the mind.   In these moments we’re able to dig deeper than we have before and get to know ourselves better.  This is what Bruce Lee referred to as discovering the causes of your own ignorance.  Action Strength therefore becomes a vehicle for self-transformation.  When you see that self doubt comes from “in here” rather than “out there”, you realize that you alone hold the keys to your own evolution and growth and are poised to take your next step with confidence and power.

While Action Strength is designed to help people at all levels of health and fitness grow stronger (i.e. coming back from an injury, the next level, or high performance), it’s not necessarily an easy path.  Action Strength training is a lifestyle change, not a quick fix solution.  It’s not something you do for a few weeks or months and then move on.  It’s an ongoing progression of skill and strength.  Each level of achievement sets the groundwork for the next so we continue to grow stronger through our lives.  In this regard, I have just begun.   But this weekend’s program was an amazing start on this path.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Harinder Singh Sabharwal, Anshu Sabharwal, Brian Olson, Gavin Garringer, John Riddle, and all the participants from the seminar that put up with all my noob questions.  Your help and patience is what made this weekend such an amazing experience.

From here it’s up to me to both integrate this training into my life as well as share it with others, which I plan to do in earnest.  Look for FB & website updates (www.revisedreality.com) and private training updates in the future.   In the meantime, feel free to contact me with questions if you’d like to learn more about his amazing strength training system.

-Adam

A Disturbance in the Force

October 17, 2012

Unlike years past, I’ve found the current political season to be downright repellant.  And I don’t think that’s too strong a word.  Literally, over the past few months I’ve felt an increasing repulsion from the entire Presidential campaign process, almost like two magnets at polar opposites.  Yes, I have my beliefs about which candidate will take our country in the most nourishing and evolutionary direction, who will help make our country strong again, and who will best represent this country as President for the next four years.  Despite these beliefs, I can’t get around the fact that this Presidential campaign has become a bloody battleground strewn with lies, accusations, character assassination, and wholesale negativity unlike we have ever seen before.  Our current political paradigm endorses libel, slander, hate speech, and a total disregard for factual information.  The truth literally doesn’t matter anymore.  What does matter is who can raise the most money, scream louder, hurl more accusations, and contrive the most destructive attack ads.

Ultimately, we can’t blame the candidates, their organizations, the pundits, or the political parties they belong to.  The face of these campaigns ultimately reflects the state of our consciousness as a nation.  The fact that two opposing parties can act this way shows that we live in a country in which this type of behavior has become acceptable.  This should give us pause.  Ask yourself a question – are the values demonstrated by the race to the White House the values you would teach your children?  If you’re like most people, the answer is a resounding “No!”  But if that’s the case, why do we stand for it on a national level?

Perhaps it’s because we’ve become complacent, perhaps it’s because we sense a futility in trying to fight such an intractable paradigm, or perhaps we’ve settled into apathy and assumed that we can’t make a difference.  Or maybe we’re just afraid to be the change we want to see in the world.  But for whatever the reason, we can’t afford to allow ourselves to slip further into darkness.  Every negative exchange, commercial, internet meme, or political talk show creates ripples in the entangled field of consciousness of which we are all a part.  Even the debates themselves generate a polarizing effect, deepening the shockwaves of negativity and creating collateral damage in consciousness.  I know I’m not alone when I say that after watching a debate or reading an article about the current political climate, I feel drained and emotionally overwhelmed.  The shift may be subtle, but it’s unmistakably real and it stands poised to undermine so much of what we have attainted as a nation. 

So what’s the answer?  In a word, awareness.  When asked how end suffering in its multiple forms, the Buddha always had the same answer – awareness.  With greater awareness we see the world with clarity, understanding, and compassion.  The lack of awareness or ignorance hides and clouds the true nature of reality, like a dirty mirror.  But through awareness we can wake up from the sleep that allows the negativity I’ve described above to exist.  Whether it’s through educating ourselves, consciously choosing not to propagate the negativity through posts or mindless comments, removing our attention from the status quo of the political campaigns (A.K.A. turning off the TV), or through the grand-daddy of all awareness building tools, meditation, we can continue to shine our light amidst the darkness of these times.

In the Indian spiritual classic, The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (higher consciousness) councils his disciple Arjuna in the ways of yoga and awareness as they overlook the battlefield of Kurukshetra.  Before them are two great armies, equally dedicated to the other’s total destruction.  Arjuna is overwhelmed with fear and grief because he knows the warriors on both sides of the conflict and does not want to have to fight them.  Krishna teaches Arjuna the path of yoga, higher awareness and the way of action, giving him the ability to transcend the conflict and act as a warrior of light, performing his duty and serving the world in the process.

In a similar manner, through expanded awareness, we can transcend the current political battlefield and view it with compassion and clarity.  We can then make the most nourishing and evolutionary choice for the course of the next four years.   What we cannot afford is to sit back passively and let someone else take action.  This is a participatory universe.  But the good news is that the action you take comes from a shift in perception.  To quote Dr. Wayne Dyer:

 Become a mystical being by simply changing your mind from one that created and experienced problems, to one that resolves them.

As warriors of light we can transform ourselves, but at the same time create a transformation in consciousness that will bring light to the darkness of our current political discourse.  When this happens, we cast our vote not only with the ballot we use at the polls, but with our awareness.  And one vote with awareness has the power to shift the world.