How to Have Good Personal Radar
One reason to meditate is so that you don't miss out on the beauty of your own life as you move through the day. It is so easy to lose the joy of life in the living of it, to get caught up in hurrying and mental chatter about how late you are, how many things you have to do. When we find the style of meditation that works for us, we often find that our senses open up, and our intuition becomes more accurate. And at the same time, we engage in the actions of our everyday life with more relaxation and ease.
Because of this, many people think that meditation is about being open and relaxed, but this is not actually true: meditation gives your nerves a chance to be in deeper contact with reality, and as a result you will be more open and relaxed much of the time, because there is not an immediate threat. And because your senses are more open, you can perceive both safety and danger more accurately. And ask any warrior: relaxation is a great place to come from when preparing for combat, if that is what's called for.
Another reason to not leave home without meditating is that if you are relaxed as your baseline experience, then when you get tense, it is a signal, a clear blip on your personal radar. Relaxation is like having a well-calibrated radar system, that gives few false signals.
Unless you are relaxed and at ease, you will have a lot of noise in your nervous system. If you are afraid all the time, and suspicious of everyone, you won't know when you actually are in danger, because your danger signaling system is blaring all the time. If your radar is showing threats that are not there, you will have to learn to ignore it to get any work done, and then real threats will go ignored.
This is why meditation is part of the training in many martial arts, and why meditation and martial arts training are complementary opposites, enriching each other. Interesting link here on relaxation in Karate.
As an aside, though, I have to mention that sitting on your ankles, or sitting cross-legged, can be very bad for the knees. Sitting in a chair with your feet on the ground is a great pose, plus it has that extra sense of groundedness.
In the following several sections, we cycle through the interplay between safety and danger, because this is the most basic of instincts. We will look at the way rhythm occurs in meditation experience, and we will approach the same point again and again, spiraling in at it from slightly different angles, because it is such a challenging issue for meditators. Most people never get it, and the lack of this understanding is a major reason people quit meditating. So forgive the repetition. Also, this is unedited. I just wrote it straight through and posted it to this page.
Re-Calibrating Your Danger Signaling System
A dog that barks at every person and every leaf that moves is worthless as a watchdog. A car alarm that goes off because the wind blows, or someone walks by, is worse than useless – your neighbors will be glad someone steals your damn car, just to get that horrible noise out of their lives for a few days. And if we are tense and suspicious all the time, this is not good armor and not good radar. No military can be on high alert all the time – things break down.
Meditation is adaptive – this means that the power driving meditation and making it work is your body's innate intelligence, which is only interested in helping you to survive and thrive. This is the natural tendency of meditation, by the way – you can observe this in yourself, and you can find it out through interviewing others. Instinctive Meditation is just a name I give to a system for recognizing and utilizing what happens naturally during successful and healthy meditation. I developed it by listening to people who were thriving in meditation and in life, and I learned in a different way by listening to people who were taking damage.
As part of this adaptive process, one of the dynamics that goes on during meditation is that your body and mind will re-calibrate your danger signaling system, to make it more accurate. You'll find yourself going deeply into relaxation, and then your nerves will jump a bit as they replay the memory of a threat that you perceived. Then your nervous system will study the relationship of that perceived threat with your current sensory intelligence about your world, and evaluate the best course of action. This is an almost involuntary process. It has great survival but everyone almost without exception hates it because they think it shouldn't be part of meditation. It feels like you are at home having dinner, or resting, and a technician from the alarm company comes over unannounced and starts testing the alarm system, opening and closing doors and windows and checking the perimeter. If you allow this process, you will find that after meditation, your danger signaling system is more accurate with fewer false alarms, and you can go through life more relaxed because you trust your sensors.
By the way, this issue of having accurate intuition and good strong boundaries has become a central training element of my classes at the Continuum Studio.
The Interplay of Relaxation and Debriefing
Let's go over this again. During meditation, within a few minutes, you will find yourself relaxing deeply, as if you were several days into a vacation. Then suddenly, aaaooogah, you will find your brain reviewing something that feels like your personal car alarm. This happens because life is ruthless in its own way. You may want meditation to be a blessed respite from your life, and it will be, for a few minutes. Then your brain and entire body start to engage in a deep process of reviewing every time your alarm system went off, and assessing: was this really a danger? Does that alarm system need to be adjusted? In the military, this kind of after-action reporting is called a debriefing. Sports teams also debrief, often with video replays of crucial action.
You want meditation to feel like soaking in a hot tub, but suddenly you are in a room with Sun Tzu, and maybe a logistics guy, an intel guy, and a cartographer, and they are all interrogating you on why you pushed the panic button or called in an air strike on your own position. They are sitting there with clipboards looking at you and asking, "You called in Broken Arrow. What was your justification for that? What were you seeing, hearing and feeling?"
This aspect of meditation feels extremely uncomfortable, like watching a frame-by-frame replay of how you miscalculated something. It is ruthless because your body-mind system wants to review exactly what your senses - your spies - were telling you, and exactly how you interpreted this data and said, "It's a threat," and then exactly what alarm or stress response you invoked. This will go on for a grueling 30 seconds or couple of minutes, then you will be in the hot tub again, relaxed more deeply than before, for a couple of minutes, then back to the room with Sun Tzu. (For an interesting story of when Broken Arrow was called, see We Were Soldiers with Mel Gibson).
Why does this happen? In essence, because it's natural. Your body, your brain, are part of life on earth, the hundreds of millions of years that nerves and senses have been evolving. This deep instinctive intelligence in you is a master of survival. Meditating is somewhat of an unusual situation because what you are doing is paying close attention to this intelligence functioning. Mostly you have to just let it work and learn from it and give it permission. Your body wants total elegance and grace, to move through the world with animal alertness, and an almost molecular precision in how much energy you expend on recognizing and adapting to dangers.
Your brain is not imitating the way the military debriefing or sports coaching works. It's the other way around. The military and sports coaches are utilizing the way the brain works. They conduct debriefings because this is the way the human brain works at its best, and they want to do what works. Military action and sports are always about success through exact application of force or energy, also speed, timing and synchronization. And they are always about learning from mistakes.
The debriefing process is painful and wonderful and educational, and when it is over, you can safely feel great, because you have learned from your mistakes on a deep level.
Keep in mind, when you meditate instinctively, your body goes into a state of rest deeper than deep sleep. This is healing, and your body-mind system conducts some of the brain rejuvenation that is usually does only during sleep. In meditation, we are simultaneously resting more deeply than sleep, and awake and alert. So we have to learn to put up with processes having to do with life maintenance that the body & mind do whenever we rest deeply. The brain and body do this same review when we are sleeping and dreaming, and the threats show up symbolically in the characters and plot structure of our dreams. When we are meditating, the review shows up as "feelies" – short video clips with sound tracks, emotions, and intense physical sensations. And we feel everything intensely because we are not only awake but more aware than usual.
The reason your body-mind system will zero in on the times during the day you felt afraid or invoked the stress response is because the response is so expensive energetically. The body stops everything else it is doing – resting, healing, digesting, learning, enjoying - and just focuses on the threat. This is absolutely great if you are in immediate physical danger of the kind that requires you to suddenly run a few hundred feet or instantly leap into combat. If the danger is not immediate, within a few seconds, you are like a car sitting in the driveway revving the engine up to 5000 rpm. A waste of good energy. Most human illness has a stress component, because the stress response wears out the body in various ways. Doctors have known for decades that 80% of all office visits are caused by the wear and tear of stress, and recently the percentage has been revised upwards.
I know this is a challenging point, but if you can stay with me here and really get this, it will change your life and meditation will forever be much easier.
How to be Safe by Cultivating Relaxed Alertness
Reality seems to work by paired opposites.
The yin/yang symbol is an eternal symbol of this.
So is the infinity symbol, also called the figure-8, the lazy 8, and the lemniscate
The logo of Lorin.com
If you want to breathe in, you have to breathe out first. If you want to be wide awake for the day's work, you have to go completely unconscious, in the state called sleep, for hours beforehand. If you want to jump up, you first crouch down into gravity, then you spring upwards. We are all used to the ways these opposites work together. We know these opposites are complimentary. We use this all the time without having to think about it.
Here is one that may be less familiar: if you want to be safe in a situation that has some dangers, cultivate relaxation. If you go around the world with a thorough sense of relaxation permeating your body, then when you get an alarm signal, an inner ahhhooooggaa or danger signal, you will know this is coming from outside. There is something to attend to. Your nervous system will configure itself appropriately to face whatever danger is there.
If you go around the world with danger signals blasting away in your head all the time, false feelings of emergency, then you will be too tired, stressed, and off-balance to respond appropriately if and when a real physical danger does arise. Your alarm system gives so many false alarms that you and everyone around you will weary of the noise you generate. So paradoxically, a way to cultivate a state of alertness, in which you go around in a state of responsiveness, is to cultivate a wide-open relaxation, senses wide open, body at play, instincts supple, at home and ready for anything.
For years, I have recommended that everyone who experiences fear on a daily basis read the books of Gavin de Becker. Now Gavin has a new book out, Fear Less: Real Truth About Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism .
All this points to the idea, don't walk out the door without meditating. Meditation, practiced the way I describe it in my books, is a great tool for tuning your intuition and living a relaxed life. One in which your survival signals only go off when needed, so you listen to them.
Wash The Fear Out of Your Body
Sometimes just a little bit of meditation gives the nervous system enough juice, relaxation chemistry, that a significant amount of fear is released. This is possibly because some of our chronic fear is fear of relaxation itself. We are afraid to let go of the continual vigilance and shift over to really living. When we make the decision to meditate, then, that decision has a lot of personal power behind it. This means any of us, especially those who have not done such things before.
The basic mental focus of meditation is some aspect of life's rhythm: the continual flowing of the breath, or the flow of a yummy sound such as a mantra, or the flow of energy in the body. A sense of steadiness does emerge in this flowing rhythm, but you do not need to focus on it. The more you allow yourself to perceive rhythm, the more an underlying sense of stability will emerge.
As the senses become absorbed in perceiving rhythm and stability, the muscles of the body relax and let go of tension.
Now, let's go over that sentence again: "As the senses become absorbed in perceiving rhythm and stability, the muscles of the body relax and let go of tension." This is so obvious that it's easy to miss.
More on the Debriefing Process
What happens when the muscles let go of tension? Often, we become aware for a few seconds or minutes of what we were tense about. We see little mini-movies of what we were doing when we tensed up – an unfinished conversation, a disagreement, a negative emotion that came up between us and someone we love, a tense situation at work, a failure, a success, a deadline. This is your mind/body's natural debriefing mechanism at work.
In the military, whenever anyone comes back from a mission, they get debriefed on what happened, so that the intelligence agents obtain a more accurate assessment of the environment and the forces arrayed. Football teams also debrief about their games, and probably most professional sports use the technique.
If you have been meditating every day consistently, then most of your debriefing may be about current events, because you have caught up with yourself. If you have just started meditating, or have recently been through a lot of battles of some kind, then the debriefing that comes up during meditation may cover the whole time period. You will find your brain reviewing in excruciating detail crucial events of your life and how you responded to them.
How long does debriefing take? This is the weird part. Thoughts come in unpredictable bursts, just when you are most relaxed. This is because the body loves to do the debriefing while at ease, whatever level of repose is available at the moment. Unless you have some comfort in your nerves, you won't be able to filter away the excess tension.
Note here that the intelligence in your body does not care about you being relaxed. It only wants efficiency, and relaxation is usually the most efficient mode. The adaptive intelligence also wants you to have the most perfectly sensitive danger recognition and stress-response system. The keyword here is accuracy. The body wants totally accurate sensory information and totally appropriate response.
This is for most of us the hardest part of meditation, the toughest to take, this cycle of relaxation and tension release. While it may make sense logically to say, "Ok, when you relax, you let go of tension," in practice it is a bit of a bitch. You are sitting there all relaxed and at ease, and all of a sudden your brain is filled with images of when you were definitely NOT at ease, and your muscles are jumping with tension. What the fuck is going on here?
Again, what the f--- is going on is that your body/mind is taking advantage of the situation of meditation to wash the fear out of your system. You know this is happening during meditation because your awareness goes from being extremely relaxed, to replaying a movie of some time in the past when you were in a stressful situation, or some time in the future you think will be challenging. And what, really, is your body/mind doing? Practicing being relaxed while engaged in that situation, as relaxed as is optimal for your performance. Ask any martial artist, you are better off when you are relaxed. Ask a soldier who has been in combat. You are usually better off if you can keep your wits about you.
If you work from 8 to 5 each day, and meditate in the morning before going to work, most of your time during meditation will be spent thinking – your brain just going over the choreography of the day ahead, musing about your relationships, sorting, prioritizing, and mulling over anything that makes you tense. Only a few minutes will be spent in something like transcendence, where you are savoring the vastness of life, the delight of being alive, the incredible richness of the moment. These few minutes are precious, to be sure. But the unstressing aspect of meditation is just as important, because it allows you to live honestly in the sense of delight the experience of vastness gives you.
If you have been betrayed, you know how much noise it makes in your head. This is because to be betrayed, we have to have been sold out or attacked by someone we trusted and considered a friend. Betrayal feels completely different than when we are attacked by enemies or competitors.
When a friend betrays us, the damage goes deeper than attacks by enemies. There are two reasons: one is that they are closer to us, inside our guard; the second is that when a friend betrays us, we have to doubt the part of us that trusted them in the first place. We come to doubt our whole relationship to the world. We may recover from the external damage that the betrayal does to our life. But the lasting damage, more difficult to heal, is that we turn against the part of us that trusted them. In other words, being betrayed can damage our ability to form friendships and to trust anyone in the future. Then, because we have to form alliances with someone, we become more open to being betrayed again in the future because our whole signaling system is out of calibration.
For meditators, this is important because healing the damage from betrayals is as painful as having porcupine quills or cactus needles pulled out of your leg. It's a series of ouch, ouch, ouch moments. And there is no Novocain for it because the type of healing that is needed is conscious healing. The last thing you ever want to think about again is your friend who betrayed you. The very thought of them is like a virus that crashes your computer. But when you feel safe and relaxed during meditation, their image will come up, the mini-movie will start playing, and you wills be inside a debriefing session as your inner intel staff and your inner Sun Tzu sit around and work on the problem of how did you get there, what damage did you take, how were you deceived, how does your intelligence gathering and assessment system need to be revised, and what exact steps to take today to move toward a solution. And how to prevent a scenario such as this from happening in the future.
As part of recovering from betrayal, you have to learn to distinguish between different kinds of pain - the pain of the needles in your body, the pain of the infection around the needles, the pain of pulling the needles out, the pain of cleaning the wound, the pain of the scar tissue as it forms, the pain of working the scar tissue so it becomes more supple.
If you are in the process of healing from a betrayal, don't give up on yourself. You can heal, and you can be better than before. But ouch, the healing process!