Active meditation takes us on a journey away from our common conception of what it means to live an ‘ordinary’ life and towards something calmer, more stable and more fulfilling. That’s because ‘ordinary’ life is dominated for many of us by the amygdala mechanism, constantly triggering alarm bells in our heads for no apparent reason — or at least, no reason that warrants the levels of anxiety and depression these ringing alarms often cause.
We saw last time that there is set of zones which measures just how much we are affected by the amygdala. These zones range from Panic all the way up to Zen — and it’s possible to make the transition from one to the next, if we know what we are doing.
Remember our formula You < perceived departure = alarm triggered. The amygdala continually scans your mind, body and immediate environment and measures in a simplistic fashion what it considers to be departures from an ideal scenario; anything it determines to be a ‘departure’, whether that’s the smell of smoke inside a house or a knock on the door, or the sound of an approaching car or a gun going off or an unhappy relative or a frowning teacher — all of these things and a million more cause it to flip the ‘fight/flight’ switch and set off the alarms which create familiar physiological stress for us. It’s all with the best of intentions, designed to prepare and protect us, but it’s largely outlived its usefulness in a civilisation in which physical menaces are far less then they used to be. Plus it’s not conscious, it’s not rational — it bypasses analytical thinking and that can and often does lead to trouble.
To handle this, though, instead of trying to stop it assessing what a departure is, or reducing its intensity or the volume of its alarm signals, Active Meditation addresses the primary factor in the above formula: You.
By finding ways to boost your own concept of You, it transforms the amygdala’s calculation to You > perceived departure = no alarm required. This can quieten your life and mental ‘noise’ by an enormous amount and empower you to live a much more satisfactory life.
To understand how it does this, we have to look at what makes Active Meditation different to standard approaches to meditating.
We’ve looked at conventional meditation already and seen how it can relax the body and mind. If done frequently and properly, this kind of method can enhance life considerably, calming the individual so that the alarm signals are less dominant. But ‘relaxing’ isn’t the whole picture. It doesn’t go into enough detail and it often fails to address the underlying causes which make a person feel ‘unrelaxed’ in the first place. To go further, we have to try to grasp something called the Personality Ecosystem.
The Personality Ecosystem
Your idea of You may be incomplete.
Rather than tell you who you might be, though, the best way to find out more about yourself is to use this first step from Active Meditation.
Firstly, you need to go through all the procedures commonly associated with standard meditation so that your mind is relaxed and sensitive to new input.
Standard Meditation Procedure:
1. Sit or lie comfortably, with no distractingly tight clothing or physical over-contact (like bridged fingers or spectacles or crossed legs and so on).
2. Breathe steadily and rhythmically and start relaxing the body, muscle by muscle. Think of this as not something that you are doing to the body, but something that you are undoing.
3. Gently look for departures from perfect relaxation around and throughout your body.
4. Move up and down your body, locating more and more areas of tension, major and minor, and let them ease off.
5. Once you have accomplished this basic state of calmness, go deeper by looking for zones or parts of your body where there is a sensation of ‘pushing’ or pressure, where you are exerting force upon the body. When you sense such a pressure, ease off as much as you can.
6. Scan round and round your body, finding parts where a pressure may have subtly re-exerted itself without you noticing.
7. Apply the same approach to areas of mental stress that arise naturally: move through areas of thinking, locating levels of tension.
8. Zones of judgement may arise —judgement from others and from yourself. When you sense such a pressure, just as with physical relaxation, ease off as much as you can.
9. Continue to scan round and round your mind, just as you did with the body, finding those parts where you already had to ease up on a judgemental attitude which have quietly have re-asserted themselves as soon as your attention moved on. Ease them off again.
10. Scan through your thoughts in this way until you are very relaxed. You may drift off to sleep, but repeated meditation will gradually enable you to stay awake during this process.
First Active Meditation Step:
1. Picture yourself as a series of concentric circles.
2. The outermost circle is the face that you present to the world. This is where the amygdala is most active, as it is the mind/brain’s primitive interface with the external environment. Here the percussions and shocks of the world strike you and the amygdala seeks to prepare and protect you. As you sit or lie in your relaxed state, observe the recent alarm triggers, over the last day or so, activating physiological reactions in your body and mind. Spend a little time observing.
3. Consider the next circle, moving inward. Here, the triggered alarms have been internalised and you have formed opinions and judgements about yourself based upon them. We will investigate these later — for now, merely observe the usually low opinions you have of yourself in this circle. Your attention may stick here, but if you can, when you are ready, try to move on to the circle below.
4. This is the circle in which fleeting glimpses can be found of a much more positive and powerful You. At this stage, these will be hard to hang onto and rather vague, but practice will stabilise them to a degree. Don’t try to spend too much time or energy grasping these, we will work with them later. For now, enjoy the brief glimpses and stay relaxed, then see if you can go to the circle below.
Throughout, continue to breathe rhythmically and keeping the basics attained through standard meditation — a broadly relaxed body and mind.
5. The circle below is one from which negative images of yourself have largely been expunged. The concept of ‘You’ at this level is not especially radiant, but nor is it marred by anxiety, shame or blame. ‘You’ are simply steady and stable and relatively neutral here. Compared to the outer circle, this You is in a state of blissful relief.
6. It’s unlikely that, on a first attempt, you’ll be able to progress much deeper than this, but there are still three levels to go, eventually. The one immediately below the ‘neutral zone’ is one in which your self-image is much more confident and masterful. Ideas of negativity have receded here, not because they have simply moved away but because they have been dismantled. They no longer exist at this level.
From this circle, you can permit yourself to drift back up at this stage. Do so circle by circle if you can: become neutral, then watch as the negative images of You begin to resurface. Don’t resist; just observe, as the outer circles again become dominant and you return to what you have long considered to be ‘normal’.
You can open your eyes and re-orientate yourself to your immediate environment at this point.
All of these levels will be examined in closer detail as we proceed, but for now this first step can be used to get an idea of what might be possible.