Health & Wellness Living in Recovery Spirituality

Meditations on Energy

This is the time of year when there’s always a lot of talk about light in the air. Read More

This is the time of year when there’s always a lot of talk about light in the air. As we turn the corner into a new year, we reflect the hopefulness we feel by putting up lights: the Christmas trees that remember the star that magicians from the East are said to have tracked to the birth of Jesus; the Jewish observance of Chanukah that celebrates a victory with a festival of lights that recalls how a one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, each one marked by lighting the candles of a menorah; the Wiccan and other pagan holidays that honor the Winter Solstice, and remind us that the longest, darkest night of the year turns with the cycle of nature into the new light of Spring. There are more recent festivals, as well, such as Kwanzaa, in which the seven candles of the Kinara represent the people, the struggles of the past, and the hope of the future. And I have friends whose spiritual teacher described this time as “The Season of Light in Everybody,” a term that asks us to remember not only the outer lights of sun, moon, and stars, but the light in us of spirit, intelligence, and compassion, too.

It’s a good thing to keep these celebrations, because while we can always use more light in our lives, we tend to need it more than ever around the turn of the year, because of the biological and neurological cycles in the human body and brain that makes this a harder-than-usual time for a lot of us. Season Affective Disorder, or “SAD,” affects roughly five percent of Americans, forty percent of the year. So lighting lights, thinking and talking about light, and gathering around lights, even if we have to do it on Zoom, can help. It also turns out to have a solid basis in both science and spirituality that you may not know about.

It’s a truism that scientific discoveries tend to trickle down to the general public very slowly. First, they reach and affect those that discover them, and who understand the principles behind them; then to the somewhat larger percentage of people who are wealthy and educated and have the luxury of time to pay attention to such things. Lastly, they spread to the rest of us.

It took a long time following the discoveries of people like Copernicus, Galileo, and Van Leeuwenhoek before the reality that the Earth is a sphere that revolves around the sun, and the moon and planets and stars are similar bodies spread across unthinkable distances, or that the world and our own bodies are full of life-forms so tiny they are invisible to the naked eye, hit home. Today, we take for granted that the world is round, not flat, and that there is no edge where the oceans fall endlessly, carrying ships with them, or far-away seas filled with monsters. We don’t just know it, we feel it. 

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Those discoveries were made by pioneering scientists hundreds of years ago, and it took much of that time for the implications to sink in. But there have been more recent discoveries that have barely begun to penetrate. One of these is Albert Einstein’s insight, and mathematical proof, the well-known “E = MC2”, that what we call matter and what we call energy are actually the same thing.

We can turn on the TV or access our browser and look up quantum physics, and hear this stated, but do we know it in our bones? Do we “believe” it? Scientists tell us everything is really almost not here. Seemingly solid objects, including our own bodies, are mostly space. Things that appear motionless, like mountains, are in truth in continual movement. Molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles compose everything we can see and touch. Yet the distances between these microscopic and sub-microscopic particles are vast, relatively speaking—as great as those between the stars and galaxies that form the macro level of the cosmos. Who’d have thought that Ant-Man has it right?

Probably the best-known ancient version of this idea is found in the stories about Jesus, whose body was said to shine on a mountain, and supposedly healed itself spontaneously after his death. But many other traditions contain the same belief. India is filled with tales of great masters possessing extraordinary abilities, who can appear and disappear from place to place, walk through walls, and bend reality. In Tibet, there is even the idea that such great masters convert their bodies to pure light at the moment of death, leaving nothing physical behind except perhaps a few teeth and some hanks of hair.

Sounds like Star Wars and Master Yoda, I know. Undoubtedly, much of this is legend and myth. But is all of it? And if it is, how did these ancient cultures “guess” so accurately about the nature of the world? At the very least, such stories point to the possibility that we can not only know, intellectually, that matter and energy are interchangeable, but that we may be able to have some experience of that truth.

Many of the spiritual traditions tell us that it is our ideas about reality that shape our experience of reality, to a great extent. We feel solid, heavy, like objects, in part because we’ve grown up in a culture where that idea was never challenged. Neither the notions of the ancients nor Einstein’s scientific discoveries have gotten under our skin, as yet. 

One of the gifts of meditation is that it has the potential to suspend our thoughts about the world and ourselves, if only for as long as we’re in the meditative state. We shift our focus of attention from our continual, chattering thought-stream, and its endless commentary and opinions about everything, and experience directly, without labeling. We sense and feel without interpreting. “That arthritis in my knee” becomes pure sensation, without boundary or definition. A tightness and tingling in the chest is just that, and no longer “a broken heart.” 

There are two ways I know in particular that can help to change our perception of our own physical nature. They’re almost the opposite of each other, in a way. One of these is close observation in stillness, and the other is attention in movement.

The strange thing is, mystics and sages and yogis have been telling us some of this for thousands of years. They didn’t have our modern equipment or the mathematical proofs, yet they taught that form is emptiness, and emptiness form; that all aspects of reality are reflective of and contain each other, holographically; and that seemingly solid matter can change state and become energy.

I’ve talked here before about the Buddhist practice known variously as “sweeping Vipassana,” or “body-scan meditation.” In this practice, you take your usual meditation posture, and direct attention to the top of the head. Once you have a clear, strong awareness of the physical sensations there, you begin to move your field of attention through the head, into the face, down into the neck and throat, and so on, slowly moving it through the entire body, exterior and interior. Usually, we’re instructed to pay special attention to areas of particularly strong or weak sensation, and stay there for a while. 

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If you do this with a part of the body that reads very clearly, such as the tip of the nostrils, the heart area, the abdomen, or the palms, and remain focused there instead of continuing to scan, you can gradually let your attention deepen, so that the sensations there become clearer and stronger still. Let go of labeling and naming them. Just observe mindfully. “Listen” to the sensations with a quality similar to that with which you would listen to a favorite piece of music, or the urgent conversation of a dear friend.

What you may find is that the sensations feel like a kind of buzzing cloud of tiny pinpricks, or like ants crossing your hand or knee or wherever you’re focused. Keep relaxing deeper into them like they’re a world unto itself. They are.

In this experience, you’re beginning to get a small taste of sensing your existence and experience as energetic, as constantly moving, flickering, and changing. You’re not so solid, after all. Once you’ve gotten good at this, you can try gently introducing an occasional short question, such as “where is this happening?” In what are the sensations arising? Can you perceive them as brief bursts of light, of energy, in the emptiness of space? If you think that’s just projection, what are you doing all the rest of the time?

The other way to go with this is through movement with attention. If you disconnect the mind from the body, and just throw the body around the room, nothing different than usual is likely to happen. But if you move slowly, mindfully, with full attention to the points of most powerful sensation, you may receive an experience not so different from the one that you felt with the body-scan. 

If you already have a movement practice, such as Tai Chi, Yoga, or Pilates, or something more exotic like the Tantric “dance” called Tandava, in which one moves spontaneously, without fixed forms or any kind of mental calculation, you may already know that sometimes, even without looking for it, you will experience a strong sense of flow in the body, as if your whole physical form has begun to dissolve into hundreds of thousands of points of light or energy, as though you were a conscious cloud of sensations.

Try these if you want. When you feel you’ve gotten a bit of a handle on them, you can add gazing attentively into light to the practice: a flame, a sunlit cloud, the reflection of light on moving water, and so forth. Even the bright colors of traffic lights can be allowed to enter your brain through the optic nerves if you relax and intend it. In so doing, you break the illusion of solidity and separateness a little, and realize the whole of reality is one continuous flow, like a sparkling waterfall. To do so can be surprisingly refreshing, like turning off an electrical device in the room that was making an annoying noise just at the threshold of hearing. It feels great, though, when it’s suddenly gone.

All of these exercises are just simple ways of beginning to tune into other ways of relating to our direct experience of life. As with so many things, changing routines and mixing it up can benefit us in many ways. And working with body and mind at the same time can have unexpected virtues that neither alone may provide.

May each moment and day of this New Year be continually new to you all, one day at a time.

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