Healing approaches

Finding your Witness: The power of the ‘neutral mind’

meditation

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher

When chatting with a dear friend the other day about coping with personal challenges, we wondered what it must be like to go through hard times without “The Witness.” I know I must have done so at some time in my life, but I could not tell you exactly when my Witness showed up – it was definitely post-children but only just. Which is a great blessing because, for me, becoming a mother has definitely triggered some intense personal challenges.

I am aware that I bang on about self-care as well as the benefits of yoga and mediation and having a regular practice, but I do not necessarily focus enough on why. My fear is that yoga and meditation have been so hijacked by consumerism that many people have already switched off and tuned out. These practices have lost some of their sacredness and potency, which is a real shame because we need them now more than ever – not least because we all need a Witness to support us through the hard times.

So what is ‘The Witness’? Although the Witness is the most meaningful term to me personally, in the kundalini yoga tradition, it is also known as the ‘neutral mind’. World-renowned kundalini yoga master and spiritual leader, Yogi Bhajan, defined the neutral mind as the global positioning system of the Aquarian Age.

He described it as “the part of the mind that has direct connection to our Soul’s guidance…Until our mind is clear, we are a slave to the emotion and commotion that makes us reactive to [the] unknowns that we meet on the road of life.”

In other words, the Witness is objective, balanced and is all about right action rather than reaction – and it is why I practice every day, not just when I feel bad. This is what it means for me:

The Witness is always available

It doesn’t matter how dark I feel or how completely consumed I am by frantic, looping thoughts, the Witness is always sitting in a corner, watching and waiting to be called upon without judgement or a need to be invited to participate in the conversation.

I will never forget the morning of the Paris bombings in 2015. It was a Friday. I was crossing the road with my children on the way to school and one of them stepped out too soon. I yanked him back in plenty of time, but it triggered a dread of the darkest proportions. The feeling intensified as the day went on and by next morning, I could not get out of bed because I felt so sad and terrified.

At this point, I was not aware of what had transpired the evening before, but on reading the news, it felt as though my antennae had picked up the sorrow and fear of the entire world and was downloading it straight to my heart. That weekend I did not leave the house, mainly due to my uncontrollable weeping.

But through all the despair and terror, I also knew this time would pass and that, despite the depth of my feelings over the state of the world, it would change nothing – only action would do that. I also understood that this tragedy, so close to home, was happening in other places all over the world in one way or another, and that every heartbreak was a projection of the human race’s collective suffering.

And yet, I also believe that progression towards a kinder, fairer, more tolerant and collaborative way of being was, and is, inevitable. Change is inevitable. Evolution is inevitable. Fact: Every day, someone somewhere awakens to their own consciousness, and it is like lighting a candle in the dark. So every day, the world becomes a little brighter.

Wheel of Life mandala

The Witness helps us heal

Here is the magic: The fact that the Witness knows all of this is what enables us to fully embrace the darkness, to visit the pain without being held back, so that we can move through it.

Without The Witness there to hold us in its unconditional presence, we can never fully feel our feelings enough to integrate them and heal. My Witness did not save me from the utter darkness of that time. I still thought all my fearful thoughts and cried my tears of grief, but I also knew, simultaneously, that everything would be OK. And lo and behold, it was.

The Witness enables us to change

Some say that the definition of insanity is repeatedly behaving in the same way but expecting the result to change. But achieving real, lasting shifts are tricky because we are hardwired to maintain the status quo. Our biology would suggest that such habits are efficient – but only if they continue to serve us.

The Witness is the element of the mind that says: “Hey, I thought you weren’t going to think that thought anymore. It’s self-abuse.” Or: “Hey, I know you love sugar, but it makes you feel unwell, so do you really want to eat that?”

For a long time, I heard The Witness loud and clear but chose to politely ignore it. Slowly, gradually, after many hours on the mat, my Witness has become stronger and louder than my ego-mind. More often than not, it overrules the habitual, unhelpful impulses that have kept me stuck in patterns that no longer serve me.

And I have changed. I have fewer looping thoughts. I feel lighter, clearer, and my thinking is more ordered. I am able to experience real, authentic joy and act on my creative ideas. I also feel more connected and loving and yes, cliché as it has become, present, in my relationships.

How to meet your own Witness

As to how to gain an introduction to your Witness, meditation is the exercise that will help you do so, and yoga is the practice that will condition your nervous system and endocrine system to follow its wisdom. And once you have found it, it will always be available to you.

You will know it because it has no capacity for emotion, even though it fully allows you to experience the depth of your emotions. It has no agenda, except that which is true, or in alignment with your highest purpose in this lifetime. It has no aim other than to reveal all those fractured parts of yourself, which are rooted in shame, grief and fear and need to be brought into awareness so you can integrate them and continue on your journey towards wholeness.

Your Witness can be your Best Friend Forever. It is the relationship with yourself that yoga and meditation can provide. So if you have switched off and tuned out to the promise of what a personal practice could offer, now could be the time to reconsider?

Sarah Stollery

Sarah Stollery is a kundalini yoga and meditation teacher and co-founder of The Cabin, a self-directed learning community for home-educated children. She is passionate about empowering people of all ages and stages of life with the tools to thrive in these challenging times by creating space to learn, explore and integrate a wide range of wellbeing practices.

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The healing power of silence

drop of water

By Helen Preston, counsellor and holistic therapist

Last Christmas, my 20 year-old son bought me a book called ‘A Book of Silence’, written by Sara Maitland. In it, she explores and contemplates the silence she experienced after moving out of the city aged 40.

My son and I share a love of silence, so it was a thoughtful gift. We value silence and how it helps to calm and soothe the soul. In a world where it can often seem like a valuable commodity, it is worth taking a little time to explore silence’s healing power and seeing it for the undervalued resource it is.

Mobile devices constantly bombard us with noise. Music, podcasts, videos, phone calls – earphones in and off we go, isolated in our own little world of chosen sound.

At home, we often have the TV or radio on in the background. Or we talk for the sake of talking when there is nothing to say – and where silence could prove a more powerful and meaningful way to be present.

On the long journey driving him back to university, my son and I talk sometimes, but equally importantly we are both very comfortable being together in silence. We share our space comfortably. By way of contrast, some people I know are uncomfortable with silence and feel compelled to fill it with random streams of thought. Albeit unconsciously, they fear it.

Anyone who has listened to Eckhart Tolle will know that he uses silence or pauses to punctuate his language. I found it a little disconcerting when I first began to listen to his audio work. My mind was impatient for the next piece of information, to hear the next word and grasp the next concept.

The voice in my head judged the silences to be irritating. My conditioned mind wanted a continuous stream of noise. It took time to move beyond this situation and really ‘listen’ to both the words and the silence.

All too often we listen to respond, pass judgement or assess how what we are hearing fits with our beliefs. But if we are only prepared to listen to what we already know, we become stuck and entrenched. There is no room for new concepts or ideas. Eckhart says of silence: 

“To listen to the silence, wherever you are, is an easy and direct way of becoming present. Even if there is noise, there is always some silence underneath and in between the sounds. Listening to the silence immediately creates stillness inside you.” (page 103, ‘The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’, New World Library.)

Man in a forest
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Being mindful

A few years ago, I ran various relaxation and mindfulness groups for teens. During one such session, they were invited to leave their mobile phones behind for an hour and walk in silence with me to a local beauty spot. The idea was to be fully present and to observe the sights and sounds around us.

When we arrived at our destination, we would discuss our experiences. The walk was only between five and eight minutes long, but many of them found it difficult to be in silence. Some giggled, one held her hand over her mouth to remind herself not to speak, and several were unable to help themselves and spoke anyway.

One girl found it easier than the others though. She liked silence and, upon arrival at our destination, shared the fact that she had seen birds, flowers and a cat of which the others had no recollection. She had been quietly present in the moment and enjoyed the experience.

At the end of the sessions, she intimated that she now regularly took the dog for a walk to continue enjoying silence as it made her feel calm, peaceful and relaxed. Although the others initially struggled with the exercise, interestingly they also enjoyed it more than any other form of mindfulness that we practiced.

Certainly, many people find it easier to listen to a guided meditation than to feel safe and calm in silence. It takes time and practice to allow space to creep in between your thoughts, not to follow them as they pop in but just notice to them without judgment and let them pass.

Noise can be a means to help us hide from unpleasant and fearful thoughts, enabling us to avoid our feelings of vulnerability. When we take the time to listen in silence to our inner dialogue though, it is possible to make a choice.

We can either keep beating ourselves up or mindfully change that inner voice from critical and condemning to warm and comforting. ‘You’re doing your best’ is much more positive than ‘you’re an idiot’. But we all run these negative dialogues because we have learned them. It is often someone else’s voice that we hear and someone else’s opinion that we have come to believe over time.

But silence can give us time to weed the garden of our mind, declutter the dark corners in which we hold thoughts of shame and clear a space for the real beauty of our soul to flourish. Imperfection, suffering, making mistakes, failing and feeling inadequate are all part of the human experience. So take a deep breath and listen to the silence, allow it in and become friends with it.

When working with clients, my role as a counsellor is mostly to listen. I listen to the words and the emotions, but also to the silence. Just holding that silence for a few seconds longer than normal can give people the space to access memories, thoughts and images, enabling them to unearth something of significance that would otherwise be lost. And that really is the magic of the healing power of silence.

Helen Preston

Helen Preston is a counsellor, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) expert and reiki practitioner. Her approach to therapy acknowledges the crucial inter-relationship of mind, body and spirit. Helen is a member of the National Counselling Society and has an Advanced Diploma in psychotherapy and counselling, a Diploma in Hypnotherapy and an EFT Master Practitioner certificate. 

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Yoga Nidra: Learning to relax, consciously

Yoga Nidra Savasana pose

By Theresa Banovic, yoga and yoga nidra teacher

Yoga Nidra is a powerful meditation technique, based on ancient tantric practices, that helps you learn to relax consciously.

You may feel as if you are relaxing when you lounge on the sofa with a cuppa, watch TV, or read a book, but such activities will never meet the body’s need to relax completely. Even sleep is not actually regarded as relaxation from a Yoga Nidra point of view.

Instead the idea is that true relaxation takes us far beyond any sensory diversions. When our consciousness remains connected to our senses, we become less receptive. But when experiencing Yoga Nidra, it is about remaining aware while turning inwards, away from outer experiences to settle into a state of deep calm.

So just how does this happen? When practising Yoga Nidra, you generally lie down flat on your back on the ground (in yoga, this is known as Savasana pose) – although resting in a semi-reclined position or sitting in a chair is fine too if lying is not possible for you. Make sure you are as comfortable as you can be by wearing warm clothes, socks and even a lovely eye pillow infused with essential oils if you like. Blankets, cushions and bolsters can also help here too.

Your teacher/guide/recording will then lead you through breath awareness exercises, before systematically referring to different parts of the body fairly swiftly. All you need to do is mentally repeat each body part to yourself, place your awareness there and feel the area relax.

There is no need to move. It is more about listening, trying to surrender to the experience and going with the flow of this wonderful healing practice.

Om mantra

Experiencing deep relaxation

The idea is to keep your mind moving from point to point, remaining aware of every experience. Deep relaxation should take place at a cellular level, enabling physical, emotional and mental tensions to be released. Ideally, you should try not to fall asleep – although sometimes it is simply not possible.

When we relax deeply with the help of Yoga Nidra, we clear a space for the unconscious and subconscious levels of the mind to open and become really receptive. This means that, if we plant an idea there at this time, it will become very potent – like planting a seed and watching it grow.

So it is very important to make an intention, or Sankalpa, at the start. This can act as a positive way of focussing on the direction you would like to take in life, something you would like for yourself such as a new job or better health, or something you would like to give up. It could be a future goal, or even a simple act of gratitude.

Swami Satyananda described Yoga Nidra as an invaluable stress management tool, which could even be used to learn a language or other subject. In truth, it can be used to train the mind to accomplish anything.

It is usual to make a Sankalpa every time you practice Yoga Nidra, although it makes sense to stick to the same one for a while – and, if you use the technique regularly, you should be able to notice a change. In fact, if you choose to practice Yoga Nidra regularly, it will inevitably become an integral and invaluable part of your life.

Theresa Banovic

Theresa Banovic is a BWY yoga instructor and wellness advocate. She teaches Hatha yogaRestorative yoga and the Yoga Nidra meditation technique in a class setting, while offering yoga and massage retreats in both the UK and Portugal too. Theresa is also a trained provider of Ayurvedic massage.

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Everything is energy, and energy is everything…

Rainbow Flower of Life
Rainbow Flower of Life

By Anita Ramsden, kinesiologist.

The energy field around each and every one of us is an amazing and complex thing. We can feel it, sense it – and some people can even see it.

Have you ever felt that you ‘just really like’ someone after meeting them for the first time? Or perhaps you have said to a friend:  “That guy gives me the creeps.” They have neither explicitly said nor done anything to give you this impression, but you just feel it.

We do not have to learn to sense what in quantum mechanics is called our energy field though – we just do it innately. In the words of biologist Bruce Lipton: “Our energy is a communication, and we broadcast who we are out into the field.”

In fact, we are all broadcasting and receiving all the time, and it is our feelings that let us know whether we are a good match for someone else’s energy. We may rationalise the process in our heads, but ultimately it is our feelings that should be trusted. If you really want to know the answer to something, ask your heart the question. Just be still and listen to hear what it has to say.

But most of us are so accustomed to this energy that we often fail to realise we are even reading it. For example, if you walk into a room where people have been arguing, while they may put on a ‘there-is-nothing-going-on-here’ facade, the energy in the room will likely feel a bit awkward. Can you relate to this idea?

Quantum physics, for one, has no trouble in describing the body’s energy field, and Lipton explains the matter very simply. He says that atoms are made out of energy. Atoms band together to form molecules and molecules come together to make cells, which means that cells are made out of energy.

But if you take this thought process through to its logical conclusion, it becomes clear that, as humans are made up of cells, what we actually are, is energy beings.

No wonder then that our feelings are intrinsically important to our health and wellbeing. The more energy you have, the better you will feel and, by the same token, the less energy you have, the worse you will feel. To put another slant on it, some people you spend time with may drag you down or drain you of energy, while others will make you feel uplifted, light-hearted and refreshed.

The energy around our body is referred to as our ‘aura’ and consists of our electromagnetic field or energy body. Some special people such as healer Donna Eden can see people’s energy bodies. She can see their vibrancy as well as the various patterns, colours and holes they contain. In fact, in her classic book ‘Energy Medicine’, she indicates that she recognises people by their energy.

AuricBodies

The auric field consists of seven layers of electromagnetic energy. It is our life force and it protects us. It filters, transmits and attracts energy. When we are happy, it is big, bold and strong. But stress in particular can bring it crashing inwards and its ability to protect us becomes more limited. As a result, we are left vulnerable to the energies, or moods, of others. We feel more fragile and less able to simply brush things off.

This means that the more you pay attention to your feelings and gravitate towards people and situations that uplift you, the healthier your aura will become. It will also attract more of the same energy to it, which means you will find yourself surrounded by more positive people. But the same is true in reverse though, of course.

As a kinesiologist, I work with the body’s energy. As much as I would love to, I am not able to see it, but I do feel it. People’s energy to me feels bright, vibrant, crystal clear or sludgy, stuck, murky or heavy. It can also feel wired, jagged, sad or a host of other emotions. I can likewise feel shape, colour and brightness. I sometimes see images or feel physical pain in my own body.

This situation can be hard for others to grasp. On first starting out, one of my now regular clients said: “Well, I will come and see you again for some of your witchery. I don’t understand it, but it does seem to have a positive effect on me.”

I can appreciate people’s uncertainty in a modern age in which most of us rely so much more on science than on intuition. But as Eden says: “With our body comes an intelligence that exceeds understanding and intellect.”

Strangely though, there are a number of unseen energy forces that we choose to accept without question, perhaps because science has legitimised them or we have simply never thought about them in any depth. For instance, what stops us from flying off the planet? Isn’t there just as much “witchery” in gravity as there is in the body having its own energy system?

So many everyday magical things surround us in nature and all of them either require energy to exist or exist because of energy. Think of a seedling bursting out of its casing in the spring and pushing up through the soil. Or the heat from the sun’s energy that warms our planet, which for the most part is unseen – just felt.

Because, in fact, the energetic systems that protect, maintain and sustain our bodies were first documented in a work on Chinese medicine in around 100BC – ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine’ (Huangdi Neijing) referred to an “organised system of diagnosis and treatment” for acupuncture.

So such ideas are not really quite as ‘out there’ as some think. Rather they are simply concepts that have been forgotten in the West, but are now starting to re-emerge and move back into mainstream thought.

Anita Ramsden

Anita Ramsden is a kinesiologist. She is emphatic about affecting positive change and her work encourages wellbeing for mind, body and soul. Anita is also a member of the Kinesiology Federation.

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Labyrinths: A pathway to healing

Turf maze in Saffron Walden
Turf maze in Saffron Walden

By Cath Everett, content editor for the Spirit of East Anglia community.

Saffron Walden, a pretty, little market town in North West Essex, prides itself on its mazes. So proud is it of them, in fact, that it holds a regular Maze Festival there, the last one of which took place in 2016.

While two of its mazes were only created a few years ago – one in the bandstand in the town’s Jubilee Garden and another at the entrance to Swan Meadow car park and a stone’s throw from the local duck pond – the others are a bit more special. This is because Saffron Walden is unique in the UK in having two historic mazes within its boundaries.

The first consists of a traditional Victorian yew-hedge-based creation on the north side of town. It was laid out in Italian Renaissance style during the 1840s in the lovely Bridge End Gardens – which, incidentally, were never attached to a house, something that is pretty unusual for formal gardens of this type.

Anyway, the second, although known locally as “The Maze”, is actually a circular turf labyrinth. Located on the east side of the town’s extensive Common, only a hop, skip and a jump from the centre of town, it is the largest Medieval turf maze of its kind in Europe at an impressive 35 metres in diameter.

Apparently built in 1699, this labyrinth is said to be based on an even older version that was located nearby. And its path, which is now inlaid with bricks rather than the original cut-away turf, curves backwards and forwards in 17 circuits. It visits four small, bulgy bits, otherwise known as bastions, to form the shape of a cross, before winding itself to a higher central mound that, in most similar cases, would take the form of a rosette.

Rosettes in those days were often shaped as six-petalled roses and symbolised love, both human and divine and, like the Lotus flower of the East, enlightenment. Indeed, in Medieval Christian thought, to reach the centre of a labyrinth was to come face-to-face with God and experience the radical transformation that would undoubtedly follow.

But interestingly, at the centre of Saffron Walden’s labyrinth, there was actually an ash tree. And ash trees, or Nuin as they are known in the Ogham or ancient Celtic Tree Alphabet, symbolised, in a somewhat similar vein, rebirth, regeneration, reawakening and new beginnings. Ashes were likewise the tree of Gwydion, hero, trickster and master enchanter of Britain.

But ash trees also pop up in other traditions too. According to Norse mythology, the great ash was Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which was sacred to the Allfather God, Odin.

Landscape Pic Of Mighty Ash Tree Roots Covering The Hill
Ash tree

Esoteric knowledge

In fact, he hung on the World Tree for nine days and nights without food to gain esoteric knowledge, after which time he perceived the runes, a magical, ancient Germanic alphabet said to contain many of the secrets of existence.

As to what the difference between a labyrinth and a maze actually is, this was revealed to me by keynote speaker, Dr Jan Sellers, during Saffron Walden’s Maze Festival in 2016. Although now retired, she used to lecture in education and guidance at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where she helped create the nearby medieval-style Canterbury Labyrinth in 2008.

Anyway, it turns out that mazes have high walls and many paths to their centre, which means that their walkers often get lost. This situation could, therefore, be said to represent the human experience as we struggle through life’s winding paths, dead-ends and detours, trying to make sense of it and not get too lost.

Labyrinths, on the other hand, have no walls at all and offer only one path that weaves, albeit circuitously, to the heart of the matter and then back again. The idea here, among other things, is that these twists and turns symbolise life’s journey but also require concentration to stay on the path.

As a result, they help the walker to stay focused and in the present, quieting the mind and generating a kind of meditative state within, which nurtures the spirit in the process.

Dr Donna Zucker, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, has in fact recently researched and written a book called ‘Reducing Stress through Labyrinth Walking’ based on her work with clients, students and prison inmates, in which she harnessed the labyrinth’s power.

And I must say that labyrinth-walking certainly made an impact on me. Although I had never done it before, I thought I would give it a go when a canvas image of one was placed on the floor in the middle of the Town Hall’s Assembly Room for anyone showing an interest.

After taking a few deep breaths to let go of tension and try to forget feeling a bit foolish, I took my initial steps at the entrance point, putting one foot slowly in front of the other, heel to toe. And it was strange – as I travelled inwards towards the middle, it felt like I was leaving the everyday behind and moving inside myself.

LabyrinthLabyrinth

Symbols and archetypes

In fact, by the time I reached the centre, I could feel wells of deep emotion that I had not expected to surface. It was quite a revelation. But the journey back was no less symbolic as it represented (to me at least) the path back to the mundane. An interesting experience, definitely, and one that I would certainly like to try again.

Because I wonder if the labyrinth isn’t actually a Jungian-style archetype, or universal mythic character, found in the collective unconscious of people all over the world. They are certainly symbols seen in faiths, cultures, countries and communities across the globe ranging from Europe to India and from Indonesia to the American Southwest.

The earliest one discovered was actually chipped into a rock face 4,000 years ago as a petroglyph in Mogor, Spain. But the Romans also used the design in their mosaic flooring, and it likewise popped up in many a European Gothic cathedral, including perhaps the most famous of all at Chartres in France.

Then by the late medieval period (1300 to 1500), the trusty labyrinth found itself morphing into the puzzle maze so familiar to us all today. In more recent times though, its use has expanded still further. Because labyrinths are often found to be calming, they are increasingly being used for health and wellbeing purposes.

For example, labyrinth facilitator Kay Barrett and a team of helpers made a temporary structure of sand and LED tea lights for patients and staff to walk during Mental Health Resilience Week at Addenbrookes, my local hospital in Cambridge, in both 2013 and 2014.

Pilgrim’s Hospices in Canterbury, Kent, became the first such institution in the country to build a wheelchair-accessible, therapeutic labyrinth garden in order to benefit staff, carers and the terminally ill.

But for those without access to such facilities and who are unable to walk one themselves, there are now finger labyrinths for you to trace the pathways using your digits as a means of meditation, prayer or just to relax.

In fact, Cambridge-based charity and arts centre Rowan specialises in manufacturing them to fund its activities. Its students, who all have learning disabilities, work under the direction of various artists and craftspeople to create these portable labyrinths out of wood, building up their artistic skills, confidence and self-esteem in the process.

And if that isn’t a great way to nurture and heal the human spirit, then I don’t know what is.

DSC00182

Cath Everett has been a journalist and editor since 1992. She has written for a wide range of publications ranging from The Times to The Guardian as well as various business websites and magazines on areas such as diversity and inclusion, leadership, skills and other workplace issues. Cath also explores the impact of technology on the workplace and wider society.

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