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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Inspiring lifestyles

Three ways to care for yourself following winter hibernation

By Anita Ramsden, kinesiologist

I love the springtime because of the possibilities and hopefulness it offers as nature never lets us down.

The countryside can look so bleak in winter, but in reality everything is simply resting, restoring itself and conserving its energy. So when the sun starts to shine and the days warm up, everything is ready to burst out with newness and freshness to exploit its full potential.

At the start of winter, I read a blog about how people go within and, like much of the natural world, adopt an attitude of hibernation. It prompted me to think differently about things: Could we be happier if we saw ourselves and our behaviour reflected in those seasonal flows?

Certainly, the cold, grey days have not bothered me as much as usual because I have appreciated lighting the fire and acknowledging that this is a time to slow up, rest and get ready – for spring and growth.

So as we begin to emerge from our hibernation, what do we need to do to care for ourselves effectively? Hydration, movement and a quiet mind are key and here is why:

1. Raise your energy levels by hydrating your mind and body

During the winter, most of us spend a lot of our time inside. But life indoors can be very dehydrating. There is central heating, hot fires and the electromagnetic fields of WiFi networks and mobile phones. Computers and other electrical equipment all produce heat when we use them, but all of these things take their toll on the levels of water content in our cells.

Indeed, according to the Hydration Foundation: “We are 99% water molecules and even a 2% reduction in hydration leads to measurable cognitive loss.” It is certainly a pity that more schools do not realise this fact as reduced hydration levels affect everything from the amount of energy an individual has, to their mood, their ability to concentrate, their hunger levels and their ability to feel joyful.

But the solution is easy: Simply drink more water, ideally eight glasses a day.  Build it up slowly, especially if you currently do not consume that much, or indeed any.

A really beneficial way to start your day is with a big glass (eight to 12 oz) of water, with a pinch of pink Himalayan or sea salt and/or a squeeze of lemon. If you make it the first thing you do, you will give your organs a really good soak and get the hydration message straight into your cells and brain. But do not be tempted to use table salt as it does not contain the same essential minerals as other forms. 

Plants and seeds can also hydrate us too. So add a tablespoon of ground chia seeds to your water and/or daily smoothie. Chia seeds form ‘gel water’, which is what we find inside plants – think of succulents, such as the Aloe vera.

Scientists have also recently discovered gel water inside our cells. This means they can absorb it instantly, giving us a great deal more energy and allowing the water to stay in our body for use rather than going straight through us. Find out more by viewing this TEDtalk by Dr Gerald Pollack.  

A daily smoothie, which includes hydrating green veg, fruit, added ground chia and other seeds and nuts, will likewise provide you with long-lasting hydration – as will eating juicy fruit like apples. But you might also benefit from reading a book called Quench, which was released in 2018. Jam-packed with vital information you may not have considered before, it also provides a five-day ‘Quench’ plan to ensure optimum hydration.

Photo by Godisable Jacob on Pexels.com

2.Get moving

Once you become adequately hydrated, movement is important to encourage even more hydration at the cellular level. Many of us spend large chunks of time crunched up over our computer at a desk. But sitting in this way compromises your organs, and sitting still for long time periods has been deemed as harmful as smoking cigarettes. Not only is it dehydrating, but as an article in The Guardian once put it: “When you’re sitting, you’re one step from being dead.”

So make sure you get up and move. If you are focusing on hydrating yourself, a positive side effect is that your bladder will remind you to move, which will in turn increase your oxygen supply and improve your blood and lymph flow.

Elsewhere, standing desks have been found to increase productivity and reduce the number of sick days taken – but even just doing head-to-chin and small spinal twists while sitting will help.

Also make tiny, little movements before you get out of bed. When you see cats and dogs stretching as they wake up, they are helping the cerebral spinal fluid flow around the head and down the back, which means they both energise and detox themselves at same time.

In order to prepare your body for spring though, go out to get lunch rather than eat at your desk and take advantage of the vitamin D that the sun will help you produce. Or walk the dog more often, get off the bus one stop early or park a bit further than usual from your destination. These may sound like simple things, but they can make a big difference to your health and wellbeing.  

Spending time outside also aids sleep as sunlight is required to set our circadian rhythms – and our gut microbiota respond to these natural cycles positively too. Even better, spend time outside with a friend who makes you laugh in order to boost your energy levels and release health-giving hormones. It really is about looking for the magic in everyday life.

3. Learn to quiet your mind

Finally, train yourself to quieten your mind using meditation, mindfulness techniques or simply a walk in the park where you focus on nature rather than on what is going on in your head. It is refreshing, relaxing and reboots your thinking.

Moreover, all it takes is a bit practice, and the benefits are huge. By stimulating your vagus nerve in this easy way, you are taken out of a fight or flight response, which physiologically reduces your stress response.

You can do it anywhere and only 10 minutes a day will help boost your mood, your energy levels and help destress you. A really helpful app here is Headspace. Complementary medicine advocate Deepak Chopra’s meditation programme is also great and he has a new one starting at the end of March, so why not give it a go?

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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Healing approaches

Cultivating mindfulness to support transformational change

Butterfly on zen Stones

By Laura McAvoy, transformational coach

There are many ways to experience mindfulness and meditation, whether through your own daily practice, within an embodiment tradition such as yoga or Tai Chi, or perhaps as part of a practical approach to stress reduction, to name but a few.

Mindfulness might not immediately spring to mind when you think of transformational coaching, with its focus on speaking and conversation to help you move your life forward. Yet mindfulness and coaching can have a big impact if the two approaches are combined – especially if you are feeling ‘stuck’.

It is an absolute truth that we can make a choice and make a change. Yet, deep personal transformation – the kind that brings significant, lasting and meaningful change – can often feel like a long process.

At times of transition – after becoming a parent, during and after illness or bereavement, in mid-life, during menopause or at certain points in our relationships or work – we can be called on to take stock, to turn inward and ask ourselves: Who am I and what do I really want?

Clients who start coaching work are often on the crest of this wave, seeking answers and with an awareness that something needs to move forward but wrestling back and forth in dilemma. They often feel hemmed-in by life circumstances, unsure of whether they have the resources within themselves to create something new and feeling trapped in circular thought patterns based on indecision.

The aim of a transformational coach in this scenario is to shift that sense of inertia or paralysis by helping to liberate their thinking.

If you are feeling stuck and want to start helping yourself immediately though, it could be useful to explore the attitudes on which mindfulness is based, which is an excellent place to begin. According to Emily Johnston, one of my trainers and a long standing mindfulness and wellbeing coach, mindfulness is underpinned by seven key attitudes:

  1. Non-judgement;
  2. Patience;
  3. Beginner’s mind;
  4. Trust;
  5. Non-striving;
  6. Acceptance;
  7. Letting go.

Sit for a while and sample the flavour of each of these attitudes, before combining them with some simple coaching questions. Doing so should help you shift perspective on your current situation.

Non-judgement

If you have been feeling stuck or as if you are not moving forward, your self-talk is likely to involve an element of judgement.

Ask yourself: How am I judging myself in this situation? Where am I placing blame? How is this judgement serving me in either moving forward or staying stuck?

See if you can ease yourself – even if only for while – into a state of non-judgement. Could you re-tell your story using only factual statements without your ‘inner critic’ rising up? If you are unsure, write your story down and read it back as if it had been written by a friend. What would you say to them upon reading it? How does this approach change things?

Beginner’s mind

This is my absolute favourite. ‘Beginner’s mind’ asks us to view our situation with curiosity and to approach it with an almost childlike wonder and openness as if for the very first time, with all of our preconceptions lifted. In other words, look at things as if they offer a new possibility.

Ask yourself: What have I not explored in my situation? What might I have missed? What other meanings could this situation hold for me? What other outcomes may be available?

Trust

Trust plays a crucial part in helping us make a shift. If we do not trust ourselves, our environment or other people, it makes it hard to be free ourselves enough to make the choices we desire.

Ask yourself: Where does my trust lie? What, if anything, is hindering my belief in myself? Who and what can help to support me?

Non-striving

The idea of ‘non-striving’ may seem to go against most people’s idea of coaching, but it actually sits at the heart of transformative practice. Deep transformation involves a process of unfolding, which entails listening in to yourself and being responsive to what arises, and even changing course if needs be.

Ask yourself: How can I bring a sense of more ease into my life? How can I honour the process in which I am finding myself? How can I truly be present?

Acceptance

Once we see things how they really are and are less clouded by judgement, fear and limiting beliefs, such acceptance can be freeing. It is not only about accepting the circumstances that surround us but also about accepting what is rising within us in terms of our emotions.

The discomfort provoked by some feelings could be too difficult to experience, so instead of accepting them and allowing them to express and dissipate, we supress or deny them. But it might also be worth exploring whether we accept the role that we are playing in what is happening too.

Ask yourself: What, if anything, have I been struggling to accept? What might I need to allow to rise within me? What am I feeling?

Letting go

Letting go is a process that naturally follows noticing and accepting.

Ask yourself: What is ready to be released in my life? What thoughts, beliefs, behaviours, relationships, old patterns and habits are no longer serving me? What will support me in letting them go? Where might more forgiveness be helpful?

By questioning your situation with an attitude of mindfulness, you could gain new traction. The story in your head might not be the ‘whole truth’, so it may be possible to find a fresh perspective by engaging in a mindfulness or meditation practice that suits you.

If this suggestion resonates, it may be helpful to find the time and set the intention to cultivate the seven attitudes of mindfulness within you. Just five to 10 minutes of meditation a day can make a big difference if you practice it consistently.

Laura McAvoy

Laura McAvoy provides transformative coaching and dialogue for women. She also offers group coaching courses, coaching circles and 1:1 work, all of which incorporates mindfulness and meditation. Laura works in Saffron Walden, Essex, and the surrounding area.

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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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Kundalini yoga: Taking on the challenge of transformational change

women s white top and orange floral skirt
Photo by Samuel Silitonga on Pexels.com

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher

As the turn of the year approaches once again, how many of you have started thinking about New Year’s resolutions – even if, quite often, they are not very new at all? In fact, all too often, they are actually the same ones we made last year but did not stick to.

Which begs the question of why bother? Change is hard work. So shouldn’t we just accept ourselves as we are and let go of the idea that we could create a better version of ourselves?

Loving and accepting ourselves for who we are is certainly a worthy aim. But even doing that meaningfully can require transformation of a kind – a transformation in our thinking.

And what about those resolutions that really would support us in living more fulfilling, connected and joyous lives? If you are stuck in a job you hate, it IS important to make 2019 the year you find a new vocation.

If you are feeling stifled creatively, 2019 IS the year to find a satisfying outlet for your passion. If you are chronically stressed and exhausted, 2019 IS the year to find a more balanced and sustainable way of living.

Illustration with mantra om sign surrounded by energy beams

Transformational change

But change is challenging, and sometimes the best intentions in the world are simply not enough to ensure temporary change becomes lasting transformation. That is where kundalini yoga and meditation come in. They act as tools to help bring about authentic, lasting transformation by working on multiple levels.

Habits, both good and bad, exist not just in our subconscious and unconscious minds, but also in our cellular memory as well. So, to delete old habits and create new ones successfully, it is necessary to work on all of these levels. Kundalini yoga can help here by:

  • Rewiring our nervous system to remove old habits and embed new ones;
  • Rebalancing and reprogramming our endocrine (hormonal) system to support us through the emotional challenges that change generates;
  • Cultivating a neutral mind so that we have the necessary awareness to make conscious choices untainted by ego, which resists change;
  • Developing an achievable daily practice that specifically targets the changes we wish to make;
  • Providing us with a supportive community of fellow yogis, who are also working towards making change and so help to keep us accountable.

Life is too short to write off effecting transformational change in the name of loving and accepting ourselves as we are. It is important to remember that we cannot fully love and accept ourselves if we are not living an authentic life in which we recognise and honour our own needs. So it is vital to put in the hard work required to ensure those needs are met by creating the necessary change.

If you would like support in making such changes real and lasting, check out my new six-week Kundalini Yoga and Meditation Course starting on 16 January 2019 at the Mokshala Yoga and Meditation Centre in Saffron Walden, Essex. You won’t regret it.

sarah stollery headshot

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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