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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Healing approaches

Kundalini Yoga: Awakening to a new truth

 

Woman meditating on a mountain
Meditation

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.

In factual terms, Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan, who first revealed the formerly secret practice to the West in the late 1960s, may be defined as:

  • The yoga of awareness;
  • A practice that prepares the body to release Kundalini, or life force, energy, which is coiled at the base of the spine and holds your energy field in stasis. When activated, this energy travels up a number of primary energy channels and merges with the crown chakra, bringing your spirit into union with the infinite, eternal essence of the cosmos;
  • Incorporating pranayama (breathing exercises), kriya (a series of yoga postures that work towards a specific outcome), meditation and mantras (chanting);
  • A non-religious practice, although it does include elements of, and teachings from, Sikh and other major world religions;
  • Embracing seva or selfless service to others.

relaxation sitting reflection statue
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What does Kundalini Yoga mean to me?

To me, Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of opportunity. It is an invitation to get to know yourself – both the light and shadow sides in equal measure. It is a chance to find healing and liberation from the traumas that all of us carry with us but often fail to integrate into our being.

But unlike some other modern day spiritual paths or self-help schemes, Kundalini Yoga does not promise a challenge-free path to freedom, which is why I believe it remains fairly niche. It is an approach that challenges and provokes as much as it elevates.

Above all, however, Kundalini Yoga is the yoga of connection: to ourselves, our families, our communities, all life on earth and finally to the universe’s truths.

My teacher Guru Dharam once described it as “a blueprint for an experience of you, but how you manifest that experience is entirely down to the individual. Embrace this challenging and unique path with commitment and heart, and the prize will be knowing yourself in this lifetime”.

Let me share with you a special experience I had half-way through my teacher training:

It is 5am on a Sunday morning in the middle of January. I, along with 40 other Kundalini Yoga teacher trainees are sitting, spines upright, eyes closed, waiting in silence for the recitation of Japji, one of the five daily Sikh prayers, to begin.

This morning, we find ourselves in a cavernous, converted barn, usually reserved for weddings, instead of the usual Elizabethan manor house where we live and practise as there are too many people to fit. The sub-zero temperatures outside mean it is not much warmer inside, and we can just about see our breath in the low lighting. My thin mat is proving poor protection against the freezing cold floor, and I find myself wishing I had a sheepskin mat like some of my friends.

But then the Japji begins and I become lost in the lyrical rhythm of its words. It is the start of the Aquarian Sadhana, a two-and-a-half hour practice that Yogi Bhajan gave us in 1992 to help with the transition into the Aquarian Age.

After Japji, we tune into the golden chain linking us to our teacher and to all the teachers that have come before by means of the Adi mantra, before launching into the kriya for this morning’s practice. By this time, I am grateful to have the chance to move. Heat begins to spread through my body as a combination of the stiffness from Saturday’s yoga, and the cold, starts to ease.

Illustration with mantra om sign surrounded by energy beams

A new truth

Following this yoga set, we relax in savasana (lying on our backs) for a few minutes – just long enough for the cold to seep back into my bones. But I don’t mind as my favourite part of the sadhana is just about to start: it is time for Long Morning Calls.

We chant the mantra seven times in seven minutes and, even though I have hardly moved in that time, the cosy feeling in my body and the space around me is like warm honey.

We now move our mats, blankets and sheepskins closer to the front of the room, where my teacher Benjahmin is setting up his harmonium and guitar. He starts to play the first six mantras that make up the playlist of the Aquarian Sadhana. As I hear each one, I am convinced each is my favourite.

But the penultimate mantra actually is. As we move into virasana (hero pose), I reaffirm to myself that this time I will remain in posture, sitting on my left foot with my hands held in prayer, for the whole 22 minutes.

Benjahmin plays the opening chords and my heart melts as the weight of what I am about to shed from my being starts to thaw, ready for release. I begin to sing and cry at the same time. As the music builds, so does an indescribable feeling in my heart. It feels as if all the love and pain that ever was and ever will be is exploding in waves of ever-increasing mass and energy, crashing into every thought, every cell and every breath.

Halfway through, I stop singing to allow myself to truly feel the intensity of the experience. I am of my body but not in it. The boundaries of my being have disappeared and I have merged with the space, the other souls around me and the essence of the sound or naad.

All thought has stopped. All I can do is feel. And now it comes – an awareness that has been lurking at the edge of my consciousness since I came to my mat two hours ago. I now know something, not with my mind, but with each of my 10 physical, mental and energy bodies. Because it’s not a thought so much as a truth firmly lodged in my being: “There is no suffering without purpose.”

What this actually means to me will be the subject of a separate blog but suffice to say, it is a knowing that continues to unfold daily and my absolute certainty in this truth is as strong now as it was on that icy morning three-and-a-half years ago.

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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Healing approaches

Six common meditation myths busted

ancient-architecture-art-161170

By Sarah Stollery, kundalini yoga and meditation teacher.

Meditation in general, and mindfulness in particular, are constantly in the media these days. It is now considered acceptable practice for dealing with everything from anxiety and depression to improving wellbeing in the office. This means it has truly moved into the mainstream.

Many of us would like to establish a regular meditation practice but may, unconsciously, have various misconceptions about it that prevent us from making it part of our regular self-care regime. Here are some of the barriers I faced and overcame during my own personal journey, which I know are not peculiar to me but common to many:

Myth 1: The goal of meditation is to reach a state of peaceful calm

This is goal, of course. Why would we do it otherwise? But making it our primary goal can mean we end up feeling cheated or a failure if we do not end our practice feeling blissed out and floating on a cloud.

Instead if we make our goal to stick with our practice no matter what arises, a zen state will often occur as a happy byproduct. In other words, feeling calm is a likely outcome of meditation, but if we make it our sole focus we may end up disappointed.

Sticking with the practice regardless of what arises means that, irrespective of any thoughts, emotions or physical sensations that occur, we bring our awareness back to meditating whenever it wanders. If we are focusing on our breath, we come back to the breath. If we are saying a mantra, we come back to the mantra. If the practice is about awareness itself, we come back to being aware of our awareness.

Whether the mind wanders 10 times or 100 times, it does not matter – we always endeavor to bring it back to our practice as soon as we notice what is happening. What really matters is choosing to bring our attention back rather than staying engaged our thoughts.

Myth 2: Meditation should always bring a deep sense of wellbeing

This myth is very much connected to the first one. While we would all love to have a deep sense of wellbeing, it does not always happen.

When Yogi Bhajan brought kundalini yoga to the west in 1968, he said meditation was like taking a mental shower. Our subconscious mind acts like a filtration system, trapping all the emotions, thoughts and feelings we fail to process in our daily lives, before storing them for us.

But our system eventually becomes full. Without a way to clean it, many of us find ourselves in a cycle of manage-cope-breakdown. We tread water until we are unable to do so any more, and mental and/or physical burnout results.

Sometimes when we meditate though, these stored thoughts and feelings are released from the unconscious into our conscious awareness. Put another way, our mind uses the practice of meditation to clean our filters.

This process may feel uncomfortable and leave us having to deal with the strong emotions that have arisen. Such a situation is normal and, although difficult, enables us to process our thoughts and feelings in a healthy way. The cumulative effective of “cleaning the filter” through regular practice is of great benefit to our wellbeing in the long-term and can help break the burnout cycle.

As a side note, meditation may sometimes feel uncomfortable because we have been running in fifth gear all day long, before suddenly asking our bodies to shift into first while our foot is still on the accelerator.

But that is where yoga comes in. The physical practice of yoga prepares the body for meditation. Even just a few minutes of simple stretching and exercise can help our bodies to ease off the accelerator and shift down through the gears slowly, so that we can get the most out of our meditation practice.

Myth 3: When I meditate, I will enter a space of no-thought

Again, this scenario can and does happen but should not become a way to judge the success of our meditation. In my personal experience, thought never stops. It just slows down and becomes quieter, much like turning down the volume of a radio.

Myth 4: I must meditate for at least 20 minutes to receive any benefits

It is true that the more you meditate, the more adept you become at it and the more positive effects you will notice. But as little as three minutes a day is enough to make a difference.

In reality, it is more about the consistency with which you practice than the duration of any given session. Three minutes every day will probably serve you better than 20 minutes once a week.

By meditating little and often, we make it a more achievable goal (most of us can find three minutes each day) and it feels like less of a chore (see Myth 5). It also helps establish our practice as a habit rather than an occasional exercise. So when you find yourself with more time, meditating for longer will be easy.

Myth 5: Meditation is good for me so I should always want to do it

Physical exercise is good for us but a lot of us do not want to do it and will find any excuse not to do so. Meditation could be described as simply exercise for the mind: it takes effort, it can feel boring and, as previously mentioned, it can release difficult emotions.

Humans are creatures of habit for a reason. Habits are efficient – they require a lot less energy output. When meditating, we change the way our brains are wired. While this is ultimately a good thing, we may resist such change because it generates more: changes in perspective, thoughts, attitudes, aspirations as well as in our concept of self and our relationships.

Meditation has the potential to change the way we relate to our entire experience of life, both internal and external, past, present and future. So it poses the ultimate threat for a creature of habit as change is exhausting and can be uncomfortable.

But whether you crave meditation or resist it, if you desire to live a life that is authentic for yourself and the world around you, there really is no better tool to support you in that endeavour.

Myth 6: Meditation is a luxury so I can only do it when everything else on my to-do list is completed

Self-care is not a luxury – it is a necessity. Our mental health and wellbeing should not be an afterthought as it is paramount to our survival.

Society teaches us that we must earn self-care through some mystical formula of paid work, caring for our family and friends, contributing to society and the like. This idea is deeply rooted in a dying patriarchy so please do not buy into it.

If you believe that meditation has the potential to improve your wellbeing, make it a priority by putting it at the top of your to-do list. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself – and, if you decide meditation is not for you, give yourself permission to take care of yourself in some other way.

In an aeroplane, you are always told to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping other people – and while the analogy may be used a lot these days, it is still valid. We cannot help others if our own energy is depleted. Or we can, but we end up being burnt out, which is not a sustainable way to live.

The above is by no means a definitive list though, and I would love to hear about any barriers you have experienced in establishing a regular meditation practice. Feel free to post comments and share your own experiences with myself and the rest of the community here.

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.