Posts Tagged ‘yoga’

Joan of Arc, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I was about to spend my first night in an idyllic holiday cottage by the sea. I had arrived weary after two hundred miles of roaring roads, with broken air-con and in a steam-heat that had sucked the energy from my bones. But as I took a brief stroll around my new home for the week I knew I was in for a treat: a quaint old harbour, a clean sea, a good weather forecast and porpoises leaping in the bay. What more could one ask?

I went to bed early, looking forward to a refreshing night’s sleep, but I found it hard to drift off. This sometimes happens after a long journey and a strange bed, but when I did finally eventually slip away, I was assailed by horrific dreams of violence, torture and mutilation. This was not normal, my dreams being for the most part benign and enigmatic. I wondered then where such powerfully gruesome imagery might have come from. Dreams borrow from waking life, but I don’t watch that type of movie or play the computer games that might contain it, and my actual waking life is as tame as it gets.

It was a mystery, then.

According to one theory I was sleeping in a psychical space still contaminated by the previous guest, that I had literally laid my head upon the same pillow and immersed myself in a persisting cloud of fear and knife-slashing violence. The more rational modes of thinking will not allow such ideas of course, and mostly I resist them, but the more mystical forms will and since I was desperate for sleep, I was prepared to entertain them. For help in such situations, we do no better than turn to Tibetan Buddhism, and the yoga of dreams and sleep.

These teachings are concerned with cultivating a lucid awareness during the dream; effectively waking up in the dream, and becoming consciously aware of ourselves within it. This is not something I’m capable of, but the subject interests me as do all studies on dreams and dreaming. Lucidity has been verified by experiment in sleep laboratories, and it seems many of us are indeed capable of it spontaneously. What we do with it varies. In Western culture, according to the books I’ve read by self styled oneironauts, it boils down to wanting to fly, or having sex with strangers and other fantastical, escapist adventures, in other words to use the dream-space as a kind of narcissistic playground. In Tibetan Buddhism however, the goal is to achieve a state of meditation, in the dream. Also, if we are able to become fully aware of ourselves in the dream space, the Buddhists say we are more likely to become fully awake in the awakened state as well. This is something that takes a great deal of discipline and training, but other aspects of the technique are more accessible to the lay person, such as how we prepare the ground for lucid awareness in the first place.

Obviously if we are to meditate in the dream, we need a clean psychical space, untroubled by demons and their drama. So, as we seek sleep, the yogis teach the cultivation of personal, protective archetypes. For a man these are most easily imagined as female warriors of extraordinary beauty and prowess. We conjure them up by a process of active imagination as we seek sleep, then deploy them around our sleep-space to watch over us. We station them in doorways, around the bed or patrolling the garden, wherever we feel a vulnerability. They are infinitely patient and devoted to our protection and by their mere presence they chase away the troublesome demons as sunlight dissolves shadows, or as the presence of a cat will deter mice.

Fanciful as all this sounds, I do find the technique effective and have deployed my personal “Amazons” on many an occasion when unsettled and struggling for sleep. Sure enough, on this occasion too, my later dreams found a more even keel; the gore dissolved to something more wholesome as I sailed through into a placid space and woke refreshed, ready to begin my holiday.

I was not troubled again.

Sweet dreams.

Ref The Tibetan Yogas of Dreams and Sleep

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8pb2I’m not fond of hospitals. The only times I’ve been in one was either for the births of my children or the seeing out of elderly relatives – all of them traumatic experiences, though in different ways of course. This was why I felt nervous sitting in the waiting room yesterday with a complaint of my own, the prospect of surgery hanging over me, and the knowledge that the last few times I’d seen a hospital doctor they’d told me there was nothing more they could do and someone was going to die. Doctors, I assured myself, were useless. All of this was irrational of course, but analysing it into stillness passed the time.

It was my nose.

Years of Anosmia (no sense of smell) had finally led me to the Ear Nose and Throat department of my local hospital. My GP – not the most reassuring of characters – had referred me there somewhat half heartedly and with the caveat there probably wasn’t much anyone could do. It was partly his negative outlook that had led me to explore all the complementary therapies first, including acupuncture. The acupuncture had worked, but only briefly – a three week window of scented delights, late last year, but which had then closed, and in spite of the continuing administrations of my TCM practitioner, had refused to open again.

So, there I was, waiting to see the doctor – not your ordinary doctor this time – not like my GP who was merely a “Dr”. This guy was a “Dr Mr”. A surgeon. A proper sawbones!

My GP had  told me off for wasting time and money on acupuncture. Complementary stuff definitely doesn’t compute with him. On previous occasions when he’d asked me if I exercised, and I’d replied I do Tai Chi and Qigong, he’d looked blank. When he’d asked if I was taking any medication he was unaware of and I’d replied: “Does Ginseng count?” again he’d looked blank.

He wasn’t entirely to blame, poor guy; it was as much my own insecurity, perceiving his credentials as materialist and stereotypically 8pb1unsympathetic to the traditional eastern world view, while I feared my own approach still lacked the proper grounding in verifiable fact. So, I was guarded when the Dr. Mr. Sawbones asked me these same questions and I muttered the words Tai Chi, Qigong and Ginseng in an almost apologetic tone.

He was a young man – late twenties I guessed, studious, smart, clean looking coupled with an easy smile and an effortless sense of humour. His manner, his energy, was a world away from that of my GP – which always left me feeling slightly depressed. I’d gone to the hospital that day jumping at shadows, ready to run if anyone came near me with a scalpel,  but I decided at once this guy could stick a scalpel in me any time he liked. I trusted him.

He then astonished me by saying he thought Qigong was a remarkably effective mind-body technique, that he practiced it himself, and highly recommended it. I said I was surprised, given his background in western medicine and its traditional antipathy towards the non-materialist world view. He replied that things were slowly changing, then went on to discuss the Chinese meridian system – this while he slid a camera up my nose.

I wondered if he was having me on. Don’t tell me you support that as well, I said – though it’s not easy to talk with a camera up your nose. He replied that given the amount of compelling research data, western medicine really had no choice now but to find a way of assimilating at least certain aspects of traditional energy medicine into modern practice, though he admitted ruefully it would probably take another hundred years. His own view was that emotion played a large part in determining both the nature, and the incidence of a body’s malfunction, that he equated “emotion” with the term “energy”. The meridian system, talk of chi or whatever, was a tangible way of getting a handle on the emotions, thereby curing ills that were unresponsive to medicine alone, or for simply preventing illness in the first place. It was all related to the so called Relaxation Response, which we need to be able to balance out the other side of the mind-body equation – the Fight or Flight response.

Healthy mind equals healthy body.

As for my own ills, he announced I had a load of polyps up my nose – little non-malignant growths that stop the air from getting to the smelling apparatus, and there was a good chance he could get rid of them without surgery. He said I looked fairly fit off my Tai Chi and Qigong, and I should keep it up, otherwise the sackload of medication he was about to prescribe would be laying me pretty low.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about my encounter with this guy – almost forgetting I’d been to see him over my nose. But as well as identifying a concrete reason for my Anosmia, and a frankly positive assessment of the likelihood of curing it, my ten minutes with this highly educated western surgeon, working at the sharp end of the British National Health System had unexpectedly deepened my understanding and appreciation of  eastern energy yogas as well.

Any form of exercise is good for you. It doesn’t matter what it is – if it moves the body, it’ll improve the circulation of the blood and the lymph, and the body cannot help but respond in positive ways. But if, as well as moving the body, you can move the mind,… now there you have a powerful technique  – and not just as a health system, but also as a means of taking a human being to the very edge of what is possible.

I do hope this bag of pharmaceuticals helps me smell the world again, and they don’t make me too ill in the process. But I’ll also be taking my Tai Chi and Qigong practice far less self consciously in future.

Doctor’s orders.

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leaving darwen tower

I talked last night about letting go of our anxieties and I’m conscious now of  making it sound easier than it really is. If we are born with a personality that is prone to anxiety, depression, or any other form of psychological turbulence, ” letting go” is more of a lifetime’s work than something that can be taught in a one off session – it’s part of who we are, and we’ll never be described as “normal” in the clinical sense, but then who is normal? On the upside, with hindsight, for a writer, it gives us a lot of interesting material to work with – though it might not feel like it at the time.

Of course, we can be brought quickly back onto the straight and narrow with the aid of drugs like SSRI’s. These alter the way we experience emotion, and can be quite powerful, but speaking as a layman, they also have their downsides. If your depression is so deep you’re literally at risk of razor blades in the bathroom, then SSRI’s can save your life, so we shouldn’t be too squeamish about taking them. Equally though, I know people who are stuck on them and for no reason I can see, other than they’re not aware of  any other option.

I spent a short time on SSRI’s myself, following a stressful transition in both my work and personal life, back in the nineties. This was a decade when they seemed to be handing them out like sweets. Prozac in particular was hailed as the new wonder drug – a substance that would render things like depression and anxiety a thing of the past. Well, Prozac’s still with us, but so are things like depression and anxiety.

Before taking Prozac, I was jumping at shadows, I was anxious about things stretching way into the future, things that might never happen. I’d break out sweating for no reason, I’d get dizzy behind the wheel of a car, mainly because my neck was so tightly screwed up I was shutting off the circulation to my brain – and I’d only to be trapped in a room full of people before I was imagining I was going to faint – probably for the same reason.

On reflection I recognize the root cause of my anxieties was not wanting to be where I was. But my societal duties and my apparent life’s path – including the basic need to go out and earn a living – insisted I endure situations I found absurd, not only that, but situations in which I was obliged to act and speak as if I thought everything was “normal”, that I’d somehow bought-in to the collective delusion. You can only do that for so long before your unconscious erupts on a volcanic scale, laying waste to your life, prompting you to rise phoenix-like from the ashes, hopefully on a more psychically sincere path. If you can’t do that, there’s a chance it’ll simply pull the plug on you and find a more willing companion next time around.

On Prozac, however, fitting in was no longer a problem. I also discovered astonishing levels of self confidence. A bomb could have gone off and I would not have moved, except to brush the dust from my shoulders. If the boss had shouted at me, I would have felt confident enough to tell him what I thought, then wee on his desk. A wonder-drug? Yes, and with good reason; my early days on Prozac were a revelation!

However, I lasted only a short while before the side effects kicked in. I found myself unable to sleep. I remember I didn’t sleep for a whole week, and that put me into a darker hole than I’d been in in the first place. You can get tablets for insomnia of course, and I was offered them as a quick fix, but I decided to make a break at this point and began the long road to becoming a closet hippy instead. Twenty five years later, I still wear a conventional collar and tie to work, and I draw a salary that’s been uninterrupted by time off for “stress”. But there’s a yin-yang pendant and a tree of life next to my skin, and my wisest confidant is a book called the I Ching.

This wasn’t an easy transition.

I was 28, a self styled mathematician and a physicist, having just completed 10 years of studies. To my mind, if you couldn’t plot its trajectory, or describe its behaviour with differential equations, “it” didn’t exist. I was rational, and a materialist. Many tread that path their whole lives, carving out impressive careers for themselves. Not me. It took a while for me to realise the stuff I’d learned was already a hundred years out of date, and that while there were many aspects of life you could explore, extrapolate and interpolate with the calculus of Isaac Newton, there were others it wouldn’t touch. The mind was one of them. For that you needed to get weird. Even Newton knew this, and wasn’t afraid to get weird himself.

So I got weird.

I started on the body with Yoga, then on the mind with Jung, then on both body and mind with Tai Chi and Qigong. For the spirit, I circled Daoism, Buddhism, then came back to Jung again – it was he who taught me there can be no dichotomy between psyche and spirit. I walked, I read, and I wrote. I’ve been doing that for 25 years, and I’ve still no idea what I’m talking about, but I’ve never since felt the dark depths of despair that SSRI’s dumped me in. I’ve since faced far more stressful situations, without a serious wobble, so I must be doing something right. As for certainty though, you can forget it – about the only thing I know for sure in all of this is that what’s real is not always what you can plot on a graph.

As Jung said, what’s real is simply what works.

And it changes, all the time. What’s right for you now may not work in another year or two. You have to keep pace with your changing psyche. As Jung also said: All true things must change, and what does not change, cannot be true.

It might not sound like much of a cure – a quarter of a century of faltering steps along an essentially intangible mystical path, but reality was transformed for me once I took those first steps, and I feel the world has in all that time been coloured a more vivid shade of life than it ever would have been on SSRI’s.

A critical look at the dynamics of human interaction on a global scale reveals the disturbing fact that the world has evolved into a profoundly sick beast, that we live out daily the madness of the collective unconscious, pretty much as you can see it lived among the inmates of any institution for the seriously disturbed. And we participate in it because we have no choice – we’re all imprisoned by the essentially delusional values of money, and status, and even things like national or religious identities.

SSRI’s make us conveniently forgetful of this madness, allowing us to go on living in the world, but in ways that are making us increasingly ill. For the mystic to live in such a world, and see it as he does, does not make for comfortable viewing, but it at least grants him the ability to rise above the bullshit, to see it for what it is, and to maintain his psychical integrity rather than being negatively influenced and dragged down into the depths of hell by it.

But how do you let go? How does the office worker, the teacher, the health care professional,… all of them oppressed by organisational structures based upon delusional understandings of the human psyche, and metered by the dollar,… how do they let their anxieties go?

Well, the transcendental path is the only one I know, and your journey starts when you can deal with any negative materialistic reactions you might have to that word: Transcendental. The next step is looking that word up, understanding what it means to you, and then realising what a big word it is.

But the bottom line in all of this is it’s a personal journey. You can seek help, talk to people, read books, research the internet. But at some point you have to take charge of your own psychical destiny, and do something about it. Don’t worry that your actions might seem weird, because then you’re falling into another common trap – that of living your life through the eyes of someone else, someone always critical and questioning of your rational grip, of your right to be whomever you want to be. We’ve all done this. Recognising it, again, is one of the first steps to being free of it.

I could talk about meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Jungian Psychology, non literal reality, the Romantic movement, looking for meaning in our dreams, guided imagination – as I have done at at various times in this blog, and shall do so again,… but none of these things may be right for you, so just find what works, and get on with it.

Come to think of it, I haven’t talked about meditation.

I may do that next.

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Swara Yoga – balancing the mind?

Does Swara Yoga prove a link between human biological cycles and the cycles of the sun and the moon?

I’m amazed I’ve managed to live as long as I have while only recently noticing that there is something very interesting about my nose – not just my nose, but everyone’s nose. If you don’t know what I’m on about, may I suggest you try a simple experiment? Close your mouth and breathe in through your nose. So far so good? Now, lightly press a finger against the side of one nostril, sealing it off, then breathe in gently. Okay? Now, release the blocked nostril, seal up the other one and breathe in again. Notice anything odd? The chances are you will find that while one nostril feels relatively clear, the other will seem a bit congested, requiring more effort to get the air through. If they both feel about the same , then try again in another thirty minutes. Keep checking throughout the day.

What I’m driving at here is that at certain times of day you’ll notice one nostril will feel clearer than the other.

And they alternate.

This phenomenon has been known about for a long time of course. It forms the basis of an ancient technique called Swara Yoga – swara meaning “flow of air”. It was developed to a sophisticated degree in India, and reputedly goes back to the pre-Vedic era, which would make it over four thousand years old. What these early scholars proposed was that the switch from one nostril to the other was also accompanied by a change in humour, or mood. Taking this a step further, they surmised that the timing of these cycles was linked to the lunar and solar cycles as well the cycle of the then known planets. From these ideas, they developed a complex system which placed the individual’s natural rhythms in the context of the greater rhythms of the earth and the universe.

As well as paying heed to the rhythmic alternations between right and left nostril breathing, it was discovered that the cycle could be adjusted, so that if you found yourself running out of sync with the natural world, so to speak, you could bring yourself back in line – or you could temporarily change your mode of breathing in order to suit whatever it was that you were doing. Early paintings of swamis and gurus sometimes show them with a crutch-like stick under one armpit as they sit meditating. Leaning on the stick, known as a “danda”, applies pressure to the armpit, and this was said to change the dominant nostril. There was no point meditating, they believed, if one nostril was more dominant than the other and the aim of these early swamis was to achieve a state of balance – a special condition where neither nostril is dominant.

The Two Hemispheres

Support for at least for some of the observations of Swara Yoga, comes from recent medical studies of the brain. The brain is divided into two halves – the left and right hemispheres, and it is known that each hemisphere tends to specialise in a particular mode of thinking. The left hemisphere shows greater levels of activity when we are presented with puzzles that require a rational, calculating, analytical or a linguistic approach. On the other hand when we’re engaged in artistic activities such as painting, drawing, writing, or anything else that demands a creative, abstract, fuzzy or intuitive approach, the right hemisphere becomes more active.

As individuals, we all have a particular preference for either left brain or right brain thinking. This is simply a part of who we are and how we approach life. However, studies have shown that the brain switches dominance between hemispheres several times during the day, alternating between left brain thinking and right brain thinking. Obviously, the whole brain is available to us regardless of the time of day, but there is a suggestion that we are better at tackling rational, logical problems at a time when the left hemisphere is dominant, or to put it simply, when our brains are in the correct mode.

Returning to the subject of Swara Yoga then, and the idea of an alternating, dominant nostril, it’s interesting to note that the same medical studies of the brain have also identified a direct link between brain mode and breathing. When the dominant nostril is the left hand one, it is the right hemisphere of the brain that is dominant, conversely, Right nostril: Left brain. This seems to suggest that the early pioneers of Swara Yoga were correct in their observations and that there was indeed a link between the flowing nostril and the humor or mood of the individual. For a start, Swara Yoga seems to grant us a reliable indicator for judging which brain mode we’re in, a claim backed up by respectable scientific studies:

Left Nostril Clear = Right Brain mode: Creative, intuitive.

Right Nostril Clear = Left Brain mode: Rational, analytical.

But we can go further.

If we’ve been particularly diligent with our experiments, we might have noticed that during the switch-over from one nostril to the next there was a period when both nostrils felt about the same. This period corresponds to an exchange of energy between the two brain hemispheres: one is powering down while the other is ramping up. It’s during this hiatus that it is believed we are more prone to making errors or to lapses of concentration. If we can be aware of these crucial change-over periods, we can use them to time our natural breaks in the working day and to avoid pursuing any definite goals. Creative problem solving can be reserved for our right brain periods and tricky analytical problems for the left. Remaining in tune with our own rhythms in this way we can stay fresher throughout the day and feel less drained at the end of it

Or so the theory goes.

Astrological Cycles

Delving more deeply into Swara Yoga, we learn that, according to the theory, our body’s rhythms do not remain fixed but vary, according to the time of the month and the year. Also we are told that it is inadvisable to carry out certain types of action at particular times of the lunar and solar cycle, also the cycle of the major planets. This sounds like Astrology, and indeed it is.

Astrology, as opposed to Astronomy, has rather a bad press in these rational times. There are many types of astrology, but they are all based upon the same premise – that the position of the major heavenly bodies at a given time can influence both world events and the lives of individuals. The most obvious mechanism by which the heavenly bodies achieve this, according to some astrologers, is by virtue of their gravitational field. However, the rational arguments against astrology also tend to hinge upon gravitational forces, saying that, for the major planets at least, the effects of their gravity, as felt upon earth, are far too weak to have any conceivable effect, that, in fact, the computer I’m typing these words into is exerting by far the greater gravitation pull upon my brain than, say, the planet mars. But what about the sun and the moon? It’s obvious that they exert a significant gravitational force on the earth – enough for example to raise the tides by twenty feet or more, twice a day! But are these tidal forces also sufficient to raise psychological or physiological tides in living things? There is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that they do, but scientific studies seem divided on the issue – some saying “no, don’t be stupid”, others saying “maybe – but we need to do another study to be sure because we dare not come right out and say that it does”. These studies have looked at things like fluctuations of the stock-market, accident and emergency admissions, also plant growth and other agricultural phenomenon. Perhaps the most obvious monthly cycle that all women – and married men – are aware of is the female menstruation cycle, or the dreaded “time of the month”. As its name suggests, this seems timed perfectly to a lunar cycle, all be it a personal one, but again the scientific evidence tells us there is no proven link, and that it’s just as likely to be a coincidence.

Now, personally, I have always been open to the idea that at least the solar and lunar components that raise tides on earth, could have an effect on human behaviour, for no other reason than that they appear to have a very large effect upon the earth. I have long been intrigued by the anecdotal evidence that supports this notion, and equally puzzled by the scientific studies that refute it, but a quick reminder of how gravity actually works makes it easier to see why it seems unlikely that gravity can be having any effect at all.

Tidal ranges vary with the phase of the moon. For example, at the full and New Moon periods, the tides are notably higher than at other times of the month, so it might, at first glance, seem unreasonable to deny that there could be a similar effect occurring in living organisms. However, the actual forces involved are still very small. It’s also wrong to imagine the moon as somehow “pulling” the earth’s oceans up into great bulges in order to form the tides, rather like a giant magnet. The mechanism is actually quite different, with the oceans “shearing”, or flowing sideways by a tiny amount which, although small, when taken taken overall adds up to large fluctuations around our coastlines. It is only by virtue of the almost unimaginably uninterrupted vastness of the earth’s oceans that the moon and sun can have any effect at all. The world’s substantially enclosed seas – the Caspian and the Black sea for example exhibit virtually no tidal variation.

When we try to get a feel for the actual force involved, we learn that it can only be detected by the most sensitive of instruments. How small is it? Well, if we imagine a butterfly resting on the back of our hand, the force it exerts upon us is many thousands of times times greater than the force exterted by the moon. Given this understanding then, a link between lunar phase and any human biological or psychological rhythms begins to seem seem less probable.

There is, however, another mechanism by which the sun and the moon might affect all living organisms, giving rise to cyclical variations in physical and psychological states: Geomagnetism.

Before going on to look at this in more depth, let’s see if Swara Yoga can point to any evidence of such a cyclical pattern in a human being – i.e. me!

A Personal Study

Swara yoga recognises the following three modes of breathing:

i) Left Nostril (called Ida)

ii) Right Nostril(called Pingala),

iii) Both nostrils (called Shushumna)

The left nostril is associated with right brain activities: inner, mental, feminine, intuitive, abstract. It’s associated with the nightime, and the moon. The right Nostril is associated with left brain activities: logical, masculine, analytical. It’s associated with daytime and the sun. Breathing through both nostrils is said to be associated with spiritual activities: meditation, peace, equilibrium, oneness. It’s time is one of transisiton between dark and light ie at sunset or dawn.

According to the theory the active nostril should flow for 60-90 mins, then 1-4 mins Shushumna (both nostrils), before the other nostril becomes active, again for 60-90 mins etc

In Swara Yoga, both the sun and moon are said to have an influence on our breathing pattern. The lunar month is divided into thirty lunar days (in accordance with the Hindu calendar). The month is split into two halves, either side of the full moon, each half consisting of fifteen lunations, or “tithis”. The first half of the month is called the bright half, a fifteen “tithi” period during which the moon waxes progressively brighter. The second half, as the moon wanes is called the dark half.

It’s important to note that we are not talking about ordinary calendar days here but degrees of lunar separation with respect to the sun – a “tithi” or lunar day in the Hindu calender being a value in multiples of 12 degrees of separation. It’s duration in actual clock time will vary and in order to accurately relate this lunar day to the calendar day it’s best to use a special calculator such as the Panchang Calculator at http://www.swarayoga.org.

These fifteen days are split into consecutive periods consisting of 3 days each and, according to Swara Yoga, during the bright half of the lunar month, the left nostril should become active at sunrise on days 1-3, 7-9, and 13-15. On these days, the natural cycle will then involve an alternation between left and right nostril, and the rhythm should adjust itself so that the right nostril becomes active at sunset. On days 4-6, and 10-12, during the bright half of the month, the right nostril becomes active at sunrise, the alternating cycle of left to right nostril adjusting itself so that the left nostril takes over at sunset.

During the dark half of the lunar month, the process is said to be reversed – the right nostril taking over at sunrise on days 1-3, 7-9 and 13-15, the cycle adjusting itself over the course of the day so that the left nostril talkes over at sunset, while on days 4-6 and 10-12, the left nostril takes over at sunrise and the cycle adjusts itself so that the right nostril takes over at sunset.

Swara Yoga then suggests that we should be able to detect the effects of both the time of day (solar) and month (lunar) on our breathing patterns, simply by observing the air coming in and out of our nostrils.

The trials

Checking for the dominant nostril should only take a moment. You press lightly on the side of the nose, gently closing off one nostril, and you try to breathe normally through the open one. Repeat on the opposite side. Usually, the difference between them will be distinct. However, sometimes it will be hard tell and you end up guessing. If you have the time you can check throughout the day at regular intervals say every thirty minutes, check also if you wake up before dawn, and try to remember which nostril was flowing, so you can make a note of this also.

All of this might be difficult, depending on your lifestyle, but it only takes a second and if you’re discrete, it can be done in the company of other people without them realising what you’re up to.

Initial results

I managed to maintain a fairly close eye on my breathing for a period of two weeks, either side of the full moon, which occurred on November 15th 2008. The first thing I noticed was that my own rhythms were nowhere near so neat and regular as Swara Yoga says they should have been. Far from having a regular left to right rhythm lasting ninety minutes per side, with a thirty minute changeover, one side would dominate for most of the day, with only brief periods of change of an hour or so, before reverting back to the dominant nostril, which was the right nostril (left brain thinking), during both the run up to the full moon, and after it.

There was however a noticeable changeover from one nostril to the other at dawn, the left nostril(right brain) usually operating before sunrise, before the right one took over and largely dominated throughout the day. There was no noticeable change-over around sunset. Unfortunately then, I could not say that the lunar phase had any bearing at all upon the results of this, admittedly, rather brief study. As for the sun, I was intrigued by the changeover at dawn from left to right breathing – However, the fact that there was not a corresponding switch back from right to left breathing at sunset suggested there might be something else going on here. I can only speculate on this, and believe it might have something to do with light. At the time of the study, dawn coincided with my normal get-up time, while at sunset, the darkness was rendered ineffective by the use of electric lights until I finally went to bed – in other words the normal daylight cycles had been substantially interfered with by artificial light, and this could have explained why my breathing didn’t exhibit a changeover at sunset. Another explanation could have been simply down to which side I was lying while sleeping. Pressure applied to one armpit is said to cause the nostril on the opposite side of the body to become more open – therefore it could be that my sleeping habits determine which nostril is dominant when I wake, rather than any environmental factors.

Another pattern I noticed was that when my left nostril was flowing, (right brain) I was often writing or engaged in some other “artistic” activity, though I cannot say for certain if I was drawn to these activities by the brain mode, or that by sitting down to carry out these activities, the brain mode was forced to switch over to suit what I wanted to do. I did try to deliberately change the flow of the breath by physical means – applying pressure under the armpit as though with a yoga danda, but without success, though this could simply have been due to my lack of skill in this area. Further experiments in simply lying on my side, did reveal a seemingly reliable correlation – lying on my left side would cause the right nostril to open and vice versa.


I found no convincing evidence of a lunar or solar rhythm affecting the patterns of my breathing. However, there were a number of curious observations that suggest at least a practical, physiological basis – if not an astrological one – for the practice of Swara Yoga.

(1) I found it was possible to change which nostril is dominant by lying on your side – the higher nostril being the one that would dominate – so if you lay on the left side for a while the right nostril will dominate and vice versa.

(2) I found that when most absorbed in right brain type activities – writing, drawing, the brain mode was correctly indicated by the more dominant nostril. Therefore, either the brain mode lured me into carrying out those activities, or persevering in them caused the brain to switch over to suit the situation in hand.

This has certainly been an interesting subject to play around with. Though I was unable to confirm the effect of the full moon on my breathing patterns, there is a clear link with the dominant nostril and the dominant brain hemisphere. Also, as the Yogis have been telling us for thousands of years, it would seem we can change the dominant nostril. Techniques for doing this vary – the most reliable one for me being simply lying on one side. Whichever nostril is the higher – i.e. furthest away from the ground will become dominant. This has possible applications in mediation and overcoming writer’s block. The Yogis aim for the balance point – neither left or right brain dominant. My own meditation comes nowhere near the level of sophistication achieved by more dedicated adepts, so I’m happy to accept their greater knowledge of these things for now. But if you do meditate, it might be worth considering this aspect and experimenting with it. However, for me, meditation is about letting go and it’s perhaps not wise to become distracted over the presence or the absence of a dominant nostril

For writing, things are a little clearer: you need a right brain bias. That’s when I find it flows best of all – the words I mean. So if you’re a writer and you’ve hit one of those dark periods when you’re really struggling with it, perhaps the best thing you can do is go and have a lie down on your right side for a bit, check the left nostril – and therefore the right brain – is dominant, then sit down and try to write some more.*


Swara Yoga, the Tantric Science of Brain Breathing: Swami Muktibodhananda, Bihar, India

*errata – I’ve had my left and right brains muddled up in this paragraph. Apologies for any confusion. Right brain thinking is of course associated with artistic activities like writing and drawing – not left brain as I have been showing here for a while.

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Being a holistic approach to coping with a nervous disability, a rejection of therapeutic druggery, and the values of secular society that would have us believe it alone possesses the key to the meaning of our lives.

In this essay I speak as someone who has suffered from a troublesome psyche since I was a boy. My earliest encounter with it was an inexplicable feeling of dread in large social gatherings such as school assemblies or church services, a dire panic at having to stand through hymn-singing because I had become irrationally convinced I was going to faint.

The medical profession call these episodes panic attacks and, since the 1990s, have controlled them with a family of drugs called SSRI’s. Two of the most common of these are known as Prozac and Seroxat. In fact they’re prescribed for a wide variety of emotional problems: anxiety, depression, or indeed anything that prevents us, emotionally, from somehow “fitting in” with the world. They work by altering the way the brain handles serotonin and essentially alter what an individual sees as stressful, like putting on dark glasses in bright sunlight. My personal experience of SSRI’s was brief and unpleasant though useful by way of being a formative experience, one that was instrumental in pushing me into a more holistic view of things.

I’ve never understood the cause of my own panic attacks, which somehow added to the feeling of helplessness when I was in the middle of one – but fortunately, their grip has slackened in recent years, and though I hate to tempt fate, I can’t remember the last time I had one – though the old defence mechanisms are still a part of my routine: when entering a room of people, say at a lecture or a music concert, I still naturally take up a position at the sides, by the aisles, and in line of sight of the exit, so I can leave with the minimum of fuss should I begin to struggle with myself later on. Even in my darkest days, I never actually had to make a desperate bolt for the exit, but reminding myself of these facts did not help struggling against the urge when the mood was upon me.

The problem morphed and splintered over the years into a number of other related manifestations. For example, at concerts of classical music, where the listening experience tends to be subtle and intense, I once developed the peculiar habit of wanting to swallow in order to ease a certain dryness of the throat which threatened to erupt into a cough. Swallowing would then become compulsive, and had to be repeated every few seconds until I lost all sense of pleasure in the music. Thus, concerts that should have lifted the spirit left me feeling only jittery and ashamed of my weakness. I would also sometimes suffer a peculiar sensation of imbalance when walking into a room full of noisy people, say at a party or in a crowded restaurant. Outside I would be fine, or if the room were empty, but in a gathering of people, my legs would become strangely tense and wobbly and the floor would become like the swaying deck of a ship. And again there was the situation of being cornered by the consummate bore, the person who told you everything about his life from birth to the present day by way of answer to even the most succinct enquiry. How often have I found myself trapped, not listening, for what seemed like hours, afraid of breaking out into a sweat, afraid of a dizzy spell coming on, and too polite, too sensitive to the bore’s feelings to break him off abruptly, stick my finger in his eye and run screaming for fresh air and freedom?

Yet another peculiar manifestation once concerned my driving. Many years ago now, I suddenly discovered that at certain key points of my daily commute I would experience the very real sensation that my forward motion had been arrested and that I was slipping backwards. This last peculiar episode was perhaps the most frightening because, unlike all the other “trigger environments” driving was not something I could easily avoid: it threatened my freedom to get about.

Somehow though, one muddles through, unable to explain to others for fear of being labelled a nutter,… and the medical profession unfortunately, I always found to be less than helpful. For all the good intentions of the British National Health system my personal experience of it is an inability to deal with any illness that does not show changes in blood and urine samples or cannot be quickly fixed up by a few stitches, a plaster cast, or a dose of antibiotics. There was a doctor, some twenty years ago, who listened to me for all of five minutes. I seemed barely to have begun explaining myself before the man was confidently writing up a prescription for what turned out to be the new cure-all wonder-drug: Prozac. For a few days this was my one and only foray into the chemically adjusted reality of the then modern age. My experience of it was short lived and, though rather distressing, I view it now with all the detachment of an impartial observer, and with the magnanimity of one who has learned his lesson.
For a time it was like putting on a warm straight jacket. A bomb could have gone off and I would not have cared, nor I suspect would I have moved, except perhaps to glance up slowly and brush the dust from my clothes. I was stoned, literally, it seemed, turned to stone. Unfortunately it also stopped me from sleeping, for sleep is a human thing and stones have no need of it. After about a week of doing pushups into the small hours, in order to wear myself out, in the vain hope of encouraging a collapse into a fatigue induced stupor, I experienced for the first and only time in my life a profound sense of drug-induced despair. The whole experience of the medication was far more emotionally disturbing than the occasional fit of the jitters I was trying to cure, so the Prozac went into the bin.

Nowadays I no longer trouble the medical profession with any ailment that I cannot point to such as a sore thumb, or a swollen eye. Of course, this probably means that if I contract a fatal disease I shall probably die from it – but the chances are I’ll die from it anyway, so I’m willing to take the risk.
My slow road to regaining control over my life began with the memory of an experience from my first year as an engineering apprentice, in the latter days of the 1970’s. While doing basic training in manufacturing processes, a colleague injured his finger on a machine. This caused him to swear and me to faint. I was seen by the work’s doctor as a precaution and he advised me to get back on that machine as soon as possible, and to consider taking up some form of transcendental meditation. The machine part made sense, but the meditation did not. I possessed a very rational mindset in those days and I rejected anything that was not grounded in material “fact”.

But always, I wondered.

Later, following the Prozac episode, I overcame my overwhelming prejudice and bought a book on Hatha Yoga. I learned a few basic postures and some breathing exercises, and much to my surprise, they seemed to work. The jitters did not entirely pass, but they were suddenly subdued, and the fact I had discovered at last some means of holding them at bay was itself crucial in changing my life. I turn to Yoga now, and other esoteric practices, whenever I feel the jitters coming on and the jitters duly pass. I’m afraid I’m not disciplined enough to practise all the time and I’ve never attended a Yoga class or anything, but even doing these exercises in a half-assed way, succeeds where the medical profession failed completely, either due to lack of time or interest. To be clear, the jitters are still there, for it seems it’s a part of my nature to incubate them, but I am no longer at their mercy, and I get by.
Perhaps after all of this I have given the impression of my being a twitchy, jumpy neurotic, the sort of person you’d easily pick out of a crowd, the one who leaps a mile whenever anyone says “boo”, but you’d be wrong. People who know Michael Graeme’s alter ego (or is he mine? I forget these days!) describe him as “laid back”, to quote the vernacular, which always makes me smile. Appearances can be deceptive you see? Next time you look into the eyes of someone you think you know remember this: you do not know them at all, though you might like to think you do. What you see is a mask. The reality lies somewhere beneath and that reality might both surprise and disturb you.

I say I don’t really understand the origins of my own particular neuroses, and this is true, at least in any detail, but in a broader sense I think I understand them well enough. Psychologists tell us a neurosis is born as the result of an event that we find uncomfortable, frightening or embarrassing. We may no longer remember what that event was because we’ve shoved it deep into our unconscious mind and we’re pretending it never happened. We hide from these things, but the unconscious is very good at remembering what we would otherwise choose to forget, and so we are never truly rid of our skeletons. They become suppressed, and therefore troublesome. Once this happens we’re stuck unless we can afford the time and the money to have someone painstakingly analyse us and expose our fears for what they are. Personally I’ve not gone this far. I probably would if I could afford it, but I’m just an ordinary Joe, and psychoanalysis is a luxury for the wealthy, for the people whose mortgages and pensions haven’t been screwed by twenty years of robber-barron economics. It’s for the ten percent of the population currently sitting at the top of the global financial food chain, rather than the rest of us who are sitting nearer to the bottom, and sliding ever closer into ruin.

So, I live with it, and for most of the time, I’m as happy as the next person. On the positive side, I have sometimes found my neuroses useful, and looking back over the years I see a definite pattern to their awakenings. These patterns correspond to changes in my life, changes of direction when I’m sailing close to the wind, when I’m involved in situations or relationships that are likely to do me harm. In a positive sense then, my neuroses can be viewed as warnings to change course, now! Or else! Unfortunately though, we are all prisoners to a way of life and to some extent also the life choices we have made, and changes of direction are not always possible, no matter what our unconscious is throwing at us.

Personally I’ve come to believe that our natural inclination as human beings is not to live in the sort of society that the secular west is becoming at all. I believe we are meant to live a much freer, more open sort of life, closer to nature perhaps, less regimented, less structured, one where people are free to engage with their spiritual or psychological sides without being exploited, brainwashed or just plain hoodwinked by either charismatic charlatans, or organised religions. Too much conformity, too much of doing what we’re told, rather than what we please is bad for us. Bad for our psyche, bad for our spirit. As Aleister Crowley once wrote [and I paraphrase]: If it harms no one, (and presumably this includes ourselves), then we should be able to do as we like.

My first brush with the pain of compulsory conformity were my school days, which I hated with a passion from beginning to end. I was taken from the meadows and woodlands around my home and placed in the stifling confines of primary school. It was to be the first of many yokes – each one telling me I could not be what I wanted to be. I could not even have the time to think about what I wanted to be. There is a system to life you see? It imposes itself upon you. You do not shape it. It shapes you. So we become, not really ourselves but a mask in the form of what we believe, or what we are taught will be acceptable to society. We measure our words, we do not say what we feel, yet at the same time try to convince ourselves that we do believe in what we say. The illusion is complete: Individual and society engaging on terms that are mutually delusional.

Then comes work and marriage and children, and mortgages and pension provisions, so you will not starve when you grow old. And all the time a part of you is thinking: I’m really not meant for this. There’s something else I was supposed to do with my life, except there’s no longer any time to remember what it was. I do not care about money or fine houses or fashionable cars – easy for me to say perhaps: I have a roof over my head, not a big house but a nice one, and I drive a seven year old car, but – I think I’m old enough now to understand the trap of our possessions. All I have ever really wanted is to be free, to think my own thoughts and simply “be”, without having to speak in a manner that I believe will be pleasing to someone else, so that I won’t get fired or be thought of as strange. And I’ve long held the belief that my own neuroses are the inevitable consequences of being entangled in a world, in a system, and to a lifetime of conformity that I was not designed for.

If this is true, then there are an awful lot of people like me, and I fear my own neuroses are as nothing compared to those endured quietly by others. If you count yourself among our number then this essay’s for you. It may not bring you much comfort beyond the reassurance that you are not alone. But also I hope I can show you that far from putting you on the outside of life, your differences actually make you all the more a part of it than the seemingly happy majority who have never experienced the power or the horror of a sudden volcanic eruption from their unconscious mind.

For a person to suffer under the pressures of our society does not mean that person is in any way weaker than others,… just more sensitive to the absurdities and, to be quite frank the sometimes outrageous indignities we have to endure. Are we the crazy ones or are we simply the only ones left with eyes to see?

It is no measure of health to be to well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

J Krishnamurti

I’m too old to have any illusions about our way of life in the west, which since about 1985 seems to have been slipping into a sort of neo-conservative, survival-of-the-fittest, free market, free for all, one in which it’s assumed we’re all out to get whatever we want regardless of the heads we must trample in order to get it. But I refuse to join in such a cynical and demeaning game, and am presently trying to see my way through to retirement in as inoffensive and inconspicuous a manner as possible. Then, I tell myself, I’ll have a couple of decades to savour my freedom and soak the neuroses out of my system, that perhaps then, in the brief decades remaining, I will finally remember what it was I was supposed to have done with my life.

But the way of life that supports us has shown itself to be founded on a philosophy that’s no longer sustainable, and it looks like the financial securities we took for granted twenty years ago simply won’t be there when we finally come to rely upon them. Indeed, our politicians are presently laying the groundwork for an argument intent on convincing us that some of us may never retire at all, and if we insist on doing so we will live in a sort of grey poverty until the end of our days.

For all my dislike of our way of life, I always had a faith in its reliability. I may not like it I thought, but the system seems to work, well not any more. In five years time the mortgage on my house will mature, and after paying my dues to the building society every month for the past twenty five years, it looks like I will still owe as much as when I started. The financial mechanism that was to provide the money needed to pay it off has simply collapsed. As an example of the utilitarian depths to which our financial institutions have now stooped, I contacted my mortgage company, trying to find the best way of sorting things out, the way that was going to be least financially crucifying, but they refused to advise me, claiming it was no longer their policy to do so. They could sell me a “product” that was of benefit to them, on their terms, but their responsibility went no further than that. I suppose I was naive for even asking. My mortgage payments have now trebled.

Also, the same financial system that was to provide a pension in old age, I discover can no longer do so unless, again, I treble the contributions I make. So it seems all the promises that were made have now been broken by the small print that basically absolves the financial vendors of any responsibility. In the 1980’s we dared to harbour dreams of retirement in our fifties in order to pursue the things we all wanted to pursue, outside of the world of mundane work, but twenty years later we are waking up to the reality of a life spent in debt and servitude, for the term of our natural lives.

My apologies for the rant, but generally what I’m trying to illustrate here is that, these past years, and especially since the turn of the century, society has shown itself to be in state of undisguised crisis. There is a climate of uncertainty, and fear. Indeed we find ourselves subjected to an apocalyptic vision in which we dare not move or even breathe for fear of armageddon – either from a terrorist outrage, or a climatic upheaval of Old Testament proportions. Both government and increasingly influential fundamentalist religions seem united in encouraging this belief.
Now, in a sense all of this comes as a relief to me because it suggests I was not wrong to have spent my whole life viewing the world with an attitude similar to one of politely enduring the irritations of an obnoxious relative. The truth is out; it wasn’t just my imagination: he was obnoxious after all!

Life goes on, but there is an appalling sense that the future will be radically different from the one we imagined. And I’m not talking about the threat from global terrorism. In spite of the terrible outrages perpetrated in recent years, you’re still about as likely to die at the hands of a terrorist as you are from being struck by lightning, and far more likely to die as a result of a drug related gun crime, or a stupid car accident. What I’m talking about here is the death of hope, the death of meaning, and the loss of any dreams of comfort by way of compensation as we enter the latter part of our lives. What need have we to sit and think, to while away our latter years in idle pleasure,… when we could be earning our keep and paying our taxes until the day we drop?

Depressing, isn’t it?

If you suffer from your own neuroses, take comfort from the fact your sufferings are not your fault. They are perhaps the result of a society imposing something upon you, asking you to accept something as being normal that your natural self, perhaps your unconscious self finds simply too outrageous to bear, but is too polite to say – so you’ve swallowed it and it’s been giving you indigestion ever since.

Now, there’s not much I can do about the slow demise of western society, the breakdown of the family, the flood tide of drugs that lay waste to entire communities, the philosophy of slash and burn economics, or the rise of meaningless terrorism against which there appears to be little defence other than a knee-jerk leap into the Orwellian nightmare of a techno-totalitarian state. The social exterminations wrought by the utilitarian swings of the global economy are equally quite beyond my influence. I’m just an ordinary man tapping words into an old computer. I cannot save your mortgages, nor your pensions, and if the retirement age is jacked up to seventy five, or even abandoned altogether, there’s not much I can do about that either.

What I can do however is reassure you that it’s not your fault, that the jitters you feel are the natural consequences of enduring something that is alien to the nature God gave you. What you can do, however, is accept yourself for what you are. The jitters, the neuroses,… these are differences in you that serve only to affirm your humanity. They do not separate you from anything other than the false idea of conformity to some rosy image of what a normal human being is supposed to be like.

My own neuroses over the years have carried messages for me that I was too deaf to heed at the time. You’re going the wrong way, Mike, they said. Pull back, stop, turn the car around! Meanwhile poor Mike couldn’t imagine what was going on. He didn’t have a stressful lifestyle, he wasn’t some ruthless, corporate go-getter, and his marriage wasn’t on the rocks. So what was it that got under his skin so much that at times he wanted to scream?

In this sense, my neuroses seem to have had the same intent as bad dreams, not just the expression of an anxiety, but a clue also regarding their cause, and cure. The agoraphobic is perhaps the most illustrative of the meaningful malaise. I’ve known a few agoraphobics over the years, and this condition for the sufferer, and their loved ones is no joke. A normal, attractive, healthy person becomes by degrees less confident in dealing with the world until a state is reached where the whole world is viewed with such anxiety that the person withdraws completely, feeling safe nowhere outside the bounds of their own home. They get by, day to day, but survive in a sort of prison of their own making. It is a total disengagement from a reality they have come to abhor. In order to be cured the agoraphobic has to lose their dread of society, or at least become more accepting of it.

But what if it’s society that’s at fault?

What if it really is better to withdraw than to sup with the devil himself?

For me, it was the school assembly and the church service, a lack of comprehension and a total reluctance to be away from the things that meant most to me in my childhood. Conformance was demanded, but as a result I have always been stubbornly elusive when it comes to committing myself to anything I do not wholeheartedly believe in. The trouble is, there seems to be so little worth believing in, so I slip through life unconnected and uncommitted to anyone or anything outside of my own close family. The only exception seem to be my writings which bear witness to life through these, my own eyes.
I did not rationalise it this way at the time. I only knew I was afraid of something, afraid of the inexplicable physical manifestations, the tension, the dizziness, the increased pulse. So the physical symptom, the sense of strangeness, became the thing to be feared, and for many years the root cause was overlooked.

The medical books tell us that our flesh and blood bodies have developed a physical response to things that frightens us. Our heart-rate goes up, we become tense, poised ready either to fight for our lives or run like hell. But how can you run from a reluctance to conform? How can we run from the demands of our society, from the responsibilities we all have and which inevitably involve facing up to things we’d really rather not do? Indeed we’re conditioned to accept this as a normal part of our lives. But equally we hate it.

It’s easy to stand up and begin whining on behalf of everyone who’s experience of life has left them jaded and jittery, but that’s not really my aim here. My aim is more to look at society and ask the question, what is it that we are afraid of? We have no control over the life we are born into and therefore it seems cruel that we should come up against circumstances over which we have no control but which nevertheless are sure to drive us mad – not all of us perhaps – just those unable to adapt or to cope well enough with the reality of the world as we see it.

In my own case, it has always been a fear of emptiness, that our lives mean nothing. It has always been my desire to explore life in a way that was most meaningful to me. This seems to be a thing that gains the approval of my unconscious because time spent in focussed introspection is time rewarded with a sense of calm, while time spent dealing with the day to day chaotic scatter of a workaday life is punishable by tiresome neurosis – at least it was until I came to believe that there was indeed nothing more to society than a chaotic scattering of half-bakedness.

To be sure, it’s a closely guarded secret that “society” is not actually the purpose of our lives at all. It’s more the stage on which we play our life out. It’s when we come to believe that somewhere in society might lie the secret of our purpose that the problems begin. Society itself holds no meaning whatsoever. If we want to experience any sort of genuine fulfilment, then we have to provide that meaning for ourselves as individuals. True purpose is the indefinable belief in something “other”, something outside of society, like the guiding hand of a beloved parent. When we let go of our parent’s hand as children, we suffer the bewildering crowds as they swirl around us, careless and oblivious to our need. We fear the loss of ourselves, the inability ever again to feel the warmth and the sure guidance of those we love. We fear losing our centre, losing our self.

Now and then, when I’m feeling particularly tired and jittery I will experience a moment of complete disengagement. It can be anywhere – in a meeting at work, in a restaurant, or when chatting with others. It comes suddenly – a sense of shifting outside of myself and of leaving behind only a disorientated shell, a shell momentarily paralysed and fearful for its existence, alone in these strange surroundings without a guiding psyche. It is unlike a daydream, for in daydreaming the action always takes place inside one’s head. What I call the disengagement of my soul is quite different. In disengagement of the soul,… the soul seems to momentarily slip out of the host.

I might be fearful for my sanity, prone as I am to such episodes, but I’ve experienced them since childhood and they seem to have done me no harm. They are not, then, a symptom of advancing madness, but more perhaps a looseness of grip. The feeling is one of bearing witness to a dream, a feeling things are not real and that I need to wake up and find my true self, my true reality, except of course the self that is dreaming protests that it is the real self and I’d better hang on to the dream because it’s all there is!

Well,… such are the storms that periodically sweep this particular mind. The worst thing is the suspicion that I am alone in these experiences, that only the inmates of an asylum can experience anything worse, but of course I am far from alone, and my storms are as nothing compared to some – rendered sluggish perhaps by the chemical quagmire of Prozac or Seroxat, but there all the same.

Now, it might seem a little childish, harking back to pre-school days as being the happiest of my life, or later, the temporary freedom of those delicious six week summer holidays when the time stretched out each morning, an infinity of choice, and when each day was a pleasure sipped like fine wine. But you can’t live like that, can you? You have to make a living. You have to contribute to your society by paying your way, and paying your taxes. Of course you do, but what you must not do is look to society, nor even to the people around you, to provide the meaning in your own life.

As Margaret Thatcher once famously said: “there is no such thing as society”. Now, I’m not sure in what context this was meant to be taken, but from one particular angle at least, I find myself in agreement with the Iron Lady. Society is an abstract concept of varying parameters that are entirely dependent upon an individual’s perception. Society does not feel anything. It does not look down upon individuals with either compassion or contempt. It owes us nothing, as we owe it nothing beyond our legal dues. It is simply an organisational structure, and I’m afraid to say that in modern secular terms this boils down to people who are either customers or salesmen. How many times a day does your telephone ring with someone trying to sell you something? In short, there is no meaning to the secular society beyond a system of financial transactions.

The only practical advice I can offer, if you don’t do it already, is to do as that old medical officer told me, mysteriously, so long ago, and that’s meditate, which is really no more than sitting quietly and alone from time to time. Some people buy books and tapes and learn to do it in the way of the great meditative traditions, while some go to classes, and this is fine if you can make the time, because the deeper you go the better. Do it every day if you can. If not, if like me the kids burst in, or start to whine every time you sit down, then just do it whenever you can, even if it’s only for a moment. And when you’ve done it, remember that the way we live our lives does not provide the meaning to our lives. Meaning is what we carry in our hearts. It is personal, meaningful in a way specific only to ourselves. Others need not share our vision, or indeed know anything about it at all. Our vision, our sense of meaning is ours alone.
In meditating, we cut back to the centre of ourselves, we reach out for the hand we let go of at the moment of our birth, the only thing connecting us to something safe and sure in a world that is otherwise completely bewildering. That hand is there for each of us and it has nothing to do with this world at all,… it is completely beyond it. We have only to touch it in our minds, for a kind of enlightenment to ensue.

And it goes something like this:

If contemporary society truly possessed the meaning of our lives, it would not offer it back to us for free. We would have to pay for it, and the price would be so high that only a few elite individuals would ever be able to possess it. Or, it would be owned by a mega-corporation that might allow us to pay for it in instalments over a lifetime, with the promise that, like our homes, it would eventually be ours. However, there would probably be something in the small print that absolved the mega-corp from any responsibility when at the end of our term it presented us with a dog eared piece of paper with the number 42 written upon it.

[if unsure Google 42 “meaning of life”]

But the meaning of life is not a thing, not a number, not an equation, nor is it an explanation of any kind, for there is not a question that can be adequately framed to solicit anything approaching a satisfactory answer. It is much simpler than all of that. It is a state of being, a state of grace, and I’m sorry but that costs nothing at all, and it is the birthright of every one of us. What is it? You know what it is. Just sit still for a moment, close your eyes and listen to the sound of it coming from that space between your ears, and no, I don’t mean the tinnitus! Maybe you can even see it with your mind’s eye, but rest assured, if you sit there often enough, pretty soon,…

…. you’ll begin to feel it.

Michael Graeme

April 2007

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