“One moment of total awareness is one moment of freedom and enlightenment.” Manjusri.
In Part 1 of Exploring Presence, I discussed in detail Eckhart Tolle’s realisation that he could transverse the mind and purely be in presence. But not everyone will have such an enlightened moment. Is there a path or practice we can attain that will eventually lead us there?
So first things first, let’s go back to what initially inspired me to write this post: Amy Cuddy. She tells her story of a horrific car accident she had as an 18 year old and how she suffered brain damage that reduced her intelligence significantly. Her brain had literally slowed down. In her famous Ted video from 2012 she explains that as she identified with being smart, losing part of her IQ left her feeling powerless. She came up with the phrase: “Fake it until you become it!”.
Cuddy asked the important question: “If our minds change our bodies, do our bodies change our minds?”. She conducted studies of hormone levels and discovered that the feeling of power is proportional to our testosterone levels going up, whilst the cortisol levels go down. Testosterone gives us the energy to do, whilst low cortisol shows low stress. A person out of power displays the opposite: testosterone goes down and cortisol goes up due to high stress levels.
She came up with “non-verbals” which are physical postures to be performed for a few minutes to trick our bodies into a false sense of power. These are power dynamics: non-verbal expressions of power. In her talk, Cuddy states power positive attributes as being present, that is when you do your very best in a situation and you walk away feeling that you have done your utmost. Now comes the important question: is this kind of presence related to Tolle’s notion of it? I think that Tolle’s idea of presence automatically gives us the attributes that Cuddy’s approach generates. I believe we can all feel when we are in the vicinity of someone in presence. That person will exude their feelings of oneness and completeness. Yet I don’t think the reverse is automatically true. Following Cuddy’s path will not necessarily allow us to “jump” out of the mind into Tolle’s description of presence, which in effect is a transcendence of mind.
Another way to start the journey which might lead to our natural being is through meditation: “Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in eternal awareness or pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.” Voltaire. Buddhism and yogic philosophy both work on understanding and mastering the mind. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, he explains the second sutra: “If you can control the rising of the mind into ripples, you will experience yoga.” This is a very similar notion to meditation in Buddhist practice. If thoughts are like clouds in the sky, the clouds will begin to pass and eventually the gaps between clouds coming and going will leave us with a clear sky. Yoga practice itself is about the breath which yogis believe is directly linked to the mind. If we can control the breath we can control the mind. Buddhist and yogic practices have so much depth and beauty to them; unfortunately I would deviate from the subject if I elaborate any further.
In recent years science has produced some mind-blowing (forgive the pun) results about altered brain activity through meditation. Last summer Kathy Gilsinan wrote an article about neuroscientist Richard Davidson and his encounter in 1992 with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama asked Davidson a question: “Why can’t you use those tools (brain scans) to study kindness and compassion?” Soon after this, Davidson conducted a study on a group of Buddhist monks using electrodes strapped to their heads whilst spending a few hours in an MRI machine. The group of eight monks had collectively spent 34,000 hours in meditative training. Their brain activity was measured in alternating states of meditation and non-meditation. “‘When we did this, we noticed something remarkable,’ Davidson said. ‘What we see are these high-amplitude gamma-oscillations in the brain, which are indicative of plasticity’”. Plasticity, in effect, is the brain’s ability to change and adapt, and becoming less rigid. This suggests that energies such as kindness and mindfulness can be learned and eventually be part of us. The researchers also found that the region of the brain called the anterior insula showed heightened activity. This region is where most of the brain-body coordination happens. Essentially, the brain has a direct influence on our organs. This means that brain activity can affect our health and well-being. So surely a we can deduce that a compassionate and kind brain will make our bodies healthier.
In another study in 2011, conducted with another group of Buddhist monks, Dr Josipovic found that: “When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments”. This can be explained as a sensation of “oneness” where the ‘I’ merges with the world around us. This is connection: we are not separate from everything and everyone. So in a way I assume our sense of not wanting to cause harm or suffering to others will become more urgent.
Whether we are likely to experience a moment like Tolle did or whether we embark on a journey in search of feeling more present and more connected, I personally don’t think it matters. The intention and daily experience is key. A meditation teacher once said: “At first you force yourself to try. Then you keep trying. This will eventually lead to bliss as conscious effort brings grace.”
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