01 Visualize - Articles, 04 Imagine - Articles

Easy Starts: How to Jump Into Meditation

I’m frequently asked what are the best books for starting mediation. I have settled on a short list of resources. Two of them are listed here:

The Calm Technique: Meditation Without Magic or Mysticism – Australian Paul Wilson came out with this book some time ago but it remains one of my favorites because it is so clear, simple, and precise in its introduction to breathing and mantra meditation. You will find this highly valuable book priced from 1 cent to about 2 bucks. Amazon link

Unplug for an Hour, a Day, or a Weekend: Create a Home Sanctuary with 32 Contemplation Cards, Companion Guidebook, 2 CDs of Guided Meditations is a complete look at mindfulness meditation. It comes in a fun format of: a booklet, two CDs, and “contemplation cards”. Perhaps I’m a sucker for this sort of packaging but it helps make the whole thing feel like an all encompassing experience. At any rate, this box of meditation is grossly under priced ($10) given what Sharon Salzberg includes in her instruction. Amazon link

04 Imagine - Articles

Meditation versus Imagination

Early in most of my workshops/trainings I go right to this point:  imagination is different than meditation. The reason I start off there is because some people come to imagination work with meditation techniques. That is not the best way or the fastest way to get into one’s imagination. Classical meditation makes the assumption that we are too connected to our thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and other things going on inside of us. To counter this over connection, meditation masters long ago developed methods to: shut down inner chatter; slow down thinking; move away from our emotions; and let our bodies run in the background with limited attention. Not all meditation methods are the same but on the whole, most follow this pattern of disengagement. I use the metaphor of “emptying the cup”, that is, emptying ourselves of much of our daily content.

Ray Bradbury follows the approach of the imagination worker:

“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”

In imagination work we tip the cup over and see what is there. We don’t try to distance ourselves from it. Whatever it is: emotions, wanderings, thinking, dreams, fantasies, troubling and repetitive thoughts, etc. we let down the barriers and we open to it. Imagination works in a circular way. First it releases our ability to see what’s inside of us and then it frees the contents. This freeing in turns deepens our vision of the unconscious. Our enhanced vision increases more freeing as our unconscious trusts us with more content and delights in our interest. And on goes that cycle.

Summary:  Imagination fills the cup. Meditation empties the cup.

01 Visualize - Articles, 04 Imagine - Articles

The Smile Powerhouse

Photos of smiling nuns taken when they came into religious service when they were in their early 20s, reveal which will live the longest. The right type of smile, wrong type of smile, it makes a difference.

While conducting research on the physiology of facial expressions in the mid-19th century, french physician Guillaume Duchenne identified two distinct types of smiles. A “Duchenne smile” involves contraction of both the zygomatic major muscle (which raises the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscle (which raises the cheeks and forms crow’s feet around the eyes). A non-Duchenne smile involves only the zygomatic major muscle.  Many researchers believe that Duchenne smiles indicate genuine spontaneous emotions since most people cannot voluntarily contract the outer portion of the orbicularis oculi muscle. The young women who were fated to be long-living and healthier nuns, wore the Duchenne smiles in their entry photos.

Fake smiles, on the other hand point a person in the direction of greater stress and greater illness. “A study of city bus drivers led by a Michigan State University business scholar found that the drivers who fake smiles at work worsen their mood throughout their day, which in turn affects their productivity. The problem is that smiling for the sake of smiling can lead to emotional exhaustion and withdrawal. Women were hurt more than men by the fake smiles, which the researchers attribute to the fact that women are both expected to and do show greater emotional intensity and expressiveness than men.” Link to article

Meditation masters have picked up on the power of the smile. Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh makes a simple smile part of his basic mindfulness practice (link to article)  Modern Taoist and teacher, Mantak Chia carries smiling instruction further by having us smile to the many parts of our body using an actual smile and our mind’s eye. Each part gets a smile and the opportunity to bath in good will and relaxation. Link to article on Chia’s methods  Link to Chia’s book, The Inner Smile

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Go Wide Focus – An instant stress reduction technique

This is an instant stress reduction technique in that it can be brought out, anywhere, anytime and–if practiced–will bring stress levels down very quickly. Stress comes down, but not to zero but to a level where you will have more wiggle room.

There are two secrets to this technique. First, it goes completely opposite of what your body and mind has been created to do when you are under a little or a lot of stress. Stress involves a narrowing of our focus. Our work shrinks down to what is of greatest interest to us at the moment. That can be worry, jumping out of the way of a bus, or trying to decide: “Do I flee, fight, or freeze?”

If you are jumping out of the way of a bus there is little you can do to control your stress narrowing of the mind. Nor would you want to! You are on a mission to save your life. If you are in less dire situations such as about to go into a job interview/review or are caught in the web of worry, then this is a good time to take your mind in the opposite direction.  Widening your focus, even for a few moments, will have an impact. Your attention will open up and your mind will open up. Then you might see a new way, or you might be able to catch your breath which will give you a chance to ground yourself in the moment and in your personal values.

The Technique

Right now, stop reading and expand your awareness to the space around you. You can either listen to or see actual things in the space or you can use your memory to flit from one point in the room and then to another and to another. This latter approach, gives you a sense of how big the space is. As you bring up memories to various points in the room such as the lamp in the corner behind you, the desk across the room, the doorway to the left, and the ceiling, your mind throws in details such as distance from you to these objects. This provides an approximation of the size of the space.

Hold that awareness for a few seconds or longer if you can. How do you feel? Your narrowed stress focus will be tugging at you to go back to where it was but just keep working the technique. Eventually, you probably will hit a balance of narrowed focus and Go Wide Focus.

You can go even wider if you have the chance. Think of a larger area just outside, perhaps the building, or the block. Or really open things up and think of the size of the sky. Anything to break you from the fixation of your stress-induced narrowed focus.

Look for a preferred way of doing this. You might find getting a fix on your immediate surroundings is the more powerful and effective way to go. Others will prefer very grand vistas (either visible or in the mind’s eye). Find yours.

Of course, you can flit between being in the narrowed focus to the Going Wide Focus and back again. You will not lose track with what’s going on around you or what you are there to do. What you will appreciate is the sudden easing of the stress so you can think and feel a bit more freely and be ready to explore new options when they pop up in your mind or appear before you.

Found Additional Resources:

Big Sky Meditation with Bells – Spirit Rock/Dharma Seed recording for streaming and downloading – go to Website – This presenter uses the Going Wide Focus technique and applies it to a meditation retreat surrounding for an extended time period.

04 Imagine - Articles

Forms of Imagination Practice

“What’s the difference between Jung’s Active Imagination and guided imagery,” that was the question put to me the other day. A good question. Let’s look at the various types of Imagery Practice out there.

Guided, From Heavy to Very Light
When people think about imagery they go to the “see a beach, you are walking on a beach” form of imagery work. Certainly that is the most used form most people have been exposed to. It is an important and easy practice to work with. If we are instructed in an imagery experience with very specific guidance on the location for our imagery, what we are to see/hear/taste/touch/smell once we draw the place up in our mind, what we are to do there, and why we are doing it—this is heavily-guided imagery work. Good stuff but there is more as your abilities grow and our interest in going deeper expands.

In the middle range of guided imagery is guidance that lays many details for us out but also leaves a fair amount unspecified. It is up to us to fill the gap with what we want to add. For instance, using the beach again, we can be guided to go to that place and open our all of our senses to soak up this or that. Next, we can be cut loose to explore the beach and to go in search of a note in a bottle. “Take a few minutes to head off and explore. Let me know when you have found the bottle,” would be typical instructions for middle-range guided imagery.

Lighty-guided imagery practice usually involves working out what you want to do in an imagery session before that session begins. In other words, you pick a theme, an event, an idea, or other thing to work on and your guide will give the time and freedom to do that. Your guide (in-person; on Skype; or on a recording) takes on: talking you into deeper relaxation, asking you to find a place of your choosing, and then reminding you of what you want to work on.  They may also, from time to time ask you : “What are experiencing now? Or let me know if we want me to take some notes so we are sure to capture the ideas and insights that pop-up.” The guide is also watching the clock and at the time you picked to end the session, the guide will guide you out of the experience. Very open and with light touches, that is lightly guided imagery work.

Of course, there is unguided imagery. The work is on our own shoulders to determine what works for us and what we want to do once you get into imagination. Typically, most of us have started off with guided imagery so we have developed a habit of borrowing from that form. For instance, we may always start off on some beach or in some “safe” place and then depart from there to do free exploring of the experience of being in touch with the unconscious or exploration of themes, ideas, events, etc.

The freest form of open imagination is simply closing our eyes, getting in touch with the imagination, and hanging out and observing what is coming up at that moment. Simple observing can include: noting images, hearing words, getting in touch with sensations in the body, maybe even being moved to make some sort of physical gesture, feeling feelings, watching ideas/concerns pop up.  The unconscious is always busy at work cooking up something to respond to a conscious concern or an unconscious reaction to something that has happened or might be coming up, or to resolve something that has been left undone. In other words, in this form we go into the “unconscious factory” to see what is being created for us today.  We can go with the flow, simply observing as your images/sensations/feelings rapid change or one or two might grab your interest and you can decide to focus on those. Focusing on them will require “holding” them in imagination and restraining new imagery from taking over. Either way, this is free-form imagery work.

There is a form that is a bit of lightly-guided and free form imagery work.  This sounds like a contradiction but it isn’t. practitioners of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) lead clients into relaxation and then they play specific selections of music during the session. GIM gives the guide the responsibility of moving the person into relaxation, selecting the right music for the session based upon what the client wants to do, asking the client from time to time “What are you experiencing right now?” and bringing the client out of imagination at the end of the session. The middle part of the session, when the music is playing, it is up to the client to experience it as they wish. GIM people see that the real guide of the session is the music itself.

Drumming remains a popular way to help people to go into imagination. The drumming tradition says that we need to find specific inner helpers, objects, and locations and sets us free to do that as we get carried with the specific beat that many people find imagination inducing. Here we have two guides: the goal we carry with us as we are imagination (i.e. find a power animal) and the power of the drumbeat.

Back to the Question
“What’s the difference between Jung’s Active Imagination and guided imagery?” Well, Jung mainly had his clients use moderately or lightly guided imagery when he worked with them. Over time, though, he expected many people to get good at free-form imagery work and to use that between sessions and when they left his care.

That’s a start on answering this question, but we will look further at Active Imagination in another blog post here, entitled: Target Imagery.

04 Imagine - Articles

How to Stare Your Imagination Awake

There is a long history of staring to activate the imagination.

From the new book, Caves and the Ancient Mind, we learn of the importance to Greek philosophers, proto-scientists, poetics, and mystics of the supreme darkness of caves and underground chambers. Prolonged looking into the darkness lit minds that shaped Western thought for centuries.

Leonardo da Vinci advised in his notebook, Treatise on Painting, to look closely at a random stain until it becomes alive:

“This is the case if you cast your glance on any walls dirty with such stains or walls made up of rock formations of different types.  If you have to invent some scenes, you will be able to discover them there in diverse forms,  in diverse landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, extensive plains, valleys, and hills. You can even see different battle scenes and movements made up of unusual figures,  faces with strange expressions,  and myriad things which you can  transform into a complete and proper form constituting part of similar walls and rocks.

Don’t underestimate this idea of mine, which calls to mind that it would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls,  the ashes from the fire,  the clouds,  the mud, or other similar places.  If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like. These will do you well because they will awaken genius with this jumble of things.”

John Dee, an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator,  and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century, would stare into an obsidian stone from Mexico. Dee was following the long tradition of mirror scyring  (also known as mirror gazing) to obtain visions of the future and of universal ideas.

Raymond Moody, the famous collector of near-death experiences and author, uses a similar process today for people to see and converse with departed loved ones. He places the person in a darken room that he calls The Psychomantuem, seated in a recliner and they stare at a mirror that is tilted towards dark curtains, providing a blank canvas for their imagination to roam (see book).

Hermann Hesse revealed another form of staring, fire watching, in his book Demian. When his naive major character meets with a mysterious new friend, he is shown how to stare into a fireplace: “With rigid eyes I stared at the fire as I sank into dreams and stillness, recognized figures in the smoke and pictures in the ashes. Once I was startled. My companion threw a piece of resin into the embers: a slim flame shoot up and I recognized the bird with the yellow sparrow hawk’s head. In the dying embers, red and gold threads ran together into nets, letters of the alphabet appeared, memories of faces, animals, plants, worms, and snakes.” (Demian, Harper & Row, 1965, p. 106).

More recently, in the 1960s and 1970s, sensory deprivation was studied for its ability to open access to the imagination. John Lilly, plumbed the depths of flotation chambers that were closed off to light, sound, and changes in air. Water in the chamber was heated to match normal body temperature which caused awareness of the body to drop away (the body seemed to merge with the water).  What was left was a mind free to fly off into detailed imagery.

A more modest approach to sensory deprivation is the Ganzfeld effect (article). Special eye pieces can be made from one ping pong ball by cutting it in half. These are placed over the eyes as a person reclines. Staring into this blank field along with wearing sound blocking headphones, will cause the mind to zone out and eventually images of all sorts will start to pour forth for the person who has properly practiced this technique.

Why it works
The mind hates a vacumn. Staring into darkness, an unchanging dark mirror, the white fog of ping pong ball eyelids, or the play of color/light/shadow, the mind gets impatient and seeks to pick up the pace. To do so, it pours out imagistic commentary on what it thinks it is seeing as well. It strives to find patterns. Along with these images come unique imagery from the mind. This imagery is probably the content of the day that churns below the surface reacting to what is going on in our lives at the moment and working on problems we are having or will have around the corner.

How to Do It
Pick an approach that appeals to you from the examples above (there are gazing mirrors available and the ping pong ball Ganzfeld setup just takes minutes to make).  Expect this to be a slow process so don’t rush it. Also, it is likely you will have to make this a dedicated practice to release its full potential. Try 10 to 15 minutes every day for awhile. As you stare, relax your body, and keep checking in to find any tension that may have popped up. Relax again. Wait. Let your focus become fuzzy and give that approach a try. Switch back to a sharper focus if you find that more productive. Go with any hints of imagery that comes up before your eyes, in your thoughts, feelings in your heart, or sensations in your body.

Stare, let go, wait, and imagine…dreaming with eyes-wide-open.