Being alone can result in one of two states of mind: either loneliness or aloneness. The first is being alone and not happy about it. The second is being alone and liking it.
I spent many of my younger years trying to avoid loneliness. And hating every minute I was lonely. I did all the typical things people do to avoid being alone. I scheduled my life so I’d be busy all the time. If I found myself alone for some reason, I’d make sure there were several radios and televisions making noise to keep my mind occupied. And during that time, I had no inkling of what aloneness was all about.
Then something happened way back when: I heard a song on the radio that reminded me that we all die alone. I know from stuff I learned in collidge that the human body dies from the outside in. That is, we lose contact with our sensory organs and our physical body while our mind is still functioning. So, that means my whole body will shut down and essentially be “dead” while I’m still alive somewhere deep in my brain. I imagined that could be utterly terrifying.
Then, a few decades ago and with the help of a teacher I know, I began deliberately changing my attitude about being alone. I began to appreciate aloneness. And that was about the same time I began loving myself a bit more than I had earlier in life. Looking back, this worked out very well with Zen meditation, and it really did enhance my practice.
In certain ways, aloneness and meditation are the same things. And in other perspectives, they are complementary and work well together.
Simply put, being alone with yourself and observing your mind is known as Mindfulness meditation. Being alone with yourself and not thinking is Zen meditation. I like to do both, sometimes alternating one with the other.
Now that I’m getting into my senior years, my meditations are sometimes very deep and I lose contact with my body for a while. In case I’ve never told you, that is a great experience. And not terrifying at all. For me, there’s not a shred of fear about the possibility of not “waking up.” I would just go on through the Window and see what happens next.
Let’s get back to the point of this blog. Aloneness is good. Start switching the gears in your mind to be more appreciative of aloneness. Even to the point of seeking it and planning for it. You don’t need the radios and TVs playing all the time. You don’t need somebody there for you all the time. And you don’t have to be “bored” by silence. You can learn to be comfortable and at ease being alone all by yourself. Just being with yourself.
Aloneness is a state that can be comforting and nourishing. It creates an atmosphere conducive to inner growth and self-development. It can also provide an opportunity for healing from the daily slings and arrows.
One of the nicest parts of becoming a spiritually aware person is a big change in attitude about “dying.” And by spiritually aware, I mean becoming aware of one’s spiritual being. (And as you should know by now, this does not entail any kind of religious belief.)
A person who spends enough time focused inward in search of his own self-nature, ultimately discovers an inner being known as the human spirit. That discovery is a significant step toward Enlightenment. It has a huge, life-changing effect on everyone who experiences it.
Stated simply, the human spirit is an energy form that cannot be destroyed. When the human body can no longer host its spiritual being (that it, the body “dies”), the spirit returns to its previous, non-physical, purely spiritual state. I like to think of it as a jump. When my body “gives up the ghost,” as it’s been called for millennia, I will make the jump back into the pure spiritual state. If you want to know why I’m so sure about that, ask me some time.
A well-spent life is one where a person spends sufficient time and energy in preparation for the jump. Part of that preparation is making a few practice jumps—something that can happen in a deep meditative state. Once you pass through the so-called Window of Light (and come back again), you’ll never be the same again.
You’re not alone. Some of the best teachers and coaches have reported that only about 2% of people in Western countries can reach the true meditative state. In other words, they are people who cannot stop the flow of thought in their conscious mind. Are you one of them? Is your mind out of control? If so, what can you do?
Most importantly: Don’t give up. To borrow a tactic from sports, drop back twenty yards and do something different.
Stopping your mind from thinking requires control. But most people don’t have that control. So, instead of trying to control your mind, just become an observer of your thoughts. Use your meditation time to simply watch the stream of thoughts as they pass through your mind. Just relax and notice them.
During that time, you can make mental notes to yourself about what you’re seeing. Later, you can analyze them. As a result, you will learn a lot about the kind of mind you have. And that will let you manage your mind (and your life) a lot better. It’ll soon become obvious to you what you must do to slow down that torrent of thought.
If you sit five or six times per week (which, I’d say, is the minimum for any serious student), you will gradually develop and recognize—within yourself—a separate part of your mind you can call the Observer. You can be “in your Observer” some of the time and “in your Thinker” at other times. Then, any time you’re on your cushion, you can jump out of the Thinker and into your Observer—and back again. Naturally, when you’re sitting, you’ll want to spend most of your time in the Observer.
As time goes on, you may recognize the Thinker and the Observer as two different beings inside you. I chuckle because some of my shrink friends say that creates a split personality. Well, yes it does, but in this case it’s a very good and healthy way to separate what goes on in your mind.
For a few months or more, the Observer may be a bit weak. At times he might even be overcome and pushed to the background by the Thinker. But with consistent practice, the Observer will be available to you any time you need him. Even when you’re not sitting on your cushion. At some later date, your Observer may get strong and agile enough so that you’ll want to rename him—as Boss.
When you find that you can jump into Observer mode at will and at any time, that means you have made enormous progress. Congratulations! You are practicing Mindfulness Meditation.
Sure, many people will think I’m macabre. They’ll read the title above and turn the page—to get the awful thought of death out of their mind. But they’re missing the point.
You see, unless you have received enlightening meditative experiences, you’re not likely to remember what it was like to be “dead.” After all, before you were born, you were “dead.” Right? And after your body dies, you’ll be “dead” again, back where you came from. But if you were able to remember what it was like to be in the spiritual form, you would have a much different attitude about bodily death.
Among its many other benefits, Zen meditation is a way to connect to your human spirit, which is the non-physical energy form that lives within you. And in accordance with the natural laws of our universe, energy and matter aren’t created or destroyed, they are transformed from one state to another. The human spirit is an indestructible energy form.
The human spirit arrives in a new body with memories, knowledge, and experience from previous lives. And now, even though you may not be in touch with your own spiritual being, it is nevertheless recording experiences and gaining knowledge while it is living inside your present body. After it departs, it will carry some of your present life experiences with it, back into its “normal” spiritual state.
The “Joy” I’m writing about here comes from being free from the pain and suffering of the human condition. And the first question I usually get is: Won’t I miss food and sex? Nope, absolutely not. You’ll have something much, much better. So much better the human mind can’t fully grasp it.
Let’s take sex, for example. In the human form, people make love by getting their bodies plastered together as close as possible. But that closeness is always limited by their physical bodies. Each person is still alone inside his own body and mind. There’s no way for humans to have physical union totally inside each other. The closest we can get is with our genitals, male inside the female—which pales in comparison.
But in the spiritual state, two beings can merge totally and occupy the same “time and space” inside each other. That is a total spiritual union, something far greater than ordinary human orgasm. The two individuals become one. There is no separation of any kind. It is an indescribable joy.
Enlightened people understand these rewards. And most of them get very excited about the prospect of returning to the spiritual state. And that, of course, provides a lot of motivation to deepen their meditative experiences. After experiencing just a brief taste of these experiences, a practitioner’s attitude about dying changes enormously.
Why do people who receive enlightening experiences have no fear of death? Are they just out of their mind, or do they know something that we don’t know?
Enlightenment is an experience that opens avenues in the mind not available to a typical person. Let me be clear: This is not a new-age, pop culture fantasy that came from smoking too much weed. Rather, it is one of the most well-known benefits of Zen meditation, something known and taught by masters over thousands of years.
A long-term practice of Zen typically results in the creation of new neural pathways that allow the practitioner to have out-of-body and out-of-mind experiences during meditation. Now, hold that thought for a minute.
Have you heard about people who’ve had near-death experiences or who actually died, were resuscitated, and who experienced passing through the legendary Window of Light? Enlightened Zen practitioners are people who have visited the Window but without the necessity of dying. They experienced the process of passing through the Window—and then coming back. Quite a few of them are walking around the planet today. We call them “masters.” And you can believe me, they know something other people don’t know—they know there is no such thing as “death.”
Wow, what a life-changing, world-transforming concept. That’s chiefly because when your spirit is on the other side of the Window, it can see things a mortal human cannot see. You’re able to grasp a bigger picture than the ordinary human mind can comprehend. Or can be expressed in our pathetically inadequate human languages. Nevertheless, after you’ve been there, you know that death of the human body is just a transformation. It’s merely the next step. It’s the start of a whole new chapter.
This is why Zen practitioners might giggle during a funeral. It really, really is a cause for celebration.
A few weeks back, we introduced and discussed the two main “actors” on the stage of your mind: the Boss and the Thinker. If you remember, the Thinker is your good old conscious mind that wants to think non-stop when you’re awake (and even sometimes when you’re half asleep). The Boss is the higher you that tries to gain control of the Thinker whenever you want to get into the meditative state.
With that clearly in mind, it’s time to introduce the third major player on the stage of your mind. I call it the Animal. Indeed, it is the actual animal within you. Physically, the Animal lives in the lower part of your brain known as the Limbic System. Although chiefly concerned with your survival, that part of he brain is also the center of your emotions.
Most of the time you’ll find that in a normal, mentally healthy, well-adjusted person (hah, how many people like that do you know?) the Animal stays mostly in the background. Thus, under most circumstances you don’t have to worry about the Animal during meditation. However, if the Animal is aroused and agitated for any reason, it may render you incapable of getting into the meditative state.
The Animal is so powerful that it can completely paralyze both the Boss and the Thinker—and do so very quickly. It can hijack the entire mind/body and take total and immediate control. That’s not entirely bad; it is an important feature that helped us survive. But it can be very bad if the Animal takes control and keeps control* to the extent that a person’s mind is unable to function as it should. That situation can be identified as one or another variation of mental illness.
For instance, if you have a fight with your lover, your Animal may be out of control for a while. If a loved one dies, the Animal howls with grief and prevents you from thinking or meditating for a while. If I tried to list all the possible situations in which the Animal can create havoc in your mind and keep you from achieving inner peace, this would be a very long (and boring) post.
From my experience teaching meditation, I know that trying to learn it while the Animal is loose and raging, is futile. To meditate, the Animal must be calm and resting comfortably—aware but not fearful about what is going on. Which might mean that, before you find a meditation teacher, you may need to see your therapist first and see what can be done about that snarling, pacing, agitated Animal that sometimes runs your life.
The good news is that, once your meditative practice is well established, oftentimes you’ll be able to use your meditative state to calm the Animal. In my own case, it took me at least ten times as long to learn to control the Animal compared to the Thinker. And even now my control of the Animal is not 100% guaranteed. But at least now I can usually hold the raging Animal on his leash and, after reminding him of his limits, let him loose to snarl a bit.
*Bad experiences in your previous life might have created trauma that left the Animal in you in constant pain and unconsolable suffering. That is called post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which usually requires a special type of body therapy for successful treatment.
This means you have a lifelong “job” to prepare yourself for dying. Isn’t that a great perspective on how to run your life? Instead of living in fear of death? Which makes you live like a rat in a roundhouse. You run in fear around and around, and never find the door.
Down the road a bit farther from here (and you don’t know exactly how far), you’re going to graduate out of this life. Your human spirit—which is the indestructible part of you—will leave your body, and you’ll pass through that magic window of light we’ve all heard so much about. It’s the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.
A few fortunate people have actually experienced the window of light. They “died” medically and were resuscitated, and were able to tell us subsequently about their window experience. A few others have received Enlightenment in which a person is allowed to sit before the window—although for a very brief time—and receive knowledge via that window. Those people know and understand exactly what I’m talking about here. The rest can take this all under advisement. That is, view it as a possibility, but not a belief.
You and I don’t know what our next adventure will be. That’s because it hasn’t happened yet. But you don’t want to get to the point of your departure and then say, “Oh hell! I should have done better, I should have known.” The key to preventing that is inner development.