Transformation 4 – the mind

Transformation 4 – the mind.

Having begun the transformation of the physical body I decided that my next step would be to begin to transform my mind. I decided I needed to look into meditation and I came across a free meditation course that was included with my membership to a particular college. I had mostly rebelled against meditation in the past and felt that I meditated in a certain way when I exercised so I thought that was enough. I had done a little meditation and relaxation in yoga, in a hypnosis course I once did and as part of my job at times but I had never really embraced it.

I decided it was time to embrace it.

Not only did I decide to begin meditating but I also decided it was time to take up yoga again.

I began the meditation course and because I had already done some of the exercises I found myself getting impatient and wanting to jump ahead. I hated the progressive muscle relaxation practice so I skipped that week but otherwise I tried to practice every morning before work. I found it very hard to quiet my mind but gradually I began to improve.

I had been meditating for a couple of months and I was still such a beginner – my mind was reluctant to cease its chatter. Focus on the breath. Focus on the gap between thoughts. The gap between my thoughts was so brief as to be mostly non-existent. But gradually I was learning how to sit and enjoy the practice of just sitting. I was learning how to allow thoughts to come and go, noises to come and go, everything to just come and go. It was as the Buddha observed, everything comes and then it goes, nothing is permanent.

We are so used to doing and doing and doing that to sit and breathe and spend time with our inner self is alien. Initially I would sit there paying attention to the breathing and thinking way too much about what I would do when the meditation was finished. Eventually I was able to just sit and focus on my breath and try to find the gap between my thoughts. I was learning how to focus on the peaceful place inside me that has been overrun by my outer life. I was learning that the peaceful place inside of me is deep and seemingly unknown. Yet it is also the essence of myself that has been covered up with layers of ego and too much thinking.

My work in medicine and my writing are both pursuits where thinking is useful yet my mind is so full of thoughts that they crowd out the part of my brain that doesn’t think in that way. The left side of my brain thinks in words and sentences, it is the incessant monkey mind that chatters away all the time. The right side of the brain thinks in pictures and concepts and is often drowned out by the left side. I think the meditation was helping me quiet the left side of my brain and allowed me to hear more from the right.

I have written quite a bit about the way the two sides of the brain work in my book Holistic Medicine and although it is something of a metaphor it helps me pay attention to what is happening with my thoughts. When I am overrun with thoughts that often go around in circles I become aware that I am paying too much attention to my logical left brain and too little attention to my intuitive right brain. While meditation can help my quiet the left side of the brain unless I consciously pay attention to my over thinking I often get stuck in the logical and physical side of my life.

What I really hoped to achieve with the meditation and yoga practice was to become more attuned to my inner or higher self. To tune into that part of me that is connected to everything else – the source energy, universal consciousness, spirit, god. In connecting with this inner self I hoped to be able to better align my inner and outer selves in order to live a more authentic life. To keep becoming the best version of myself I can be.

After meditating for some months I gradually found myself feeling less and less inspired to practice. Somewhere I lost the momentum and ended up going backwards. I struggled to do my meditation, going some days without even sitting and trying. The days I did try to practice my mind just didn’t want to still, my body felt anxious to be up and doing. My yoga practice was also more difficult; my back got sore, my left knee hurt. What was happening?

It seemed as if my ego was fighting back, trying to regain lost ground and it was succeeding. Why did the ego feel so threatened by my new way of life? And why was it so easy to fall back into the old way of being? They say if you practice a new habit for 30 days it becomes a way of life. I had been meditating for eight weeks and doing yoga for almost four. Yet something within me was trying to sabotage my plans.

Ego is always trying to blind us to our dual nature – the spiritual and the physical. It is trying to have us believe that only the physical is important. It would like us to believe that we are who we think we are rather than a deeper or higher self that is connected to the rest of the universe and to source energy. Ego wants us to believe we are separate beings when really we are all connected via invisible energy connections.

I had fallen for ego’s tricks. I had started to focus more on the physical and less on the spiritual aspects. Despite meditation and yoga and gratitude and thoughts of service to others I had forgotten to connect with my higher self while doing these things and had become task oriented. I was too busy doing (even though I was doing ‘spiritual’ things) and had forgotten to be. Mind you I had also stopped writing despite my aim to write every day.

As I write I begin to reconnect with my higher self and see how much I was driven to do the spiritual thing rather then be my authentic self. To be spiritual isn’t necessarily about doing spiritual things but rather about being the person you are meant to be. How could I connect with my higher self on a daily basis? Obviously the meditation was one way but it didn’t seem to be working that well. Maybe I wasn’t finding the stillness as well as I might. Or maybe it just didn’t carry on into my day’s work. When I write I connect to my higher self but I couldn’t write all day long. I had to find a way to be in alignment while I saw patients and went about my day to day life. So I took a few days off to regroup and see where I was getting off path.

The first thing I did was step right back and try to find the bigger picture of what was happening. Why was I going backwards? While ego is in control then higher self can’t be. This seemed to be the problem. How could I let higher self have control of things rather than ego.

Then one day I had the weird experience of waking up with one thought on my mind – let go. I filed it away to think about later and got up to do my meditation. I chose a guided meditation I hadn’t done in a while and found the whole thing was about letting go. I opened my Facebook a little bit later and there was a cartoon entitled ‘how to let go’ with a picture of a leaf falling from a tree.

There was clearly a message here. I had to learn how to let go.

Let go of what?

The need to control?

Letting go of our need to control our lives is critical to becoming more aligned with our inner self. Our ego would love to control everything and it has us believing that this is possible. And it is partly possible when we are fully aligned with inner self and the source of all that is.

I decided to let go of my need to control my transformation in a logical way. Instead I decided to do those things that brought me joy and happiness and not focus on the spiritual practices that I believed I ‘should’ be doing. I stopped meditating because I reasoned it wasn’t bringing me any joy at all, instead it was turning into something I felt I had to do. Yet another task to be completed each day. I stopped pushing myself to do yoga and instead just did it when I felt like it. I spent time walking in nature and time sitting doing nothing and I let go of the need to transform into a spiritual being. I already was a spiritual being and I didn’t need to meditate or do yoga to get in touch with my inner self and spirit. It was as if walking was my meditation and writing was a spiritual practice.

Sometimes we have preconceived ideas about what we should do to be spiritual or more authentic but really it’s all about being ourselves and doing those things that bring us joy. We don’t necessarily need to meditate every day or go on silent retreats or spend time in prayer. There is no right way to transform into a more authentic person only the way that works for each of us as individuals.

I was finding out the spiritual practices that worked for me. Part of this discovery was trying things that others found useful but I didn’t have to become a slave to things if they didn’t work for me. I suspect I might try to meditate again and I’m sure I’ll be doing yoga on and off all my life but as daily practices they had become a chore and they weren’t bringing more joy to my life.

Sometimes it’s good to just examine the parts of our lives to determine whether the things we do are worthwhile or whether we’re just doing them from a sense of obligation or duty. Even spiritual practices such as mediation, prayer, yoga, silence can become chores if we don’t continually examine how they are working for us.

As I began to relax into my life and not worry about meditating or getting up early or doing yoga every day I began to feel more comfortable with what was happening in my life. I think sometimes we need to just let go of all the achieving to work out what is important to us. Letting go of the need to transform into some preconceived idea of what I might look like if I was well aligned with my inner self. My preconceived ideas where more about my image of what a spiritual person might look like than how I might be if I was well aligned and authentic.

Transforming the mind is an ongoing challenge for me. Trying to pay better attention to the intuitive right side of my brain and less to the chattering monkey mind of the left side. Being aware that I can tune into my inner self through many practices – meditation, mindfulness, walking, dreams, writing, having meaningful conversations, loving people, practicing gratitude, being of service or being in nature. What I learnt most from trying classical meditation was that I don’t have to meditate to be in touch with my spiritual side and that finding joy in all my activities is more important than being tied to certain spiritual practices.




The way you think

The human mind is a very complex thing. It can however be divided into two main parts, which correspond to the two sides of the brain. The two sides or hemispheres are imaginatively called the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. These two sides of the brain think in two different ways.

The left side of the brain thinks in logical, rational ways. This is what some people call our intellect. It breaks problems down into parts (called reductionism) and seeks to solve problems by examining the parts. It thinks in black and white terms, right and wrong, good and bad (called dualism). Left-brain thinking is called rational thinking (this is also known as linear thinking).

The right side of the brain thinks intuitively, in wholes, in systems (called holism). It thinks creatively, laterally, imaginatively. Right-brain thinking is called intuitive thinking (also known as non-linear thinking) and it is not logical.

The left side thinks mainly in words and numbers, the right mainly in pictures and patterns and symbols. So language is primarily a left-brain concept while pictures and symbols are right brain territory.

Our thinking appears to be done by our left brain; we think in words, we have a train of thought expressed in words and sentences. These thoughts lead onto other thoughts in a linear fashion and we reach a conclusion. Or the thoughts go round in circles and we get confused. This is all left-brain thinking (of course this is an oversimplification).

Our right brain thinks in a different way. The right brain seems to come up with an answer suddenly. It doesn’t use the left brain’s linear processing to find the answer methodically and logically. Rather, it synthesises all the information in a different way and seems to then suddenly know the answer to a problem, or it suddenly grasps an issue and understands it. As the right brain doesn’t use words and sentences to think, we often assume it is silent, but it just uses a different process to the left brain.

Neither hemisphere can think in isolation; they are joined primarily by a structure called the corpus callosum, a network of connections that link both hemispheres. The distinction between the two sides is partly academic but it helps us understand the two different processes that occur in our brains. Where they occur anatomically isn’t very important for most of us.

Conventional scientific thought uses both sides of the brain but believes that the left side is superior. Science and medicine believe that reductionism and dualism are a superior way of thinking and working out problems compared to holism. They believe truth is to be found in logic and rational analysis.

As individuals and as a society (which includes medicine), what is needed is not a greater reliance on either side of the brain but the ability to use both sides together and also to use either side in the way it works best.

The left side works best for analysing and logically sorting out problems, by reducing the problem into parts and analysing the parts. The left brain can’t conceptualise the whole thing except by looking at the parts.

The right side works best when looking at the whole picture, establishing patterns, and intuitive thinking and creativity. The right brain can’t understand how the parts fit together except by looking at the whole.

Most of us in Western society are out of balance (too left brained) and the reason for this is because it is what we have learnt. We have learnt, in the past few centuries, to use our logical rational brain over our intuitive non-rational brain.

Neither the left-brain process of rational thinking nor the right brain’s intuitive thinking process is right or wrong. They are just different ways of reaching answers.

It is important to understand this difference between linear (left brain) and non-linear (right brain) thinking processes because it is where we often repeat our mistakes and get stuck in the same patterns of behaviour.

Many problems can be solved with linear thinking, but they have to be linear problems. Most of our problems, and certainly those we usually get stuck in, are non-linear or chaotic. No-one can work them out with their left brain. Many people think they are stupid because they can’t work out their problems. They go to a doctor or counsellor because they think such people are smarter.

The problem isn’t smartness or lack of it; it is due to our reliance on a part of the brain that simply cannot solve these problems. The left brain cannot under any circumstances solve a non-linear problem. It is like trying to use a calculator for word processing, or a screwdriver to knock in a nail. It’s just the wrong tool.

Our life is always trying to teach us this. When we find our brain going round and round in circles and not getting anywhere, we can be pretty sure our left brain is trying to sort out a non-linear problem. It goes in circles but it never gets anywhere because the problem is not solvable through linear thought. The left brain can play a part in helping us through such problems but it cannot reach a solution by itself; it needs the help of the right brain.

Once we have learnt this lesson then we can turn to the part of our brain specifically designed for these non-linear problems, the right brain.

This is where we really enter the culture of the holistic because it is here that we change our belief system. We begin to believe that this process of right-brain thinking is the way to solve our non-linear problems. When I say solve I don’t mean in a left-brain way, I mean in a holistic way.

The right brain helps us get to a different place. It helps us understand in an intuitive sense what is going on, what we have to learn, how we have to proceed. The problem is not linear or logical, therefore the process of solving it is not linear or logical, therefore the answer is not linear or logical. Intuitive answers do not always help us reach a predetermined outcome. Instead, they teach us more about ourselves, about reality, about how to be whole and how to live the cycles of life.

The answers from our right brain will not come to us by sitting down and thinking about the problem. Thinking, as we have come to know it, is how we define left-brain processing. Right-brain answers will usually come to us out of the blue, sometimes in a dream or as a sign or symbol. The beauty of right-brain thinking is that it doesn’t make our head hurt like left-brain thinking can. Our lives would be easier if we would just leave a lot of our problems with our right brain and know that it can answer them for us.

The process by which our intuition solves problems is non-linear. This means it doesn’t make logical sense; you can’t follow a line of thought from the problem to the solution. It is as if the right brain gathers all the available information (some of which is not available to our conscious thinking brain), puts it in a container, shakes it all up and then extracts the answer. The answer appears to have just popped into our heads but it popped in there because the right brain’s intuitive non-linear processes made it available. We can’t make logical sense of intuitive processes because this is the essence of non-linear thinking – it’s not logical.

Ultimately, we need to use both sides of our brain. The left side tries to take a problem apart and solve the parts, and the right side looks at the problem as a whole and tries to come up with a way forward. The left side needs the right side to see how the parts fit into the whole picture and the right side needs the left to see how the whole picture can be broken down into parts that are more manageable.