At certain rare moments—sometimes when in quiet reflection or relaxing in nature—we may discover an often surprising yet pleasant experience of temporarily losing our individual perspective and seeing the world from a larger, more encompassing perspective.
I had such an experience coming back from the Southern California desert one late afternoon. My line of sight was open along the horizon and I could see clearly the setting sun, the rising moon, and the flow of traffic curving towards the sun. It was then that it hit me. In a moment's flash, I was catapulted to a God's-eye view and could instantly "see" all three celestial bodies (the earth, sun, and moon) in relation to each other, including the earth rotating slowly on its axis, along with a feeling of oneness with everything.
The experience was intense—blissful even—but fleeting. As quick as it came, it vanished, and I was back observing from my usual perspective as I drove along the highway. Yet, the sense of awe and peace that came over me remained for hours.
This experience was not something I imagined in my mind's eye, or even the feeling of actually traveling out of my body per se, but a very visceral and instantaneous sense of the oneness of everything. Many others have reported similar experiences. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell reported one such experience as he peered at the earth enveloped in sparkling black velvet through the window of the Apollo 14.
Mystics call this sense of oneness "unity consciousness." According to Hinduism, Atman (individual consciousness) merges with Brahman (universal consciousness), leading to the realization that there is only one consciousness, Brahman. What is required for union is the suppression of thoughts that generate the sense of an individual self; this then results in a state of direct or pure awareness (called "samadhi," or selfless thought) where one sees the true nature of things. In the West, this ecstatic union is described as the "peace of God that surpasses all understanding."
So, it seems, my relaxed and "empty" mind that late afternoon led to a direct awareness of things and a defaulting to a state of unity consciousness.
If you have ever experienced this state, it can be quite liberating, awe-inspiring, and blissful. One often loses much of the feeling of fear and isolation that comes from seeing oneself as just a finite, physical body separated from others and the rest of the world. In its place is a great feeling of being connected to something larger and a broader sense of purpose and meaning to the universe. It can be a great renewal for the spirit.
Unfortunately, as a result of our modern, busy lives, we may at times get so caught up in the demands of each day—including work, family, and basic living responsibilities—that we lose sight of this broader existence. The result can be life as drudgery. What is needed at these times then is a balance between our survival and spiritual needs.
The ancients knew this going back millennia and wrote about it. Hindu and Buddhist texts speak about our "normal," everyday state of mind as one of illusion. The true Self—that of pure, unbounded consciousness—is bound in illusion, or "Maya." Maya is seeing only with the external senses and only what is physically evident. When immersed in this illusion much of greater reality and the true Self are obscured.
Several passages of the Katha Upanishad, an ancient Hindu text written about 800 B.C.E., point to this notion of illusion:
"Hidden in the heart of every creature exists the Self, subtler than the subtlest, greater than the greatest. They go beyond all sorrow who extinguish their self-will and behold the glory of the Self…The immature run after sense pleasures…But the wise, knowing the Self as deathless seek not the changeless in the world of change. The Supreme Self is beyond name and form, beyond the senses, inexhaustible, without beginning, without end, beyond time, space and causality, eternal, and immutable."
Maya as external illusion is not exclusive to Eastern texts. In Luke 17:20-21, NIV, of the New Testament, Jesus rebuffs his challengers by saying: "…the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst."
Both Eastern and Western sources seem to indicate that the Divine Self or Source is subtle to detect by the senses, and may go unnoticed if we are not fully present to it.
There is the risk, then, that a prolonged narrow and external focus may increase the probability that we lose sight of our broader, underlying connection and start to fall under the trap of Maya. That is, we may start to see our physical existence as the only existence, and ourselves as separate and isolated from one another and the Source. If so, we may start to feel more alone, incomplete, stressed, and in competition with each other.
So, how do we stay connected and avoid the trap of Maya? In my book, The Serenity Solution: How to Use Quiet Contemplation to Solve Life's Problems, I offer a variety of practical tips and exercises for harnessing a calm focus not only as a way to see past everyday challenges but as a way to renew access to our broader, spiritual connection.
What is a calm focus? We've all experienced it. It is the optimal state of mind we find ourselves when we are meditating or praying, relaxing in nature, attuned to others and our environment, or experiencing a flash of insight or intuition. In this state, we are alert yet relaxed, our thoughts are clear, and we are fully present.
A key factor of calm focus is that common distractions of the mind are less, and so, we may easier experience a state of pure awareness. For this reason, meditators and spiritual seekers throughout time have honed this state to liberate themselves from Maya and become enlightened to the true nature of Self. In modern times, psychologists, athletes, and artists have come to describe calm focus as being "in the zone" or "in the flow." It is where thoughts and performance are most flexible and fluid.
However, one does not have to spend years on a mountain top or in a monastery to develop a bit of this calm, open state of mind. Anyone of us can begin practicing it in our daily lives. For example, we can get in the habit of simply monitoring our focus (and what we are thinking about) from time to time, especially when we are faced with a difficult challenge. Then, this regular monitoring allows us the ability to notice when we are emotionally caught up in a troubling situation, so we may step out of it, and see other options we may have not noticed.
Moreover, in this open state of mind, we are more likely to see evidence of the Divine working around us, including in the assistance and goodness of others, our own resourceful thoughts and actions, and in the beauty and order of nature. This should restore some of the balance to our lives and loosen the narrow grip of Maya.
There are three things you can do to begin experiencing this useful state in your daily life.
- Observe your body reactions during the day.
Get in the habit of observing your body reactions throughout the day, especially when you encounter challenging situations; this may be when you are rushing to work, stuck in traffic, trying to meet a deadline, overloaded with work, worrying about finances, or dealing with difficult people.
Pay attention to habitual reaction points. These are areas where you normally hold tension. For most of us, these areas include the neck, back, shoulders, and stomach, but are not exclusive these areas. You may find that you hold tension in other areas. See where they are for you.
Notice also at what point during the situation you begin to notice these reactions. Describe each reaction to yourself. Is it a churning sensation? A knotted sensation? Hot? Cold? Burning? A tingling sensation? This should help you become more aware of the reaction when it occurs. See if you can notice its subtle effects earlier in each difficulty you find yourself.
- Disengage narrow focus at critical times.
Before you react as usual, use these initial, subtle reactions as cues to stop and observe. To help, imagine a big red stop sign in your mind's eye and take a deep breath and release it. Tell yourself to slow down at these times and also release your body tension. You might imagine the release as tight rubber bands unwinding or steam coming off a kettle.
Next, observe what you are focusing on and saying to yourself about your present circumstance. There is always internal commentary to what is going on. Simply observe without getting caught up in these thoughts.
- Broaden focus and be mindful of your surroundings.
Now, it is time to "de-focus" and break from these limiting thoughts and see a broader perspective. Be aware of the separation of you from your thoughts. You are the awareness observing the thoughts and not the thoughts.
Then ask yourself next: "What is another way to look at this situation?" Or, alternately: "What is needed most in this situation? What can I do now to improve things?" Then, explore some possibilities and act on the situation. To help, notice things as an outside observer would. See the situation from different angles or as others might. Keep in mind that at times not responding is also an appropriate action.
After dealing mindfully and flexibility to the situation, spend some extra time noticing what is going on around you. Observe without judging and see if you can notice anything new about your surroundings, other people, or the situation itself.
Dont just focus on the bad or what's missing. See also what is good and present around you, especially what you created with a change in your thoughts and actions. Think of how you could expand on these thoughts and actions to deal with similar situations in the future.
Broaden out further and notice anything pleasant about your natural surroundings. For example, you might notice rolling hills, leaves rustling in the trees, a blue sky, white fluffy clouds, stars twinkling at night, a full moon, a cool breeze, birds singing, or the pleasant aroma of flowers.
Try to see beneath the differences and apparent chaos of the world to the deeper order and intelligence underneath. Feel your place in this whole spectrum of life. Or, just simply observe with silent detachment at all that is around you.
With time and practice, you should notice greater moments of peace and clarity. For more information and exercises on how to use calm focus in other ways, check out The Serenity Solution. It is both practical and inspirational.