Beyond the substantial benefits meditation creates for the mind-body physiology, the greatest...
The word holistic has come to refer to everything from organic food and massage therapy to herbal supplements and Eastern healing practices, all of which are undeniably valuable and evidence of a growing consciousness that earlier generations only dreamed of. The Chopra Center defines holistic in its original sense, as related to wholeness. Wholeness is the union of mind, body, and spirit. It means that you are a totality, not the sum of countless moving parts. In wholeness, you aren’t divided against yourself and the choices you make benefit you at every level.
There is a growing body of research establishing the inextricable connection of the mind, body, and spirit – and the value of lifestyle practices that encompass all three aspects. Just as the quality of your food, water, and exercise directly affects the health of your body and mind, so the energy and information you take in through your mind and sensory organs influences your body and spirit. The secret is to live in wholeness now, cultivating a lifestyle that nurtures all aspects of your life – including your physical and emotional health, relationships, success in fulfilling your dreams and desires, personal growth, and spiritual connection.
The following guide to living a Chopra Centered Lifestyle won’t tell you what kind of diet to follow or offer advice on what vitamins to take or how often to exercise. While all those things are undeniably important, our focus here is on creating a truly holistic lifestyle that will help you experience your innate wholeness, balance, and wellbeing.
Transform Your Perception of Your Body
Only a few decades ago, conventional medicine viewed the body as a machine whose parts would inevitably break down until it could no longer be repaired. As a medical student, I learned that random chemical reactions determined everything that happened in the body, the mind and body were separate and independent from each other, and genes largely determined our health and lifespan.
Today scientific research is arriving at a radically different understanding: While the body appears to be a three-dimensional anatomical structure, it is actually a river that never stays the same. Right now hundreds of thousands of chemical changes are taking place at the cellular level, changing your body faster than you can change your clothes. These changes aren’t random but are focused on serving the purpose of moving life forward and preserving what’s best from the past.
Yet change is also a choice. Your body has an infinite number of unknown possibilities, but it looks to you for direction. When you introduce an intention, your body finds a way, on its own, to adapt to anything you want.
For example, researchers have known for the past twenty years that the brain is “plastic” – that it isn’t fixed at birth as previously believed but adapts to change. They have found that simple daily activity can quickly create new neural networks. Even more remarkably, studies are now showing that mental activity alone can alter the brain. A group of brain researchers studying advanced Tibetan Buddhist monks conducted a study with the cooperation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In a laboratory, the monks were hooked up to a functional MRI, a brain scan that can monitor changes in real time. When the monks meditated on compassion, the scans showed that their brains generated the most intense gamma waves ever seen in a normal brain. Gamma waves are associated with keeping the brain functioning as a whole and with higher cognitive processes.
The monks displayed the most intense area of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with happiness and positive thoughts. This study was remarkable because it was the first time that anyone had been able to conclusively show that mental activity alone can alter the brain. We now have evidence that a mere intention or desire (in this case, the desire to be compassionate) can train the brain to adapt.
Exercise: Subtle Action
There is now abundant evidence that the mind and body are inseparable linked, and that the mind has a profound influence on our health and wellbeing. We can apply this knowledge using a process I call subtle action.
While gross actions involve direct contact with the physical world, subtle actions involve only the mind. Subtle action comes naturally to all of us, but it can be easier to apply when you break it down into the following steps:
When you apply subtle action, your body will shift effortlessly at the physical level. The Tibetan monks used all of these steps: They meditated, and in that expanded state of awareness, introduced their intention for compassion. They didn’t try to force an outcome but sat quietly, trusting that they would realize their goal. They repeated these steps on a regular basis, keeping their intentions clear. Through subtle action alone, compassion flowed into them. You can use the same process in your own life, setting an intention for the qualities that you want to expand in your experience, such as love, health, peace, joy, and harmony.
Our authentic true self is unconditioned pure consciousness. Until we remember that, however, we accept the illusion that we are our ego. In reality, the ego is just a limited aspect of our mind. The ego’s only necessary job is to provide a means for us to experience the world as individual or as one observer. It is essentially a gatekeeper that allows in certain experiences that it immediately labels as “me” or “mine,” while rejecting other experiences. The ego is fundamentally insecure and defensive because it believes that it is separate from the world and therefore must struggle for control, approval, and survival. The tendency to judge and reject comes naturally to the ego.
Befriending the Ego
The ego’s perspective ultimately leads us to experience unnecessary suffering, stress, and often even illness. But what can we do? I have never favored trying to defeat, kill, or discipline the ego. Fighting your ego is actually a melodrama of the ego itself.
Instead of simply trying to get rid of the ego, which only puts it on the defensive, it is more effective to focus on discovering your real essence, your foundation of being.
Meditation is one of the most powerful practices for experiencing your true nature. As you meditate, the presence of your deepest self will radiate its own truth to every cell in your body. It may display its quality as peace or joyfulness. For others it may have more of a flavor of universal love and compassion. Still others may experience the presence as divine light, creativity, or intelligence. As self-awareness dawns, the ego more easily relinquishes its role as a worried gatekeeper, a defender of the status quo.
Listen to Your Body’s Wisdom
Without a sense of the rhythms and intelligence inherent in our physiology and our consciousness, we ignore the critical signals that our body has been cultured over eons to express in order to maintain balance. We neglect to sleep and exercise, indulge beyond our capacities, retire too late and then arise when the sun is well aloft, wondering why we feel out of synch. We sabotage the delicate harmony and order encoded in our chromosomes, our genetic gift of longevity that comes from keeping our tissues free from plaque and debris. A little imbalance in time becomes a disorder and then a disease, bringing on more stress and neglect.
On the other hand, when we flow in harmony with our body’s natural rhythms, getting restful sleep, feeding our senses with experiences, tastes, touch, aromas sounds, and sights that uplift and nourish us, we usually experience a greater state of health and wellbeing.
Such a life promotes an integrated interaction of our brain’s one trillion neurons, allowing us to be present to the multitude of perceptions we are incessantly bombarded with, to enjoy them for their beauty, to process them into creative action and to intuit the future and our role within it.
Exercise: Tuning In . . .
How do you make choices that keep you in harmony with your inner intelligence and rhythms? By tuning into your body’s messages. Your body always expresses itself through signals of comfort and discomfort.
When choosing a certain path or behavior, ask your body, “How do you feel about this?” If your body sends a signal of physical or emotional distress, pay attention and consider a different choice. If your body sends a signal of comfort and eagerness, proceed. Whereas the mind lives in the past and the future, the body resides in the now and never doubts itself. It knows the truth and will guide you toward the most evolutionary choices.
The silent witness within us is the light of our pure consciousness, present at all times in every experience. Interestingly, Agni, the Vedic god of fire is also known as the eternal witness and as the devourer. In Ayurvedic physiology, the eight Agnis are the fires of digestion, which must all be functioning properly for our body to extract the full essence and benefits of the food, experiences, and sensory impressions that we ingest. If these are not fully digested, a metabolic residue or toxin known as ama remains in our body and can impair our health.
When the light of our consciousness is fully awakened, then our silent witness is fully present in every moment of experience. That light of witnessing fully metabolizes whatever experience we are having, whether pain or pleasure. It also prevents the experience from becoming a future source of attachment, suffering, or delusion. The silent witness character of our higher self keeps us in the present, unencumbered by our past conditioning or fear of the future.
When you meditate, your internal dialogue becomes quiet, and in the silence, you experience your inextricable connection to the infinite source of pure awareness. There are many different meditation techniques, and it’s important to explore and find one that resonates with you. At the Chopra Center we teach Primordial Sound Meditation, a mantra-based technique that is rooted in India’s ancient Vedic tradition. A mantra is a sound that has no history or meaning associated with it, allowing you to bypass the mind’s natural tendency to get wrapped up in stories and thoughts. The Sanskrit word mantra means “vehicle of the mind,” and when you silently repeat your mantra during meditation, it carries you beyond the mind’s inner chatter into the stillness and peace of expanded awareness.
Exercise: The I Am Meditation
If you don’t have a mantra, another meditation technique you can use is to close your eyes and simply repeat the words I am silently to yourself. As the biblical story describes, when Moses went to the burning bush and asked God his name, God answered, “I am that I am.” I am represents infinite possibilities. There is no baggage attached to it. In Sanskrit, the word aham refers to this same concept.
Start with five minutes of meditation, and then gradually build up to longer meditation periods. You will notice that when you introduce the repetition of the words I am into your consciousness, they will compete with your other thoughts until gradually both your thoughts and the words I am become vague and abstract. As you go deeper, you will experience no thought and no repetition of I am . . . you will be resting in the silence and peace of pure consciousness.
Self-referral is identifying with your inner self – the unchanging essence of your soul. This state has certain characteristics, including an internal sense of joy or wellbeing regardless of what is happening in the exterior world.
In the state of self-referral, you feel neither superior nor inferior and you are not easily offended. You’re not obsessed with power, money, or control, and you’re not rigidly attached to outcomes. You’re in touch with your feelings and experience emotional wellbeing. In self-referral you have infinite freedom and are able to make spontaneous evolutionary choices. You’re not anticipating a response and you’re not victimized by memory. You’re literally in the flow of the evolutionary impulse of the universe.
Exercise: The Fire in Your Eyes
Conscious inner dialogue is a powerful tool for expanding the state of self-referral. Whenever you look in the mirror, even if just for a few seconds, make eye contact with yourself and silently repeat the three principles of self-referral:
Look into your eyes to see these attitudes reflected back at you. Look for the shine in your eyes that reflects the fire in your soul. If you do this exercise a few minutes every day, it can create profound shifts in your life.
Be Generous of Spirit
Wholeness is generous because it feels no lack. No matter how much you give, if you give freely more will come to you. On the other hand, if you feel a pinch of lack underneath, it won’t be easy to give and you won’t experience the joy of giving and receiving.
Generosity begins at the level of the soul, which has an inexhaustible source of the two things that are vital to life: energy and awareness. When you know at the deepest levels that you can never run short of these two things, you will become generous of spirit and giving on any level will feel natural and easy.
Here are a few useful practices for opening to spirit:
Be authentic. Share the real you instead of the false self that most people offer the world. The false self is a something we develop to fit into society’s expectations and win external approval, while the real self is open and vulnerable. It doesn’t feel a division between one soul and another.
While social condition can make it feel frightening to offer the real you, fear gives false counsel. When you offer the real you, you actually become stronger as you strip off the flimsy suit of armor that was an illusion all along. When you share your true self, you offer wholeness of spirit.
Don’t withhold the truth. Anything that is false blocks spirit and prevents the flow of energy and awareness. Every time you speak your truth, you establish your own wholeness and evolution. This isn’t about standing up for “absolute truths” but about being authentic and honest on the most intimate scale. In families where someone has an alcohol or drug addiction and the other family members keep silent, they feel a sense of helplessness and the problems fester. Speaking the truth opens up options and empowers. It shows caring.
Be a force for harmony and coherence. Wholeness is a state of harmony, while fragmentation is a state of conflict. The soul is a harmonizing influence that can transform any situation if you stay aware and focus your intentions. In the face of conflict, you can act as a peaceful influence, whether silently or speaking up if that is needed.
Place your trust in abundance. Since wholeness contains everything, it draws on the infinite resources of spirit. Trust that there will always be enough of what your soul has to give – enough love, compassion, caring, intelligence, creativity, and attention. Abundance is about trusting the flow, knowing that wholeness doesn’t have holes in it and never leaves a void. You can be generous with all the gifts of the soul and more will flow in.
The best way to understand forgiveness is to realize that to forgive and to ask for forgiveness is the best use of one’s energy and also one of the most important paths to self-healing. The absence of forgiveness is holding a grievance or resentment and also a subtle desire to seek vengeance. In short it is hostility. Many studies have shown that although anger can be a healthy release of pent up energy, hostility is not healthy, and it is the number one emotional risk factor for premature death from cardiovascular accident (stroke and heart attack).
Learning how to let go of toxic emotions such as hostility is the essence of learning how to forgive, because forgiveness is basically releasing your attachment or identification with the conditioned response. There are a few well-developed psychological techniques for releasing toxic emotions that are based on the premise of gaining objectivity and clarity on the emotion before one can release and forgive.
If you are holding on to a grievance or resentment and feel hostility toward someone and are unable to let go, I encourage you to have a look at my colleague David Simon’s book Free to Love, Free to Heal or, if you want to be personally guided in an emotional detoxification and forgiveness process consider attending the Healing the Heart workshop at the Chopra Center. You can learn more at www.chopra.com/healingthe heart.
Ultimately forgiving another is a gift to ourselves because we free ourselves from the pain of holding onto resentment. As Nelson Mandela observed, “Holding onto a resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemy.” As we forgive, we let go of the pain of the past that keeps us in a state of conflict and fragmentation, freeing ourselves to experience our innate wholeness.
The Law of Least Effort is the principle of doing less to accomplish more. This involves a shift in awareness more than anything else. Sometimes hard work, exacting plans, and driving ambitions will allow you to accomplish goals in the material domain, yet at a huge cost, because there’s a lot of stress involved. You’re relying on your own individual mind and efforts, which are tiny in comparison with the infinite intelligence of the universe. By tapping into pure potentiality rather than relying on your ego’s limited strength, life becomes much easier.
Spiritual flow is effortless, spontaneous; it is full of flexibility and creativity. It’s a realm where you learn to let go detach from the outcome, and experience life-centered present moment awareness. And it’s so joyful that it can’t even be described. It seems like you and the universe are dancing together. There’s a song in your heart and you don’t really care who’s listening or what they think. You just want to sing that song and you want to move in tandem with the impulse of evolution which we call dharma or purpose.
Exercise: Applying the Law of Least Effort
The more time you spend in silence and meditation, the easier it becomes to align yourself with the natural harmony of the universe. There are also three useful steps you can take to benefit from the Law of Least Effort in your life:
Daily life presents many unexpected demands and challenges, and it’s easy to fall into the grip of our ego’s fears, demands, and confusion. It’s important to remind yourself of your intentions and spiritual purpose. Some people find it helpful to write down their intentions and review them each day; for others, periods of regular meditation and prayer are invaluable.
Spend time in silence, connect to your infinite nature, and center your intention inside yourself. Intend for everything to work out as it should, and then let go and allow opportunities and openings to come your way.
Practicing the steps above will help you experience your innate wholeness. When that happens, you will feel subtle changes in the feelings and thoughts, including a sense that all is well. You will feel a lightness in your body, deeper peace, and the realization that your internal dialogue has become quieter. You may experience healing on a physical or emotional level. You may also notice that you’re acting out of complete integrity and that synchronicities and unexpected opportunities are becoming more abundant in your life. These are all signs that you are connecting to your true nature, which is whole, infinite, and unbounded.