To expand the knowledge base and continue the open-source tradition of sharing effective spiritual practices
Collecting and publishing techniques within the recovery community based on firsthand experience
One thing we can easily notice about life on Earth is that things seem to work from the ground up. What does this mean? Well, let's consider the simple example of a plant. A plant must begin in seed form, and the seed will sprout once rooted in soil or another stable, nurturing medium. Once sprouted, the tiny plant begins its vertical climb towards the light and strengthens itself along the way. So there is a trajectory of starting down at the bottom and moving up to the top. The growth of the human body is not so different. A newborn child must crawl before they walk, walk before they run, and run before they can jump across any kind of distance that requires momentum.
Interestingly enough, the AYP practice of spinal breathing pranayama also works from the ground up. The focus begins on the root chakra and gradually ascends to the third eye, then slowly swirls back down to the root so that our awareness can begin the climb again. The technique is a cycle of internal cleaning that draws from one of nature's most fundamental tendencies.
In the Christian tradition, there is the parable of the sower, in which seeds are sown in various conditions, and only upon fertile, foundational ground do they thrive and prosper to bear fruit. The physical description is also a metaphor for abiding by the golden rule, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. That state of being has been called an outpouring of divine love, and its seeds are inner silence and divine ecstasy.
Now, if we have somehow managed to fall upon rocky soil, the trick is getting back to solid ground so we can enjoy the fruits of higher consciousness. In AYP for Recovery, one of the main observations is that drug and alcohol use landed us in unstable, detrimental territory. We wanted the fruit but chose faulty methods for nourishment. We have to salvage our intrinsic material and rebuild our structure, and this begins with restoring the health of body and mind, so we can function efficiently on a basic level of survival. How do we accomplish such a resurrection?
We work from the ground up. We recognize our natural talents and abilities, and use those to contribute first and foremost to the well-being of our personal body, and then to the welfare of those surrounding us. This is a biological phenomenon called symbiosis, meaning that when an individual organism is thriving, the rest of the ecosystem will benefit, since each part of the whole supports each other. This kind of living is part and parcel with having an ideal of global enlightenment, or ishta.
Any suffering we experience in life usually comes because we are going against the natural flow of symbiosis. Acting violently to the nervous system (drug and alcohol use) moves us in a direction that is not supportive of the optimal function of evolution. Striving for monetary gain at any expense (excessive destruction and consumption of natural resources) also weakens our integrity and sustainability. These pitfalls are being purified on a global scale, and each individual can play their part in dissolving and transforming obstructions.
If we open our heart to an ideal of working from the ground up, we will intuitively adjust our behavior to achieve our dream. Such adjustments include eating a healthy diet, exercising body and mind, taking up a meaningful profession or vocation, and most definitely implementing a daily routine of spiritual practices.
If we want our head in the clouds, we will need our feet on the ground, and we can cultivate this condition by working from the ground up.
What is contemplation, and how is it different than Deep Meditation? Whereas Deep Meditation is the refinement of a particular object in the mind (the mantra), contemplation is a mental activity that wanders through an assortment of objects without trying to dissolve one in particular. In this sense, contemplation is more about understanding the relationship between thoughts, and how thoughts in turn relate to the world. In contemplation, there can be elements of analysis, memory recall, future speculation, and a general surveying of one’s life experience. Inner silence, cultivated through Deep Meditation, lends itself to contemplation because the witness condition allows the quiet thinker to ponder subjects without being identified with them. The mind’s panorama can be watched like a movie, from a healthy distance. We are attentive and free to roam, without being totally enmeshed in the scenery.
Thomas Merton was a fine contemplative monk who shared a small treasure of writing with the world. He touched upon a variety of topics, ranging from intimacy with God to the troubles of modern politics and economics. There is a palpable sense of Oneness and unity in his writing that clearly resulted from seeds of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. He planted such seeds so they could blossom into quality literature—stimulating the minds of readers and nudging them to embark on their own contemplative journeys.
So how do we contemplate, and what do we contemplate? Well, the parameters are loose, and the possibilities are endless, but there are some simple principles to follow.
First, establish yourself in the witness consciousness and recognize that you are the watcher of the thoughts, rather than the thoughts themselves. Witness consciousness is cultivated through Deep Meditation and becomes the foundation of everything. In fact, the witness has already been the foundation of everything; it’s just that we are becoming increasingly aware of that reality and surrendering our ego-mind to its silence.
Once you are settled and centered in a place of inner tranquility, you can pick a topic to contemplate. Or maybe a topic will arise on its own. Let’s consider an example, like economics. You want to contemplate the topic of economics. Your mind might draw upon images that depict conditions of wealth in contrast to conditions of poverty. Maybe your memory will bring into focus historical figures or current leaders that play roles in economics. Maybe you will imagine what the world would be like with a different economic paradigm or use of currency. At some point, the contemplation must come back to one place, and that is…you. You, as the witness, centered in the body and mind. You have a part to play in economics, and your contemplation can help to find your calling in that field. Fertile contemplation leads to action, a refinement of habits, and enrichment of sense and sensibility.
In general, the formula for contemplation is:
Contemplation is a kind of self-inquiry, with free license to wander in the mind, returning to the home base of witness consciousness. As was mentioned in reference to Thomas Merton, contemplation often triggers the impulse to write, whether it be journaling for private use or authoring essays for public enjoyment and enlightenment. Contemplation is an inner sanctuary that gives birth to outer manifestation.
Merton said: “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.” Whether you call it God, or the mystery of Being, or whatever—you can use contemplation to sift through and unpeel the layers of transparency which surround That.
Meditate. Contemplate. Be still and know.
In AYP, and many other spiritual teachings, there is much talk about letting go. Letting go of sutras into stillness; letting go of attachments and obstructions; letting go of worries for the future, or obsessions with the past. So much letting go! If we keep letting go of everything, are we bound to disappear into some kind of vast nothingness? Is this spiritual path of enlightenment just a game of subtraction and negation? At times, all the talk about letting go can seem incredibly abstract and way too loose, as if we are destined to float around in blank space like a piece of gelatin, stripped of all individuality, with no texture, color, or uniqueness. Yikes!
To balance out the equation, we will flip the script in this lesson and explore the other end of the spectrum, which is holding on. We will give some credence to the dynamic of holding on, and find ways in which holding on can be beneficial.
Let's begin with a simple example, then develop the theme.
If you pick up a glass of water, you have to reach out your arm and then contract your muscles to form a grip around the container. There is some tension at play in the action. When the glass is raised to the mouth, the hand keeps holding on until the cup is set back down. Finally, the arm can return to rest. Obviously, if we don't hold on, the glass will fall to the ground—spilling the water, or even breaking the vessel. We don't want that! So we hold on for the necessary duration.
Now, we can expand the theme of holding on and apply it to habits in our life. In recovery, we know we have to let go of ingesting abrasive substances that have tarnished our nervous system. We drop those like a hot iron, as quickly and safely as possible. Then we pick up some new habits, like the AYP methods of Deep Meditation, Spinal Breathing, Samyama, Karma Yoga, and so on. We hold onto them since they bring results of serenity and joy, and we use self-pacing to back off if there is too much friction. With time and practice, we learn what to hold onto, and what to let go of. This interplay comprises much of the challenge and satisfaction of life—learning by trial and error.
Clearly, there is more to life than practices, and therefore more to be held onto. What if during recovery you are inspired to pick up a new calling, like an art or craft that can be shared? If there is a creative or innovative service that draws you in, you might have to hold onto the habit of cultivating and refining that gift. You see? Holding on is an exercise that complements and completes the phenomenon of letting go.
One day, the physical body will have to be let go of, and that has been called death. But the positive habits we hold onto during this Earthly life will carry on past our individual lives. We leave a legacy for future generations, and our so-called souls, or seeds of individuality, may indeed endure past life on Earth. Whatever the case may be, we don’t need to speculate or worry too much about what we cannot know, but we can hold onto what is in our control, and that includes habits of spiritual practice, as well as persistence in developing value and integrity within the current body.
On that note, there is a simple plea called the serenity prayer. It can be called the serenity formula, if you don’t want any theological labels. It goes like this: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Balanced on the crux of wisdom, we can discern between holding on and letting go, and become more skilled in exercising these complementary abilities.
Find out what really works for you, including what positively affects those surrounding you, and hold onto that.
Many of the struggles we experience in life are related to our relationships with the fellow beings we encounter along our journey. There can be friction when conflicting desires cross abrasively. Sometimes we bump into someone else, and the collision is less than pleasant. Even if no physical altercation occurs, there can be energetic entanglement that can be sticky and cause suffering. Fortunately, there are many ways in AYP to untie these knots and mitigate any harsh tension. Here, we will go a little beyond the baseline of AYP and explore a simple way to further resolve conflict, and we will call it: meeting in the middle.
Meeting in the middle is a common phrase to indicate an attitude and dynamic of compromise, collaboration, and resolution between two or more parties. If opposing sides have strong disagreements, it’s often been said that meeting in the middle can solve their problems. With meeting in the middle, there is no attack or defense; there is merely a merging of interests and ideas, which results in a composite blend of the original ingredients, wherein harmony and balance arise.
Meeting in the middle does not involve invading someone’s personal aura or matrix of obstructions. Rather than try to penetrate someone’s matrix (through coercive manipulation), we can instead choose a point that rests between our respective matrices. This can be between two people, or between one person and a group, or even between multiple groups. The size of each side does not matter that much. What matters is the point between, and the active dynamic between the sides. And, just to boost this technique, we can actually visualize a point outside of our body called the middle point. The middle point can be any shape or size you like: circle, square, diamond, or perhaps something more specific that contains qualities that resonate with your conception of what a middle point is. Maybe there’s not even a discernible shape, but rather just a felt presence in its place. Again, the shape or size is not so important. What is important is the essence contained within.
Now, we will further enhance our middle point, and give it some power. The power we are giving it is very similar to the power of sutras released in samyama. The middle point is relying on the principle of releasing thoughts and intentions into the boundless field of stillness. In releasing attachment to an exact outcome, we find freedom and more spaciousness. We merge our personal will with the collective will. This is the secret of success.
We can give the middle point two functions, both of which will occur simultaneously. The first function is for the point to draw in, absorb, and transform the constriction/friction/suffering between the respective parties. The second function is to allow the point to radiate and emit subtle vibrations of liberation, resolution, and harmony into the shared field. We are killing two birds with one stone, as they say. We are gently, softly, and easily killing the obstructions that need dissolving (in a non-violent, non-invasive way), and we are simultaneously facilitating an outpouring of divine love into the shared field of Being. Finally, as another option, our breathing can be intertwined with this active dynamic…breathing in the suffering through the middle point…breathing out the liberation through the middle point. The in-breath can be a full drawing in of air, whereas the out-breath can be a slower, restrained release in the style of ujjayi, as found in spinal breathing pranayama. Very easy, very natural.
In some sense, the middle point is like a vortex whose center is completely peaceful and silent, though its outer dimensions are actively engaged in purification and opening. The eye of the storm, so to speak.
What’s important about visualizing and creating the middle point is that it’s done with a soft focus. In the same way sutras are let go of (faintly, fuzzily), the middle point is easily touched with our awareness as a spot of reference. There is no strain or hard focus on the point. There is only allowing it to absorb suffering and release liberation. If the point dissolves completely (or appears and disappears in fluctuations), this is very natural and good. That means some fluidity and mutual cooperation is present. If the point remains for any amount of time, this is also very good. Purification and opening is occurring.
Also, like samyama, meeting in the middle requires inner silence as the key ingredient to sustain the practice. Therefore, use self-pacing and prudence before trying this technique. If you try it prematurely (without much inner silence present), you will know soon enough and can easily back off. Furthermore, if visualizing or utilizing a middle point seems too complex or overbearing, you can simply wish for meeting in the middle, in the spirit of a prayer or emotional affirmation. Simplicity is best, and your smooth progress is paramount.
Practice with care, and we can meet in the middle.
When there is some sense of ecstatic conductivity moving through the body, the question of what to do with this flow will inevitably arise. Energy wants to move, and the AYP term stillness in action describes the paradox of energy moving across the calm field of awareness which we fundamentally are. From the central superconductor of the spine, the energy fills all organs and limbs, animating and enlivening every cell in the body. This neurobiological dance is at the heart of all creative movement and activity.
So, with the technique of free movement, we are simply tapping into the energy flow from the spine, and letting that flow move our body. Actually, there is a Sanskrit word for the phenomenon: kriya. Kriya means action, but again, this is a special kind of action influenced and directed by the subtle current of life force.
Let’s say you’re in your bedroom by yourself, or with a partner who is sympathetic to your spiritual idiosyncrasies, and you feel the need to move. Maybe simply walking around won’t satisfy the restlessness stirring in your loins. Maybe you need to be more creative and expressive with the body. This is where free movement comes into play. You can let your body dance to the rhythm of energy itself, without needing any external cues or beats. Some of the movement which manifests from this spontaneity can resemble tai chi or qigong, which are Asian practices that play with energy for purposes of alignment and grounding. But with free movement, we are creating an even wider umbrella to cover more options, more versatility and fluidity, and more trust in yourself to allow the form to take an unscripted, organic shape.
Though there is a wide umbrella, certain qualities will be present, especially if the source of movement contains kernels of ecstatic bliss. Some of the qualities include: non-violence, smoothness, fluidity, versatility, resilience, expansiveness, harmony, balance, and the list goes on and on. Sometimes, the movement can even be spastic and pulsate very quickly with shaking and gyrations. There can be rocking back and forth and swaying side to side. But free movement is not an excuse to act erratically or harmfully. Such tendencies are rooted in impure patterns. However, if there is irritability or anger, the seeds of vibrant tranquility can turn the rough stuff into a refined product. See what happens when you strike the air instead of an object. See what happens when you slow down and let your arms and legs be graceful, instead of merely acting robotically or rigidly. See if you can surrender to a place within your body that feels no need to find an exact target, but rather finds the target to be everywhere.
Free movement can be both invigorating and relaxing. In some sense, the technique returns to the childlike innocence of exploring our bodies without judgment, while also incorporating a kind of maturity and poise that comes from accumulated knowledge and experience. Like AYP practices, there is a paradox at play here. We are bringing together different ends of the spectrum.
Therefore, if you are so inclined, move freely. Be still AND flow.
In shamanic traditions around the world, the technique of embarking on a vision quest has been used for a variety of purposes, including healing, empowerment, gaining of wisdom, and solving problems that inevitably arise in life. A vision quest can involve lots of preparation, ceremony, and concentrated effort to propel the participant into a sacred space where they can achieve the desired result. There can be fasting (refraining from eating), ingestion of psychedelic plants or substances, retreat to a remote location in the wilderness, and other extraordinary measures taken. Here, none of those will be recommended. Instead, a simpler version will be offered.
First, let’s consider the realms of consciousness we are tapping into. We are accessing a part of our mind in which the personal meets the collective. In a dream state during sleep, our mind can project images and complex scenarios which reflect our personal experience and subconscious matrix of fears, desires, fantasies, and so on. Of course, this personal experience has been compiled from an individual’s experience within the collective, so there is no such thing as a completely personal experience that is absolutely separate. Even the most bizarre states of schizophrenia have thin strands of connection to a broader reality. The more connected an individual is to the whole of existence, the more liberation there is. Liberation is directly experiencing the eternal condition of unity.
How does a vision quest fit into this relationship between personal and collective? Well, we start by accessing our memory of the collective. We will find an image in our mind of a real place—somewhere we have visited on Earth. It’s not so important where on Earth the place is—only that the place is real, and not somewhere we have imagined. This realness immediately connects us to the broader collective, and also grounds us in Earth consciousness. On this note, the place must be connected to the ground so we can go underneath it (in our mental vision quest). Some common examples are: a cave, a body of water, a manmade structure, a mountain, or a tree. Whatever it may be, we will mentally go underneath it into a layer of underground territory, which reflects our subconscious as well. Before we try to go underneath, let’s more fully explore the technique.
To prepare for the quest, you only need to find a place where you can relax and close your eyes without being disturbed. The preference is to lie down, since a vision quest is kind of like a waking dream. A bed or couch is perfect. Even the floor will do—if you’re not too worried about cushioning. There is one supplement that can be added, and that is a drum beat. There is a certain kind of drum beat that is used frequently for vision quests, and that beat has a fast tempo which goes on steadily to help the participant slip into a meditative trance. The drum beat is not necessary; it’s a matter of preference. MP3s of shamanic drumming can easily be found online for download, or the beat can be created in person if you have a companion that wants to help you along. It’s not recommended to do the hand drumming yourself, since that requires extra energy and focus. You want to be able to drift into your inner world as effortlessly as possible.
Once you have selected a space, you can lie down and rest there before commencing with the mental journey. Just like the AYP technique of Deep Meditation, it’s important to rest before and after the session, so that you can adjust to the change in scenery. With eyes closed, you can call into mind the place on Earth where you will go underground. Maybe you will have chosen it before lying down; maybe it will arise while lying down. Either way is fine. Now, what purpose or intention should be set before going underground? Well, for your first trip, it’s best just to set the intention of exploring the territory, so to speak. You can get comfortable with navigating the landscape of your visionary mind, without trying to achieve anything in particular. It’s highly advantageous to be at ease with your own mind and emotions, even if they contain shadowy aspects. With time, the light of inner silence illuminates the shadows. A vision quest is meant to shine light in the darkness, and to integrate the lower nature with the higher nature.
With the place in mind, you can enter the underground portal. At this point, there will likely be a tunnel for you to travel through—linking the surface mind with the underground world. Go through the tunnel until you reach a spot to step into the underworld. Usually, there is some kind of door or passageway that lets you cross over into the underworld. The length and characteristics of the tunnel will vary depending on the individual, but the main point is to be easy with your exploration—not forcing your mind in any particular direction. The quest can be adventurous and exciting, but it need not be strained or forceful. Finesse is best.
After you have spent your desired amount of time (around 10 minutes) exploring the visionary landscape, you can return to your normal, waking consciousness by re-entering the tunnel and popping back up at the place on Earth where you first began. Full circle.
Obviously, there can be a lot of questions about the scenery encountered during a vision quest. So many images, so many degrees of lucidity and perception. How do we make sense of it all? Well, the best way to approach any interpretation is by viewing the material through the lens of metaphor. The excellent scholar Joseph Campbell wrote much about the power of metaphor and mythology to transform lives. We are the heroes of our collective story, and we are the metaphors which inspire us. That is why a common attribute of vision quests is finding and retrieving power animals. Power animals are strong metaphors which can be linked to our sense of self, and called upon during daily life. Let’s consider an example.
Suppose I have done my first vision quest of simple exploration (with no particular objective) and found some inspiration. Once I am comfortable with the technique and the general content of my mind, I might want to add an objective and go into the underworld with more purpose. Let’s say I am seeking wisdom, clarity, and a solution to a problem. For instance, I might be having trouble with my living situation. I live in tight quarters, and the chemistry between my housemates has some volatility. I will go into the underworld for some help. In my journey, I come upon an eagle who lets me fly on his back. We soar above the landscape with a refreshing freedom and versatility. I realize the eagle is part of me. I can bring him back and apply his power of flying and achieving a broader view. I might not be able to literally fly away from the house!—but I can use the eagle metaphor to take a step back and get a clearer look. Maybe I can take steps towards moving out and finding a better place, or maybe I need to make a better nest of the existing place. I can call upon the power animal to help move my body in the direction I need to go.
In summary, a vision quest is a tool of self-discovery and expansion of consciousness. It is creative imagination linked to reality. It is not being promoted here as a magical cure or ticket to supernatural powers. Maybe those events can occur, but fundamentally, it is a technique used by shamans to connect with Mother Earth, and to get in touch with our minds as extensions of Mother Earth. We are Nature. We are Consciousness. We are the hero of our journey.