"I will act as if what I do makes a difference."
William James

We each have a great deal of control over our mental states, but we mostly don’t realize how we modify our own minds. If when we wake up, we shower, read the newspaper or listen to the radio or watch the morning TV shows, we are acting to create alertness. We wake up enough to drive to work. The commute is a routine trance inducing type of activity, unless we introduce fear or anger to stimulate alertness, thus talk radio keeps us safe by irritating us enough that we can remain alert to traffic. Humor can do the same thing, so those funny disc jockeys may be helping us stay on task as we drive to work. Once at the office, we sit in a boring meeting and play with our pen, maybe touching it to our mouth, which is stimulating to the brain as well as soothing in a suckling sort of way. We tap our fingers on the table or shake our foot rhythmically keeping ourselves awake and more or less focused. We nod and smile and feel a little less isolated, more part of the team.  On the lunch hour, we listen to music, and if we are paying attention to our bodies, we might notice we are swaying or bobbing or otherwise moving in rhythm with the music. The rhythmic sound and body movements give us a break by shifting consciousness away from work style thinking. At home in the evening, we lounge in a posture that assists our parasympathetic nervous system to turn on the relaxation response, and we direct our gaze at the TV, which lulls us into a light trance with its moving colors and shapes. The innocuous content of game shows and sitcoms preempt any thoughts of real issues that might disturb us. We are hypnotized and far from the worries of the workday.

These behaviors modify our consciousness, whether we realize it or not. There are likely many other things we do that make us more alert or less so, more emotionally stimulated or less so. We do them unconsciously, so we never ask why, but there is a reason. We are either tuning in or tuning out brain activity. We are seeking to think or to escape from it. Having emotions or trying to modify them.

What could you do if you just wanted to be alert and yet relaxed? If you wanted your emotions to calm down, but you didn’t want to lapse into torpor, you might try to do some things that reduced the activity of your brain’s limbic system, where you generate disturbing emotions. You’d want to induce the relaxation response, which works in opposition to the stress response. At the same time you would need to behave in a way that favors staying awake and tuned in.

Since you want to be relaxed, you could sit. Since you want to be awake, you would need to keep your spine upright. You wouldn’t want your head to just loll around on your shoulders. You’d want it to rest comfortably on your spine, but be still and in a position associated with alertness. You wouldn’t want to be looking all around, because that creates a lot of mental activity, but you wouldn’t want to close your eyes completely, because that might cause you to fall asleep. You could have your eyes partly open, but directed downward, so that you are awake, but not distracted. You could try sitting with crossed legs. Who knows, it might keep a nice balanced flow of activity moving between your brain hemispheres? Your breathing, of course would need to be relaxed, which sends signals to your limbic system that all is well and it can turn off the fight or flight response. As your breathing slows and evens out, your muscles relax and blood flow to your cerebral cortex increases. You can think better that way and be more aware. But you aren’t just going to think randomly, which would probable lead to more fight or flight response as you touch on worry thoughts. You will seek to hold your anxious, angry or critical thoughts at bay by focusing your attention on something harmless like the rising and falling of your breath or the flame of a candle or a word you repeat in your mind. Your hands like to stay busy, but you could place them in a position where they can easily be still, and perhaps the fingers are touching each other. Those big parts of your brain that deal with sensation in your hands get instructions to settle down and both hemispheres get the same signal, so balance between brain halves might be further induced. With stress, you tend to clench your jaw, so when you relax, you want to keep it loose. When you place the tip of your tongue at the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth, the jaw tends to loosen, and perhaps that suckling response that worked so well to calm you as a baby comes back into play as the highly sensitive tongue connects with the sensitive palate and rests there.

For thousands of years people have been doing these things to modify their consciousness. What they might not have known was why what they were doing was helpful. We have been modifying our consciousness all of our lives with our behavior. We have the opportunity now to do it with skill and intention.


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© 2005 Tom Barrett