Last week we discussed some of the behaviors humans can perform to modify their mental and emotional states. We described these as undocumented features, because we are not usually taught to use them in the normal course of growing up. Some of those behaviors were: Conscious breathing, upright posture, self-stimulating movement, smiling, and affirmative thought. (To see that essay, click here).
There are more behaviors we can use to change our mind/body states for the better. Since balance, harmony, and focused concentration are necessary for higher spiritual states, it is not surprising that we would find these behaviors practiced in spiritual traditions around the world. Here are several more practices that we can add to our catalog of mind/body tools.
Asanas: Asana is the term used in yoga for a particular body position or pose. Each yoga asana has a specific purpose, which may include stretching and relaxing muscles, increasing circulation, and improving mental focus. Other forms of body positioning may also be found in martial arts and religious practices because they help a person become more centered, focused and alert. Try this: Stand up with your feet shoulder width apart. Raise your arms above your head and hold them apart as if you were reaching to embrace the sky. Hold the pose for as long as it feels comfortable and see how you feel.
Mudras: This term refers to hand positions. In yoga, meditation, and prayer traditions, we often find specific hand positions used. One way of thinking about mudras is that they influence the flow of energy in our body. The hands are exquisite centers of blood, nerve and muscles activity. They are major sensory tools and are part of the heat regulation system of the body. A large part of brain geography is devoted to our hands. Consequently, what we do with our hands can influence what is happening in our brains. Think about how you would like your energy to flow at a given moment, during prayer or meditation for instance, and let your hands help direct the flow. Try holding your hands, palms together in the classic prayer position. Notice if you feel any more centered in that position.
Mantras: A mantra is a word or phrase that is repeated in meditation or prayer. The effect is to focus consciousness and relax the body. Usually, a mantra will have some spiritual significance, but scientific research has shown that even a neutral word repeated to oneself over and over will help induce the relaxation response. Our conscious minds have limited bandwidth. If we fill up our data path with an innocuous, or better yet, a spiritually uplifting word, the junk we would otherwise be thinking can’t get through. The result is that we are less focused on thoughts that trouble us and are more focused on the experience of the moment. When you want to meditate or just relax, pick a word or phrase and repeat it to yourself silently or aloud over and over. If you don’t have a favorite mantra, try “peace,” “love,” or “relax” for starters.
Visualization: Here is a wild thought: All of our experience is going on inside our brains. Our senses provide information about what is outside our skin, but the interpretation of the sensory impulses happens predominantly inside our skulls. If you look at a circle on a piece of paper and then visualize that same circle with your eyes closed, your brain may be getting much of same information. It may respond very similarly to the visual image and the purely mental image. That’s why when people visualize a peaceful scene in nature they tend to relax. The brain in a person sitting on a sandy tropical beach will send signals to various physical systems suggesting that the body relax. The brain of a person sitting in a room vividly visualizing sitting on a tropical beach will get the same data as the fortunate brain on the real beach, and will start the relaxation response. We have tremendous power to direct our bodies, emotions, and behavior by selecting the imagery we direct to our minds. Seek to be more mindful of the imagery you direct to your brain via the media. Practice visualizing the conditions you want in your life as if they were already real.
Singing or Chanting: Babies are calmed by lullabies and rocking. Our nervous systems are set up to work that way. Rhythmic sound and movement do things to us. Creating a joyful noise tends to induce joy in us. It helps that singing and chanting require deeper breathing, which makes us more alert and feel more alive. Go ahead. Belt it out.
Music: Have you noticed that music is very popular? Ever wonder why? One reason is that it is one of the best ways we have to directly influence the mind/body/emotions. When we are anxious it can calm us. When we are sleepy it can stir us awake. When we play music it can be a form of meditation. It is engrossing and leaves no room for worry. Music is all over the place. Use it wisely.
Dance: Dance energizes the whole body. In the Western World, we are big on using words to express ourselves, but our whole body would like to express itself. Dance engages the breath and the muscles. It is rhythmic, and we’ve seen that the brain is drawn to rhythm and becomes focused with it. Dancing uses a good deal of mental bandwidth, so it is hard to think about much else when we are doing it. Aboriginal peoples often incorporate dance into their religions. The Sufis and others have used it to induce high spiritual states. Dance can be art, discipline, spiritual exercise or just fun. Whatever it is, it moves us. Let it move you too.