How To Practice And Increase Awareness?

Brain of a buddhist monk being scanned, and active neuronal connections between various parts of the brain under psychedelics influence compared to placebo.

I already made a post about the importance of awareness on the journey towards integration. Let’s look now at the tools you can use to practice and increase it. Of course, like in anything on which you would invest your time and energy, you have first to be convinced, and believe that it’s worthwhile exploring this route. And belief systems are not forged by absolute truths but are rather built up by the way individuals subjectively perceive the world based on their past experiences. I have a strong scientific background myself, and I tend to be very pragmatic, rational, and down-to-earth. And what convinced me in the past to increase my awareness were these first studies conducted by academics on Buddhist monks with brain scans. They not only clearly showed that these experienced meditators were strongly activating and deactivating entire parts of their brains while meditating compared to controlled Joes. But also, that these altered neuronal connections established by their practices were observable in their normal states of consciousness. Wow, that was inputs my rational brain needed, scientific proofs that one can indeed take control, tame his mind, and alter the neuronal circuitry of his brain. That’s how it all started for me.

Some tools

The tools I have been using for increasing my awareness are the following:

  • Focused attention meditation – this kind of meditation simply consists in cultivating enhanced concentration by focusing your attention on a single object, usually your breath, practised in a static position, usually sitting down. The goal is simply to acknowledge your arising thoughts, non-judgmentally, and practise not getting drawn into them by returning as soon as possible to directing your attention to your breath. Very importantly, this kind of practise also increases the development of meta-awareness, i.e., the inner observer you need to develop for stopping being completely identified by your thoughts and your emotions.
  • Present moment awareness  (or Open Monitoring Meditation) – you basically put yourself in a state of reflexive awareness on which your attention can be put on the flow of your perceptions, thoughts, emotional content, or body feelings. It is about being fully present by putting your full and calm attention on what you are doing, whether it is doing the dishes, drinking your tea, or waiting in a line. When you catch yourself thinking, as in focused meditation, just acknowledge your thoughts and put back your attention to what you are doing. This practice is basically about bringing a meditative state, but non only while sitting down but throughout your daily life. Instead of focusing on your breath, your attention is focused on your body and all its sense perceptions, while reducing useless thinking processes. It is certainly the key tool for developing meta-awareness that you need to break free from dysfunctional thought patterns and limiting beliefs.
  • Somatic Experiencing – It is a form of alternative therapy that has been created by the trauma therapist Peter A. Levine, based on observations from the animal realm. When animals face life or death experiences, e.g., when being chased by a predator, three basic survival strategies are provided by their automatic nervous systems (that we share also in humans): fight, flight, or freeze. Each of these strategies come up with tremendous amount of inner energy. And once the threat is gone, if this energy has not been fully utilized, animals simply dissipate it by shaking their bodies, voluntarily (e.g., a duck flapping its wings vigorously after a fight), or completely involuntarily in more extreme cases. In humans, after a traumatic event, we might have lost this capability to trust our bodies to come back to a balanced state of our nervous system. And somatic experiencing hypothesised that traumatized people keep putting themselves in such extreme survival modes, which are completely unhealthy when triggered in your daily life. Meta-awareness of your body feelings is at the core of somatic experiencing, since the goal is to detect when your nervous system subtly reach a state of hyperactivity (sympathetic “fight or flight” response, resulting to anger, anxiety, poor judgement), or of hypoactivity (dorsal vagal “freeze” response, resulting in avoidance, passivity, victim identity, depression). And provide some tools to come back to an optimal functional zone.
  • Psychedelics & Entactogens, peak experiences – In the last decade, research on psychedelics use for psychiatry in clinical studies has been booming after a harsh ban from the US in the 60s. Even if this new field of research is still at its infancy, many recent studies are showing promising results for treating depression, PTSD, or addictions. So, no wonder I got interested myself to explore in that direction. By “peak experience” here, I mean taking a high dose of a psychedelic substance resulting in an alteration of your normal waking consciousness, during which your conscious ego starts to let go of its constant control over your psyche and surrender to the psychedelic experience. Psychedelics substances lower the threshold of consciousness, and work by bringing unconscious material up into the conscious mind, so it can be processed and integrated. They allow to sched light on inner conflicts, shadow behaviours (i.e., aspects of your personality that you hide, repress, or deny), past traumas, including emotions and memories, which cannot be found through mere conversation and the retelling of events, as it is the case in analytical therapies. Researchers also proposed the idea that psychedelics might introduce more entropy into the brain, creating new neuronal connections between networks not used to communicate with each other, and therefore allowing people to shake their rigid usual patterns of thinking.
  • Psychedelics, microdosing – Microdosing consists in taking tiny, non-hallucinogenic doses of psychedelic drugs for a prolonged period of time. It is a great tool to produce subtle changes in mood, perception and cognition without causing any alterations in consciousness. It helps view your thoughts more objectively and get better in touch with your emotions. It makes you aware of the tiny negative thoughts occurring in your mind and makes you realize that most of them are mere illusions that you don’t need to believe any longer. The awareness takes place at a very subtle perception level, e.g., you might realize that you start to get dragged by a negative thought at the very moment it occurs in your mind. You might also feel the early sensations of your nervous system starting to freeze, as a reaction of your body to the very negative thought, and makes you realize what tends to drag you down. The perception might also occur on the other way around, when a body feeling triggers negative thoughts. Thanks to this increased awareness of the onset of dysfunctional thought and emotional patterns, and the fact that you observe them with more perspective, microdosing allows you to reframe these patterns and defuse their toxic grip on your psyche. Microdosing also helps out practising present moment awareness.
  • Self-analysis & Journaling – I have been using tools from various psychotherapeutic fields, with the aim to foster introspection and cognitive self-assessment. It helped me take perspective on my past issues and analyse my reactive behaviour to daily life triggers. It seems that writing is also an important part of the process since it requires a continual meta-cognition, as you have to learn to observe, evaluate and enunciate coherently your own situations and ideas objectively before putting them down on paper. 
  • Getting involved in Men’s Work – I will be posting more about this topic soon since it has been such an important part of my journey. Indeed, I am involved in men’s communities, and am part of a committed men’s group. My brothers are important for providing me honest feedback about myself and my bullshit. In their stories and struggles, I also learn so much about myself. In our group, we also work with processes aiming at getting deeper understanding of our unconscious shadows.

All these practises are actually complementary, impact on each other, and at the same time contribute to a single common goal: a decrease of self-identification with our thoughts and emotions, resulting in reaching a deeper state of consciousness beyond them, and taking actions more consciously in your daily life. It will contribute to make you feel more spiritual, but most importantly, such awareness has healing qualities. Indeed, with some time, you will deconstruct parts of your psyche driven by useless social conditioning. You will defuse dysfunctional grip of deep childhood emotional traumas, defence mechanisms, and illusory limiting believes which were still unconsciously entangled in your adult self. You will become aware of your constant inner negative chatter and neuroticism. You will reduce the importance of childish self-delusion of grandeur, and adopt a more nuanced, balanced, and grown-up perspective of the world. You will increase body-awareness and consciously detect when your nervous system gets hyper or hypo-activated from your environment’s stimuli. You will stop to be nice and people-pleaser. You will be aware of tiny micro bits of behaviours of yours that prevent you to interact with men and women the way you truly and deeply want. You will learn to trust better your intuition, and to get closer to your pristine core self which thrive to shine in the world. And you will finally start to make conscious and responsible changes to alter your behaviour and your personality, towards the man you truly want to become.

So simple, but not easy

I have been practising focused meditation throughout these last years with ups and downs. I used to formally sit down and have proper time-bound sessions. I believe it is a great practise to implement on a regular basis to calm down constant inner self-chatter and increase awareness for sure, but the question is what happened when I stopped the formal meditation sessions?

Ultimately, I believe that being in a state of constant present moment awareness is the ultimate end game.

The practise is very simple, but not easy. Constantly, you will be pulled by noisy and self-centred thoughts. I remember that when I finally convinced myself to initiate this practise, I felt at first depressed in the morning for two weeks when waking up, because I was so used to worry like a hamster in its wheel from the very instant I opened my eyes. Getting present meant starting to break my complete self-identification with my well-known anxious thoughts, and therefore I had the feeling that I was losing my sense of self by consciously stopping the wheel. And then I started to increase my practise with daily entry points to remind myself to stay present for longer periods, e.g., each time I saw a dog in the street, or I used an escalator.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Be_Present_Shower-908x1024.jpg
Another reminder for my daily spiritual practise from my shower, the sticker says “Be Present!“.

Beware that being present doesn’t necessarily mean reaching a constant state of no-thought. Even if some advanced practitioners seem to have reached such levels, most of us will not, and it might not be attainable anyways. Even Pema Chödrön, a true warrior of mindful practices has still to constantly deal with raising thoughts after decades of hardcore meditation. Therefore, just being present with whatever arises is the end game here and should be a life-long commitment to practice I believe. And don’t expect quick fixes here, it takes time for the brain to shape new connections, so you have to commit for the long run before integrating new perspectives.

The use of psychedelics might certainly be a catalyst on your journey towards self-awareness. Even if you take the way of peak experiences though, don’t expect that all your issues will get solved by magic after a single session. Indeed, I don’t really believe in the capability of peak experiences for sustainable changes. Psychedelics simply open up your mind for short time-windows, and very quickly your old patterns re-establish their grip on your psyche. You must take your time to integrate your insights from the experience, insights that might come up to you in a non-linear way, even sometimes long time after the experience itself. You would have to commit to stay on the psychedelics journey for a while, since exploring your unconscious is like peeling an onion, there is always a new layer to explore. Also, it often takes several sessions to obtain significant insights and a clear picture of potential traumatic events from your past. So, take your time, don’t rush, and embrace the whole process.

Finally, I wanted to state two important disclaimers about psychedelics here.

Disclaimer 1: Psychedelic peak experiences are not a picnic. They are not for faint-hearted. You might end up facing some of your deepest shadows, stuff that have been buried in your unconscious for ages. You might also realize that drastic changes in your life situation have to be implemented, and that you have been living an unauthentic life far from your core personal aspirations, muffled by years of social conditioning. I do not recommend you to take psychedelics at all. The only thing I do here is to talk about my own experiences. And you have to decide for yourself if you feel the call to explore this lead. A minor percent of the population are at risk of developing unhealthy relationships with psychedelics due to personality disorders or other pre-existing psychological conditions. Do your research, check harm reduction resources, take responsibility for yourself, your safety, and take conscious decisions accordingly. If you decide to take this route, I strongly suggest you do so in well-controlled settings, and with people experienced with psychedelics. Finally, psychedelic might brought to your consciousness bunches of unconscious material that would take you time to process and integrate, so no rush, take your time to digest your insights. The whole process is like a marathon, not a sprint.

Disclaimer 2: Psychedelic substances are potentially illegal in most countries. Respect the law.

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