Following on from my writing about the importance of psychological awareness; acknowledging our feelings, understanding what triggered them and ultimately using that to drive our decisions, I realized I had to tie in the role an activity that facilitates this entire process. Meditation.

Although I had been doing guided meditation for a few months before leaving the UK, it was only when I got to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand that I really understand the benefits of it. I had generally understood the objective of meditation to simply be calmness – very useful in itself for those caught up in the fast-paced western world.

The retreat I stayed at practiced a technique called Vipassana meditation, also understood as ‘insight meditation’. The aim is much greater awareness and understanding of all sensations that your body perceives; especially touch, sound and sight. You develop the ability to observe each of these sensations, and in time, even to observe your thoughts in the same way – observing all these different sensations at once you are practiced enough.

The whole experience was so tremendously….well, insightful, but I’m going to keep the focus on emotional awareness. As you improve and develop (which does happen when you’re practicing 8 hours a day), you notice the way that your attention is immediately drawn to any new sensation. It could be a bird singing, or an ant crawling up your leg (we were in the middle of forest, so this happen almost constantly). And as this new stimulus arrives, there’s an almost immediate emotional reaction in your body. If it’s a sound you find soothing, you feel a calmness in your body. If it’s a sound that could be dangerous, you feel an edginess. I couldn’t help tying this back to my studies and the neurological underpinnings of the flight or flight response.

This in itself isn’t especially surprising. It’s fascinating to be able to experience this with such focus, but it’s the next stage of learning where the insight starts to come. As I said, in time you can observe your thoughts in a similar way to sounds or sights. And much the same, thoughts can be quite random. I was amazed at how disconnected and jumpy they would be. At one moment a memory a conversation would jump in, ten seconds later I’d think of family, and then it would be breakfast. You wonder just how much processing is going on without your being consciously aware at any one time, and how the brain chooses what to make you aware of and what not.

By adding thoughts to the mix, you can observe their emotional effect on the body in much the same way. So as the thought of my parents came along, I would feel strong warmth. A memory of a break up, and I’d feel tense. Food…well that would be terribly exciting. The response is instantaneous and completely natural. There’s no time for logic or analysis to interfere.

The few examples I’ve just listed seem obvious, but when you’re unsure of a decision, then this process becomes very valuable. At this point in my travels I had grown pretty weary, and wanted something less superficial than brief friendships with other travelers and spending no more than a week in each place. I had no idea what an alternative might be though. When the thoughts of more travel came along, my body instantly felt heavy. Instead, when I thought of settling in one place for a few weeks, of trying to look at a place through the eyes of a local and not a tourist, I immediately experienced excitement. This was counter to my own logic and the advice I was getting from nearly everyone I spoke to about. Logic told me I should be seeing as many countries as possible, and sticking to my original well-thought out plan. I followed my instincts, spent a few weeks working in Singapore almost entirely in the company of locals and it stands out as one of the highlights of my trip.

I began paying attention to all sorts. What I felt when I thought of certain people, places, activities and came away with a very clear vision of how I would like my life to look once I settled down in Sydney. I was able to project in to the future, and predict very accurately how these different features would make me feel.

A lot of people I speak seem to be very disconnected from how they’re feeling; unable to understand what causes them to feel sad or happy. They keep repeating the same actions that produce a negative response in them, and then producing logic to justify it. Often their body language will be in contradiction to what they’re saying, but we’ve learned to pay more attention to words and reasoning than to these signs. We’ve forced experiential wisdom in to the backseat.

I don’t dispute the value of reason and logic, but I don’t doubt that we’ve come to lean on it too much at the expense of our intuition. For me, this certainly contributes to the high levels of mental illness we see in western cultures, and the staggering number of people who admit to feeling dissatisfied with their lives.

The rise of eastern philosophy and spirituality suggests that I’m not alone in feeling that perhaps it’s time to redress this imbalance.

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