Excerpt from Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation
by Sarah McLean (Hay House, May 2012)
Meditation can transform your life. I know this because it transformed my life and the lives of many of my students and friends. As they each set off on their meditation path, they noticed that not only did they feel more relaxed and peaceful, but their constant companions of apathy, discomfort, and anxiety soon transformed into inspiration, comfort, and joy. They felt more engaged and purposeful, and their entire relationship to life was transformed.
When I began my own daily meditation practice in the late 1980s I had no idea what was in store for me. By then I looked like I was on the right track as a successful career woman, but I didn’t feel that way. Instead, I felt dissatisfied. I longed for a purpose, I longed for love, and I longed for a meaningful life. When I turned to meditation, I had no idea that this simple practice would give me the gifts I was looking for. I learned how to become aware of the moment at hand, how to quickly return to peace after being upset, to see things clearly rather than habitually, to be kind to myself, to say what I mean, and to focus my attention on what matters. I developed genuine confidence, stability, creativity, and compassion for myself as well as all beings. I noticed the interconnectedness of the universe and felt a renewed wonder for life. Meditation served to change my perspective on everything.
Perhaps these changes seem nebulous and out of reach for you, but rest assured, they aren’t. I’ve taught thousands of people to meditate, including FBI agents, judges, professional athletes, teachers, students, lawyers, engineers, brain surgeons, CEOs, teens, retirees, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics. They all, like me, found their lives transformed through meditation—so much so that, in some cases, they have found a vibrancy, health, and satisfaction beyond anything they ever dared to imagine.
The meditation training program I offer in this book is decidedly mainstream. Even though I’ve immersed myself in the studies of world religions, exploring mystical or esoteric concepts and practices, I wanted to use this book to make what I learned accessible to everyone. There’s no need for anyone to change their religion, adopt new beliefs, spend time in some cloistered community, or even learn a new vocabulary, in order to understand and practice meditation.
And while many receive very practical benefits from meditation, there is also a spiritual aspect to it as well. Meditation makes possible a soul-centered life, a life you live from your own unique and peaceful center, your own soul. Each one of us has the ability to live life in this way: peacefully, powerfully, authentically, and with compassion. I am dedicated to sharing what I know to help you become peaceful and soul-centered through meditation. If each one of us finds peace, then together we can make this world a sweeter place for all beings.
The contrast between my childhood and teen years to my adult life perfectly illustrates the power of meditation to create transformation. If my life could shift so dramatically, then anyone’s can. As a young girl, I was sensitive and artistic; I related better to animals and nature than to people. My father, though bright and funny, was explosive and difficult to live with. My mother, though smart and pretty, was an emotionally-removed alcoholic. Although I felt love for everyone, I was also disconnected and alone. I was often in tears at home and at school, and felt like a “bad girl.” As an adolescent, I lived up to my bad-girl persona and became a defiant, boy-crazy thrill seeker. At 17, I dropped out of high school and left home. My life quickly took another turn, and I joined the military when I was 18.
Ten years later, I was a successful real estate agent living in Washington, D.C. By then, I’d been a behavioral specialist in the U.S. Army; eloped with and gotten divorced from a violent felon; earned my college degree; and explored Europe, Turkey, Pakistan, and Thailand by bicycle. Throughout that decade I tried many conventional and not-so-conventional ways to answer the questions Who am I? Why am I here? and How can I be happy? But even in my late 20s and having “made it,” I still couldn’t shake the question, “What is my life about?” I had some vague sense the answer would come someday, but I was confused and didn’t know where my future would lead.
I soon experienced what some might call a “dark night of the soul.” I became depressed, inconsolable, and felt that I didn’t want to live the life I was living. I didn’t know where to turn. The old way wasn’t working, but I didn’t know how to start something new. I realized I was having a spiritual crisis. For weeks I cried, prayed, read, and went for long, long walks. Eventually I was pointed in the direction of meditation. It snapped me out of it. I felt I had direction. Quite soon after learning to meditate and adopting a daily meditation practice, I decided to leave everything I knew behind—my job, my house, my roommates and friends in Washington—and drove off with my cat to Florida to live a simple life by the beach. I wanted and needed to be in peace.
A few months later, Dr. Deepak Chopra, author of some of the books I’d been reading to get my through my crisis, came to Fort Lauderdale for a public talk. I went to hear him and, as he spoke about ancient wisdom and mind-body health, I tingled from head to toe. I immediately knew I needed to further immerse myself in the natural healing practices and lifestyle he described. His ideas defied conventional Western ideas of health and disease and offered a new perspective: health is more than just being free from disease; it is a dynamic state of balance and integration of mind, body, and spirit. These days this isn’t a new concept, but in 1990, it was a completely new paradigm. I called the Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts, where he had his practice. After a few conversations with the director, I was invited to come live and work at the center.
I joined the 15 others who lived on site, and settled into my own tiny room above the industrial kitchen. It was in a wing of the mansion next to where the guests stayed for weeklong detoxification and healing programs. In exchange for training, food, lodging, and a small stipend, I worked six days a week, answering phones and talking to people who, like me, had read Deepak’s books and wanted to know more. During the years I lived and worked there, I studied the ancient healing science of Ayurveda and learned a variety of advanced meditation techniques. My meditation periods increased from 20 minutes to almost 60 minutes twice a day. My mind was clear, my body felt good, and I felt like I was on the right path.
A couple of years later, Deepak was invited to head up a mind-body health center in Southern California in conjunction with a major health-care facility. I joined him there and over the next eight years I taught meditation and mind-body health programs and served as The Chopra Center’s program director. I helped train the staff, teach the guests, and manage the team of educators.
One day in 1997, as I sat with my co-workers in a staff meeting, I knew in my heart that it was time to leave. I wanted to explore even more. I left for India to discover the roots of meditation, Ayurveda, and to explore the mystical. I spent six months there, mostly at a traditional Hindu ashram in Kerala in southern India, where I meditated, did yoga, and chanted for many hours a day. I also spent time in Dharamsala in northern India, teaching English to the Tibetan Buddhist nuns, it was the Dalai Lama’s plan for them to go into the world and educate others. I had journeyed into another world, and I was not ready to go home when my visa expired.
On my return to the States, nothing seemed important to me except my quest for expanded awareness. I missed living in a meditation community as I had been doing, so I became a resident at the Yokoji-Zen Mountain Center in the San Jacinto Mountains outside of Idyllwild, California. The training was intensive. During certain training periods we would sit in meditation for up to eight hours a day.
Even when we weren’t sitting, meditation was a part of every activity as we mindfully worked, walked, and ate our meals. . After almost two years at the Zen Center I felt ready to integrate stillness and mindfulness into my life in the “real world.” I was hired to work with Gary Zukav, author of The Seat of the Soul, and then went to work for Byron Katie, the woman who founded the inquiry process called The Work. I eventually landed in Sedona, Arizona, the place I now call home.
As I look back, I realized that, although I’d made some unusual decisions as a young woman, I wasn’t the “bad girl” I’d thought I was. Instead, I’d been like a lost child who had to find her own path, who had to learn to trust her inner wisdom. With the practice of meditation, I was able to get rid of much of the stress that had accumulated in my body and mind from my past. As the stress lessened my mind quieted, and I could connect to my inner wisdom. I learned to trust it. My inner wisdom, like yours, is a reliable GPS that always has my best interests in mind, as well as those of others, and it continues to lead me to teachers and experiences to help me to see more clearly and to love myself and the world.
My life has permanently transformed-from one of suffering, fear, chaos, and running away . . . to one in which I regularly experience a deep, true inner peace that I can return to again and again. Today, I feel truly loved and supported by life, and live in a world that is friendly.
My transformation unfolded slowly and steadily after I began my daily practice of meditation. In this book, I’ll share with you what I learned in order to transform my life, and in case you’re wondering—no, you don’t have to run off to India or live in a monastery to learn how to meditate. You can sit right where you are and get it all.
Most of us aren’t trained for the journey inward to the very seat of our soul, and most are not sure how or where to begin. In fact, we are conditioned to pay attention to external phenomena, and this keeps us unaware that an inner world even exists. Your body and its sensory apparatus are trained to focus your attention on the world out there, not on inner experiences. You navigate your way through life with your senses: seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, and smelling the world.
Your attention is drawn outward, and you label that which is around you. Then you describe yourself by referring to those external things whether they are objects, relationships, places, situations, or
experiences. Perhaps you see yourself the way some of your friends and family see you: as the sum total of your various positions, possessions, relationships, and responsibilities in life. Perhaps you describe yourself by sharing your age, race, religion, or political party; where you live or where you grew up; what you used to do or plan to do; or your thoughts and feelings But do all of those references add up to describe the real you?
The physical world exists in time and space and is constantly changing. Your physical body illustrates this perfectly. Look at a photo of yourself ten years ago. Now look in the mirror—your physical form is probably very different today. Although you may not be aware that physical change is happening, it is. For example, your body constantly replaces old cells with new ones at the rate of millions per second. Can you really say you are your body when millions of your cells have already come and gone just as you were reading this sentence?
Your thoughts are pretty dynamic, too. Thousands of thoughts pass through your head each day, like What am I going to have for dinner? I should call my mother, I’m thirsty, or How can I help them? You also have a variety of feelings and emotions as a response to what you think or experience, and they too are always changing. So, you are not your thoughts, feelings or emotions either. Your body and its sensations, the content of your thoughts, and the emotions you experience are all a part of you, but they are not the whole of you. Who you are is beyond all that.
Who Are You?
The real you is that aspect of you that has been with you since the day you were born. Some people call it your soul, your essence, or your presence. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but it’s important to know it’s the aspect of you that doesn’t change while everything else around you does. The real you is the one who is aware of your ever-changing body and calls it home. The real you is the one who witnesses, experiences, or observes your thoughts, feelings, actions and experiences. When you say, I am feeling happy, who is the I? The I is that awareness beyond the thought. It’s the real you. Your body, thoughts, and emotions are only the expression of that I.
Take a moment to turn your attention to the one who is reading this page. You. Keep reading, but notice where your attention is coming from, what the source of it is. Who is looking through your eyes? Just be with this experience for a moment.
You may have, for an instant, become aware of your own presence. It’s a clear and simple awareness. And though now you might be aware of this presence for only a fleeting moment, after practicing meditation regularly you will create a deeper intimacy with and connection to this essential part of yourself. It’s stable, wise, ever present, and dependable. Eventually this, your soul, becomes your reference point by which you navigate life, it’s an inner compass that transforms the way you see yourself and the way you respond to the world. I call this being soul-centered. Although subtle, it will be a powerful life-chnging shift for you.
Undoing the Stress
You are born full of energy and excitement. You are a joyous, peaceful, creative, energetic, present, connected, and loving being. These are qualities of your presence, your true nature. Why don’t most of us experience ourselves in this way? This is because as you get older, stress from a variety of sources accumulates in your nervous system. And if you don’t get rid of it, it can begin to mask your awareness of that joyous, peaceful aspect of yourself.
The effects of stress over time are like a veil that hides the radiance of your true self, your soul’s expression in the world. You can’t go through life completely avoiding stress—it’s just not possible. Fortunately, meditation is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress and its effects. Not only does meditation help you become more aware of what is actually causing you stress so you can avoid or change it, it also reduces the physical effects of stress on the mind and body.
Without the effects of stress, you are balanced and peaceful, and don’t get easily triggered by external factors. This is what I mean by being soul-centered—you maintain a connection to the deepest part of you, the part of you that is clear, peaceful, and aware in each moment; and you develop the flexibility to easily to return to this center, even after a disturbance. When you are soul-centered, you respond to life with wisdom, creativity, and confidence.
The Science Is In
I know from experience that people’s lives are transformed by practicing meditation, and I’m happy when the science confirms it. Over decades there have been hundreds of studies into the effects of meditation that prove meditators regularly experience some terrific benefits as compared to non-meditators, including better health, greater intuition, increased mental focus, improved memory, and a decreased reactivity to stress, and fewer visits to a doctor. Researchers across the country confirm that meditators have lowered cholesterol, decreased anxiety and depression, lessened ADHD symptoms, normalized blood sugar, improved mood, increased fertility, increased happiness, and reduced stress. They’ve shown that meditation can help you sleep better, enhance your immunity, and reduce chronic pain.
Some of the most exciting new research suggests that meditation can actually help us experience more peace, freedom, compassion (and self-compassion), creativity, connectedness, and awareness of the present moment. This happens because meditation can change the physical structure and composition of your brain.
To understand how radical these findings are, you have to realize that only recently have scientists come to accept that the brain can change at all after someone reaches 25 to 30 years of age. It had been the conventional view that the brain finished growing around that age and remained stable during adulthood, then went downhill from there. I remember being told as a kid that I only had a limited number of brain cells, and so I should avoid activities that would compromise what I had. But today, as confirmed by studies of the brain scans (including people who practice meditation), scientists accept the brain’s ability to continue to grow, change, and become more flexible—known as neuroplasticity.
In the January 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital found that after only eight weeks of meditation for an average of 27 minutes a day, new meditators showed changes in their gray matter, the physical structure of their brains. Not only that, but these changes last long after the meditation period is over.
After only eight weeks of meditation, participants reported feeling less stressed, and researchers identified a correlating decrease in the gray matter of the amygdala—the area of the brain associated with the fight-or-flight response, anxiety, and stress. There was also an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, an area of a brain known to be important for learning and memory. These changes would allow a person to be more empathetic and less emotionally reactive when faced with a challenge.
It doesn’t take a scientific study to know that meditators feel less stress, more peace, equanimity, and an enhanced sense of well-being. In fact, these effects have been recorded in the earliest texts on yoga and meditation in India, China, and Japan. Modern-day brain imaging, it seems, is now catching up with what ancient wisdom has been saying all along: meditation helps you live a peaceful, fulfilling, soul-centered life.
What It Means to Be Soul-Centered
I came up with the term soul-centered to describe a shift in perspective which meditation cultivates: a transformation of the vantage point for one’s life. It's a great way to go through life and I find it is one of the best benefits of meditation. Here's why:
When you’re soul-centered, you are not dependent on others for your sense of self or worthiness. Instead, you are guided by an inner reference point—your own soul. You are open to all possibilities and approach life courageously and fearlessly, without aversion or clinging and without offensiveness or defensiveness.
You can focus your attention where and when you want to, easily, without distraction. You have a receptive awareness and your natural state is relaxed, calm, peaceful, and loving toward yourself and others.
When you are soul-centered, your attention is in the present moment, receiving the moment, welcoming it. You accept things as they are. You don’t struggle against what is happening now or at any time. You realize that you are safe and loved, no matter what.
You become aware of a spacious quality in the present moment in which you can listen to your inner wisdom, make nourishing choices, feel your feelings fully, and take time to choose a response rather than react automatically to the world.
You have a deep inner wisdom and knowingness, make decisions easily, and are confident as you journey on your own path. What you think, feel, say, and do are integrated and in alignment with your deepest truth. You know when to say yes, and when to say no, and you address each moment with integrity in that way.
When you are soul-centered, your nervous system is stable yet flexible, such that no matter what occurs in your life you can handle it. If for some reason you are thrown off balance by a thought, experience, or difficult emotion, you quickly realize it and are easily able to regain your center point of peace.
You trust yourself and feel safe and confident wherever you go and whatever you do, no matter whom approves of you, who doesn’t, no matter what anyone thinks about you, or what they say you should or shouldn’t do. You are the self-sufficient navigator of your own path, yet you feel interconnected with all beings. You have compassion for all. You feel in communion with life and enjoy nature’s support, sensing the love that surrounds you and that you are. You may feel closer to God, the Creator, or the Universe.
When you are soul-centered, you radiate the qualities of your soul. You have access to unbounded energy and creativity and you are vital and clear. The peace and silence of the soul is nourishing to your nervous system, and when you are soul-centered your very presence is nourishing to others.
When I’m around soul-centered people, I notice they have a quiet power. They seem happy for no particular reason. They radiate joy, harmony, health, integrity, and wholeness. They are authentic, loving, receptive, and present, and they naturally draw others to them creating situations and circumstances that support their desires.
How do you become soul-centered? The best way I’ve found is through the practice of meditation.
The 8-Week Program
The program in this book is based on my own journey through meditation. Each week is centered around a theme, an ingredient of a soul-centered life. At the heart of the 8-week program are two primary meditation techniques derived from ancient practices. These techniques are what I and many of my students choose to use in our everyday meditation routine.
You’ll read stories that illustrate the challenges I met and the insights I discovered along the path of transformation, as well as stories from my students describing how their lives have changed. Each week you’ll learn meditation practices and awareness exercises to help you to fully embody the lesson. By following the program you’ll reduce stress, increase your self-awareness, and live a more fulfilling life as you become more:
With the confidence that comes from leading-edge science, along with meditation practices and awareness exercises that are timeless and ancient, the 8-week program will serve as a guide along your journey of continual, lifelong transformation.
Throughout the eight week program found in Soul-Centered, you’ll discover insights, tales of transformation, meditations, and self-awareness exercises to guide you along your journey to becoming soul-centered. Get your copy of Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation (Hay House, 2012) online or in bookstores, or visit www.Soul-Centered.com.
About the author:
Sarah McLean, an inspiring contemporary meditation teacher, makes meditation accessible to everyone. She has spent much of her life exploring the world’s spiritual and mystic traditions, and has worked with some of today’s great teachers, including Deepak Chopra, Byron Katie, Debbie Ford, and Gary Zukav. She’s lived and studied in a Zen Buddhist monastery, meditated in ashrams and temples throughout India and the Far East, spent time in Afghan refugee camps, bicycled the Silk Route from Pakistan to China, trekked the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia, and taught English to Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Dharamsala. Sarah is the founding director of the Sedona Meditation Training Co. (SedonaMeditation.com), and the McLean Meditation Institute (McLeanMeditation.com) educational companies offering meditation training, self-discovery retreats, and teacher training certification programs that have transformed thousands of lives, and have earned her the praise of her peers and students.