Alternation is a natural rhythm that is woven into the fabric of life on this planet. The rotation of the earth around the sun creates an alternation between day and night and the seasons of the year. Our bodies are continually alternating between breathing in and breathing out. When we relax enough to tune into and follow our natural rhythm, we find that alternation occurs in all aspects of our lives. For example, we go back and forth between activity and rest, connecting with others and being alone, enjoying times of travel and the welcome of returning home.
In our world today, many things tend to pull us out of our natural rhythms. Most of us face significant external demands and structures. Perhaps even more importantly, just about all of us deal with internal factors, such as beliefs and fears, which often make it difficult for us to feel, let alone to follow, our natural rhythm.
No matter how busy our lives are, we can choose to carve out chunks of time, even small ones, when we take a break to re-connect with our natural rhythm. When we become aware of alternation the ease and harmony we find in the gap filters more and more into the rest of our lives.
The Alternation Principle
The alternation principle has three primary aspects:
- When we bring our awareness to the alternation that is naturally present, we come into deeper harmony with ourselves.
- When alternation is not naturally present, by consciously creating it we bring our lives into greater balance.
- When we switch our attention back and forth between two objects of focus and notice the difference without judging or analyzing it, whichever is functioning less optimally will come up to the level of the other.
Discovering and Exploring Alternation
I first became aware of the power of alternation when coaching tennis. If a student’s arm was relaxed when hitting a forehand, but tight when hitting a backhand, I would have her alternate between forehands and backhands with the instruction to simply notice the difference in tension in her arm, without trying to change anything. Within a few minutes, her backhand would be as relaxed as her forehand. The results were so immediate and dramatic that I began exploring ways to harness the power of alternation off the court. This exploration has been richly rewarding. Over the past 30 years, I’ve applied alternation in many domains of life and found it to be consistently effective.
The natural world contains many deep rhythms of alternation. We go back and forth between day and night, the seasons of the year, and the phases of the moon. The tide comes in, and then goes out. Trees shed their leaves and grow new ones. By tuning in to the rhythms of life, we come into deeper harmony with the natural world and with ourselves.
Our minds tend to be chaotic and arrhythmic. Human civilization, which has been largely created out of the craziness and brilliance of our minds, also tends be chaotic. This is true particularly in large cities where the density of people and human made structures is highest. When we spend a large portion of our time absorbed in the man-made world, it’s easy to get out of balance and overwhelmed with stress.
Connecting with the rhythms of nature is a powerful antidote to the negative effects of the chaos of our minds and the human world. Wherever we live, even in the most crowded cities, there will always be opportunities to connect with the natural world. Our own bodies are, of course, part of the natural world. They offer an extremely convenient, always available opportunity to shift our focus to a naturally occurring alternation.
The most obvious alternation in the body is between inhalation and exhalation. The constant rhythm of inhalation and exhalation provides the background music for our lives. Bringing our attention to this alternation can have an instantaneous and powerful impact. Each time the breath goes out, we experience a deep release, allowing the breath to carry away tensions and stagnant energy. When the breath comes in, we consciously and gratefully receive fresh energy, creativity, and inspiration. To some extent, this happens whether or not we focus on the breath. But when we bring our full awareness to even one cycle of breath, the experience of release and renewal is greatly amplified.
The Inner Game Is Primary
Alternation is the rhythm of Life. By harmonizing with and consciously using that rhythm, we can bring greater peace and balance into all aspects of our lives. However, alternation is not the ultimate—there’s something beyond alternation that awaits our discovery. Beyond all the alternations built into the universe (expansion/contraction, day/night, inhalation/exhalation, ebb and flow), there is something that’s always present, that doesn’t come and go. There are many names for that something—God, self, source, consciousness, awareness, being, the Tao, to name a few. It’s not important what name we use to address this transcendent something. What is important is that we come to know it deeply and intimately. It is through connecting with this and ultimately realizing our oneness with it that we find deep and lasting happiness.
In the material world, things are always coming and going—that’s what things do. One consequence of the rhythm of alternation is impermanence. Friends, money, and health all come and go. People live and die. To the extent that our happiness depends on outer circumstances, we’ll be on a roller coaster. Even when the circumstances of our lives are to our liking, we’ll be afraid they won’t last. The more fully we connect with That Which Is Always Present (this is the name I’ll use, sometimes shortened to That), the more we’ll be happy no matter what happens.
Because this connection is the basis of true happiness, it makes sense to make it the highest priority in our lives. I’m not a Bible scholar, but one passage that has always stuck with me is “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all things shall be added unto you.” The Kingdom of God is another name for That. For those readers more comfortable with secular language, I would translate this as “The inner game is primary and the outer game is secondary.” The inner game is primary for two main reasons: winning it gives us deep and lasting happiness, and the inner game strongly influences the outer game.
Seeking and Finding That
I’ve known many people who really took the “seek ye first” message to heart but then got caught up in an endless pattern of seeking. In a sense, they forgot that seeking is not an end in itself, but a means to finding. Perhaps they have a deep belief that it’s really arduous or takes an awfully long time to find That which they seek.
In the same talk (the Sermon on the Mount) in which Jesus said “Seek ye first . . . ,” he also said, “Seek and ye shall find.” The modern Indian teacher Papaji, a disciple of the great master Ramana Maharshi, loved to say, “Call off the search. We already are That which we are seeking.” There is no reason to delay connecting with That for another day, or even another moment.
For some people, there is quite a gulf between their spiritual life (going to church, spiritual reading, prayer and meditation, and so on) and their worldly activities. They might find in their spiritual practices a refuge from the hardships and boredom of their lives, and perhaps look forward to a future time of living purely as spirit after their body dies.
I aspire to a deep integration of That Which Is Always Present into all aspects of my life. Alternation has been a powerful tool for me in this regard. I’ve found that taking a few conscious grateful breaths and connecting with That upon arising infuses my day with a sense of peace. Of course, it’s still easy for me to get caught up in busyness, but when I alternate my focus between That Which Is Always Present and that which comes and goes, the transitory is touched and transformed by the grace of the absolute.
There are, of course, many, many ways to connect with That Which Is Always Present. All the religions and spiritual traditions offer various methods. I’ve had the good fortune to explore many of these. Just about all of them work if practiced with sincerity and the belief that it’s possible to connect with That now.
If you already have a way to connect with That, and it works well for you, keep doing it! Or, as they say, “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.” If you don’t have an approach which consistently works, or if you feel like trying something new, you can explore some of the methods described below. The important thing is not what approach you use, but that you make consciously connecting with That a priority—and do it frequently.
Using Alternation to Connect with That
The most basic alternation in our lives is between in-breath and out-breath. Since we’re always breathing, focusing on the breath is a great way to connect with That Which Is Always Present. To me, the simplest way to do this is by letting my breath flow naturally, letting go deeply on the exhalation, and being grateful for the gift of Life on the inhalation. Gratitude opens our hearts to That, which is the source of the gift. It doesn’t take any particular belief system or profound spiritual understanding simply to be grateful for the pure life energy that is so freely given with this breath. The great medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said “Gratitude is the only prayer we need.” This could be paraphrased as “Gratitude is all we need to connect to That Which Is Always Present.”
So, gratitude for this breath is all we truly need to connect with That. But, variety is fun, so here are two more ways to use alternation to make the connection. The first one is built on gratitude and incorporates self-inquiry, along with conscious breathing. The second incorporates devotion or worship, alternating with awareness of our unity with the divine.
- Focus on your breath without trying to control it.
- On your exhalation, feel a sense of release.
- On your inhalation, feel yourself naturally receiving fresh, pure life energy, and deeply feel your gratitude for this incredible gift.
- Ask, “Who I am grateful to? Where is that one right now?” Make sure not to look for, or settle for, an answer in your mind, in words or concepts. But rather look in your heart until the answer comes to you as a direct experience.
- Deeply feel your gratitude, focusing it toward That which has revealed itself in response to your question.
- Now ask, “Who is grateful? Where is that one right now?” Again look in your heart, not your mind, for the answer.
- Alternate between the questions as long as it’s enjoyable; then just rest in gratitude.
I especially enjoy doing the Gratitude Alternation when I’m floating on my back in the ocean or a lake. I do some of my deepest letting go in those moments. Quite often, I break out in spontaneous laughter at the end of this process.
Devotion/I Am Alternation
Many paths are devotional in nature. They emphasize loving and surrendering to That. Other paths are based on directly realizing our oneness with That. I’ve found that alternating between these two ways of connecting with That is very powerful. Below is a simple way to do this:
- Spend a few minutes or longer doing a devotional practice such as singing to God, praying, chanting, or silently reciting words that are sacred to you (“Hail Mary,” “Hare Krishna,” and so on).
- Spend a few moments meditating on I AM (you can focus on I with the inhalation and AM with the exhalation).
- Return to your devotional practice for a few minutes.
- Go back to the I AM meditation. If you feel so inspired, you can do some decrees (affirmations that start with I AM—for example, “I AM love fully manifest in my life now”).
- Go back and forth as long as it’s fun.
- Spend some time sitting quietly or walking, simply enjoying That Which Is Always Present.
How Alternation Can Change Your Life
I hope you enjoy experimenting with these practices. You may find that once you begin to explore alternation as a spiritual practice you’ll see the alternation principle in play everywhere you look. For more spiritual practices and discussion of how alternation can impact your relationships, communication, emotional healing, physical health, work, habits, and beliefs, please visit my website at www.mountshastaretreat.net or read my book How Alternation Can Change Your Life. Alternation not only brings joy and balance to your life, it can help you realize your oneness with That which is beyond alternation—the source of deep and lasting happiness.