Most people have heard of meditation, but for most of us, it sort of remains a mystery. We think meditation is something that only enlightened people do or meditation is religious. We feel like we can’t meditate because we don’t know how. We judge ourselves harshly when we don’t feel like we are doing it “right.” Many people will never even think of trying to meditate; some will try, but not really feel like it does anything; others will try, and like it and see its benefits, but have a hard time developing a practice (this is me!); and others will incorporate it into their lives just like brushing their teeth.
Yoga is not just the postures. Hatha/Ashtanga/Vinyasa yoga includes the postures/asansas, breath work/pranayama and meditation/dyhana. (The terms are not really interchangeable, but they are the primary philosophies that include the postures, breath and meditation, so for simplicity’s sake, I am talking about them as one. I explain a bit more in the post on the asanas.) In fact, the postures and the breath work are the preparation for the real purpose, which is to be able to be still and meditate and if we are being really pure, meditation is the path to samadhi, which is often translates as “enlightenment” or “oneness.” It is the true goal of yoga, which is achieved not just by the postures, breath and meditation, but by the other practices, including karma yoga and bhakti yoga, which I touched on in an earlier post. I have always wanted to meditate more. One of the things I love about yoga is that there is no end point, no goal, no achievements, no judgement. I have a hard time reminding myself that there is no judgment in yoga when it comes to my own practice. I am not judgmental of my ability with the asanas. I can do some, can’t do others, and love to learn new ones. But I am judgmental of my own self-discipline at practicing the asanas and pranayama on my own and at my lack of commitment to meditate.
And then I have to check myself and let go of that judgment just like I tell my students. Beating myself up serves no one, least of all myself.
There is some science and certainly a very long history to back-up the claims that meditation is good for us; the practice of a mindful meditation can improve sleep, reduce stress, help with decision making and more. This article cites 12 benefits that have been demonstrated, and while meditation was long seen as the practice of mystics, today many people, including well known celebrities meditate.
In India, and other places, meditation or mindfulness has long been taught to school-aged children, and that is beginning to happen in the West. Teachers, educators and scientists are finding that adding a meditation, mindfulness practice or quiet time to the otherwise intense day of learning to a child’s schedule has positive cognitive and behavioral effects.
I do think that meditation is still a skill that we can learn. For some of us, we prefer to self-teach and for others, we like to get guidance. While it is not a skill that anyone should be striving to be “good” at per se, I think the frustration many of us feel was once encapsulated by my uncle. He lives in a large assisted living facility, and I spent a month with him after he had knee-replacement surgery. A woman in the community offered a meditation session in the multi-faith quiet room, and I convinced him that we should go. My uncle is a devout Catholic and before he goes to bed each night, he says the rosary, which is a form of meditation; he just doesn’t think of it as that. After two weeks in a row of dragging him begrudgingly to this weekly session, he told me he didn’t want to go again. I asked him why, and he replied, “I just don’t know what I am supposed to be doing.”
I think that is probably what a lot of people feel. In our fast-paced world that is measured in grades, certifications, achievements, bench marks, goals, etc., it is hard to do something that cannot be measured by our standard metrics. The “point” of meditation does not fall into a measurable category. For many people, especially, more extroverted and/or more type A people, this can be really challenging and can leave us not really feeling like we are getting anything out of it.
For this reason, as someone who is still trying to find her own meditation practice, my advice is to not try to go it alone. Meditation is still a skill that one must learn and most of us will benefit from having some guidance. There are so many types of meditation. I talked about some of the meditation experiences that I have had in the past when I talked about my yoga journey, and I have often felt that if I had such experiences on my own, perhaps I would meditate more. But the point of meditation is not catharsis. Every time I sit down and close my eyes does not need to be revelatory. That is not the point. Or is it? Why meditate? I have my own ideas on this from my own training, experiences, and practices, but in writing this, I wanted to dig a little deeper.
LEARN TO MEDITATE
While meditation is not necessarily religious, most religions incorporate a type of mindfulness, which is sometimes prayer-based. For someone who is religious, meditation can be used as a part of their worship. For those who are not, meditation need not focus on god or anything that makes the person uncomfortable.
Just when I decided to use this time we have been given to work on myself, an add popped up in my Instagram feed for a 21-day meditation with Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. I have read Deepak Chopra before and Oprah tends to share things that are accessible to the average person, so I thought, “why not try it?” These days, there are lots of apps for meditating, so after I complete this 21-day program, I want to find one that offers daily meditations that resonate with me. There are many resources both on line and in-person where you can explore meditation.
There have also been myriad books written on the subject. One that I have found particularly useful and practical while adhering to the true spirit of the yogic tradition is Meditation and its Practice by Swami Rama. I read this years ago when I was doing my 500-hour yoga certification in Rishikesh. I am working through it again now with fresh eyes. While written by an Indian guru, I find it accessible to a Westerner while still feeling authentic. Another one I quite like, Meditation: Searching for the Real You, was written by Dada Jyotirupananda, who is someone I took a meditation course from when I was living in London. It too is modern, pragmatic and accessible, but still very authentic But that is just my opinion. There are LOTS of books on the topic.
It is also worth pointing out that you may already have a practice that is a form of meditation. I mentioned my uncle saying the rosary. I believe he says a certain prayer and repeats it for each bead on the rosary. In some meditations, a mala is used and the practitioner repeats a mantra for each of the 108 beads. Mantra’s are usually assigned by a guru and their importance is in their vibration in sanskrit, not necessarily their meaning. There is a walking meditation in Zen Buddhism, but simply walking slowly without music can be a form of meditation for many of this. A term I learned recently is ‘forest bathing‘. This is a form of meditation by connecting with nature. Runners, bikers and swimmers talk about being ‘in the zone.’ All of these can be meditative. When I swim laps, I count my laps, so I literally repeat a number to the rhythm of my stroke. If my mind wanders, I forget what lap I’m on. I swim without stopping for about a mile, which is about 30 minutes for me, and the rhythm of my pace and my chanting numbers is very calming to my mind.
Maybe sitting and chanting isn’t your thing, that’s okay. What is your thing? Find a practice that works for you.
I mentioned swimming. I am not alone in the inspiration and peace I find in water. Many meditation tracks have the sound of water mixed with flutes and other gentle instruments. The name of the Pacific Ocean, while not actually a terribly calm body of water comes from the word “pacify.” For many, myself included, the sound of the waves is calming and peaceful. I find that it reminds me of my relative smallness and the vastness of the earth and beyond, and that makes me feel at peace.
I sat on the banks of the river at Kaieteur Falls in Guyana once. It is the highest single-drop waterfall in the world, so from where the river disappears over the edge till it continues below is higher than any other drop on earth (Angel Falls in Venezuela is higher, but it has multiple steps or drops). I meditated with my eyes opened and tried to follow individual drops of water as they made their journey and then vanished. It was so beautiful, so calming. A friend caught me from afar on camera!
Just last November, I was at a really lovely eco-lodge on the beach here and I took a morning yoga practice. Afterwards, I sat and looked at the ocean, listened to the waves crashed and felt everything else melt away. I closed my eyes and meditated on the sound and the greatness of the sea. Again, I felt as I feel like one should after meditating. I felt energized, vibrant, peaceful and calm.
I grew up going to the beach, so for me, the beach, ocean, waves, and really all water bring me joy and peace. When I moved into my apartment, I set up a meditation space. I bought this little table secondhand because I just loved it, and I adorned it with my various statues and stones I have collected on my travels. I placed a cushion in front of it and I told myself I would use it, but of course, I have not. Every time I look at it, I judge myself for not taking advantage of it. Not helpful, I know, and I am not going to do that anymore!
I think I would like to integrate water into my space. Maybe that is a picture, maybe a small fountain. I’m not sure, but since I am calmed and inspired by water, water should have a home in my meditation space. (For others, water is traumatizing, so that would not be helpful.)
If you are going to try to sit an meditate, create a space that resonates with you. A space where you can feel safe and calm and comfortable. Maybe you like fresh air and you have a patio you can use. Maybe it’s cold, but you have a sunny window. You don’t need an entire room. You just need a place to sit. Create a space with images and objects that bring you peace and joy and make you feel safe and comfortable. Of course, if you practice a faith, incorporate items important to your faith.
You also do not need to sit on the floor or sit cross legged. You need to be alert, so slumping into a sofa is not ideal, but a straight backed chair or stool can work. For me, a cushion helps support me on the floor. You need to be able to breath freely, so you want to be able to sit tall with a straight spine; that can be achieved in any number of seated postures.
I really like this, which I found on The Way of Meditation.
I realized that in order to commit and to actually do it daily, I needed a schedule. I am very happy to drift along with no plans and no concern for time. While on vacation, that is fine, but I am trying to not see this as a vacation. Tens of thousands of people are dying; millions are feeling a financial strain; healthcare workers and systems are under tremendous strain. This is not a time for celebration, but if I am forced to stay indoors to do my part, I will make the most of it. In order to do this, I need to be sure that I don’t just let myself lay in all morning. (Not only that, but when we do get back to normal, 5:30am might actually kill me!) For this reason, I am doing this meditation first thing in the morning before I have a chance to find a million other things to do, and for me, that has been about 8am.
When I have spent time in ashrams and yoga centers, they usually offer a morning and evening meditation. Many religions integrate prayer (a form of meditation) with sunrise and sunset. In doing some quick research, the overall consensus is that it does not matter. Most agree, that morning is best, so if you are looking to try something new, maybe try morning, but if that isn’t your thing, let it go. Try a different time. Some say not to meditate right before bed, but if that helps you sleep, you do you! There is no wrong time to meditate. The advice however, is to not meditate after eating. That’s why first thing before breakfast or in the evening either before your evening meal or a couple of hours after are good times. Midday is harder because you will have likely eaten recently.
You need to be realistic. I could tell myself that I am going to get up at sunrise and drive to the oceanfront and meditate, but I know I won’t and that will lead to judging and criticizing myself and feeling a sense of failure. Choose a time and a space that are realistic and feasible for you in your current reality. If you find yourself at sunrise on a beach or at sunset on a mountain top and are inspired to meditate, go for it, but for establishing a daily practice, we need to work with who we are, where we are and what we have available. For me now, 8:00(-ish) in the space I have created, using an app works well. Maybe you LOVE getting up at 5am, great! That is a good time for you. Maybe you eat dinner at 7pm, but don’t retire till midnight; maybe 10pm is an ideal time for your body’s rhythm. Decide what works best for YOU.
MY EXPERIENCE (SO FAR)
I just completed the ninth of 21 days.
The first day of meditating, I was really stiff, as I always am in the morning and that makes it difficult to sit. The pain takes me away from the meditation, so I decided on the second day to do a short series of sun salutations and asanas to warm up my body. I start with my lemon water and then I do a 10-15 minute practice. The purpose of this is just to get the body moving. Surya Namaskar, literally means to “greet the sun,” hence, “sun salutation.” It is a series of postures best done in the morning. It gets the joints moving and stretches the muscles. I add some standing posture to build confidence and energy. That has really helped me. I have added a post about this and included a short sun salutation series that you may like to use before you meditate.
From there, I had been doing the meditation. I sit in Burmese posture or half lotus. I cannot sit long at all in lotus, which I can get upset about, or I can let it go. I am choosing the latter.
Initially, I was following the meditation with alternate breath pranayama, but then I switched it, and I am doing the pranayama prior to the meditation, which is more typically advised. The benefit of nadi shodhana is that it balances the body. The right nostril and left nostril correspond to the right and left channels (nadi) in the body. Masculine/feminine, solar/lunar, warming/cooling, positive/negative. By isolating them, we awaken each of them.
After the breathwork, I open the app and read the centering thought and the mantra, which is in sanskrit, but with a translation. Oprah and Deepak each give their introduction and then Deepak starts the meditation, which lasts about 12 minutes.
I inhale slowly and deeply through my nose, and I let my focus rest on the back of my eyes or gently inward to my third eye. I have been using my mala beads that I had made in India, which I blessed in the Ganges, and I repeat the mantra 108 times. If I reach the end before time is up, I release the mantra on my own and try to focus on the centering thought. The overarching theme of this series of meditation is “hope”, which seems appropriate for where I am in my path. There has been a focus on trust as a sub-theme.
After the meditation, I chant om three times, followed by shanti three times and then bow in gratitude with a spoken namaste. I decided to put a beautiful journal to use that someone gave me and just write some thoughts on the experience. I stretch my legs, but stay where I am and write just one page. I try to be gentle to myself and not criticize, but just observe.
A couple years ago, I tattooed om on one ankle and shanti on the other to help remind me of them. I still love to look at them and they comfort me as I am working on my meditation.
I then continue on with my day, starting with coffee! Next breakfast, and then I spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon writing and/or reading (I have a great hammock for reading!
One of the books I as reading today was advocating for two meditations a day. Two!?!? I’m trying to do one! And then I said (probably out loud because isolation has meant I often talk to myself out loud), “What else are you doing?” Today, I went for a walk along the sea. My back was sore, so I didn’t want to run or bike. I came back and did a more intense yoga practice than I did this morning, and then I took a shower. I remembered that something that I really love is chanting, and I have some of my favorite chants in my music collection, so I sat down and meditated to one of my favorite chants Ra Ma Da Sa. Because I really do prefer the afternoon to the morning, I actually found it easier to sit and enjoy the mantra of the song.
I heard that chant the first time I tried kundalini yoga. I like the idea of using that song each time, so that it can start to have a Pavlovian effect on me. It lasts a little over eight minutes. I follow this with one deep breath and om-om-om-shanti-shanti-shanti-namaste, and again, I make a short journal entry.
My general observation is that I really enjoy the time I am spending meditating and for me, setting a schedule to do it has made it easier to commit. I am not sure that I am feeling the benefits throughout the day, but I think like anything, it takes time. I have stopped expecting each time I sit down to meditate to be this massive, emotional experience. I am finding the joy and the peace in the stillness. I want to work on myself, but this is not the moment for that. This is just a moment to be still and to observe myself.
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
Apparently, people used to say that it took 21 days to form a habit. I guess this is why this meditation experience is 21 days, but new research says it takes 66 days. I don’t know if I have 66 days in this period of social distancing, but I will do this every day for as long as I have and then see if I can continue it beyond making it a regular part of my life. The challenge will be once I am again leaving my house at 6:30am, but perhaps I will feel so good, I won’t be able to imagine skipping it! Or perhaps, I will find that it is better for me in the evening. I hope that I am able to continue the practice because everything I know tells me that I will benefit from it and I want to give my mind, body and soul all that it deserves to be happy and healthy!
I wrote last time about how while for about two years, I was on a very active journey of self-love, self-care and self-improvement, in the past 2-3 years, I feel like my growth has stagnated. I have not taken as active an interest in growing out of my trauma, so that it no longer has power over me and my relationships. This time of isolation and social distancing has provided us all with a unique opportunity.
If you have ever thought about meditation, maybe this is a good moment for you to try too. Let’s try to send lots of peace, love and calm to the world together! And let’s also remember to be kind to ourselves. There is no ‘failing’ at meditation. Try it and then let it go; the point is not to dwell or judge or criticize. As the Beatles wisely sang,
“Let it be, let it be, let it be, let be. There will be an answer, let it be.”
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