I remember that "still small voice" nudging me toward a meditation practice way back when I first sought it out more than 12 years ago. I wasn't even sure what meditation was, but I knew it was important for me to find out. The more I explored, the more confusing it became. There were so many forms of meditation and dogmas attached to each. So, I wanted to write a few simple pieces here in my blog on meditation and perhaps a simple how-to process, just to demystify the process. And perhaps to bring me back to my own practice in the process, too.
In my initial search to discover what meditation really is, eventually, a dear friend gave me a book that to this day has continued to be the clearest, simplest and most useful meditation book I've ever come across. It's called A Gradual Awakening by Stephen Levine.
Its language is clear and simple and poetic. "It is what is," as Ram Dass says of the book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. For that matter, everything Stephen and his sometimes co-author wife Ondrea have written, has been so enormously helpful to me, there are not words. The topics range from the process of dying mindfully to relationship and many others.
A few of the best include A Year To Live:
Another is Who Dies?
And finally, while I know this last book recommendation probably isn't news to anyone, Eckhart Tolle's books, particularly The Power Of Now, have been so enormously helpful to me and continue to be and I really feel it can be helpful to anyone ready to grow.
So enough with the book club for now and on with the meditation.
My first exposure to meditation practice was A Gradual Awakening and I remember what an earth-shaking discovery it was to realize I could relate TO the mind rather than FROM the mind. That may not even make sense until you delve into reading the book and/or practicing the meditation. But not long after beginning the practice as outline in the book, all manner of strange things began happening intermittently, just for flickering moments, and then more in more pronounced ways in my life. Light became more vivid. I seemed to understand things more deeply. Ideas and things I had never though of just occurred to me as obvious.
I think one of the many bigger lessons I understood more clearly at this time was this idea of understanding. Levine talks about digging deep and relating to our pain, our anger, our discomfort, our rage, our despair-- all of our so-called 'negative' feelings-- with presence and non-judgment. He says you would never approach a crying baby, scream at the baby and shake it and hit it in order to calm it. And yet this is how we so often relate to the many pieces of ourselves and our behaviors that we find lacking or intolerable. But it doesn't work. What works is this-- you cradle the baby. You whisper to it lovingly. You say, "Hey, I know you're hurting, I'm here. This is going to pass. It's going to be okay. And if it doesn't pass, I'm still going to be here. I love you."
What I began to discover is the ability to do this inwardly with myself, something I still struggle with to this day as it goes against all the masochistic training so much of us are raised with that teaches us there's some kind of honor in knowing how to properly berate ourselves, begins to move outward. When you can be kind to yourself, when you can be understanding with yourself, cradle yourself, you become that much more ready to do that with others.
And part of this is because understanding and a sort of wisdom begins to arise. As I watch my negative reactions rise within me, rather than judge them as negative or bad, I can simply note "Hmm, anger arising." And for whatever reason, this perspective and clarity allows me to then see more clearly "And I learned that when I was kid because I got hurt and now I have this defensive knee-jerk thing and that's where that comes from." And oddly, often, when I see "Oh, there's an actual reason I'm doing this 'negative' thing and it's understandable, somehow the understanding allows me to let go of the judgment.
Whether it's someone cutting you off in traffic and cursing at you or someone close to you betraying you, the way this works with others, is you can see "Hmm, this person probably learned this because they got hurt in one way or another." And it's almost like you slowly begin to be able to jump straight to understanding there's a reason-- or a series of reasons, usually-- for people's behaviors. And somehow, again, that understanding, makes it easier to drop judgment.
Non-judgment, choiceless awareness, is one of the most powerful things meditation can bring into our lives. My highest recommendation is still to grab a Levine book or two and go to town. But in the meantime, here's a quick meditation jumpstart.
1. Find a comfortable place to sit upright. It can be a chair or the floor. Just be comfortable and if possible, keep the spine relatively straight.
2. As you sit quietly, feel your whole body. You might even inwardly "scan" the body from head to toe. Feel the scalp, it might feel itchy or numb or even like bugs. Feel the face, the neck the shoulders, arms and hands. Feel the chest and the lungs and the stomach, the back of the shoulders, the length of the spine, the expanse of the entire back. Feel the buttocks pressed against the floor or the chair, the legs, knees, shins and calves, heels, feet, toes. Really get here, to this moment. Be present right where you are. Don't try to push anything away or make anything happen. Just let whatever's going on be.
3. Now, as you relax in your body, letting go completely, bring your attention to the air moving in and out of the nostrils at the point that the air touches the nostrils. Whatever you are able to feel as the air comes in, focus on that. You may not be able to feel the air until it's inside the nose, you may only feel it on the outside edge, either is fine. Whatever sensation is there, just bring your awareness to it and allow the air to come in and out all by itself. Just observing breath at the nostrils.
4. The mind will inevitably intervene, sometimes immediately. It will remind you that you have chores, unfinished work, that you're hungry, you need to scratch, etc. Don't make yourself nuts-- do what you must. But as much as you can, just stay with the breath. Whenever the mind starts thinking in WHATEVER way it starts thinking, simply note to yourself "Hmm, there's thinking" and return your attention gently to the breath. You may have to do this dozens of times a minute. Don't be dismayed. That's normal. The mind runs amuck. Which is why this process is so valuable. Just to be able to get that mind a little more still allows room for our natural wisdom and compassion and joy and peace and love to arise. Don't get lost in the mind's contents. If it helps to note the specifics of the arising thoughts, note "planning" or "there's hunger" or "there's anger" or "there's boredom" and return gently to the breath.
Continue watching the breath for 15 minutes if you can. The next day (or time), do it for 20, the next for 25. Finally, see if you can get yourself to meditate for 60 minutes without a break.
And if you get to that point and want to go further, I highly recommend a vipassana meditation course at either Spirit Rock:
Spirit Rock is about an hour outside of San Francisco, or one of the many vipassana centers taught in the tradition of S.N. Goenka:
These centers are literally all over the world. They are a bit more rigorous and the first time you go, you are required to do a 10 day course and you take a vow of silence for the 10 days. It's long days of meditation, about 12 hours a day, but it's broken up into very doable blocks. You just need to know what you're signing up for. This is not for the casually interested. This center is run entirely on a donation basis.
I've done courses at both and have been challenged and ultimately grew immensely from courses at both.
If you want to bring the meditation into movement, there's no better way I know of than yoga. I've personally delved deeply into Hatha Yoga as well as Taoist Yoga. I've heard great things about Bikram Yoga, but have never done it personally. But we'll leave yoga for another blog.
Until next time, I hope that this little meditation lesson eases your ascent.