This morning I was listening to a talk by Paramhansa Yogananda, the yogic master who brought meditation and other yogic practices from India to vast audiences in the west beginning in the 1920s. He was talking about the incredibly common problem of restless thoughts during meditation. He gave an analogy of collecting water in a glass from a muddy river. When the water has just been put in the glass, it is full of mud floating all throughout the water, and it simply looks like dirty water. But, if you set the glass on a table, with time the mud will settle on the bottom.
The same is true of our restless thoughts. When we sit to meditate, it is normal to have thoughts stirring in our heads. We have techniques we use to quiet our minds (usually via the breath), but thoughts can continue to come up despite our efforts to still them. This is especially true - and frustrating! - for beginners. But as we settle into stillness and continue to bring our focus back, our minds begin to become clear. The key is using our willpower to persevere. Don’t give up because you feel you aren’t keeping your mind quiet. Prove to your mind - to yourself - that you will carry on even if you have to bring yourself back 1,000 times.
The brain is just like other muscles in our bodies in that it gets stronger with use. As we keep bringing our mind back to center when we realize our concentration has waned, we are getting stronger! We are training our brains to focus, and we are strengthening the prefrontal cortex which makes it stronger and over time allows us to more easily focus longer.
It isn’t realistic to expect that you are going to perfect meditation as soon as you begin. In fact, no matter how long you’ve been practicing meditation it’s best not to approach it with perfection as the goal. Bear in mind that it’s called a meditation practice. It’s not a race or a competition, and putting pressure on yourself is counterproductive to the qualities you are trying to cultivate with meditation. Be gentle, kind, and understanding with yourself, so you can present these qualities more easily to the world outside of meditation.
Sometimes we aren’t sure what direction to take. We feel compelled, driven, or perhaps even called, to take a certain action or path, but although we can feel that inspired feeling within there may be many practical reasons we feel that the time isn’t right, or we aren’t the right person to take it on, or it will be too hard, or we will make too many mistakes, or so many other reasons we let the feelings pass without acting.
When we feel this way, it’s important that we stay attuned to what clues the universe may be sending to give us that nudge or push to confirm that we need to go for it. I have been experiencing this throughout the year. I had been wanting to take the Ananda meditation teacher training for months to become a certified meditation teacher. I am really passionate about my own meditation practice, and having found clear instruction through courses from Ananda was incredibly important in giving me direction and developing and refining my practice over time. I also have become drawn to teaching. I have a business/IT background, but the last few years I have helped in my kids’ classrooms and enjoy connecting in that space. When we began planning to move back to the US a few months ago, I looked into getting my teaching license, but as I explored that option I realized the traditional classroom would not truly scratch my itch. What I wanted to teach was meditation.
The meditation teacher training was offered last autumn (2017), and I explored taking the class then. I thought it might be good to do it before the international move madness really kicked off, but on the other hand I didn’t envision having a lot of opportunities to use the learning in order to teach before I moved due to the language (I am conversational in Italian, but it is different to rely on limited language abilities when trying to teach). I worried that too much time would pass between finishing the course and using the learning, leaving me rusty when the time came to start teaching. I expressed these concerns to the instructor, and he told me it was my decision but to keep in mind that it is amazing what opportunities present themselves once we open the door to them.
The course was offered again in February. Again I felt very drawn to taking it, but we were moving in 4 months and still needed to find a house on the other side of the ocean, sell the house we used to live in and had been renting out, and get all our stuff organized in order to tie everything out before we go. I worried with all that distraction I wouldn’t also be able to focus properly on the course, and I knew I could only get out of it what I could put in.
As I was considering in January enrolling in the February offering, we found a house we were really interested in. My friend and realtor took us through it a couple of times via FaceTime, and we decided I should go to the US to see it in person to make sure we truly wanted to purchase it. I went on a very quick trip, saw the house, (still) loved it, and we began the process of buying it. Suddenly having that major decision checked off, I felt I had made more space in my life for the course and it seemed right to go for it.
I couldn’t know how my life would shake out in the complexities of all the pieces coming together to make the international move happen. There were many opportunities for surprises to turn up and things to go sideways. The purchasing of the house was fairly smooth, all things considered. We needed to get 2 different loans because we still owned the rental house and needed to borrow against it for the short term since we couldn’t sell it before the sale of the new house would be complete. There was a lot of energy put in to get the mortgage and bridge loan initiated, processed, and completed, but it was as painless as it could be under the circumstances.
We then needed to prepare the current home for sale, including getting the timing right for our renter to move out. Again, that ended up being fairly easy, considering we were doing it from such a distance. We had a wonderful property manager who handled a lot of the details, and the house was ready to go on the market exactly when we had planned. We got an offer on the house the same day it went on the market, and it was for over asking price. I couldn’t really believe it and worried a little that maybe it was just a way for the buyers to “earmark” it while they still looked around, because it was just SO fast and easy. However, we are on the other side of sale now, and with hindsight I can confirm everything indeed went through, and again it was pretty painless.
I had felt more than an interest or curiosity about teaching meditation; I felt, and still feel, that it is a way for me to connect with and express my higher Self. I have been asking that my will is aligned with the divine will, and I sense that teaching meditation is part of that answer. In deciding whether to take the course, I could see big barriers that could keep me from being able to dedicate myself fully to my learning. As each barrier was approached, it seemed to be blasted away and cleared by a force much greater than myself. I’ve left out a lot of detail around various obstacles within each broader barrier that were complicated and resolved in “lucky” ways. It has felt like a resoundingly affirmative response to whether taking the course was the right action when such major boulders were sitting on the path to certification, but in going ahead in faith the path was cleared for me.
I encourage you to tune in to these types of cues from a higher source, the universal intelligence that flows through everything. You may be able to imagine countless scenarios about why something you feel drawn to won’t work out, but if you hand those fears over to this universal intelligence you may find that they are dissolved on your behalf.
A couple of months ago I listened to Oprah interview Michael Singer, author of “The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself.” It was a great interview, but unfortunately I can’t comment on the book itself as I haven’t read it yet. I have found this part of the interview creeping into my thoughts regularly:
Oprah says, “My favorite line is when you say, 'Let’s say you’re living life without the thought of death, and the Angel of Death comes to you and says, ‘come, it’s time to go,' and you say, “But no, you’re supposed to give me a warning so I can decide what I can do with my last week! I’m supposed to get one more week!' Do you know what Death with say to you? 'I’ve given you you’re whole life! My God, I gave you 52 weeks this past year alone! And look at all the other weeks I’ve given you! Why would you need one more?’
They had been talking about death being a teacher, and that we all have the cognitive ability to understand that we will die so we should use that knowledge to live the lives we should be living - inspired lives that further our spiritual growth, serve others, work toward our highest potential, etc. Instead, we often plod along, going through the motions, and instead of living with intention each day and using all these cumulative moments that we are given to move toward our highest purpose, we wait for our “real lives” or “true purpose” to come together later, ideally without much effort on our part. We put it off, thinking our time is infinite, all the while encountering examples of too-soon endings that can be helpful reminders that all life is finite - including ours.
In a less morbid way, I am living this concept of feeling my time is running out as I approach the time when I will leave Italy. I’ve lived here for nearly 4 years, and I have had a very fulfilling time here. I’ve been to some beautiful places, eaten wonderful food, enjoyed the culture, and more than anything I’ve made some very special friendships. I’m now down to my final few weeks, and it is very bittersweet. I can feel myself trying to push away the leaving - a type of denial that because the time isn’t NOW, in this moment, then maybe the time won’t ever really come to say goodbye. I don’t know that I will ever feel completely ready to go, and the thought comes up often - “Just ‘x' more weeks? It’s not enough time!” I know in my heart the time is right for us to leave, and I’m happy realizing what great things await me on the other side of the move - family, old friends, a new home - but translating that into a detached sense of actually going without a sense of longing to remain is something I have not mastered. Hopefully, when it comes to my own mortality, when the time is approaching I will know in my heart the time is right, I will be happily anticipating seeing again family, old friends, and my new (old) home, and I will have mastered a better sense of detachment with this reality. It is certainly a worthy goal.
It was a terrible winter for flu and other illnesses! Here in Italy for sure, but also in America and it seemed all over the world so many people were getting really sick, even to the point of hospitalization. I remember hearing entire schools were closing in Florida in order to prevent the spread of flu because it had gotten so bad. Periodically I would stop and notice that I had managed to escape even catching a cold, but as it was also a particularly long winter I felt that it wouldn't be wise to declare I'd had an illness-free winter until I was sure spring was here to stay. Well, now we're well into May so I am sure winter is over and I can state as fact that I had a healthy winter! I am particularly happy about that because I was not only out amongst the public throughout the winter but I nursed my 2 kids through fevers as well (my daughter at least twice), so it's not as though I was never exposed to germs.
I've made a lot of changes in the last few months, drawing a lot on yogic principles and practices throughout my day. I thought it could be helpful to reflect on what changes I've made which could have helped keep me healthy this winter. I don't want to pretend that anything here is a silver bullet to avoiding colds and flu, but perhaps combined they gave me more immunity - and they certainly didn't do any harm.
I have two cherished spiritual sisters who I meditate with online weekly. One lives in Sweden and the other in South Africa. For now, we are blessed that we are in the same timezone even though we are living a bit all over the place; I hope we will still be able to connect as often when I move 6 timezones away. We met through a course of Ananda online. In addition to our online meditations, we check in with each other most days through WhatsApp. It really is a blessing to have these souls in my life, walking a similar spiritual path and giving and receiving advice about our meditation practices as well as life in general.
One of these sisters has given me permission to share this inspiring metaphor that came to her last week. She had been feeling quite inspired with her meditation and spiritual practices a few weeks ago. She felt confident in her direction, both where she was at the time and where she felt she was going. Then, she took a vacation which for various reasons was a mixture of Spirit everywhere and nowhere. It was a holy place with rich spiritual history and energy, but personally she was not able to meditate due to time constraints, and the personal circumstances taking place throughout her time there were confusing her and seemingly pulling her away from her higher self and spiritual seeking.
She was feeling very conflicted when she came back from vacation. Her heart was torn in opposite directions. Upon her return she was jet-lagged and physically sick, and as she is also the mother to a toddler she was finding it very difficult to have the energy to meditate. When she finally recovered physically, it still took her a while to have energy in her meditations and often found she was struggling to not fall asleep while meditating. Perhaps more frustrating than her tiredness during meditation was the simple struggle of motivation. She was feeling unsure of her dedication to her spiritual path as it seemed she was forsaking another version of her life in choosing this path, and her meditations were not feeling very inspired.
In time, through dedication and willpower, she was able to bring herself back to her previous point of being able to go deeply into meditation, and feeling herself connected to her spiritual path. She sent the most beautiful message the other day (I’m paraphrasing):
Yesterday it was raining, and all the worms started coming out of the soil. The birds had a huge feast! And the trees as well, as they needed the rain while they are working on budding. And I thought, this is true with us as well. We need the rain, the hard times, to help us grow. It’s not so nice at the time, but just like nature, we need the rain to nourish us as well. One of our meditation teachers talked about how we need the restless meditations, because when we choose to stay with them we actual can grow the most. Just like when we do physical exercise, we need the resistance to get stronger.
Her message is so filled with wisdom. And, it relates not only to the dry spells and hard times, but to each meditation on the micro level as well. We all have human brains which can wander, particularly when we are first starting out with meditation. It is important to remember that each time we catch our minds wandering we (gently, but firmly) bring our concentration back, and we need to remember that each time we do that we are getting stronger. We are doing the work to make it easier in the future to stay focused longer.
Thank you, A, for lovingly allowing me to share your inspired metaphor.
I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts. I've been living the past few years in the center of a medieval city in Italy, and I live a very "pedestrian" lifestyle. Literally. I don't have a car and I do nearly everything on foot - taking my kids to and from school, grocery shopping, going out for meals, errands, etc. I like to use that pedestrian time to listen to engaging podcasts. Even when I run for exercise I've taken to listening to podcasts in lieu of my old playlist.
I gravitate to podcasts that are focused on higher living (trying to uncover various ways we can improve ourselves), and particularly those with a spiritual, non-dogmatic element. Many great yogic masters, including Paramhansa Yogananda, emphasize the importance of keeping good company and surrounding yourself with an environment that reflects the higher vibrational state you seek. When it comes to media, that means limiting the amount of "junk" we are consuming - things that are possibly entertaining, but not feeding anything nurturing to our souls and minds. The podcasts below have filled me with inspiration, taught me interesting things related to bettering myself, and/or at the very least helped me pass the time while keeping higher ideals or realities in conscious consideration:
In sum, if you are looking for a more substantive way to use that time you might be filling with background music, I highly suggest instead checking out these podcasts as another way to raise your vibration during your day.
I am an Ananda® certified meditation teacher. I am passionate about meditation and embrace a yogic lifestyle for greater wellness physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
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