When I am first introducing clients to meditation, I try to keep things practical, easy, and low commitment. I want to encourage them to dip a toe into meditation and get some experience with how it makes them feel without bombarding them with 19 changes they need to make to their life in order to make an impact. I encourage them to make space for meditation each and every day, but I suggest that meditation to be just 5-10 minutes in length to start with. I'll go out on a limb and say if you can't find five minutes to dedicate to meditation, you aren't very interested in making a positive change to your life.
I find this approach helpful in allowing clients to feel empowered to beginning their journey with meditation. The great thing is, when you are just starting you really can feel positive changes with those short meditations, and the more frequently you do them, the more they build on one another, and the greater the progress. You begin changing your brain structure, and you can notice feeling calmer, more balanced, more joyful, a greater ability to concentrate, and so on. These effects of meditation are what may be thought of as low hanging fruit - definite advantages which are not difficult to attain.
Some people are only looking to get these types of advantages in their lives, and so they may not need to dig deeper to see what else they can excavate within themselves with meditation and introspection. However, it is natural for one who scratches the surface of meditation to continue to want to dig to see what other treasures there are to find. That was my experience. I came to meditation with a pretty secular interest and a fairly waned interest in seeking much beyond the material plane (read: God), and after a few months I was opening myself up more and more to the wonders of that which we cannot perceive with our bodily senses.
In order to open ourselves up more to the potential of experiencing that bliss which can only come from divine connection, we have to go deeper into the "work." We simply can't get to a level of stillness which can truly penetrate us to our souls with a few minutes a day. We need to keep up with regular long meditations to really give ourselves time to marinate in stillness. I like the analogy Dr. Sue Morter gives of our constant activity being like a ceiling fan, whirring so fast we can't connect to our higher consciousness. When we are still enough to let those fan blades finally stop moving, we can finally float up through them to make that connection. We also "do the work" by spending time in seclusion and silence. If you can get away for a few days in silence, that is wonderful. I haven't been able to experience this myself yet, but I plan to do so once my kids are grown and doing their own things - or maybe sooner, who knows! For now, I occasionally dedicate one day where I am "in seclusion" while they are at school - not going to the grocery store or doing things on my laptop at Starbucks or working through emails at home, but meditating, chanting, reading spiritual things, being silent, ignoring my phone. I can really feel a difference in my energy by the time they get home. As I type this, I am inspired to get one day per month in my schedule to make sure I do this more regularly! It's so easy to let time get away and not make the space for seclusion and silence, so I'm going to take a more active approach to giving myself that time.
There are so many other ways to continue going deeper in your practice, so I'll just touch on the essence of what they all are getting to, and that is connecting with that higher intelligent power which lies outside of yourself. The more time you are spending reaching toward that higher something, the deeper you are going. We do this quite naturally in meditation, but there are many ways to do this outside of meditation as well. The bottom line is, getting to "the good stuff" requires time, dedication, and sacrifice. Like everything else, you get out of meditation and spiritual life what you put into it. It may not be fair to expect something profound to come from your meditation practice if you are putting in minimal time. Luckily, as Paramhansa Yogananda says, the more we meditate, the more we want to meditate - and this goes for those other high-vibration activities like solitude as well. The more time we spend raising our vibrations, the more we seek out vibration-raising activities. The more time we are spending with our consciousness raised, the more the transformational effect is having on subtle levels of our being.
How do we know we are making spiritual progress? There are certain signs which have their basis in right attitude: greater kindness to others and oneself, calmness and even-mindedness, a decrease in desires, and a greater love for the Divine are all indicators. Compassion, also, is a virtue which grows deeper with progress.
There are certain meditations designed specifically to increase compassion. Compassion allows us to begin to experience ourselves in all, recognizing that we share in the suffering of others. Through compassion we honor the oneness which flows through all, connecting everyone and everything.
Jesus modeled the highest level of compassion when he prayed, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do" as he was crucified. As he was dying, he was praying for his persecutors. His compassion was so all-encompassing that it could not be contained to those who seemingly "deserved" it. He knew the consequence of their actions on their souls and prayed for mercy on them. This is unfamiliar sentiment for so many who find themselves still clutching to past transgressions years after the fact, bent on vengeance and darkened with spite.
There is also the beautiful story of a Tibetan doctor captured in 1959 during the Chinese invasion. He was sent to a Chinese labor camp for twenty-two years. When asked by Dr. Mark Hyman about the greatest danger he faced during that time, his response was, "the few moments I thought I might lose my compassion for my Chinese captors."
Compassion is sourced from the heart. There is a poignant story about compassion and meditation in Altered Traits, by Daniel Goldman and Richard J. Davidson. They talk about a demonstration they were giving to Buddhist monks in India using EEG equipment. They were placing electrodes on the scalp of the subject, and as they were doing so they were blocking the view of the 200 monks observing the demo. When they were finished attaching the electrodes and stepped out of the way, the usually staid monks erupted in loud laughter. The researcher thought they were laughing because the subject looked funny with all of the wires coming off his scalp in a spaghetti-like fashion, but they were told that was not the cause of the laughter. The true cause was the monks knew these Western researchers were interested in studying compassion, but they were placing the wires on the head and not the heart! It is common knowledge in many Eastern traditions that compassion dwells in the heart.
Teachings and anecdotes are inspiring, but when I look at myself honestly I know I have work to do to progress in the compassion department. It's easy to extend compassion to those in need, but I find it much more difficult to bring compassion to the forefront towards someone to whom I'm in opposition. Recently, for instance, I was driving my kids home after my son had had a difficult afternoon. We passed an ice cream shop, so I decided I would stop so we could have a little ice cream pick-me-up. It was raining, and there was a coveted space right in front of the shop (which as I was considering the unexpected stop had helped tip the scales in favor of stopping). I started to parallel park, but there were two people standing in the spot not moving as I tried to reverse in. I rolled down my window (in the rain) and he gave me a dismissive wave and said the spot was reserved. I continued to try to back in, and they remained standing firm in their spot. I knew these were public parking spaces and a human body does not mean that the space is unavailable, so I rolled the window down again and asked him to move. With a great amount of rudeness, the man again told me the space was reserved. I told him it was not, and he said they'd been waiting three hours for that space and said something about spending $45,000 on filming for the day. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was quite conscious of the traffic building behind me as I couldn't get in the space enough to let them by. I suppose I can truthfully say my compassion for the cars behind me waiting patiently for me to get into the space hastened my decision to drop the ten second standoff and forgo the ice cream trip, but I was certainly not overcome with compassion for the person I had encountered standing in my way. I still don't know what he was talking about with the three hours and $45k statements, but I understand enough to know that if there was any truth to what he was saying then he was trying to accomplish something in a public space with a lot of variables which were out of his control, and time was money. From that perspective and with the gift of having some space between when this happened and as I type this, I can grant him that perhaps it was more correct in the big picture for him to have the parking space over my needs. However, it is clear that there were hundreds of other ways he could have approached our interaction with kindness, consideration, and humility instead of the entitlement and dismissiveness which he chose.
All of that to say, this man was abrasive, arrogant, and unnecessarily rude to me, and while I could bend my perspective to be more understanding and creative about why he may have acted that way, my knee jerk reaction was not to pray to God for his wellbeing. My ego was fully in command during the encounter, knowing that I had more of a right to that space than someone saving it for a car which had not yet arrived. Even as I thought back on the incident later, I thought I should have asked to see the permit allowing him to reserve that public parking space (being pretty sure such a permit was not secured), rather than taking that time and energy to work on becoming more compassionate toward him. And while this person behaved in this way, he was not crucifying me or holding me captive in a labor camp, and still compassion was not heavy on my mind but instead on the inconvenience he was causing me and the rudeness he was directing at me.
So, it is with humility that I acknowledge the reflection from the mirror this incident presented, and what it says about what is left to be done to go the distance in the compassion arena. It is easy for me to throw up my hands and say, "Yes, but Jesus was a true master, an enlightened being! What do I expect, how could I possibly measure up to him?" But, the point of Jesus or Buddha or Yogananda or saints of all great religions is to be models for humanity. To show us there is another way; a better way for our development. Yes, we have to learn our lessons in our own time, but thank God they are here to shine the light in the direction of ascension.
I'm in the midst of summer fluidity. There isn't a lot of structure in my world right now, as my kids are on summer break and each week is different from the last. They are signed up for all types of summer camps, some of which require them to arrive at 9 am, others at 10 am, they could be 3 hours in length or 6, some drop off/pick up times overlap with teaching times for me requiring me to enlist help from family. As I type this, they are on their first overnight camp which will last six nights. Every week brings a new schedule, new planning, new flow.
It's all good fun and it's great to get this time to shake up our routines, get them more active, and give their intellectual sides a bit of a rest. The downside is it throws into the air my meditation routine. During the school year I meditate as soon as they get on the school bus in the morning and then again before they arrive home after school. With this summer schedule I have to reevaluate each day when I can fit in meditation. My meditations are shorter than normal, and it's difficult to fit in more than one per day.*
A former teacher of mine, Sanjan, as been organizing weekly long meditations in this virtual community of which I am a member. I've been watching these long meditations (3 hours) come and go each week with equal parts longing and intimidation. I know how good long meditations are for progress, but when I have done them I usually find my mind more restless than normal. It's as though because I know I will be sitting for a long time, there is no rush to get to a place of stillness. However, because I feel my meditations on the whole this summer have been quite thin, I felt that dedicating myself to some long meditations would help me close the gap a bit between my normal amount of time spent in meditation and what that has transformed into during the summer. Finally, the stars aligned and my thirst became deep enough that I joined the three hour meditation Sunday after dropping my kids off at their camp.
As per my usual experience, I had a hard time staying really focused throughout the meditation. Sanjan was a great facilitator and provided lots of pranayama (breathing) exercises and chanting/singing before we started to get our energy calmly activated, and we took a break every hour for a chant. I ultimately did feel that my meditation was quite a bit deeper than normal, but I think the benefit of the meditation was more pronounced when it was over. I came downstairs and could really feel a deep sense of stillness. I could see my husband was on our porch watching a soccer game, and I was tempted to go join him but I couldn't imagine getting in front of a TV and disturbing my inner stillness. Instead, I went upstairs and read an uplifting book.
Long meditations are definitely important to help your meditations progress. Aim to double or triple your regular meditation time once per week. These long meditations provide many benefits. Most obviously, you give yourself more time to enter into deeper stillness. This stillness has healing benefits in body, mind, and soul. The more time you spend in that place of stillness, the easier it is to get back to that place. With everything you do, you are training yourself. Wise men say that if you want to know who you'll be in six months, look at what you are doing today. Who you are today is a result of what you were doing six months ago. The more time you spend in stillness, the more easily stillness becomes a natural part of who you are. And really, that stillness is a major reason people explore meditation in the first place! Another great benefit of a long meditation is how it makes your regular meditations feel short! This morning I spent about an hour in total between my Energization Exercises, pranayama, chanting, Kriya yoga, and focused meditation, and it really whizzed by.
So try to incorporate one long meditation into your week. Just like everything else to do with meditation, experience is the key. You cannot simply learn about meditation and get any benefit. You must do!
*Alessandra and I explore our summertime meditation challenges in an episode of The Meditation Conversation podcast, entitled "Check Up - How We Bring Meditation Into a Busy Everyday Life," June 27, 2019.
I listened to an interesting talk with Lisa Damour, PhD. She is the author of two New York Times bestsellers about parenting teenagers (particularly girls): Untangled and Under Pressure. In the talk she reminded me of something really valuable that I’ve heard before but sometimes forget to apply to my life:
Stress is not necessarily bad!
For many people this is a startling concept to consider, especially when coming from a meditation teacher. For meditation to be effective, the body needs to be relaxed and in the restorative (parasympathetic, in terms of the automatic nervous system) state. In this age, it is common to hear proclamations that we must do what we can to always remain relaxed and peaceful, and any shift into an “activating” (sympathetic, relating to the automatic nervous system) state is harmful.
It is true that in modern times the vast majority of us are spending too much time needlessly in the fight-or-flight state of undue stress. If you think of life on the plains (a la The Lion King), a zebra grazes on some grass mindfully until it has become the potential prey of a lion or hyena, at which point it switches into activation mode where chemicals are released in its body to get the blood flowing quickly to the muscles so it can run fast and get out of harm’s way. That period is short-lived, and it either escapes danger or becomes lunch. If it has outrun danger, it fairly quickly goes back to grazing and its body withdraws back into the rest state. The zebra isn’t continuing to remain in that activated state after the stressful situation concludes, because it knows it is no longer in danger and that chemical process in the body was utilized and metabolized fully when it ran away from the threat. There is a book which probably describes this a lot better than I have called, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by biologist Robert M. Sapolsky, so if you want to explore this more fully please check it out!
Compared to that zebra scenario, many modern humans have their bodies in a state of constant stress from perceived threats. Our minds are constantly in motion, worrying, planning, regretting, and that is keeping our bodies in a heightened, activated state. When we aren’t coming out of that activated state it causes many physical and emotional problems which are countered when we are in a rest and restore state. This is why relaxation and stress reduction are advised so frequently now.
However, there is an interesting side effect of this emphasis on avoiding stress, which is that people are now adding an extra layer of stress when they feel stress: they are stressed about being stressed. Stress has been linked to everything from ulcers to hypertension to cancer to mental health issues, and everything in between. This link between illness and stress has become part of our social fabric, our conventional wisdom, and as such when people get stressed they now also are worried about what extra burden they are putting on themselves by way of the stress itself.
The point made by Lisa Damour which I found so powerful was that stress isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself. Yes, we don’t want to put ourselves in a state of constant stress, but sometimes life will give us stressful situations, and that is part of living. Everything we do will require a certain amount of stress, just in the act of “doing.” If we get carried away with avoiding stress we could very easily slide into laziness, where we aren’t making any use out of our lives. We may feel very relaxed lying on the couch all day every day watching TV, but we aren’t going to be very fulfilled or get much out of our time on this planet doing so. Spiritually speaking, we aren’t giving ourselves opportunities to grow in this lifetime with that approach. So, it can be really helpful to frame stress in a healthy way, by seeing it as necessary and beneficial to what you are guided to do with yourself.
This is one of the ways meditation can be SO helpful. By meditating every day (twice a day is even better!), you give yourself that chance to go inward and retreat into that restful state. You allow yourself to come back into balance and give the body a chance to self-soothe and restore itself, more fully that with sleep. So, when you begin engaging again with the world you are doing it from a calmer state, and you’re avoiding being chronically in the active, “sympathetic” state of the nervous system.
So, we could all do with less stress in our lives. There are many ways to deal with stress, including reevaluating what you are doing with your time and seeing if there are things that can be let go so you have more time for the things that really matter and you can avoid letting things get to a fever pitch. Also, try reframing how you view stress by not getting too stressed about the stress itself.
Joy to you!
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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