I have some meditation buddies all over the world. We get together at least once per week for an online meditation. We cover a fairly vast geographical area - Sweden, South Africa, Italy, and various parts of the US including Hawaii. I have been doing this longest with the women from Sweden and South Africa, and we speak multiple times a day, leaving each other texts or voice messages on WhatsApp (a very popular app outside of America for texting). I am always surprised how often I am listening to a message from one of them and it has aligned completely with something going on in my own life that I haven't mentioned to them. It happens so regularly that I really shouldn't be surprised anymore, but I laugh very frequently with surprise at our synchronicity.
It happened again yesterday with one of them talking about how she has been using affirmations more regularly and has really been feeling the benefit of them. I, also, have rather suddenly become very faithful in including affirmations in my meditation. I have also had a very busy week full of opportunities, and if it's too much of a stretch for you to think those things are related we can at least agree that the affirmations are not hurting!
This particular synchronicity inspired me to write about affirmations on the blog, because it is a part of meditation which is 1) "optional," so readers experienced in meditation may still not be familiar with their use, 2) are not always associated with meditation, and 3) are an easy way to bolster your meditation in specific areas which need attention (i.e. money, success, service, health, self-confidence).
What is an affirmation, anyway? An affirmation is a statement of the highest truth. It is repeating this truth over and over, and letting it become part of consciousness, and then bringing it into your subconsciousness, and finally lifting it into your superconsciousness. You are sort of reminding yourself at every level about this truth, even if it is not something you currently feel is part of your reality. For instance, you may not be feeling well. You may be even accepting the thought that you "are sick." You might be telling other people you are sick. The more you accept the notion that you are sick, the more you will subconsciously lower your energy and dwell in that thought space, making it easier for the illness to take root. But if you remind yourself at every level that you are a perfect being of energy, in which health and vitality can flow, you start raising your energy into that thought space and you can overcome your "illness" quicker.
It is best to practice affirmations relating to health early in an illness, before it gets to take too strong of a hold. Your energy will be more powerful in the early stages of any imbalance and thus it will be more effective. Also, don't be silly about seeking medical care when needed. Medicine is certainly helpful in many cases; don't go overboard thinking you are beyond ever needing medical intervention! But, rather than going straight to pills, syrups, or injections you have another tool in affirmations to help you fight imbalances within your being. I had a skin lump last week that kept getting bigger and ultimately got red. I put a lot of work into using healing energy and affirmations, but I also told myself if I didn't see any change in 2 days I would go to the doctor. It did clear up before I needed to make an appointment (which was particularly nice since I haven't searched for a doctor for myself since we moved here!).
To start an affirmation, you first need to find a source. I recommend getting a book you like, ideally written by a trusted spiritual master. I use Affirmations for Self-Healing, by Swami Kriyananda. (This is NOT a paid endorsement, just what I personally use.) Choose the affirmation you want to work with. For instance, for health we could use the following.
"My body cells obey my will: They dance with divine vitality! I am well! I am strong! I am a flowing river of boundless power and energy!"
At the end of your regular meditation, when your energy is lifted and calm, say the affirmation in a loud and confident voice, 3 times. Then, repeat it another 3 times in a regular speaking voice. Then, 3 more times in a whisper. Then repeat it silently 3 times, ideally with eyes closed if you have managed to memorize it. And finally, close by saying it with all of your energy focused at the spiritual eye.
This method of taking the affirmation from loud to silently within helps you experience it at the conscious level first, then as you get quieter you are going more within and bringing it into the subconscious, and when you lift it up to the spiritual eye you are bringing it to the superconsciousness. (To review the levels of consciousness, see this previous post.)
Practice your affirmation with all of your attention, and bringing high energy to it. Really believe that what you are saying is the highest truth. If you are accepting the thoughts that you are sick (from our earlier example), and you practice your affirmation thinking, "I'm going to say this but it's never going to work because I am sick," how powerful do you think you are making the affirmation? Really rise up to your highest self, get your energy behind the affirmation, and let it blast through your being.
As I said, I have personally found benefit from exploring affirmations deeper, as has my spirit sister mentioned earlier. Definitely give them a try and see what kinds of benefits you can bring into your life through this secret passage!
It's been said that meditation raises our vibration. While we are meditating, things are happening on a physiological level that impacts us on numerous levels within our bodies, minds, and souls. We can feel this when we are meditating and feel that deep peace during our practice. As we practice more and more, we can rather quickly start to notice benefits outside of meditation as well. For instance, we find we have more space between a trigger and our reaction, and with that space we can more easily find the grace to not react in a way we will regret. We sleep better. Our digestion can improve. We can remember things more easily. We are more creative.
These benefits outside of meditation can make one wonder: are there choices I can make outside of meditation that can augment my meditation practice? Are there things I can do to better align my life outside of meditation with the great benefit I am doing for myself during meditation?
In fact, there are! Allow me for a moment to nerd out a little on yogic philosophy. The ancient yogic masters identified three gunas, or gradations of elements from elevating to downward-pulling. The highest, most elevating quality is sattwa. The next quality is the most neutral, rajas. The quality associated with a downward pull of energy is called tamas.
The universe is made up of a mixture of these qualities. These qualities are found throughout the universe. Foods, for instance, are sattwic, rajasic, or tamasic. Pungent foods such as horseradish have a tamasic influence; meats and grains have a rajasic, or activating, impact on the body; and fruits have the highest, spiritualizing sattwic effect on the body.
With respect to the gunas, we are aided outside of meditation by keeping our choices sattwic to the degree we are able. This is especially true about the relationships we keep. "Environment is greater than willpower," said my guru, Paramhansa Yogananda. If we are spending a great deal of energy in meditation elevating our consciousness, raising our vibrations, and we spend the rest of our waking hours amongst people who love to complain, gossip, argue, and bring people down, it is really hard to progress in our outward engagements from the growth we are getting from our meditation time. Take a look at who you are spending time with and assess if they are lifting you up or dragging you down, and do what you can to maximize the time spent with those in the former group. Likewise, assess the media you are watching and books you are reading. Spending leisure time being idly absorbed in violent or depressing movies, tv shows, or books is time spent in a tamasic headspace.
Make a point to spend as much of your daily life outside of meditation in sattwic activities to align yourself fully with the consciousness-elevating you are doing during your meditation, and watch the seeds you are planting germinate and bloom ever faster.
Aum, shanti, shanti, shanti.
Now that you know how to sit for meditation, let's talk about frequency. How often do you need to meditate in order to reap the benefits?
Just like anything you want to get better at, the more you do it, the easier it gets and the better you get at doing it. If you want to take up running but you only manage to go for a jog once every couple of weeks, you may notice that you never really get faster or comfortable with it. You have to give yourself the chance to get started properly and get into the flow before you will notice any improvements. The runs will build on each other, strengthening your leg muscles, improving your endurance, overcoming mental blocks, and developing into a habit. In order for any of these things to happen through running, you need to do it consistently.
Same for meditating. Daily practice is the goal. I heard actor and long-time meditator Richard Gere say that for him meditation was as consistent as brushing his teeth. He will, without doubt, brush his teeth every day, as will he meditate. At least, I hope I am interpreting that correctly and he didn't mean he is rather inconsistent with his teeth brushing - ha! My guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, advises meditating twice per day - just upon waking and just before sleeping. I have to admit that although I can make it twice a day many days per week, there are some days where I finish my day still aspiring to make every day a twice-daily-meditation day.
I was listening to a talk the other day by a monk from Ananda, and he was suggesting a reason for the twice daily meditation that I hadn't considered before. He likened meditation to a dose of medicine. When you take medicine, it is time based - your body breaks it down and uses it within a given period of time. You need to get the next dose in as your body is running out of the last dose. With meditation, the effects last a certain amount of time also, and by having a second meditation later in the day you are providing yourself with a booster of the physiological effects of meditation. That said, going back to the running analogy the effects of meditation build up more and more over time. The more you do it, the greater those physiological effects in between meditations.
It is possible to see changes to the brain in imaging after just 8 weeks of regular meditation practice, and just 10-15 minutes a day will generate perceptible results to the practitioner in a short time. I have heard it said that research shows increasing benefit with the amount of time spent in meditation up to 30 minutes, but beyond 30 minutes there are not scientifically researched benefits. That was someone speaking about meditation from a very scientific perspective, and I don't know if he was just citing one particular study. I know from my own practice that as my meditations deepen I receive greater and greater benefits, and in order to go deeply sometimes I need to give myself more time. Advanced yogis are not entering samadhi (the state of oneness with all consciousness) on 30 minutes a day. But, different people need different things from meditation, and for many, many people, 30 minutes a day will get them the results they are after. At any rate, it is important to build up the time spent in meditation slowly and not jump from, say, 10 to 30 minutes, or 30 minutes to 60. Be patient in giving yourself time to grow to greater lengths of time to avoid frustration in trying to keep your focus beyond what you are yet ready for. You won't make time for something you aren't enjoying, so don't set yourself up for frustration.
I'm an off-again on-again yoga practitioner. Lately I've been on again, going to a few classes here and there. Each time I feel such a sense of pleasure and accomplishment when we get to the very last part of practice: Savasana, or Corpse Pose. This is where you lay on your back and relax.
People who are familiar with yoga but not so familiar with meditation believe that Savasana is the position for meditation. In fact, in meditation it is really important to sit upright. In meditation we are withdrawing our energy from the outer (our limbs and senses), into our spine, and up our spine to our third eye. When we are lying down our energy is dispersed and it is hard to be in touch with the spine. We also have a lifetime habit of associating lying down with sleep, which is very difficult to counter when you are wanting to meditate and NOT sleep.
Although it is important to sit upright, it is not necessary to sit on the floor in the lotus position that we see advanced yogis doing, where both feet are resting on top of the opposite thighs (in fact, you don't need to sit on the floor at all - we'll get to that later). This is a really helpful position if the practitioner is flexible enough to hold the position without strain, but the reality is it is an advanced position that is not realistic for everyone (raising my hand here!). When sitting on the floor, it is fine to sit cross-legged, or with the legs crossed and one lower leg resting on the other, or with legs crossed but one lower leg is resting on the floor in front of the other. I find that although many people are not able to maintain the lotus position, they are comfortable with one lower leg resting on top of the other. I prefer to sit in this position, or with one lower leg crossed on the floor in front of the other. This position really helps to lock in my lower back and keep it from rounding, but I do switch between the 2 positions.
Whichever positions you choose, you want to keep your back nice and straight to keep that energy rising without constraint. Be sure your hips are higher than your knees. Depending on your position, you will probably require a meditation cushion, and possibly also a folded blanket under the cushion. If you are sitting crossed-legged, for instance, your knees will naturally be much higher than your hips without quite a bit of propping up. If you don't have a meditation cushion just stack some cushions, pillows, or folded blankets up until your hips are higher than your knees. Before I bought a meditation cushion I sat on 2 stacked pillows. You also want to keep your shoulders back but relaxed, to open your chest. Be conscious throughout your practice of not letting your shoulders round down over time, which will prevent you from having a straight spine. Keep your chin parallel to the ground; watch that your head doesn't draw back and throw off your straight spine. Put your hands palms up at the junction of thighs and abdomen. We are used to seeing pictures of those yogis in their lotus position with their hands resting with index finger and thumb way out on their knees. It is really hard to keep a straight spine for very long with your hands out that far, so bring them in close to your body so you can stay relaxed keeping that spine straight. Finally, you want to have your eyes closed and your gaze focused on the "point between the eyebrows." Be careful here, because this is just an expression. You don't literally want to be straining to focus physically between your eyebrows, but instead want to be gazing off into the distance at a point above the horizon. This will help keep the third-eye area of the brain activated.
If you are not comfortable on the floor, don't fear, there are other perfectly acceptable solutions! There is no excuse not to meditate even if your body doesn't want to be floor-bound! You can meditate just as effectively in a chair. Be careful to be specifically be in a firm (but not hard) chair - a dining chair could be a good solution - and sit away from the back if you can. (Don't meditate on a couch or armchair as you will just absorb into all the cushion.) If your muscles are not ready to support you sitting upright without back support you can put a folded blanket or a firm pillow between your lower back and the firm chair. The point is to stay upright in the chair without relaxing back against it and losing the straight spine you need. All the other positioning requirements are the same as on the floor - straight spine, shoulders back and relaxed, chest open, chin parallel to the ground, hands face up at the junction of thighs and abdomen, gaze lifted behind closed eyes.
There is yet another option: the meditation bench. They make these small benches specifically for meditation which are (usually) sloped downward. You sit on the bench with your knees on the ground and your lower legs underneath you and the bench. The rest of the posture is just the same as sitting in a chair or on the floor. You will want to play around with having a folded blanket or towel under your feet and/or knees to keep comfortable against the floor.
Any of these positions will work equally well for you from a meditation standpoint. It is only a matter of what you find most comfortable. Just be sure to keep that spine straight. As one of my meditation teachers was always saying: keep your energy "Inward and Upward!"
I am reading a book right now called “The Seat of the Soul,” by Gary Zukav. It’s a very interesting read that breaks down what the soul is versus the personality, how the soul can help us through our life, what intuition is and how to get it to work for us (spoiler alert: meditate!), the power of intention, and so much more.
There was a particular part about emotion that gave me extra pause for consideration. He writes:
..honor emotional cleansing at all times. If you are emotionally blocked and you cannot, or you do not, know what you feel, or if you have blocked what you feel so effectively that you become emotionless, you become a negative person, and you also create a physically diseased body. By keeping your emotions clear, emotional negativity does not reside in you, and you become lighter and lighter. This opens your intuitive track because it allows you a clear sense of loving. It brings you closer to unconditional love and renders you harmless. It lightens the quality of your frequency, so to speak, and therefore the guidance that you receive is clear and unobstructed as it enters your system.
This paragraph reminded me of a situation that happened in the last few months where I had an interesting feeling that I needed to stop and feel an unpleasant feeling instead of shutting it down and covering it up with “the bright side.” Essentially, there was a potential opportunity that kind of came out of the blue. It would have been great for me and my transition time that I have been in this year, and there were many external reasons that it seemed inevitable it would come together. I was in limbo for many weeks while the final decision was made. In the end, things didn’t pan out. When I got the news that it wasn’t going to happen, I had a sting of disappointment and sadness, which I very quickly started to turn into thoughts of, “Oh well, now I’ll have more time for [whatever other things were coming up],” and “I guess it wasn’t supposed to happen this way,” etc.
Those consolatory thoughts were, of course, true. They are important, as well. It’s correct to pick ourselves back up when we’ve had a disappointment, because that’s life! I tell my kids all the time, things don’t always happen the way we expect or want them to, but the important thing is what we learn from the disappointments and how we use that knowledge to better ourselves.
However, in my core something stopped me from immediately disregarding the negative emotions. I can’t say why, but I just felt it was important to really feel the disappointment, and let myself be sad. Something inside me encouraged me to suspend my need to brush past the hurt in favor of feeling better, and to spend some time in that uncomfortable place. So, I did. I let myself be disappointed for a while. I felt that lower-dwelling energy and sat with it. I didn’t analyze it or try to change it, I just let it be. And, just like all emotions, it passed. Its time was limited.
I didn’t know why feeling those bad feelings seemed so necessary that day. I don’t know if I had some karma to clear that required me to accept those negative emotions, and I wouldn’t get through the karma if I didn’t actually go through it (causing me to continue to repeat similar experiences). Or, maybe, people close to me will undergo similar hurt and it will help them to know I’ve been there, too, and if I don’t feel what they will feel I won’t have the right level of empathy. Or, as this passage from The Seat of the Soul tells us, I needed to let the emotion get through me properly so it could pass through without blocking me. It’s an interesting idea which I hadn’t spent a lot of time considering but which makes so much sense, that an important part of life is working with our emotions completely, assuring that they have been experienced to the extent that their energy does its thing and passes through, without getting the opportunity to get stuck, pushed down, or hidden. And with this also is the importance of letting the emotion get to the point of completion, where it does pass through. We don’t want to have the opposite problem of the one I was trying to avoid, where instead of pushing the emotion away we embrace it to the extent that we hold on to it way longer than is helpful, and it blocks us up because we can’t let go of it.
So, let us embrace all of the emotions our ongoing experiences bring to us, but we also must let them be what they are: fluid and temporary. Let us not fear that in letting ourselves sit with the negative for a bit we are doing something wrong. After all, how can we appreciate the good feelings if we don’t also honor the harder ones?
So, what really is happening in our brains when we meditate? There is all this great research about the benefits to our bodies and psyches through regular meditation practice, but what are we doing differently in meditation that we aren't doing in our normal waking hours or while we sleep?
Most people are familiar with "consciousness." We are aware of the things that are happening in our consciousness. I can see my kitten playing on my desk as I type (no, I probably won't ever write a post where I don't mention a pet - lol!); I am consciously aware that she is up to mischief. I'm thinking about it, I'm seeing it, I'm aware of it. I am consciously writing this post, taking this sip of water, noticing the beep of the construction truck outside. There are meditative practices that aim to get you more into the conscious state. Mindfulness, for instance, encourages you to closely notice all the things your senses can take in at a given moment. For example, during a meal really chew and taste your food. Notice how it changes the longer its been in your mouth, the longer you've chewed it. Feel it slide down your throat as you swallow it. Feel the fork in your hand - its smoothness, its temperature. You can also do this while sitting and meditating - really noticing the breath, watching the thoughts pass by, pay attention to your emotions as they arise and pass. All of these sensory elements that we can bring to our awareness are happening at the conscious level.
Most people have also heard of the subconscious state. Freud did a lot of work with the subconscious in his work with dreams. The subconscious state is the part responsible for dreaming, our habits, our autonomous bodily systems (breathing, heart beat, digestion, etc), memories, likes and dislikes, etc. Our subconscious has strong hold on us even though we are not very aware of it as it is at work.
Which of these states are we accessing in meditation? In fact, neither! There is a third state of awareness that ancient yogis have known about for centuries but we Westerners are not always very exposed to: the superconscious state. This is the part of us that is eternal. It goes beyond our body. It has been with us since long before we were born and it is the part that will survive death. It is where our highest potential, creativity, intuition, true joy, peace, and any other uplifted feelings come from. In meditation, we are connecting with this highest state of awareness.
We talked about how information we get from our five senses happens at the conscious level; the superconscious level is when we get in that sixth-sense territory. This is where those feelings come from when you don't know why you know something or feel a certain way about a person, but you really have a feeling inside you know you can trust.
The more we meditate, the more familiar we get with this superconscious state, and the easier it can be to access it outside of meditation. We find that we are able to keep ourselves open to our highest self more easily in our regular waking hours. When we are new to meditation, it can be difficult to recognize the differences between these states. However, like anything we practice, we become more familiar with the elements of meditation the more we do it. Over time it becomes easy to tell if you are slipping down into the subconscious (most likely, you are fighting sleep at that point) or if you have lifted up into the superconscious. Spending as much time as we can in superconsciousness is the goal, as this is where true healing in the broadest sense can take place the easiest because we are connecting with our eternal self.
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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