Meditate Like a Boss Part 6: FAQ

Amma
Amma is a wonderful teacher with many devoted students, but does everyone need a guru? What does that even mean?

Well, hello there! This is the final part in my series on the whys and hows of meditation. In my years of meditating and practicing yoga, these are some of the questions I’ve come across, which many beginners may be wondering about.

Do I have to be religious or spiritual to meditate? Is this a religion, or does it conflict with my religion? 
No. Although yoga has some connection to Hinduism, it is not a religious practice. Many people of various religious and secular persuasions find that through meditation, they gain a deeper understanding or connection with the world. I know many atheists who meditate as well and enjoy the benefit of cultivating a calm mind.

Can meditation help me deal with headaches or other types of illness?
Yes, it can, especially if that illness is related to stress or anxiety. Experienced meditators can control their breathing, slow down the heart rate, release tension in the body and intentionally create a state of relaxed awareness, which helps relieve headaches, lower blood pressure, and improve digestion among other benefits. Remember, the stresses of modern life affect us on multiple levels. When the mind is anxious, the body responds by becoming tense–the stomach ties itself in knots, the shoulders scrunch up to the ears, the eyebrows furrow–and this is how we start to feel old, sick, and tired. Meditation trains the mind and body to relax together, which begins to pave the way for healing. While I don’t recommend disregarding your doctor’s orders, meditation certainly can enhance the effectiveness of any treatment, and it’s excellent as preventative maintenance.

Do I have to have an altar or special meditation space?
No. The only thing truly required for meditation is the present moment. We see people sitting a certain way or chanting Sanskrit words, and we call that meditation, but we have no idea where their minds are. It’s a completely internal experience. We see images of incense, silk robes, malas, ashrams, mandalas, whatever. Those things are all just accessories. They can be helpful because they are attractive and they give you something to focus on. Some people really love using malas (prayer beads), for example, and that’s fine as long as you don’t confuse the object for your practice. No amount of fancy Buddha statues will make your meditation any more deep and serene if you don’t sit down and practice.

Why do you personally meditate?
Because meditation, in combination with regular exercise and good nutrition keeps me sane and healthy. After years of struggling with anxiety and depression, I discovered something that made me feel human, and I loved it. I finally have a way to find peace in the middle of a panic attack, and if you’ve ever had one, you know how priceless that is.

Why do you chant things in Sanskrit?
The mantras we use in meditation are ancient sayings used to focus the mind and bring about a peaceful state. Om is probably the most common chant you hear. Om is the sacred sound or the sound of creation. The Gayatri Mantra is a prayer to find your true path or dharma. Others are prayers for the wellbeing, liberation, and nonsuffering of all living things. Some people believe mantras have power on their own, even if you don’t know what they mean. At the very least, mantras train the mind on positive and uplifting thoughts so that our lives come into alignment with those intentions.

What’s with gurus?
The concept of a guru merits a novel on its own, so I’ll have to expand on this later, but here’s the short version: Guru means “teacher” or “master,” but it can refer to different things. Sometimes, a guru is a literal teacher, someone who tells you what you need to do to become enlightened or just to take the next step in your journey. I prefer to talk about the inner guru, the part of yourself that is connected to all of nature and is therefore deeply wise, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it. And finally, there’s the idea of the divine itself being the ultimate guru or teacher. In terms of in-the-flesh gurus, you will find many wonderful teachers in the world, but I will warn you: humans are humans are humans. I don’t care how wise a teacher may be–he or she is not above reproach. Anyone with that elevated status has an opportunity to take advantage of others. I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust these people if they are good teachers, but do not subjugate yourself to them. A teacher’s job is to nurture the growth of the student. If his or her actions don’t reflect that goal, reject them as teachers.

So, do I need a teacher?
Having a teacher really helps when you’re starting out, but you don’t have to go to India or buy a ticket to see a traveling guru in your town. You can try going to a yoga studio, a Unitarian church, or a local Buddhist temple if you would like some in-person guidance. You can also read about meditation as taught by some really wonderful teachers. The first meditation book I ever read was Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck, and it’s a very practical guide to incorporating mindfulness into your daily life. You can even search Youtube for teachers like Pema Chodron who is extremely wise and compassionate in her talks. In other words, having a teacher is great, but once you’ve got the desire to learn, there’s nothing stopping you from making progress, with or without a teacher.

Why do you have to sit up straight to meditate?
If the body is reasonably strong, sitting up straight is actually the least strenuous position for the body aside from lying down. When your spine is aligned properly (in neutral), the head is up straight and the shoulders are relaxed. This allows the bones to bear the body’s weight so the muscles can relax and the mind will not be distracted. We do asanas (yoga poses) before meditating so the body will be strong but supple and able to sit for long periods comfortably. That is the real reason for doing yoga poses–remember, when yoga started out, there was no need for the kind of fitness classes we have today.

Why can’t I meditate lying down?
Because you will fall asleep. If you’re using a meditation practice to help you fall asleep, go for it. However, the general idea of meditation is to learn to be present and serene in our waking lives, so falling asleep in the middle of it is somewhat counterproductive. If you have a physical limitation that prevents you from sitting upright to meditate, lying down is perfectly acceptable.

Does it matter where you meditate?
Yes and no. No because you can meditate anywhere at all. The place doesn’t have to be beautiful, and in fact, sometimes you can get so distracted by staring at the beautiful view or searching for the perfect surroundings that you’re actually detracting from your practice. That’s no good, obviously. On the other hand it does matter in a way. First, if you have a beautiful place in your home dedicated to meditation, you’ll look forward to going there. Second, if you practice in a quiet place, it’s easier to focus — especially at the beginning! Third, being comfortable doesn’t hurt! Finally, setting up your meditation space is an outward display of respect for the practice itself. Many people (myself included) find that cultivating reverence for the meditation practice is good for our dedication to it.

That’s it for the meditation guide. I hope you’ve found it helpful and that you’ll start incorporating meditation into your daily life. If you have more questions, let me know in the comments or via the contact page.

xoxo~

Read More

Weekly Assignment: Meditate

meditation

Meditation is both easy and hard. It’s easy because all you have to do is sit there. No training or talent is required to get started. It’s hard because your mind will be bouncing off the walls, and you might really feel like you’re going to lose it. Sound fun? Ok, now sit.

Find a comfortable place, sit up straight without any strain in the body. Spend your first few minutes just settling in to how it feels to sit there. Tune in to the breath, relax the belly, relax the jaw. Smooth the point between your eyebrows. Take this moment to be fully present in your own body and your own experience.

Sit for as long as you can. When you’re ready to move again, take a moment to acknowledge your effort and maybe even set an intention for yourself for the day. Take your hands to your heart in prayer pose or Anjali mudra, and give a little bow to yourself and to the universe in gratitude for this very moment. Then let it go, and go on with your day.

Now, do this every day for a week. It doesn’t have to be for any particular amount of time, but you might find that you enjoy sitting for slightly longer each time you try. You don’t have to do it at a certain time every day, but you might find it easiest or the most beneficial if you do it every morning before starting your day or every evening when you finish your work.

Read More

Meditate Like a Boss, Part 3: Let’s Do This

Meditation: Buddha, animal student, universal ruler, statues, motivation - liberation, American Buddhism, random shopping, Aurora Avenue, Seattle, Washington, USA

Hello, dear. This is the third installment of my series on meditation. Previously, I wrote about the benefits of meditation and how to prepare the body for meditation. Hopefully, you’re now prepared to get serious about meditating.

First, sit up straight in a comfortable position. If you sit for a long time, you may have a leg fall asleep on you or something, so it’s best to sit on a cushion or folded blanket, and even put something under your knees and ankles if it helps the body to settle.

Let the spine be nice and tall, but allow it to maintain its natural curve. It goes in at the low back, and out slightly at the upper back, then in again at the neck. This may seem obvious to some people, but if you’re not aware of the natural curve of the spine, you’ll waste a lot of energy trying to sit “perfectly straight.” Your posture should be well aligned so that your muscles can relax and you won’t slump over. Imagine the crown of the head is extending toward the sky. Tuck the chin ever-so-slightly so that the back of your neck is subtly elongated.

Rest the hands on the knees — they can be open, or you can make a little circle with your thumb and forefinger on each hand. This is gyhan mudra, and it symbolizes wisdom. Palms up toward the sky is an open and receptive posture, inviting energy, wisdom, or whatever is in line with your intentions into your life. Palms down on the knees is a grounding gesture, which I can testify is very soothing when you’re dealing with anxiety or too many racing thoughts.

Now that you’ve established your posture, close your eyes, and begin the process of taking your awareness within. Become aware of being in your body. The sensation of air on your skin, the pace of your breath, the tension in your muscles. Invite the body to relax. Try to smooth the point between the eyebrows. Relax the jaw. The throat. The shoulders. Soften the belly so the breath can flow freely.

This is where it starts to get tricky. You feel relaxed, so your brain jumps in and says, “Ok, I’m doing great. What next? Is that all there is? This is silly. I’m done here.” Give the brain something to work on. Although we are trying to quiet the mind, simply ignoring it is about as effective as ignoring a toddler. Using a mantra, breathing technique, or visualization keeps the mind occupied and focused until it can settle down. Focus the awareness on the point between the eyebrows, and make it your intention to observe the breath, even if the mind wanders.

Breathe in and say silently to yourself: I am here.
Breathe out: I am here.
Breathe in: I am here.
Breathe out: I am here.

Continue for several minutes.This simple practice of training the awareness on the breath allows us to occupy the mind long enough to calm down and enter a meditative state. Eventually, your awareness may become absorbed in the breath and the experience of simply being. At that point, you will not need to adhere strictly to the technique. If you notice your mind wandering, do not chase down the thoughts or try to control them. Simply bring the awareness back to the breath.

How long should your meditation be? Start with five minutes. Then ten. Then fifteen. Keep increasing until you can sit for 30 minutes or more. In a pinch, just sit still for as long as you can stand it. You may surprise yourself sometimes and meditate longer than you thought you could.

When you’re ready to end your meditation, take a moment while your eyes are still closed, and acknowledge yourself for your effort. Give a nod of thanks to your mind and body for all that they do for you. Take your hands to your heart in anjali mudra (often called prayer pose), and bow to the wisdom and the divine spark that resides within you.

Namaste!

Want to know more about meditation? Check out the previous posts in this series:
Part 1: Do What Now?
Part 2: Being in Your Skin

Have other questions? Leave me a note in the comments, and I’ll do my best to address them. Next week, I’ll write about how to deal with the fear and anxiety that can come up during meditation.

Read More

Meditate Like a Boss, Part 2: Being in Your Skin

Yoga vid Dödsklippan

The real reason we do yoga poses is to prepare the body for meditation. Yep. In fact, in the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the only pose or asana mentioned is the simple seated posture we use for meditation. In a classical yoga practice, the primary reason for doing poses is to help the body be strong enough and flexible enough to meditate comfortably. Of course, that translates to better overall health as well, which is one reason yoga has become so immensely popular in recent years. The good news is you don’t have to do a long, complicated or showy practice to prepare for meditation. Here’s a simple practice that you can modify based on what your body needs and how much time you have. Each pose has a unique effect on the body, so it’s best to pick one pose from each category to get a well-rounded practice.

Step 1: Side Stretch
Side stretches are energizing to the body and good for the digestion. A simple side stretch can be done while sitting, standing, kneeling or lying down. To start, try reclining half-moon. Lie on your back on the floor, and stretch the arms out overhead, touching the floor behind you. It’s OK if the elbows to bend in order for the arms to relax in this position. With the legs straight, walk the heels over to one side as far as they’ll go, and then inch the arms, head, and shoulders in the same direction, forming a “C” or half moon with the body. This will create a stretch through the elongated side of the body. Take a few deep breaths, and allow the body to sink into this stretch without using force. Come back to center before repeating the stretch on the opposite side.

Step 2: Twist
Twists are cleansing and calming to the body. Like side stretches, they’re also good for the digestion as they gently squeeze and massage the internal organs. Here’s a quick and easy twist anyone can do.

Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or in a chair. Stabilize the hips so they will not move when you twist. Place the right hand directly behind the spine on the chair or floor, and place the left hand on the right knee. Inhaling, imagine you could actually grow taller, extending the head toward the sky and tucking the chin slightly to create length through the back of the neck. As you exhale, gently squeeze the belly button toward the spine to begin twisting. The heart and ribs turn to face the right while the hips stay grounded. Turn the chin over the back shoulder. When you’re ready to come out, inhale once more to sit up tall, and on the exhale, gently unwind the pose. Then do the same twist in the opposite direction.

Step 3: Back Bend
Back bending is considered very energizing – no wonder it’s the first stretch most of us want to do when we wake up! When you spread your arms wide and raise the chest with a big yawn, that’s a gentle back bend. To do a seated back bend, simply rest your hands on your knees while sitting up nice and tall (just like you will for meditation). Inhaling, lift the heart and press the chest forward while rolling the shoulders back and down. Slightly lift the chin to create a sense of length and openness in the front of the throat. As you exhale, hug the belly button in toward the back, tuck the tailbone, and create length through the back of the body, reversing the curve. Do several rounds of this movement combined with slow, deep breathing. The same thing can be done on the hands and knees and is usually called “Cat/Cow” in yoga classes.

Step 4: Forward Bend
Forward bends are calming and are great for times when introspection is needed. There are tons of great forward bends to pick from, such as child’s pose, standing forward bend, wide-leg forward bend, and downward dog. If you’re seated in a chair, place both feet firmly on the floor, and simply drape the upper body over the thighs, allowing the head to hang. If your chest doesn’t reach your thighs, a blanket or pillow across the lap can make this more comfortable. Alternatively, sit on the floor in a comfortable cross-legged position (also known as sukasana or easy pose), and place the hands on the floor in front of you. Walk the hands out in front of you, bending forward until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of the hips. Whichever foot is in front, that side of the hips will feel the stretch first. After a few breaths, change the cross of your feet and do the stretch again to make sure you address both sides.

Once you’ve completed this brief practice, try sitting for a short meditation. Notice if there is any difference in the body, the breath, the energy level, or the state of mind. If you are very distracted, a longer practice can be helpful in calming the mind. Several rounds of Sun Salutation, for example, can be a great preparation for a longer meditation.

Read More

Meditate Like a Boss, Part 1: Do what now?

astral plane zone.

Meditation is the mental health equivalent of going for a jog, having an orgasm, and drinking one glass of red wine per night. In other words, it’s really really good for you. There are many ways to approach meditation, such as mindfulness, Zen, and transcendental. My experience draws from many different teachers and traditions that I’ve studied, and I’ve developed an approach that works for me, which is what I want to share with you now.

The benefits of meditation are well documented, yet surprisingly few people set aside time to meditate on a regular basis. Why not? Because it looks so simple, yet when you try to just sit there, you get restless and irritated. After a few tries, most people give up because it feels pointless to them, but anyone who has ever felt the effects of meditation knows its value and will always come back to the practice. If you’ve never had an apple, I can try to describe it to you, and you can almost imagine an apple that way. But experiencing it for yourself is still completely different. Meditation is like that, so I sincerely encourage you to try it yourself rather than just reading what I or any other teacher have to say about it.

Here’s what happens when you start meditating. For the record, this happens to everyone, so don’t let it discourage you! First you feel self-conscious and critical. You wonder if you’re doing it right, and every time you catch your mind wandering you think, “What the heck? How am I supposed to stop myself from thinking?” It’s very frustrating. Once you start to get the hang of it, it’s like a kid learning to ride a bike. You find yourself thinking “Oh, look at me! I’m meditating!” And then you realize that you’re not meditating because you’re busy patting yourself on the back. That’s ok. Just smile at yourself and bring your attention back to the present moment.

The trick to getting the mind to be quiet is infuriatingly simple: Don’t force it. The mind gets involved in everything we do because it wants to help. It says, “Oh, cool, you go meditate, and I’ll be over here making your grocery list and solving the world’s poverty problems!” Of course, that’s a huge distraction.

Invite the mind to join you in meditating instead. Give it a task: “Ok mind, your job is to count the breaths. Every time you think about something else or lose count, start over from one.” The mind will enthusiastically embrace this challenge because it wants to show you how good it is. It will probably make a mess of things sometimes and get frequently distracted, but with consistent practice, it will settle down.

The Triangulum

Eventually, you learn to watch the breath, and slowly you get better at paying attention only to the breath. When you do that, your awareness becomes absorbed in the breath, the movement of air and energy through the body. Then you begin to explore this deep inner space. Just like there’s outer space that’s apparently infinite and full of interesting things, there’s this depth in your own mind. Mentally, you’ll move around, exploring this space. Sometimes, this is just another form of distraction, but it’s interesting and can teach you things about yourself. Take your time here and enjoy the experience! Maybe you’ll experience a sense of spaciousness, deep relaxation, or even see colors in your mind’s eye. None of this is particularly important, so don’t get stuck on trying to figure out what it means.

The internal landscape can be very peaceful, but it can also feel scary like swimming in deep water. If you don’t know what else is swimming in that water or you can’t reach the bottom, you might start to feel vulnerable and anxious. You might feel afraid that you’ll find something scary inside yourself. There’s no guarantee against this, and that’s why it’s good to practice with a teacher at this point — someone who can help you navigate that fear and deal with whatever it brings up. As you get more used to that inner depth, you can settle in and rest in this very peaceful place. It helps to have a focal point in the body to prevent the mind from wandering too much. Letting the awareness rest at the heart center can help cultivate a feeling of restfulness, gratitude, and self-love. Or you can focus on the point between your eyebrows, the center of intelligence, perception, and intuition. Pick the focal point that feels natural to you, and experiment with letting your awareness rest in that place.

As you meditate on the infinite within you and the infinite beyond you, you cultivate the understanding that we truly are all one, which can profoundly change your relationship to the world at large. Scientific studies have shown striking similarities between brain activity during meditation and sleep, suggesting that in meditation, we are actually cultivating the same restful state as in deep sleep. The more you practice, the deeper your meditative states will become. You can experience a profoundly satisfying sense of being connected to your world. You can cultivate the ability to be present in difficult situations. You can choose to be peaceful amid chaos. These are the benefits of meditation, which can be applied to absolutely every area of your life.

Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it? Wanna give it a try? Check out my five-minute meditation video to experiment with it right now. In the next installment, we’ll talk about how to prepare the body for a deeper meditation practice.

Do you have questions about meditation? Please share them in the comments or e-mail me through the contact page, and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Read More