Meditation 101

When I signed up for Yoga Teacher Training years ago, I was warned to expect a lot of sitting still for hours on the floor in silence, listening to dharma talks, anatomy lessons, and meditating. With two small children at home, the thought of silence and stillness seemed like heaven to me. The tuition to the program suddenly seemed well worth it’s value.

I soon found out that the fantasy of meditation was much more dreamy than the reality of it. I discovered that my mind is very successful at getting me to do anything but sit down in stillness and silence. I learned surprisingly, that contorting my body in crazy yoga postures is much less physically painful than sitting still for an hour. I began to dread meditation. So, I did what every good yoga student does – I faked it. On the outside it was zen-barbie, “Look at me, I’m sitting here so serenely. I’m zen. This is wonderful and please notice that I’m sitting much more still than you are…..” On the inside my actual experience was, “Why can’t I stop thinking? What’s wrong with me? There must be a secret to this that nobody will share with me. …. Ah, I feel great. I’m really meditating! Hey, stop thinking again! You SUCK at this.” And oddly, even when I sat still and listened to my thoughts, I didn’t even notice them. I was pre-occupied with being Zen-Barbie. (Now don’t get your imaginations too excited. Zen-Barbie is brunette, she doesn’t shave her arm-pits, her chest is flat, her ribs are ALL included, and her thighs are tree trunks – earthy and strong. She comes with a bio-degradable yoga mat, a tiny copy of the Bhagavad-Gita and carries a mini mason jar full of unidentifiable purple organic sludge that she calls lunch.)

In yoga, we use the word sadhana to describe one’s practice. Any good yogi/yogini has a sadhana, a personal collection of techniques and practices that offer a structure or guide for them to grow and flourish and maintain optimal equilibrium of mental and physical health. As I worked to establish certain practices in my life, I struggled. I’m not a structured or habitual person. I’m wildly creative and swing from inspiration to dull-drum daily. My schedule varies, my moods shift quickly, my children were and are extremely unpredictable. Those early days of dedicated yoga practice were both fun and frustrating while I tried dutifully to force myself into a mold of self-disciplined practice that I thought I should be living. I was going to force myself into an austere and regimented practitioner, come hell or high water. Damn it! (I can say that here, can’t I?) (And I’m imagining Malibu Barbie trying to force her sad, plastic, high-heel feet into Zen-Barbie’s Birkenstocks.) (And, you’ve been forewarned about my parenthesis.)

Keeping a daily routine was already such a struggle for me. As I progressed through my teacher training program, I started studying about the gunas and things began to click. I suddenly had more insight and tools in my sadhana toolbox. These gunas are three mind states (and physical states) that yogis refer to: Sattvic, Tamasic, and Rajasic. Sattvic refers to a balanced, calm and healthy state of mind. When my mind is sattvic, it is calm and peaceful. It is open to insight, creativity and inspiration without clinging to it or using that inspiration in a manic way. Tamasic refers to a mind-state that is slow, spacey or dull, thoughts are not firing quickly enough or they meander. When I am tamasic, I day dream about silly things. Sometimes my tamasic mind loves to tell whiny stories about why my life is a royal suck-fest. (Think Debbie-downer here. Wah, wah…) Rajasic is the mind state that many of us are familiar with – it’s the “monkey mind”. A rajasic mind is one that swings quickly and wildly from thought to thought. It is the mind state of anxiety, of impatience, of frustration. It is untamed and wild creativity. The rajasic mind is a frequent visitor in my life, I am always working to slow down those thoughts – “Woa, Nelly!”

As I learned about the gunas, I became very aware of my mind state from day to day, minute to minute. I soon discovered that within spiritual practice, the deeper meaning of honesty (satya) is to come out of self-delusion and be able to admit where I was in this moment, and not at where I thought I should be. Literal honesty meant finding the ability to see beyond the ego, to be present with both the unflattering things about myself (without self-deprecation), as well as admitting my strengths (without congratulation).  It was just noticing and accepting what showed up. I was able to notice and admit that forcing myself into the mold of a 5am meditating yogini when it went against my natural rhythm, felt like an action of harm and force. It wasn’t the waking up at 5am to meditate that felt violent, it was the idea that I should be something which I’m not that felt violent. So meditating to the sunrise was just fine once I stopped pretending to enjoy it. And consequently, choosing a time for meditation that matched my given energy for the day proved to be much more helpful. (Oh – and you can skip a day of meditating and still be a “good” practitioner. I promise.)

I soon learned to be very aware of where I was at the moment when I sat for meditation, and found that using certain techniques from yoga made all the difference. If I did meditate early in the morning when I was incredibly tamasic, I would use kapala bhati breathing and /or do a visualization meditation around my chakras. If I was rajasic, I would work with nadhi shodhana breathing technique, and meditate with my mala beads, using one breath for each mala and relying on the tactile, soothing sensation of the wood beads to calm down my senses. When I was going through a desperate period of anxiety, I found grounding visualizations were a life-saver. I began to develop an instinctual list of techniques to pull from whenever I sat and found it to be very helpful. The wild thing? The more honest I was, the more I honored my natural rhythms – the more regular they became. The less I tried to do meditation, the easier it came all on its own.

Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different types of meditation. Some have seemed to be more effective than others. Today, I mostly practice vipasana meditation and find it to be very powerful. Now that I find myself on the other side of the meditation class teaching the techniques, I find that my students have the same struggles and questions that I did when I began. I find that they too, find certain techniques extremely helpful depending on who they are, and what resonates with them. A visual person is going to thrive with guided meditation. A rajasic mind might experience a panic attack attempting to practice vipasana meditation. Today, I’ll begin by going over a couple of basic questions and hope that if you’ve read this far into today’s post you’ll be ready to give meditation a try:

Why meditate?

On the pragmatic side of this question, we see that people who meditate experience more calmness, more insight, more self-awareness. Regular meditation practice makes us less reactive and more accepting of ourselves, of others, of the present moment. While this is all true, ultimately, we use meditation practice for the same reasons the Buddha did. We use it as a tool to lead us to moksha – liberation. Liberation from our conditioned thinking, our delusion, our patterns of suffering. Sitting on the meditation cushion with the goal of attaining this kind of enlightenment seems so ridiculous and super unattainable, and for good reason! Setting any goal for meditation IS quite ridiculous, and enlightenment isn’t something you can plot out a 10-step plan for. Enlightenment happens in its own time. Rather, we use the meditation practice as a way of becoming intimate with the mind, and a way of rewiring our circuits of past conditioning. We use it as a way to see our thought patterns, our perceived limitations or grandiose plans, a way to “get over ourselves” (literally). Many meditation teachers have said that if enlightenment is an accident, then meditating simply makes you more accident-prone. So, let me give you some reasons to meditate:

  • To be more calm and happy
  • To tap into the para-sympathetic nervous system and relieve stress
  • To pay a fraction of the attention to the mind that we pay to our body (Can you imagine where our society would be if we spend as much time on mindfulness as we did our bodies?)
  • To be less reactive
  • To know our “selves” better
  • To be aware of our gunas, and what we have to work in present time
  • To feel more connected with the god of our understanding, or the lack there-of
  • To practice self-care
  • To practice courage and become more comfortable with discomfort
  • To observe the falsehoods and truths that our mind creates
  • To put some space between the trees of our monkey-mind

How do I begin a meditation practice?

Often, there is a lot of fear surrounding meditation. It seems that if we meditate wrong, somehow the world will come crashing in! Not so. When I don’t feel like meditating, I remind myself of the simple zen approach to meditation, “Sit down, and shut up”. The first step is the sitting down part. Sometimes our subconscious is terrified of being completely alone in a room with itself. It doesn’t want to be seen for the delusion that it is, or it doesn’t want to face the pain of the past that may arise, or the anxiety about the future. So, while it sounds simple enough, sitting down is often the hardest part. Once you’re sitting, the “shutting up” is part becomes laughable! Have you ever tried to stop the little voice in your head?

Pause reading this right now, and stop thinking for just one minute straight.

Yea – not so easy. So once you’ve tried the zen thing and you’ve sat down (It’s helpful for the low-back to sit on a folded blanket or cushion) and you’re trying to quiet the mind, the first step is to stop trying. Stop putting effort into meditation. Any attempt to stop your thoughts will fail, so pull back a bit and begin noticing. Notice the body, notice the breath. Settle down into your sitting bones and lengthen the spine up through the crown of the head. Relax the eyes, the chest, let the elbows drop toward the earth. Bring your attention to the breath and really feel it, experience it. Notice where the mind travels. Be honest and begin where you are. Use what you have at that moment.

This week, join me for meditation. Set aside a little bit of time, 5 minutes, 10 minutes or twenty. Sit for a bit and see what happens. Next week, I’ll share some favorite techniques and specifics for working with the rajasic and tamasic mind-states. We’ll play in the toy-box of meditation and see if we can find some helpful suggestions to common issues surrounding the practice.

In the meantime, let me know where you are. Do you have a meditation practice? If so, do see the mind-states at work? What works for you, and what doesn’t?

Are you new to meditation practice? What questions do you have?

And by all means, feel free to over-share your embarrassing string of thoughts just as I’ve done…..

The Greensufi – my attempts at 5am meditation.