I cannot remember the exact moment when I first tried to meditate. I do remember that, that time in my life was one of the darkest: I had closed my company, and found out that I had very early breast cancer and had just had it surgically removed, successfully. Even getting out of bed was an effort because just having to breath in itself seemed very depressing.
When I look back on that time in my life, now, I see things very clearly; that is one of the gifts of meditation: it lends a clarity of vision so that one is able to see repeating patterns in one’s current lifetime. Being able to do this gives us the gift of learning and realisation. The ability to see the destructive patterns we need to break, or to finally discern the lesson we need to learn from the life cycles we seem to keep repeating, negative or positive.
For as long as I can remember, I was always attracted to the metaphysical, to subtle energies: Even as I child (I was a voracious reader) I had so many books on yoga, crystals, aromatherapy, meditation, Eastern philosophies. But the world of Maya (Cosmic illusion, the mind that makes mistakes in perception) always pulled me away from continuing my search, and threw me back into the distractions of the finite world.
The Dark Ages
At my lowest point, curled up in my bed and feeling utterly sorry for myself, all the thoughts I always had in the back of my mind all these years, began to whisper to me once more: Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? What is the point of my existence? There has to be something more to all this. I had to do more than just exist in this life. Who am I beyond this body, beyond my roles as mother, wife, woman, sister, and daughter?
So I began once more, in total earnest, humility and with a tinge of desperation, my search for the answers to these questions. I went deeper into my yoga practise, and after much searching, found a sincere and authentic yoga teacher, a guru of sorts who came to teach me 4 days a week. And then I came home to the wonderful experience of meditation.
During those lessons, we seemed to do more meditation than physical asana practise. I used to think yoga was just movement and poses. This was my first time to realise that yoga IS meditation, that in the end, it is ALL ABOUT THE BREATH. For me now, yoga is nothing without meditation, whether it is a still meditation or a moving meditation. In the end, Meditation, within the yoga philosophy and outside of it, is about calming the mind down, dropping the mind, letting go of the limitations, definitions and distractions that our mind engulfs us in, so that maybe, for one brilliant moment, we are able to glimpse once more our infiniteness, our Divine nature, that which makes us all connected and ONE. It is only when we are able to release the defining, limiting nature of the mind that we may be able to begin to realise WHO WE REALLY ARE, beyond the roles that we play in our lives—mother, father, manager, child, girlfriend, boyfriend…all of it.
Calming the Mind
So how do we calm the mind down? This is perhaps the simplest thing and yet, the most difficult task to do. Try to close your eyes and not think any thoughts for 30 seconds and you will realise what a challenge this is. The function of the mind is to think thoughts, to define, to set limits: that flower is red, that meal looks delicious, I am tired, today it is hot…we are forever naming and defining and explaining every aspect of our lives. This is what the mind likes to do. And in this amped up world of ever engulfing digital encroachments-phones, tablets, computers, television et al- we are forever surrounded by a barrage of thought producing waves. In its extreme, this barrage can be stress-inducing and illness-producing. The ills of multi-tasking can produce DIS-ease because we are never AT EASE. We no longer remember how to be calm, quiet and still, unless we are asleep and unconscious. We fill every available space in our minds with STUFF.
We need to understand that which we would like to master. In Yoga, Vedanta and Buddhist philosophies, much study has been given into the nature of the mind, because in understanding the mind, one can begin to learn how to control it. There are many famous analogies-that the mind is like a horse that needs to be controlled, a monkey that likes to jump around, a mind that fools us into thinking a rope to be a coiled snake, all in the effort to unlock the secret of dropping the mind in order to attain enlightenment, bliss, Samadhi, Nirvana. The names are many but the Truth is one. As the great yogi and sage Swami Sivananda said: the Paths are many, but the TRUTH is one.
What I have learned in my daily efforts at meditation, is that the mind likes to complicate a very simple act-Meditation. I vex myself with questions like: “Am I doing it right, what am I doing wrong, this is so hard, I am so bad at this, I am hopeless, ok I give up.” More or less that is the genesis of a failed meditation effort. The very act of asking these questions already dooms us to failure in our meditation practise. The first step is to have no expectation. To be humble enough to realise that we will fail many times in our meditation efforts, but to love ourselves enough to keep going and trying, even after we entertained that thought or any the usual distracting thoughts like “I wish I was done meditating because I am hungry…” the very thought of realising that we have thought a thought, oftentimes makes us so disappointed that we give up the effort of meditation in that very instant. But do not lose hope and do not lose focus. Come back to the meditative calm. The mind is just trying to do what it was meant to do- think. So do not despair and just try again. This is why it is called a meditation Practise and not a meditation Perfection.
The Breath. Meditation. Yoga
Which brings us to the breath. The breath, for me, is the anchor of everything. It is the foundation of all meditation and moving forward, the basis for all yoga practises. In Raja yoga, the 8 Limbs of Yoga (Astanga) teaches us that yoga asana comes before breath control (pranayama) and that breath is the bridge between the body and the mind. So in this way, meditation and yoga are ONE. Movement that is done simply for the sake of exercise and for the purpose of moving a muscle, or achieving an intricate pose, or in order to serve some purpose other than going deeper within in order to free ourselves of our structures, that has as its goal something other than finding and learning more about ourselves and who really are in order to realise our TRUTH, any other purpose aside from this, may not be yoga. This is why as yoga teacher Bryan Kest says, if yoga were simply about getting into contortions, then the Cirque du Soleil acrobats would be the best yogis in the world.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with doing yoga for health and exercise, in fact in my humble opinion, I would be very thankful for every person that does yoga to make their body healthy, as opposed to some sort of empty aerobic exercise (with apologies to all exercise aficionados out there). I just believe that at some point in time, whether in this lifetime or next, a person’s yoga practise hopefully leads them to a yearning for going deeper within themselves. That their yoga begins to awaken an awareness of themselves and the world within them and the world around them. That their yoga begins to make them search for the answer to the question: “Who am I”.
Because meditation and yoga begin with the breath, I believe that they are one and meditation completes yoga. Yoga asana practise is a form of moving meditation, I believe it is especially effective for those with a very active mind, with a disposition makes it difficult for them to sit quietly and calm the mind down, without allowing distracting thoughts to take over. I have seen it to be effective for my students that have stressful, high-powered jobs that require them to use their minds on many different tracks at the same time. High-level managers, creative types, people who are excellent multi-taskers, often find it difficult to just sit in meditation and quiet the mind down. So for them, yoga asana practise, particularly those that flow from one pose to another, such as vinyasa flow, which is a yoga practise wherein asana poses are linked and held together by the breath, are extremely effective in allowing them to finally calm the mind and begin to come into what we call a moment by moment focus and concentration. A more mindful quality of life and mind. Through constant movement and rhythmic breath, they are able to stop thinking and simply BE in yoga.
The Quality with Which You Imbue Everything You Do
Breath. Meditation. Yoga Asana. All these can simply be physical activities. What transforms these actions into the next realm is the quality with which you DO them. The quality of your breath, your mind, your movement. The quality that you imbue these activities with. It is hard to define this quality because I believe that because we are all different and unique, what we bring into these activities is special and specific to each of us. We bring what WE NEED and what is BEST in each of us, into the expressions and intentions of these activities. And above all we bring an awareness and mindfulness into the activity. And the actions are thus elevated to a level that connects us with our real selves and with everyone around us, precisely because we become more aware. Hopefully, with practise, the quality that we bring to our breath, our meditation, our yoga, begins to seep into our daily lives off the meditation pillow and off the mat. And we can become better mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children, friends, workers-whatever it is we endeavour to be in this lifetime.
I’ll never forget my visit to Dharamsala; I encountered this Tibetan shopkeeper. She was helping me purchase some organic Tibetan medicines at the Tibetan Medicine Clinic. The whole time she was helping me, she had her mala beads in one hand and she kept chanting very quietly under her breath as she served me, and moving her beads in her hand. I asked her if she was meditating as she did her work and she smiled and said yes. She never wasted a single moment in the pursuit of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Of course it does not need to be like her; simply imbuing our actions with that quality of mindfulness and awareness, without any expectation of what the result will be. To simply be in the moment, moment by moment. Even this can make our daily life into a meditation. If you sweep the floor, do even that without any expectation of reward and result. Simply be in the moment of the action, be mindful of every breath, every movement.
Being “In the Moment”
I used to think, “what is the whole big deal about this mindfulness thing? What’s the big deal about being IN THE MOMENT”? One day I listened to a few words by yoga teacher Stephanie Snyder and it made me understand the value of being in the moment. When we are in the moment, and living Mindfully, we are more connected to ourselves and who we truly are, as we are able to remove all the distractions that stop us from simply being able to see who we really are and what we really want. And from that place and space of being in the moment at every moment, we are able to make better decisions in our lives, we are able to act in accordance with what it is we truly desire and we begin to live our lives with AWARENESS, not only for ourselves, but for all other sentient beings. Our actions become more REAL.
Keeping it Simple
After a few years of meditation practise, and travelling around to study under meditation masters and trying to find “THE technique” I realise now that I was complicating everything; meditation is really simple and I was making it complex. The mind likes to complicate. The more you think about it, the less you are successful in meditation. Because it has nothing to do with the mind and everything to do with just BEING. I found that when I let go of any expectations I had of myself in meditation, then I was free to just let go and BE. I stopped being worried of “succeeding” in meditation, I let go of the desire to be “good at it” and I let go of the fear of making mistakes. All these will stop a person from being able to simply BE in meditation. I also stopped expecting it to be fun and wonderful and totally successful at all time. Sometimes, it’s hard to meditate-there are days when out of 30 minutes of sitting in meditation, perhaps I have only 2 minutes of calm, quiet, thoughtless mind. There are days when at every turn, my mind is jumping all over the place. As my wise Buddhist French friend Xavier likes to say, “the next thing you know, you are in Paris”, referring to the mind’s predilection to go from one thought to the next- the simple thought of “what am I going to eat for lunch?” ends up with me in Paris, having a coffee on the Champs Elysee…
But I learned to be ok with that, to not beat myself up for “not succeeding” in meditation today and still looking forward to my next session. I began to let go of expectations. Most importantly, I began to be kinder to myself, to give myself time even if it meant not doing it “right” in the conventional sense of the word. I put “right” in quotation marks because I believe there is no wrong or right in meditation. Everything is valid and has a place on the journey. I also like to think of meditation as flossing for the mind. A cleansing of the mind. We clean all other physical parts of our body daily, why not the mind? Sometimes we don’t enjoy brushing our teeth, it can be a drag, but we do it because we know it is good for us. I often think meditation can be like this at times. Daily practise to keep away the cavities of the soul.
The Practical Side
On a practical level, I think it is important to set aside a specific place and time for meditation everyday. Nothing fancy, just a place where you can be by yourself and quiet, uninterrupted. It is important that this place is well ventilated and that you can position yourself comfortably when meditating. Sitting in a cross-legged position (siddhasan or sukhasan) with hips elevated higher than your knees and curve of the lower spine is recommended, however I do acknowledge that for many people this is not comfortable nor physically possible. Be comfortable so that your mind does not keep reminding you that you are in pain and thus interrupting your effort.
The space should be used only for meditation but if that is not possible, then somewhere quiet and away from hustle & bustle in your home. Face North or East during meditation since these are the directions with the most auspicious vibrations. Try to meditate at the same time everyday, in the same place. It is like grooving any habit, so that it makes it easier to meditate the more you practise. It is just like sleeping. If you sleep at 10 pm at night, once you shut the lights, lay on your bed, put on the sheets with your head on the pillow, your body and mind know intuitively that it is time to sleep. It is the same with meditation, you being to teach your being that “I am here now, it is time to meditate”. Once you come to your meditation position, close your eyes and begin to first relax the body, (always keeping the spine straight)- it is like a softening of the body in expectation of the practise. Then focus on the breath. I call it “coming home” to your breath. Every day we may get lost on our way to the breath and in meditation, we calm the mind down again and try to find our way back home to our breath. The breath is our anchor, our centre, our foundation. We focus on the feeling of the breath entering and leaving our nose. This point of focus helps us to keep the mind calm. Whenever a thought enters the mind, we acknowledge the single thought and rather than fighting it, denying it or engaging in it, we let it go from our “hands” and come back to an inhale. Just like that; our breath becomes our friend. Thought, acknowledge the thought, release the thought, till hopefully it becomes simply inhale and exhale…Swamiji says that meditation feels like oil flowing, being poured continuously…
Santosha and Ananda
I remember one of my first days of yoga teacher training when they simply threw us headfirst into meditation, teaching us basics then letting us go and do it (and I recall feeling like, are you kidding, that’s it, I’m just supposed to go meditate? Just jump headfirst into the meditation pool when I can’t even swim? Am I doing it right? What am I doing wrong? Panic panic panic- I laugh now when I realise the folly of my thoughts way back then, complicating meditation). When Swamiji asked if anyone had any questions, I raised my hand and asked her: “How do we know if our meditation is successful?” I can remember her face even now, she had this tiny smile and I can imagine her thinking “Not another one of those fools who wants to know if it is successful or not and totally missing the point”; she looked at me with her piercing eyes and said, “You will not know; but one day you will wake up and realise that you are happy.” At that time, her answer sort of deflated me because my mind was still expecting signs of success measured by traditional means, which is not how meditation or yoga can be measured, because it is not about success. Now, years later, I think I can begin to glimpse what Swamiji was talking about. I don’t THINK I am happy. I go through my life, with the same trials and celebrations as everyone. I try to let go of expectations. I try to remember that the road is the goal, that the journey is the lesson and that the Destination is not the prize. I try to be keep my ego in check, to be humble and I try to be compassionate for the well being of others and not myself. And many times I fail miserably. But I also remember never to give up on myself and to keep trying. And last night I saw a close friend for the first time in 15 years. And she said. “Oh my goodness you have changed. You seem so calm and so happy.”
I was honestly gobsmacked by her reaction to seeing me again after all these years. I don’t think I have changed. I don’t realise that I am happier. But I think that as the quality of my life has become changed by my practise in meditation and yoga, in some quiet, unnoticeable way, Happiness, calm and contentment (Ananda – bliss, happiness, Santosha-contentment, in Sanskrit) have become the qualities that sing thru my daily life. It comes when you least expect it. Because it doesn’t happen. It just IS.
photo credits: Yoga and meditation photos by master lensman Fred Wissink http://www.fredwissink.com