“So how do you do mindfulness? It is very simple and also very challenging. The practice of mindfulness requires only that whatever you do, you do with your whole being. You have to invest one hundred percent of yourself in doing even very simple things, like picking up a pen, opening a book, or lighting a stick of incense. As a novice monk, several times a day I had to light incense to offer on the altar of the meditation hall. I was taught to pick up the stick of incense with both hands, the left hand on top of the right hand, which picks up the stick of incense. A stick of incense is very light. Why do you have to use both hands? The idea is that you have to invest one hundred percent of yourself into this simple act of picking up an incense stick. When you strike the match and light the incense, or put the tip of the incense stick into the flame of a candle, you have to be with the act of lighting one hundred percent. This is the practice of mindfulness.” ~Thich Nath Hanh, The Art of Power
Please note that this post is longer than usual but I feel that the subject matter warrants it. Thank you for taking the time to read it.
For the umpteenth time, I’ve come home to sitting. I mean , I’ve returned to my meditation practice. In reality, I have a love/hate relationship with it. Of course, there are the proven health benefits, among them, lower stress and blood pressure levels, and it also has been found to treat depression as effectively as medication or talk therapy. Even as I prepare for my meditation session, I.e., pulling out my cushion, lighting candles and incense, deciding on music or no music and making the room as least distracting as possible, I always feel a tinge of excitement at the prospect of what is to come. As I take my seat and settle down, my back and neck elongates and my shoulders, usually high around my ears, relax back and down my back — all of this before beginning my real meditation practice. This is the easy part. The hard part and one that I say that I’ve come to hate (In all honesty, “hate” is much too harsh.), let’s just say that I am not ‘in like’ with this part.
First, I have to describe myself as, until my health forced me to stop, a hard-driving woman. I’d had children at a much too young age and was determined not to become what was the common fate of a girl who’d gotten pregnant and married at a young age — her life was over. I rode myself, and I mean relentlessly. Although I worked full-time for a Houston oil and exploration company, I spent my night’s attending college full-time, even during the Summer session. Lest not forget that I had three children who participated in childhood activities like soccer, basketball, Brownies, Girl Scouts and all the rest. Routinely, I could be found on the sidelines of one of my children’s games, books in tow, all the while cheering at the proper time. I never slowed down and once I’d graduated from undergrad, law school was the next hurdle in my path. I made it through law school, graduated, took the bar exam, passed the bar and was a licensed attorney by November 1991.
I immediately became a litigation attorney, so, unlike the sedate office job, I had a very active defense practice. I represented the State of Texas throughout the state and I loved my job. I strived on the fast pace, constant deadlines and the large caseload of a government attorney. I travelled constantly and was never in one place for too long. It suited one who was never comfortable relaxing and really did not know how.
Now, to the part that I hate. For a long time, I was totally uninterested in a meditation practice, I thought, “I can’t possibly be still and quiet for that long. At a particularly stressful time, I finally relented and gave it a try. It was sheer torture. After about a minute, I couldn’t breathe and the only thing on my mind was getting the hell out of that room with the walls appearing to be closing in on me. Let’s just say that my introduction to meditation was far from auspicious. I decided that I’d given it a try, it wasn’t for me, and I had no intention of returning.
At around the same time, I’d begun yoga classes and after several false starts, I found a teacher and hatha yoga class that appealed to me and I was hooked. At first, my type A personality reared its’ ugly head and threatened to ruin everything but I stuck with it and it became an antidote to my ‘always on the go’ personality. I grew to crave it for its’ unhurried nature. As I attended more and more classes, I found that my favorite part of the practice was savasana (a.k.a., Corpse pose). The pose required us to lie down, silently allowing the practice to integrate into our bodies. At first, I became anxious sitting with myself that quietly for 5-10 minutes and after a minute I was ready for the torture to end. This time, I stuck with it. Somewhere along the way, I came to yearn the peace and stillness that the pose brought me. I wanted more of it. This search led me back to my meditation practice.
At first, I’d sit and after a minute, I decided that I couldn’t do it and I’d stop. In the meantime, I began to research and read about meditation. What I learned is that “meditation” is not easily defined and one text to the next attaches different ideologies to meditation. Moreover, there are scores of meditation methods, including, but not limited to, insight meditation, walking meditation, laughing meditation, mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation and on and on. As I mentioned earlier, based on past research, as well as ongoing research, there is evidence that there are health benefits to a consistent meditation practice.
In my case, I sought something to help me achieve stillness and relaxation, which was still foreign most of the time. I also looked to it as a way to quiet the non-stop chatter in my mind. In that state, it is almost impossible to focus on any one thing because the mind moves, without pause, from one thought to another. It is exhausting. With that in mind, I choose mindfulness or shamatha meditation, because of its’ intent “to achieve a mind that is stable and calm,” a state that I longed to possess, and one diametrically opposed to the Type A nature of my personality. Besides, the process was easy.
So, I began sitting, at first for brief periods of time and then for longer periods. For me, there is no doubt that it is beneficial to me. This is what works for me. Believe me when I say that I am not claiming to be a meditation guru or expert, because I find that laughable. I consider myself a beginner and the more that I sit, the more that I feel I have to learn. I simply offer to you, what has worked for me. You may find that this method does not work for you, but I urge you to do your own research to find a style that does.
This is my meditation routine:
- Create a ritual that is a signal to your body and mind that it is time for meditation. In my case, I put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on my door, or tell anyone in the house that I am about to meditate. As of late, I’ve chosen a specific time within which to meditate. I find the scent of incense or an essential oil blend pleasing to me as it aids in achieving that “meditation” state of mind. Also, there is the question of music or no music. To some, music is an anathema or distraction to a true meditation session, but for me, I find that it can add to the overall environment. So, I play it by ear, sometimes, I meditate with music and at other times, I use no music. It is a personal preference that only you can choose. Try it with and without and so which you prefer.
- Find a quiet place to sit. In my experience, this is of utmost importance because your goal is to create an environment where you can meditate with the least amount of distraction. Your focus should be on your meditation and not the football game on the television in the next room, or the sound of the dishes in the kitchen.
- Sit as comfortably as possible, either on the floor or on a chair. Whichever you choose, find a comfortable seated position. Again, your focus should be on your meditation and not the pain in your knee, thigh, foot, butt, or what have you. If you experience pain, change positions. Perhaps, you usually meditate on the floor, but if you cannot find a comfortable seat, try sitting on a chair. Your goal is to minimize any distractions that may lead to discomfort so that you can stay still while meditating.
- Sit with your pelvis tilted slightly forward, your spine straight and tall, shoulders, down and back, and the head rests comfortably on the top of the spine. Once again, be mindful of comfort and sitting in any way that distracts you from your session.
- Determine how long you wish to sit and set a timer. You don’t want to be ‘clock watching’ during your meditation. I use a neat application called “Insight Timer” on my iPhone for that purpose. It is a cool app with a timer that allows you to choose from a variety of bell tones to start and end your meditation. You can also set it to sound at certain intervals during your meditation. (I find that distracting.) The truly cool aspect of the app is that it allows you to see how many other people from around the world are meditating along with you, and to friend fellow meditators. In addition, it keeps a record of your meditation activity. so that you don’t need to.
- Open or close your eyes, it’s your preference. I close mine, but if you choose to keep them open, the goal is not to look at anything in particular. Your gaze should be soft and unfocused and it is recommended that it be on a spot a couple of feet in front of you. Again, it is simply a place upon which to rest your eyes.
- Choose hand placement. A mudra is a symbolic hand gesture in Hindu or Buddhist traditions. There are various mudras and if it interests you, read this article. Personally, I prefer keeping it simple so I use the “chin mudra” wherein my palms are facing up, with my fingers out stretched, and my thumb and fore finger touch creating an “O.” Then, I rest my hands on my thighs or knees. Again, it is your preference and the use of certain mudras create varying energetic links.
- Take a few long, deep cleansing breaths. As you breathe, allow the stress and tension to drain away as you become more and more relaxed.
- Allow your breath to return to normal and focus your attention on your breath as it moves in and out. When I am really wound up, I think “ease” on the in breath and “dis-ease” on the out breath. In my mind, I am breathing in ‘ease,” and breathing out, ‘dis-ease.’ The focus on the breath is a crucial aspect of the meditation, because, in spite of your best intentions, your mind will wander. We all do it. Our heads are filled with a plethora of thoughts and ideas and when, not if, your mind takes a detour away from the breath, you use the breath to bring your attention right back — again and again. I like the analogy of a clear blue sky with puffs of white clouds rushing across it. The blue sky is our mind, and the clouds are our thoughts. The key is to allow our thoughts to rush by without attaching to them. For example, you think, “I have to go to the grocery store.” Acknowledge the thought and let it float on by. The problem arises when you grasp upon the thought and think, “Oh yeah, we need milk, eggs, butter, etcetera.” When this happens, do not beat yourself up and give up. Use the breath to ‘begin again.’ When you realize what you are doing, calmly bring your attention back to the breath and ‘begin again.’ ‘Begin again’ as many times as it is necessary. There are times when my entire meditation is ‘begin again.’ Stay with it and don’t give up. The longer that you meditate and concentrate on your breath, the mind will become quieter and calmer.
- Timer dings and you’ve completed your session feeling a bit calmer and more grounded.
And so, I sit because it soothes my savage mind, it grounds me, it eases my stress and pain level, brings peace and clarity and because it makes me feel better overall. I don’t expect that this one post will make everyone jump on the meditation band wagon. Like everything, it comes to us when we are ready. However, I would be elated if this post, encourages just one person to consider or begin meditating. There are many ways to meditate and my way, may not be your path toward meditation. I only hope that I’ve led you to consider it as part of your journey. I promise you that it is worth it, and should I stop again, I know that I will always ‘begin again.’
If you meditate already, please share what works for you. Do you have any tips for those of us who are not as far along the meditation path? How do you remain committed to your meditation practice? I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Thanks for reading.
All Will Be Well. ~ St. Julian of Norwich
Even a simple letter demands that we put all power into it that we have, as if we were to carve its meaning in hard stone. It’s the moment, when, in silence, we are able to to connect to our soul. But we also can apply that to any act performed with commitment, humility and love.
~ Paulo Coelho
Today is a special day, not only is it my son-in-laws’ birthday and All Saint’s Day, but it is also the beginning of my Mindful Consumption Challenge. I read about the challenge on Eden’s blog here. Instead of regurgitating all the challenge details, I urge you to read about it there. At first, I brushed the mere idea of challenge aside. I thought, “I could never do that!” Why, because it is exactly what I need to do.
You see, every nook and cranny of my house is filled with the spoils of my shopping escapades. I complain that our house is not large enough but the truth is that I have too much stuff filling it. For instance, I have enough makeup to open a store, most of which, I cannot possibly use. Oh, and hair product hits and misses for my wild, kinky curly hair. I think that I’ve tried most hair products for my hair and I have half-used bottles to show it. Then, there are the books. I have books galore. at last count over 600. No, really, I am serious, and that does not include all the books that I have on my Kindle. My bedroom closets are overstuffed with clothing that still holds the price tag. Each year I do a yearly “stuff review” and although Goodwill gains many items, more likely than not, I always find justification for keeping stuff that I obviously don’t need. I have not even discussed my collection of purple pens, candles, essential oils or kitchen ware.
As I gave some thought to my spending habits, I realized that the seeds of my present actions, were planted long ago in my younger years. As a child, we never went without food to eat, clothes to wear, or a roof over our heads. Yet, we were raised by an amazing single Mom, doing all that she could to care for three, and later, four children. She worked hard for so little, and there was no getting around it, we were poor. We had no money for other than the necessities of life. At a young age, I vowed that when I grew up, things would be different. I would have money to satisfy my needs, as well as my wants. All these years, shopping has served as a rebuke to those long ago years when my ‘wants’ went unfilled due to a lack of money. Thoughtless shopping became the norm. After due consideration, I realize that it is time to change.
Today I begin a new journey–one toward mindfulness in my spending habits. Coincidentally, I discovered a relevant book that I’d bought long ago titled “To Buy or Not To Buy” by April Lane Benson, Ph.D. In it, the author states:
“Mindful shopping, the habit you want to develop, doesn’t mean the absence of feeling but rather the presence and engagement of your mind. You observe what you’re feeling and thinking, what your heart and head are saying. You pay attention to what your body and soul are saying as well. You notice how you’re responding to your environment. You remember what you are shopping for, and you stay on track. You remember how much you intended to spend, and you limit your purchases to what you can comfortably afford. You act on your agenda, unswayed by advertisers’ or saleperson’s agendas or tactics aimed at pulling you off course. Your purchasing decisions lock into the grander plan of who you are; they aren’t based on anyone else’s ideas or even your own fantasies of who you might become. Mindfulness helps you make decisions based on conscious choice rather than impulse.”
This is my choice and my goal. I’ll let you know how I am doing, and I’d appreciate your support.