I have passed through many different types of meditation styles over my 20+ years as a meditation practitioner. From simple breath meditation to mantra based lineages like Transcendental Meditation and a Vedic Lineage to Zen Buddhism and so many others. They all had one thing in common for me: not a single one stuck with me no matter how hard I tried.
Breath meditation was useful to help with my anxiety but I never kept up with it and it just seemed to put a lid on the simmering pot of my emotions. Transcendental Meditation made me feel like something was missing about me that I needed to reclaim in order to meditate well. My Zen Buddhist teacher used to prod us with a long wooden pole if we didn’t sit up board straight which always felt strange. Why couldn’t I be physically comfortable and meditating? There was something useful and interesting about each of these many methodologies I passed through – no doubt – but for some reason I just could not connect with them as a regular ongoing practice for very long.
Then in 2008-ish when I suffered a pretty massive blow to my head and ensuing brain injury, I was re-introduced to the practice of yoga nidra – a supine form of guided visualization and meditation. I had first learned yoga nidra from a couple of Rod Stryker courses I had taken over the years as a yoga teacher. I had enjoyed them, but like every other meditation style they somehow fell to the wayside as a second thought. I was having difficulty focusing with my head injury and difficulty sitting/standing/moving, so I decided to give the yoga nidra recordings another chance.
Something amazing happened: my symptoms from the head injury started getting better – rapidly and, as my neurologist said, “for no apparent reason.” After all, what I had added was simply a short 30 minute nap to my day where I fell asleep to some lovely words.
I was so curious that I began to research this methodology called broadly “yoga nidra.” I came across a wealth of studies, information and recordings from a man named Richard Miller – the founder of the Integrative Restoration Institute. As I began to use his recordings of iRest Yoga Nidra (as he calls it) my healing accelerated. Even more interesting to me was that I wanted to practice with his recordings every day. I felt a sense of wholeness in my own Self that not even a decades long yoga habit had brought forth.
I decided to go and take some classes at a Yoga Journal conference with Richard and to pick his brain about my experience. His sessions were nothing short of remarkable and I learned more in a couple days with him that I had in years of meditation. He spoke to my science side and my spirit side equally. He was able to describe to me quite clearly and scientifically what was happening at the level of my brain during iRest Yoga Nidra and how it helped people like me (and many others) to heal. Yet he could also talk to me about philosophical underpinnings and histories of yoga and meditation just as easily.
Flash forward to 2014 and I had become fully immersed in my daily iRest Yoga Nidra practice and further study. I pursued Level 1 and Level 2 trainings with Richard Miller, and intensive mentoring and study under the iRest Yoga Nidra Teacher Training Certification Program (which I hope to finish in March!). There are many things I will share with you about this transforming methodology over time, but just one today. That one thing: you don’t need to add or subtract anything from yourself to meditate. There is nothing to change. Rather there are 4 simple steps you already have that you can use anywhere, anytime to thread meditation into the fabric of your everyday life and Being.
What are these 4 steps? As I said, you already use them regularly with your attention in other situations – perhaps not all at once. They are simply to meet, greet, welcome and be aware of any and all messengers that arrive to you. A messenger can be a thought, a feeling, a sensation, a movement, a stillness, an action, a belief, a story, a memory…I could go on forever – messengers are the fabric of every fluctuating circumstance of Being alive.
For the sake of this blog, I’ll use one of my favorite examples to showcase these steps – coming across a dog – to help you learn how to use these tools yourself in your own life situations.
Imagine you are walking down a street. You see before you that a dog is coming. As you recognize and sense “that is a dog” you have met the dog. Meeting is a step all about noting the presence of something in your open senses – in this example your eyes are the senses that meet the dog. Meeting is a step of recognition that a messenger has arrived.
To greet the dog you must walk towards it. The step of greeting means moving in the direction of whatever messenger has arrived. If you were to cross the street after seeing the dog, or walk around the animal, or ignore it after seeing, you would be skipping the greet step. You would be avoiding, denying or changing what is. When you greet a messenger you give it a powerful signal – it’s ok to be here. This normalizes the presence – the existence – of a messenger and helps to desensitize you to it in a useful way – a way that promotes inquiry. I’m getting ahead of myself!
To welcome the dog you reach out towards it – maybe let it sniff your hand or allow you to scratch its ears. Perhaps you converse with the owner and inquire or learn more about the dog while still paying attention to the animal. Perhaps the dog starts to act up and jump around or play with your pant leg. When you use the step of welcoming you remain in a witnessing presence with the changing movements of your messenger rather than slamming the door of attention shut as soon as something unexpected happens. You might ask why the dog is so excited about your pant leg. Welcoming brings you resilient responsiveness to whatever is before you and stokes your curiosity and inquiry into why messengers are arriving. Why this dog, here, today?
4. Be Aware
Awareness is a vast, timeless, formless presence out of which everything changing is arriving, existing and moving back into. Being Aware is recognizing not only the subtler details of your messenger – what kind of dog did you meet/greet/welcome – but then also recognizing that this is one dog in an infinite number of possible dogs you could have met. Why did a Labrador arrive instead of a Greyhound? And as you meet, greet and welcome the dog you realize that all of your changing experience with this animal is unfolding against a backdrop of unchanging Awareness. In Being Awareness, there is nothing to do. There is simply the presence of experience unfolding before you related to this dog – this messenger – and perhaps a sense of timelessness while experiencing everything related to this creature.
I have found that nowadays my meditation practice is with me everywhere and all the time. I recognize myself meeting, greeting, welcoming and Being Aware of my daily thoughts, actions, emotions and body sensations. The result: I feel more connected with my own life and more peaceful. These 4 simple ways of directing my attention help me to respond differently to messengers that come my way. An emotion that I used to bottle up now becomes grounds for exploration. A sensation I used to dread now becomes fuel for understanding myself more clearly. Thoughts I believed I had to “quiet” in order to meditate successfully have become treasured friends who are essential to my wholeness and movements out of a great everything. Every messenger arrives for a reason and these 4 steps open you to the possibility of learning why a messenger is coming you way – what they have to reveal to you and how that threads into your life and into a vastness of everything.
I hope that these 4 steps can help you to also find new ways to feel everything that arrives in your attention as important and as a part of you – even (maybe especially) the challenging parts. Whenever we say internally or externally, “only this, not that,” we end up in a state of separation and suffering. Why not get curious instead about your whole Self? Meditation can be a part of your everyday life – nothing special needed. Happy meeting, greeting, welcoming and Being Aware!
I am just getting back into my life here in Chicago – my home life and my teaching life – after a really intense but really enjoyable 10 day advanced silent meditation retreat with Richard Miller and Stephanie Lopez at Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, California. There are so many gems of wisdom and experience that I want to share about this retreat with you. To do so all at once would be overwhelming – for both of us!!
To give you an idea of what this retreat was like, I think you should know about our general schedule. Our daily sessions began with an hour of chanting, pranayama and meditation in the early morning. Then we had a mid-morning 4 hour practice of seated meditation, bodysensing and a full length yoga nidra meditation. There was an afternoon break to digest our lunch and then a later afternoon 3 hour session of more seated meditation, co-meditation (meditation with a partner), walking and nature meditations, and some lecture periods. Surprise surprise I am sure – our evening sessions were 2 hours of seated meditation and sometimes more chanting, lecture, sky gazing meditations or Q&A periods. It was a lot of information and personal inquiry. We covered so many different types of meditation exercises that layered on the lessons of the day before.
Our silence was with the following agreements: no talking to one another at any time (this meant no whispering or gesturing or note writing – all creative ways to “talk” without actually speaking), no talking on cell phones (no cell phones period), no email or computer use, no numbing out with watching videos or reading fiction (we were allowed to read some of the texts that address the types of meditation we were doing), and in general we were to proceed about the retreat center with a quietness to our movements that belied our conscious awareness at all we were passing through in each moment. We were allowed at designated times to ask questions of our two teachers. We could also leave questions and notes in folders for our teachers and set up times to talk with them one on one when particularly serious things arose – and they did and I needed to!
I found myself feeling extremely creative, awake and clear during this retreat. I did not sleep very much and yet I never felt tired. My appetite and cravings completely changed and I ate a fraction of what I normally do at home. I wrote multiple blogs, almost an entire journal worth of notes and reflections, a bunch of poems and a quarter of a book I am working on – in 10 days time. I dug up some repressed emotional experiences and worked with them in the meditation setting head on. I welcomed, met and greeted all the thoughts I had not been thinking, all the emotions I had not been feeling and all the energy I had not been moving in my daily life back home. It was a tremendously therapeutic experience – so much so that I am sure to be unpacking the insights for many months to come…until I go back next year for more!
There was so much insightful learning sandwiched into every single meditation, yoga nidra and lecture session that I was almost a bit overcome with how to describe it to anyone or even take its wisdom with me into life. Being back at home I took my first weekend in Chicago to distill 5 simple practices that were really important tools from these 10 days. I wrote them down for myself and now I want to share them with you. I think these are 5 ways that ANYONE can bring the benefits of silence, meditation and quiet awareness into everyday life.
1. Take at least one meal per day where you don’t talk, email, multi-task, watch anything or communicate in any way. Uplevel by doing this in the presence of other humans. Eating in silence at first feels quite strange because the action of eating food is typically such a communal and social affair. Once you take those aspects out of eating you are left with two things: yourself and food. When it’s only you and your food you start to realize whether you eat fast or slow, do you taste your food, what do different foods feel like when you chew and swallow, how does your belly really feel after you eat certain things (especially interesting for “healthy foods” that are eating habits you might have inherited that don’t actually work for you), and do you feel distracted or agitated without the commotion of talking and sharing space with other humans socially. I’d love to hear what you learn from this one!
2. At least once per day significantly slow down the way you walk and take in all of your surroundings in detail. Without even realizing it many of us “walk” through our days at a rapid pace. We never feel the ground beneath us in its many forms. What does concrete versus grass versus asphalt versus sand versus gravel feel like? We may not pay attention to how different a bus, car and airplane feel to our bodies and minds. It is so easy in the fast pace of our modern daily life to not even see the surroundings. By the end of the 10 days at Santa Sabina I could tell you in detail where all the different trees, bushes and flower varieties were – and the gardens are extensive. We really took the time to absorb ourselves in our surroundings. I also knew the patterns of the sky and the changing levels of light as each day passed. When you slow down one of your walking or moving routes each day, you’ll start to not only see amazing things but feel a different state of mind or mood in relationship to those things.
3. Give longer periods of “free time” for contemplative practices and Being. In a culture that praises productivity and busyness it is rare to find people who just “hang out.” Without this crucial free time, humans are completely stressed out and fried mentally, physically and emotionally. We actually lose our creativity in direct proportion to our busyness. Making time for “doing nothing” and being everything is one of the most important takeaways I got from my silent retreat. Maybe you sit in silent meditation or feel some yoga poses pass through without a goal or sequence in mind. Perhaps you write free-form following the stream of your consciousness or lie down and take a nap. I dare you to pick an inanimate object and just stare at it for 30 minutes. Try any of these and let me know what happens. I think you might be surprised what opens up when you start to tune in to yourself rather than your “doing.”
4. Turn the technology off. Our technological advances are amazing and incredibly useful, but in so many ways they have overtaken our lives. How would you feel if you left your cell phone in a locked drawer for 10 days? How about 1 day? What if you didn’t check any of your social media for a week? Can you go a day without tv or miss an entire season of Game of Thrones? How long could you refrain from checking the news? I couldn’t believe how much energy and time was freed up to me through the simple actions that were required of me in this capacity at the retreat – no cell phones, no email, no television, no news and no internet. I lost nothing and gained an incredible amount. I also felt better about myself not looking at social media at all. I can decide what news sources I look at and how frequently, and still be highly educated about what is going on in the world. Can we check out entirely? No. Can we limit our time on these devices and set regular office hours for screen time and news time? Yes! And to great personal satisfaction and eventually with deep relaxation.
5. Be flexible with what practices you choose to do each day to sustain yourself in a state of Being and Awareness. I loved the moment when Richard Miller said something along the line of “if you are meditating every day and sitting really long, that’s not it.” What he meant was that we fixate and latch onto external practices to “give” us something when really the entire purpose of meditation is simply to remember our natural state of Being out of the essential nature of everything. This fixation on external practices turns into a vicious cycle that can make us quite rigid. Instead he offered up the insight of feeling each day what actually helps us to stay connected to a state of Being, Oneness and Awareness. Sometimes that is walking the dog, sometimes that is sitting on your meditation cushion for an hour and sometimes that is eating ice-cream watching a sunset.
It can be incredibly uncomfortable to be silent and more aware. It means you will come face to face with whatever may be lurking underneath your physical, mental, emotional and energetic surfaces. It often feels like a case of the “Princess and the Pea” – we didn’t realize things were bothering us so much until we started paying attention and then suddenly every little thing becomes a bit of a bother for a while until there is a natural quieting down. Isn’t it so much more rewarding to welcome all these stirrings and let them come up instead of supressing them or numbing out? I think so! I know so! I hope you will take some time each day to try out these 5 simple ways you can experience some of the insights I found in my time in silence. Let me know how it goes. I’ll share more insights and practices from this retreat experience in the weeks to come to keep you exploring.