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.
It’s really easy these days to wake up and feel some sort of despair. There is violence erupting all around the world. Hunger, starvation, illness, conflict, hatred, income inequality and political woes are rampant worldwide. Closer to home in Chicago we are not immune to the divisiveness and brutality of what has seemingly become daily life. And so when another day passes and two more mass shootings pile up on the news like last week or another terrorist attack happens like today, it is not inconceivable that I feel a bit hopeless.
Last week and then again today as the news updates flashed across my phone, I was thinking about a question I’ve asked myself and hundreds of other students over the the years, “What part of this can you do?” I’m usually talking about a complex or challenging yoga pose or emotional moment of practice, but the question could be used anywhere. It brings to the surface of awareness in a moment of overwhelm the reminder to seek out the pieces (however great or small) of an experience we can handle. This particular question has become one of my favorite over the years both internally and in my classes, and I find myself this evening reminding my own Spirit of its wisdom.
When I exited class last week, a couple of students were chatting in the locker room and I joined in. In no more than 10 minutes of chatting we covered all the hopeless things happening around the world: religious strife, conflict, war, violence, gun legislation, health care legislation concerns, political questions, international conflict, poverty, hunger, dissociation of human beings from each other and so much more. And we each said something so simple. One said: “Let’s each just be like that Tim McGraw song says, humble and kind.” A second said: “Let’s each continue to connect with one another and other people in person and bring others into that connection.” And a third of us said: “Let’s remember all that we CAN do in the face of what feels lost.”
We need these reminders: there are a myriad number of ways we can help, and it is good to start small with our own lives and communities. We need to ask ourselves each day, “What part of this can I do for the greater good?” What follows is a brief form of one part of a list of my own ideas that I have come up (actually since the election in November when I first thought about writing this blog) in a few areas of life in which I feel particularly passionate. They are my reminders and I hope they get your wheels thinking about what reminders you need in your own life. I encourage you to make your own lists! My values and priorities are not yours. What I find disconcerting these days may not be what you do. The key is to identify what you value and support it with your small daily actions – because that is really many parts of what you can do.
– Bring a re-usable mug and water bottle everywhere so as never to use a plastic bottle or disposable cup (Check out this infographic on why this is a good idea and a simple switch)
– Always have re-usable bags with you! I have them in my car and in every purse or backpack I carry. I make sure to use cloth bags for produce or to meticulously re-use plastic bags that I clean until they can’t be used anymore and need to be recycled. I do not pick up new plastic bags.
– Consider riding my bike or taking public transportation instead of driving when possible – limit mileage on my car (which is a hybrid and uses less gas and makes fewer emissions)
– Replace bulbs in the house with LED ones to limit consumption of power even further – be cognizant of turning off lights and appliances when not needed
– Take shorter and less frequent showers to conserve on water (we have low flow shower heads and water filters in the showers – all of our appliances are also Energy Star rated or higher)
– Research and select power sources that are 100% renewable energy for the delivery of home electricity
– Make purchases locally for as many goods as possible and support local businesses while also cutting down on shipping
– Purchase carbon offsets for EVERY flight I take this year and moving forward (these offsets can purchase endangered forest land, contribute to projects reducing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, and develop renewable energy projects around the world with a focus on dramatically reducing future carbon emissions – check out Terrapass for some info on this)
My list of causes and ideas is upwards of 12 pages long at this point, and I keep adding to it. I don’t want to put it all here and bore you because you need to go and make your own! Mine has tons of specific charities, articles and research to support what I most want to see in my world. It is an inspirational document. Why do I have these lists? Well every day that I feel hopeless about something (which is everyday!!) I turn to these lists and pick two things – just two things out of 12 pages – and I do them. Start small. Break things down. Do something – anything. Don’t let the cynic inside you or the cynics outside of you tell you your little something doesn’t matter. It does! What part of this can you do?
Hope is, by definition, the faith to meet the moment with belief that things will get better even when EVERY indication is to the opposite. We are, therefore, right now in the midst of a worldwide hope campaign. Every news story and daily event seems to tell us that all is lost, but we know in our hearts to have hope that we can make things better. One small action at a time. Start with a change in your day – something small. Then work your way up to something you can do on your block. Then work your way up to something you can do in your neighborhood. Move up to your city, state, region, country…the world is just around the corner. Start too big and this is overwhelming, but start small with what you honestly can do and change will happen. Humans have amazing capacity for destruction, greed, violence and hatred, but I also have the hope and knowledge that our equally powerful forces of love, compassion, creation and generosity can prevail. Will you join me in this mission?
I am an Auntie Allison to one beautiful little being in the world: my niece. She is the most incredible little human I’ve ever met. She plays, is creative, signs words, talks and has imagination. She laughs with her whole body (and sounds just like her Dad, my brother). She sees the world around her with curiosity and engagement. She pays attention – for better or worse – to absolutely everything that is happening around her. When I’m with her, I feel more present than at any other time. Perhaps this is how parents feel on the best of days.
Spending time with my niece last Fall when she was just learning how to walk was a stark reminder of how to be here now – in the present. She would pull herself up and wobble around on her little zebra walking cart or along a wall. She couldn’t yet let go of her support. But you saw in every single moment of her trying to pull herself up, in her simple steps – the fact that she was completely present just with that moment and nothing else. And if I was with her feeling that moment, I was so fully present as well. And time flew by. I had just a few days with her and it seemed like they were gone in the blink of an eye and suddenly I was back on the plane coming home.
This weekend I got to see her again for two long stretches of play time. She now runs around, talks, eats with silverware and closely watches everyone around her and imitates them. Hours become minutes when you are playing with her. This time around she was holding a teddy bear and pretend crying – then she would rock the bear and comfort him. She hears music wherever it is playing and dances to the beat. She tries to play every musical instrument she can find – or improvises one out of a table 🙂 It is amazing to be present to her learning emotions and more advanced movements, and expressing them through play. She saw her other cousins running and she went right after them. She saw how someone played with a wind-up race car and within moments she had mastered it herself. Through play she was completely present focused, albeit in different ways this time around. I was with her in each of those moments of play!
When we are in the moment of now it feels easier to delight and play. Time becomes timelessness and we merge with being awareness rather than doing something. I slept less in those few days last Fall than my regular schedule (my brother would drop my niece on my sleeping chest each morning when she woke up so I would wake up too), and yet I felt more rested than ever. This weekend I ran around a bit crazy driving here and there to make it to all the family functions, and yet I did not feel exhausted. There is something about being aware in the present moment that charges our human-being-ness like nothing else. I also felt a tremendous drive of creativity and insight upon coming back to my regular life.
In our current world that moves faster than ever before, it feels like we have very little time to “be here now.” Everyone I know is thinking about tomorrow, their 10 year plan, their life list and goals. I know that making plans and having dreams is such a great thing – I’ve written about it on this blog and I just taught a full weekend at Kripalu about moving from past through present into future Self with Forrest Yoga self-care practices. But I think sometimes we get so caught in our development and evolution that we forget to be here now and enjoy the simple moments – like walking our niece with her little shopping cart toy.
There’s nothing radical about this blog post. You’ve probably heard it a million times that being present is a gift. Heck if you were in class last week and over the weekend with me, we had the intention of being clear and present about eight different ways (and as one of your pointed out, with a lot of variations of splits thrown in). Perhaps you have felt the same present focus around a child or activity in your life that does bring you more fully into the moment. Take this as just a gentle reminder to get to those children, activities or triggers that bring you into your present moments more often. Use each one as a fuel for your soulfulness and your Being. As our news and world events these days keep reminding us, our time here is precious and unpredictable. May you delight in every moment. I’m not ready to share my niece, but maybe a yoga class playing around could be a good compromise 🙂
In the summer of 2015 I unexpectedly found myself in one of the most magical and spiritual places I have ever visited: Assisi, Italy. I had no preconceived notion that I would feel this way about this place. Eric and I decided to visit this city because we had never been to Umbria and we were hosting a yoga retreat nearby the week before. We try and visit a new part of the country we travel to each year. Recently I was reminded of just how magical this trip was when scanning through the television channels and coming upon a Rick Steves episode all about Assisi.
As soon as we arrived in Assisi and checked into our quaint and quiet little apartment, we felt different. Settled. It was a searingly hot summer with temperatures in the high 90s up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there. There was no air conditioning and absolutely no breeze, just the pink stones covering the winding walkways of this mystical old city and hours of blistering sunlight. We wandered from church to church, each one a dark and cool respite from the heat. Many of the churches did not allow any photography or talking. This too felt soothing to the mental and emotional heat I had to adjust to after coming down off leading an intense retreat experience.
Assisi is the city where Saint Francis was born and founded the Franciscan religious order in the early 1200s. This order was (and is) dedicated to helping the poor, to seeing the joyous nature of life on Earth, to social justice and to living simply. All throughout our walks we would see friars, visiting priests and nuns walking amongst the tourists and residents – many of them emanating a kind and peaceful presence of Being. With such a historical significance, Assisi is equal parts Catholic churches and silent monasteries (and tourist shops!). We went in every one to explore this energy we felt all through the town.
We hiked up to the hermitage rooms and caves in Eremo delle Carceri used by many a monk to commune with Self and God. We hiked down into the catacombs of many churches and visited the resting places of Santa Clara and other historical figures. We even visited Portiuncula – a tiny, ancient and powerful feeling church with a huge Basilica built around it on the outskirts of Assisi. We spent hours in the two main churches of Assisi – collectively called the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi – scouring the intricate artwork and appreciating the dark and light shapes of the lower and upper churches.
In each of these holy places, Eric and I (who are not necessarily “religious” people) could feel a pull of something deep and silent. Thousands upon thousands of people had prayed, convened, made pilgrimages to and worked from these spaces for many years. They left an imprint. The tiny little hermitage rooms with their one small bench felt soothing even though there was nothing about their physical shape to soothe us. The cool quiet tombs had a certain whisper of wisdom in their old air even though physically they only contained bones. The churches covered in beautiful paintings and tile work inspired our hearts even if we didn’t know who the artists were. One church even had this incredible tile mural of Saint Francis preaching to a sea of fishes – all handpainted – that we will never forget! (Saint Francis is sometimes called a patron saint of animals.)
Perhaps what struck both of us so much was that most of these churches and tombs had signs in nearly a dozen languages with two simple directives: No Photos and Silence. (Hence the no pictures of any of these sites in this blog.) Seems easy enough, and yet in every site we went and felt such a pull of silence, everyone else ignored these two simple rules and proceeded to talk loudly, point at and remark about things they saw, touch painted surfaces, photograph every little detail and disregard what felt natural to us in these places – to simply be quiet, observe, absorb and be with the experience of the space. Periodically over the loudspeaker as the din of people talking grew louder, a kind but exasperated deep voice would say, “Silenzio SHH!” or “Silence SHH!” and for a few moments a hush would come over the crowds. (Eric said it sounded like Sister Mary Elephant from Cheech and Chong – the reference is lost on me.) Not long after, the talking and photographing would start up again and the frustrated friars would look on with dismay. This repeated all day every day.
At times I wish I could be the voice over the loudspeaker saying a simple “Silenzio, SHH” reminder in many a circumstance of modern life. To the person talking to their neighbor during savasana. To the people having loud conversations in public spaces on speaker phone. To the person blasting music loud enough for all to hear through their headphones as they run around the beautiful corner of Chicago’s lakefront path. To the people taking a million selfies on the beach but missing the beautiful waves just before them. It is so easy for us to be distracted and to give in to the urge to busily log everything in picture form on our phones to share on social media instead of actually experiencing the place we are in, to speak about everything out loud instead of listening to another person or the energy of a space fully, to wrap ourselves in music/television/internet instead of sitting with the world around us.
Every place in the world from your home city to a remote island in the Pacific has its own energy and special feeling. Assisi is not alone in this! It just happened to be a powerful place where I could really find a connection to this principle of being absorbed in the unique energy of a location through quietude. Could you take the time to put your phone away, to sit or stand quietly, and to listen with all your Being to what is around you? You might be surprised at the Beauty that wells up from the silence.
At the beginning of 2016, I felt the need to look and feel dramatically at my life. I was unhappy and confused. I felt “off” nearly everyday. I had nothing specific bothering me: I love my job, my health was good, I was (and am) in a great relationship, I had a huge year of incredible work ahead of me, a roof over my head, food in my belly, a loving family…Why then did I wake up at the beginning of each day in the start of 2016 and just feel blah? I didn’t know the answer. My Spirit had gone silent. I knew I had to find out why.
I embarked on a year long journey of self-discovery guided by my Shaman, Bridget Boland. This incredible woman helped me pick a focus for every month of 2016. She helped me first to see and then to change a huge backlog of beliefs that were holding me back. Better yet, she gave me the tools to rewrite my life in the most beautiful way. We systematically, week by week, through meditations, journaling exercises, conversations and ceremonies, figured out what was at the root of my Spirit’s silence and learned how to bring my voice back. Ironically sending me into periods of deep silence was the only way to help my Spirit speak again.
Part of my yearlong 2016 homework from Bridget was to pick 12 individuals in my entire life with whom I’d had “difficult” interactions or relationships and to bring about an end to what corded or connected me to them so that I could move on from their influence on the arc of my path. A big part of the way I cut the cord with each of these individuals was to say the loving-kindness prayer to them every day for at least 15 minutes for a month. These were people who had wronged me, who I had wronged, who I hated, who sucked so much of my energy because I worried about what they thought of me. These were individuals I’d worked with, been abused by, been friends with, managed and been managed by, taught or learned from. It was a diverse and eclectic list from many eras of my life. Each month I moved from one person to the next and did a month of loving-kindness meditation for each one.
Loving-kindness, or metta meditation, was one of the first meditation practices to which I was introduced. It is the systematic direction of kindness and wellbeing towards oneself or another. Long ago when I started learning about meditation around the age of 13 or 14, I went to a Buddhist meditation center (unbeknownst to my parents – I rode my bike there!). In the little shop at this center was a book called “A Path with Heart” by Jack Kornfield. I bought it – it had a pretty pink cover and something about the “heart” word in the title drew me in. I’ve kept it with me ever since and have read it more times than I can count. The very first chapter is called “Did I Love Well?” At the time I felt very little love for much of anything in my life and I felt a calling from that chapter. Inside I learned about self-love as a ground for spiritual development and the meditation exercise at the end of the chapter is Jack Kornfield’s script for the loving-kindness meditation:
“May I be filled with loving-kindness.
May I be well.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.”
For a while back then I did this simple meditation for myself, to build up a reservoir of much needed self-love – of kindness directed at my own Being. That in and of itself was a very powerful stepping stone on my pathway. Somewhere along the way another meditation technique and then another took over as I moved from tradition to tradition. When Bridget gave me this homework, it felt familiar and powerful all at the same time.
The first name on my list was a tough one. The first few days – probably the first week – the words of the prayer felt like ash on my tongue. I physically felt like I was choking on the words to get them out in my mind’s eye. None of this meditation was done out loud – all internally. Still, I had a serious choking sensation as I began this process. It was challenging internally to wish this person well. They hurt me – terribly. I realized I clung to the hurt righteously even though it didn’t serve me in the least to feel any better. Each day it got a little easier to repeat the words over and over again. Slowly, day by day, the 15 minutes no longer felt like an eternity. Even more interesting was the sensation of lightness related to all the experiences of my life tied to this person. I palpably sensed the release of emotions, energy, thoughts, memories and stories related to this person.
A new month would begin and the process would start all over again. The feelings of dry mouth; the gagging on the words of loving-kindness. And each month, no matter the person on the list, the gagging would fade and the lightness would take over. Even for the REALLY rough people on the list – the ones I never thought I would ever wish well – a lightness always prevailed through the simple action of repeating the words of the prayer.
I thought this homework was assigned to me so that I might learn how be kind to those who had hurt me, or I might magically meet each one again and get to hash out our problems and solve everything. That was not the reason Bridget gave me this homework at all. I will likely never see any individual on my 2016 list again. It’s highly unlikely even if I did see these people that we would ever come to some happy resolution or have an epic fight or showdown that would make me feel any better. The purpose of the prayer as I see it now was to help me release all the energy I had unknowingly tied up in hatred, regret, worry, fear, and anxiety towards these people and towards myself in relationship with each one of them. In sending them loving-kindness, I was finally able to forgive myself for the role I played in the relationships I had with each one. At the same time I really wished each one of them well-being and peace and hope that they were able to feel it in some way.
Perhaps you have people you have wronged or feel wronged by in your history. I hope you can use this simple meditation to bring about some lightness to all the ways those wrongs may have tied you up in mind, body and Spirit along the way. There is no reason to stay bound up in misery to someone else – we all want to live happy, prosperous, loved lives. What a waste of our precious life force to remain stuck in old agony – our own or someone else’s.
Does my year of meditation mean these people didn’t wrong me? No, it does not. Some of them committed serious crimes against me. Others stabbed my Spirit with their actions hoping to kill her off. None of the reality of those wrongs goes away with this process, but almost miraculously I no longer feel any tie to the wrongness or my responses to it. I know its truth but I am not tied down by it any longer.
Write your list. Start tonight. Four simple lines. 15 minutes. Are you ready to let them go yet?
There was a rendition of the Addams Family made into a movie in the early 90s featuring Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston. I remember having it at home on VHS and watching it with glee. I loved the old TV show and I loved this movie – for some reason I found it so funny. I even dressed as Morticia Addams one year for Halloween. A particular scene has been popping into my head regularly: the scene about unfinished business. Early in the movie Raul Julia’s character, Gomez Addams, is meeting with his accountant. His accountant proposes a new idea masked in philanthropy to get more money from the Addams family…and Gomez responds by flipping through his calendar ridiculously fast and saying, “this sounds like new business and we do not discuss new business….until next quarter.”
Why would I be thinking about this scene and writing about this obscure older movie, you say? Well, because I have a lot of unfinished business that can’t wait until next quarter. I’ve been reflecting on the fact that every week I write out a to-do list, and every week the darn thing gets longer and longer. And as it grows in length, and my teaching, administrative and personal tasks grow by leaps and bounds, so does my anxiety with the continual accumulation of unfinished business each week. At times it feels as if I am drowning in things left undone.
At a recent appointment with my acupuncturist, Grainne McKeown (she is incredibly talented, check her out if you are looking for an amazing Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner), she asked me if I was feeling anxious while she was listening to my pulses. And suddenly it just came rushing out in a messy flood of things to do, thoughts on my mind, and tears. I was feeling completely and totally anxious and overwhelmed that “nothing” was getting done. Perhaps you can relate?
We spent a few minutes talking about things left undone. It leaves me with a tremendous feeling of anxiety when things are left undone. The reality of the situation is that there is ALWAYS more to be done. There is no possible way to complete everything on my weekly list in the hours of one week…I should call it a reminder list rather than a to-do list. And then Grainne brought up a great point: she said, “Well really, life is completely undone and all we have are the moment to moment experiences we are present with. Life isn’t done until we are dead.” Boom.
My mind also drifted during our conversation and my resting time during our session to the fact that we sometimes want things to come undone: a tight hamstring, a knotted upper back, a toxic relationship. How could I come to appreciate the balanced Beauty of what I wanted to be undone and what was presently unfinished? How could I understand the contradictions of being, doing, done and undone?
As homework from her, I’ve been shifting my meditation practice the past few weeks to work with these reflections. How to sit with what I wanted undone and what was unfinished presently and fully. The amazing result: the anxiety goes away if I am fully present with the fact that everything is undone and it’s beautiful that it is unfinished. My whole life is actually undone and each moment simply weaves another thread into the tapestry of my existence, but never really finishes the tapestry until I’m gone. At times I pull threads out of my tapestry of life that no longer go with the pattern I’m weaving. Sitting with the unfinished business presently and consciously acknowledging my ability to undo things I want to, I can actually see and perceive all the threads of moments before that have been added and taken away. There is something calming to recognize what I have done, to appreciate the threads that are unfinished but coming up, and to know that a part of being with the unfinished business is removing threads that no longer work. This practice also remarkably helped me to feel much more Being and much less Doer.
My yoga practice has a similar meditation technique that I used to practice a lot, but had forgotten was in my tool box. A great way to process incoming thoughts, emotions and disturbances is to keep a pad of paper at your side and to write down everything as it comes up and then to go back to meditating. This simple act of recording the unfinished thoughts, the processing emotions, the creative ideas and more that arose during meditation, gave a brilliant lightness to the undone rather than an anxious heaviness.
Perhaps you too have a lot of unfinished business or an anxiety-producing to-do list. Maybe you have things you are actively trying to undo in your life. Try these simple tools on your own and feel if they help you to connect to greater ease, clarity and peace.
1. Sit down or lie down. Close your eyes. Ask yourself, “Self, what is undone?” Feel what arises in your mind or body. Notice colors, shapes, sounds, smells or people that come up for you. Sit with the feeling of what is undone as each piece of unfinished business arises. Notice the threads of things you have completed that are tied to some of these still to be woven threads. Feel emotions that arise when you are with your unfinished business. Then ask yourself, “Self, what would you like to undo?” and repeat the mindful process of feeling what arises. Start with 5 minutes of sitting and as it gets easier, add in 1 minute at a time.
2. Sit down with a pen and piece of paper next to you. Begin to breath slowly and smoothly with clear attention to the feeling of your breath. Any time your mind wanders from the breath, pick up the pen and write down where your mind wandered to. Keep going no matter how many times you have to stop and write something down. It may take several times of doing this type of meditation before you have any long stretches of simply holding attention to breath. That’s great! You can review and reflect on what you wrote at the end, or simply throw that list away if it feels better to do that.
I hope that these two simple meditation exercises can help you to fascinate on the Beauty of what is undone and unfinished in your life. Dissolution and coming undone are essential building blocks for new things to come. Unfinished tasks offer up opportunities for creativity and excitement. So when anxiety arises over how much left there is to do in your life, pause for even a moment to remember that those incomplete pieces are vital to what is coming next. And you get to be the weaver of what comes next!