Learning to meditate.

Someone called up and said she’d been reading about the benefits of meditation. She said she wanted to get started. She said, ‘I want to meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night.’

Great, I said.

The woman said, ‘I have so much stress in my life. I usually work more than 50 hours a week and my husband and I have been going through some conflicts lately.’

I’m sorry, I said.

The woman said, ‘It’s going to be hard for me to get to you, though. So can we meet somewhere? I have to drive a lot for work. Maybe we can meet quickly somewhere or you can just give me some guidance over the phone?’

Hmm, I said.

I wonder if you can guess the issue that will arise if this woman tries to simply sit down on her own to meditate for 20 minutes. Even 10?

Here’s a clue: she won’t. Or she will for about 3 minutes and then she’ll fidget. She may check her phone. She’ll get up and come back. Within a week, she’ll decide, ‘I’ve been trying this for a week and I’m not enlightened.’ And then she’ll stop, concluding, sadly, meditation isn’t for me.

Which is precisely why there’s this gift bag of techniques offered up by traditional yoga.

Does your back hurt? I promise you that learning to meditate with a sore back is unlikely to bring you peace. Is your mind spinning? Same story. Do you struggle to be kind? To tell the truth? To rein in your greed? Yeah, well, deepening the practice of an asshole only deepens the asshole. Which is to say, someone who isn’t looking closely at herself to determine appropriately non-violent, honest and selfless behavior is only going to strengthen the patterns that keep her looking every which way but in. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we’re provided with the yamas, a set of restraints for worldly interactions, and the niyamas, a set of observances for inner processing. Toward others, be kind, be honest, don’t steal, be moderate, and free of greed. And toward yourself, be clean, content, disciplined. Study yourself and be devoted to something.

Not surprisingly, these are the first two of eight limbs meant to guide a seeker from raucous mind to absolute peace. From there, move the body. Then the energy on the wind of the breath. Tame the sense organs. Learn to focus. Become fully attentive on the object of focus. Then, give up the object and remain fully attentive. That’s meditation. By practicing that for a long, long while, with adequate preparation, maybe someday we’ll all comprehend the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the pure potential of consciousness.

In the meantime, we’ll be more peaceful, healthier, clear-minded, less stressed and more compassionate. It’s worthwhile, even if we don’t all become Buddhas.

But it starts with a careful sequence. A series of steps to prepare the body to feel, to relax, to sit comfortably. Another series of steps to prepare the energy to withstand the process. And then practices for the senses. Practices to train focus. For some, mantra japa. For others, chanting. Maybe yantras. Maybe murtis. There’s a lot in the gift bag, curated over millennia to address various personality types, physical conditions and social conditioning. These yoga practices aren’t simply isolated magic tricks or exercise regimens. They’re tools of a system. They help the seeker see herself clearly and complement each other as the we develops her skills. And each tool serves some element of our daily interaction with existence—body, energy, mind, intellect, spirit.

It’s such an incredible gift bag. So thoughtfully compiled. All about you. The greatest gift of all being the compassionate recognition that plopping yourself down in lotus to ascend into mindless absorption isn’t natural after decades suffering and delighting in life.

So. Yoga. A system to know yourself. A system to lead us toward clarity of purpose and calmness of mind. A system to teach us all that we are all Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Mahavira. If we let it.

That woman? To start, I gave her an asana sequence with breath regulation. We did a short visualization before she settled in to rest. She said she had a marvelous experience in savasana. She wants to learn more.

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Tell your mind: Just hush.

At certain points in your life, surely you’ve heard an inner voice talking to you. Who am I kidding? That voice is talking to you all the time. Am I right? It’s talking to you right now. It’s saying something like, ‘why are you wasting your time with this. You have so many other things to do. Like… oh, when can I get some fro-yo?’

And you may have noticed that the voice isn’t always kind.

It might have said things like, ‘I can’t believe they asked you to dinner,’ or ‘you’re going to wear THAT?’ or ‘well, they’re just being charitable so bow out and eat that pizza from the freezer instead.’

Maybe your voice gets straight to the point: ‘You don’t even deserve their dinner or their charity. Look at you.’

Or maybe it’s more socratic and it does that open-ended thing like your dad used to do that shuts you down immediately. ‘What are you thinking?’ Ugh.

(How’s that for a funny, almost paradoxical question? I mean, THAT is precisely what you’re thinking. Come on, mind! And also, lighten up! I’d be thinking something so much better if you didn’t ask everything with that horrible tone.)

Oh, that voice. Imagine that voice in a body. Sharing your living space. Telling you how little you’ve made of your life. You’d be looking for a new housemate. If it took you to the beach for a fun day out, then told you how crappy you look in your bathing suit the whole time? Please say you’d ditch it. Go for a nice swim. Enjoy your time alone.

Right?

But this voice, we can’t really escape it. It keeps talking. Just today, I laughed when I heard that voice suggest that the meditation I was starting wasn’t going to serve me at all. Wouldn’t it be better, it advised, if you just had a cup of coffee? ‘Oh voice,’ I had to say, ‘just hush.’

Which isn’t to say that it should always be quiet. Sometimes it has really interesting information for us. Like, turn left, avoid that pothole, pick up the wedding present and call your clients.

But sometimes, for a little bit, it would be awesome to get a little silence. So we can listen into our deeper wisdom. Which may sound bonkers to you. Or not. But here’s the deal. That voice you hear endlessly yammering is the voice of your mind. For a lot of us, it get so consistently loud that we lose track of the messages that our intuition has for us. We can’t access that deeper intelligence and power through all that ruckus. For even more of us, we’ve completely forgotten that we have a source of wisdom deeper than the mind. We just… forgot.

And that’s because the voice of the mind tends to go on and on and on. Ceaselessly. Amidst all that flibber flabber blah blah, we forget that we have any control whatsoever over its agitation. All the negativity—the fear, doubt, grief, shame, guilt—that it broadcasts can actually be turned down. We can even work to prioritize a practice that will minimize these emotions. And when we do, we can start to seek peace in our wisdom with a peaceful mind. How can we possibly expect to find calm with the help of a distracted, confused and agitated mind? We’re lost from the first step.

But we have the means and ability to quiet that voice. We can say, ‘just hush, my dear dynamic mind.’ We can ask it to settle for a bit while we explore the reservoirs of joy, intelligence and knowing that come stock in all of us.

How so? Deepening your yoga sadhana to include breathing techniques that will help you understand and shift your energy, meditation practices that will help you identify your mind’s processing patterns, mantra practice that will guide you toward focused attention, and prayer to build your trust in all that surrounds you. These are just a few elements of an integrated yoga practice. This is how yoga brings you to a place of balance. This is what it means to be in union: to master the ceaseless fluctuations of your rambling mind.

Send me a note if you’d like to chat a bit more about this. I’d love to hear from you.

How do you decide?

In the last couple of years, I’ve enjoyed a privileged sort of fun. I bumble around with people who came to a decision to change some old habits. Something happened, some sort of ‘that’s it, this is it, who am I, I’m doing this, let’s go.’ And they didn’t just let the decision go. They acted on it.

So they tried some stuff out—pilates or running, rock climbing, swing dancing, diet or bike riding—and they get a little insight, and then a little frustrated, and then they pick themselves up and try again. They start to see that this decision is going to require some attention. That they want to be paying more attention to how they live their lives and interact with life around them. They stumble into ideas rooted in the practice of yoga. Not just ideas about poses and yoga journal conferences. But ideas about calming the mind through careful, consistent observation of habits and patterns of behavior.

And because I’m lucky, or because the wind blew, because the door was open, because I had availability on my schedule, some of them introduced themselves to me.

A friend asked me recently whether I would ever stop my yoga practice. He said, ‘Do you get tired of doing the poses and doing the meditation? Do you get tired of sitting still and then hearing people like me dismiss yoga as some false faith system? Don’t you get tired?’

I answered, ‘No. Because I make a new decision every day to practice yoga.’

Which means, I say hello to every morning with gratitude for the light shining through the windows. And then I decide to express my gratitude by making a decision to practice. Which is my way of growing my love—for myself, my questioning friends, my clients and everyone I haven’t yet met. It’s my way of knowing myself so I can know the world.

Which doesn’t mean that I’m not going to fail a bunch. But a new day comes along with frequency, and, as long as I’m fortunate enough to awake to it, I’m regularly grateful to the light for returning. It gives me another opportunity to dedicate myself to my practice. Because the whole point is practice. The brief moments when light shines in the darkness are just gifts that remind me to recommit to my practice. Plus, they break my heart open a little more. And that just makes me happier to see how much light shines in everything. In everyone. In me.

The Yoga Sutra advises consistent practice. Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodha. We should use consistent effort and we should keep ourselves from attaching to it. And we should do this for a long, long time. Satu dirgha kala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhabhumih. The effort becomes fixed only when done over time, with reverence and focus.

Which means that a diligent effort requires a continuous decision. It isn’t easy to practice. The mind wants to be busy with external ideas. The body wants to be lazy or active or fed or rested. The decision is to become disciplined but the decision itself requires discipline. And every day, a new decision. Every moment, another one.

So see what happens if you start by making a decision every morning: today, I’ll practice yoga. I’ll practice coming to the present moment through awareness of my movement, my breath, the flow of my thoughts. And watch what happens if you do this a few days in a row. And if you fail to make the decision on one day, no worries. Just try again. And again. And again.

It’s always a decision. And no one else is going to make it for you. So when you make your decision, remember how special it is that others are doing the same. And appreciate the presence of your sisters and brothers meandering mindfully on the path—whatever path it is that they decided to pursue.

Who, exactly, are you?

While I’d love to meet anyone taking the time to visit– hello, and here’s a hug– I’m less interested in the people we say we are and obsessed with this idea that we are not our thoughts. All this, ‘I’m tired,’ ‘I’m lazy,’ ‘I’m worried,’ ‘I’m going bananas,’ initiates with the preliminary fixture, ‘I am.’ I’m obsessed with this condition precedent. And anything that is my obsession becomes your reading material. You’re welcome.

Through the ruckus of my internal mob and resistance– vive l’me– I occasionally hear the words of my teachers, and the dead guys who interpret Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the even deader, though possibly reborn, guys who passed along the Vedas. A good bunch, all of them, sage-like but a mite dry. Sometimes, even, dusty. And not just due to decay. I’m not saying that wisdom seeking isn’t an adventure; I’m saying the adventure can be arduous.

Quick and dirty background: most folks who do asana think the postures pave the path to yoga. They’ll cruise a few rest stops here and there for breath and meditation. Maybe do a little good work to satisfy their karma. But this physical practice is really just the prep work. Folks may debate this, but here’s my position: we hone our bodies through asana to begin the process of settling our minds. Yoga postures ask that we move mindfully through space. Our attention becomes one-centered, hopefully, as we explore the boundaries of every pose. And if not completely one-centered, well, close enough in fleeting moments.

The healthy body’s our ride. Nothing more than a soft and juicy vehicle we’d like to go the distance. The mind: that’s the driver. And the pot-holed, winding road is yoga. The path, I might interpret for the new age folks in white pajamas. Sometimes the driver flies into a rage. He’s sure everyone on the road but him is an asshole. Sometimes, the driver gets lost. She knows she took a wrong turn but she can’t remember when. Both drivers are looking around, distracted by billboards, luxury cars, road conditions, traffic accidents.  To slaughter the metaphor: we’re just a bunch of truckers hauling our asses across land we barely see. Unless, suddenly, we become aware. Our mind becomes one-centered. Cue trucker horn.

Here’s an idea that Eckhart Tolle calls ‘observing the thinker.’ We learn to identify our thoughts as experiences, and then to distinguish them from our nature. Just as we may temporarily become cold when the window is open, we are not always cold. We may transiently feel anxious because we’re focusing on a future we can’t see, but we are not anxiety. What we are is people capable of feeling worry, or pain, or joy, or grief, or drama, or hot, or cold. What we are is a person who perceives. We aren’t what we perceive.

Whoa.

So, who, exactly, are you? All those sages (and, ahem, a therapist or two) suggest that observing thoughts– noting our emotions and manipulating them like so: ‘oh, I’m feeling sad as I think of the crap decisions I’ve made but I’m not actually a sad person who always makes crap decisions’– that we start to let go of the anchor of these perceptions. They become fleeting. Like the roadside distractions. They pass by and disappear in the rearview mirror. You may even start to notice that you have patterns of perception: ‘I’m so bad with money’ becomes ‘I’ve experienced some loss of money’ becomes ‘oh, that did happen but it’s not actually who I am.’ And you’ve just disarmed another billboard with a shitty self-limiting message. Well done. Now you know those billboards aren’t selling anything you need.

What do you think? Am I wacky with this? Let me answer that for you. I am. Occasionally wacky. But still. I am. Keep on truckin’, my friends. On whatever road you need to take.

 

How yoga changes the story.

Check this out: our lives are comprised of story. As a writer, I like this particularly well. It connects me to some original intention– worlds and their perceptions have to be created from something, by some chance of energy and interest. (It also justifies the indecent amount of time I spend turning memory and fleeting glances into fiction.)

We tell ourselves stories, too. I just told myself one in that paragraph above. It was a cruel little left jab at my writing habits. See it? It’s a samskara of mine. A scar, to put it another way, or a pattern. Like getting caught in a fishing net and using it as a hammock. I cling to the story because nap time in hammocks is damn comfortable. The thing is, after a while, I don’t like the rope burn. So I look for ways to unravel my samskaras. It might be the entire point of life– finding this liberation from fishing nets. (Somehow, turtles are always the best metaphor.)

So what’s the best way out? How do we curb unhealthy patterns? Yoga says first we pay attention to them. In the light, they start to fade. Magic. Then we see how they’re made. How, exactly, are those knots tied?

We’re all works in progress. Weirdly, the hardest progress to make is the quiet acknowledgement of our own innate goodness. We talk tales about getting hurt, getting angry, getting screwed, getting even. But how about some humble talk that includes, ‘I did okay today’ or ‘I liked the way I handled that.’

Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves fail to include the happy bits. The moments of success and heroic kindness that we achieve. If we leave out these integral plot points for too long, the story becomes much sadder than it needs to be. It also confounds reality. We fail to see ourselves as we truly are– essentially good, just a little pock-marked by patterns.

Which is where yoga comes in. When we practice our physical postures, we move through another story. Each pose has a beginning, a middle and an end; we move in, hold, move out. Our bodies follow the breath, our minds sense the movement, the movement sparks curiosity about our potential. We have these quiet moments to acknowledge our limits, our triumphs, our failings. All without much consequence. If we’re trying to find perfection in the pose– if we think there’s a giant #1 and a trophy to be awarded by achieving the best asana– we miss the point of the story. We also neglect the happiest, funniest, most satisfying plot points– when we wobble, open into our edge, or opt out completely. We don’t need to achieve a pose. We do need to listen to the story it’s telling us. And in that story, we might acknowledge the best parts of ourselves: our stability, our determination, our courage, our change.

As you practice your yoga, on or off the mat, consider the stories you tell yourself. Do they include the good parts? Do they cast you as a kindly hero? Do they recognize that other people are okay too, especially if you’re okay with yourself? Once you see your scars, like magic, they’ll start to let loose. And you’ll have taken a step along the path to the best happy ending– freedom.

(Also, once you’re free, you can nap in hammocks anytime.)