Once Upon a Time I Met a Monk…
Unsurprisingly (or even surprisingly perhaps in the Insta world we live in), even though I look pretty peaceful in this image, believe it or not, I am not meditating, Truly. I am just posing for a photo (and it is a nice photo, thanks Nev).
It’s one of the most pleasing things to be able to do; sit in a peaceful place such as this, close your eyes (or not..) and simply relax and focus on the present…. Provided of course, your body allows you to to sit for some time without issue, you can actually find a peaceful place to meditate (which for many in the world, just isn’t possible), and your mind isn’t whirring at about 100km per hour!
Once Upon A Time I met a Monk…
..And this particular monk was young, very engaging (as well as rather handsome), and he was relaying a story during a discussion about life and Buddhism at Eileen Hall’s Yoga Moves studio in Paddington, Sydney. The details of his story have stuck in my mind even though it was a long time ago. He told us how he had recently returned to the big world having “gone bush” somewhere in the Byron Hinterland. He’d spent a solitary week surfing, fishing, meditating, journalling and, wow, by the end of those few days, he was feeling pretty chuffed with himself! He was so zen he was at one with his own zen-ness! He was bursting with energy and excited to leave now and to share his newfound wisdom and quiet, contemplative ways of being with others.
He packed up his car ready for the drive home and headed towards the freeway. Laughing at his own naivety as he spoke, he relayed how within 15 minutes of being in the car, he had to stop himself shouting out of the window at someone who had cut him up. This was pretty much followed on his way home by various other annoying and sometimes aggressive driving tactics by other motorists that couldn’t help but raise his ire (and his blood pressure!) He said that by the time he arrived home, it was as if he had never been away!
The moral of this story?
As Mr Monk quickly realised, it’s easy to feel zen, to meditate and feel at one when we are in a peaceful and calm environment. When there are no daily life pressures and we have no deadlines or commitments to family or others. But for most of us, this isn’t our real life and real life is the majority of our life! Realistically then, we have to find little ways every day to create a meditational headspace. Consider this; in the middle of busy Delhi and Mumbai amidst all the traffic, rubbish, crowds and chaos at any given moment, there are Indian yogis in headstands and other yoga poses seeking to create a quiet “zen” space inside themselves, no matter what is going on “out there!”
There are plenty of ways to meditate in daily life. Not all of them involve sitting quietly, yet all are beneficial – some, far more beneficial than sitting in stillness. In fact, for those who are suffering from trauma or some forms of mental illness, sitting in quiet contemplation can be counter- productive – and sometimes even dangerous. It’s also fair to say that for those of us with busy, chattering minds, all we are doing in our seated or lying meditation, is over-thinking. Yes, it takes practise and we will get better at ignoring the mind weeds when we meditate like this, but we are also a very impatient bunch…true?
Meditation is the Art of Being in the NOW..
When we make a decision that we need to meditate, it’s usually because we want to feel better in ourselves. We know it’s beneficial because we have read about it or experienced it or seen documentaries on it, but if we have a basic understand of exactly how meditation works, what exactly it is, and how it affects our nervous system, then it becomes possible to induce a “meditational” headspace any time – not just in the perfect moment, in the perfect place, in the perfect pose.
Essentially, meditation is the art of being in the now. It also means we are breathing less, tensing less, stressing less and thinking less (or choosing to observe rather than identify or engage with our rambling thoughts). If we can induce a state of being where this is happening, then we are activating our parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) – or rest and digest response as opposed to being SNS (sympathetic nervous system) dominant (which is very common these days).
When the PSNS is activated, our breathing slows, blood vessels expand and circulation is enhanced. The heart rate drops and we have more clarity due to the extra blood making its way to our brain. Digestion improves and we may experience a bit of gurgling in the tummy as peristalsis kicks in. It’s also the case that hormone levels are more likely to be balanced. Basically, in this state the body can heal because all organs and systems are functioning optimally. When we are SNS dominant, the complete opposite happens. Blood vessels constrict and BP rises. Breathing quickens (hyper-ventilation), heart rate increases, excess cortisol and glucose (for energy) is released and if this becomes more or less our “usual” state, we may end up with a multitude of chronic issues based on the fact that a”fight or flight” response is simply our body sensing danger and preparing for getaway. Our nervous system doesn’t distinguish when it comes to feelings of fear. It doesn’t know whether our experiences are real or imagined. It doesn’t differentiate between us worrying about an overdue assignment, fretting about a job interview or simply having lifelong body issues (dysmorphia). It pretty much just puts our organs and systems (including the immune system) into sleep mode because at this stage, escape is far more important than digesting that last meal, healing the mouth ulcer, making babies or fighting off that cold that’s been hovering. It is also entirely possible that we end up with a bit of excess fat around our midriff that we can’t shift. Intuitively, at its base level, our body converts some of that stress-related excess glucose to fat and stores it for extra energy just in case this life and death situation includes a potential famine or food shortage.
So in other words, meditation – or the benefits of meditation are simply about inducing more PSNS activity. There are many ancient and modern meditational techniques that will lead to a more balanced nervous system and many do not involve attempting to sit in stillness with closed eyes in a quiet space. So never say never. You can meditate. We all can. We just have to find the right way for us. Here are a couple of ideas:
Physical Yoga / Qi Gong (Dynamic Meditation)
Patanjali’s second yoga sutra defines “yoga” as being a complete lifestyle practise that will steady the mind. Despite the fact that some forms of physical “yoga” have become not much more than a gym workout, mindful asana and movement-based yoga practise or tai chi or qi-gong consist of particular exercises that require focus and create a body-mind connection (somatic and kinesthetic awareness). When the mind is scattered, it can be easier to steady things by doing something that requires concentration and giving our brain something to focus on. For the average person, it is much easier to find peace in the relaxation/rest (savasana) that takes place at the end of a physical yoga class than it is at any other time. This is because our mind hasn’t been able to stray for that past hour or so and that one-pointed focus (dharana) – in this instance a dynamic meditation – has contributed towards us feeling centred and calm as we take rest. However, it’s also true that many of us either don’t know or have forgotten what “yoga” means. Yoga and meditation are EXACTLY the same thing. If you go to a physical yoga class and are aggressive with your body and overly ambitious, you simply end up blocking the movement of energy (prana or qi) and losing “yoga”. Clues that this is happening are when you cannot regulate your temperature and get overly hot, sweaty and panicky, or your core is hot but your fingers and toes are still cool. Another sign is when the throat is quite obviously tight and you are unable to speak or smile. Listen to your breath. You are the only one who should be able to hear it. Check in with your belly to see if you are unconsciously creating excess tension. If you constantly over-do it and cannot wait until the end of a physical yoga practise to collapse on the floor, then you are missing the point (and also the “yoga” and the opportunity for an extra hour or so of movement-based dynamic meditation/relaxation time).
In many ways, an intense, physical yoga practise is a way of creating resilience and building tolerance. We put ourselves into an artificially-induced “stressful” situation and do our best to stay calm and focussed. All those exercises and movements also serve to build strength and flexibility. Once we have strength and flexibility, it becomes easier to sit longer for meditation.
Mindfulness / Staying present
Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz word, and personally, I like to think (hope) that continued daily mindfulness practise will help get us back to “mind-less-ness” at some stage! In other words, when we make a decision to be mindful, to begin to understand ourselves and to observe – rather than buy in to – our thoughts and to be more aware of our tendency towards particular reactionary behavioural patterns, it is conscious over-thinking in a way, but over-thinking that generally leads to a better understanding of our existence, who we are and what types of things trigger us. The more we practise being mindful, the easier it becomes to “rewire” those inherent karmic reactions. Over time, we usually end up creating more positive habits and ways of being and as these new ways of being become embedded, we no longer to need to think too much about it – hence, we get back to mind-less-ness, albeit on a more conscious level. Mindfulness and staying present – in other words, focussing totally on our current experience – is something we can do at any time. We don’t need a special place or to be doing any particular thing since it is all about accepting What Is for us right now – even if those sensations are unpleasant (such as feelings of self-consciousness, discomfort or grief) or we happen to be doing something we consider to be mundane or dull. We could be peeling potatoes, cleaning our bathroom or washing up. We could be out walking or running, actively paying attention and listening to a friend or chewing and tasting our food instead of scoffing on the run. The trick here is to let go of expectations and to stop labelling things/situations as being good or bad. Observe the thought and the habitual judgement and then come back to a sense that it is what it is (yes it is!) and whether we like it or not, well..whatever! It’s irrelevant and neither here nor there…
Yoga Nidra is a fantastic body scan relaxation method that works really well to help us activate our deep, subconscious brain where all those samskaras (energy cysts) and karmic behaviour patterns reside. It enables positive changes on subtle levels simply because it’s a little like being hypnotised. As we drift in and out of REM, we are given something to do, a script to follow so we know we must not fall too deep into unconsciousness and we also know we must keep listening to and following the script. Over time, that subtle deep state allows us to see things the way they are and ourselves as we are. Things in life begin to shift. It’s also fair to say that most of us these days go to bed to rest our heads, not our bodies. We dream all night and wake feeling tired only to begin the process all over again. A fifteen minute Yoga Nidra is the perfect way to get the restful and rejuvenating “sleep” time you may be missing out on.
Click here for a free Yoga Nidra Audio:
Dancing / Skiing / Surfing / Martial Arts
Certainly, most of these things require particular skills and possibly some training. Like many pursuits, in order that a thing becomes effortless, we have to put in some effort. We may need to build up strength and ability; we may need to learn techniques on how to move effectively and how to keep ourselves safe. We may need to be patient rather than ego-driven. But once we have acquired those skills, and engage in that activity, our brain often goes into a “zen zone”. We are totally focussed, but no longer thinking. There is no sense of time or space. Everything is in a state of flow. It just is. Meditation.
Music and Sound
Sound meditation is wonderful. In fact, listening to music or singing with a group or letting loose when all alone activates a particular part of our brain like nothing else can. This is why it has proved particularly beneficial for babies and for those suffering from dementia and other brain illnesses. Choose your music thoughtfully. Chanting, drumming, singing bowls, classical tunes….Metallica probably won’t cut it. (*See also Japa/Mantra below)
Japa – Mantra Meditation
Mentally repeating and visualising a positive phrase or word (a “mantra”) over and over can be a useful tool to stop the mind wandering and to help instil new thought patterns. You can sit quietly if you prefer or combine this type of meditation with dancing, a walk in nature or along the beach. You can also do it as an open-eyed meditation where you write your phrase or word and look at it while you repeat it silently. However, my absolute favourite form of japa and mantra meditation is attending and singing along with a live kirtan session or listening to some of the beautiful Sanskrit chants that have been put to music and are sung by various people. For one example, try Gayatri Mantra by Deva Premal. There are a few versions out there, but most recently, a long variation consisting of 108 rounds has been released. Download, plug yourself in and bliss yourself out or play it loud and proud while you are at home doing your thing!
Trataka – Gazing
Although trataka is generally associated with candle gazing, it’s really just an open-eyed meditation on one particular focus point. In yoga practise we often describe this point as “dristhti“. If we have our eyes closed, we might look towards our third eye centre (just above and between the eyebrows). If we are practising asana, we might suggest focussing on the tip of the nose or our finger tips. Practising some form of trataka is useful for EVERYONE these days. We are no longer hunting or need to check where our children are somewhere off in the distance. Nearly everything we look at – think screens – is close by and our eyes really benefit from us spending a few minutes each day focussing on something further away. Stare and keep eyes open for as long as possible before blinking, no matter what you are focussing on. The eyes are part of the brain… When a person’s eyes are darting all over the place as you speak to them, do they seem relaxed to you? This is another reason a teacher might suggest using an eye bag during rest time at the end of a physical asana practise. It aids that whole process of releasing brain activity.
Two of my favourite things to observe with open eyes as a calming form of meditation are simply staring at and observing the rise and fall of the waves in the ocean combined with the horizon in the distance, and lying back, staring at the milky way in a clear night sky.
It certainly serves to remind me that there is plenty out there far bigger than me and a whole lot more that is way beyond my control.
- Meditation/yoga happens when we focus our mind, soften the nervous system, relinquish control and accept the NOW.
- It is a HEADSPACE. “Yoga” is something that YOU ARE. It is not something that you DO.
- We find it when we stop thinking about what is coming next or where /who we would rather be.
- We lose “yoga” when we over-think, over-tense, over-breathe, over-stretch or give way to egoic or ambitious thoughts / actions.