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 returning home from a silent meditation retreat – the third one I have done in a few years. I have been meaning to write about my experiences being silent for two years – but it had been difficult before this last retreat to put into words what really happened to me when I went silent. Here is the beginning of a multi-part blog series I want to share with you about why silence is so powerful…and why I think everyone should go into silence at some point in their life.
Two years ago in November of 2014 I went on my first silent meditation retreat – four days with an iRest teacher named Anne Douglas who I didn’t know very well. She was leading a weekend retreat from a Friday evening to a Monday midday in Dayton, Ohio. It was close, a cheap flight, I liked her the one time I met her at an iRest Teacher Training and the retreat was part of the requirements for my five year foray into becoming a Certified iRest Yoga Nidra Teacher. I signed up figuring four days was an easy start, and committed to silence. Inside I felt really nervous about the whole thing.
You see, I’m a talker – a chatter. I come from a long line of mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, cousins, nieces and grandmothers who have the gift for gab. One of my favorite verbs that I learned while studying abroad in Italy is chiacchierare (to chat). The thought of being silent for four days – not even four full days – really sent me into a spin of internal discomfort. And there is one thing I’ve learned about discomfort over the years: facing it head on has always brought me to amazing places I never knew existed.
When I arrived at Bergamo Center in Dayton, Ohio for the weekend, we signed in and got our room keys. Everyone around me either knew one another or was getting to know one another. They were all talking loudly in a little lounge area near the front door. As I signed in the woman behind the registration table got me my room key, my map of the building, a schedule, my name tag and noted that I had registered to be silent. She gave me a second tag that said, “In Loving Silence” and told me to wear it so everyone knew I was being silent for the weekend.
It was in that moment I realized that not everyone had chosen to do this weekend silent…in fact only two of us had registered to be silent. I felt a ball in my throat start to form. Being quiet when everyone else was also being quiet was bad enough but absolutely do-able. Being quiet when everyone else was talking incessantly?? Not possible.
I made my way to my room and unpacked. I had a bit of time before dinner and the opening session. I made an agreement with myself to stick with my intention of being quiet even if everyone else was talking. I made my way to the loud dining hall and got some food. I sat alone because it felt weird to sit with everyone else who was talking. I’m typically very social so it felt difficult to sit alone with my food. I raced through my meal to avoid the discomfort. It was evident before the retreat sessions even began that being silent set me apart, made other people uncomfortable and was not really understood.
When we settled in to the first evening session and Anne oriented us to the weekend, she talked about why silence is such a beautiful thing – it gives us a break, it brings us up against our internal dialogue, it is a sacred space we rarely get in our everyday life. I think she had noticed during dinner that the two of us with our “In Loving Silence” badges felt a bit out of it. As a result, she decided to make periods of the entire retreat silent. She chose different meal times, different session times and a couple of evenings when EVERYONE was supposed to be silent. This was to help everyone understand the gift of silence.
I found this shift in the retreat really supportive to my endeavor to be quiet. I found it deepened my meditation and made my silence easier. I also found that the rest of the group had a terrible time with being quiet. Every silent meal people would ask for things like, “Can you pass the salt?” Or comment on the food, “Doesn’t this taste amazing?” Invariably they would then say, “Oh shoot, sorry we aren’t supposed to be talking.” As soon as everyone was out of Anne’s watchful eye, they all started talking and complaining about being quiet.
Our daily schedule included pranayama, silent meditation, guided meditation, intuitive movement/body sensing yoga practices and iRest Yoga Nidra practices. There were breaks for meals and naps. It was a steady and nourishing schedule – one that felt so far from the fast paced hectic life I led back home. It was very interesting to be a silent observer of the dynamic of other participants’ responses to the schedule, silent periods, meals and meditations. And because I was quiet, I really got to take in what was going on around me in much deeper ways than when I was normally distracted by the social chitter chatter of daily life.
At one point another participant held the door as I walked into our meditation room with her and when I didn’t say anything she said, “Well you could at least say thank you!” With a huge harrumph she stormed off. At another point in the weekend I was sitting in my room journaling and a group of other students was outside my door lamenting how me and the other woman who was in silence were being so weird and strange. I felt really judged and really unwelcome, but I held my silence and I learned so much from all of the experiences that weekend. During the meditations I noticed how many of the other participants could not sit still in the quiet – they constantly had to be sighing, mumbling, moving props around, slurping water or tea, or apologizing out loud for making noise. My own silence made every other sound around me amplified. It was fascinating!
Here are the TOP 5 of many things I learned on this retreat while being silent.
I left my time with Anne feeling inspired and quite rested. I didn’t want to talk. On the plane ride home and for several days after the retreat, I really spoke very little. Silence left me feeling introspective, raw and vulnerable. I loved it and knew that it needed to be a bigger part of my life, but I wasn’t sure how it fit as a piece into my daily schedule and yearly calendar. I let everyone know when I got back just how refreshing silence was, and how much easier it was than I thought it would be. This first foray into silence began a journey that has continued and influenced so much of my life in wider rippling circles. I’m excited for this series of blogs to share that journey with you and hopefully to inspire you to get quiet and experience your Self and the world around you in a profoundly different way.
Start small: 10 minutes of silence (verbally and technologically) starting now. Report back on how it goes!
This morning in my Memorial Day yoga class at Equinox, the intent was to practice from a Forrest Yoga concept called “Building Your Warrior’s Heart.” This practice relates to using backbending poses to release hardening in the areas of the chest, shoulders, upper back and ribs – bringing in a fresh new energy and resiliency to the area around the heart. When the backlog of hardness around the heart is opened there is an ability for deep breaths to penetrate long held layers of emotion and release long dormant waves of feeling. As these energies release there is a clearing of emotional stuckness and a meeting of the experiences of life from a distinct softness, freshness and strength. The purpose of building a warrior’s heart is to remind Spirit of the counsel of heart energy in life decisions and actions – to help give the energy of the heart a strong set of legs, a clear head and wide reaching pair of wings so that it can fly through all avenues of the life path. When your Spirit feels the freedom of your heart to experience life, you are able to more readily absorb the sweetness and Beauty around you, and to take action from the preciousness of the life by which you are surrounded. This practice felt important on this day when we pause to honor and remember the warriors in our culture who have died so that we may live out our lives in freedom.
Both of the lineages that I work in – Forrest Yoga and iRest Yoga Nidra – have made strong headways into working with veterans, and lately I have been feeling a call in similar directions. I’ve been thinking a lot these days about veterans in general and specifically about a Grandfather that I never met. I’ve been curious about the stories of the lives of veterans after they come home from serving our country, and recently I came across some rather remarkable information related to this particular Grandfather I never knew. His story has been fascinating me – I think in part because I have been thinking so much about how cycles in history seem to repeat themselves. Our time right now feels like certain aspects of his time are being repeated – tragically. Genocide, repression, fear, power struggles. He was a celebrated World War II veteran and did some extraordinary things overseas…and then he quietly returned home to raise his family and support them through their lives without really ever talking about the remarkable things he did during the war. His service was tremendous – as was that of thousands of other servicemen and women in that war and countless others – and then coming home it feels like part of that incredible service is forgotten or unknown. Our country and so many others are built upon the belief, conviction and service of these members of our military. At times I think we forget or misunderstand their incredible sacrifice that has brought about our way of life. I feel drawn to know more about their stories and to play a part in remembering them not just one day a year, but each and every day I get to live a life in a free country.
So today as I am thinking of him and so many others like him past and present, I’m also feeling the importance of developing our own warrior’s heart as a way of honoring the gift their service has given us – as a way of honoring our own freedom. When we sit in counsel with the wisdom of our heart, we know our own values, we can process our life experiences better and we can move into the world in a really powerful way without being bound by our old emotions or our troublesome experiences. We each have the power and responsibility not only to honor those who have fought to protect and serve our country, but also to develop within ourselves the strength and suppleness of heart to move forward in the world with compassion, self-awareness, softness and strength. We have an incredible capacity as humans to care and tend for things – this is the wisdom I hope we bring forth from our warrior’s heart. May we care for each other, tend to the garden of humanity and grow a world we can be really proud of.