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meditation: Exercise, Peace, Renewal & Freedom for the Mind

Sherry Roberts

If you drop in on a yoga class and find yourself returning again and again, it isn't long before you begin to wonder about getting the mind in on the act. I mean you can practice postures or asanas until you dream of downward facing dogs, cobras, bridges, and warrior poses, but that is only calming the body. Your mind is still busy, busy, busy.

Meditation is to the mind what yoga asanas are to the body: exercise, freedom, peace, renewal. It's all part of the enlightenment package: yoga exercise, meditation, deep breathing, proper diet plus all those attitudes and actions Patanjali calls yama (moral conduct, living a spiritual life, not hurting others).

But I had never even heard of Patanjali when I walked into my first meditation class. He could have been an Italian shoe designer for all I knew (instead of the ancient Indian philosopher considered to be the founder and father of yoga). The class was full of beginners and returners (people who had gotten away from meditation and wanted to come back to it). In modern day America, if you ask a roomful of people why they want to learn to meditate, 90 percent of them will talk about stress. I, on the other hand, was there for an entirely different reason: I just wanted more of what I'd found in the yoga room - more peace, more freedom, more wholeness.

We learned to meditate by working with silence. There was no music or chanting or visualizations. In meditation, silence becomes a thing like a shoe or a block of wood; you can almost touch it. But how do we call the silence? Begin by assuming the correct posture. 

  • Sit either on the floor or in a chair. Position yourself so that your back is straight and your head, neck, and chest are in a line. If you are sitting properly with hips rolled forward, you will feel a slight arch in the back. 
  • If you are positioned on the floor with your legs crossed, try sitting on a couple of pillows. This will automatically force your knees toward the floor and roll your hips forward. 
  • If you are positioned in a chair, again use pillows to give you the height you need to lower the knees and roll the hips.
  • Rest your hands, palms up, on your upper thighs.
  • Close your eyes. Focus inwardly on a spot between your eyebrows.
  • Breathe normally. Be aware of your breath.

Now comes the tricky part, the mind-wandering, did-I feed-the-cat-today, what-do-I-want-for-dinner, I-hate-my-boss, I'm-worried-about-my-daughter, I-can't-stay-on-my-diet part. If you are thinking, you are not meditating. Even thinking about not thinking is a no-no. 

To find the silence, you can't hold on to any thoughts. Let them flow by. Don't grab them, ponder them, or let them lead you to fantasies, memories, or problem solving. If you want to find out how your mind is one big Grand Central Station of ideas, try to meditate. Thoughts are coming and going on every track. They're pushing each other aside and rattling packages. They're running and meandering and reading the paper. It's only human to be distracted by this energy and life, to follow one thought down a path, become distracted again then follow another thought down a different track, and on and on until you are lost in tunnels of ideas.  

How do you keep from getting lost in thought?

Spiritual teacher Ram Dass suggests imagining your thoughts are autumn leaves floating down a stream. Focus on the stream. Let the leaves or thoughts drift by and move away. If you find your mind clinging to any of these leaves, gently bring your mind back to the stream. "Let the leaves float by," Ram Dass says. "Don't get angry because your attention got caught, for that anger is just another leaf. Don't get frustrated, because your attention will get caught thousands of times. Each time, very gently but firmly bring it back to the flowing water."

Since that first class, I have tried meditating in many places in the hope of finding a 'place' that will make it easier. Once in the backyard, my face bathed in sun, I felt the breeze on my cheek and it occurred to me to put my thoughts on slips of mental paper and let the wind take them. A variation on Ram Dass' leaf trick, it worked quite nicely, letting all those thoughts float upward and out into the world. At least they were no longer roaring around inside of me. For the moment, there was only sun and silence. (Wait a minute. Now that I think about it; I was thinking about the sun and how wonderful it felt and how it embraced me and made me a part of the universe . . . oh, bummer.)

om, you're on candid camera

As I said, meditation is not easy. My teacher recommended that we meditate twice a day for about 20 minutes each time. Of course, some people have been known to spend hours in meditation, even days. Meditating in the morning is good because it calms you and starts off the day in a tranquil frame of mind. Meditating at night helps you regain all the tranquility you lost at the copying machine, in the marketing meeting, and cleaning the walls your three-year-old decorated. 

We all need to take moments each day to be 'in the moment,' or in the present. 

"To understand the moment, we introduce meditation techniques." says Llama Kyentse Norbu, a Buddhist monk who likes to direct films as well as monasteries. "Meditation is like [film] editing. We have a life, a very colorful life with mountains, rivers, music, food, but we don't know what to do with them. There's too much footage."

Meditation is a way of making sense of the footage of our lives, to find those all-important silences, to become a part of the stream of enlightenment. 

More resources:

Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guidebook by Ram Dass is an excellent source of information on how to make meditation a part of your life.

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