Have you ever left home for yoga class or work or going to a friend and when you arrive at your destination you can’t remember through how many traffic lights you are or any detail of other cars or anything from your journey? Or sometimes you read a book and three pages later you can’t seem to remember anything that happened or what you have read the last three or four pages? Of course you have, we all have! These are common examples of “mindlessness,” or as some people put it, “going on auto-pilot.”
We are all subject to the bad and good habits of our minds and bodies, of attention and inattention, of being in the here and now or being totally absent busy living in the past or future. Wherever we are the result is a us not being present most of the time in our own lives. And the unfortunate part of this inattention can be costly, we can miss really good opportunities, or we may miss information about our lives, our relationships or even about our health! However there is a way out of this inattention, we call it mindfulness.
It is important to note that we all have the quality of being mindful and the ability to apply and practice it within us. It is not a special skill you have to learn, in fact it is something natural in us and we just need to re-establish the habit and pattern to be mindful within us. To practice mindfulness is to first of let go of the idea that you are good at mutlitasking and to accept that we as humans are programmed to do one thing at a time and then we do it really good, we do it with mindfulness. It is the quality of bare awareness that knows what is here in the present moment. Mindfulness knows what is going on outside, and also, inside our own skin. However we experience life, through whichever sense gate life comes to us – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, even the mind itself – mindfulness is capable of knowing that seeing, or hearing, or smelling, or tasting, or feeling, or even thinking – is happening in this, the present moment.
Truly living in the present moment isn’t easy, but it is highly rewarding. The best way to move forward on your own path to “here and now” is to understand the potential obstacles and plan in advance how you’ll deal with them.
It is an ongoing effort
Mindfulness isn’t something that just drops out of the sky and voila there you have it! It takes time and effort and constant reminding to be in the here and now. However, the more you practice it, the easier it gets to get into the habit of being in the here and now. As with most things in life, your mind will be fearful initially and your thoughts will be chaotic, your life would seem out of control. Previously you would cook, eat, feed the baby and dog and cover your son’s books at the same time, now you do one thing at a time and it might feel you’re wasting time, but give it a chance. Your situation will feel out of control and even helpless, but the more you focus on being fully where you are, the easier it will be to find peace of mind in the moment.
My Tip: Start small, baby steps, do one thing good and complete it and then move onto the next. Mindfulness is best practiced throughout your day. It’s not just for when you sit down and meditate. Focus on being mindful of your thoughts when you’re doing everyday tasks and it will be easier to remain mindful when things get tough.
There will always be distractions
It seems to be a law of the Universe, as soon as we start a journey there always seems to arrive more challenges with that journey as well. The distractions could be problems in your life, drama in your relationships, or old negative beliefs popping up from your past. Try to see the opportunity in the challenge – simply put you have an opportunity to practice present moment awareness and that is great! Our challenges will help us to become stronger, more resilient and better in tune with yourself.
My Tip: See the challenges, the distractions and difficulties not as negatives, but as wise teachers in disguise! They are really there to help you grow and realise who you are!
Be patient – progress takes time
We live in a world where we are forced into thinking that everything works like a McDonalds! Truth is our world needs slowing down, needs time, a plate of food that took time and attention to prepare taste so much better than a fast food hamburger, not true? Same with your progress, it might seems slow and excruciating, but have patience. There will be times when you attach to things and situations that you want, which will make it difficult to be fully in the present moment.
My Tip: It’s impossible to be mindful when you’re dwelling on the past or obsessing about the future. We all do those things sometimes. I’ve experienced it countless times in my own life. The more I want something, the more I fixate on not having it and wanting to get it. Once I release the attachment and focus on being grateful for what I have in the moment, my life seems to shift, and progress seems to happen naturally.
Don’t give up!
Any journey has that moment where we just want to give up or turn around. But it is during the times when you feel most frustrated that you are often on the verge of a breakthrough. Our lives are very similar to the seasons. We go through cold, dark winters, and joyful, expanding summers. It all comes and goes. It’s the ebb and flow of life.
My Tip: Realise that life is sometimes easier and expansive and other times it is difficult and contracting again. But, as you become more mindful of the challenging times, you realise they are there to help you grow and in time you will feel more peaceful and relaxed.
Our goals muddle our mindfulness
Being goal driven and orientated in life is necessary and fantastic. And the problem is not with having goals, but that we can become so attached to the “outcome” of our goals that we forget to be mindful of getting there. And the more we focus on the outcome and attach to the outcome, meaning we live in the future, the more frustrated, angry and negative we get. Sometimes to the point where we feel everything and everybody is against us!
My Tip: Attachment muddles our clarity. You’re likely pursuing your goals because you believe the outcomes will make you happy and not because you enjoy the journey! When we allow our goals to pull us too much into the future or even the past, it is not a goal anymore, but a chore that makes you unhappy! Focus on that which you want to achieve now, it will make you much happier!
The journey is the destination
Like the example with which I have started this article, most of us are barely aware of the journey, we miss the fact that the journey IS the reward, the utopia we looking for! Have you ever noticed that the path to reach a goal is much more exciting and interesting than reaching the goal itself? When we are young we look forward to being older and wiser and want to be older, but when we reach the milestone of a certain age we had in mind, suddenly that milestone doesn’t seem so great, but the journey to get to lets say 50 was such a great one!
My Tip: It is in the journey that we learn, grow, and become better. When you’re practicing mindfulness, remember that there is nowhere to arrive at. If you focus on what is going on right now, the rest take care of itself.
Sometimes you’ll want to be anywhere but in the now
In my life I have been in the presence of many great teachers, my own teacher Sri Durga, Sri Satya Sai Baba, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, Swami Sahajananda of the Divine Life Society in South Africa and even they had to deal with difficult situations and chaotic thoughts from time to time. What I have learned from all of them is that it is easier to accept the moment for what it is than to fight it and trying to change it. When you do this, you become the guardian of your inner space and peace, which is the only way to feel good inside and find peace of mind, right now.
My Tip: Look to the journeys of those who went there before you and take inspiration from their journeys and know that your path will be full of opportunities to be great as well! It is up to you to recognise them!
Shortly after people started doing yoga with me, they want to know when will I teach them meditation. And great is their surprise when I usually tell them that they are already busy learning meditation since the very first class. Yoga in its very nature is a meditation of the body and once the body and nerves have sufficiently been calmed and prepared by a regular yoga asana practice, then only can I start to teach meditation. This process in the West takes anything from about 6-8 months.
As Westerners, we need to understand that our bodies and nervous system is condition to our very active and rajastic lifestyle, work and play environment. Another problem initially is our bodies itself, as we are not used to sit cross-leg for long periods of time, within five minutes of an untrained body the body will become restless, legs will start to itch and needles and pins will develop, this is all signs that your body needs more yoga asana and that your nervous system is still too excitable to sit for meditation. As I live in South Africa, many white people doing yoga with me have the typical large Germanic bone structure and many of the Africans have also a large structure, which makes sitting in meditation that more challenging. Back issues, poor core strength and very inflexible hips makes the sitting worse for many.
It is my experience that a person who starts with meditation in an unconditioned body don’t persist with the practice, while a person who has sufficiently being prepared through an asana practice is much more persistent and successful in the long-term with their meditation practice.
This meditation article addresses the techniques to lead you to meditation and how to choose your own daily meditation practices.
Meditation: Practice the Art of mindfulness
“Calmness is the ideal state in which we should receive all life’s experiences,” writes Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, in the book Inner Peace. Yogananda is regarded as one of the great spiritual teachers melding East and West. Through meditation, he writes, one can cultivate a wonderful inner quiet that will melt away stress and nervousness.
To meditate, you need to break away for a brief moment from your everyday schedule and life. Start by switching off your cellphone, unplug your landline, shutdown your computer, ask your family to allow you some time on your own and ask them not to interrupt you. In other words you need to ensure that you won’t be interrupted during this time.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Where Should I Meditate? You may wish to set aside a special corner of one room, your own private sanctuary, a calm, quiet and peaceful place. You might furnish the area with objects or icons that have spiritual meaning for you, developing a little altar or shrine. Use what will put you into a contemplative frame of mind. You may want to enlist the help of Mother Nature by bringing a lovely rose with a beautiful fragrance or spend time at the ocean listening to the surf crashing upon the rocks in you live near the sea, or for me a peaceful walk barefoot through my own garden puts me immediately in the right frame, or stand near a stream with water, a waterfall or even a water feature in your garden, anything that you know that will calm you down will be appropriate.
- How Should I Sit When I Meditate? The classic posture is to sit with legs folded and hands resting quietly on the lap or the knees. And I would suggest that you make yourself as comfortable as possible in this position. Use more cushions under the tailbone to give your pelvis a tilt and a more comfortable position, the key is to find a way of sitting that is comfortable for you. I do not recommend laying flat on your back as this position reminds the body of sleeping and this usually happens very quickly.
- Should My Eyes Be Open or Closed? I recommend closing the eyes, especially if you are new to meditation, this way you withdraw a key sense from the outside world and it already becomes so much easier to still the mind if there is one less sense that stimulates it. Also keep the face “soft” by relaxing all the facial muscles, drop the jaw slightly and these simple steps should already make it easier for you to become more relaxed and mindful.
- How Long Should I Meditate? There is no fixed time frame. Initially I recommend a sitting of just five minutes for about three months just to condition the body and then a gradual increase over time. The secret is to listen to your body, over time it will tell you how long it will and want to sit. Another big issue is how much time do you have? If you have only about ten minutes say in the morning, then you sit in meditation for only ten minutes. Flow with your own time is key for me. As Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “your practice should bring you bring you to a certain state of mindfulness and presence, where you are a little open and able to connect with your heart essence.” To begin, try short sessions; then break for one minute. “It’s often during the break that meditation actually happens!” writes Rinpoche. It may also be useful to get into the habit of setting aside the same times every day, be they for prayer or meditation. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, recommends rising 15 minutes earlier than usual to give your day a “contemplative dimension.” Without these precious moments, he says, “your whole day can slip away into a mad chase,” but with them your entire day can be imbued with meaning and joy.
- Other considerations: Add ritual to your meditation, ritual creates familiarity for the mind and it relaxes the mind. Do things such as lighting a candle, put a flower on your altar and burn some incense. Avoid modern mixtures such a vanilla, cinnamon and strong fragrances such as rose. Start with either sandalwood or frankincense, it is said that they aid meditation and relax the mind and body. Create some ritual for yourself. After I have lit my candle and incense, I immediately go to my seat, sit and then peacefully I offer myself and my day to the Divine, then I start with a few breathing exercises and usually after the breathing slipping into the mindful state is much more easier. To end your meditation say a peace prayer or the Universal Prayer or some prayer that you like. Then add some ritual again by putting out your candle and incense if it is still burning.
Four Basic Ways to Practice Meditation
- Follow your breath: This is the most universal of all mindfulness techniques. First, exhale strongly a few times to clear the base of the lungs of carbon dioxide. It is helpful to review the technique for following the deep breathing method of imagining a lotus blossom residing in your lower abdomen; as the breath fills the belly, the petals of the blossom expand; as you exhale, the petals close back up. Slowly and gradually as the mind relax, let go of the conscious breathing and allow it to just happen as the mind become still and contemplative. The moment the mind wanders off, worrying about problems, start to consciously breath again and repeat until the mind learn to let go and relax.
- Observe an icon or object: Allow your mind to rest lightly on an object. If you come from the Christian tradition, this might be an image of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Holy Spirit. Images of the Eastern gods and goddesses may also help you or a statue of the Buddha may be the object of you focus or even a candle flame. Again, focus with the eyes open on the image, as the image become etched in your vision slowly close the eyes and keep that image in your mind’s eye as long as possible, the moment the image disappear and the mind starts to wander, open the eyes and concentrate again on the image, repeating this process until the mind can relax and keep the image.
- Recite a mantra: A mantra literally means “that which protects the mind.” So reciting a mantra protects you with spiritual power. It is also said that when you chant a mantra, you are charging your breath and energy with the energy of that particular mantra. Again, choose something with meaning for you within your spiritual tradition: recite the Rosary, for example. Tibetan Buddhists use a mantra for peace, healing, transformation and healing. “Recite the mantra quietly, with deep attention, and let your breath, the mantra and your awareness become slowly one,” writes Rinpoche.
- Do a Guided Meditation: Guided meditation is akin to guided imagery, a powerful technique that focuses and directs the imagination toward a conscious goal. However, for this meditation you either need somebody to instruct you on what next to imagine or you need a CD with guided meditations.
Is It Really Meditation?
The techniques described here are meditation practices rather than meditation itself, which is often described by experienced practitioners as “a state of being — a state of receptivity without expectation, a merging with the Divine.” All of the techniques are practice to get to this final merged state.
Therefore, meditation practice is not meditation. One might practice meditation for years to achieve a meditative state of being. An experienced meditator might meditate for an hour to achieve a few moments of meditative consciousness.
The Benefits of Meditation Are Subtle
While you may not feel flashes of insight when practicing meditation, its effects will become apparent to you later, when you may notice that you responded to a crisis with uncharacteristic calmness, or failed to get “triggered” in a situation that would normally disturb you. Trust in the process, let go of your expectations of achieving “results” (after all, meditation is not a contest), and you will reap the results.
The real miracle of meditation, says Rinpoche, is a subtle transformation that happens not only in your mind and your emotions but also in your body. And, this transformation is a healing one. “Even your cells are more joyful.”