Author and meditator Gail Storey hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with her husband Porter Storey
(Note: below is a summary, not the entire transcript of the interview)
Gail Storey has meditated since the seventies, and has also authored 3 books. The Lord’s Motel, was praised by the New York Times Book Review as, “a tale of unwise judgments and wise humor.” Her second novel, God’s Country Club, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. She has won numerous awards, and her fiction, poetry, and essays have been widely published.
The book that is relevant to the Meditation Freedom podcast, and in which she talks about her experiences with meditation, mindfulness as well as perhaps the most awesome trails in the US, called the pacific crest trail, is a memoir called, I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail. The book won a number of awards, the National Outdoor Book Award, Colorado Book Award, Nautilus Silver Award, and Barbara Savage Award from Mountaineers Books. It was praised by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, as “Witty, wise and full of heart.”
I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail is the hilariously harrowing story of Gail and Porter’s hike of the 2,663-mile trail from Mexico to Canada over the highest mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington. In their fifties, they carried Porter’s homemade ultralight gear to climb and descend twenty miles a day, trudge across the searing Mojave Desert, kick steps up icy slopes in the High Sierra, and ford rapids swollen with snowmelt. Through the permeable layer between self and nature, they walked deeply into the wilderness of love, and the question Who am I?
A former administrative director of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, Gail now writes, hoopdances, and jumps out of cakes, not necessarily at the same time.
“I have a hunger to hike the whole trail” , Porter (Gail’s husband asked her), “It’s been growing in me for years, intensified by the work with people living their dying. But what keeps you going?” [Gail writes] For once I was at a loss for words. What wanted me out here? Not my body, it was falling apart. Not my thoughts, alternately confident and doubtful. Certainly not my emotions, unreliable in their swings from high to low. I wanted to be with Porter, yes, but even more, I felt inseparable now from the vast green and blue and white of the wilderness. I looked out on the lake, shimmering under the moon. I was as sturdy as the trees. I flowed over obstacles like water over rocks. I was as solid as the mountains, as clear as the sky. The wind blew through my heart. I was what knew the wind. What knew the world was here in me, pulsing in the trees, water, rocks, mountains, moon
Questions asked in the interview with Gail Storey
I’d like to start with how you got started on a meditation path, what prompted you to start thinking of doing a meditation practice? and why Buddhism?
You did some long retreats, how did those retreats and practice help you in our daily life?
Moving on to a different type of meditative retreat, let’s talk about your book, “I promise not to suffer, A fool for love hikes the Pacific Crest Trail”.
When you and your husband Porter where thinking about this epic trip along the Pacific Crest Trail, you were initially not totally thrilled with spending time in nature, as you say on the first page of your book, you “never much cared for nature, or rather, thought it OK, as long as it stays outside”. Was it the sense of your own mortality, as well as the circumstances (Porter quitting his job) or also those years of practice influence your decision to join your husband? (since you couldn’t join him on the Appalachian Trail).
Besides spending alone time, and relief from stresses of career, was it also nature that was calling you?
As you went further down the PCT, your relationship with nature changed…
You also mentioned that you wanted to fully experience each moment, instead of the endless “Cartesian chatter” as you call it.
You wanted (as you mention on page 94) the wilderness to make such claims on my body that my thoughts would settle like silt on the bottom of a lake.
Maybe you can describe a bit the experience you had on the trail, starting with suffering. As the book said, you made a distinction between pain and suffering. Explain what you mean with that to the audience.
Where you no longer had a clear sense of inside/outside. Where your persona, your face (as you say), everything dropped away, and your relationship or identification with nature transformed.
How has this affected your sense of authenticity?
Your husband Porter called it a vision quest, what was the main insight he got from this trip?
Before I get out of the way, and dive right into the first interview on the next episode, I want this first short 000 episode to just briefly explain the format of this podcast, and a little bit why I started this podcast with the topic of talking with meditators and meditation teachers on why they meditate, and where meditation meets their own daily life. I really want this to be for you and about bringing you as much value as possible, and as little fluff or excess words.
Lest I try to hard right from the start, I’ll try and keep myself from falling into the trap of never finishing recording this first episode, so I’ll preface this whole podcast adventure with this well known refrain from Leonard Cohen’s song called Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
I love this quote, such a great reminder in this context that you got to start somewhere with what you have. It comes from such a human and real authentic place I think. So to apply this quote to this particular situation, I’ll share with you later how this podcast to me is just one of the creative and many ways ring those bells. And these bells will not always sound perfect, I know it will take me a while to figure out how to do the hosting job and audio well. And frankly, I could spend the next year learning how to become an NPR podcast, or I can just start and learn as I go, I would rather just get going and learn along the way what to do. I wouldn’t want to try and give you the perfect NPR experience actually, I want to make mistakes and be human. But I do hope to be able to get the guests to open enough so that they’ll hopefully let some more light in. So this is all about creatively illuminating what is dark.
First a few words about the Podcast format:
I’m releasing the first 3 episodes today since this is launch or intro week, so definitely check out the interviews in the next two episodes. By releasing several episodes, this allows you to subscribe to this podcast, which I hope you will! Next week and on-wards, I will create and release one episode each week for the time being. Each episode will be around approximately half an hour, sometimes a few minutes more, and sometimes shorter like this episode, depending on how well it flows. This podcast will consist primarily of interviews with meditation teachers and long time students or practitioners of meditation and mindfulness. They will be from all walks of life and have different perspectives and views.
I am not planning to be excessively rigid in the format of this podcast, leaving room for spontaneity, creativity, wonder and not knowing if you know what I mean! So I definitely want to experiment, and tweak to allow you to get the most value out of it. Also, if you the listener come up with feedback that tells me something needs changing, I will make some adjustments if needed. I’ll be listening or reading carefully, and looking forward to your feedback, and and make adjustments if needed.
To give you a sense of the focus of the interviews for this podcast. The questions are going to be about the how the interviewee’s came to a meditation practice, their struggles and tough times, their Aha moments, explore some of the “benefits and results” they they have seen from a regular meditation practice. While especially nowadays, outcomes and results are very important in society, I’ll also want to explore with the guests how they’re relationship with expectations and outcomes, or ideas of gain/loss has shifted perhaps, goals and results too. How they bring and integrated this practice and insights into their daily life, as well as how and why they came to a particular practice. Why they continue to practice. I’ll ask for specific practices that they do in daily concrete situations that are of benefit to their own state of mind, as well as how that affects those around them. I’ll ask them to share tips and techniques that allows them to stay deeply present and aware in their day-to-day. And if time allows, ask them about what inspires them.
So I’m aiming to get as much value and insightful answers as possible for you. That some of the things discussed might be useful tips and tools that can be actionable in your own daily life, or in specific situations. My goal is also to draw out and look for REAL and authentic responses, those that will ring true and resonate with you, the listener on a human level. I’ll be looking for interviewees to open up, and share and articulate the deepest wisdom they’ve learned, and what continues to inspire them on their journeys.
These folks are going to be coming from all walks of life and may have slightly varying practices, some may resonate more with you than others. But I believe and have learned that if listening with an open mind, that I can find that each of us (even or perhaps even more so, folks that annoy us, or even those we tend to despise) have some unique understanding and angle that can be learned from. To quote my teacher’s teacher Robert Aitken, “we are all at the headwaters of our own unique stream”. It’s an equalizer.
Each episode will have show notes on the web site, so if you forget what a guest talked about, you can find that and any links on the show notes. As well as a link to that particular episode audio, and the ability for you to share that with someone you think might enjoy that as well.
So that was about the format, now A few words about the Why and inspiration of this Podcast,
I really would like to explore meditation, mindfulness, and how this all comes together or gets integrated with daily life with this podcast.
As for The title and tagline is something I brainstormed after coming up with a list of dozens of titles. I ran it by a couple of folks who would be most likely to listen to this, and they most resonated with the ring of meditation freedom.
Freedom is a word with a lot of different meanings, but captures something we all are looking for in one way or another. And I think many of us realize that this inner or outer freedom while inner freedom might be available already in the here and now, for the most part it is something that is not free, it has to be cultivated and nourished. And this podcast is about that cultivation of freedom by using the tools of meditation and mindfulness. Let me give some examples of how there can be an increase of freedom through a committed and regular meditation and mindfulness practice. (ps i like to use quotes, because often this is someone’s distilled thoughts and insights, a really good deep quote you can let cook inside and then eventually you can be it)
“We seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”
the Freedom or boundlessness that can result from taking down the walls of limited self identityp
So freedom can come from peace of mind,
he freedom from preconceived notions,
freedom from the conditioning (cultural societal, .
freedom to be our authentic selves
freedom to make choices and freedom to respond, rather than react or act based on inherited programming.
Freedom from fear and death can become the freedom to live?
Freedom from ignorance, self-limiting beliefs,
Freedom from oppression and the pain of prejudice.
Freedom to be self-directed, to come forth from your own center, and autonomous.
Freedom from hatred and enmity. (like letting someone live rent-free inside your head)
Freedom to live fully in the present moment, not being pulled to the past or the future.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
And one of my favorites from Einstein: A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.
So I see this meditation freedom journey as it says, a journey together, not isolated into more freedom, and peace. It is a practice, a process, with struggles and stumbling, not a perfect state to reach and finish. It will never be finished, but the striving for it is what this is about.
Staying in touch with the WHY
I believe it is very helpful to clarify the why, to also stay connected and in touch with the why is very important in a meditation practice. And also in general in life, I believe it is very helpful to be in touch with my why. I’m more likely to show up for my life and those I’m with, and for each moment, but also live more deeply connected to your purpose, having a more purposeful and fulfilling life.
And one way to get in touch with that why, is to listen to others people articulate their why’s. So I think it will be very interesting to interview teachers and long time students and discover, and draw out their unique viewpoints and experience. I’m curious why they practice, what they have learned, why they value a meditation and mindfulness practice. How their relationship with themselves and the world changed and transformed through this practice, and how they apply and integrate their understanding into their daily lives. And why they continue and are driven to continue doing meditation, regardless of how well their lives go. Our daily lives for most of us have so much pressure, many various obligations, losses, joys, tedious things, etc. Hearing how folks handle situations informed by their practice will I think be very beneficial.
I also believe that that by tapping into this collective wisdom, it can inform us all of how we are all as humans in this together, and provide encouragement us on our own paths. I hope this will help humanize us, and provide us more encouragement to be our authentic selves.
So why in the form of a podcast?
William James said “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.”
I love technology overall, it has also enabled, empowered, it has allowed us to truly interconnect us in so many ways, right now it is connecting you and me! It not only enables us to connect, but has shown that we are interconnected. – This podcast is one way I believe we can foster and deepen that connection with each other, as well as to the mystery that we are all not just part of, but are ourselves expressions or manifestations of.
With that being said, I also see some concerns with technology. Technology has also allowed us to speed everything up, including our own pace of life (I’ll link to it in the show notes). Too much of that speed and hurry, and multi-tasking (which is another way of saying there is not enough time, so let’s see how many tasks we can do at the same time) is not going to benefit our health and wellbeing. You’ve all seen the videos of people staring at screens and not being fully present for each other for example. It is like we have so many choices, so much information and things we want to absorb, that we came up with a way to justify multi-tasking, so we can inhale more, do more at the same time, with the consequence that not only are things done less well, but also one’s experience of each of those tasks and each of those moments is way less deeply. The famous contemplative THomas Merton called this rush and pressure of modern life, a form of violence. The, “violence of our times”. So I will definitely try to keep that in mind as well as I proceed with this podcast.
How did I end up meditating? ll just briefly give you some idea of how I got into meditation practice myself.
I grew up in the Netherlands as a very shy, retreated, and dreamy kid. I was the kid who you’d see in the back of the class, running away from the ball during soccer practice. So literally and figuratively, I was running away from it all, not wanting to join the good fight. Basically on the sidelines of life, observing and making myself miserable in general. At that time I resonated strongly with Arthur Schopenhauer’s, when he says, life is something that should not have been.
As I got more into my teenage years, I had a lot of difficulty understanding life, and I started to focus on the horrors and terror of humanity’s dark side. The messages I got at church seemed at the time felt meaningless and hollow against the contrast of what I saw going on in the world. Later on in life I did revisit this and found wisdom in the tradition I was raised in. I was constantly thinking and asking why we humans did so much harm to each other, to animals, to the planet and so forth.
Already feeling separate and angry, I made things worse, by training my eyes basically to see only the dark side of humanity, like looking through dark glasses.
To make matters more dark and fearful for myself, I wanted to try to understand why we do this to ourselves, so I studied books about the holocaust, and other ways that we humans are destructive.In the beginning I saw all of this as something completely outside myself, having nothing to do with me. And so I looked for ways to extract myself, or get a one-way ticket away from the drama of life.
I eventually found my way into eastern philosophy, and found books that talked about meditation as a way to avoid having to be reborn again. To me this sounded like the smart person’s path out of life. I did of course also occasionally get confronted with moments of wonder and the beauty of life. I relished outings into nature, going to the mountains in the winter to ski, and in the summers to hike. I’ll never forget during an eastern European bicycling trip, camping out at a lake in Hungary, listening on my walkman to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and marveling at how humans could be so cruel on the one end, and then so beautiful and angel-like on the other end, able to produce such works of art and beauty.
When I met my first meditation teacher, she said I had dozens of layers of stress built up on my shoulders (and I was barely 16 years old at the time). She said, you will need to practice to let go one layer of stress at a time. I realized then that I had to make a long term commitment to this meditation practice. Then years later, I met my primary Zen teacher, my mind was miserable/super busy, and endless stream of thoughts at the time, and his first response was that he saw smoke coming out of my ears! How could I possibly be fully here and now, and think clear thoughts, with all this fragmentation of attention, all these layers of fog and too much in my mind.
I nevertheless must have intuited that this attitude and focus on humanity’s failures and shadow while perhaps a requisite for the path into light, at that time it was creating my own hell, and that something had to be done. So as a teenager I decided to go into a non-violent, inner martial art called Tai Chi Chuan to wear away that mountain of stress. Clearly it was better to cultivate a softness and strength, as well as an ability to bend and relax, then to continue on getting harder and therefore more prone to a weak immune system, and become breakable. From that point on in my late teens I was blessed to have very caring and no-nonsense down to earth teachers who helped provide feedback and encouragement on a lifelong practice.
One major influence that helped me decide to come and work inside the US, was Joseph Campbell. His well articulated wisdom really helped push me into making a choice about life, to be vulnerable, and wholeheartedly with eyes and heart wide open say Yea to life or to close my heart, and refuse the call to an adventure into the mystery of life and death. I could start to see that saying NO is non-sensical.
I came to the United States on a student visa in 1993, met the love of my life, Kristina, and stayed.
What I did not understand at that time, was how the worldly problems were all playing out on a much smaller scale myself as well. That I had fallen out of love and wasn’t experiencing and appreciating the rapture of being alive, and was living in fear and anger and lack of commitment with life.
Years went by, and I continued the moving meditation practice, as well as sitting on my own. I did found later that it would be wise to sit with a community led by someone with a lot of experience, so I started going to meditation groups.
In order to become mature in wisdom and compassion, I knew I needed to practice sitting meditation as well as increase mindfulness of each moment.
Fell over after 30 minutes in first retreat.
Bird fully express themselves
Provide encouragement and provide highest signal to noise ratio of value
Provide community especially for people who don’t have time or don’t live near a community
This is more or less discussed in this episode. If I missed anything, let me know in the comments! Would love a positive rating in iTunes, so I can keep making more episodes.
Please leave comments below if you have any thoughts!
Our breath has a tendency in our lives to go higher and more shallow. It is easy to test this. While you’re doing something, like working, or sitting, or standing in the middle of the day, close your eyes, and simply take 10 breaths consciously. You’ll notice right away that your breath and body relax a little more, the breath then naturally wants to go down to your belly or abdomen, where there is more spaciousness. In other words, it does not feel right breathing from high in your chest. It may take a few times to notice, but you’ll soon discover that you want to breathe more deeply.
2. Body Posture
If you have an office job, it means lots of sitting. If you can occasionally get away with closing your eyes or taking 10 breaths, you can become aware of posture issues. if you were staring at a computer screen or smart phone, notice if your neck or head is extending. This happens often over time, where the longer we sit behind a computer screen, the more we start, “leaning into the screen”. This pause and internal checkup tells you whether your body is still in good posture or not. If your neck tends to extend forward, that will cause bad posture and symptoms like neck, shoulders and arm tensions over the long run. Give yourself a short breathing/meditation break every so often, I prefer every 25-30 minutes. This way your body posture will benefit (assuming you have a posture issue). If you don’t have a posture issue, at least it will let your body relax.
3. Oxygenation of your whole body and brain
Taking conscious breaths, means taking deeper breaths. Taking deeper breaths feels a lot better too. Part of the reason for that is that you are providing extra oxygen to your body and brain. This oxygen exchange where you take in more oxygen, and let go of the carbon dioxide, is always good for the sense of well-being. Try it at least once a day, and also notice how it increases your productivity.
4. Reduce the stress inducing Cortisol and fight or flight response
Stress which most of us get on a daily basis in some for or another, will increase our levels of cortisol, which is associated with the fight or flight response. While this response is sensible in a truly threatening situation, it can become harmful this state becomes permanent. By taking periodic mini-meditations, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system which in effect allows us to take a breath and a step back. This will in turn, reduce the harmful cortisol levels, and a relaxation response results.
5. Lowering Anxiety, Blood Pressure, and Heart Rates
There is a growing body of research showing that slowing down our breathing through meditation is going to help lower our blood pressure, anxiety levels, and heart rates. Slowing down our breathing regularly, or getting into this habit will long term help prevent stroke and many other health problems. Then of course there are many other benefits, like better concentration, more productivity, better focus, etc. Each of these benefits is a reason in itself to take up this habit of taking meditation time-outs, or mini-meditations throughout your day.
These are just 5 reasons to try mini-meditations today. Please comment if you found another reason to do regular conscious breaths throughout your day!
It has been a few months since I wrote a post. The previous posts have been more general information. In this post I would like to share a more personal perspective on having a meditation practice during times of much change.
It is during times of massive change in one’s life, that a meditation practice can be very grounding and helpful. When everything is going well in one’s life, no one is sick or dying, jobs are great, kids are doing well, etc, there sometimes is not a great desire to meditate, since stress levels are low.
However, that is a great time to start to meditate, since it will help build your immune system, and mental health, for those more turbulent times when you do need it that stability and solidity, and on occasion equanimity, that comes with a long-term practice.
In the past three months, I quit my job without having another job lined up, and we’re selling our house and property. We also adopted another dog, bringing up our total of rescue dogs at this time to 4. Meanwhile, my wife is quite sick with her lung disease (which is the main reason we’re moving to a desert climate). A steady job, with sick leave and medical benefits and good pay is not easy to give up, in exchange for a life of uncertainty.
However, this is one of the things that a meditation practice helped me with; to become familiar and more comfortable with change and uncertainty.
That said, I did save during my past years, and both my wife and I were good money managers, and frugal in many ways. So that when this day came, we’d have a cushion or buffer. Quitting one’s job in a strategic way is different from quitting a job in a more spontaneous way. That said though, my attachment to the security of a regular job and the familiar work family is still a struggle internally. Physiologically, I also notice changes, such as increased stomach acid production and resulting pains in the past couple of years building up to this change. It is as though the body is reflecting this mental resistance as well.
Due to the amount of work required to get this property in shape to sell, the average day has been about 12 hour, week in and week out. Each day nevertheless for me has started out with 45 minutes to an hour of sitting meditation. Followed by a walking meditation (dogs need their walk anyway), and also a moving meditation, Tai Chi, as well as some stretching to help my core, shoulders and back. The importance for me in starting out the day with taking care of the body-mind. With a sitting meditation, is that this is a opportune time in which the body and mind are still in a state of awakening, a little less hyper then the rest of the day.
Once awake, the mind comes up with lists of things that have to be done, as well as the pressure to keep moving, so that income can come again soon. The body wants to get moving and take action on these instructions from the brain. As someone who’s job in the last 15 years or so has had a mostly sedentary job in front of a computer, being physical, moving around, and fixing things has been a very welcome change. Nevertheless, when you have a house that needs a lot of things done, things still can get stressful, with this constant sense of urgency, with more money going out, and very little money coming in. As well as the smell and cool air of fall approaching closer.
I’ve found that adding a couple more mini-meditations, or a 10 minute relaxation in the middle of the day, can be very helpful in balancing the workday as well. I probably did not do this enough, instead being completely absorbed in each task and forgetting about the time passing, until it would get dark on many days.
The meditations themselves have also had a different quality to them, the silence that is there periodically interrupted by a mind wanting to bring up another thing that needs fixing, and a sense of unknown about the future. All in all, this is an interesting and exiting time to pull up the anchor, and see what’s out there in the vast ocean of possibility.
A Mindfulness Bell sound is a wonderful mindfulness aid. Repeated throughout your day, this sound can be a great way to stop and pay attention and be present for one’s life. There are many shapes and forms of bell sounds available online. I’ll put some options in the bottom of this post. Bells and gong sounds tend to be used, rather than say a loud clang sound, because of the bell’s prolonged sound, which is attention getting, and pleasant as well, reasons to stop and pay attention.
In the west we may be more likely used to church bells, which can reach far, due to them being up high in a clock tower. Here too, this sound can be used as an opportunity to stop briefly what you’re doing just to listen and experience the present moment. In Buddhist culture, a bell or gong is more typically used.
Practicing breathing with the sound of the mindfulness bell
That said, I think many of us in the west do tend to tune the sounds out, so some conscious effort and intention is needed in order to benefit from the invitation of the bells. When you hear the sound of the bell, try to focus on taking 3-10 breaths. Not forced, but just conscious breaths. Letting the belly expand on the in breath, and empty out on the out breath. To get the most out of this mini meditation, it is best to stop whatever you’re doing, and simply stand, or sit without getting distracted. Try doing this for a minute or so, or whenever the sound fades away. Just 10 relaxing breaths can help us feel energized again and feel refreshed.
Using a mindfulness bell in front of a computer
If listening to the mindfulness bell when working at a computer, it may be of help to close your eyes for the duration of the meditation. Eyes tire of watching a computer screen all day, so small breaks for the eyes can be very beneficial. It is also a great opportunity to do a body scan, or check to make sure you are sitting in the best posture. Especially for folks working on a computer, it is helpful to pay attention to the neck and head. They have a tendency to lean forward into the screen over time. So another good reason to use a mindfulness bell, is that you can check your posture and make sure your shoulders are not tightening up from repetitive actions. When typing on your keyboard, the arms should ideally be relaxed, so that the shoulders are not going up, which creates tensions.
Using a mindfulness bell when doing other things
If you’re using a mindfulness bell when going about business in the house, or elsewhere, then a good approach when hearing the bell sound would be to take a mini break, and stop. This doesn’t have to be conspicuous if in a public place, you can simply stop to look around and take 3 deep and conscious breaths. Here too, you have an opportunity to check for internal posture, are you upright and are your shoulders relaxed? What was the breathing like right as the bell sounded? If the breathing was shallow, that is all the more reason to take a time-out and let the breathing return to a relaxed natural state. It is totally normal that our breathing goes out of whack in the busy type of world and times we live on, so there is no need to get discouraged when the breathing is found to be shallow and tight. It is just a reminder that we do need to take care of our breathing regularly. And if a mindfulness bell help with this, than that is one more great aid in this mindfulness practice.
Below is a list of some options for mindfulness bells.
This video has 3 bells every 30 minutes for 8 hours long. So you can turn it on in the morning and run it until the end of the work day. You can then either repeat it for the evening, or run it again the next day if for example at the office. The video shows a great sign to aid in being present, “This is it!”.
Since these Apps will change over time, describing them below would quickly become inaccurate information. Some are very simple, a random bell (or through specified interval) or buzzer throughout the day. Some have added guided meditations and instructions, visualizations, and even added videos or podcasts. My recommendation would be to check each of these Apps out first, read their description and revision information, and if possible try the free version. Also, check the reviews and ratings when you find the App in iTunes or the Google Android Play store. The ratings will quickly tell you what features people like, what’s missing, and whether it is an App you wish to purchase. Note that the Apps below are in quotations, as that is the actual name of each Mindfulness or Meditation App.
There are a number of physical meditation timers as well that you can use as mindfulness timers (See here) as well. Hope this helps, and I’d love to here in the comments below if you use an App or mindfulness aid that helps you!
Walking meditation in a nutshell is consciously paying attention to each step you take in life, learning to be mindful to the matter at hand. So it is in a very literal way of walking, but also in a meaningful way that extends throughout other areas in our lives. As mentioned, learning to be mindful in each step helps not just with the physical act of walking, but ripples out into other areas in our lives. There are different ways to do walking meditation. There are both physical and mental things to pay attention to.
"Oh, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty above me, beauty below me, I’m on the pollen path" Navaho Wisdom
Why do Walking Meditation?
1. Too much sitting. Most of us in our daily lives and jobs do a LOT of sitting. Our lives have become very sedentary. I’m no exception. My day job involves primarily working on a computer, and sometimes for long stretches at a time. Then I either sit in a car, and drive home (I try to bicycle whenever I can). Then at home, I do some work around the house and in the garden, and then often get back to the computer, or sit and talk with my wife, and read, etc. On top of all that, if you practice sitting meditation as well, well, that is even more sitting! So walking meditation is a way to stay active, and alert, and become present.
2. Another reason why to learn walking meditation, is to use this practice as another aid in meditation. Which is to say, another way to appreciate our life, the present, and everything we love and have. While it is great to practice meditation or prayer, or listen to meditation music in the mornings, or when we’re home. This leaves a long day in the middle that can quickly fill up with distractions, and business that can fill up our minds. So adding walking meditation throughout the day can really help us maintain presence awareness, where sitting meditation would not be feasible. Walking meditation can do for our minds the same thing sitting meditation can do, it can help us stay alert and present throughout our day.
The risks of too much sitting..
With all the research that has been coming out about the dangers and risks of too much sitting, walking meditation is becoming an important tool in avoiding these risks.
In my particular case, I have a back that is more prone to back issues, due to a sciatic nerve that is easily agitated with too much sitting. As happens with a lot of computer workers, my neck and head are also prone to lean forward (especially in front of a computer screen). Hence, I not only want to get up frequently, but feel an urge (signal from my lower back and maybe a stiff neck) to get up and moving at least once or twice an hour. What I do when I walk around the office building is primarily walking meditation.
How to Practice Walking Meditation
Walking meditation can be done at any pace, however, it may make sense to try slowing down when doing walking meditation. That way you can learn how to do it, you learn to pay closer attention. And as a result are more likely to do well when having to walk fast. One of the reasons for slowing down during your walk, is that it is easy to miss what is going on in our bodies (and around us). Let’s break this down into a few components:
Breathing and posture during walking meditation
During walking meditation, pay close attention with your awareness to your breathing, both your in-breath, and your out-breath. Where are you breathing from? Your belly, or your chest? Just as in sitting meditation, make sure you aim for breathing from your belly. Is your belly relaxed, or tight? What about where you walk, if you are crossing a street, is your breathing more uneasy then walking down a busy street or a quiet street? What about a nature path? These may seem like insignificant differences, but they can be very different. I rarely see anyone crossing a street relaxed. Especially when crossing, many people hurry. I think we are conditioned to feel like we’re holding up traffic if we don’t rush. While this may be great for the car driver, and there are good times to walk defensively in case the driver is not paying attention or texting while driving. It is good to ask why? Why is my walking indicating that someone driving a car is more important? This is just an example, but it give you an idea of the kinds of observations that you can have when you slow down and pay attention to what is happening in your body just with the breath.
Noticing the world around you during walking meditation
Besides being aware of what is going on inside your body to reduce stress and incorrect posture, it is also a great time to become aware of everything around.
Hear the sounds such as your own footsteps, those of other folks, the car tires rolling around next to you, the distant train sounds. Try hearing without labeling or letting them turn into thoughts and mental diversions. In other words, being present for each new sound, instead of getting stuck on one sound, or tuning out after one sound you like/dislike.
Smell the scents, the asphalt, the fresh snow, or the blooming trees and flowers. These scents also bring us back into the present moment.
Feel the wind, or gentle breeze flowing around your ears, or through your hair, through the leaves at the trees above you. If there is no wind, what does the stillness feel like? What does it feel like to walk? Notice as much as possible all the various parts in your body, some may be painful, some may feel pleasant. Meditation is just noticing, acknowledging, and accepting these things, then letting it go. Not dwelling anywhere in particular. If it is something that requires attention, such as a hurt ankle, or something else that requires medical attention, then of course we need to take action.
Touch the earth with your feet of course. But notice the whole movement of your body, so that each step is unique, valued, and acknowledged. It’s the journey in other words, not so much the destination that really matters when doing walking meditation.
See the world around you as it really is. Again here it helps to slow down when you walk, you don’t need to walk in a funny way to fully experience the joy of walking meditation. Just occasionally try walking at a leisurely pace. Perhaps you see the leaves twirling, or you see the sun reflecting off the glass windows on the buildings across the street, or you see the smile on the mother’s face. Or you see the beautiful sidewalks, or the cracks on the wall in the corridor. Just remember, you are seeing in way higher resolution than the latest High Definition TV. Easy to miss the beauty all around us at any moment.
The faster you walk, the harder it is to process and appreciate. But also, the more your mind is in turmoil, the harder it is to process anything you see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. Jesus is attributed to have said in the Gospel of Thomas, “The kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it.” Walking meditation is one way to start “seeing it”.
(I would love to see what you are finding when you do walking meditation. Please post a comment with your experience below!)
At a recent retreat or day of mindfulness and meditation at a nearby monastery, an interesting question arose from the audience. Members of the outlying communities had driven in to visit the monastery, where a number of full-time nuns and monks practice every day. Someone asked, “I feel such peace when I visit your canyon (the monastery is located inside a group of mountains). When I visit any another canyon, I don’t feel that same peace. Is this canyon a special place?”
I think there are several different way to look at this question, and perhaps see several layers of answers. Some answers may ring more true to some people and another answer to another person.
In terms of the physical place, you have the actual canyon with a monastic community. Retreat centers tend to be in beautiful and natural surroundings, to allow nature to do it’s own form of healing medicine as well. This particular community mentioned above has their own little valley, surrounded by beautiful mountains, many birds and other creatures. Living in this center, there is a practice community of monks, nuns, and laypersons, intentionally and purposefully choosing to live on a mutually agreed to wisdom path.
Of course these are all regular human beings too, with their own issues and afflictions to work with. However, they are choosing to take a path that aims to help relieve suffering in themselves, and those around them (those who intentionally reduce their own suffering, and increase their inner peace and joy, can’t help but relief suffering in those they in contact with). It is like a ripple in a pond, what you do to yourself, harmful or beneficial, affects everyone around you. Helping others will come naturally, not in a forced way (like converting others or other coercive methods). This joy and equanimity, or solidity that a trained mind consciously cultivates, ripples throughout the communities it touches and interacts with. Sometimes in an obvious way, but probably more often like an undercurrent influence. In so doing, this spreads the fruits of the particular practice and plants new seeds with that same intention…To help relieve suffering, decrease harm, and increase joy and peace throughout the wider world.
There is also the visitor perspective. The person going to a retreat at a monastery, the practicing “lay person”, who come for a brief retreat from their day-to-day busy lives, to get nourishment and recharge by a community that practices peace. Lay practitioners are likely very busy meeting the needs of their local communities, their children, spouses, colleagues, perhaps volunteer activities, and finally making sure they earn enough money to pay the bills. These are all a lot of obligations, pressures, and potential sources of stress making it very hard for many to carve out time in their days to take care of their own minds and bodies.
The “marketplace” or cities and communities and world we live in, is for the majority of the world a busy place that sends many subtle and not so subtle messages that are often quite different than what you’d find in a retreat center or monastery. Messages like, “appreciate all you have today”, or, “enjoy this moment”, or “you can let all your muscles relax” now, or, “enjoy listening to the birds, while seeing the sun and gentle breeze play with the leaves”, etc. How many billboards and advertisements remind us of those types of simple joys? Usually the advertisements tell us we need to work more in order to be more happy, or we need a product or something else, or we need to be somebody else, or have x amount of money, work longer hours, put in more “face time”, or else look like a slacker. Get more degrees, or accumulate more daily, “likes” in order to belong and be happy.
These types of messages don’t encourage, or lead to more contentment, and accepting, appreciating what we have right here and now. Many in a subtle way might encourage us to be something else, or get something or some status, thus in a way saying we’re not good enough where we are, or who we are. And of course we don’t just get these types of messages through advertisements, but also through parents (well intentioned as this may be), schools, and through many other channels.
So when folks like myself go on a retreat, or go into nature, we know we have given ourselves permission for the duration of the retreat, to let go of expectations, societal judgements, and obligations, and literally “retreat” from it all. This consequently makes us more receptive and open to receiving that peaceful feeling the visitor to the monastery was referring to. If we had that attitude and mindset outside of the retreat, we can also discover that feeling peaceful is not limited to certain locations. It of course is harder to maintain this mind once we return to the marketplace.
A practice community asks us kindly to not use phones, and other things that compete not only for our decreasing attention and time, but are also reminders of the obligations and expectations waiting for us. So in that sense, the practice community may be for many people the only entity giving permission to take care of ourselves and to take a break from all the hustle and bustle of life.
I sense that it is true that a physical location can become, “special” in the sense that it is filled with a community of people who all agree to orient themselves, and move their energies the same direction, as opposed to the more scattered intentions and energies moving every which-way, that is more likely found in the marketplace. A community orientation of more peace, joy, and contentment, and less harm, suffering, and dissatisfaction in itself makes a huge difference in the feel of a place.
In the end of course, the underlying intention is to not have any “inside” and “outside” of the monastery walls, both literally, as well as in our own minds. To cultivate more and more of that intention that is incubated and cultivated in monasteries, into our own minds and then into the wider world and the marketplace. So that no matter where we go, what canyon or surroundings we visit, we can give ourselves permission to see and feel and experience that sense of peace that is available at any moment.
One of the basic ideas behind meditation is that it is a form of mental hygiene. For the same reasons that brushing teeth regularly, or drinking enough fluids every day, or having a diet with plenty of fruit and veggies, meditation is likewise a part of healthy mind/body maintenance. Sleep is also vital to helping our minds relax. However even if you get 8 hours of sleep every day, that still means that our minds can be constantly stimulated and exhausted from “information overwhelm” or information overload those other 16 hours.
Rest your Weary Mind
This is why I think many of us are attracted to meditation. To give our “weary minds” a break during the day as well. Just like any other skill, it only works well if you make it a regular routine, rather then once in a while, or only when overly stressed.
The Murky Water Analogy
Murky vs Clear Mind Meditation
One of the simplest way to explain meditation, even if done for just 10 breaths, is through the analogy of the murky water. Picture if you will, two glasses of water (each representing our minds). Each has sand or contents, as do our minds. Now if our lives are busy, which most of us are, this glass gets shaken and stirred around a lot during our day-to-day lives. If you shake a glass of water that contains dirt or sand, you will see that the water gets murky and unclear. So it is with our minds.
The more that is “on our minds”, the more murky our thinking gets. The more information overload, the harder it is to make decisions, clarify our thought processes. And frankly with a murky mind like that, I’m sure you may have noticed too, it becomes hard to see and experience the here and now directly presented around us. Perhaps we miss the bird calling, the child smiling or the dog wagging her tail. Perhaps we end up more easily irritated, and short tempered. This seems to be part of the human condition.
So taking those meditation time-outs to allow our minds to settle does wonders for our well-being and those around us. It allows us more light and clarity coming through in our thinking. After all, if I set the glass of murky water down, and let it settle, it will began to become more clear almost immediately. Folks go on meditation retreats, in part because of a desire to settle much more deeply then a one minute or one hour meditation can do for them. Nevertheless, any settling, even if only a few minutes a day, or periodically throughout the day it is a great health benefit for the person doing it, but also to the people you are in contact with in your work or home life.
In a future post I would like to explore how settling into a meditation practice does not mean settling into ideological nests or pre-conceived ideas. What does settling into meditation mean to you?
Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form
If you have ever been on a beach and enjoyed the sounds of the ocean waves, you probably also recall having a relaxation response in your body. The ebb and flow of the ocean waves coming on the shore, and then receding back into the ocean has a way of resonating with our own breaths. I think this is because our bodies resonate with the natural ocean wave sound rhythm and express a sense of recognition that this is what our breathing is like when natural. This feeling then naturally gives a sense of well-being.
Especially during meditation, when you become aware of the slowing of your breathing, it is a very similar pattern to the ocean waves pattern. You can imagine a deep inhale like the water coming up to the shore, and then it briefly pauses just like with our own breathing, before receding back to the ocean. Then there is another pause and the cycle starts over again.
My guess is that most of our breathing is like the ocean when we’re asleep and peaceful, however during a busy and hectic day, it is probably much more irregular and choppy. If you have been sitting in a chair for long, your breathing may even feel constricted. This is where listening to ocean waves can be one more tool in your conscious breathing tool bag, to assist in becoming conscious of your own breathing patterns.
I’m including an ocean video with sound below, so you can try this out if you don’t live near an ocean. What you can try, is find a comfortable seat or lay flat on the ground, turn on this video, and let go of your thoughts. Then start noticing your breathing, and see if you can slow down and resonate with it. You will get most benefit if you simply let the ocean waves breath you, instead of trying to force or control your own breathing. In other words, by letting go of any ideas of outcome or control. Let me know how it goes!