Meditation Practice during Intense Change

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.

Mindfulness Bell – Listening to the Sound of the Bell

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.

YouTube Mindfulness Bells

Mindfulness Apps

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.

Android and iPhone

  • “Meditation Mindfulness Timer”
  • “Mindfulness Bell”
  • “Meditation Helper”
  • “Walking Meditations” (iPhone)
  • Insight Timer” (Amazon)
  • “Quiet Time” (iPhone)
  • “The Mindfulness App” (Android and iPhone)
  • “Simply Being” (Android and iPhone)
  • “Headspace” (Android and iPhone)
  • “Meditate” (Android and iPhone)
  • “Mindfulness Meditation” (Android and iPhone)
  • “Calm” (Currently iPhone only)
  • “Breathe2Relax” (Android and iPhone)
  • “Buddhist Meditation Trainer” (Currently Android only)
  • “Omvana” (Currently iPhone only)
  • “Take a Break!” (Android and iPhone)
  • “Buddhify” (Currently iPhone only)
  • “Smiling Mind”(Currently iPhone only)
  • “Simply Being” (Currently iPhone only)

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!

What is Walking Meditation?

Walking Meditation on the Pollen Path

Walking Meditation on, “the Pollen Path”

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!)

More resources, check out Thich Nhat Hanh's book: Walking Meditation: Peace is Every Step. It Turns the Endless Path to Joy

Giving ourselves permission to be peace outside of the monastery walls

Retreating to a Monastery

Retreating to a Monastery

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.

Settling into Meditation Clears up Murky Mind

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

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?

Letting the Ocean Wave Sounds Breath You

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!

 

 

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