Meditation Can Change the World

This is a guest post written by Carol Studenka, a long-term meditator and a student of the Teacher Certification Program with the McLean Meditation Institute

Meditation can change the world. There I’ve said it. Sounds crazy, maybe. But I believe meditation can change the world.

I know I saw it this weekend at the Soul Radiance Retreat. Those unexplainable “aha” moments when all your senses tingle. When you and everyone else understand completely the other. When we see each other in ourselves and we know what separates us is meaningless.

It gives me hope and makes me a believer that in extension we can change the world.  Perhaps even ten minutes a day of meditation may be the ticket. If what I see happening with 50 people in a room can be taken into the larger world, why not do it?

At the three-day retreat most people sit in chairs, few are scattered around the room on floor cushions. One woman shiny in front, Sarah McLean, leads the meditation and reminds us to pay attention to each breath, She rings a bell to begin and we do, each closed-eyed and focusing on the sensation of each breath in and out. The sounds of the room fade into the background, even the revving of a motorcycle outside doesn’t seem to matter. We are all breathing together. Sarah’s gentle voice reminds us to focus on each breath, then a silent mantra, and then a word – freedom, and we do, until the bell sounds again and the meditation is over.

What’s changed? For most of us deep relaxation is the norm. I feel well rested. For a few first time meditators they sat through some agitation brought on by slowing down – too new to their systems. Each experiences a deeper relationship to an inner place inside oneself – one not easily described. It’s that part of each of us that has been there since birth, and that may go on after death, some call it our essence, others, the soul or the spirit. Whatever the word, we all have a deeper sense of it.

This is where it begins – that change in the world I talked about earlier. It’s meditation that opens the door to the part of self that is overlooked and forgotten. Love thy neighbor as thyself…it’s the self we are supposed to love and cherish always. How many of us have time or energy to do this in this hectic world we live in?

What I experienced in that retreat in Sedona gives me hope that we can and could find this place more often. Meditation creates an avenue of awareness unveiling our true heart, and seeing each other as a true part of the community of humanity. People shared their stories. Some dramatic, others mundane, but as each of us listened from that center unearthed by meditating, we knew we only had to change a details or two for every one of those stories to be our own.

As I listen to those stories told, I hear my own heart speaking. I silently love them, telling them to love themselves, forgive themselves, and believe in their own value. I remember that I need to do the same. As I see these transformations take place before my eyes, I truly believe each individual in this world has the capacity to feel this way too.

It’s like what we all feel looking into a baby’s eyes. We know all possibilities are there in that moment. And that everything good and loving about humanity is embodied right there.

The simple truth is that we have always known what will change the world. And that is love. You could say meditation is love. Loving yourself so you can love others, and therefore love the world. I hope everyone will take time every day to love one’s self through meditation. I love Sarah’s retreats because they give me hope that so many people are beginning to see the same possibilities that I do through their own practices of meditation.

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Lightness of Being

Stress Free Living through Meditation

Have you ever  had a day or two when you felt completely in harmony with yourself and life? 

Perhaps you woke up feeling great, you had a chance to meditate, pray, journal or whatever your morning ritual is, your needs were being met before you even thought of them, your intuition was right on, you got perfect parking spaces wherever you went, you ran into the right people right when you needed to connect with them, everyone you met gave you a compliment (and you believed them), you saw the good in everyone, time flowed perfectly – you were never late or rushing to go somewhere, your creativity burst at the seams, you expressed yourself easily, and you felt like you were smiling from the inside out.

This happened to a client of mine. She described how she felt in the flow of life, where she saw everything and everyone including herself as luminous, peaceful, powerful, and whole, full of potential. Then after a few days of bliss, unexpectedly, she woke up one morning and the feeling of lightness and perfection was gone. She described her self-talk as going something like this: “You can’t follow your dream, who do you think you are?” “You aren’t good enough.” “You need to do A LOT more than you are doing.” She was left deflated and discouraged.

What happened? Why didn’t that lightness of being last?

There could be many reasons, and hers was that she was overworking. The effects of the physical stress were what blocked her mind and body’s ability to maintain that good feeling.

Stress. What is it really? If you were to ask a dozen people to define stress, or explain what causes stress for them, or how it affects them, you would likely get twelve different answers. What is stressful for one person may be pleasurable or have little effect on another. And, we all react to stress or stressors differently.

It can go like this: something doesn’t go your way, and then stress occurs. Are you bored with your job, and you wish it were more interesting? Stress. Do you desire a better relationship with someone and all you do is argue with them? Stress. Do you desire a pain free body and you have pain? Stress. Do you desire a peaceful world, and you keep hearing about war and violence? Stress.

Stress can also be caused when we don’t get enough sleep, eat food that isn’t good for us, say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’, or ‘no’ when we mean ‘yes’, or when we don’t live in tune with nature’s daily, seasonal or lifecycle rhythms. It can accumulate due to toxic environments, undigested experiences or emotions, or painful relationships.

Stress affects everyone both physically and mentally. You can ignore the feeling of stress or temporarily wish it away, drink it away, or watch TV to forget about it. However, once the masking effect ends, the stress is literally still there, blocking your creativity, wholeness, bliss, health, and peacefulness.

Left unchecked over time, stress can cause tension, anxiety and panic, high blood pressure, chronic pain, headaches, respiratory problems such as emphysema and asthma, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, skin disorders, mild depression, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Your birthright is to experience yourself as blissful, joyous, energetic, creative, peaceful and loving. WE start out that way, just look at a young child, full of energy and bliss. As we get older the stress compounds in our nervous system, and if we don’t get rid of it, it masks our fullest expression of who we really are.

Most of us cannot go through life completely avoiding stress, it is just not possible. Yet there are a few effective ways to deal with it. Sleep is one way, meditation is another.

Meditation is proven to be the perfect antidote to stress. It counteracts the physical and mental component of the flight or fight syndrome. Did you know that the purpose of yoga and meditation is to reduce the stress in your nervous system so you can experience and maintain higher states of consciousness and experience your full potential?

This is good news. As we meditate, and the stress dissipates, we become healthier, happier and able to realize greater self-awareness. People who practice meditation regularly report that they experience greater intuition, more creativity, increased mental abilities, improved memory and a decreased need to visit a doctor compared to before they began to meditate. They are ‘tapping in’ to the intelligence that pervades our world.

Studies have even shown that meditation can reduce or reverse cardiovascular disease and improve the ability to cope with chronic illness.

Although there are many different ways to meditate, I recommend that you try a meditation that isn’t about imagination or affirmations. We teach simple mantra meditation techniques, including Deepak Chopra’s Primordial Sound Meditation, to train your awareness to go transcend thought. It then relieves the effects of stress. The meditation techniques we teach help you to reconnect with the part of you that is most real and most true. Eventually, through meditation, you’ll find that you can maintain a sense of balance and peace no matter what the outside world is up to. And when you do it, you too can experience your true lightness of being.

Join a meditation class or a free introduction to meditation, look at our new online schedule, or listen to the Meditate CD so you can learn to meditate, or if you already know how to meditate and have been taking a break from it, here’s your reminder to begin your practice again.

Your Spirit is Unbreakable

Recently, a student told me her spirit was broken. I believed her at first, she had gone through a stressful breakup and seemed a bit down. But then it occurred to me that it was impossible for the spirit to ‘break’.

I remembered an ancient saying from India about the soul …..Vasangsi jirnani yatha vihaya … meaning, “Fire cannot burn it, water cannot drench it, wind cannot dry it, weapons cannot cleave it…” Na jayate mriyate va kadacin… which means, “The soul is never born and it never dies. It has no beginning, it has no end, no past, no present, no future.” Sounds unbreakable to me.

So how can one feel their spirit is broken? Perhaps it is when the qualities of the soul are masked by the effects of stress.

Stress is truly a psychophysiological response that impacts your nervous system, and if it isn’t released in some way, stress can build up and cause disease. And when a traumatic event happens, the stress builds up even more, weakening the immune system, inhibiting the body’s intelligence to heal or bring balance back, creates stress hormones that cause depression, and somehow keeps the qualities of who we are, our soul, from shining through. That could be when we feel as if our spirit has been broken. I think the effects of stress break our lines of communion or illumination from the soul. I know that sounds weird, but bear in mind, I am writing to you from Sedona.

Take a moment to turn your attention to the one who is reading this page. Keep reading, but notice where your attention is coming from. Do you feel a presence there? A sense of awareness?

You probably already know you are not your thoughts – you are not the conversation you are having in your mind like, “What am I going to have for dinner?” Or, “I really should call so and so.” You are not your body either. If you break a leg, are you broken? No.

“Everything in your life is constantly transforming – transforming within a presence that’s always there. That presence was there when you were a newborn baby, it was there when you were a child, it was there when you were an adolescent, just as it’s there right now. And it will be there when you are very old,” says Deepak Chopra.

This presence is often called pure awareness, spirit, consciousness, the field of intelligence, the inner self, or your soul. It calls your ever-changing body, with its myriad of thoughts and roles it plays, ‘home’. And perhaps it calling you to become more intimate with it. No one else can do that for you.

You can become more intimate with who you really are – commune with your soul – in a few different ways: through silent meditation practices, by spending time in nature (without your cell phone), and by practicing non-judgement (I don’t find that very easy).

The trick is to shift your reference point in your life away from the changeable, transitory experiences (like roles, environments, thoughts, bodies, breakups) to the awareness of this presence with its many qualities: bliss, spaciousness, flexibility, infinite possibilities, silence, and so much more.

How can we culture this relationship and become intimate with this presence? Of course, meditation is my choice. That, and spending time in nature. My daily practice of meditation reorients my awareness towards this presence, and keeps the awareness of it in the forefront of my experience – in almost every situation. It also releases stress and the impact of stress in my nervous system so that I can maintain a more wholesome outlook through life. No matter what, the spirit cannot break. So don’t worry.

Finding Your Real Voice

The Yoga of Writing – A Women’s Meditation and Writing Retreat

Yoga of Writing with Sedona Meditation Training Co.

For many, writing is a spiritual practice which leads to a profound experience of timelessness and present moment awareness.  A single moment of inspiration can become an eternity.  That is also true of meditation. For those who practice meditation, life is transformed physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

During the retreat, we’ll give attention to silence, stillness, and the present moment. You’ll listen to and trust your own voice as you transcend your inner critic and express your authentic voice from the womb of spaciousness and creativity.

Discover the ease of writing practice and meditation, and how to use these practices to enhance healing, authentic expression and self- awareness.  You’ll write, listen to yourself, and be heard, perhaps for the very first time. No writing or meditation experience is necessary.

Facilitated by meditation mentor Sarah McLean & writer/artist Victoria Nelson.


At the Briar Patch Inn in Sedona, Arizona: Nestled in Oak Creek Canyon just a mile north of Sedona, along the lush banks of Oak Creek, sits the Briar Patch Inn – a secret hideaway which nurtures your relationship with nature.  The retreat location sits at the base of red rock mountains, surrounded by majestic canyon oaks, and dappled sunlight, creating a healing, magical oasis with private and shared cabins. The retreats in Sedona are limited to 15 women, lodging onsite with private and shared cabins available. To find out more about the retreat in Sedona call 928.204.0067.

Spirituality: The Next Starbucks?

starbucks

A few years ago, millions of people from around the globe were logging on to Oprah.com for Eckhart Tolle’s New Earth, Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose book study and webinar. It was the NY Times #1 bestseller of the moment. What is going on? Are meditation and spirituality going mainstream? I hope so.

Spirituality isn’t just confined to the New Age movement anymore, it is undeniably migrating to the center of mainstream cultural awareness. I mean, Oprah meditating live in front of millions of people? Yes, it happened.

What used to be considered a private aspect of life is spilling over into the public domain and onto the internet. Spirituality is becoming more popular, trendy even. And I am happy about that.

People are actually shopping for meaning and purpose. My husband is reading Michael Moe’s book, Finding the Next Starbucks, that says spirituality is a trend that is growing dramatically. I often imagine a meditation center next to every Starbucks. Meditation is a great way to start a day, better even than a grande half-caf soy latte.

When I worked at the Chopra Center in California, we started our day with a group meditation. It actually made my job easier. If for some reason I was late doing it, or had to miss it all together, I really felt it. It’s almost like not having your cup of coffee in the morning.

I believe the single, most significant step to opening your awareness or awakening to who you really are is by meditating every day.

How? Don’t worry, you can do it and you don’t have to join a religion, wear special robes, eat differently or believe anything. You don’t even have to stop thinking. Find a meditation class that focuses on a type of silent meditation, and be sure that it doesn’t emphasize any goal – like finding your animal totem, spiritual guide, or figuring out your past lives.

It is only when your mind is still, that you can truly experience the your true essence , your true self – the you that is beyond the roles you play and your self image.

The journey toward self-discovery that silent daily meditation activates will bring you inner contentment and clarity more quickly and completely than any other single activity I know. And once you experience the restful, deep stillness and peace that meditation provides, you will radiate that peacefulness to others. And over time, you’ll want to meditate more than you want that cup of coffee in the morning!

Peace Is the Way

  
Sedona's Natural Beauty. Photo by Mel Russell

Sedona's Natural Beauty. Photo by Mel Russell

I first wrote the article Peace is the Way while serving on the board of Keep Sedona Beautiful.  I was struggling to make sense out of why some people (i.e. developers and politicians) wouldn’t want to protect the natural environment – especially in and around one of the most beautiful places, Sedona.

A few years ago, the president of Keep Sedona Beautiful, Barbara Litrell and I went to Washington DC and delivered signed petitions from thousands of citizens to Congressman Rick Renzi, and Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain .

These petitions (we carried in in suitcases) urged them to introduce legislation which would protect Sedona’s environment.  Even though these fellows helped to draft the National Scenic Area legislation, they refused to introduce it. 

Unfortunately, land developers had already gotten to them.  One call from them outshined the concerns of the 3000+ people who signed petitions.  I decided instead of trying to change people’s minds, that I would practice what I often preach, and make changes from the inside out.  I would continue to meditate and teach meditation, and that. in effect, could change the consciousness around protecting the environment  (I know that is a little woo woo, but I am writing to you from Sedona). 

In the Sedona Red Rock News  I just read that our Arizona Congressional Dist. 1 Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick [D-Ariz.] announced on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009 that she will champion the National Scenic Area legislation to protect roughly 160,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land surrounding Sedona.

Congresswoman Kirkpatrick said she paid careful attention to the wishes of constituents in the area who wrote to encourage her to protect land situated next to Sedona in the Coconino National Forest from ever being traded to developers. 

 “The struggle for the designation has been going on for years,” said Angela LeFevre, Democrats of the Red Rocks president. “I would like to give sincere thanks to those at Keep Sedona Beautiful who have given so much of their time and energy to this cause.”

Victory…..Peace (for now).

You can visit this page to contact Ann Kirkpatrick to let her know your thoughts on the preservation of this special land. You know developers will.

World Peace via Inner Peace

Most people admit that world peace is something they’d like to see in their lifetime. However it’s not usually one of the reasons people give for wanting to learn to meditate.

Solutions to the conflict and the disasters facing the world today are on the minds of most of us. Along with hearing the news that we just might be on the brink of financial disaster, there are plenty of wars going on right now between and within nations, and then there’s the global climate change going on.

History has shown us that it’s not possible to legislate against conflict. Perhaps this is because wars are first fought in the minds of humans – and it is nearly impossible to change someone’s mind – never mind enacting legislation to change the way someone thinks.

Thoughts such as, “things should be different than they are,” “this person should act a different way,” ” they shouldn’t have done that,” “those people should believe what we believe,” or “their natural resources should be shared with us,” are the seeds of disagreement that can grow into, in extreme circumstances, war or some other calamity.

I have spent many hours trying to change people’s minds. Not only have I worked within the mind/body health field to encourage complementary medicine, I’ve lobbied for legislation to protect National Forests, conserve water, encourage commercial recycling, educate people about green building and alternative energy, and to promote humane treatment of animals. And yes, sometimes I have found myself arguing with those who don’t agree with me. Unfortunately, disagreements do not usually create peace, and they usually don’t net the results I am looking for.

Most people have heard Einstein’s assertion that goes something like this: You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.

This is why I always come back to meditation. Practicing it and teaching others how to meditate. It is different thinking…. literally. Through meditation a shift naturally occurs – instead of being at war with what is, I more easily experience a sense of peace with the way things are. This doesn’t mean I roll over and give up my convictions, but it simply means I can be more peaceful while advocating change.

In addition to finding more peace within, meditation has been touted as creating a more harmonious effect in our environment.

As long ago as 1974 people have been experimenting with meditation to create change in their own minds and their environment. Studies have shown that where the proportion of people in any community practicing a silent meditation, reached a particular threshold (about 1% of the population), changes started to occur in social trends. Crime, road accidents and hospital admissions decreased.

It may seem surprising that a few people meditating – simply meditating – not thinking of anything in particular – can, by the effect of their practice, influence the behavior of others in the environment, but it does make sense that our behavior is affected by the quality of our environment. This research gives great hope to those who have the vision of a better quality of life for humankind and all life.

When two nearby loudspeakers emit the same sound, these sound waves create a synergistic effect. They produce a sound volume equivalent to four loudspeakers (the square of the number of speakers, which is two). This is a universal principle of wave behavior, and commonly held knowledge in physics. When individuals meditating together in a group generate a ripple in consciousness or awareness, the power of their combined waves grows as the square of the number of individuals. So if four people were meditating, it could conceivably affect 16 people in their environment in a positive way.

Research confirms even relatively small groups can have enormous impact on their environment, and therefore their society.

Perhaps the reason that meditation as a means to peace hasn’t garnered much media attention is because with meditation there is no conflict, no drama, no winner or no loser, there is nothing to buy, and little money to be made from it. It is simple, anyone can do it, and it just might work. Here is my simple formula to increase peace in your life and in your environment.

1. Learn to meditate.

2. Meditate every day for at least 20 minutes

3. Meditate with a group whenever possible

4. Ask yourself, Who am I? What is my heart’s desire? What is my purpose in life? And listen

5. Speak your truth sweetly

6. Walk your talk

7. Don’t take anything personally

8. Live in the present moment- this is the only moment there really is.

(of course I have a lot more advice, but this is a start)

Endangered Silence

Sedona's Silence

I got up early and went outside. The wilderness in my backyard was still and quiet. There was no breeze and the delicate leaves of the mesquite tree stood as silent and unmoving as the red rocks.  I could hear the silence, it was palpable and refreshing.  I love this early morning before the pink jeeps start to crawl through the forests, or the helicopters hover above. The birds are chirping loudly this morning, and as I walk back into the house, I can hear my breath and my feet touching the ground.  In this moment it all comes back to me, it is a visceral sensation of peace that I remember from my stay at the Buddhist training center, where I’d spend days and days in silence and meditation.

An Entire Day in Front of the Television?

Our culture and perhaps most cultures in the modern world, value getting things done quickly and filling every moment with sensual stimuli: music from your iPod, a friend’s voice or text message on the cell phone, the videos, audios, and written word on the internet, the programs you play back on your TiVo, the music from the radio in your car, the words from the newspaper, or the images in the magazines in your dentist’s office. There is a wide variety of stimuli and there is no end to the noise and distraction we are dealing with.

And if you think I am making this ‘noise thing’ up, let’s take a look at what’s going on in America’s living rooms.  According to Nielsen Media Research, half of our homes have three or more TVs, and at least one of those sets is on for an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes every day!  The average American watches TV for 4 hours and 34 minutes every day – so in one week, the typical American has spent over one entire day sitting in front of the tube. In a year, that amounts to well over two months!

We can hardly hear ourselves think, never mind make thoughtful choices in our lives. Scientific research claims that we have close to 80,000 thoughts each day. Those thoughts relentlessly layer us with our musings of the past as well as our future desires. The magic of the present moment is where stillness and silence converge — the “gap” between our thoughts.  And this is a rare experience these days unless you make room for it.

Silencing the Din

As a remedy to the constant noise and distraction, some people have come to practice mindfulness, a discipline of being fully present while doing just one thing.  Try this mindfulness eating exercise where you’ll eat a piece of fruit without conversation, radio, television or reading:  

Choose a piece of fruit, and sit down.

Experience the fruit.  

Smell it, look at it, feel it, see the light reflect on its shape.

Then begin to eat it with your full attention on peeling, breaking open, chewing and tasting the fruit.

Take your time.

Later, you can practice the same mindfulness process while typing an email, driving, walking, or even listening to another person.  You can also schedule a family meal or a meal with friends and eat it completely in silence. See what arises then.

Silence is Golden

Being in silence enables us to actually experience what we are experiencing, and the practice begins to quiet the mind. For those who practice silence daily, their awareness eventually transcends the constant distraction of the thoughts of the past, the future, and the running commentary about our life and the people, places, and things it is made up of. 

Some people sit in silence through meditation or prayer. There are many ways to practice silence, and each has something in common:  each moment we spend in silence teaches us more about who we really are, and what we are really experiencing.  Silence offers each of us an opportunity be in the present moment, where we can commune with our life and the intelligence that underlies it, and the magnificent, subtle and silent qualities of nature.

The practice of Silent Meditation

Silent sitting meditation is still the main practice in Buddhism which was founded 25 centuries ago by Gautama Buddha. Buddha practiced and taught meditation as a universal remedy for suffering.  Though Buddhism was born in India, its teachings travelled throughout the world to China, Nepal, Tibet, Japan, Burma, and all of Southeast Asia. Each time the practice met a new land, it would take on a different flavor. There are many names for silent sitting meditation: Zazen, Sati, Shikantaza, Vipassana, Insight, Mindfulness, just to name a few.

One of the names for the meditation practice is Vipassana. As Buddhism passed through Burma, it found a home in Burmese monasteries which kept the teachings alive for many centuries. Vipassana literally means, “To see clearly” and refers to insight: insight into the truth of impermanence, insight and seeing things as they really are.

The practice of Vipassana is about watching the mind, and to some, can be a practice that takes a whole lifetime.  The purpose of the practice is to expand one’s awareness and to become more alert, or conscious.  It is also a way of self-transformation through self-observation. Vipassana, meditation, or insight practice is simple yet has profound effects on the mind and body.

Here’s how it’s done:

Sit in a reasonably comfortable and alert position. Some people sit in the traditional lotus posture (Indian style or cross-legged), others may choose to sit in a chair with their feet flat on the floor. Either way, your back and head should be straight, chin tucked in slightly.  And you should be comfortable.

In Vipassana, this posture is with eyes closed. In zazen (the Japanase Buddhist sitting meditation), your eyes will remain open, not wide open and not closed, but somewhere in between – open enough to allow some light in. You shouldn’t be staring at anything, your eyes should be relaxed and softly focused. The downward gaze of the eyes should be at about a 45 degree angle and rest on the floor about 2-3 feet in front of you. When gazing downward, keep your face straight ahead so that if your eyes were wide open you would be looking straight ahead. Only your gaze is cast downward, not your head.

In zazen, the hands are held in a specific way to help to turn your attention inward: both hands held palms up. The right hand on the bottom holding the left hand palm up, so that the knuckles of both hands overlap. The thumbs are lightly touching, thus the hands seem to form an oval, which can rest on your thighs.

Breathe normally through your nose. Stay as still as possible and only change position if it is really necessary. While sitting, the primary objective is to be aware of the breath and the sensations of the breath moving in and out of the body. This practice is not a concentration technique, so while watching the breath; many other things will take your attention away. 

Nothing is considered a distraction in this form of meditation, so when something else comes up, stop watching the breath, pay attention to whatever is happening until it’s possible to go back to your breath.  This may include thoughts, feelings, judgments, body sensations, impressions from the outside world, etc.  It is the process of paying attention, or watching, that is significant, not so much what you are watching.  So remember not to become identified with whatever comes up: questions or problems may just be seen as mysteries to be enjoyed.

When we observe the breath, this allows the mind to become naturally focused. Another part of the Vipassana practice involves carefully “scanning” the surface of the body with one’s attention and observing the sensations with equanimity. This helps us to become more aware of the ‘impermanence’ of all things. This prepares one for another aspect of the practice which naturally unfolds – a non-attached observation of the reality of the present moment.

The Extended Practice of Sitting Silent Meditation

I lived two years as a resident in a Zen Buddhist training center (the Japanese form of Buddhism), where there was a lot of silence.  I craved the silence and loved living a simple life so close to nature. I practiced Shikantaza, which is a “goalless” meditation of quiet awareness: a form of Buddhist meditation. The training center was started in California by a Japanese priest named Taizan Maezumi Roshi. There were other Zen training centers in America run by his contemporaries, the most famous among them Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.

Sometimes we would observe a Day of Reflection during while we’d spend a day in silence and meditation, reflecting on the Buddhist precepts which we subscribed to: among them, nonviolence, reverence for life, non-stealing, conscious loving relationships, and truth in speech and action.

While our regular daily routine in the training center required us to meditate and work several hours a day, there were extended training periods from ten days to two months called sesshins. During a sesshin we’d devote ourselves exclusively to sitting (what they call meditation, or zazen, in the Zen Buddhist tradition).

Sesshin literally means “gathering the mind” and it consists of many (up to nine) 30- to 40-minute-long meditation periods. Between the periods we’d practice a walking meditation (called kinhin), formal meal meditations (called oryoki), and short periods of work (samu practice).  Each activity was performed in silence with mindfulness. The meditation practice was occasionally interrupted by the teacher giving public talks, or sometimes we could silently leave to wait our turn for an individual private meeting (called dokusan) with the Zen teacher. We slept from five to seven hours a night, and our early morning meditation began shortly after four a.m.  

A New Perspective

I found that I needed at least two to three days of sesshin to have my mind “settle down” into routine. It would become quiet enough for deeper self realization to begin. That’s when my mind stops its habits, and stops saying “you’ll be happier in a minute, or when this happens.” Suddenly there’s a joy, a lightness, in everything – every simple moment. Brushing my teeth becomes an incredibly joyous experience, and I marvel as the toothbrush moves in my mouth. The very act of breathing, walking, drinking tea or chewing is a wondrous.  Each moment is profound, and sometimes, if I am lucky, everything becomes one: the tree is me. The squirrel is me. The vast, boundless sky is me. These are not words; this is an experience of reality, stark and wild and gorgeous.

Many people are seeking this new perspective, a way out of the suffering they experience or perceive in other people’s lives.  And they’re finding their way to meditation retreats all around the world.  However, most people don’t want to change their religion or become Buddhist. This is understandable, yet there seems to be a real need, or a craving to experience a deep silence, a deep peace, and to be supported in taking a time out for a silent retreat.

I’ve been hearing a lot about ten-day silent Vipassana retreats that are becoming more and more popular. These are retreats based on the teachings of S.N. Goenka. As a young successful industrialist, this Burmese born Indian man, S.N. Goenka, suffered from chronic migraines from which he sought relief.  This led him to meditation. He studied Vipassana meditation and eventually helped to establish Vipassana meditation centers worldwide. He calls Vipassana meditation an “experiential scientific practice, through which one can observe the constantly changing nature of the mind and body at the deepest level, a profound understanding that leads to a truly happy and peaceful life.”

These centers regularly offer ten-day Vipassana meditation courses.  At the centers’ silent meditation courses, recordings of S.N. Goenka’s teachings are played. In them, Goenka states that “The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught the way to liberation – which is universal.”   Goenka opens these retreats to people of all faiths or of no faith.

Intensive Silence

Like sesshin, there is a rigorous and serious nature of the ten-day Vipassana meditation. It’s an intensive, and it’s not intended to be the usual way of being. To use an exercise analogy, it’s like lifting weights at maximum effort; it’s important for getting stronger, but it can’t be done all the time. However, it’s an opportunity to cultivate a profound stillness, an awareness of things that is much more expanded than what we normally have.

If you go to a retreat like these, you could be in meditation for up to ten hours a day. You’ll be asked to have no contact with the outside world or other students. This is called ‘Noble Silence’. Noble silence means no communication with anyone, either through voice, eye contact, gestures, or any other kind of signaling (though they may talk to a teacher about questions concerning the technique or other issues).  There is no reading, writing or listening to music or other forms of media.  The food is purposefully bland, and the setting is usually austere. There is little to do but watch the nature of the mind.

And here is the paradox, as you settle into silence, your mind will begin to rebel and you’ll experience what some meditators call “monkey mind’.  Eventually however, you’ll become aware of a thought rather than grasped by a thought. The difference is subtle, but significant. The monkey quietens. When you are aware of your thoughts, you can let your thoughts arise and dissolve without letting them pull you in different directions. You can’t stop thinking by trying to stop thinking. Most people have tried that and it doesn’t work. The only way to stop thinking is to transcend thought.

I’ve heard someone say once, “we shouldn’t call it a retreat, it’s an advance.”  It may seem like a week of structure and silence is a long time. It seems like it might get boring, but there is always another challenge. 

Experiences I’ve had and have heard about during retreats vary from feeling restless and bored, having lots of thoughts, repetition of songs stuck in your head, feeling extreme amounts of pain, feeling emotionally turbulent, feeling extreme peace and contentment, sensing compassion for yourself and all living things, planning menus or designing a new house, feeling trapped, seeing things very clearly, hearing the slightest sound, feeling the slightest change in air temperature, feeling completely unbounded, wanting to do it again, never wanting to do it again.

B. Benson, a participant of a ten-day Viapssana retreat reports:  “It was an incredibly surreal 10 days. Both in the sense of learning about myself and my mind, as well as adapting to the culture of silent community living and the weird meditation practice itself.  My mood went soaringly high during certain days and abysmally low during others. I’ve heard that people are often tempted to leave on certain days.  The inability to share or compare notes with anyone else during this time was an interesting constraint… it forced me to resolve these issues on my own without consulting the consensus. I think that this helped me both to avoid becoming too negative or too positive. It allowed my mood to swing up and down even higher as I didn’t have to remain consistent to anyone. I went from being determined to leave, to deciding to stay, at least twice.”

In her very funny book Holy Cow author Sarah MacDonald writes about her spiritual travels through India, and described some of her experiences well into the retreat: “It’s been ten days without a mirror and not seeing the thing that most people recognize as me makes me less aware of the boundary of self. . . . . .  I couldn’t sense where I ended and nothingness began  . . . . I’ve caught a glimpse of the Buddhist and Vipassana notion that there is no permanent self to cling to. I lost my ego, my core…… I do feel some bliss, some generosity and kindness growing within me.”

Whether for a few minutes, or for ten days, the practice of silent meditation, whatever name you use for it, can sharpen your senses and bring you greater wisdom and insight. It is, for good reason, considered a direct path to enlightenment.  It shines the light on the nature of who you really are and the world out there.  Meditation can open us to a world beyond our prejudices, and habits of mind.  Like the Buddha, we can step away from everything we are certain about.

Good Reasons to Meditate

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 At a recent group meditation, we shared with each the reasons we keep meditating.  I thought they would be of interest to you.  Some of us have been meditating many years, and others just a few months.  We all agreed on these benefits.

 Because of meditation…….

  • I don’t get so triggered, I feel a sense of equanimity in almost every situation.
  • I have more trust that everything is unfolding perfectly, and faith that life is good.
  • I feel like I am on the right track and that improves my self confidence.
  • I am much less anxious and feel calm and centered.
  • My spiritual life has improved, I feel a connection with my higher power that I hadn’t felt before.
  • I can stay in the moment. I worry less about the future and how everything is going to turn out.
  • I don’t take what happens personally.
  • My relationships are more fulfilling, and I communicate my needs more easily.
  • My aches and pains are gone, and I feel really good.
  • I actually can hear my intuitive voice and I follow my intuition more.
  • I experience a lot more synchronicities in my life.
  • My focus on tasks at hand has improved and I am clearer about what I want and don’t want.
  • I wake up every morning feeling loved.
  • I actually have more time in the day to do other things.
  • I sleep much better and am alert all day.

Do you have other reasons you like to meditate? I’d love to hear them.

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