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.

Meditation: Hanging out with your self


Jeanna Zelin is a student of Sarah McLean’s.  We often get asked the questions what is meditation and how do I meditate in my hectic life.  We would like to share Jeanna’s experiences and explorations with you.          

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m driving north on the 101 to Scottsdale.  Only this time I’m not heading to Scottsdale Fashion Square or to some hip, new restaurant.  I am off on one of my boundary-expanding adventures.  I am stepping out of my daily routine to learn how to meditate.

It’s already around a hundred degrees out, so I figure sitting in a cool, studio suite learning to clear my inner clutter might not be such a bad way to spend the day.  Besides, taking a break from the techno-charged world of cell phones, e-mail, IPODs and Blackberries might do me some good.

Sarah, the teacher, has a very soothing manner, and her eyes dance as she describes the practice of meditation and what we will be learning over the course of the weekend.

My mind wanders as I contemplate how I will ever be able to sit through a class on keeping my mind from wandering.

I would later learn that meditation is not about forcing my mind to be quiet; rather it’s a process to rediscover the quietness that is already there underlying the chatter of my thoughts.

Sarah talks about how there’s no good or bad meditation,  no judgment and no criticism.  “Anyone can meditate,” she says.  “Just bring your attention to your primordial sound, and whenever you notice your attention has drifted to other thoughts in the mind, or sounds in the environment, bring your attention back to your mantra. It doesn’t matter how many times you lose your mantra.”

In just a half-hour spent in my own silence, I learned more than I ever would in my usual, hyper-distracted and information-overloaded life.

So I decided to delve deeper into the realm of meditation.  Here’s what I discovered.

Meditation: What is It?
Webster’s Dictionary defines meditation as “engaging in mental exercise (as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness”.  Other definitions I’ve heard describe meditation as a way to tap into the sacred silence that lies within or how to get in touch with your true nature.

The word meditation is derived from two Latin words: meditari (to think, to dwell upon, to exercise the mind) and mederi (to heal). Its Sanskrit derivation medha means wisdom.

I like Victor Davich’s definition from his book, 8 Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind.  Change Your Life.  He says that meditation is allowing what is.

Sounds too easy.

Of course I would find out that it’s not that simple.  Meditation requires patience (with yourself) and practice (by yourself).

Meditation usually involves slow, regular breathing and sitting quietly for 15 to 20 minutes.  While there is no right or wrong way to practice, most instructors agree that it’s best to find a fairly quiet place free from distraction.  Sitting is sometimes preferred to lying down (in order to avoid falling asleep).  Then simply relax your muscles and breathe in a free and natural way.

In his book, Getting in the Gap, Dr. Wayne Dyer explains meditation as a way to get in “the gap,”  which is a place between your thoughts.  It is the place where you can be still and release yourself from the 60,000 thoughts hurtling through your mind during the course of a day.

Practiced for nearly 5,000 years in Eastern religions, meditation seems to also have become more mainstream in Western cultures.  Americans are learning to take the time to sit and say “Om.”  Probably in part due to the scientific evidence that shows how meditation produces long-lasting changes in brain activity, improves health, and reduces stress.

Benefits of Meditation
Recent research indicates that meditating brings about dramatic effects in as little as ten minutes.  Meditation can reduce the effects of such illnesses as stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, chronic pain and insomnia.

In people who are meditating, brain scans have shown an increase in activity in areas that control metabolism and heart rate. Other studies on Buddhist monks have shown that meditation produces long-lasting changes in the brain activity in areas involved in attention, working memory and learning.

According to Dr. Herbert Benson, author of the Relaxation Response and professor of medicine at the Mind Body Medical Institute at Harvard University, found through his research that meditation acts as an antidote to stress.  Under stress, the nervous system activates the “fight-or-flight” response. The activity of the sympathetic portion of the nervous system increases, causing an increased heartbeat, increased respiratory rate, elevation of blood pressure and an increase in oxygen consumption. This fight-or-flight response has an important survival function. It helps an organism run quickly to escape an attack or to fight off an attacker. However, when this stress response is activated continuously, as happens for many people in today’s over-scheduled world, the effects are harmful. And the flight or fight response does nothing to help when you have too many emails or are stuck in a traffic jam.

Through his research, Dr. Benson demonstrated that the effects of meditation directly counteract the fight-or-flight response.  Meditation decreases the heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and oxygen consumption.  Those who practice meditation report feeling more relaxed and generally experience an overall state of wellbeing.

Types of Meditation
There are many traditions and countless ways to practice meditation.  I googled “types of meditation” and got 2,110,000 results.  There is not just one way to meditate. You must find the way that is best for you personally. It does not matter what technique you choose, the foundation of all techniques is focus and attention.

Some of the more widespread types of meditation include: transcendental meditation, vipassana meditation, Zen meditation, Taoist meditation, mindfulness meditation and Buddhist meditation.  There are perhaps hundreds more methods out there.

The course I took is called Primordial Sound Meditation.  Derived from the yoga tradition of India and recently popularized by Dr. Deepak Chopra, this technique is based on the basic sounds of nature.  Once you learn the unique vibration of nature that corresponds to the exact time of your birth, you repeat this as a mantra.  Focus on this mantra helps take our awareness away from the repetitive thoughts of daily life brings our awareness to our own inner silence.

This place of being still and connecting to something deeper within ourselves is available at every moment.

And given our current manic pace and over-scheduled lives, a little “being” sure beats more “doing.”

Article by Jeanna Zelin

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.

The Yogic Art of Gazing

The yogic art of gazing

candle3Trataka – also called Yogic gazing – is an ancient technique using the sense of sight – both internally and externally. The gaze is fixed on an object like a candle flame for some time and then that object is visualized clearly with your eyes closed, as an inner image at the eyebrow center.  It is very relaxing and is classified as a cleansing practice in yoga.  It is the perfect way to de-stress, and there are always opportunities to stare at candle flames this time of year!

This powerful practice especially relevant in today’s stressful times to increase focus and attention, and to create a sense of deep silence and rest. It is also said to also develop the “third” eye – the seat of intuition or that associated with “psychic” powers.

How it is done?
Trataka can be practiced on several objects, but the most popular and effective gazing at flame. This is because a flame (such as a candle flame) produces the best after-image that helps in easier visualization of the flame even when eyes are closed. This is the desired effect of Trataka -visualizing and concentrating on the image even when the eyes are closed.

You can do this practice before or after or separately from your regular meditation practice.  

Soon you will be able to hold the image of the flame steady with your eyes closed. There is a great restfulness that results from candle concentration.
Turn off your phones, television, radio and computer. This is a silent meditation.

  • Safely place a lighted candle 3 – 5 feet in front of you at eye level.
  • Sit in a comfortable crossed legged position or in a chair, feet on the floor.
  • Take off your eyeglasses or contact lenses, and adjust the distance between the candle and yourself so that you can observe a relatively clear image of the candle wick without blur.
  • Gaze directly into the flame of the candle for approximately two minutes. Keep your eyes relaxed while fixing the gaze on the wick. Try not to blink.
  • Then close your eyes and lightly press the palms of your hands against your eyes.
  • You should retain the image of the flame at the eye brow center. If you don’t see it, don’t be disappointed – you will start seeing it with practice.
  • Bring your focus to that image. If the image wanders or disappears, bring it back by simply looking for it with your inner vision (with your eyes closed).
  • Keep the palms lightly pressed against the closed eyes for an additional two minutes, four minutes in all.
  • Open your eyes slowly and re-start the meditation. Do it as often as you like for a total of 20 minutes.

At the end of your meditation, slowly open your eyes.  Do not get up right away.  Slowly move into activity.

Sarah McLean talks with Conscious Media Network

Preview  – talking about meditation, of course.

Hi there, here’s a snippet of my interview with Regina of the Conscious Media Network.

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.

What is Mindfulness Anyway?

Blue BuddhaWhat are you doing right now? You are probably sitting and reading this. But what else are you doing? Thinking? Eating? Listening to music? Spending time with your family?

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn, if you haven’t heard of him, is the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He also wrote the books Wherever You Go, There You Are, and Coming to our Senses

Mindfulness is a term used to describe the practice of bringing one’s awareness back (i.e. from the past or the future or distraction of any kind) into the present moment.

Mindfulness can be practiced formally as a meditation, and it is also a practice that can be done at any time. It does not require sitting a certain way, or even focusing on the breath. It does require bringing your focus on whatever is happening in the present moment, and simply noticing the mind’s usual commentary. That being said, mindfulness meditation definitely helps one’s awareness to settle down, and eventually creates a silent backdrop behind activity – this makes it easier to practice present moment awareness.

Any activity done mindfully is a form of meditation. Mindfulness can be done in almost any situation. You can be mindful of the sensations in one’s feet while walking, or the feeling of warm soapy water on the hands while doing dishes. You can also become mindful of the mind’s judgement and continual commentary: “I wish I didn’t have to walk any further, I like the sound of the leaves rustling, I wish washing dishes wasn’t so boring and the soap wasn’t drying out my skin”, etc.

Let’s look at the practice of eating mindfully – when we sit down to eat we are purposefully aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the way our body is positioned, the sensations in our body, and the mind and body’s responses to those sensations. You might notice the mind wandering, and when it does, you can purposefully bring your attention back to the eating. Mindfulness is a continual refocusing on the present moment.

When one eats without awareness, you may in theory know you are eating, but you might be thinking about many other things at the same time, and may also be watching TV, talking, or reading – or all of those. So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions. We almost miss the experience. Have you ever eaten a meal and not remembered eating the whole thing? That is the opposite of mindfulness!

Why would someone want to practice mindfulness? Well, it is one of the meditation techniques practiced and proven to be effective in many research projects leading to:

  • Increased self-awareness, self-trust, and self- acceptance
  • Enhanced appreciation of life
  • Serenity in the face of difficulties
  • Lasting decreases in a variety of stress-related physical symptoms, including chronic pain
  • Significant decreases in anxiety and depression
  • Improved concentration and creativity
  • Improved immune system functioning
  • Decreased symptoms secondary to cancer
  • More accepting attitude toward life and its challenges
  • Now who wouldn’t want that?

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