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?


A few years ago, millions of people from around the globe were logging on to 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!

Follow your Path

Finding Your Life's Purpose, Your Path to Self-Discovery

Follow Your Path

How to Open Yourself to Your Life’s Purpose

“Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?” Asking these questions marks the beginning of your search to finding your life’s purpose. Following the path toward a life of meaning and purpose is different for everyone. Here are some steps that have been taken by many who live a fulfilling life.

Become more self-aware so you acknowledge how you really feel. Are you fully  fully satisfied, or it is time for a change? One of the keys to living a life of meaning and purpose is acknowledging the nagging feeling that there was more to life than what you are doing now. Perhaps you don’t feel satisfied, and nothing on the horizon looks like it will do the trick. Do you sense there is a greater reason for being but don’t know what it is?  Have you had enough? Do you dread going to work? Do you feel unfulfilled? Do you feel bored and unhappy?

Ask yourself these important questions: Begin your day with meditation or prayer, and ask yourself these questions:  What is my purpose in this life? Why am I really here? What is my heart’s desire?  Then listen. The answers might not come to you right away, but be patient, and look for clues. Don’t try to come up with the answers intellectually, or figure it out; these are questions that you want to be answered in a more expanded way.

Listen to your inner voice. Listen to your inner voice above all. Meditation is a key to unlock your intuition. By spending time in silence every day through meditation or prayer you can expand your awareness and quiet the noise and distractions from the outside. Listening to your inner wisdom takes practice, and anyone can do it. Intuition is a very wise, yet quiet voice. It is very real, and doesn’t steer you wrong. When you act on your intuition and respond authentically to the cues around you, you’ll begin to trust your own wisdom and unlock the keys to your happiness.

Notice what you are attracted to, pay attention to your internal yes and no, or your yums and yucks, and act on them. Your body is wise, just think, it exchanges oxygen molecules for carbon dioxide molecules, constantly replaces the cells in your body, controls your temperature and your heartbeat, and so much more. Your body is wise; it is your best friend. You can tune into and become more aware of your sensations of comfort and discomfort, listen to the quiet voice inside, and really pay attention to what you are attracted to. Becoming aware and honoring how you feel in each moment is vital to a successful journey toward a more fulfilling life.

Tune out the “should’s” from those around you. Take a leap of faith and trust in your dreams. A bad habit is when we are dependent on others people’s opinions of us, and defer to their idea of what we should do rather than following our dreams. Finding your purpose sometimes means going against the advice of close friends and family.

Gandhi once said,

“There are times when you have to obey a call which is the highest of all, i.e. the voice of conscience, even though such obedience may cost many a bitter tear, and even more, separation from friends, from family, from the state to which you may belong, from all that you have held as dear as life itself. For this obedience is the law of our being.”

Look for clues and be open to possibilities: Clues to your life’s purpose might be found in the answers to these questions: How do you spend your free time? What were your hobbies were when you were a kid left to express your own creativity? Perhaps you’ll find clues in books or cds that catch your attention. Spend time with people who are living their dreams and are talking about things you are attracted to or are thinking about. When you are onto something, synchronicities may become more frequent, that is a big clue. An opportunity to find and express your passion might be revealed or serendipitous event that reminds you of what’s important and what makes you happy.

Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull writes:

“Nothing happens by chance, my friend… No such thing as luck. A meaning behind every little thing, and such a meaning behind this. Part for you, part for me, may not see it all real clear right now, but we will, before long.”

Notice who you admire, and put your attention on what kind of person you want to be. You might admire your mom, or grandfather, or a mythological or biblical figure, or a world leader or boss. Make a list of who they are and what qualities they have. Those who you admire are showing you the qualities that you can bring out in your own life. Determine how you already show those qualities and acknowlege that. What you put your attention on grows. So check your list and aim to embody the qualities of those you admire.

Be patient. Trust the wisdom of the universe. You will sense that you are onto something when you experience joy or peace in the moment, feel energized by your activity, or sense that you are being supported in your efforts by the universe, nature, God or your higher power. Know that life is on your side. Have faith and patience. Be open to signs and wonders, coincidences and opportunities. Keep your commitment and take small steps to make it happen.

Practice gratitude. Putting your attention on what you have and then asking for what you want will keep you from regretting the present moment. Grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life. According to the experts, it’s easy to regret the time you’ve spent being unhappy or unfulfilled. Research has found that those who practice gratitude report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress. The disposition toward gratitude appears to enhance pleasant feeling states more than it diminishes unpleasant emotions.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, shares how he found his passion:

“I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love…. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

How do you know when you are on the ‘right’ path? Here are some of the signs people cite:

“It took me quite a bit of whole-body tuning-in to learn to feel it, but there’s a physical sensation of sweet ease in the center of yourself, between your chest and belly, that will let you know you are moving in the right direction.” Gay Hendricks, author Conscious Loving.

“The first sign would be a feeling of general happiness and satisfaction. If you drag out of bed in the morning and can barely face the day, then you’re definitely not on the right path. If you hop out of bed and you are enthused about what you are doing, then you are.” –Deborah King, Ph.D., author of Truth Heals: What You Hide Can Hurt You.

In his book and DVD, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Dr. Deepak Chopra shares that everyone has a unique purpose in this life:

“We all seek our unique destiny, our place in the cosmic plan. It is known as dharma and it is more than seeking work that you love. The root of the word ‘dharma’ in Sanskrit means ‘to uphold.’ This is a valuable clue. You know you’ve become part of the cosmic design when the universe upholds and supports you. Every principle of nature comes to your aid, every power supports you spontaneously.

“The universal mind choreographs everything that is happening in billions of galaxies with elegant precision and unfaltering intelligence. Its intelligence is ultimate and supreme, permeating every fiber of existence from the smallest to the largest, from the atom to the cosmos. You are an impulse of the universe.”

“Everyone has a purpose in life, a unique gift or special talent to give to others. When we blend this unique talent with service to others, we experience the ecstasy and exultation of our own spirit, which is the ultimate goal of all goals.”

Sarah McLean, founder and director of the Sedona Meditation Training Co., was the education director of the Chopra Center in California and has taught hundreds of people to meditate. Find out more, call (928) 204-0067, or visit

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.

Do I Really Have to Sit Like That?

Do I really have to sit like that? These days we are constantly stimulated – mentally, emotionally and physically. Not surprisingly, taking a break from this stimulation actually improves your health, your work, your relationships, and your life.

That is why meditation is becoming more and more popular. It is a great way to take a break, unplug, and reduce stress that builds up and causes disease.

Did you know that over 60% of all doctors’ visits are due to stress related complaints? Meditation is the perfect antidote for stress. And it is a great way to find out who you really are.

Meditation is a time-tested practice that benefits mind, body and spirit. Through inner exploration, meditation awakens creativity, healing, and transformation.

Quieting the mind, or meditation in general, can seem impossible to do especially for a beginner. The mind is used to wandering and being focused outward, and focus inward might not come easily at first. Through the practice of meditation, the nervous system grows used to turning inward.

Here are some misconceptions I hear all the time about meditation and the reason people are not so sure they can do it. And information to set you straight.

I can’t stop thinking.

That’s right, you can’t – it is nearly impossible to stop thinking by thinking about it.   The nature of the mind is to think, like the nature of your eye is to see.  Over time, as you practice meditation correctly however, you’ll find that you can easily access more and more subtle levels of thinking, and eventually, more and more silence.  The mind stops thinking on its own, for a moment or two. Thoughts will always be a part of your meditation.

I will have to work very hard to meditate correctly.

Meditation is something that anyone can learn.  I haven’t met one person who can’t do it. It does take the ability to sit relatively still, with your eyes closed or semi-closed, and the willingness to put your attention on a focus. Most people can do that. Some meditations have you focus on an area of your body, or a color, a candle flame, a sound, or a thought. You’ll need to spend a few minutes every day to practice turning your attention inward, but anyone can do it. Most people can do it easily the very first time.

I’ve  listened to CDs and read books, and I can’t do it.

As long as you can sit down and close your eyes, you can meditate. Most people have so many expectations about what they should be experiencing in meditation, that it can make it nearly impossible to sit easily without effort. I always suggest that people get professional instruction by someone who has had years of daily meditation experience. I also think it is helpful to have a seasoned meditator to practice with sometimes, so you’ll gain confidence that you can actually do it.

I’ll have to wear unusual clothing.

You don’t need to wear a special robe, hat, or love beads  You don’t need to chant out loud either. Though you can if you want to. But it doesn’t necessarily make you more of a meditator.  Meditation is a personal experience: you do it the way you want to by following the techniques that suit you and your lifestyle.  Always be kind to yourself, and stay with your own integrity. Just because some people insist you should look a certain way if you are really into meditation, heed your own inner wisdom, trust yourself and do what you want.

Meditation will make me too relaxed to get in the game.

Most people are used to functioning while being tense or stressed, and they feel it’s the only way to get something done. You know, Red Bull, caffeine, performance, competition, beat yourself until you get it right. In reality, over time, the effects of stress can lessen your ability to concentrate or make good decisions.  You won’t become lazy or too relaxed: you’ll be clearer, and operate in your life from a place of centeredness and balance. You’ll probably gain some focus, creativity and better concentration. With meditation, you’ll learn be more relaxed and you can do less and accomplish more. Nice!

Isn’t it dangerous? Won’t I leave my body or run into evil spirits?

I live in Sedona, and there is an emphasis on the experiences in meditation. But I look for the experiences in my life to show me whether meditation is working or safe. Some people get great insights and others love it when they lose a sense of where their body begins and ends.  But my experience over the past 20 years has been that meditation isn’t like that, at least the type of meditation that helps you to transcend the world of thought and form.  The real reason to meditate is to have a better life. There are so many experiences you can have in meditation: you’ll have thoughts (lots of them), get distracted by noises outside, feel uncomfortable, see colors, feel relaxed, feel restless, feel bliss, etc. But the real measure of how your meditation is working is by taking a look at your life. Are you happier, healthier, more relaxed? Are your relationships more fulfilling, are you making better choices?

I’ll have to change my religion, because Buddhists and Hindus know what’s up.

Meditation is a practice, not a religion. Many of the techniques come from an Eastern religion of philosophy, but meditation can be secular too. It is really about closing your eyes, sitting still, and reconnecting with who you really are. You can meditate if you are atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Quaker, Buddhist, Hindu, anything. Regardless of your background or beliefs you can meditate. It might even make you more connected with the religion you already practice.  Or it might strengthen your connection with your creator, whatever your belief is.

I am so busy, I don’t have the time in my day.

How long do you wait in line for a latte? How much time do you spend checking your email? Most of us have five minutes extra a day. It is totally worth taking this time out for a time in. I think of meditation as the perfect way to reduce stress, and it rejuvenates me.  If you meditate for a short time each day, you’ll receive more benefits than sitting in front of the TV or surfing the internet. It’s all about priorities, and your health and happiness.

It is for weirdos.

I used to be considered weird by my family, before they got married, had kids, got jobs, got stressed. I headed off to an ashram, lived in a monastery, made meditation my priority.  Now that their kids are teens, and they themeslves aren’t kids anymore, they realize that I might be onto something.  They ask me how I am so happy, why I look so good, and why I am so healthy. Yes, in our culture, it might just seem strange to see someone sitting up with their eyes closed, in silence, without their iPod in, for an extended period of time, but it really isn’t.  That being said, some people who meditate are definitely weird and have really unusual beliefs. But there are people like that everywhere.

I cannot sit like that.

Even though sitting in the lotus position, a traditional yoga posture for meditation; it’s not required for you to sit in any special way.  If crossing your legs is uncomfortable, it won’t help you to turn your attention inward. You can meditate while you are sitting down almost anywhere – as long as you are not driving. I teach people to sit in a chair and they can have their back supported, or not. It is best not to lie down (you’ll fall asleep and that is NOT meditation.)  Some people sit on cushions on the floor, others sit up against their headboards when they wake up in the morning. It is totally up to you. The most important thing is that you do it!

There are many different types of meditation. Some examples are following the breath, repeating a mantra out loud or silently, chanting, walking meditations, or gazing at a candle. Find out more here. Each individual has a unique experience with each one. You’ll find what works for you.

Just for a few seconds, notice the way the breath is flowing into and out of your body. There are many little things to notice about the way breath feels, and if you start paying attention to it, you can settle into meditation.

Anyone can learn to meditate. Don’t have any experience? Don’t worry. If you can think a thought, you can meditate, and you don’t have to change a thing – not your diet, your religion, your beliefs – nothing. You just have to have the desire to do it and then take a short time out every day. You’ll notice the benefits unfold naturally and effortlessly.

Sarah McLean director of Sedona Meditation Training can be reached at (928) 204-0067.

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


 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.

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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