Meditation

Practice, contemplation, and insights

Wintry Mix

As I write, big fat flakes of snow are falling against a pale gray sky that is struggling to turn to daylight.  It is too early to know how much of the storm will be snow or freezing rain or just plain rain, though all are both possible and probable.  If there is mostly snow or mostly rain, some of those I know will be sure to say the weather forecast is never right.  My experience is that the weather forecasters are usually quite accurate about pointing out the probabilities and then sometimes the probabilities at the far end of the spectrum are the ones that happen, which makes the forecast apparently off the mark.

I am always entranced with the anticipation of a storm.  It only takes the slightest shift in temperature in the atmosphere or a move of a degree or two of the pressure system for there to be a dramatic change in the outcome — a day of rain or a half an inch of ice or several inches of snow.  I think all relationships — to places, jobs, people, illnesses, our meditation practices are like that.  Just the subtlest shifts in atmosphere and attitude and the whole thing can seem completely different.  What I continue to work on is to open to the best path that results from the combination of factors.  If because of a less than optimal shift, there is an ice storm with power outages and downed wires and trees, then I try to learn why it happened, see the beauty, and try to shift in a better way.  It is hard, and I do not always succeed, but I continue to make the effort.

I remember my first big icestorm.  I was in high school and at a big party a few miles from my parents house.  We were teenagers and mostly oblivious.  We just thought it was raining and continued partying.  At some point, we realized that everything was coated with ice, and then we needed to start calling on help to get home.  It was disappointing to have the party end prematurely, but very exciting to have the wild and unusual weather.  And the next morning, when the temperature dropped and the sun came out, the whole world glittered.

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Akasha (space)

When we can connect to the essence of the element of akasha, space, within ourselves, we feel less crowded by things pressing in on the outside, whether it be actual confinement or overcrowdedness or the sense of crowding from having too many pressing things to do.  For those of us who live in the District of Columbia, this weekend, with the extra million or two or three people in our neighborhoods and using our transportation systems is a great opportunity to discover the spaciousness within.

Practice dwelling in a supremely spacious place in your heart when you meditate this week.  Start by visualizing a vast space just beyond your third eye (the point between the eye brows).  Once you can visualize that space, the chidakasha, draw the space into your heart and rest there.  Then, when you go out onto to the Mall or onto the metro or onto crowded streets, bring enough of your consciousness into the vast inner space that you can feel comfortable with the crowding outside.  When dwelling in the inner and outer at the same time, it will be easier to marvel at the outside crowds.

For those of you who are extroverts who get exhilarated by crowds, of course, this practice would seem less critical.  I invite you to give it a try anyway.

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A Hawk

I saw a hawk when I was walking to work this morning.  It was in one of those stately oak trees in the park just north of the US Capitol.  I have occasionally seen hawks in the neighborhood alleys, but never one at the Capitol.  The hawk stood out for two reasons:  it was very large, and it was the only living being about.  Usually, there are a number of squirrels, pigeons, and maybe crows, sparrows, and common grackles about the park.  This morning, it was unearthly quiet; all of the other animals and birds were all in hiding.  It was probably a red-tailed hawk.  As I stood to watch this special being, a woman walked past me with her head hunched down, her hands shoved in her pockets, her briefcase weighing down her shoulder, and her face preoccupied, a common going to work look.  I called out to her, “look, a hawk.”  She was startled, maybe even a little upset at first that I had interrupted her thoughts, but then she, too, stopped and watched.  When I finally continued on to work, she stayed watching for a while, and she no longer looked preoccupied.  At the bottom of the steps of the park, I went past the police, who are there every morning with their cars parked on the sidewalk (blocking the way).  The police rarely say hello.  One of the cops, who had his dog out of the car, called out a good morning to me today, though.  I greeted him back, “good morning, did you see the hawk?”  “Yes, I’ve been watching it,” he said.  We had a nice chat about the hawk and about his being able to watch the bald eagles at Blue Fields in Virginia, where they do the training for the police dogs.

It would have been easy for me not to see the hawk.  I use my morning walk as a time for contemplation, and when I am in the park (leaving aside the Architect of the Capitol vehicles that sometimes intrude), it is a time I can be less careful about traffic and be more inward.  But it is also a time to look and to appreciate the opportunity to be outside, whatever the weather and the season.  The trees and birds and small animals and plantings and sky look different everyday.  While I go inward on my morning walk, I am also always noticing.  This is a kind of mindfulness — to be able to be resting with inward attention, but still be open to observing whatever is in view.  Is it less mindful to be so drawn inward that the outside disappears?  That perhaps depends on whether one has deliberately gone so far inward that the outside ceases to exist for a time, which is a meditation method, or whether one is just so preoccupied with the churning of the mind that one becomes less conscious.

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Perihelion

Yesterday was this year’s perihelion — the day of the year the earth is closest to the sun in the earth’s annual orbit around the sun.  I find in interesting that the perihelion is at the coldest and darkest time of year.  The relative proximity of the earth to the sun is of far less import for warmth and light than the tilt of earth away from the sun.  So, too, with matters of the spirit.  It does not matter how close we are to sources of illumination and learning, if we turn away from them.  When we turn towards the light, even if the sources of light are farther from our reach, (the aphelion is in July, our hottest month), we are more likely to become illuminated.

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Sankalpa (Intention)

In the tradition of our culture’s “new year’s resolution” I like to practice yoga nidra at this time of year to help establish a new sankalpa or intention.  A sankalpa is different from a new year’s resolution.  It is short, affirming, and is both in the present and forward-looking.

Usually it takes a couple of weeks for me to be certain of what sankalpa is right for me to work with for a period of months.  One year, I had been very sick for the entire fall and early winter, so it was easy to choose “I am healthy.”  For the past two years, as I struggled with my place this time of war and societal struggle and thought about my own role in creating and avoiding conflict, I chose the sankalpa “I will come from the light in all I do” (“light” for me meaning an inner place of peace, compassion and spaciousness).

In the past several months, mostly due to having thoroughly enjoyed creating meals from the garden and the farmers’ market, I am a little heavier than works with the clothing I own and my sense of comfort with my body image.  Instead of having a new year’s resolution to lose five pounds, which would likely fail, I am working with the sankalpa “I love and respect my body.”  The former buys into societal expectations of what my body should look like, imposes mental will over my body, and reinforces a mindset of negative judgment and denial.  The latter is joyous and affirming.  I believe that if I truly love and respect my body, I will eat in a way that is healthy for my body and the earth.  I will either lose the few pounds or be more accepting of my body as it is.  This sankalpa thus gives me much to contemplate in terms of my relationship to the mirror, my clothes, my asana practice, and my way of eating.  How much it gives me to contemplate expands if I think of the body extending beyond just my flesh and bones and physical appearance, but also to my energy body and all that I bring in through the senses.

What sankalpa would be transformative for you this year?  What would help you embody your sankalpa (other than, of course, establishing a regular yoga nidra practice — see yoga nidra resources).

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Yoga Nidra Resources

The practice of yoga nidra is a wonderful way to deepen the connection between the full range of consciousness and your physical body.  It is enjoyable and helpful to practice it on an occasional basis — we did it for the last class of the session in the Willow Street gentle/therapeutics class and you all are welcome to come to the New Year’s Yoga Nidra workshop on Sunday, January 4th — but it can be even more productive as a regular weekly practice.

Here are some good resources if you have found yoga nidra helpful and want to find out more about it and establish a home practice:

To read more about yoga nidra, I recommend the following books, both of which I believe are available at Willow Street Yoga Center.

  • Yoga Nidra, Swami Satyandanda Saraswati, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India, Bihar School of Yoga (1988)
  • Yoga Nidra, The Meditative Heart of Yoga, Richard Miller, PhD, Integrated CD Learning, Sounds True, Inc. (2005) [this comes with a CD]

These CD’s lead you through yoga nidra practices of various lengths and emphasis:

  • Experience Yoga Nidra — Guided Deep Relaxation, Swami Janakananda, www.skand-yoga.org [my favorite — maybe it is the soothing tones of an Indian swami speaking English with a Swedith inflection]
  • Yoga Nidra with Robin Carnes, Robin Carnes leads a yoga nidra class at Willow Street Yoga Center.
  • Moving Into the Garden of Your Heart, Betsy Downing, Ph.D [Betsy Downing, the “grandame of Anusara” will be at Willow Street Yoga in January 2009]
  • Relax Into Greatness with the Treasure of Yoga Nidra, Rod Stryker [Rod Stryker is an exceptional master and leader of tantric yoga practices, such as yoga nidra, and I highly recommend his meditation CDs and his workshops. This is an older CD, and I sometimes find that the body scan is a little fast for my comfort].
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Krishnamurti’s Daily Thought

Three or four weeks ago, I came out of my morning meditation thinking about the teachings of Krishnamurti.  (I read a lot of Krishnamurti when I was in high school, so his teachings have influenced me with varying degrees of subtlety).  Two or three days later, I was “spammed” with Krishnamurti’s Daily Thought.  Someone, apparently somewhere in Europe, somehow got access to an email list to which I subscribe.  As I had just been thinking about Krishnamurti, though, instead of hitting “unsubscribe,” I read the thought for the day.  I’ve been reading it since, and I am exploring how much my readings in high school have been part of my foundational thinking.

When I was volunteering at the Lantern yesterday, one of the other volunteers called and reminded me that there were books put aside for me.  It is not my habit to put books aside, and I had no recollection of so doing, so I was curious to discover the books were there.  One of the two books was a slightly water damaged paperback of Krishnamurti On Right Livelihood.  The universal energies are obviously suggesting I examine this early influence.  I am contemplating what the following question means for me in today’s current context of multiple wars, a deep recession, and burgeoning environmental degradation:

Is it not necessary for each one to know for himself what is the right means of livelihood?  If we are avaricious, envious, seeking power, then our means of livelihood will correspond to our inward demands and so produce a world of competition, ruthlessness, oppression, ultimately ending in war. Krishnamurti, Ojai, July 1944

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Becky Agitated (by minor disruption)

I am having my bedroom painted over the holiday break.  Yesterday, I took all of the pictures off of the walls, moved most of the other furniture into other rooms, and rolled up the rugs in the hallways.  The room is in the middle of the plastering and sanding stage and is filled with the painter’s tools, and so, the door is shut.

Becky only has two places she likes to be for most of the day:  on the bed in the bedroom and on the sofa in the living room.  When I meditate in the morning and then write in my journal, I sit in the living room.  I used to try to sit in the yoga studio, but after her sister passed away, Becky howled until I sat in the living room with her.  Becky now will fetch me to the living room if I do not go to meditate right after I have fed her.  This morning, she woke me up early because the bed was not in the right place, and she was not happy that the bedroom door was closed.  When I went to sit after feeding her, she stomped back and forth, instead of coming to sit with me.  When at first I did not pay attention to her, she got more agitated.  I finally got up to check on her.  She raced up the stairs to be outside the shut bedroom door.  I picked her up and brought her back to the living room to sit with me.  I pet her until she relaxed.  Once she had been shown that her morning sitting place was still there, I was able to sit in meditation without disturbance for 25 minutes.

Our own minds are like that.  If there has been a disturbance in our routine that ripples our mind waves, whether it is celebration or upset, small or large, it can feel very challenging to meditate.  If our thoughts continue to be in a whirl while we are sitting, we need to just bring our thoughts back to the mind space of meditation over and over again, just as I had to remind Becky our sitting place was still undisturbed even though her daytime sleep spot was disrupted.  The more we practice, the easier it becomes to shift to an inner place of peace and light.  The less often we allow changes in routine to disrupt our practice, the stronger we become in the face of challenges.

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Day After the Solstice

I used to note the first day of winter as a marker of the long, cold and dark season ahead.  Now I mark the first day after the solstice as the an opening to the light.  In only a few weeks, even though the weather will be wintry, the days will be noticeably longer.  This time of year, I walk on the sunny side of street and choose the middle of the day to be outside, in contrast to summer, when I walk in the morning or late afternoon on the shady side of the street.  When I went out at midday for a long walk, the light was almost blindingly bright.  The blazing sun seemed that much more of a treasure for the cold blustering wind and the shortness of the day.  That the light was so clear and vivid seemed an apt reminder that going through periods of cold and dark can clear us for newly illuminated paths if we are only open to the sources of illumination — inside and out.

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