Meditation

Practice, contemplation, and insights

Ether (the Mahabhuta akasha)

Ether (akasha) is the fifth of the mahabhutas.  In science and perception, it is the space between the other elements, it is that in which the other elements reside.  It is to some degree, the critical element of how we are able to perceive the other elements.  I find focusing on the Anusara alignment principle of “open to grace” is the best way to experience the element of ether in myself.  By softening, opening, and inviting spaciousness, I can better experience the subtle elements and appreciate how it is that I experience them.

The subtle elements or the panca tanmattras are smell (gandha), taste (rasa), form (rupa), touch (sparsa), and sound (sabda).  The subtle elements are not what we sense (which is composed of the mahabhutas) nor are the tanmattras our sense organs.  Rather the tanmattras are, as it were, the space in which perceptions arise, the ability to be perceived.

The next sets of elements are the panca karmendriyas, the organs of locomotion, which correspond to how we physically move, digest, and change in the physical world, and the panca jnanendriyas, the organs of perception or cognition, which correspond to our sense organs themselves.  Our movement in and perception of the world bridges the physical elements, the perceptability of the physical world, and ourselves as physical beings, beings who move in the physical world, and beings who perceive the physical world.  All of this, I think of as needing space or residing in space.  As I consciously think of space giving a place for the world, my movement in it, and my perception of it, I become more conscious of consciousness.  The physical practice of “opening to grace” and experiencing the element akasha makes possible for me in my practice knowing or experiencing a greater consciousness.

To start discovering your own understanding of akasha, try this meditation:  listen to the sounds beyond the room without trying to analyze or change them.  Appreciate how far in space your senses and consciousness can be.  Then bring your attention into the room and hear the sounds in the room.  Then open your ears to the sounds within you — your heart beat, your breath.  Then open to all the sounds (don’t try to change or analyze them), both those physically far away and those within your own body, and be aware of them as all residing within your own consciousness.  Appreciate that your consciousness is as spacious as the world around you and within you.  Rest in the space of consciousness.

See whether spending a few minutes using this meditation technique helps you when your day has gotten too busy with work, errands, family or other demands.  I find it very helpful.

Share

Take a Moment (and be in it)

On unexpectedly beautiful days like yesterday, I make sure that I get out during the workday.  I’ll ask a co-worker, “did you go out?”  Often the response is, “I couldn’t go out; if I went out, I wouldn’t have wanted to come back in.”  This is not an uncommon response.  I so treasure the spaces of delight in the midst of any day, that it is hard for me to appreciate that response on an emotional or visceral level.

But what my co-worker is saying is that she will get so caught up in longing (pain) that pleasure for a short time is not worth the pain.  Thinking about it in that way, I understand.  Patanjali cautions us not to get caught up in the “pairs of opposites,” pleasure and pain.  Both the longing for pleasure and the avoidance of pain take us out of the moment and make it hard for us to connect to the essence of being.  If we are always yearning and avoiding, we cannot rest in the bliss of being.

When we take a walk outside, or stop to eat a nourishing lunch, or pause for five minutes to meditate during the work day, it will only have fleeting benefits if we do it just for the pleasure.  If we can consciously bring ourselves into the moment and simply rest in our own being, then it will help us just be (in the state which is free from pleasure and pain/longing and avoidance) while we are in the whirlwind of activity and challenges of our day.

Share

Sthira-Cara (of the stationary and moving living beings)

A number of years ago, I attended a week-long workshop with Rod Stryker.  He invited us to meditate on absolute stillness — cara sthira — meditation.  Sitting comfortably, still the skin, the muscles, the bones.  Draw the attention to stillness.  The breath and heart will still move, but the concentration is on stillness rather than on any movement.  Rod Stryker discussed the next day the challenges of this meditation, especially for those who are intellectual, who enjoy being active in the mind.  I found it difficult at the time and even dreamed about the issues the meditation brought up for me.  Meditating on stillness can be very challenging in a way that meditating on a mantra or the breath would not necessarily be.

I believe the origin of the meditation comes from the principle of sthira being  the absolute unmovable, the essence of being (not dissimilar to Kant’s unmoved mover).  We invoke pure stillness, pure potential out of which movement comes because that is part of our essence and a place where we can rest our spirit.  See, for example, the Srimadbhagavatam.

I discovered absolute joy in this meditation a couple of years after I learned it.  I was suffering from a severe sinus infection and bronchitis simultaneously; I joked that I was fine as long as I didn’t breath through either my mouth or my nose.  In the midst of my suffering, I remembered the teaching.  For a few days I stayed in the meditation for hours at a time.  I found the place where I did not really need the breath.  Enough came to survive, but I forgot about wondering how to breath or finding a place for it or my struggles with it.  In the stillness, there was space and peace and supreme bliss.  Ever since then, I have chosen this form of meditation when I have a cold, a sinus infection, or other challenges with breathing.  Meditating on the breath, obviously, will not be soothing when breathing is a struggle.  But when even breathing is a struggle, peace can be found in complete stillness.

Share

A Patch of Sunlight

This morning when I went for silent worship, I was in a seat that was in a delicious, warm patch of sunlight.  Like a cat in such a spot, I was perfectly content to be still and completely happy.  It is good, sometimes, to have stillness come easily, especially if it has been a challenge in recent days.

When my students ask me about starting a home practice, I suggest that they start with their favorite poses.  If we start with what is challenging or what we like least or what we think we need to do because we think it will be good for us, it is easy to get frustrated or to find something else to do.  Better to start with what is easeful and inviting and then work in the challenging aspects then not to practice at all.

Share

Yoga of Housekeeping

Last week Orie suggested that as I have a “Yoga for Gardeners” workshop, I should also do a “Yoga of Housekeeping” workshop.  A blog post isn’t a workshop, but here are a few preliminary thoughts on yoga and housekeeping.

From an alignment perspective, I have found that the Anusara principles of alignment make safe everything I do off the mat, as well as on.  Overwhelmed by all that needs to be done? Doing heavy lifting?  Bending and stooping?  Reaching for something way up high?

First, soften (open to grace).  Appreciate that you have a home and things to clean.  Honor each item in the house.  Things have energy, too., and they like to be touched and cleaned.  If you have anything that you do not appreciate or does not fit in the house, give it a new life in a new home (freecycledc is a great way to pass things forward).

Use muscular energy, drawing the muscles to the bone, hugging into the mid-line, and drawing energy into the focal point (for most housecleaning activities, this will be the pelvis).  Using muscle energy will definitely help to keep you from tweaking a muscle or straining the low back or shoulders. When you are reaching, keep the arm bones integrated by hugging the shoulder blades onto the back and then reach from the waist, though each rib to extend the length of your torso (organic energy).

Especially for bending and lifting, after you bend your knees, hug your shins in (muscular energy), take your inner thighs back and apart (inner spiral) and then tuck your tailbone (outer spiral).  If you just bend from the knees but hunch your back, your low back will still be vulnerable.

Switch sides for activities like sweeping, vaccuuming, and scrubbing.  Yes, it can be difficult and awkward, but it’s worth it to shift sides.  Imagine doing all of your yoga practice only on one side.  How much imbalance would you be encouraging?

The first niyama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is sauca, which means cleanliness or purity.  It is easier to think and live and be hospitable in a clean home.

The first yama is ahimsa, or non-harming.  Do your best to use safe, biodegradable cleaning products.  Your skin and respiratory system will be grateful.  So will the earth.  Try to make cleaning your own space and act of honoring your self, your home, and the greater home of the earth.

Fully absorb yourself in the task of cleaning.  Make it a meditation.  Integrate fully the act of cleaning, the item being cleaned, and you as the cleaner.

Finally, be playful.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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).

Share