Category Archives: Inner Peace

An 8-Step Guide to Meditation—and Deep Inner Peace.

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Kosal Ley via unsplash.com

Are you familiar with the writer Sam Harris? In 2005, he wrote a bestselling book The End of Faith that, in a nutshell, portrayed religion as little more than a collection of myths and superstitions that could be blamed for much of the world’s ills.

It was with some trepidation that I picked up his more recent book Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion—but I knew that Harris was an excellent writer and the title grabbed me. And in this fascinating study of meditation and consciousness, my only difference with Harris is this—where he finds self-transcendence, I sense the presence of God. (Which, to paraphrase Paul Tillich, I see not as a being, but being itself.)

It turns out that Harris spent much of his young adult life traveling the world and studying with some of the best meditation teachers of our time. (His main focus was Buddhist meditation due to its relative lack of religious content.) Harris shares with us his own 8-step guide to meditation, similar to one I shared on these pages, with a few nuances. It’s as good as any I’ve ever read, and it appears in a lightly edited form below:

An 8-Step Guide to Meditation.

  1. Sit comfortably with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
  2. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or cushion. Notice the sensations of sitting—pressure, warmth.
  3. Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to where you feel the breath most, either in your nostrils or rising and falling in the abdomen.
  4. Allow your attention to rest on your breath, as you let it come and go naturally.
  5. Every time your mind wanders, gently return it to the breath.
  6. As you focus on your breath, you may perceive sounds, bodily sensations, emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear and return to the breath.
  7. The moment you find yourself lost in thought, observe it as an object of consciousness, release it, and return to the breath.
  8. Continue in this way until you merely witness objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, emotions, thoughts—and allow them to rise and pass away.

If you try this and are still struggling, see my story here.

Harris sees meditation as creating a deeper sense of well-being and inner peace. He strongly believes that we need to overcome the conventional sense of ourselves, which is an illusion. We can do this by taking a pause from our jittery, overthinking selves and paying closer attention to the present moment.

He relates our lives to watching a film in a movie theater. When we’re totally immersed in the film, we forget our surroundings and the fact we’re merely looking at light on a wall. In Harris’s words: “Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movies of our lives.” Meditation allows us to step out of the movie, return to our seat, and observe our lives from a distance. It helps us overcome the illusion of the self, by placing us squarely in the present moment.

The reality of your life is always now.

But Harris points out that we often forget or overlook this truth. We become preoccupied with thought, dwelling on the past, pondering the future, questioning, analyzing everything, until we are “spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.” He self-effacingly points out that:

It seems to me that I spend much of my waking life in a neurotic trance. My experiences in meditation, suggests that an alternative exists. It is possible to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for moments at a time.

What’s important to note here is that a regular meditation practice can also extend benefits into our everyday lives, not just at the moment of meditation itself. This ability to calm and unclutter our mind becomes an attribute we can always fall back on, merely by remembering to breathe. Harris refers to this as “mindfulness” and a “state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention”.

When we reach this state, Harris tells us that what remains is consciousness itself, with “its attendant sights, sounds, sensations, and thoughts appearing and changing in every moment.” In the book, Harris takes a deep dive into the meaning and mystery of consciousness, a heady subject we’ll look at in the future.

This story originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, April, 26, 2017.

You’re spiritual, your job is not. So how do you cope?

hide_face-150x150Are you a fellow participant in the rat race? If you’re like me, and regularly work 40-plus hour weeks in a high-stress environment, you know how hard it can be to keep your spiritual bearings intact. It can often seem like the working world and the spiritual world are at opposite ends of the life spectrum.

So how do you maintain a spiritual focus, when the stresses of the secular world come knocking on your cubicle? Is there a way to stay centered and at peace, even when those around you are in states of work-induced irritability and angst?

Advice from the Front Lines.

Like anything else you want to be good at in life, the key is preparation and practice. That starts with having a daily spiritual routine as part of your regular schedule. It should be as integral to your mornings as taking a shower, brushing your teeth and having that first cup coffee (which itself can be part of your routine, more on that later).

Your prep-work should start upon awakening and can be tailored to what works best for you. For example, my personal workday routine involves the following steps:

  • Getting up early each morning and after some stretching, going for a 3-mile run (though any form of exercise will do)
  • Meditating for 10-15 minutes when I can, especially on days when I don’t have time to run
  • Engaging in some spiritual reading during my bus commute (when I drive to work, I use spiritual books on tape and podcasts)
  • Taking a few moments to engage in a prayer of gratitude, giving thanks for everyone and everything I am grateful for
  • Enjoying brief spiritual breaks throughout the day—slowing down and focusing on my breath and going on short walks as needed

When we think of our spiritual practice, we often see it as a passive activity, best done while sitting in a comfortable chair at home. But the fact is you can also engage in active contemplation. So for me, activities like morning runs and afternoon walks serve dual purposes, exercising the body while relaxing the mind.

More advice on maintaining an even keel throughout the day comes from Thomas Moore and his book A Religion of One’s Own. Moore recommends that we follow the lead of monks who “intensify the spiritual side of life by incorporating a number of relatively brief times for meditation and reflection during the day.” He advises us that:

Instead of just letting your days unfold spontaneously or being at the mercy of an inflexible, busy schedule, you might start up a few regular activities like mediation before breakfast, listening to music before lunch, being quiet after 10 p.m., eating simply in the morning and taking a quiet walk afterward, if only for five or ten minutes.

Moore even mentions one of my favorite soul-enriching activities: enjoying a cup of coffee in the early morning hours. Now to put this is context, it’s not about sipping a cup as you surf the Internet with the TV blaring in the background. It’s about getting up before the family, quieting the mind and becoming totally immersed in the moment as you sip your coffee.

But what if, for whatever reason, you’re not able to engage in daily exercise, and meditation just doesn’t cut it for you?

Try starting the day with centering prayer. It’s essentially a prayer without words, or more accurately a prayer with a single word. Its aim is to help you establish a deeper relationship with the Divine, to the point that God becomes a living reality in your life, available to you at all times. With an assist from David Frenette and his book The Path of Centering Prayer, here’s a six-point “how to” guide:

THE SIX STEPS OF CENTERING PRAYER

  1. Choose a one- or two-syllable word such as God, Jesus, peace, love, stillness or faith. (I cheat and use three syllables that direct me to my ultimate goal: Rest in God.)
  2. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Silently introduce the word as the symbol of your consent to allow God’s presence.
  3. Repeat the word over and over, moving deeper and deeper within yourself.
  4. If the mind wanders, gently return to the word.
  5. Rest and simply be with God “as if you put your head back down on the pillow after waking.” Sense the presence of God within you.
  6. As your prayer ends, let go of the sacred word and rest your mind for a minute or two before going about your business.

I’ve read that it can take six months or longer to master centering prayer, but if you’re versed in meditation I think you’ll see the results much faster, perhaps immediately. Also, it’s important to note that as time goes on, Frenette recommends engaging in centering prayer without any words, to “let go of the life preserver and just float.”

And that’s what I now do. As this wonderful analogy suggests, I release the life preserver and float. I do this in the early morning before exercising, sipping coffee in the quiet of my home, while the family is still sleeping and only the cats are awake. Sipping. Centering. Feeling the presence of God. And I am better prepared for the workday ahead because of it.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, September 24, 2014.

City Monks vs. Country Monks. Can you really find inner peace anywhere?

TheKrishnaCenterIs a city environment detrimental to a rich spiritual life? As someone who commutes to and works in New York City, it is easy to see how the distractions of the city could easily extinguish your spiritual light. But I found a group that is totally committed to following the spiritual path—and they not only work in New York City, they live there as well. They’re urban monks.

Now if I was “going monk”, I believe I’d follow the lead of Thomas Merton whose Trappist monastery was located in the hills of Kentucky. Give me a bucolic country setting where the loudest noises are the birds chirping at sunrise and the brightest light is the morning sun bursting through the window of my sparsely furnished room. I’m inclined to think it’s easier to find inner peace where there’s external peace.

That’s why you might be surprised to learn the urban monks I’m writing about live in a place seemingly ill-suited to the contemplative life, the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It’s a neighborhood that’s buzzing all the time, especially on weekends, when it’s jam-packed with mostly twenty-somethings out for a good time. The scene is lively and loud, with music blasting from clubs, sidewalks overflowing with boozy revelers and the streets jammed bumper-to-bumper with horn-blaring taxis and cars.

Yet there, on First Avenue near First Street, is precisely where you will find a community of Hindu monks, which begs the question: Why would a group committed to the austerity and solitude of the monastic life choose to live on the raucous Lower East Side of NYC?

An explanation comes from the chief resident there, Gadadhara Pandit Dasa(a.k.a. Pandit), who is the author of the book The Urban Monk. He says that the monastery’s location is no accident as its inhabitants practice what’s called the Bhakti tradition of Hinduism. According to Pandit:

It is recommended that some monks live in the city because that’s where people are most stressed and therefore need the most spiritual guidance. The city is a very intense place where everyone is constantly scrambling from one activity to another, always keeping themselves busy, often times leaving their spiritual pursuits by the wayside.

Being in New York City 40-plus hours a week, I can relate to how easy it might be to lose your spiritual compass amidst the crowds, the fast pace and the noise. So how do the monks do it? How do they keep their spiritual bearings and provide “sacred service” to the community?

It may have something to do with their tightly-scripted daily practice, which every one of the 15 or so monks who live in this tiny monastery follows. Their schedule is repeated seven days a week and goes something like this:

4:00-4:30 a.m. Rise and shine.
4:30-5:00 a.m. Wait your turn to hit the shower; put on a fresh robe before entering the temple room.
5:00-8:00 a.m. Meditation, followed by morning services, including a devotional practice of song and dance.
8:00-9:00 a.m. Additional meditation or yoga. Some monks enjoy a quick nap.
9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Various activities including cooking and cleaning, teaching and counseling, and going out into the neighborhood to engage with the local population.

After dinner, the evening can include hours of additional mantra meditation, as they “focus their entire being on connecting with God.” Pandit claims that “the city can actually push one to greater levels of focus in one’s meditation” and that their work in Manhattan “can be very satisfying and even blissful” in spite of the ever-present roar of the city. He admits, though, that this spiritual route is not for everyone. It all depends on one’s purpose in life:

If one is aspiring to focus only on one’s own individual meditation and spiritual practice, then a busy city environment can definitely be counterproductive. However, if one is residing in a city for the purpose of helping people, then there’s no better place.

Pandit almost had me convinced of the merits of city “monkdom”—but while writing this, I took a lunchtime stroll around the jam-packed streets of midtown Manhattan. It had me yearning for a quieter place to practice my spiritual pursuits, though not as a country monk. My home near the beach perfectly fits the bill. Regardless, to borrow a phrase from The Big Lebowski: I take comfort in knowing the urban monks are out there.