Category Archives: Meditation

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.

Reshad Feild and the “7-1-7″ breathing exercise that can help change your life.

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Reshad Feild

I once read a story about a singer who was asked what the best advice she ever received was. Her response: “Breathe”. She had been given this life tip from her father who had correctly pointed out that when we’re stressed or feeling a little tense, we tend to shorten our breath. And at those moments there’s nothing better we can do to steady ourselves than take a big gulp of air.

I was reminded of this advice the other day when reading The Last Barrier, the autobiography of the English mystic and spiritual teacher Reshad Feild. In the book, Feild is told by his spiritual mentor that learning to breathe properly is “the study of a lifetime” and the rhythm and quality of your breathing can “help change the course of your life”.

Today, almost 40 years later, Feild is still stressing the importance of breathing. He is the founder of the spiritually-based Chalice School and if you go to the school’s Web site, in large 90-point type, you will be greeted by these words:

‘All is contained in the Divine Breath, like the day in the morning’s dawn’

There is a page at the Chalice School site that is dedicated to the importance of breathing titled “Breath is Life”, where Feild echoes the lessons he was taught so many years ago. He tells us that:

The secret of life is in the breath. We come into this world on the breath and we go out on the breath; but if we are not awake to breath, we will surely die asleep to the reality of life itself. Breath is life.

He recommends that we engage in a practice he calls the “7-1-7 Breathing Exercise” which is also known as the Mother’s Breath. This simple exercise originates from ancient Egypt and is designed to get you totally focused on your breathing. I have edited Feild’s words on the subject and put them into 9 steps:

Practicing the 7-1-7 Breath

  1. Sit in a hard-backed chair. Keep your back straight, without forcing it. Feel the flow of energy move through you. (I imagine it moving up and down my spine.)
  2. Place your feet flat on the floor, with heels together and toes apart forming a triangle. Legs should be uncrossed. Your arms should be relaxed and your hands should rest on your knees.
  3. Before you start the conscious breathing practice, visualize the most beautiful object in nature you can imagine. It could be a plant, a tree, a waterfall, the sea, or whatever has special meaning to you.
  4. Your eyes can be open or closed. Either way, focus on a point approximately eight feet in front of you. If your eyes are closed, imagine the picture of what you’ve chosen. If you’re focusing on an object, put it as close to eight feet away from you as you can.
  5. Next comes the sacred rhythm, the 7-1-7-1-7 rhythm of the Mother’s Breath. The method is simple, though initially it may seem difficult, since we are used to breathing without any form of attention or consciousness.
  6. Breathe into the solar plexus (the pit of your stomach) for the count of seven, pause for one count, and then for another seven counts radiate out breath from the “heart center”, the point in the center of your chest. IMPORTANT NOTE: When counting to 7, you do not have to count in precise measured seconds. It’s not the speed that matters, it’s the actual number of counts. Choose the speed, fast or slow, that suits you.
  7. Having breathed in for the count of seven, pause for one count and at the same time, bring your attention to the center of the chest. Then breathe out for the count of seven. As you breathe out, radiate love and goodwill from the center of your chest.
  8. To complete the practice, return to the senses. Feel your body and take responsibility for it once more. Be awake to the room or your surroundings.
  9. As you continue your practice, you’ll become better at it and find there’s no need to force the breath. At this stage, you are not breathing. Rather, you are being breathed.

The whole exercise should take you about 10 minutes and Feild recommends trying it a few times a day. I find it’s a great companion to and substitute for meditation, with many of the same calming and revitalizing effects. As Field says, it will leave you with a “tremendous sense of wonder and gratitude”.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, October 7, 2014.

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.

How to meditate like a monk in 10 easy steps.

639px-Abbot_of_Watkungtaphao_in_Phu_Soidao_WaterfallWhen it came to meditation, I was always kind of a dummy. It seemed easy enough, but I just didn’t get why I needed to do it. After all, I cleared my head each morning with a brisk four-mile run. Did I really need to meditate, too?

Still, as I read stories about the meditation practices of Sting and perused the filmmaker David Lynch’s book on meditation and consciousness, Catching the Big Fish, I couldn’t help but wonder–was I missing something?

So I tried meditating. On several dozen occasions. But my jumpy, synapses-in-overdrive brain was having no part of it. Why go blank, my jabbering mind would say, when there were so many plans to make, so many different things to think about? I was the world’s worst meditator.

Then, while window shopping at Amazon one day, I stumbled upon the book Deep Meditation by Yogani. I was familiar with Yogani as the guru who didn’t believe in gurus, and after reading several glowing “it’s the only meditation book you’ll ever need” reviews, I bought it. Now, after countless successful sessions, I’m sold on meditation, too. There’s no better way to refresh and recharge the mind.

When it comes to meditation instruction, Yogani is the opposite of a taskmaster, in that he is kind and forgiving—and the thing he is most forgiving about is falling off the mantra, the word you’re supposed to focus on as you block out all your other thoughts.

That was always my biggest obstacle when meditating—having my mind constantly jump from the mantra to virtually anything else going on in my life. But Yogani patiently and frequently eased my concerns by letting me know it’s alright, just come back to the mantra if you get off track. Even if that means refocusing on the mantra again and again and again.

Deep Meditation is a quick and easy read, a slim 100-page book in pretty big type, and can be had for around ten bucks. And while I recommend you buy a copy, I thought I’d provide ten key points from the book which I’ve listed below verbatim–with my thoughts added in italics.

  1. For most people, twenty minutes is the best duration for a meditation session. But it’s okay to start with 5-10 minutes and work your way up from there. Try it twice a day, once before the morning meal and the day’s activity, and then again before the evening meal and the evening’s activity. I make sure, at minimum, to get a morning session in each day.
  2. A word on how to sit for meditation: The first priority is comfort. It is not desirable to sit in a way that distracts us from the easy procedure of meditation. Or to do it in a position where you might fall asleep.
  3. For our practice of deep meditation, we will use the thought I AM. This will be our mantra. We can also spell it AYAM. I use the similar Sanskrit word “aum”. All Yogani asks is that you keep it simple.
  4. While sitting comfortable with eyes closed, we’ll just relax. We will notice thoughts, stream of thoughts. That is fine. We just let them go without minding them. After about a minute, we gently introduce the mantra.
  5. Whenever we realize we are not thinking the mantra inside any more, we come back to it easily.
  6. As soon as we realize we are off into a stream of thoughts, no matter how mundane or profound, we just easily go back to the mantra. Like that. We don’t make a struggle of it. The idea is not that we have to be on the mantra all the time.
  7. Thoughts are a normal part of the deep meditation process. We just ease back to the mantra again. We favor it. Deep meditation is going toward, not pushing away from.
  8. No struggle. No fuss. No iron willpower or mental heroics are necessary for this practice. All such efforts are away from the simplicity of deep meditation and will reduce its effectiveness.
  9. When we realize we have been off somewhere, we just ease back into the mantra again. We are reading it inward with our attention to progressively deeper levels of inner silence in the mind.
  10. This cycle of thinking the mantra, losing it, and coming out into a stream of thoughts is a process of purification. It is very powerful, and will ultimately yield a constant experience of inner silence in our meditation and, more importantly, in our daily activity.

Happy meditating!

This post appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, April 16, 2014.