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Using Meditation to See the Bigger Picture

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Imagine you’re at a beach on a beautiful summer’s day, and you become aware of a child moping and whining, complete with the familiar ear-piercing tones. It’s easy to question the parenting present (or not present), yell at the kid in your own head, and get upset that he is ruining your day.

Or, you can choose to see that child’s issues and expressions in context of the entire scene. From the perspective of the entire scene, his issues are at a relatively minor volume compared to the warmth of the sun, the gentle lapping of the waves, and the smooth sand between your feet.

This shift in perspective does not stop the kid from whining, but instead, it puts him in context. Doing so will quite naturally make his tones less abrasive. As far as you’re concerned, the pleasant sensations of the day override the abrasiveness of his issues.

Context in Meditation

This is something we practice and reinforce in meditation. We train ourselves to sit with the moment exactly how it is, with all the sensations we are aware of.

The tendency is for our minds to glom on to one particular sensation or thought, whether to judge it or analyze it, to question why it’s there or wish it away. Meditation is a practice of noticing that we are down the rabbit hole of thought, and then letting go of that attachment and bringing our awareness back to the greater context of all sensations present.

Context Breeds Compassion

A few years back I was driving in the pre-dawn hours to work and I pulled into an empty parking lot to get a bagel and a cup of coffee. As I pulled in, I noticed there was another car coming at a right angle towards me, and we were headed to a collision. We both stopped short and in the subsequent pause I sped away into a parking spot. My intent was to get out of the way of the other driver as quickly as possible so we could both get where we wanted to go.

As it turned out, we were both headed to the same bagel shop. This older woman came in behind me and was indignant, fuming about how I had driven, exclaiming that I was a dangerous driver and almost caused an accident.

When I apologized and gently explained my reasoning, that I was trying to get out of her way, she immediately softened. As she understood the greater context for my actions, her rage almost instantly turned to compassionate understanding, and no longer took offense.

Looking For Context

When we can provide context to a personal problem we’re facing, or a potentially anger-inducing quote, or an eye-catching headline, we free ourselves to likewise find compassionate understanding.

The way information is peddled to us is often in quick sound-bite format, devoid of depth and context. A movie may be advertised as “Critics are saying… ‘amazing’” but perhaps what the critic actually said was, “This movie is an amazing waste of time and money.”

Likewise, it is common for us to complain that “Life isn’t fair.” However, consider what were some of the worst moments of your life when they happened. Perhaps after time has gone by, and you can see them in the greater context of who you are and how you have grown, these events were actually forces of good, and helped you evolve and move your life in a direction that has been undoubtedly beneficial.

Context provides us freedom.

A Challenge

I will challenge you, as I challenge myself, to strive to find the greater context of challenges that you face. Notice the knee-jerk reactions you have to things, and strive to find the deeper meaning. I invite you to look for the 90% of the proverbial iceberg that is submerged and not consider that 10% tip to be its entirety.

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How to Boost your Meditation with Embodiment

How to Boost your Meditation with Embodiment

Are you in your body?

Pause and examine your experience. Right now. Before reading further.

I don’t mean that I want a catalog of your sensations, your thoughts and emotions. Observing and cataloging is one way to connect with your somatic experience. It’s a core technique in many mindfulness practices.

But observing and cataloging is still one step away from actually experiencing your body, from actually being in your experience.

So are you in your body?

Our Body as a Bridge to the Present

Reginald A. Ray is a Buddhist teacher and academic. In his book “Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body,” he explores why being embodied is central to being enlightened, present, and awake.

He writes that one of the reasons our meditation practice becomes stale and hits a wall is that we don’t fully embody our experience. At different times, we may have thoughts about our bodies or we may observe the sensations we’re experiencing. But often, we keep ourselves at arms length from true embodiment by remaining conceptual.

For this reason, Reggie feels meditation is not enough. To be fully present, you have to be fully and completely in your body.

In my classes, we often explore what it means to be embodied. We use our bodies as a bridge to the present moment. Bodies don’t live in the past or the future–only now. So by fully inhabiting our bodies, we have a way to experience what is truly happening now.

“Embodiment” in Modern Yoga

If I asked you how to connect with your body, you might answer “yoga”. Yoga is understood as a mind/body practice and it often includes meditation. It makes sense that it might be a means to embodiment.

But unfortunately, many yoga practices (and classes) fall short of teaching this. Filled with wild, contorted, stretchy-bendy poses, ego-driven flows, and up-regulating sequences, these practices teach you master your body–not inhabit it.

Using yoga poses like this produces a lot of sensation and a lot of narrative. You become attached to the poses and and the way you feel during them. Your mind wills your body to perform. And when the physical exertion is too intense, you withdraw and contract from the experience. When the physical exertion isn’t enough, you become bored and disengaged.

In effect, you learn the opposite of embodiment.

True Embodiment in Yoga

Just because some yoga practices don’t teach embodiment, doesn’t mean they all don’t. You just need to find the ones. You need to find yoga that understands the poses not as physical shapes but as opportunities to inhabit your body.

It’s not hard to give this a try.

Pick a pose which is fairly easy for you. Mountain pose, Dog pose, or Warrior II are good places to start. You could even just lie on the floor.

Assume the pose in a way that is comfortable for your body. In other words, if your hamstrings are tight, bend your knees in Dog. If Warrior II is strenuous, don’t bend your front knee as far. Don’t worry about creating the exact shape that you see in the yoga books. Just approximate the posture in a way that is comfortable for your body.

Once you have the shape, rest in it.

At the start, you’ll probably notice all the sensations. That’s normal because they are most obvious. You may feel your hamstrings. You may notice the weight on your feet. Maybe you’ll feel your jaw clenched or your shoulders tight.

After you catalog your sensations, go deeper. Draw your attention to the non-sensations. What parts of your body feel nothing? What does it feel like to feel nothing? For example, if the back of your head feels nothing, what does that nothingness feel like?

Just be Present

And finally, after exploring the lack of sensation, allow your mind to rest and just be present. There’s no need to tweak the pose or fix your alignment. There’s no need to bring awareness to your body. In fact, there’s no need to do anything at all. Just experience being in the pose–whatever that is for you.

With this kind of yoga, you’ll notice that the shape of your body plays a minor role. Your body can be straight or bendy, upside-down or rightside-up. You’re simply using the pose as a means to experience your body. And ultimately, you’re using your body to experience being present.

You can understand yoga in different ways. In one way, yoga is a series of postures. You move your body into various shapes and work to gain mastery over the postures.

In the other way, yoga is a means to explore embodiment. You move your body to explore what it means to truly inhabit it. You use your body to be present and fully awake.

The next time you think your meditation practice feels stuck or stale, try something new–try being present in your body. Take a yoga class and as you do your practice, ask yourself if you are in your body. Use the poses to explore embodiment. Maybe, as Reggie Ray writes, being in your body will take you closer to being truly present.

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Meditation Made Easy

Meditation Made Easy

Can you learn to do nothing at all?

In my work I really try to make meditation as easy as possible for everyone. That is not because I lack appreciation for the profound depth and profundity of this practice – in fact quite the opposite.

I realize that true meditation means simply resting in the recognition of who you really are. It means just being yourself in the deepest possible way.

Too often meditation is thought of as only a technique – following the breath, repeating a mantra, visualizing a white light, etc. Of course any of these forms of meditation can lead you to the essence of your true nature. In fact they were designed for that very reason.

Unfortunately, more often than not practitioners get stuck in the never ending process of perfecting their technique. They get better and better at it without ever discovering the Truth that they were searching for in the first place.

The way I teach meditation makes it so simple. You just sit without making a problem out of anything that arises. You become the space through which all of your experiences keep flowing. All you do is allow everything to be the way it is.

The Practice of Emptiness

This is a practice of emptiness. You are simply empty space. If you don’t think about it, or try to do it, you will find it is easy. In fact, it is what you are already doing all the time. Meditation is not different from being and since you are always being, then you are always meditating.

What could be simpler than being something you already are, or doing something you’re already doing?

So if I do anything that gives you the impression that you need to do anything at all in order to meditate, I will be taking you away from who you already are and what you’re already doing.

You are a Conscious Entity

When I teach meditation what I am actually doing is helping people recognize who they already are and what they’re already engaged in. That means recognizing that you are a conscious entity that is alive and aware.

When you really get that you will see that it is a miracle to be you. How did you get here? How did you become conscious? It is almost funny how easily we can miss the miraculous nature of who we are. Modern life has us so caught up in the never ending effort to acquire more that we miss the miracle that is already here.

It is more difficult to really understand this than you might think. Almost everyone gets the simplicity of this form of meditation initially, but they find this non-problematic approach very difficult to stay with for long.

Every year I teach a five-day retreat that includes lots of meditation. I always start the retreat telling people that I can teach them everything I have to share about meditation in the very first hour. After that all I can do is repeat what I have already said. There is nothing more to know.

Meditation Means Doing Nothing

If we allow meditation to be as simple as it is, there is really very little to learn about it. The technique of just being can be mastered almost immediately. All we have to do is sit still and not make a problem out of anything that arises. Just don’t do anything and allow it all to be fine the way it is. Leave your experience alone, don’t change a thing.

What we discover is that when we are not involved in the never ending process of monitoring, regulating and adjusting our experience everything runs smoothly along. Your internal bickering is really not necessary.

It’s easy to explain what meditation is and how to do it. It’s a lot harder to believe it. We are so conditioned to thing that nothing good comes easily. We’ve been taught that hard work is the only thing that pays off. Meditation isn’t like that.

Meditation only pays off when we allow it to be as easy as it is. Meditation means doing nothing and what could be easier to do than nothing.

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I Almost Died. Meditation Was (and IS) My Anchor.

Love Time Death Meditation Journaling

This is my fifth year of keeping a formal journal. Along with meditation and marathon running, daily journaling is one of my core spiritual practices.

My day-to-day experience can often feel like a roller coaster of soaring heights and crashing lows.

But after recently reading through four years of entries, it looked more like a steady barge voyaging in the night.

Why is that?

One entry in particular brought me back to a near death experience I had that shed light on that question. It highlighted the essential—and anchoring—role that meditation has played in my life.

Daily Journaling

So while our memories tend to be punctuated by moments of peaks and valleys, our real story is an unbroken cosmic continuum.

I want to share a glimpse I had into this mystery through journaling, meditation, and a near death experience.

I began journaling as a practice a couple of months after my wife survived the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing (she was a few feet from the first explosion) and my life had generally fallen apart.

It helped me, and continues to, galvanize my deeper inner resources and articulate the thoughts I am afraid to admit to myself.

And as I referred to earlier, I also skirted death a year later at the 2014 Boston Marathon. My wife had been given an invitational bib as a token of respect and remembrance by the marathon organizers.

She passed it on to me so I could officially run in this prestigious race, even though I had not achieved the requisite qualifying time the majority of runners needed to participate.

Symbolic Breakthrough

I wanted to make my running performance at this marathon a personally symbolic breakthrough. So much in my life was teetering on a precarious balance.

While I was finally finding some traction in my role as a salesman for the consulting firm I started working at, my wife just had a miscarriage – a tragic and painful ordeal not spoken enough about in our culture.

A coworker at my firm,  someone I was quite fond of, overdosed and died. I spoke to her honor at her wake at her beloved alma mater, MIT.

This Boston Marathon was also the first one since the terrorist attack and the spirit of this globally renowned race and the city itself was at stake.

Perfect Weather—for Spectators

The weather on race day was perfect for spectators but not for runners: warm and sunny. I was determined to run my fastest marathon ever.

I took off at a high clip and kept throttling for miles. I thought if I could maintain the pace I was at, I would surely clock in at a pretty amazing personal best.

But of course, fatigue started to settle in after the tenth mile or so. I skipped water stops to make up for the lost time.

The sun and heat began to bear down on me at mile 16 as I entered the 4-mile onslaught of the monstrous Newton hills. My pace was hemorrhaging to a shadow of what I had started with.

I stayed grinding, half-blind with exhaustion, praying for a miracle to carry me through the last six miles.

Suddenly, in a total break of consciousness like changing the TV channel, I heard the chipper of two-way radios. I saw flashes of white sunlight and the green of trees breaking through windy canvas flaps, and burly bodies in uniforms around me.

Here’s what I remember?

Where am I?

You have a temperature of 107. We need to bring it down to at least 102.

They lower me into a metal tub of some sort, my arms dangle over its sides. Bury me in ice cubes. Water pours and crackles over them jolting my body from its coldness.

I’m afraid that your marathon is over.

How long do I have to be here?

I don’t know.

The icy water is getting chillier and my teeth are starting to chatter. The neon blue synthetic fabric of my sleeveless running shirt refracts through the crystalline surface.

At some point, after being frozen alive, they lift me out of the ice tub and lay me on a stretcher in the medical tent. My muscles begin to spasm and then lock up like an electrified tension wire.

Wordless pain squeezes through my entire being from whatever I did to my chemistry by running until I roasted to 107 degrees.

Panic and Fear

Fear abounds in me through images of being brain damaged, unable to function as before.

And then the dangling possibility that this could be that unprepared-for moment when the adventure of my life comes to a close.

I am clear that I can either freak out from panic, or not. It doesn’t feel like an easy choice, but I opt to find a way to be still. Like a ghost in a movie, I watch myself meditate in the weeks leading up the race, and then witness years and years of diligent practice passing into action.

I need all of it now…

…All of the intention and effort I had put into every time I sat on the cushion was not wasted. It never went anywhere and was alive as I lay there letting go.

I whispered support to myself like an angel on my own shoulder as I meditated at various stages of my life, tied together by this moment.

I rediscovered this journal entry I wrote a few days before the marathon:

I had a sudden shadowy thought that I was foreshadowing my own demise. But if so, if that was, or is to be the case, I would want to write now as if it was so.

If I could have some unequivocal premonition that I were to die in a few days, what would I do differently?

Love Fuses One Moment to the Next

I have no scientific evidence or philosophical rigor whatsoever to back up what I’m about to write. I believe it is love that extends our selves through time and fuses one moment to the next.

How love dissolves and transcends our experience of past, present, and future is an existential mystery I am constantly working on.

Meditation opens my mind and heart to this inquiry and journaling is my personal laboratory to gather data. I’m four plus years into intensive research and look forward to sharing more findings to come.

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