Vacation Meditation

I’m sitting in my best friend’s apartment in Las Vegas after finishing the first meditation of my vacation.  This is my fourth day on vacation and I have found a reason every day not to meditate; not formally at least.  I have taken moments to remain present, especially when I was hiking up Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles.  The view was spectacular and the realization of how out of shape I am definitely kept me present and focused on my breath.

The Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have often extolled the virtues of meditation and as I am taking my first holiday since adopting a regular meditation practice I have had the opportunity to focus on how important vacation meditation can be.  Let’s face it, vacations can be calming and restorative.  They can also be hectic, stressful, and filled with activity.  If we are not relaxing in the sun on the beach with a cold drink in our hand we are more than likely looking at a guide book or map trying to fit in as many sites as possible into our limited time.  We want to pack as much experience into our short window of a holiday we possibly can.  We run through Grand Central Station trying to catch a train.  We rush past priceless master pieces just to catch a fleeting glimpse of the Mona Lisa.  We ignore the powerful energies of an ancient Celtic ruin to make our lunch reservation on time.  We don’t take the time to be present in the moments we are creating.

How often on vacation do you feel tired, overwhelmed, and cranky?  Do you snap at your travel partner?  Do your children see your frustration as they ask for the millionth time, “when will we get there?”  Do you leave some place you were looking forward to seeing with a sense that you missed most of what was there?  Then you are wasting your holiday. Meditation can help you enjoy your holiday more.  I know you may not believe that, but it’s true.  Start each morning and end each night with just ten minutes of focused meditation and it can help you slow down and truly enjoy the holiday you’ve paid a great deal to be on.

It will help you remember to put down the guide book and truly see, hear, feel, experience what is happening around you.  Don’t read about the Piazza Navona stand at its center and drink in your surroundings.  Actually look at the faces of the people as they move through.  Look at your children as they discover what is being offered to them.  Have lunch together and savor the smells and flavors of the food.  Listen to your loved ones as they regale you with their versions of the holiday experience.  Every step you take, every moment you pause, every site you see can be a form of meditation; either passive or active. And all you need to jump start staying present in each of these individual moments throughout your vacation is a morning and evening meditation practice.  Take it a step further and involve your entire travel party.  Invite everyone to experience true awareness.

If you have been actively meditating for a while the addition of a morning and evening meditation while you’re on holiday will not be a burden for you.  If you are new to meditation or just want to improve your overall vacation experience it may be a slight adjustment for you.  You can wake up just ten minutes earlier than you planned and go to bed ten minutes later than the others you are with.  It is an investment.  The ten minutes you take in the morning to ground and center yourself will allow for a more stress free day. And the time you take at the end of your day will help to restore you after all of your adventures.  Take this little bit of time for yourself.  It will all be worth it.

Namasté
Matthew

 

Yoga As Meditation

As you have read in past posts meditation has not come easy to me. It is something I still struggle with. Even tonight as I sat it was very difficult for me to remain in the moment with my practice. However, I have come to terms with many of the issues I was having with meditation that were holding me back. The moment I knew I could finally meditate was when I realized that the yoga I was doing three to four times a week was a great form of meditation.

From the moment class begins the entire focus is on your breath. My yoga teacher even goes as far as saying, “if you do no other pose during class, but you are still breathing mindfully, you are doing yoga.” Those yogis reading this may not agree one hundred precent but I love this statement. This reminds me that just as in meditation, the breath is paramount to all things. Yogis are encouraged to focus on the breath which leads all movement during practice. If the breath is lost or cut off; back off of the pose. The same is true in meditation. When the mind begins to wander and the breath is no longer the focus, nor is the present moment; back off of the thoughts and return to the breath.

In yoga there are resting poses that can be returned to when the yogi is completely out of breath, losing focus, getting frustrated, etc. The foundational pose in yoga (please understand that is from my perspective and my practice) is Samasthiti. It begins each yoga class. Feet together standing straight up, shoulders back and down, and hands with palms together at your heart center. Yogis are called to Samasthiti at the beginning of class. From this pose the breath becomes the focus. No further pose is attempted until the breathing comes in line. It is the same with meditation. You cannot move into a deeper form of meditation until the focus is ready. This is done by breath awareness.

As mindfulness develops and meditation moves into deeper practice, if concentration wavers, the practitioner always returns to the breath. This is similar to the pose of the child and simple seated pose in yoga. These poses are designed to allow the yogi time and space to regain their breath so they can rejoin the practice. Then of course comes the mother of all resting poses, Shavasana (the corpse pose). This is the final pose in yoga where the mind is released, the body is relaxed, and the yogi lets go. It is complete relaxation. It is in this pose that I often repeat mini-mantras I use when I meditate. “Breathing in I calm my mind. Breathing out I smile.” I also will each part of my body to relax. This gives me an even greater focus on the now. I mentally move to each part of my body and invite the hands, the feet, the chest, the pelvis, the shoulders, the stomach, etc. to relax.

So, we have the focus on breath. Important? Yes. It is the grounding that is necessary in yoga and seated meditation. It is also the way to refocus both practices. You cannot meditate if you are holding your breath and you cannot do yoga without the breath either. How else is yoga a form of meditation? Without your full, focused, mindful attention throughout the practice you will not be a successful yogi. I have allowed my mind to wander many times in yoga. During the standing series I often will lose balance, even in the simplest poses. Forget about trying to hold an actual balancing pose. When I teach yoga to my middle school students I remind them over and over again how important it is to keep their minds focused on the poses (especially the balancing ones). You may also notice that as your mind wanders so does your breath. And, once the breath is lost so is the proper practice of yoga. The yogi then returns to the breath through one of the resting poses and then begins again.

The key to both sitting meditation and yoga as meditation is to not beat yourself up when your mind wanders. You are not incompetent. You are not the worst yogi or meditator on the planet. The fact that you are on the cushion or on the mat makes you the greatest (though many yogis and Buddhists would say greatest denotes positive versus negative and those are not recognized in the practices). The point I’m trying to make is; come back to the mat as often as you can. Come back to the cushion as often as you can. Do your yoga at home and go to class to gain a sense of community. The same is true with meditation. Meditate at home but join a sangha or community of meditators to help you gain further insight into your practice. Each time your return to your mat or sit on your cushion with the mindfulness that is required to practice; you are meditating. And every time you meditate or practice yoga you are improving and that is all you can ask of yourself.

Namasté
Matthew

 

There Will Be Times…

…when your meditation practice feels stunted. When your concentration falters every few moments. When you stare at the timer wondering to yourself why it doesn’t appear to be any closer to the end then when you looked at it three seconds ago. Does that mean you stop the timer, turn off the music, blow out the candles, douse the incense? My answer to that is no. You keep sitting. This lack of concentration can be a test to your practice. Can you continue to sit, even though you aren’t feeling successful? Can you lean into your feeling of failure and stay with the moment? You will never know if you get off your cushion before it’s time. As I’ve said in previous posts, you sit with the body and mind you have at this very moment. You do not try to make it something it cannot be. The more you force the more difficult and frustrating the process becomes. Sit with the frustration, see the practice to the end. Go back to your breathing as often as you need to (that may be every ten seconds and that’s ok). Once your practice has ended, contemplate where your challenges lie. If it’s one time that you are distracted, figure out what has you off kilter. Not enough water? Too much going on at work? Fight with a loved one? Too much caffeine? Too full? Too hungry? Headache, stomach ache, or other ailment? Then know for your next sitting what you need to change. If this is a continuing issue you will need to explore deeper. What series of challenges are holding you back from full concentration? What can you change? Are you sitting too late at night? Too early in the morning? Are you getting enough sleep? Is there a major project at work that you can’t get off your mind? Are you and your spouse fighting on a regular basis? There may be one or several issues that you will need to drill down into to ensure you can concentrate on your meditation. Even if the problem cannot be solved during this contemplation session, you still continue to sit in meditation practice. Do not give that up. Keep sitting, every day.

…when your relationships will feel unfulfilling. Does that mean you give up on friends, family, a spouse? No, you do not. You must sit with this feeling. You must get to the root of the issue. Where is this lack of fulfillment coming from? Are you not spending enough time together? Are you not spending enough time apart? Is your emotional life suffering? Is your sex life suffering? Where do you sense the problem lies? Everyone knows relationships take work. You cannot abandon them just because a snag has been hit. Your first step is to explore your feelings as they pertain to your unfulfilled relationship. If you cannot pinpoint from whence your own personal issues stem, then your partner, or friend, or loved one has no way of meeting you in the middle. Once you have ascertained your basic concerns and needs the dialogue must begin. Discuss everything openly and honestly, without judgement and without blame. And above all else, remain present in the moment. Remember, the conversation is the relationship.

…when emotions will over power you. Anger will spark. Jealousy will ignite. Depression will drown you. It is how you handle each of these that will effect you. Anger often stems from feeling out of control. When you accept that the only person you can control is yourself, then the anger diminishes. You will still have bouts of anger, but you will not let them control you. Jealousy often consumes because we wish to possess someone. The sooner we learn that we cannot possess anyone the easier our relationships will become. Life is filled with impermanence. The more you try to possess someone the more they will slip through your fingers like grains of sand. You must sit with this feeling of jealousy and find its root. What in your past has occurred that makes you wish to possess someone? Why do you desire to terminate their independence? You cannot be fulfilled if your jealousy is the only thing that forces someone to remain with you. Find where it comes from and work to change your perceptions. Depression often feels as though we’re drowning because it becomes all we can think about. Often depression is a chemical imbalance and there are many ways to combat that imbalance through therapy and medication (I utilize both myself). But, that is not the depression I am thinking about. I want to focus on the depression that occurs when we don’t get the promotion we wanted, or a relationship ends before we expected it to. Often times our depression grows from a disappointment of not getting what we had hoped. Buddhism teaches us that expectations cause suffering. If you were expecting to be the next vice president of your company and you are passed over, you suffer. If your spouse leaves you after your expectation was “till death do us part” you suffer. The question then becomes how do you battle these expectations. I remember the advice I was given over and over by my mentor when I was looking to be promoted in my retail job, “don’t worry about getting the next position, show how amazing you are at your current position, that’s when they’ll know you’re ready.” This proved to be great advice and has stuck with me, even as I practice now. We all want the best out of life, and I’m not saying don’t go out and try to get it. What I’m saying is don’t get so caught up in your expectations of how it has to be that you forget to give your best effort in the present moment. Don’t forget, it’s the only moment you have.

The key to each of the “whens” I’ve written about is to remain in the moment with each. Stay present with your meditation. Sit with the disappointments. Lean into the anger. Delve into your jealousy. Discover the root of your depression. Explore your expectations. Embrace your lack of fulfillment in your relationships. You cannot run away from any of these; they will give chase, they will catch you, and you’ll still have to deal with them. When you ferret out the root causes you will begin to find your way back to the right concentration you need. Don’t be afraid, it may be painful, but it’s worth the energy you put into it.

Namasté
Matthew

Real World Application

Last night tried my patience, tried my soul, and tried my attempts at peace of mind. After three weeks in the shop my little Fiat wouldn’t start in the mall parking lot. It was raining rather heavily, I was tired, and a little upset with Fiat. I will honestly admit that before I began my yoga, Buddhism, and meditation practices the old me would have been cussing up a storm, lashing out at my poor friend (who was stuck with me in the tiny space that is my Fiat), and generally hating life as a whole.

I am happy to say that those things did not happen. I did place my head in my hands for a few moments and I came right to my breathing practice. I closed my eyes and took many many many deep breaths. As I did this I could feel the overwhelming anger begin to abate. I took one final deep breath in and made all the necessary calls to get the situation handled and move on with my night. This is not to say I didn’t feel anger, disappointment, or disgust; trust me those feelings were right below the surface. I did, however, not let them rule my emotional well being. I sat with them for a moment (let’s not lie; many moments) and dealt with each emotion as it surfaced. I refused to let this ruin what I’ve been working so hard to accomplish.

I am not perfect. I am not enlightened. I probably still could have handled my emotions far more maturely. But, I can honestly say I’ve come a long way in controlling those emotions and that is what my practice is all about. Step by step improvements, no matter how small or trivial make all the difference.

This is a short post, I know. But I wanted to share this story as a beacon of hope for anyone else that might be working on the same issues that I am.

My love to you all!
Namasté
Matthew

The Value of Teaching Children Mindfulness

yoga

yoga (Photo credit: GO INTERACTIVE WELLNESS)

This summer I worked in a middle school camp.  I taught yoga to a group of students that you would think would be uninterested.  A group of “baseball jocks” that fought to be my assistant during our daily yoga practice.  By the end of the camp each of them knew the names of the poses I taught them and could successfully lead a thirty minute yoga practice without assistance from me.  I was proud that I had instilled this love of yoga into these boys and the few girls who came to my classes.  They were focusing on their breath and on the postures and they were taking it seriously.  However, once they left the class, all their mindfulness was forgotten; as is expected with kids.

 

 

But, I began to become aware of a bigger issue overall when it came to mindfulness and how important it can be for our kids.  During lunch and after the program ended for the day we would sell snacks to the students.  I admit that these were not healthy snacks.  They consisted of ice cream, chips, candy, sodas, more candy, beef jerky, and even more candy.  The kids would shell out a dollar each for these sugary and salty treats.  Kids would come to the counter with a $10 bill and spend the entire amount.  I watched kids buy a soda, gulp it down in under a minute (not an exaggeration) and walk to the back of the line to purchase another.  They didn’t even taste the soda.  They would pop five or six peanut M&Ms into their mouths chew a few times and swallow.  Snickers bars would be eaten in less than five bites.  Kids do not, naturally, know how to go slow and savor.

Admittedly this is not just a concern with kids.  Adults do not move slowly and savor. But, I firmly believe that the mindfulness gained from slowing our eating process down could go a very long way in battling our country’s growing obesity epidemic.  I make that statement based on my own battle with weight.  When I mindlessly shovel food into my mouth the pounds creep on.  When I worked for nearly a year to lose forty pounds, my major strategy was to eat slowly and enjoy the flavors of what I was eating.  I found as much joy in a 1/4 of the portions I had been consuming mindlessly.  It takes as much as 20-30 minutes for your body to completely process satiety.  Your stomach takes that long to tell your brain, “hey, I’m full, stop shoveling it in.”  If you are not paying attention and eating too quickly you won’t know when to stop until you feel you are ready to explode.

Now, to turn this back to our children.  By teaching them a few tricks, we can teach our kids to slow down and enjoy their food and they won’t need as much. The kids that drink their coke in under a minute and are grabbing for another are not even noticing the taste of what they are drinking and on top of that they are packing on empty calories.  One trick I taught myself to stop guzzling or shoveling was to put down my glass or can between each sip.  This also works when eating.  Put your fork or spoon down on the table between bites.  To take it even further, share with your kids that they should place their drink or utensils down for 3-5 beats or bites.  In all honesty, this was a difficult task for me to learn and I have to remind myself often to do continue doing it.  But, if you begin instilling this habit in your children early it will become ingrained.  When the fork isn’t poised to bring another mouthful to the lips then flavor can be experienced.

Play a game with your kids.  Once they put the fork down, have them chew and savor the food that is in their mouth.  Then, have them describe the flavors to you.  Don’t let them talk with any food in their mouths; this will also ensure the slower eating.  In the beginning it’s ok if it’s a few simple adjectives.  Then, as they become better at it, ask them to be more descriptive (as a former English teacher I love the idea of teaching kids to be descriptive).  Do this when they drink as well.  What are they tasting?  The more time they spend thinking about what they are eating and drinking the slower they will move, the less they will eat, and the fewer pounds they will pack on.

Another great thing you can do with your kids is go on a walk with them.  Go through the neighborhood and get their perspective.  What do they see?  What do they hear?  Have them get in tune with their own mindfulness.  What do they feel when they walk?  What do they smell as they move through the neighborhood?  Ask them questions.  Listen to their answers.  This will not only help them be aware of their surroundings; it will get them active and moving.  If you make it another game they won’t feel as if you’re forcing them to exercise, they’ll see it as something fun.  Then physical activity will become second nature.

The joys of mindfulness are not just for Buddhists or yogis, they are for everyone.  We can all benefit from going slowly, staying in the moment.  Enjoying our food, enjoying the company we’re with, and enjoying our children’s perspective on life.  A slow mindful family dinner or walk will also allow you to make a stronger deeper connection with your children.  It will also form a great habit that they will ingrain in their own children in the future.  Start your kids on the path to mindfulness now; you won’t regret it.

Namasté
Matthew

365/259 "Mindfulness means...", Sep....

365/259 “Mindfulness means…”, Sep. 16, 2011 (Photo credit: ConnectIrmeli)

 

 

The Buddha Makes Me Smile

Buddha statues in a temple on Jejudo, South Korea

Buddha statues in a temple on Jejudo, South Korea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have recently been inundated with more and more hostile comments about my Buddhism.  Whether it’s from Facebook friends or people I interact with on a daily basis.  This has allowed anger to well inside of me.  Luckily, I have many tools in my belt to help me embrace that anger, find the root of it, and allow it to dissipate.  I am finding that I do not stay angry nearly as long as I used to.

However, this is not another post about anger.  Quite the opposite actually.  I want to write about the things that make me smile.  That bring me joy, peace, and happiness.  And as I do so, I want my readers to ponder their own joy and happiness.  What brings you peace? So, let’s begin.

Portrait of Buddha, in teaching posture

Portrait of Buddha, in teaching posture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

-The smile on the Buddha’s face makes me smile.
-My mother when she calls “just to chat” makes me smile.
-My friends bring me joy.
-My niece telling me stories makes me smile.
-My nephew’s exuberance at life makes me smile.
-My neighbor, when he buys extra treats for my dogs, makes me smile.
-My family makes me happy.
-My students (though I don’t often admit this) make me smile.
-My dogs definitely make me smile.
-Being told, “I love you,” brings me great joy.
-Telling those I care about, “I love you” brings me happiness and peace.
-Being told, “I’m grateful for you,” brings me a soaring sense of happiness.
-Telling others, “I am grateful for you,” brings me joy and peace.
-Animals, especially those at play, make me smile.
-The laughter of a baby makes me smile.
-Reading brings me joy.
-Writing brings me happiness.
-Mindfulness brings me peace.
-Meditation brings me peace.
-Yoga brings me love, joy, happiness, peace, gratitude, health, well-being.

This is just a small list.  I could go on and on and on.  But, you get the idea.  What’s on your list?  What brings you joy?  Sometimes it’s hard to see through our anger or depression; our sadness or gloom.  But, find one thing that makes you smile; no matter how small or trivial.  Hold on to that one thought and as you begin to smile you will think of more things that bring a sense of happiness, joy, or even peace to you.  Use these as a reminder.  They can be your anchor in tough times.  Once you find your joy, do as Joseph Campbell suggests, “Follow your bliss.”

Namasté
Matthew

Remaining Present During Meditation

I know that I ruminated on this topic in my post “The Elusiveness of Meditation.” Remaining present during meditation was the bane of my practice, for the longest time.  I have not perfected a particular way to remain present while I meditate, but I do have a few tricks I’d like to share.  Hopefully they will work for you.  If they do not, feel free to tweak them for your own use or completely disregard them.

My first trick I borrow from my favorite Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.  Again, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts Thich Nhat Hanh relates to his pupils that focus on and awareness of the breath is vitally important.  He suggests a few things you might say to yourself to keep your mind focused on the breath.  “Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in.  Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”  Another that he recommends – which is my favorite – is, “Breathing in, I calm my mind.  Breathing out, I smile.” This has a wonderfully simple and happy feel to it. Thich Nhat Hanh also reveals that the simple act of smiling relaxes many of the muscles in the face.  You are doing yourself multiple favors by smiling.  When my mind is bouncing here and there and everywhere I will begin focusing back on my breath and using the mantras taught by Thich Nhat Hanh.

On my home altar I have a stone candle holder in the image of the Buddha.  There is a slight smile on the Buddha’s face.  When I want to remind myself to relax and smile during meditation I will gaze at the Buddha’s face; his smile in particular, and I can’t help but smile in return.

Another trick I use to remain present is my own process.  I recently purchased a mediation cushion, or zafu, from Amazon.  When I meditate on my zafu I sit in the half lotus position with one foot resting on my knee.  As a way to remain present in the moment I will give a mental rundown of my body’s position.  “I am in the present moment as I sit on my zafu.”  “I remain present during my meditation as I align my spine to sit up straight.”  “I feel my legs crossed over each other as I meditate and remain present.”  I will even mentally comment on any pain or irritation my body may be experiencing.  “While I am present in this moment I feel the tingle of my foot as it falls asleep.”  “I am present in this moment as I feel how my left arm itches.”  I try not to focus too much on the physical feelings because then it becomes too easy to attach myself to those feelings.  It is one thing to use a physical pain or irritation to maintain awareness of the present moment.  It completely defeats the purpose if I allow myself to become attached to those feeling and begin to complain or whine.  “My back hurts.  My toe itches and won’t stop.  I need water.  I want a massage, etc.”  Don’t let it become an excuse to let your mind wander and take over the meditation.

One last trick I use to remain present comes from Eckhart Tolle.  You may remember him from his master class with Oprah Winfrey a few years back.  His book, A New Earth, was an Oprah Book Club selection.  He and Oprah did an online class for five weeks.  Tolle’s ideas are deeply rooted in Buddhism (another experience that helped set me on my current spiritual path).  In his book and during the online class Tolle suggested that audience members focus on the underlying energy that is constantly surging through the body.  He insists that if you focus you can feel this energy as it moves through every single part of your body.  At first I was skeptical, but when I truly focused I could feel it.  It was like a tingle that I could feel in every digit, every limb, every organ of my body.  After I’d been doing it for a while I could feel the energy pulsing through me.  This awareness of my body allowed me to feel alive and vibrant.  I still use this idea to help ground me in the present moment.  It is highly effective.  I’ll admit to you right now, it may take you some time to master this particular trick, but once you do, I promise you’ll be amazed.

Start by focusing on the crown of your head.  It will probably begin by feeling like your pulse beating in the top of your skull.  That’s the perfect beginning.  As you focus more you will begin to feel the tingle.  Once the tingling begins, move your focus to your forehead, then your eyes, nose, lips, chin, and so on down your entire body.  If you remain focused on this task you will remain present.  If you find your mind slipping and wandering, gently “shhhhh” the fussy baby, start back at step one and Thich Nhat Hanh’s breathing exercises until you are fully focused again.

My final suggestion is to download the mobile app, ReWire.  I have mentioned this app several times, and I cannot talk enough about how amazing it is.  You can use the ReWire tracks or you can use your own music.  I mix it up from night to night and use both.  I am particularly fond of ReWire’s track “Calm” and I love listening to Enya from my own music. The beauty of this app is it keeps you present during your meditation by allowing you to focus on the vanishing of the music track.  When the music stops you just tap the screen of your mobile device.  If you aren’t paying attention the mobile device will vibrate to bring you back to the present moment.  If you are trying too hard to anticipate the next vanishing, and tap too soon, the mobile device will vibrate again.  This app has worked wonders for me.  I am extremely grateful to the Buddhist Geeks podcast that brought this app to my attention. I highly recommend this app, especially if you’re a techie like me.

Don’t try to be perfect in your meditation.  It won’t happen.  Your mind will always wander. You’ll have good days and you’ll have crappy days.  Sometimes your mind will cooperate and others it will drive you bonkers.  It is much like my yoga teacher, Lezlie, tells us at the beginning of each class, “focus on the body you have tonight, whether it’s energized and ready or whether it’s tired and needs calm; that is the body you are working with.”  It is the same with your mind during meditation.  Work with the mind you have at the moment, because that moment is the only one that matters.  Just like each individual moment of your life.

Namasté
Matthew

Finding the Joy of Gratitude

In our darkest moments, deepest depressions, and in the midst of challenging emotions, gratitude can be our life preserver. And as I write this I am pondering the possible ending of a relationship and the emotional whirlwind that entails. I look to gratitude to help ease the emotional burden. But we have to know how to be grateful. One of my favorite quotes is from Meister Johannes Eckhart. He was a Dominican Friar from the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Eckhart preached often, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” Eckhart knew the value of gratitude and how it could bring those who professed it and those that believed in its power closer to the divine.

Having battled depression and anger I can attest to the power of being grateful. It is a difficult emotion to grab onto, but once you have it you should use it. In the last year I read a book I found in the Barnes and Noble bargain section titled, A Simple Act of Gratitude, by John Kralik. It was an easy read and I have passed it on to several people who I felt would appreciate and benefit from reading it. It is not based on any religious dogma. It is the simple story of a lawyer that set out to build his own practice. When the firm began to fail and was on the brink of closing Kralik took a moment to write a thank you note to his son. This sparked further thank you notes to family, friends, and clients. He began a year long project to write 365 thank you notes. He found that with each thank you note his true feelings of gratitude soared. He also discovered that sending a thank you note to a client that was not paying their legal fees or seriously late with payment chipped away at his anger. It had the added bonus of reminding that client to pay their fees.

Within months Kralik’s practice was climbing out of the red and back into the black. He attributes this to taking the time to make his clients, family, and loved ones know how important they were to him. He did not quite reach his goal of 365 thank you notes, but he continues to write them and profess their importance.

I enjoyed this book so much I started writing thank you notes myself. I wrote several to my parents, co-workers, and even my neighbor. I would mail them, or place them in their mailbox at work. Each thank you note led to a phone call or a visit from those I left the note for. They were touched by my gratitude. But, more importantly, I was touched by my own gratitude. Not, in an egocentric way, but just how much better I felt writing the note and taking them time to feel grateful. I found that I became less angry and my depression lessened as well. Just that simple mindful act of writing and feeling gratitude helped alter my moods.

In today’s busy society we often rush through our days. We don’t stop to think about how others have helped us through that day. The friend that helped us pick up the papers we dropped in the hallway. The family member that calls or texts out of the blue just to say, “I love you.” These acts of love and kindness begin to fan the flames of gratitude. We need those flames to build. With each mindful moment of gratitude we experience the lighter and happier we become. Even if you are angry at someone, take a moment to thank them. Even if you have to fake the emotion. Because the more you say thank you the more you will actually begin to feel that gratitude.

Make a list. Who are you thankful for? What in your life are you grateful to have? No matter how small or insignificant you feel the object is, no matter how little that person is in your life, write it down. Keep the list with you; in your wallet or your purse. Refer to it often, update it often. Make this a living breathing list that is alive with your gratitude. Once you start feeling the gratitude it becomes easier and easier with every person and every thing you are grateful for. When you look at the list take note of how you feel. Are you happier? Is there a smile on your lips? Can you feel the gratitude? Try this exercise for two weeks. Give it your full effort and mindful attention and see if your mood doesn’t improve. What can it hurt? Find the joy of gratitude.

Namasté
Matthew

The Elusiveness of Meditation

For the longest time I felt that the benefits of meditation were as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, and the Abominable Snowman combined.  Any time I would sit for meditation practice my entire body would tense up.  My inner voice, which I call my critic, would scream out at me. “You’re doing it all wrong.”  What makes you think you can meditate?” “This is useless, give up and turn on the television.”  The last statement was often what I listened to.  When I did give up, it took me thirty minutes to an hour to feel grounded again.

I read books on meditation from renowned authors on the subjects like, Pema Chodron, Osho, Jack Kornfield, and even my favorite Buddhist author Thich Nhat Hanh.  I could not gain any insight from the books and the harder I tried the more tense I became with each sitting.  I remember picking up a book about Zen meditation and the author had pictures of the wrong way to sit, the wrong way to hold your hands, the wrong way to position your cushion.  This pictorial added even more stress for me.  I couldn’t even figure out the right way to meditate, now I have to be cognizant of the wrong way as well?  Sheesh!

I took meditation classes.  These weren’t so bad but I never fully felt the connection I was supposed to have.  I also had a hard time not “peeking” to see what the other members of the class were doing.  Did they all have their eyes closed?  Were they all sitting the same way I was?  How were there hands placed?  Were they as uncomfortable as I felt?  And of course there was always the class show off looking peaceful and serene.  Then they just had to rub it in by telling everyone in the room how amazing their experience was and how they felt one with God or whatever higher being they believed in.  Why were they able to get it so easily and I was chasing after that feeling unsuccessfully?

Then I read the book, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and it struck me; like her I was trying too hard.  I was making meditation far more difficult than it needed to be.  I was way over thinking.  No wonder I was stressing myself out.  I was very hard on myself.  I berated myself when I couldn’t get it right.  I internalized all of my mistakes.  I had to take it easy.  But, I have never been one to be kind to myself.  I rarely give myself a break.  I often beat myself up over mistakes I’ve made or continue to make.  (My Buddhism practice is teaching me to be gentler to everyone, including me.  But that is for another post.)  So I set my mind to being less of a task master and perfectionist about meditation.

With this idea in my head I started fresh.  I looked at Thich Nhat Hanh all over again.  He has been a great help through my practice in all aspects and I knew he could help again.  I was right.  I began with the simplest of steps, “bring awareness to your breath.”  I could do that.  Thich Nhat Hanh teaches you to think, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.  Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.”  He then recommends that you dissect this into it’s smallest usable parts, “In” and “Out.”  Simple, right?  He reminds you not to berate yourself when thoughts enter you mind.  You just say to yourself, “thinking” and then return to the consciousness of your breath.  For this part I deviate slightly and instead I just mouth and think to myself, “shhhhh.”  Now, it is not the “SHHHHHHH” you use in a movie theatre when the teenagers behind you are talking and giggling and texting throughout the movie.  It is the loving soothing, “shhhhh” you use to quiet a baby that is crying or fussy.  You are not angry with that baby and you should not be angry with yourself.

After trying this several times in my meditation practice I noticed I was improving.  I wanted to go further and the ability to do that came to me thanks to Buddhist Geeks.  This is a group I’ve talked about in previous posts that focus on how technology can help enhance your Buddhist practice.  On one of their podcasts they had the developer of the Rewire App, which I highly recommend.  This app helps you remain in the moment and focused.  The way it works is having you focus on the absence of sound.  You can tie Rewire to the music on your mobile device or you can download some of their compositions.  As you meditate the music plays and at periodic intervals it will stop.  When it stops, you tap the screen to acknowledge that the music halted.  If you take too long or tap too soon the mobile device will vibrate forcing you back into the moment.  The app can even be treated as a game because in the end you see how many “meditation” points you’ve gained.  This has taken me even further in my meditation practice.

Now, I’ll admit this may not work for everyone, especially those that take themselves and their meditation too seriously.  But, I tend to be more light hearted and less serious by nature.  I have a playful spirit and this works for me.  Do what is best for you and your practice.

I know this works for me because Thich Nhat Hanh reiterates in his mediation guides that you should remind yourself as you focus on your breath, “Breathing in I clear my mind; breathing out I smile.”  I often find myself with a small smile playing across my face as I meditate now.  This is my sign I’m finally picking it up and finding some semblance of peace and joy.

My home altar for meditation.

My home altar for meditation.