Retreating Meditations

I feel really centered, and for the first time I have an understanding of what that phrase is trying to express. I just returned from a 10-day yoga retreat, and it’s as if my scattered self has been swept into a much neater pile.

I went to the Sivananda Retreat in the Bahamas. It’s a quick, direct flight from NYC, so I’ve been there 3 times in the last 2 years. The daily schedule is meditation, kirtan, lectures, and yoga practice twice a day, with the middle of the day free for the beach or optional lectures. I love this schedule and have adapted it for my freelance life now that I’m back albeit with much smaller doses. I’m trying to stick with 30120 minutes of meditation/pranayama/yoga in the morning, 36 hours of work midday, and a couple hours of housework, socializing or reading at night.

The theme of the last weekend was “Deepening Meditation.” I am trying to maintain a regular meditation practice, and there were some helpful ideas in the meditation lectures:

  • It doesn’t matter what you choose to meditate on. The most important thing is that you like the object you’ve chosen; your fascination will help to bring the mind back from its distractions.
  • That said, you will eventually gain deep understanding of this object, so don’t pick something trite.
  • Sivananda once said “I pity the fool who attaches to non-representational ideas of the infinite. Images, whether abstract or personified, are the door through which you will gain understanding.”

Here is a nice series of short meditations from Onkar S. that bring the senses under control (aka pratayahara). We did this series in a small group, and each person had a different favorite. The whole series takes about 20 minutes, but it felt like 5 minutes. These exercises are good for everyone to do occasionally; they will strengthen your silent meditation as well.

  1. Choose a picture or a beautiful object. Focus the eyes near its center. Notice all the ideas, associations, and questions that come up. Notice the feelings and emotions that come up. (In yoga the mind is also considered a sense.)
  2. Light a candle and place it at eye level. Focus the eyes on the flame. When your eyes tire, take short breaks to close the eyes and visualize the flame between the eyebrows.
  3. Light a stick of incense. Close the eyes and focus the nose on the smell.
  4. Close the eyes and repeat the word OM. (This sound vibrates your whole head: throat, soft palette, and lips.) Focus the ears on the vibration between the eyebrows.
  5. Use the thumbs to close the ear flaps. The index fingers gently close the eyes, the middle fingers rest outside the nostrils, the ring fingers and pinkies close the lips. The symbolism, not the position/pressure of the fingers is most important. This is yoni mudra. Focus on the sound inside the right ear (for reasons unknown).

Onkar also spoke briefly on pain while sitting. (He teaches “Yoga for Pain” courses.) He said that the biggest point is to accept the body, and not fight it. Most often, we are angry at the injured part of the body, which only makes it contract further. Each part of the body has something like a mind, like a child, and we have to start a dialog with it. “Hello, foot, how are you doing? Is it ok if I put you like that? Oh, you hurt a little? You need a little massage? I’d hurt too if people were stepping on me all day!” When we fight the body “I want you to be flexible! Go!” we start a war. When we accept the body, the pain softens.

Here’s a basic overview of silent meditation:

  • Find a comfortable seated position, with the hips higher than the knees. Even if you can do Lotus, sit on a pillow to help the knees.
  • Gently straighten the spine by lifting the crown of the head. I often practice sitting against a wall, so that I know I am straight and I learn the correct sensation. The abdominal muscles can then relax. The chin relaxes slightly towards the chest.
  • Let the eyelids relax, so that only a slit of light is seen at the bottom. Let the eye muscles relax so the eyes are hanging downward.
  • Focus the attention (not the eye muscles) on the point between your eyebrows, or the right side of your heart; whichever is your natural tendency. You can imagine the breath moving in and out of this spot like a dolphin.
  • Repeat the mantra OM OM OM OM OM and feel the vibration. (This can be done out loud at first, to get the attention of the mind, but the memory of the sound works just as well.)
  • If thoughts enter the mind, let them flow straight out the other ear without attaching or judging or responding to them. Listen to the space between the thoughts instead, and return to your fascination with the forehead or heart.
  • If you notice your mind has wandered off for a while, just estimate how long it was gone and then return to your focus.
  • Let yourself fall into peace. You cannot force meditation, it is a state like sleep. You can only practice the habits that lead to meditation.

It took me 2 years before I could even sit at all. Before that my mind would jump with thoughts of “Why am I doing this? Nothing’s happening! I need to… I’m so bad at this! This is stupid!” until I gave myself a panic attack and jumped up. It was more helpful for me to do yoga poses, or play the drums, at that point in my life. But whatever minutes you spend practicing concentration are slowly adding up, and eventually meditation becomes more attractive. You start to get a physical buzz, and a clear mind, and you start to feel this way in your daily life as well. I went to a 45-minute silent meditation a few months ago, and it relaxed my jaw, which I hadn’t been able to close for 23 weeks. So you might persuade yourself to practice by knowing that there will at least be physical benefits, even if you aren’t feeling anything.

Confucius called it the great learning:

  1. Awareness
  2. Stopping
  3. Stillness
  4. Quietness
  5. Vitality
  6. Wisdom
  7. Achievement

This sequence is explained really well in a “How to Meditate” PDF based on many types of meditation.