Keep the well flowing

stone water basin overflowing with water

“To develop our real selves, we need time alone for thought and meditation. To be always giving out and never pumping in, the well runs dry.” ~Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Finding time alone for deep thought and meditation is not an easy thing to do in our busy, noisy world, especially when we have others depending on us. But creating space for those times is crucial to keeping enough water in our own well for us to be able to give to others and to become our fullest selves.

When was the last time you made space for time alone to think and to meditate? How might you incorporate more of that time into your life?

Meditation’s unexpected gift

The ancient yogis used meditation as a route to samadhi, the state of oneness with all things which is the yogic version of enlightenment. In fact, of the eight limbs of yoga according to Patanjali, four of them are steps along this route: pratyahara (withdrawing the senses from distractions around us), dharana (concentration on one object), dhyana (steadfast meditation), and samadhi (a state of oneness).

As I embarked on my own journey with meditation, I naturally set my goal as achieving samadhi. I did realize that this was a long, slow process that would require much practice, but that was my goal—that blissful state of oneness beyond thought, a place where I could just BE free of the chatter of my mind.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that meditation had an entirely different gift in store for me.

As I sit on my mat and focus on my breath, my monkey mind goes chattering off in a hundred different directions at once. I breathe and just watch this noisy parade of thoughts march by—not trying to stop the flow or change the nature of the thoughts—just observing them from a neutral, curious place. I’m slowly learning to not follow any of the thoughts, not grab them, not fight them, not judge them. This process produced two amazing discoveries for me.

First, I am not my thoughts. There is something that is ME that is observing those thoughts. This something—yoga calls it parusa, others may call it the higher self or the soul or the witness consciousness, I call it my curious observer-self—is unswayed by my thoughts. It simply IS.

Second, my thoughts are a jumble of chattering nonsense stemming from a whole crowd of personas that I commonly confuse as being my “self.” This stuff isn’t even coming from something real! And it’s definitely not objective truth that I need to listen to or believe. Who knew? (So much for Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”!)

As someone who has spent so much of her life living in her head, this discovery that my thoughts are not only not ME, but they’re not even “real” is mindblowing. In fact, it’s been amazingly freeing…completely transformative even.

Someday I may reach samadhi if I keep coming back to my mat long enough. Then again, I may not. And, you know, that’s really ok with me. The joyful, amazing freedom I’ve found in discovering my curious observer-self and letting go of my slavery to my thoughts is worth every moment I ever have and ever will spend in meditation.

What a valuable gift!

Mindfulness, meditation, and the breath

I just returned home from speaking at the 2011 Indiana Music Teachers Association (IMTA) Conference in Bloomington, IN, where I co-presented a session on Mindfulness in motion: connecting the musician’s mind and body with Julianne M. Miranda to a really wonderful group of music teachers. I haven’t seen such an engaged and enthusiastic audience in quite awhile! Thanks to all who attended for making it such a delight.

During our presentation, Julianne and I talked about mindfulness, meditation, and how the breath can support these practices. I arrived home to find that synchronicity had been at work to place a short video talk (3:27 minutes) by Sharon Salzberg, noted Buddhist teacher, on meditation and the breath in my Facebook feed from The Well Daily. It is a delight to listen to her echo the value of the breath in a meditation practice immediately on the heels of our presentation.

To see our handout or read more about our presentation, check out the event page for today’s talk. I’m delighted to say that we’ve already been invited to present on this topic again at another venue. Watch the News & Events page or the Facebook page for more information once it is available.

Focusing the mind with the breath

In yoga, it is commonly said that the breath links the body and the mind.

Our bodies are always in the present moment and in the present space. Our minds, on the other hand, spend most of the time somewhere other than the present moment and space. We spend so much time thinking about the past and the future, which automatically takes us out of this moment where our body is located.

The technique of training the mind to focus on the breath brings our mind back into the present moment to join our bodies as we place our attention on the feeling of the breath moving in and out of bodies.

Try it for a moment. Notice the feel of the cool air as it enters your nostrils. Notice the feel of the warm air on your nostrils as you exhale. Notice how your body expands to make room for each inhale and how it softens on each exhale. As your mind wanders, continue to gently bring your focus back to your breath and just be aware of each breath entering, filling, and leaving your  body.

This focus on the breath is often the first step in developing a meditation practice because it induces mindfulness through its awareness of the present moment.

Quieting the chatter of the mind

The Yoga Sutras are a series of brief sayings (sutra means thread) that were written down by a yogi named Patanjali about 2500 years ago as a means of recording the basics of what the yogis at that time had learned about yoga and the yogic way of life. There are numerous translations from the original Sanskrit into English, and most of these translations come with their own set of commentaries on these short threads of insight.

One of my favorites of these sayings is Yoga Sutra 1.2 in which Patajali gives the definition of yoga. I’ve seen numerous long-winded and eloquent translations of this, but the one that is most meaningful to me is “Yoga is the ability to quiet the chatter of the mind.” What a simple definition, but what a challenging task for each of us to learn!

Although most people think of the physical postures when they think of yoga, it’s all really about learning to quiet the chatter of the mind. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished that I had a switch on the side of my head where I could just turn off my mind for a little while to gain a little peace and quiet—just a moment of stillness away from the rushing whirlwind of thought that barrels through my head every waking minute. So what a gift it is as I grow into my yoga practice to catch glimpses of this ability to quiet the chatter of the mind.

I still have a long way to go, but as I come back to my mat again and again to practice the postures, linking body and mind through the breath, I increasingly catch the spaces between the thoughts. I find more ability to notice them and let them fly on by without engaging any energy in them. I am more and more able to be present in this moment, in this space, in my body. I am able to take that step back and be a witness of my own thoughts.

This freedom from the tyranny of the mental chatter is what keeps me coming back to the mat, coming back to learn the ability to quiet the chatter of the mind.