Position Yourself for Success

Karen asks: I’m a larger person. Do you have suggestions for meditating in positions other than on a comfy chair?

Yes. Of course. Lying down, legs crossed in double lotus position on a cushion, one leg bent with ankle pressed against thigh and other leg stretched long either with back supported by a wall or unsupported, feet flat on the ground and butt on a hard chair. Whatever position works for you is the perfect position in which to practice meditation. That is strictly my opinion and not the opinion of many a practitioner. 

After I'd been meditating for a few months, I attended a class in the Brahmrishi Yoga tradition in meditation and philosophy taught by a well regarded teacher. He'd studied in India with an even more regarded teacher, a swami who had reached enlightenment, something it seemed everyone in this class was very much interested in achieving.

Meditation was an enigma and as far as I could tell, our teacher was not interested in making it any less mysterious. The other students were a mix between meditators who had already studied with this teacher and those who were just beginning to try to crack the meditation code. There was a lot of discussion about how difficult it was to stop the distracting and continuous parade of thoughts in our heads and some advice as to how the repetition of a mantra word could be used to tidy up the mind clutter. This teacher's path to meditation required a strict adherence to difficult tasks that might eventually, if practiced enough, lead to Nirvana.

The first thing we were instructed to do as we began to meditate was to sit cross-legged on cushions, our backs unsupported. If your nose started to itch, you were not to scratch. As thoughts formulated in your mind, you were to repeat the phrase sohum (pronounced so-hung), a Sanskrit word loaded up with mystical properties. 

Of course, my nose itched as soon as I closed my eyes and within two or three minutes, my back started to throb. I repeated the mantra over and over and tried to avoid concentrating on not scratching my nose or rearranging my legs to better support my back. The Sanskrit mantra did not allow me to transcend my discomfort. When the twenty minutes of meditation had finally passed, I opened my eyes wondering if the other students would admit they had been as uncomfortable as I had been.

Some did, although they assigned more blame to themselves than I thought necessary. Sitting in an uncomfortable position is painful and although perhaps one day we may find ourselves in a position where we can meditate without regard to the physical sensations in our bodies, it may not be productive to start out that way. 

I sense Karen might think the comfy chair method of meditation is not quite a respectable way to meditate. That somehow to meditate authentically requires a specific posture andmindset few of us are capable of achieving. I can't say whether sitting uncomfortably increases the quality of your meditation. I don't do it so I don't know. The first couple years of my practice I sat on a couch with a pillow under my feet to bring the floor closer. I'm not large, but I'm short. The pillow helped. Now I usually sit in a cross-legged position on my bed, my back resting against the head board. 

Occasionally I meditate in the overstuffed arm chair I inherited from my grandfather. It is an important piece of furniture (ball in claw wooden arms and legs) and the place he would go when he wanted to relax. I can picture him perched in his chair, smoking a cigarette, jet white hair swept straight back and looking at me as I entered the room as if I were amiracle. I find security in Grandpa's chair and I fit quite nicely with my legs crossed, but my legs are short and this works for me. For now. 

I am far from the poster girl for meditation. The image of the blissed out chick in yoga pants, sitting straight and unsupported on a cushion --that's not me. If that position works for you, I'm impressed. But if you're starting a meditation practice to impress me, you can do the comfy chair method and I'll still admire you. 

Truthfully, I'm kind of a sloppy meditator and casual about my practice except for one thing: I sit in stillness for twenty minutes just about every day. 

Whatever you can do, Karen, to make this a less awkward and more accessible practice is excellent. What I do, I do not consider difficult. I believe in sitting (or lying if that works for you) in any position that makes it easy to sit in stillness. 

Make it less awkward, make it less stressful, meditate comfortably, but meditate. 

Might I Suggest?

As a lawyer, I’m trained to give advice only when I’m being paid for it. Lawyers are counselors. We dispense advice based on facts and on law. Clients are free to follow or not follow the advice they receive. On the other hand, I've always been fascinated with advice columns— Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayd’s fabulous online column at The Rumpus), Carolyn Hax (Washington Post), Lena Dunham (Ask Lena on You Tube). Check them out if you're not familiar. It's the compassion which most impresses me. These women take life questions from others and apply their experiences to guide the advice seekers in a thoughtful and provident way. I don't think I could ever do what these counselors do, although it fascinates me.

But I do have a passion to help others develop a meditation practice and I have opinions, strong opinions, about how accessible meditation is and how it's possible for anyone to do. And I know there are people searching  for a way to develop a practice and are looking for advice on how to do that. Still I get a little queasy about giving advice. Suggestions are more to my liking. Suggestions are softer than advice. So, in my hope to make meditation a little less intimidating, I invite your questions and I'll do my best to make thoughtful suggestions. 

When it comes to teaching meditation, the answers to my students’ questions come from my own experiences. What works for me may or may not work for you, but if you’re interested in hearing about what works for someone with a cluttered and chaotic mind just like yours, I invite you to ask me your questions.

This question was recently posited by Karen who is trying to cultivate a meditation practice.

So often when I sit, I get very distracted by worries, and I can’t just acknowledge them and watch them waft away. The worries are about important things. Do you have any advice for calming down, for a beginner?

There are two parts to Karen's question. The first is that she is immediately distracted by worries. The second is that these are not just any worries. These are important worries. 

In my experience, as soon as I sit down to find stillness, the first thoughts to alight in my brain are pesky, negative, critical thoughts. Sort of a worry/criticism combo. Here’s a typical thought to pop up when I first sit down: “You idiot. You forgot to go to the bank. AGAIN.” Have I ever approached the stillness and immediately found a moment of peace, of greatness, of joy? No, I don’t think so. I often hear the loopy tape of conversations that never have and never will occur. When he said that if I would have said this, then he would have said that, and then I would totally have had the opportunity to say this thing I will never have the opportunity to say. Or will I? Can I manipulate the next conversation to provide me the opportunity to say this most brilliant and poignant comment that will finally and totally explain to him why he is so wrong? Of course not.

Karen, your worries are distracting and will always be distracting. The issue is how to accept the distraction without judgment. Observe the worry thoughts. See what emotional response you feel in your body. Do you feel a tightness in your heart? A buzz in your head? Breathe. Repeat whatever phrase you've chosen as a mantra to coax the thought away. The worry may subside for a moment. Be proud of this tiny bit of success.

This is my suggestion based upon my personal experience. Pesky critical thoughts are familiar to me. I know these thoughts better than any other kind of response in my head or my body. The voice that chastises me is the most familiar voice in my head. I know this inner critic isn’t going anywhere, but if I concentrate on my breath and my mantra, I can often get it to take a little break knowing that it has permission to come back later. It’s like your crazy Uncle Harry. He often gets drunk, he frequently says the wrong thing, but he’s still invited to Thanksgiving dinner. I observe the criticisms and the worries and I TRY not to become involved with them. This experience of observing thoughts as opposed to thinking thoughts is a radical thing to do and is very powerful.

The other part of the question is that these worries are about important things. Important things deserve important time. Sometimes before I meditate I’ll ask for an answer to an important question. This doesn’t mean I concentrate on the question or try to think about the answer. I simply ask the question and observe whether or not an answer materializes. Sometimes I think of something brilliant while I’m meditating. Something very important and a perfect little ball of words or a precise way to phrase something. I’ll think of it a couple of times. I make a promise to myself to come back this thought later and I keep my promise. This is a bit of a trick and it’s important to find a way to trust yourself to come back to these important thoughts or worries. Trust takes time to develop.

The power of meditation is that it gives you a short break from the worries that plague you. It’s a reboot. Just like with anything electronic, the easiest way to fix a problem is to simply turn off the machine and then turn it back on. Power it down, then restart. It’s simple and you don’t need to be an expert to do it. 

    

Hope

In yesterday's meditation session, something remarkable happened for me. I felt a flash of hope. Just like that.

It's been a long year of drama and trauma. My heart was battered, then shattered and the pile of fragments scattered.

For the past month, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is to think of three things for which I am grateful. Number one is always coffee. Number two is usually appreciation for a first world utility service (running water, heat, cable). Number three is gratitude for the support of friends and family and the unexpected kindnesses that have come my way. After I acknowledge why I am grateful, I begin to meditate.

Meditation is a time when all the emotions that are held in check for most of the day become untethered. While meditation is a peaceful time, it’s also a time when I realize I carry shards of grief, fear, and anger. 

But yesterday, I felt hope, Light delicate hope. I have it with me still and this is a lovely way to go into the new year. I wish the same for you.

You're Out of Order

I decided to become a lawyer when my high school guidance counselor told me I could not.

Mrs. Stevens offered up three alternative career paths for me: nurse, teacher, or secretary. I looked her steadily in the eye and told her I thought I’d like to become a lawyer. “That is not possible for you,” she told me. She thought by telling me something was impossible, it thus made it so.

Mrs. Stevens was trying to cling to the world as she understood it. She was trying to stop the world from changing. 

I went to law school not only because I enjoyed a contrary personality, but because I had a desire to be an agent of change. That happened to be true for most of the people I met in law school. When my guidance counselor limited me in her limited way, I busted out. A paltry act of teenage defiance perhaps, but I desired to change the world for every high school girl everywhere.

And as much as I loved the idea of bringing about cataclysmic changes in the world when I started law school, some decades later I have come to have a much more negative relationship with change as I am battered around by the world. The good news is that I have lived a good long time now. The bad news is that along with the privileges and miracles, I have experienced catastrophes. If you’re privileged enough to be alive, you have likely to have muddled your way through brushes with disease, death, and the IRS, you too have some different views on the prospect of a changing world than you once had as a youth. 

The simple act of sitting in stillness allows me to embrace all those things I have not anticipated. It wears down my resistance to the new and unexpected. It helps me find a way to accept and adapt to change. What may have seemed hopeless and absurd is now something I might consider. I allow myself to pursue possibilities in the face of almost certain failure. 

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Inhale. Hold. Exhale. Hold. Repeat.

It was Jesse's birthday and I brought his class Rice Krispy treats. They're a raucous group of 25 kids, grades Kindergarten, first and second combined. Jesse is the teacher. After we sugared the kids up, Jesse sat them down and asked them to give me their attention. I was about to teach them to meditate.

Here's what I said: I am going to teach you to do something you have known how to do since you were one second old. It's something every baby knows how to do. I am going to teach you to breathe. 

It worked. I had their attention. 

I taught them square breathing. With an index finger I swiped the top line of the square and told them to inhale for 5 seconds, then hold it. I drew the next imaginary line in the air and told them to exhale for 5 seconds, then hold. We drew the bottom line and the last line. When they were done I asked if anyone noticed anything. The kid who waves his hand in the air and says Ooh, ooh, ooh waved his hand at me. I called on him and he said:  I feel calmer.

I'm thinking about this experience now as I prepare to teach lawyers about meditation at a Continuing Legal Education seminar. If the primary school kids could get it, there's a chance the lawyers might too.

Juju Attack

When I wake up with a sniffle, I pop a zinc tablet. When I wake up with a bit of the bad juju, I panic. 

 

I know the juju when it hits me. My heart pounds; a troubling thought translates into more troubling thoughts. A vortex of worry cyclones though me. Brain to heart to belly, brain to heart to belly, brain to heart to belly. 

I'm no guru. I do not blissfully wallow in the place of peaceful transcendence where gurus hang out. My
consciousness has not evolved to the point where anger and confusion hover gently in the distance. The juju infects my consciousness and spreads. The harder I fight, the stronger it takes hold.

Breathing helps. Acceptance helps. It will run its course when it's good and damn ready.

The Pursuit of Possibility

The problem with the pursuit of happiness is that happiness is so damn ephemeral. It's vapor. It's obscure and nebulous and coy. It tends to hide when it's sought after and often arrives unexpectedly. The secret to happiness is that happiness is fickle and  unpredictable. Maybe that's not much of a secret.

We all know there's only one thing that is truly predictable and that is change. Meditation is the best way I have found to accept and adapt to change. The simple act of sitting in stillness allows me to embrace all those things I have not anticipated. It wears down my resistance to the new and unexpected. What may have seemed hopeless and absurd is now something I might consider. 

Pursue happiness? It's not my way. I prefer to contemplate possibility. 

Feminist Karma

A couple of days ago, I attended a rigorous induction to Kriya Yoga. The Kriya Yoga method is based on attention to breath as it relates to the chakras. The day was rigorous, the swamis equanimous, the seekers curious. 

The goal, said the swami, was to never have a single moment of unhappy or sorrowful time. He was patient with me when I asked about the flip side of this equation. If there is never deep sorrow, how would one experience deep joy? To reach a higher consciousness, he explained, is to withstand the most trying of times with a deep inner joy. 

This did not sit well with me. 

I notice all the gurus happen to be people who have never personally experienced the very physical collision of intense joy with intense pain: childbirth. 

The swami said: We don't know that. Perhaps they were women in a past life. 

Maybe I'm too much of a cynic and a feminist to think these men were recognized as being karmically evolved only when their outer life was gendered masculine. Besides, I don't believe much in coincidence. I meditate. I see connections between everything. 

 

meditation sprints

Yesterday, I attended Meditation in the Galleries held the second Saturday of the month at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Most of the meditation training I've encountered is either uncomfortable or overly complicated or both. This time I found an accessible practice taught by an encouraging teacher.  Lizbeth Wolfe demonstrated breathing techniques and focused meditation sprints that lasted one or two minutes. The space is filled with Hindu sculptures referencing creation and grace. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning.