Meditation and Staying Centered
Meditation and Inner Peace
Meditation is hard work. If you’re expecting it to bring instant peace, forget about it. What you get instead is a face-to-face meeting with all the stuff tumbling around in your busy brain. My mind has quieted down some over years of practice, but it can still cover a lot of ground in a few short minutes. Over the years I’ve learned to react to it less, and to give my thoughts more space. The idea is to let them come and go, without judging your performance or trying hard to have a still mind. The harder you try the more agitated your mind gets.
There’s a meditation instruction that compares the mind to a strong bull. It will go crazy if you lock it into a small paddock. But if you turn it out into a big pasture, it naturally quiets down. The big pasture is an attitude of mindful curiosity. It doesn’t matter what happens next in meditation. One thing is as good as another. Tension or peace, joy or sorrow, boredom or excitement, are all the same. They aren’t inherently good or bad. They’re just what’s happening in the moment. Wait a minute, or even a few seconds, and something else will happen. Thoughts are as impermanent as clouds.
You can notice your changing thoughts and feelings with the open curiosity of a child. “Hey, there’s peace, or “Oh, here comes anger.” Without judgment, thoughts are less sticky. You can relax and notice how they float through the clear blue sky of your natural mind. The sky is spacious. It doesn’t try to hold onto the clouds. And even if a storm cloud passes through, the sky in which it floats remains peaceful. That’s the attitude of spaciousness, the big pasture. Meditation is about making the shift from identifying with the changing clouds to resting in the spacious sky out of which they come and into which they fade away again. The sky is pure Being, the experience of Now. When you’re there, you’re in your center.
With time, spaciousness carries over into everyday life. You get glimpses of your center, the natural mind, the state of Being, more often. Instead of seeing the world through a veil of thoughts, you perceive it directly, face to face. In those precious moments of Now, your whole self becomes a big, generous Thank You to the universe for all the gifts of life. Those spontaneous glimpses of Being are what motivate me to continue meditation, or to pick up the practice again when I’ve let it go for a while.
I invite you to try a little experiment. Let your body relax, and focus on something that you’ve seen before, like your telephone. Spend a little while actually looking at, seeing the details of it mindfully, just as it is. Chances are that you’ll notice things about it that you haven’t seen before. Labels fix our experience, so that we don’t see with fresh eyes. Rather than seeing things, we experience our thoughts about things and the immediacy of experience fades. When you’re mindful, labels fall away and you open yourself to a world of surprise and delight. You become like a child again and your mind greets life with the Big Thank You.
If you’ve ever spent time meditating, you know how hard it is. Perhaps you stay with your focus for 15 or 30 seconds, and then the mind is off and running. You have things to do, fears and worries to review. A sound outside reminds you that the yard needs raking, and the entire to-do list invades your meditation. You notice that your pants feel tight, and all your fat thoughts go on parade. That doesn’t matter at all. You just keep bringing your mind back. The fruits of meditation may or may not be experienced during the time that you sit and do it. Perhaps someday you’ll be walking through a supermarket, writing a report, playing with your child, or sitting alone at twilight and your practice will suddenly bear fruit. Your grateful heart will catch you by surprise. Like a redbud tree whose spring flowers appear on bare branches, the invisible energy of long practice suddenly bursts through.
My own meditation practice has been intermittent over the years. Sometimes it waxes strong, and other times it almost fades away. I have found that to be true for many people. But the intention that keeps me coming back to the practice, as hard as it is, is mindfulness. I want to wake up out of the trance of daily life and find myself present in the Now.
Peace is possible. That’s the intention behind any form of meditation practice, whatever the belief system that informs it, or the lineage that sustains it. Whether the practice is secular, undertaken to lower your blood pressure and relieve your stress; an awareness practice meant to bring you back to the true nature of mind; or a religious practice aimed at Divine Union, the fruits are peace that you can carry with you into this busy world. Meditation is like an anchor that keeps the storms of life from blowing you off course. It’s well worth the effort, even when you think that all you’re doing is reviewing your anxieties.
We are all wired differently from a physiological perspective and each of us has different beliefs and experiences. Therefore, an excellent centering practice for one person may not suit another at all. Some people prefer a moving form of meditation such as mindful walking, qi gong, hatha yoga or stretching exercises. Others prefer closed eyed sitting exercises such as concentration, mindfulness meditation, centering prayer or other forms of centering.
Whatever form you feel drawn to practice, make a commitment for a full twenty-eight days and put it into your schedule every day at the same time. This is the basis of forming a healthy habit. Most people find that getting up fifteen or twenty minutes earlier and doing the practice first thing in the morning not only works well in terms of getting it done, but also sets the tone for a more peaceful, energized, loving and productive day. Physiological research shows that at least three 20-minute periods of meditation weekly are necessary to experience long term reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, anxiety and other stress-related problems.
Diaphragmatic and Dantien Breathing
Belly (diaphragmatic) breathing is associated with lower heart rate, reduced blood pressure, increased energy and feelings of peacefulness, clarity, relaxation and creativity.
- Put one hand on your abdomen and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in through your nose and expel it slowly and completely through your mouth. You will feel your belly flatten. Let the next breath (and all subsequent breaths) come in and go out through your nose. Can you feel your abdomen expand? If you can’t, just imagine that a balloon is inflating in your belly when you breathe in and deflating when you breathe out. The out breath is longer than the in breath, like a gentle sigh of relief.
- A variant of this technique from Chinese medicine is called dantien breathing. Dantien means the field where the elixir of long life is planted. There are three dantien, which can be compared to storage batteries for qi, or life-force energy. The largest dantien is in the lower abdomen. Breathe as for belly breathing, and also notice that your lower back and sides are also expanding and contracting with the breath.
For a fast mini-relaxation break any time during the day, take a deep breath and release it slowly—a letting go breath. Try breathing back from ten to one, one number on each out breath. By the time you get to one, you will notice that your breath is much slower and more regular and that you’re relaxing. With a little practice, you will form the habit of breathing from your diaphragm more of the time.
Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D. first found that concentration meditation elicits what he calls the “relaxation response.” All forms of meditation, in which the mind becomes quiet and focused, also elicit this innate physiological response, which is the opposite of the body’s stress or fight-or-flight response. Breathing is an important cornerstone of the relaxation response. Benson first researched the clinically standardized “relaxation one method” of meditation in which the word one is repeated in time to each outgoing breath. Any word will produce the same results.
An ancient Sanskrit mantra, or meditation focus, is Ham Sah. This is supposed to remind the meditator of the sound of the incoming and outgoing breath. Ham as you breathe in, Sah as you breathe out. Ham means I am. Sah means the inner Self, the Divine Spark. Any short phrase will do as a meditation focus, either secular or religious. “Hail Mary” on the in breath, ”full of grace” on the out breath is an excellent focus for those used to repeating the rosary, which is also a kind of concentration meditation. Jewish Meditation by Rabbi Ari Kaplan, is an excellent primer for Jews. Benson’s classic The Relaxation Response is a fine review of both secular and religious meditation traditions and techniques.
Sitting with eyes closed, focus on belly or dantien breathing. Repeat your focus phrase, prayer or mantra in time to either the out breath, or both the incoming and outgoing breath if it is a longer phrase. When thoughts come, passively disregard them and just return to the repetition.
The Buddhist peace worker, poet and monk Thich Nhat Hanh is known for his walking meditations. Most of the time we are not present to what we are doing. The mind is constantly thinking up thoughts of yesterday and tomorrow, often dwelling on the negative. As John Lennon wrote, “Life is what’s happening when we’re making other plans.” Mindfulness means to be present to what is, rather than losing ourselves in thoughts of what is no longer or what has not yet come. Mindfulness is an awakening to life, a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. As you prepare to walk slowly and mindfully, regulating the cadence of your steps to diaphragmatic breathing, you might enjoy repeating one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditative poems:
Breathing in I calm body and mind (in breath) Breathing out I smile (long out breath) Dwelling in the present moment (in breath) I know this is the only moment ( long out breath).
Become aware of the rhythm of your body and breathing. How many steps to your in breath? How many steps to your out breath? How does it feel to move forward, shift your weight, move your feet? Keeping breath and body awareness, begin to notice the world around you. See the trees, the grasses, the flowers in season, the sky. Smell the smells. Hear the sounds. Try to be aware without judgment or reflection. No good or bad sounds. Just sounds. Nonjudgmental awareness opens the eye of the heart. When you catch yourself thinking about something- and therefore losing awareness of the present moment- gently and kindly refocus your attention on breath and body. Recite the poem again and once more become mindful of the world around you.
Sitting Mindfulness Meditation
Sit in your seat with great dignity, back straight and eyes either closed or partially open, focused a few feet in front of you. Become aware of your breathing- how breath comes in and fills your belly and how breath moves out into space. Keep about 25% of your attention on breathing and the other 75% on the feeling of spacious mindfulness. You may become aware of sounds, sensations, thoughts. Just let them all come and go, passing across the spacious sky of your mind like clouds. Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, compares the thoughts that arise in meditation to waves that rise from the ocean. It is the ocean’s nature to rise. We cannot stop it, but as Rinpoche says, we can “leave the risings in the risings.”
We can extend the practice of mindful awareness and spaciousness beyond the period of sitting meditation into the rest of life. Thich Nhat Hanh has written a beautiful book called the Miracle of Mindfulness. With true simplicity and beauty he reminds us that we can wake up in the ordinary activities of life by bringing our full attention to eating, washing the dishes, smelling the roses, walking, making love. Choose a piece of fruit and eat it mindfully. Be aware of its look, smell and feel. Notice the way that your mouth fills with saliva in anticipation of its flavor. Be aware of each bite moving down your throat into your stomach. Enjoyment and gratitude are natural outcomes of mindfulness. Choose any activity like washing the dishes or taking a shower and commit to doing it as mindfully as possible. For some people taking a shower mindfully, aware of their breathing and all the pleasant sensations, is an excellent morning meditation. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has made mindfulness a household word. His books Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go There You Are are excellent resources for mindfulness practice.
This form of silent, meditative prayer has been popularized by Father Thomas Keating of Snowmass Monastery in Colorado. You can read about it in his luminous book, Open Mind, Open Heart. The intention of the prayer is to be in God’s presence. The idea is to shift awareness away from the thoughts that Keating compares to boats floating down the river of consciousness, to the river itself. The river is God’s Presence, that loving life force in which we live and move and have our being.
Prior to beginning the practice, chose a prayer word, a Sacred Word, which will serve as your reminder to let go of thoughts and enter the river of the Divine Presence. The prayer word can be anything that reminds you of your intention to keep your appointment with God. Peace, Shalom, Hail Mary, Great Spirit, The Lord is my Shepherd, are a few examples. Before the first session, center yourself any way you choose and then pray for a Sacred Word to come to you. Once you have chosen one, keep it for at least a month. Changing it in the midst of prayer is a distraction.
Center yourself in the silent intention to be present to God. There is no focus on the breath at all in this practice. When you notice your mind wandering, repeat the Sacred Word a few times until you can let go once again to the deep silence of God’s Presence. Keating says to reintroduce the sacred word as gently as laying a feather on a piece of cotton. As with all forms of meditation, don’t worry about how well you are doing. As Keating writes, the feeling that we are in God’s Presence is a kind of grace. The best we can do is to have a willing heart by intentionally entering silence and waiting there for the Divine Beloved.
A Short Reading List
- Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.
- Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. Pocketful of Miracles (365 days of meditations and prayers).
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. Full Catastrophe Living. (The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Program of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.), Wherever You Go, There You Are, Everyday Blessings (on mindful child-raising).
- Mukunda Stiles,Structural Yoga Therapy: Adapting to the Individual.
- Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings (moving stories of wisdom and healing).
- Loretta LaRoche, Relax, You May Only Have A Few Minutes Left, Kick Up Your Heels…Before You’re Too Short to Wear Them, and Life is Short, Wear Your Party Pants (stress reduction through humor).
- Father Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart. (Christian meditation practices of centering and contemplative prayer).
- David Stendl-Rast. Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer.
- Aryeh Kaplan, Jewish Meditation.
- Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness.
- Pema Chödrön,: Start Where You Are, The Places that Scare You , Comfortable With Uncertainty, and others.