First up: Meditation Practices
Igniting the spiritual, amplifying the light and connecting to the universal energy that binds us in a great compassion, requires… a meditation or prayer practice. Meditation affords us countless benefits as it ignites our consciousness. Even if your goal is more modest, say to simply make the best of life, you need a meditation practice. If your goal is just to survive these modern times, you really need a meditation practice. In a meaningful way, no matter what your goal or purpose is in life, a meditation practice will help.
Here’s a warning though: All the life- altering positive payoffs of mediation have to be earned with consistent practice. Read that sentence again. While it is true that the self that goes in one side of a meditation practice is not the same self that emerges on the other side, you usually need at least a month of daily experience before you begin to perceive this truth.
Here are the steps to the creation of a mediation practice:
1. Set aside a time of day when you can be alone, surrounded by relative quiet and uninterrupted.
2. Sit comfortably. In general, sitting upright or perching on a pillow on the floor works best, but if this is not comfortable for you, by all means use a chair.
3. Set an intention. This can be anything you want to pull into your life from your practice: relaxation, a sense of peace and wellbeing, a deeper understanding of a particular issue, an amplification of your spiritual understanding or simply a newfound sense of joy. Say the words out loud or silently: “May my practice bring me….”
4. Focus your attention on one thing. This can be a flower, a candle flame or a meaningful symbol that resonates with you, such as the OM icon, the cross, or the Star of David. The two most popular subjects of focused meditation are breath and sound. Here you focus your attention on the sound of the inhalation and exhalation of your breath. An even easier focus of attention is to listen to ambient sounds in the space you are meditating in: the birds outside, a passing car, the creak in a floorboard, the dishwasher, the neighbor’s barking dog. The focus of attention could be anything, but should be only one thing.
5. Whenever your thoughts wander (and unless you’re in a coma, they will wander), release the thought and return your consciousness to the one thing. Do so peacefully and without judgment.
These simple instructions present the first steps to a meditation practice. While it is just this simple, most experienced meditators advise starting with a teacher. Many—if not most—communities offer some form of meditation group training and/or practice.
A good rule to guide your search for a meditation teacher is that spiritual teachers rarely charge much, if at all, and if they do have a fee for participation, it is reasonable. In other words, steer clear of any spiritual teacher who has become rich off their students, any cost that causes you to grasp or hesitate. As if it were a steadfast rule of the universe, inspired spiritual teachers do not generally get rich from spiritual teachings and if they do, the money is redirected to charities. Spiritual wealth does not equal material wealth—no matter what the nutty TV ministers claim or simplistic spiritual bombasts that link the word manifestation and attraction to red Ferraris and multiple dream homes. Elevated spiritual truths involve understanding the absurdity, destructive qualities and illusive nature of material wealth. (For an enlightened discussion of this, read Peter Singer’s One World Now or The Life You Can Save or go to Givingwhatwecan.org.)
Still, for many people, joining a group meditation practice where a knowledgeable instructor guides you in a meditation practice is not ideal in the beginning. Fortunately, there are hundreds of popular meditation apps available for your phone and or on youtube videos. These are by and large wonderful tools for starting a practice. Most people benefit (hugely) from using these valuable teachings aids as they start.
Breath practices or pranayama offer many additional physical and spiritual benefits, and again, there are many excellent tutorials online for those interested in exploring this powerful method of meditation. Pranayama, like all great practices, requires several lifetimes to master and even after practicing for decades, you can still be an apprentice. Not to worry, even beginners reap astonishing rewards.
Here is a beginning pranayama practice:
1. Sit comfortably on a chair or preferably the floor with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. Set the intention of relaxing deeper, feeling a sense of wellbeing or a spark of joy with each breath.
2. Inhale deeply for a count of six, focusing your consciousness on the breath.
3. Hold your breath for a count of four while relaxing.
4. Exhale for a count of six.
When you can maintain this breathing practice comfortably for fifteen minutes—sounds easy but it requires practice!—start imagining that your inhales ignite your third eye. What is the third eye? A scientist might say it is a mythical point slightly above your eyes in the middle of your forehead, the so-called ‘seat of your higher and expanding consciousness,’ but that scientist would be wrong. It is not mythical; it is more real than the Large Hadron Collider. Skeptics just haven’t experienced it yet. When you want to learn more—the desire to learn and improve is a predictable result of practice—find an advanced program to follow online or, even better, study with an experienced pranayama teacher in your area.
Another beginning and even simpler pranayama practice called over breathing also has astonishing physical benefits. Here you can lay down or sit up, whichever is more comfortable. Set the timer on your phone for three minutes and during this time, inhale quickly through the mouth, while filling your lungs fully and exhale even quicker, flooding your body with oxygen. When the timer goes off, gently hold your breath on an inhale as long as possible. Try to reach at least one and a half minutes of breath retention. It becomes easier if you relax while holding your breath. As you finally have to draw air into your lungs, take ten deep and quick breaths and hold again on an exhale, as long as possible.
Now set the timer for the same amount of time again and repeat, only this time inhale through the nostrils as quickly and deeply as possible, exhaling through the mouth. When the timer goes off, exhale completely for the retention. Hold as long as possible. This time when you draw breath again (hopefully as long or longer than the first round of over breathing), take ten fast and quick breaths through the nostrils and on the tenth breath, hold your breath again for as long as possible.
Repeat for a third time. Choose inhaling through the mouth or the nostrils, whichever you prefer. On the retention, try to hold the breath for longer than either the first or second round. Once completed, take ten more quick and deep breaths and retain for the last time, as long as possible.
Now that is an exhilarating breath practice. You just woke your whole body. This simple but powerful breath exercise is currently being studied around the world for its astonishing health benefits: it dramatically increases lung function and the available oxygen in the body, while reducing inflammation, stress, blood pressure, all fatigue, and revving up the immune system.
Yogis have a variation of this breath practice called Simha Kirya. Most people find this practice more powerful than over breathing and it has all the benefits of over breathing and then some. Try this now:
· Sit up straight in a comfortable seated position.
· Open your mouth as wide as possible and stick out your tongue as far as possible. Feels strange and looks odd, but no matter. Magic is about to happen.
· Take 21 deep, quick breaths, while gently squeezing your core—stomach and abdominal muscles.
· Next, place your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
· Take another 21 deep and quick breaths.
· At the end, take a deep breath and hold for as long as possible. Again, relax into the retention.
· If, you cannot hold your breath for more than thirty seconds, for basic health, you need to practice until you can. Healthy people should be able to hold their breath for at least a minute in relative comfort and for two minutes.
Some people find a walking meditation works best for them. This is especially beneficial if you need to lose weight or if you live in an area of natural beauty. This meditation practice is also easy to initiate. Start by determining a path around your neighborhood that feels comfortable to you. You might want to use the free app found on most phones that measures your walking heart rate, distance traveled, steps taken and calories burned. Many people enjoy knowing these details and challenging past scores with each new walk.
Before you step outside and begin, take a few minutes to set your intention and wake up the breath by using the over breathing method just described. The basic walking meditation practice involves three to four steps on an inhale and three to four steps on an exhale, maintaining a focus on your breath as you walk. Because most people rarely employ their lungs full capacity, bring your awareness to your breath, making sure each breath is full and deep.
Maintain good posture as you walk: a straight back, shoulders lowered but thrown back, and a relaxed gait. With each breath imagine drawing in energy, health, joy or love on the inhale and releasing anything that doesn’t serve you on the exhale: tension, negativity or any emotional burden.
Take notice of the beauty surrounding you. This simple practice is very powerful. Appreciating one beautiful thing after another while walking is a very different experience than pondering the limits of your bank account. Study the beauty of flowers; birds; trees; or if you live in a city, take note of the people’s faces as they pass or the dogs they are walking. Wake your consciousness to the joys that surround us.
Here is another tip for a great walking meditation: Smile at every person you see. Mother Teresa was once asked if she could have one wish come true, what would it be? The throng of reporters surrounding the diminutive nun expected her to say, I wish for world peace or an end to world hunger or some such. Instead Mother Teresa replied with a brilliant bit of wisdom: “I wish people would smile at each other more.” World peace or ending hunger might be beyond your daily to do list, but smiling at people is not. It is the easiest thing in the world and has efficacious health benefits to both giver and receiver. The person doesn’t smile back? Who cares? All the more reason this person needed your smile. It might be the only one they’ve seen in a month.
Are you an imaginative person? Try this neat trick: Imagine that the trees on your walk are sending you love. Sound nutty? It is. But it is also surprisingly magical, subtly shifting your consciousness into a dream-like state where the universe is, indeed, showering you with love.
And for heaven’s sake, take the dog with you. All dogs love walks and their dumb joy triggers ours, which is something to celebrate. If your dog is anxious and distracts you from the focus on your breath and the surrounding beauty, all the more reason to invite him to join you. Just like people, dogs become anxious and excitable when they don’t get enough exercise, so you will be rectifying this problem. Within two weeks, often much sooner, even the most excitable dogs become lovely and peaceable walking companions.
It bears repeating: As you embark on this journey to establishing a daily meditation practice, keep foremost in mind that most people coming to a practice do not experience any benefit initially. Before you begin to profit from meditation, you might entertain the perception that you are sitting around doing nothing (which itself is practically a crime in America.) These thoughts appear with persistent regularity: This is boring. I don’t feel anything. I certainly don’t experience anything remotely ‘spiritual.’
All manner of discursive thoughts can enter your mind during meditation. Why can cats see in the dark? What is a quasar? Does it rain in the summer in Madagascar? Is the emperor naked? Early on in your practice, the emperor will not just be naked, he will be blushing with embarrassment—but hang in there, keep at it, practice. One of my spiritual teachers Pattabhi Jois answered every student’s question or comment—no matter what it was with the same wise advice: You take practice. “Gurji, I have a stomach bug.” You take practice. “Gurji, I’m losing my mind with pressure and deadlines and can’t concentrate to save my life.” You take practice. “Gurji, I have cancer.” You take practice.
The great teacher also said over and over: Your practice is the teacher. You cannot grasp how true this is until you’ve practiced for many years. Practice is the most powerful and successful teacher not just of meditation, but of all spiritual practices.
Patabhi Jois also taught how to reach any goal: Practice and all is coming.
Indeed, the potency of a meditative or meditative prayer practice accumulates with each practice. It is very much like learning any new and worthwhile skill: a musical instrument, karate, gymnastics, painting, mathematics. You do not expect to master these after a week, but every day presents a new level of understanding and ability, subtle as it may be. Practice brings you ever closer to mastery. However, for the impatient inquiry, a daily meditation practice for a month provides small hints of the transformation to come.
The physical rewards of meditation are scientifically well-documented and form a long list: Meditators reduce their physical and mental stress levels. Elevated stress-causing hormones, especially cortisol, are reset to promote health and vibrancy. Blood sugar levels drop to normal. The immune system revs up, priceless in these days of Covid-19. Inflammation decreases. Blood pressure lowers. Sleep patterns improve. Meditation is more efficient and effective than any pharmaceutical prescribed to lower blood pressure or reduce anxiety, often eliminating this troubling modern plague entirely. There are no negative side effects, either, because no one considers wellbeing and peace deleterious side effects. Bottom line: the central nervous system breathes a deep sigh of relief.
Meditation has shown to improve cognitive function. Research into the benefits of meditation have revealed—through MRI imaging—that the practice alters the way the brain functions, increasing the gray area of the prefrontal cortex, which is our important cognitive center. You literally think more clearly with a meditation practice.
These are wonderful things to pull into your life. And, wait. There’s more.
Meditation becomes transformational. You begin to control your thoughts instead of thoughts controlling you. This is the greatest gift meditation can give us—an invaluable asset in our modern times.
The average person has almost no control over where their mind takes them. The moment a person wakes in the morning, thoughts show up and hop onto a wild and crazy train. This hap-hazard thought-train takes off, often at full speed, carrying people to all kinds of meaningless, unhelpful and too often destructive places. These undesirable places cause anxiety and even despair, sometimes great, looping, nonsensical circles of despair. The careening train ceases only when, at last, sleep arrives.
Our consciousness evolved this way. Our minds absorbed most all stimuli placed before us in order to save us from the sting of a centipede, the deadly pull of a river, the murderous club of a fellow caveman. The trouble is, modern life generates an infinite number of stimuli, bombarding and overwhelming our meager cognitive resources.
Just imagine the first minutes of many people’s morning: the shrill ringing of an alarm. There comes an assessment of sleep, which—owing to how tightly-wound most people are—is inevitably disappointing (and unfortunately sleep is a major component of health and wellbeing). Next, we plug into the internet via a phone or computer screen, confronting a barrage of local, national and international news, the vast majority of these headlines are negative and disheartening, all too often terrifying, if not actually threatening. This first connection to the internet presents a barrage of texts, many of which are demanding. Mercifully morning coffee or tea, followed by the Herculean effort necessary to get ready for the day: the selection of clothes, breakfast, the attention needed by kids—and please don’t forget the dog. That’s just the first minutes of a modern person’s morning.
Your consciousness reacts to most stimuli with a thought. One thought leads to another and this leads to ten more thoughts, which form that crazy, speeding train running in endless circles going nowhere. These thought-trains rarely produce anything helpful; in fact, they inevitably produce little more than anxiety and stress.
Shadow energy, all of it.
Finances or money worries are one of the most common themes of these looping, nonsensical shadow energy circles: How much is the credit card this month? How will I ever pay it? If it is this much, then maybe I can cover that bill, but if it is more, then that bill will have to wait, but for how long can it wait? I will have to take money from here and put it there and there still might not be enough, and I might have to sell that and oh, no, that would be a disaster…
Worrying about money has never gotten anyone more of it.
Meditation practice ultimately teaches us how to stop destructive, negative, unproductive thoughts. It reduces and then eliminates fears generated by shadow energy. We first learn to put the brakes on the train and then to get off the crazy thought-train altogether, so to speak. Over time we learn how to control our thoughts.
This is what meditation and only meditation alters.
Through meditation, we learn how to direct our conscious energy.
Here is what happens: Negative thoughts and fears diminish, bit by bit until they are banned altogether. Unhelpful or unproductive cognitions disappear next as you begin to consciously alter them. Your energy becomes infused with a positivity that begins to manifest in your life.
A thoughtful person is in control of their cognitions.
This is the transformation brought by a daily meditation practice.
While again this process does not often happen overnight, one of the most exciting facets of starting a meditation practice are the small changes that happen along the way. The first thing you notice is you have greater impulse control. You begin to alter eating and drinking habits.
Soon, you notice, meat consumption is no longer an option; nothing about it is appetizing. You effortlessly draw the connection between meat and the animal it once was. You don’t just eliminate meat and meat products from your diet, you are inclined to celebrate the fact.
There’s more. Your perspectives change.
Instead of worrying about finances, you ask what you can do to improve them, and these solutions are often exciting, life changing propositions. Things that once caught (read stole) your attention no longer do. Other far more worthwhile things seem suddenly interesting.
You experience a renewed love and appreciation for your spouse. You start noticing and appreciating your children’s attributes; you spark your children’s laughter more often. You find yourself offering a sympathetic smile to an overworked co-worker. A new idea presents itself to help ease a concern. You extend a kindness to an appreciative neighbor.
The shift is subtle at first, but it accrues and grows over time.
For instance, Sheila needed help with a common problem that plagues many people. She had been struggling with her weight her whole life—like many people she felt she was actually postponing living, waiting, as she was, to first lose weight. After she went to a plant-based diet, and just by eliminating meat, extra pounds began falling off her frame, Sheila began a pranayama practice. These two changes transformed Sheila’s life--working synergistically to effect change.
During Sheila’s meditation practice, beautiful paintings kept appearing in her mind’s eye. When she was much younger, she had flirted with being an artist, but she had set the paint brushes aside to get a ‘real’ job. She needed little encouragement to return to this neglected passion, and she began painting colorful abstract portraits of famous Black people. Galleries took notice within the year. Her heart sang. Suddenly she is able to supplement her income doing something she loves.
Did she lose weight in the process? Yes, but she laughs about it now. There are things far more interesting and important in her life. Weight problems became a distant memory.
This is how the transformational aspect of meditation works.
You discover who you really are and this is always beautiful.
Like Shelia, a meditation practice often ignites the artist within. Art shows up in our lives unexpectedly. There is a powerful spiritual aspect to art. Just as spirit often directs science, it also informs art and the two work together to transform our lives. Even if this art, your art, is expressed with a modest talent and let’s face it, most of us begin with modest gifts, how art enriches our lives is a wonder.
Meditation is particular helpful for anyone who views adopting a plant-based diet as a sacrifice. These are the I used to be a vegetarian, but… Modern life, driven by the internet, has altered our ability to accept any sacrifice; we have grown accustomed to our every desire being answered immediately and with mind boggling specificity. In the past the simplest pleasures triggered joy; someone playing a musical instrument or singing beautifully; a well told story; a piece fruit. Nowadays, we have a million pieces of music and stories at our fingertips, we walk past whole piles of fresh fruit without a thought of the wonder of it--just the number of apples to choose from in a supermarket can overwhelm us. We are unaccustomed to sacrificing any desire.
Yet, there is great spiritual power in sacrificing for the greater good. Mediation connects us to this. First, it greatly enhances your impulse control. Second, as it expands your consciousness, it directs you to where the mystical payoff might be found in your life. Sacrifice is transformed into a gift.
Meditation opens the doors to the spiritual realm, and to become consciously aware of this connection and its power, you need only to invite spirit into your life while meditating. Many experienced meditators do not do this. A meditation practice is a powerful, life altering tool without conscious awareness of its connection to spirit. It becomes…. more powerful by asking for the conscious awareness of meditations connection to spirit.
Simply set this as an intention. At the beginning of practice, ask for the highest spiritual connection available to you, or simply state the desire: I would like a spiritual connection. Please direct me to the highest energy of light and love available to me. (If you are a scientific type, or a person who harbors doubts, no matter. Think of spirit as your better, higher self.)
This spiritual invitation is answered specifically for the person who issues the invitation. Because no two lives (read souls) are the same, each person’s answer arrives tailor-made for them. For many people spirit first arrives by providing a sudden understanding of your next step on a spiritual path.
Sometimes this next step is simple. You are directed to read a book that illuminates an inviting way forward. You meet someone who suggests a new addition to your practice. You begin attending your place of worship regularly. Some people (who are fortunate) just know. This knowing is a potent experience; the information resonates with a pop and clarity.
However, for many people, the next step inevitably involves overcoming an obstacle, often one we have long struggled with. These are problems that prevent us from being the most we can be and they are familiar to the vast majority of us: weight issues, alcohol and drug abuse, financial struggles, relationship turmoil, unspecified discontent, depression. Chances are, if you do not struggle with one of these, someone close to you does and the trouble spills into your life. Now, you’re probably thinking: I’ve tried everything, but this obstacle remains stubbornly entrenched in my life.
First, change that thought pattern—it is creating your reality. Even if you tried to lose weight or quit smoking a hundred times, now, armed with a meditation practice you will move toward success. You will land it.
Here is where a spiritual connection while meditating becomes invaluable. Ask not just for help, but ask for the best means to overcome your obstacle. Then let go of any struggle associated with the problem. While the simple idiocy of the statement, “The best solution to any problem is to decide not to have it,” can be weirdly helpful and even prophetic, that is not where we’re going with this. The answer sometimes appears during meditation, but more often, it shows up in your field as you go about your daily life. When you encounter it, again, it resonates slightly differently than other things do. It gives you a conscious ‘pop’.
This is spirit directing you. It is a gift. Gratitude is called for.
Some people will not at first perceive spirit providing direction, because once again, spirit works through and with our consciousness in this, the material plane. The answer appears in your mind. (This is why belief in spirit is rarely a requirement for manifestation of spirit’s gifts.) You only need to keep asking, every day, twice a day until your question is answered.
Spirit always answers us.
Meditation also begins eliminating fear and its nervous cohorts, worry and anxiety. Again, let’s just state plainly right here again—there is nothing in life more pernicious to our happiness, contentment, ability to find joy and our mental and spiritual wellbeing than the fear carried on shadow energy. Again, fear arises when you imagine and focus on an unpleasant future. It is an illusion; it is not real. We can even state it stronger: fear is always a lie.
You need only to imagine the opposite--a pleasant future. Try it now. Think of your biggest worry or concern. Notice how the worry is born by imagining something terrible in the future that hasn’t happened yet. Any assessment, reasonable or otherwise, of the likelihood of the unpleasant future doesn’t matter—you are creating it and in fact it works against you by triggering physiological and psychological effects of the imagined fear, all of which is negative. This negativity shifts your consciousness away from the light.
On one level, not the deepest or most meaningful level, but the surface level of meaning, this is how thoughts create the future. Imagine if you were a big believer in astrology and every day your horoscope said, Watch out! Something terrible is going to happen today. Be prepared for calamities. You would be a nervous wreck. (Modern news is often creating just this reality for millions of people.) Or, if you believed life would be cut short by the Christian myth of Armageddon, that this global disaster was imminent, you would live a different life than if you felt your purpose here on earth was to help others. Again, the point is obvious—our beliefs work to shape our reality.
Switch the negative to a positive and imagine instead a pleasant future. The future is made by our choices.
Remember there is always a higher choice, a choice that changes your future and makes it better. This small shift in thought creates hopefulness, which allows you to better able tackle anything you need to do to manifest this better future. You are now far better equipped to do so. It is just this simple.
Of course, as soon as you set the intention to eliminate worrying from your consciousness, a worry will show up to teach you and now, the difference is you recognize the worry for what it is. You practice shifting your thoughts. For instance, say you find yourself worrying over your mother’s declining health. You stop the thought train that produces visions of a calamity: a terrible fall, the inability to care for herself, diminishing financial resources and the burden this will place on family members. You replace this future with the picture of your mother laughing.
Experience the physical effects of just this one exercise.
When the future shows up, you will discover it is a future you can handle.
In this way, you to become the director of your thoughts, which is an empowering place to be. You discover that you would no more engage in creating negative or harmful thought trains than you’d sign up for a mass shooting. It just doesn’t happen anymore.
Because, you see, as soon as you eliminate fear and sidestep the anxiety brought by this problem, you, your perception and understanding of the problem changes. Sometimes too, your changed consciousness allows you to see the difficulty for what it is. I spend more money than I make. You’ve always known this of course, but now you start questioning your long-held assumptions about it: Do my kids have to go to private schools? What would happen if they didn’t? Do I need to lease this new car? Sure, the house is grand, but what would life be like in a more modest home with no mortgage? What if we sold the house, and moved into an apartment? Suddenly you see that yes, the in-town apartment isn’t a tenth as nice or cushy as the house in the suburbs but so what? You start seeing numerous benefits to this downsizing.
Instead of dwelling on how you don’t have enough money, instead ask how can I make more money? Or instead of dwelling on your mom’s health challenges, you ask how can I make mom’s life easier? A different problem with interesting solutions. Now, the shift to the positive becomes easier. Pathways you never imagined before appear. The changes that can be brought about by opening the spiritual doors through meditation are miraculous indeed.
In addition to helping us overcome obstacles, spiritual energy begins to infuse your day-to-day existence. A profound kind of joy and contentment seep into life. (Ask for just this while meditating.) No matter what you are doing physically, you discover that you do it better. A sharp clarity comes to your cognitions; you understand more. You notice more. Things that inhibit your spiritual connection no longer seem attractive or desirable. (ßUnderstatement.) This spills into your dietary choices; you no longer want a bag of potato chips, the plastic covered bakery item doesn’t look appetizing but rather overproduced; meat becomes dead flesh, like road kill. You soon lack an ability to attend to pettiness (in all its pervasive, modern forms). More and more random daily encounters sparkle with joy, laughter, or simple good will. Sensitivity and intuition kick in and then magnify, directing you to a better life, if not to the spiritual essence of our existence.
Finally, even if this is not your initial intention, you discover a previously unrealized ability to help other people. As life fills with love and purpose, people appear in your life that need your help—or you will be presented with some means of helping a larger group. You are happy to walk this path; indeed, you discover the truth of the Dalai Lama’s observation—we are happiest when we are helping other people. This ability to help other people manifests in an infinite variety of ways and again, how it shows up in your life is unique to you.
It is at this point when the transformation begins.
This is when you begin to recognize the divine light in everyone and everything. The circle of your compassion keeps expanding and this naturally includes animals. Ahimsa becomes your practice; it becomes impossible to hurt anyone or anything, including of course yourself.
Your light begins to shine in every facet of your life.
JJ Flowers (Previous novels: Jennifer Horsman)
Latest novel: Juan Pablo and the Butterflies, Simon & Schuster, A Westchester Fiction Award Winner.
Grief Is Love, Lantern Books, Available now on Amazon and in your local bookstore.