First up: Meditation Practices
There are three more timeless practices that amplify spiritual wealth in a big way: a daily meditation practice, a loving-kindness or Metta-meditation practice and a gratitude practice. Appearing in some form in all religions and spiritual traditions, these practices are powerfully transformative. Are you ready to move from ordinary to extraordinary? Are you ready to change your life?
First up: Meditation Practices
For most people, the first step to spiritual amplification after adopting a plant-based diet is to develop a meditation practice or a meditative prayer practice. All religions offer meditative prayer practices that direct and intensify our spiritual experience. A simple Google search or inquiry at your place of worship will direct you to a practice that will work for you. For those without a religious tradition, here is how you can develop a meditation practice:
1. Set aside a time of day when you can be alone and get still.
2. Sit comfortably.
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, or simply a newfound sense of joy. Say the words: “May my practice bring me….”
4. Focus your attention or consciousness on one thing. This can be a candle flame or a meaningful symbol that resonates with you, such as the OM icon, the cross, or the Star of David. Two of the most popular subjects of focused meditation are the breath, the sound and sensation of your inhalation and exhalation, and the ambient sounds in the space of meditation. 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 meditative 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 is that spiritual teachers rarely charge much, if at all, and if they do have a fee for participation, it is modest. In other words, steer clear of any spiritual teacher who has become rich off their students. As if it were a steadfast rule of the universe, spiritual teachers do not get rich from spiritual teachings.
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 on your phone. These are by and large wonderful tools for starting a practice. The New York Times has excellent beginning guided meditations for free. Most people benefit (hugely) from using these valuable teachings aids as they start.
My personal practice is a breath practice, or pranayama, which offers 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 though I have been practicing for decades, I am still an apprentice. Not to worry, even beginners reap astonishing rewards.
Here is a beginning pranayama practice:
1. Sit comfortably. Set the intention of relaxing deeper with each breath or feeling a profound sense of wellbeing 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. Relax.
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.
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. Determine a path that feels comfortable to you. As you walk, focus your thoughts on your breath and center your attention on the loveliness of your surroundings. Take three steps on a deep inhale, three steps on an exhale.
Tips 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 her 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 to do and has surprising 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 showering you with love.
For heaven’s sake, take the dog with you! All dogs love walks and their dumb joy triggers our joy, 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. 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.
As you embark on this journey to establishing a daily meditation practice, keep foremost in mind that many if not 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’s a quasar? Does it rain in 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 Patabhi Jois answered every student 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 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 explained patiently 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—oh, I hear you!—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. Inflammation decreases. Blood pressure lowers. 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 horrible side effects, either. Bottom line: the central nervous system breathes a deep sigh of relief ( a metaphor for relaxation).
The side effect of meditation is physical wellbeing and peace. Meditation has shown to improve cognitive function. Science has shown—through MRI imaging—that meditation 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 benefits 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 nutty thought-train takes off, often at full speed, carrying people to all kinds of meaningless, unhelpful and often destructive places. These negative places cause anxiety and even despair, sometimes in great, looping, nonsensical circles. 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 jaws of a big cat, the menacing 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, people stare at a phone or computer screen, confronting a barrage of local, national and international news; the vast majority of these headlines are negative and disheartening, sometimes terrifying. There comes a rush to get morning coffee or tea (for me, a rather desperate rush), followed by a Herculean effort 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 normal day!
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 headed nowhere—or turning in endless circles to nowhere. These thought-trains rarely produce anything helpful; in fact, they produce nothing but anxiety and stress. The most common themes of these looping, nonsensical circles are finances: how will I pay this bill? how much will it be? if it is this, then that and if that then this and I will have to take it from here and put it there and there still might not be enough which oh no! means I will have to do this and maybe that but if that happens then this disaster….
As if worrying about money has ever gotten anyone more of it.
Meditation practice ultimately teaches us how to stop destructive, negative, unproductive thoughts. 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 diminish and eventually are banned altogether. Unhelpful or unproductive cognitions disappear as you consciously begin to alter them. Your energy becomes infused with a positivity that begins to manifest in your life.
A thoughtful person is in control of their cognition.
This is the transformation brought by a daily meditation practice.
While 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. You begin to alter eating and drinking habits. Things that once caught your attention no longer do. Other far more worthwhile things seem suddenly interesting.
You experience a renewed love and appreciation for your spouse. You discover frequent laughter between you and your children. You find yourself offering a sympathetic smile to an overworked co-worker. A new idea presents itself to help ease a struggle. You extend a kindness to an appreciative neighbor.
The shift is subtle at first, but it accumulates and grows over time.
A lady named Sheila came to me for 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 lose weight. I provided information on using a plant-based diet to lose weight, but I knew the real problem. I first told her to let go of the struggle, to accept her weight, her body, and herself. “Find two things you’d do if you were thin,” I advised her. “Do them!” Then I gave her a simple meditation practice.
Sheila’s life was transformed by adopting a vegetarian diet, releasing the struggle, and the meditation practice—all three worked synergistically. 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 paintbrushes aside to get a real job. She needed little encouragement to return to this neglected passion, and she began painting beautiful abstract portraits of famous people. Galleries took notice. Her heart sang. Suddenly she is able to make a living doing something she loved.
Did she lose weight in the process? Yes, but she laughs about it now. She has something 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 it is always beautiful.
Meditation does not necessarily open the doors to the spiritual realm, but you need only to invite spirit into your life while meditating. Simply set this as your intention and, at the beginning of practice, ask for a spiritual connection, or simply state the desire: I would like a spiritual connection. Please direct me. If you are a scientific type, just think of spirit as your better self, your higher self. Meditating with your better self as your meditation partner works in much the same way as meditating while connecting spiritually with a higher source.
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. I’ve noticed that for many people spirit first arrives by providing a sudden understanding of your next step on a spiritual path.
Sometimes the next step is simple. You are directed to read a book that illuminates an inviting path 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 startling 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, unhappiness. Chances are, if you do not struggle with one of these, someone close to you does and the trouble tumbles into your life. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’ve tried everything, but this obstacle remains stubbornly entrenched and part of my life.
Here is where a spiritual connection while meditating becomes invaluable. Ask not just for help, but ask too for the best means for you to overcome the obstacle you are facing. 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 prophetic, that is not where we’re going with this. The answer sometimes appears during meditation, but more often, it shows up unexpectedly 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.
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 spill into life. 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. (Understatement.) You soon lack an ability to attend to pettiness (in all its pervasive, modern forms). Every encounter sparkles with joy, laughter, or positive good will. Sensitivity and intuition kick in and then skyrocket, directing you to a better life, if not to the heavens.
Finally, even if this is not your initial intention, you discover a previously unknown ability to help other people. As life fills with love and contentment, people appear in your life that need your help—or some means of helping a larger group presents itself. 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, it is unique to the individual.