Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mental Armor: Boosting Immunity With Your Thoughts

The Winter Holidays are here, and for many of us that means getting a lot more exposure than our norm.  Holiday gatherings are fun, but they can also be stressful: whether we are entertaining friends and family, attending parties thrown by others or just spending more time out shopping, we are coming into contact with all sorts of people... and all sorts of organisms.  The Holidays are also cold and flu season, so it's a good idea to have a disease fighting arsenal available; and I'm not referring to the medicine cabinet. 

An image that came to me recently when I thought about immunity was a set of invisible armor that protects my body from all sorts of invaders.  I was thinking of someone I loved very much, and I thought, "I will wear this love like a suit of armor.  It will warm me when I am cold and protect me when I am in danger."  The picture in my mind was of golden, glowing light, surrounding my body, like an aura.  I then started thinking about how we can protect ourselves from all manner of ills by simply adopting a positive attitude and thinking love-filled thoughts that energize, rather than deplete us.

A teacher of mine recently told our class, "Whatever you do over the course of this year, don't get sick.  Just don't."  The setting of the class is a hospital, and part of her instruction had to do with the avoidance of carrying contagious organisms around the hospital and back into our homes.  But her verbal command, "don't get sick," had everything to do with attitude.  I was reminded of many winters in the past when I had to take finals for college, grad school or law school, and I willed myself to be well for the duration of exams.  I didn't drop my guard when exams were over, because I wanted to enjoy the ensuing break.  The time in my life when I contracted the greatest number of illnesses was when I worked in a job that I disliked.  The job wasn't particularly stressful.  However, I wasn't focused on staying strong and "up," so I got sick more.  I let my mental and spiritual guard down.  Even though it has been extensively proven that stress negatively impacts the immune system, the stress of the bar exam or other similar tests didn't make me sick.  In those instances, my thoughts and attitude protected my physical health.

In this season, we can all use some extra help with immunity, so I brainstormed and came up with some methods I regularly use to strengthen my immune system.  Some of them come from yoga and spiritual practice, and others are simply based on personal experience.  Try some out and if I see you at a holiday party, let me know what you think:

  1. Visualization:  When you are starting to feel crappy, pull on the power of your imagination.  In a concrete sense, visualize your immune response.  Imagine your immune cells mounting a defense in your body, circulating through your blood and organs and fighting off foreign invaders.  (The first time this worked for me I was 12 years old, lying in sick in bed on vacation; I concentrated as hard as I could on my lymph glands and immune cells and visualized them fighting off my illness.  It worked and I got up and enjoyed the rest of my vacation.  I will never forget that!)
  2. Affirmation:  An affirmation is nothing more than repeating a selected phrase to yourself, out loud or in your mind, to bring about a desired result.  So in terms of immunity, even saying to yourself, "I am not going to get sick," may be all you need.  A busy father told me at church last weekend, "I cannot afford to get sick, so I'm not," referring to his kids' illnesses coinciding with his increased work load.  My husband says similar things when our kids get sick: "I don't plan on getting this."  Almost invariably, the affirmation works for him. 
  3. Fantasy:  No matter what kind of negative sensations you are experiencing, from a bad mood to a sore throat, you can use fantasy to flood your body with endorphins.  Endorphins, the "feel-good" hormones, are really goooood for all of your bodily systems, including your immune system.  You can produce more endorphins at will.  Isn't that cool?  It is well-known that exercise ups your endorphin levels, and so does laughter.  Simply thinking about things, people and experiences you love also creates endorphins.  Good, old-fashioned (or modern) daydreaming can help you boost your immune system.  To relieve stress, and start feeling better, put your mental focus on something good.  It can help to think about your significant other and the fun plans you are making... or the last time you had a really great time together, in or out of the bedroom.  This one works wonders.  
  4. Prayer:  Turning over your health concerns to the care and protection of God, however you like to call Him/Her, is a powerful practice.  Prayer shapes our thoughts and our energy.  When I am praying for myself or a loved one who is ill, I like to invoke Archangel Raphael.  The name Raphael means, "God heals."  
  5. Physicality: Everything I just listed has to do with using thoughts to enhance immunity; obviously the way we treat our bodies is just as crucial, if not more so.  Teachers, parents and doctors teach us that "diet and exercise" are the keys to good health... probably because they are.  I like to use yoga breathing techniques, such as breath of fire, to strengthen immunity.  I also believe in the power of inversions to stimulate the lymphatic system and boost immune response.  There are lots of fun ways to get your head below your heart.  I will include links at the bottom of this post for suggestions on how to spend some fun time upside down. Last but not least, if you want to fight off illness, eat good food.  Vegetables.  Lots of them.  During the winter, I eat a lot of extra vegetables.  Just last night I served three vegetable sides with dinner.  My nutritionist friend recommends a hearty, homemade tomato-based pasta sauce to boost immunity.  I am a big fan of this, myself.  Use lots of garlic, crushed tomatoes, diced bell peppers and plenty of spices.  Cayenne is a great immunity booster.  






Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Your Body is a Sacred Friend

 "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."  1 Corinthians 6:19-20

"To keep the body in good health is a duty...otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear." -Buddha (Prince Gautama Siddhartha, 563-483 B.C.)

"Yoga is really trying to liberate us from...shame about our bodies.  To love your body is a very important thing."  Rodney Yee

     The spiritual faiths and traditions of the world are unanimous on this point:  we are to love and respect our bodies.  Our relationship with our body says something essential about the condition of our soul.  From the moment we are born until the moment we die, we inhabit a body.  Our bodies are our vehicles for experiencing the world, the creation of the Divine.  Our lives are inextricably linked to the state and condition of our bodies.  Our life force diminishes when we are ill.  Death comes when our hearts stop beating.  No matter who we are, where we are, or what we believe, we wake up each morning in a body, and we relate to that body all day, every day.  We can choose how we want to relate to our body: as a cherished friend, a child that we neglect, or even as an enemy whom we despise.  

     In our walk with the Divine, we are reminded not to take our relationship with God for granted.  We endeavor not to take our friends and family members for granted.  What friend is closer to us than our own body?   How easy is it to take our body and our health for granted?  Tragically, for some of us, neglect of the body turns to its destruction before we can undo the damage wrought by neglect, stress, and lack of awareness.  

     As it is for many people, illness was a powerful reminder for me to reacquaint myself with my body and to treat it with greater respect.  I am fortunate that I discovered this in time to set my healing in motion through the regular practice of yoga, a regular cardio regime and meditation.  I also pay more attention now to nutrition as a way to love and respect my body.  

     I would like to relate to my body as a sacred friend.  I have never liked dieting, because I see it is a deprivation.  I don't want to deprive my friend.  I want to cherish her and give her good things.  I want to be aware of harmful excesses and toxins, but at the same time I want to enjoy the experience of being in my body.  I don't impose rigid rules on my friends, or on my body.  I believe in little indulgences, often, without guilt.  I like half and half in my coffee, whole milk in my tea and butter on my bread.  If I bake desserts, I eat them.  When I want french fries, I eat french fries.  Nothing is really off limits.  Dieting as deprivation often does more harm than good, because it reflects an adversarial relationship with the body.  Jesus was not a proponent of strict dietary rules.  His response to his culture's insistence on strict rules was clear: "You are not defiled by what you eat; you are defiled by what you say and do."  Matthew 15:11.  

     My faith practices have taught me to love and respect my body.  Yoga, in particular, is teaching me to pay attention to the experience of my body, to treat it with kindness, and to inhabit it with grace.  

     When I first committed to a regular practice, I met a truly inspirational friend in a yoga class.  Her name is Amanda Winters.  She is a health coach and nutritionist who is working towards her yoga certification.  She is a single mother who runs her own health and fitness business.  http://www.aplusplan.com/index.html 
Since I have known her, she has consistently supported me and my family members in making better choices about what we eat and how we relate to food and our bodies.  We support one another in our yoga practice.  Amanda has a set a great example of living out the value of service in the yoga tradition, by volunteering to teach yoga classes to economically disadvantaged women in the New York area.  Through her own struggles with multiple food allergies, she has found a way to nourish and balance herself and to transmit her experiential wisdom to others.  I truly value her friendship and I am dedicating this post to her work with women and families who are dedicated to improving their health and the way they relate to their bodies. 

     Each of us have unique DNA and our bodies are beautiful expressions of that uniqueness.  No matter what we do, we transmit our contributions and connections to the rest of the world through our bodies.  Believing that the soul lives on when the body dies is an even greater motivation to appreciate the body while we still have it.  Your experience in your body is precious and temporary, so make the most of it.  
"Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship."  Romans 12: 1.  If you love God, you will love your body. 


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Easy Silence

My husband keeps the world at bay for me.  When I heard this song this morning, "Easy Silence," I wanted somehow to dedicate it to my husband.  It's not because our house or much of anything in our lives is silent.  The song made me think of him because his constant presence and support in my life brings me home to ease and silence, even in the midst of the whirlwind of life. 

When you meet him, you may not think of him as a quiet man.  His voice can be heard across a noisy restaurant or a bustling field of 4 year old soccer players.  When I met him 8 years ago, one of the things that attracted me was watching him sit outside of the main dining room at Club Med in a lounge chair, extending high fives to each person as he or she entered.  He likes to make his presence known.  I am just so thankful that he is present for me. 

Anyone dedicated to a spiritual path knows that family life, while fertile ground for growth, is also a minefield of disruptions and distractions.  Those of us with families, spouses, and otherwise busy earthly lives are what the yogis call "householders."  We have a particular role at this point in our lives that necessarily confines us to a certain type of spiritual practice.  We are not monastics.  We are not young seekers, able to travel light and devote all of our time to growth and study.  We are not retired adults in the winter of our lives, serenely dispensing wisdom to our communities.  We are in the thick of life, right now. 

My husband and I are very different from one another.  When we were deciding whether or not to commit long-term to our relationship, he said to me: "I just don't know if we are looking for the same things.  You are in a different place than I am."  That is still a true assessment of the two of us.  However, he supports me on my life journey more than any other person ever has.  He does not consider himself spiritual.  I still can't understand football rules well enough to intelligently discuss a Steelers game.  But he is the person who makes it possible for me to go to yoga classes at night or on the weekend.  He is the one who puts the spreadsheets together for our church's finances.  He is the one who encourages me to meditate at night before bed while he watches football and folds laundry.  He encourages me to read the Bible or the Yoga Sutras while he reads crime novels or historical fiction.  We can't always discuss what we read.  Our interests do not often meet.  But we make enough room in our relationship and our lives for the interests and goals of the other person.

My husband never gives me the third degree.  In turn, I do not question him or challenge him regarding his preferences.  I don't care about the way he dresses.  We don't fight over which television shows to watch.  If our TV is on, it's either Nick Jr., ESPN or Mythbusters.  I don't even like TV.  But I don't mind that my husband likes it.  I respect him and his choices.  He respects me and values what I value.  There is an unspoken mutual support between us that allows us to confidently engage in life.

We talk.  But there is no expectation in our discussions.  I don't try to make him feel better and I don't expect him to give me pep talks.  What's important is that we know what's going on with the other person; he knows what I am thinking about, what I am going through, what my hopes are.  I know when he is suffering, when he is enjoying something and when he needs space to simply be.  We don't fill our time together with a lot of chatter.  It works for us.

Every marriage is different.  Personally, I wouldn't want to be in a marriage where we had to do everything together, in step.  The nature of life is change.  None of us stay the same as we were on our wedding day.  We keep evolving, and the gift of marriage is to have someone there for you to support your evolution.

My husband keeps the world at bay for me.  He lightens every load.  He is the most steadfast person I have ever known...ever.  I am forever grateful for the easy silence he makes for me. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh Dharma Talk, 10/14/11

Once again this year, I was able to attend the Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) in New York City at the end of his North American Teaching Tour.  While the style of the lesson was identical to the prior talk I attended, the content was quite different.  As before, Thay sat on stage with a group of monastics who accompany him on his teaching tours.  The nuns sat to his right and the monks were seated on the left side.

To open the talk, Thay invited the audience to sit quietly and come back to our breath as we listened to the monastics singing the name of Avalokiteshvara.  Thay introduced Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva of Deep Listening.  I have heard Avalokiteshvara referred to as the bodhisattva of Compassion.  The following gives a good description of the various translations of the name of this bodisattva: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avalokite%C5%9Bvara

Thay's description of Avalokiteshvara was the bodhisattva who listens deeply to the laments of human beings who are suffering.  This being represents the symbolic taking in of our pain, our deepest worries, our cries.  Thay invited us to be present with our own suffering as we sat for approximately 15 minutes.  He said the energy of compassion can only arise when we are able to get in touch with our own suffering.  It is impossible for us to extend compassion to another person if we ourselves are not aware of our own suffering.  Thay said that through deep listening, through the profound experience of our own suffering, we allow compassion to arise within.  He described the universal human tendency to try every means to escape our suffering.  Rarely are we willing to accept and be mindful of our own pain, be it physical, emotional, mental or spiritual.  Thay repeated his well-known phrase, "No mud, no lotus." 

The remainder of the talk was organized around several revered and widely taught Buddhist principles, originating from the Diamond Sutra and the teaching of The Buddha's Four Nutriments.  This year's talk adhered more to classic Buddhist teaching, whereas the former talk I attended was slightly less structured and less religious. 

The Diamond Sutra teaches us to attain the quality of non-discrimination.  In explaining the Diamond Sutra, Thay asked us to envision a very large and sharp diamond, able to cut through and excise illusions and faulty concepts.  There are four common ways of thinking to be removed through following the teaching of the Diamond Sutra: 1. Self, 2. Man, 3. Living Beings vs. Non-Living Beings, and 4. Life Span.

Thay described the notion of Self as the idea that we are beings made up of elements which are exclusive to us.  This teaching gets at the heart of what Buddhists believe to be the illusion of individualism.  Thay said, "Look at your son.  You believe him to be made up of "son elements," but he is made entirely of non-son elements.  When you look at the son you see the father, the mother and all of the ancestors.  You cannot separate the son from these elements."  Thay also spoke of his famous cloud illustration, pointing to the presence of cloud elements in every one of us (we all contain water which came from the cloud, every flower has the cloud present in her, a cup of tea was once part of the cloud, etc.) "You are made exclusively of non-you elements," he said.

In elucidating the remaining three concepts, man, living beings and the notion of life span, Thay focused on the interconnectedness of all energy and matter.  He elaborated on the principle that neither energy nor matter may be created or destroyed.  All of this goes back to the Buddhist teaching of "No birth, no death."  He asked us to free ourselves from the notion that we pass from non-being into being and then back into non-being.  Thay noted that we observe no phenomena in the natural world that fit such a scenario.  He said that we all think of ourselves as distinct from plants, minerals and animals, yet he asked how this can be so since we are made up of elements from all of those things.  If we are able to understand this, then we can understand our interbeing with all of the planet.  We are simply not separate beings, according to Thay and to Buddhist philosophy.  This gives new meaning to the oft-quoted Christian teaching that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.  Nothing can ever separate us from God, from each other, or from...anything. There is no separation, period.

My favorite part of the Diamond Sutra teaching was the easy explanation of "no life span": we think that we have a life span of 70, 80 or 100 years.  We believe that such a time frame contains our life, in a nutshell.  According to Thay, this is simply mistaken perception.  Our lives are infinite.  I was able to find a previously recorded excerpt of a talk given by Thay on December 4, 1997, that is very close to what he said last Friday evening:
“…We think we exist from the time we were born to the time we die, and that this is our life span. That is another notion, a perception, a concept that we need to overcome and liberate ourselves from. According to that notion, before we are born we do not exist and after we die we are nothing. This is a very wrong notion. It is said in many sutras that when conditions are sufficient our body is formed, and when conditions are not sufficient then our body does not manifest. We are caught by the idea of birth and death, the idea of existence and non-existence, and the idea of life span. The notion of life span is the basis of the notions of birth and death, coming and going, existence and non-existence, permanence and annihilation. All of these pairs of concepts have their foundation in the concept of life span. Therefore when we can destroy the notion of life span we can destroy the other notions."

Thay shifted into the next segment of the Dharma talk by tying the concept of interbeing into the logical next step: mindful consumption.  If everything we think, do, say and consume has an effect on everything and everyone else, we can take concrete steps to heal our lives and our planet through being mindful of what we consume.  This leads us to the Buddha's teaching of the Four Sources of Nutriment, which are the following: 1. Edible Food, 2. Sensory Impressions, 2. Volition and 4. Collective Consciousness.  

In his discussion of the mindful consumption of food, Thay predictably explained ways for us all to become more mindful of what we eat and how choosing our food has an effect on people, animals and plant life all over the planet.  When he began to speak about vegetarianism, people in the audience started to leave in surprisingly large numbers.  Unfortunately they did not get to find out that Thay was only suggesting that those of us who are meat eaters could make a commitment to eating vegetarian for 10 or 15 days per month.  In my household, this is something we already do, for economic as well as health and environmental reasons.  Thay reminded everyone of the large amount of grain it takes to feed cattle, and also to make alcoholic beverages.  This was a good reminder to become even more mindful of the amount and type of alcohol we consume, if any.  

Thay's teaching on the mindful consumption of sensory impressions was, in my opinion, a very badly needed reminder for the great majority of us.  He tied this back into the idea of becoming more mindful of suffering.  We consume many, many things in order to avoid the direct experience of our suffering.  The social media we subscribe to, the articles and the books we read, the music we play in our cars and homes, the television and radio programs we see and hear... all of these things have an enormous impact on our lives and the lives of everyone we come into contact with.  What if we could become more mindful of the sensory input we consume?  I, for one, would consume less.  I know that I turn on music throughout the day to shift out of presence and consciousness.  I am now challenged to look at that behavior and modify it somewhat, or at the very least to become more conscious of the times I do it.  

The nutriment of what Thay calls "volition," has also been referred to by other Buddhist teachers as "intention."  Volition describes our desire to get what we want and achieve our goals, immediate and long-term.  Thay said that often the direction of our desires leads us to an unhappy path, snaring us into more suffering.  Our desires can lead to impulsive actions.  In becoming overly focused on our goals and desires, we can lose sight of the best that life has to offer us in the present moment.  Thay says we adjust this tendency through participating in mindful sitting, walking and looking--in other words, through the spiritual practice of mindfulness we can adjust what our volition leads us to consume.  

Finally, in clarifying the meaning of "consciousness" as the fourth nutriment, Thay emphasized that whatever we consume feeds our consciousness.  Our consciousness is dominated by the thoughts we think, the words we speak and the actions we perform.  Thay encourages us to become more mindful of our consciousness and to feed it with love, compassion, joy and peace.  He says that if we look deeply at our suffering, we will see the things we have been feeding our consciousness which have led us down an unhappy path.  We can ease our suffering through taking good care of our consciousness and nourishing it in healthier ways. 

The points above were all I was able to take away from the Dharma talk, other than the peace and clarity exuded by Thay and his group of monastics.  Although I attended the talk by myself, I know that in reality I was connected to each and every person in attendance, as well as countless others on the outside who are contributing to the evolution of our consciousness as human beings. 

May you be safe.  May you be happy.  May you be healthy.  May you be free. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Meditation: The Expansiveness of Interbeing

I want to share the effects of purification, joy and connection that I am experiencing after only three days of practicing the Spirit Voyage 40 day Global Sadhana.  This is the first time that I have committed to a daily, structured meditation practice.  Usually I meditate on my own and there are certain days that I fall short and do not practice.  I love the simplicity of this particular structured practice and the 15 minute time slot makes it easier to commit and keep up.  Here is the link in case you would like to jump in and try it out at any time:http://www.spiritvoyage.com/GlobalSadhana/BeinFlowWithYourHighestWisdom
If this is something that appeals to you, I encourage you to follow the Spirit Voyage community on Facebook.  I briefly glanced yesterday at the discussion about how this 40 day practice is going so far, for many people.  I was excited to see other people having experiences similar to mine.

The practice is purifying because of the cleansing and cooling breath exercises, the mudra (position of the arms and hands) and the chanting.  I have felt a burning sensation in my solar plexus after a few minutes of the practice, and I am finding that the sensation returns several times throughout the day during my regular activities. 

I feel like the practice is already altering my characteristic energy.  I have also noticed that just as in quiet, sitting meditation, thoughts and emotions arise but I feel like they cycle through more quickly in this practice, almost as if they are falling away from my body.  I specifically feel like this meditation practice is helping me to churn through residual anger and bitterness that I carry around with me.  I am usually unaware of these feelings during a normal day, but they come up when I am driving, when I think about certain people and during certain interactions.  Meditation helps me to pinpoint these harmful emotions and to start letting them go, releasing them from my body.  I feel that this is a great practice for burning through ego, as well. 

Now, on to the joy and connection: I took extra time to do sitting meditation following the sadhana yesterday.  During that 20 minute period, I had some blissful visions.  It is a relief to the body to commence normal breathing after 15 minutes of focused effort.  I reconnected with the simple in and out breath, and said to myself several times, "Thank you, God." A line from the Foo Fighters song, Everlong, came to me: "Breathe out so I can breathe you in."  Sitting there quietly, I wanted to breathe in the Holy Spirit, the energy that fuels the cosmos and everything in it...the energy that fuels me.  I imagined the breath of Heaven, the breath of life, flowing into my lungs and filling them up.  I felt the tears on my face, and I knew that my body was shedding bitterness.  Moments like that are when we feel our hearts softening.  I felt the expansion and contraction of my lungs, and I saw the expansion and contraction of the oceans, the tides, the Earth.  In that moment I felt the inescapable connection that I have to God and all of creation.  I imagined the cells in my body expanding and contracting, my physical heart expanding and contracting to circulate blood.  I felt and heard my heart beating.  I had a vision of my heart as the center of my being, and then of the red, hot center of the Earth.  I saw the red and glowing center of the Earth as if it were the bud of a flower that kept pushing up and through, moving ever towards the sky.  Layers upon layers of glowing, hot, red petals moved up and out as new layers replaced them.  The dying petals fell back into the Earth, into black.  I felt in that moment a connection to both life and death. I did not feel separate from life, or from death.  I felt interconnected. 

“To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing." - Thich Nhat Hanh

I am experiencing interbeing through this practice. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Meditation on Safety

"Your life is hidden with Christ in God."  These words, from the book of Colossians in the New Testament of the Bible, came to me today during a solitary morning run.  I thought about what it means to be "hidden," and how I associate comfort and safety with that word.  Through my faith I find comfort; I believe that in spite of any contrary circumstance, appearance or feeling, I am safe. 

In meditation today, I used the words "hidden" and "safe" as mantras.  Per the teachings of the venerable Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, I used this breathing meditation: "Breathing in, I am hidden.  Breathing out, I am safe."  In this way I settled into my practice.  After sitting for a while, in my mind's eye I saw a vision of Mary, holding her tiny child in her arms.  I love seeing the statues of Mary at my sons' school when I drop them off each morning.  They are a beautiful visual reminder of the safety I find in faith. 

Continuing to sit with ease and comfort, I then adapted the guided meditation on love from my last post.  Rather than receiving love and circulating that energy through the chakras, I combined today's focus on safety with the energy of each chakra.  The resulting affirmations are powerful thoughts that help to release long-held fears:
  1. 1st/root chakra: I am safely rooted.
  2. 2nd/sacral chakra: I form and maintain safe connections with others.
  3. 3rd/solar plexus chakra: I act and accomplish from a place of safety.
  4. 4th/heart chakra:  It is safe for me to feel; I safely experience my true feelings.
  5. 5th/throat chakra: It is safe for me to express myself.
  6. 6th/third eye chakra: I know that I am safe. It is safe for me to follow my intuition.
  7. 7th/crown chakra: My safety comes from the Source of All. My life is hidden in God. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Guided Meditation: Moving Love Through Your Chakras

Now that preschool has started for my boys, I am able to carve out a bit of time for meditation during the day.  It is truly time well spent, as it makes the rest of the day flow with more ease and comfort.  Today I focused on the energy of love, connecting with that energy and allowing love to flow in through my crown chakra to energize each chakra up and down the spine, and the whole of my being: mind, body and spirit. 

Anyone could practice the following meditation to circulate love through the chakras.  There is no particular time requirement.  I set a timer for 24 minutes, exactly the amount of time I could meditate without distraction.  So that you can get quiet and focused, and still have time remaining to pay attention to each chakra, I would recommend a minimum of ten minutes. 
  1. Begin by sitting comfortably and closing the eyes.  I sit in sukhasana, a fancy term for criss-cross applesauce with a straight spine and the hands resting comfortably on the thighs.  Many people prefer to sit with their feet on the floor in a comfortable chair. 
  2. Bring ease to your breath by taking several soothing inhalations and exhalations.  You may breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, or if you prefer to keep the mouth closed, breathe in and out through the nose making sure to relax the jaw.  
  3. Clear your mind of habitual thoughts and restlessness by repeating the following mantra to yourself.  First, as you breathe in and out, “I am clear. I am clear. I am clear…” Then, simply, “Clear. Clear. Clear. Clear.”  Visualize the surface of a clear pond or pool, with no waves and no ripples, or envision a perfectly clear sky.
  4. Begin at your root chakra, located at the base of your spine.  As you inhale, focus on being rooted, or grounded, right where you are.  Sense your connection to the Earth, to the ground.  To light up this chakra, repeat this internal mantra, breathing in, “I am rooted,” breathing out, “I am here.” Do this several times.  This practice grounds your energy and focus for the rest of your practice.
  5. Next, connect with the energy of love that is always available to us from Source (God, the Universe).  Envision the following: in the space directly above you is an orb of golden light.  It is the light of love, flowing to you from your Higher Self, the divine within you.  You are opening up your being, from the top of your head down to the base of your spine, so that you can bring this loving energy into the whole of you. 
  6. Bring the attention back to the breath, as you will use each remaining inhalation and exhalation to circulate the energy of love through your chakras, up, and then down, continuing in a seamless cycle.  You are pulling love in and moving it up and down your chakras. 
  7. Breathing in and out, as you envision each chakra, speak the following mantras in your mind:
·         1st, or Root chakra: I am rooted in love.
·         2nd, or Sacral chakra: I connect with love.
·         3rd chakra, or Solar Plexus: I act with love.
·         4th, or Heart chakra: I feel love.
·         5th, or Throat chakra: I speak love.
·         6th chakra, or Third Eye: I know love.
·         7th, or Crown chakra: I understand love.

For additional pranayama practice (control of the breath in meditation), try to extend each inhalation so that you can go through all seven mantras and envision the chakras, so that at the beginning of your inhalation you say, “I am rooted in love,” and at the top of your breath, you finish, “I understand love.” As you exhale, you envision the golden light energy of love moving back down your spine, from the crown chakra to the root chakra, repeating each mantra in reverse order.  If you do this, the time of each complete breath cycle is 15-20 seconds. 

This practice brought me such sweetness, joy and comfort…in under half an hour.  

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Good in Goodbye

My yoga class today was exceptionally enlightening and uplifting, to the point that I feel compelled to share the lesson.  My teacher shared with us the experience of taking her second son to college last week.  She was absent from our classes when she drove him to school.  She had spoken to us of her trepidation surrounding this major step in her life.  Today, at the beginning of class, she shared her struggle with us, in tears.  She said that like everything in life, “this too shall pass,” and “the only thing we can truly expect in this life is change.”  What really stood out in her words today was this: we all have to let go of experiences, stages, and even people we love.  While it is often easy to let go of what seems bad, we also have to let of go things in our lives that are good, when the time comes; and this prepares us to receive new blessings. 

Letting go of the good in our lives…that is tough to accept!  One man in the class had also dropped his daughter off at college last week, and he said, “What we are letting go of is our parental role of being their constant protector.  My daughter was sick when I took her to college, and it was hard for me to leave because I just wanted to stay there and take care of her.  But now she is taking care of herself and that role for me has ended, for the most part.  Now it’s time for something else.”  An elderly woman chimed in, “when one door closes, another door always opens.” 

My teacher’s open sharing of her sadness touched my heart.  She said that during the past few weeks the sorrow of letting go had continued to surface for her, but she pushed it down repeatedly to appear strong for her husband and children.  She said that the feelings were there, and the tears would rise up to her throat but she would push them back down into the area of her heart and chest, which made her literally sick.  Now she is letting it out and modeling that freedom for her students.  I loved that she spoke about learning to let go of the good things that come into our lives, blessings and experiences that we wish to hold onto. 

My children are still little, only 3 and 4 years of age.  So I have a long time before I have to let them spread their wings and fly away from home.  But I also have a few good things in my life that need to fly away, free.  In class today, I shed a few tears when that realization fully dawned.  I have also been holding on when I need to let go and open up to new experiences.  When my family moved last Spring, I began the process of saying goodbye to some well-loved and familiar faces and places.  I had to let go of the wonderful preschool where my eldest son was nurtured for two years.  Now he will start a new school.  Letting go of the local column I wrote when I moved to a new town was a sort of personal loss that I mourned.  These are two of many examples. 

Letting go of good relationships that either disappear entirely or take on a new dynamic; this is the particular challenge my yoga teacher is facing with her college-aged son.  I am also facing that challenge with a very special person who was in my life for nearly a year.  He is a teacher and coach that I met when I was writing my former column.  I interviewed him in connection with some exciting work he was doing.  I was so impressed with him that I decided to sign on as one of his clients.  He is a stress relief coach, and as a Mom of toddlers, I was feeling a little stressed.  Little did I know that not only would he help me with my job as a Mom, but he would also help me rediscover my purpose outside of motherhood, and ultimately connect me with my higher self and spirituality in a way that would open me up to a world of new experiences.  I truly cherished the connection I had with him, to the point that I dreaded losing it.  When it came time for the relationship to end, I signed on for more coaching.   I did this because I was afraid of letting go of something good.  I was not sure what other sorts of people and experiences would come into my life to fill the void.  Like my yoga teacher, when I felt sad about letting go of that relationship, I pushed the sadness back down.  I still haven’t fully let go of the wonderful teacher/student dynamic I had with him, even though I know it is time for me to spread my wings. 

Already, I have amazing new people and experiences at my very doorstep.  It is time for me to let them in.  I am in a new church environment in my new hometown, with a wonderful pastor and congregation.  I am happy to be actively involved in the church organization with my husband.  My pastor is an invaluable teacher and source of support.  My interfaith seminary program begins this fall, and I can’t contain my excitement about interacting with the other students and teachers traveling this path with me.  Even my yoga class with such a gifted teacher is relatively new for me.  I had to stop attending my regular number of classes at my old studio in order to allow this new one to come into my life.  My favorite yoga teacher at my old studio: don’t even get me started on her!  There is no way I am letting her go anytime soon.  I drive out of my way half an hour to maintain that connection, even though I have fantastic yoga options where I live now!  With some things, it’s “never say die.” 

Putting our focus on the new good makes it easier to release the old good.  Hope and optimism help us persevere in the face of change.  That spoonful of new beginnings helps us swallow the bitter pill of saying goodbye.  One thought occurred to me after class today: the word “goodbye” contains the word “good”!  There must be a good reason for that. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sin, Suffering, Satan and Samsara

My church pastor has a copy of the book, Living Buddha, Living Christ on his desk.  My father recommended that book to me in 1995 when it came out.  I have a copy by my bedside.  In attending a Christian church regularly for the first time in many years, I am working with my cultural tradition in the context of my blended spiritual practice.  

One of my yoga teachers, Cara Sax, has been talking to her students about the yama and the niyama in the Yoga Sutras.  The yama and the niyama are the “do’s” and “don’ts” of the yogic path.  Yama means “abstinence” and niyama means “observance.”  To me these teachings are very similar to the Ten Commandments in the Bible.  From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as translated and presented by Sri Swami Satchidananda, Sutra 30 reads: “Yama consists of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greed.” Sutra 32: “Niyama consists of purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books and worship of God [self-surrender].”

I am grateful beyond measure for the wonderful teachers God is bringing into my path, from traditions that are rich and varied.  I have tried to explain to Christians how my practice is not so much about the worship of various deities.  It is more about devotion to God and dedication to uncovering spiritual truth and applying it in my life.  It is more about having faith that through practice, God may lead me into more wisdom.  Most of all, it is about getting closer to God and allowing more love and compassion into my life, so that I may share it with myself, my family and the world. 

I have never felt that learning about the Buddha and his teachings was a betrayal of Christ.  If anything, I feel that I can come closer to seeing Jesus in this way.  Particularly with the practice of yoga, I feel that worshipping God and organically integrating God’s spiritual laws into my life becomes easier.  Attending church and reading the Bible is wonderful; singing God’s praises in church is beautiful; practicing yoga is another form of worship and spiritual communion that can only enhance my beliefs.

When I hear about “sin” and “Hell” and “Satan”, I immediately think of what Buddhists and yogis speak of simply as “suffering.”  I think more specifically about avidya which translates as “ignorance,” and samsara which is the cycle of birth and death in which we are trapped without spiritual enlightenment.  All of these are words, and in the realm of Spirit, words are not only unnecessary; words simply fail.  I may prefer to use the words “suffering” and “ignorance” rather than sin or Hell.  Others may prefer the cultural concept of sin and they may want to personify the causes of suffering into a spiritual being they call “Satan.”  I cannot ever say with certainty that they are wrong.  In the same vein, I may prefer the word “enlightenment” while someone else likes to refer to “salvation.”  “Heaven” is a lovely word, but I like the word “Nirvana”; is it because it is more exotic?  I think it is because Heaven is such a culturally loaded concept that it has lost meaning for me. 

This sort of discussion tends to fire up a lot of Christians, and also many other people who are committed to the doctrine of one specific tradition.  They may say, “Salvation is a distinct concept and it needs to be embraced as such,” or they may say, “If you don’t believe in Satan he has you trapped.” Others may say, “Nirvana is nothing like Heaven.  They are entirely separate spiritual concepts.” Everyone is right, because these are words attached to ideas, born of cultures and traditions and written about by human beings.  And all of us, within this culture, are a bit like the blind leading the blind because our specific culture is so far removed from the ancient traditions we are attempting to follow. This is why I am committed to finding the commonality in all of these beautiful traditions and adhering to the universal, simple truths that each contain.  This is what we as humans are being called to do now, on this Earth, to bring salvation to ourselves and to our planet.

Here is what I am finding, personally: God is love. We call God by many names, but the name of God is sacred and hidden.  God takes away our suffering. God also allows us to learn through suffering.  God within us makes compassion possible.  We each have God within us.  God never leaves us.  God is always present: omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient.  Jesus Christ is God made man, and come into the world to ease our suffering.  Jesus was a real incarnation of God, and his spirit remains with us. There have been and will be other incarnations because of God’s great love for us.  (This last point is my major heresy as a Christian, although I have many others). 

Because I have God within me I do not fear death, Hell, sin or Satan.  I do not feel that I have to wholly embrace any religion or doctrine, though I feel compelled to respect them all. 

I am not surprised that my path has led me to study interfaith ministry formally, and when my seminary studies begin in January, I will certainly post more here about them.  I leave you with this Judeo-Christian blessing:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious unto you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.