- At a time of the year when we are busy getting together, buying presents, eating, drinking and celebrating, a story I heard from my Zen teacher comes to mind. The Buddha compared our human predicament to children playing inside a house that is on fire. Someone from the outside sees the flames and calls the children but they are so busy with their games that they don’t hear the warning. So what is burning right now? Time, my teacher would say. At a more relative level I would add our own selves, at a physical and mental level. Inflammation caused by stress and unhealthy lifestyles are at the root of many chronic illnesses like arthritis, cancer and heart conditions. We all know that this time of the year can be specially stressful due to emotional and dietary stressors. Are we then to forego these festivities and go into retreat to meditate on the Budha’s warning? That is an option, a very good one actually. But there are other options. Since inflammation is the result of doing too much too fast is it possible to subdue the fire by 1) reducing and 2) slowing down. By reducing, paradoxically, we increase enjoyment. Think about how much lighter you feel and enjoy life when you lose some extra weight or when you let go of some desires. Enjoyment is also increased when you slow down and take the time to walk, talk, taste and breathe. These two strategies make us more present by diminishing the amount of distractions that make us lose or burn time. We burn time every time we dwell for too long on the past or worry excessively about the future. The present is the only time we have, really. The Budha also reminds us, that there is no time to lose. So can we be fully present all the time without getting lost in expectations, wishes or regrets? And can that engagement be maintained when alone or in company, in times of celebration or in silence? At this time then, let’s enjoy fully the getting together, grateful for the opportunity of sharing this moment with others. Let’s shop for gifts making the giving meaningful regardless of their material value. Let’s enjoy ourselves at the table, tasting fully every morsel and every sip. Let’s play the entire game fully without losing sight for a second that it is just a game, another wonderful game.
From the moment of birth we begin to experience aging. However in our 40s this process speeds up. The first white hairs appear, eyesight declines and our metabolism slows down. We become more aware that time flies and that aging happens. Perhaps this is the first time we look at our lifestyle and are prepared to make some changes. We all want to be healthy and feel vibrant and young, regardless of our age. This is where Yoga has a lot to offer. The ancient teachings of Yoga have been practised since time immemorial and their benefits are well known but it’s only recently that scientists have found proof that a yogic lifestyle based on a healthy diet, moderate exercise, group support and stress relieving techniques such as yoga and meditation can not only delay the aging process but actually reverse it.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and her team of researchers at UCSF won the 2009 Nobel Prize of medicine for the discovery of the telomere function in aging at a cellular level. Telomeres are the caps at the end of the chromosomes that protect them from deterioration. During 5 years they measured the length of the telomeres in the white cells of 2 groups of men with a low risk of prostate cancer. The group that followed a healthy stress-free lifestyle showed a 10% increase in the telomeres length while the control group showed a shortening of 3%.
In my coming workshop HOW TO AGE BEAUTIFULLY offered at the Sivananda Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas I will be sharing with you how my Yoga practice, at a physical, mental and spiritual level, helps me embrace my age with gratitude and joy.
Dates: January 23-25 and March 1-3
For more workshops and courses please check http://www.sivananda.org/program
From http://www.rewireme.com/explorations/train-your-brain a very clear article on How to Reduce Anxiety through Mindfulness and Meditation.
The celebration of Navaratri, the Hindu festival that honours the feminine, is starting this coming New Moon, next Wednesday, September 24. It lasts 9 nights, with the 10th night celebrating victory. According to the Devi Mahatmya of the Markandeya Purana the form of the goddess Durga was created as a warrior to fight a terrible demon that other gods were unable to vanquish. During Navaratri the Goddess is worshipped in three forms:
1. The first 3 nights, Durga, “the invincible”, is the epitome of strength, courage and ferocity. She rides on a lion or a tiger having tamed the animal nature, and holds various weapons in her 8 hands, a symbol of her potency. She is the fearless mother protecting her children.
2. The next 3 nights, a more gentle Lakshmi is venerated. She is the bestower of abundance, wealth and comfort. From her open palm appears a stream of gold coins. She is the ever-giving mother.
3. The last 3 nights, Saraswati is exalted personifying wisdom and creativity. She plays a veena, a string instrument, and in her other two hands she holds a book and a lotus. Her name literally means the “flowing one”, a reference to the Saraswati river and to the flow of thoughts, words and music.
The Goddess is also called Shakti or energy, the active feminine principle, while Siva is the static masculine principle in the universe. Both represent the cosmic polarity and their dance is said to create everything in an interplay of matter and energy. Shakti lies dormant at the base of the spine, in the Muladhara chakra, waiting her awakening and reunion with Shiva at the top of the crown, in the 10,000 petal lotus.
At this time of the year when we collect the fruits of the Summer is the perfect moment to be grateful to Mother Earth and celebrate the divine in its feminine forms. Regardless of being a man or a woman these 9 nights are also a reminder of the path of the spiritual aspirant: we first need the courage and determination of Durga who conquers all obstacles, then generous Lakshmi opens our heart so that finally the wisdom of Saraswati can be realized. That’s the true victory.
If you live in Montreal please join us at the Sivananda Center in St. Laurent St. at 8 p.m. for a “puja” (worship) in honour of Durga and if you are in my Meditation course on Wednesdays it would be great if you can stay after the class.
Concentration and mindfulness are two separate qualities of the mind that we cultivate together in the practice of meditation. They each have their function. Concentration, or one-pointedness of mind, consists of forcing the mind to remain at one static point. It is developed by a strong willpower. Mindfulness, on the other hand, does not have a fixed object of focus, it just notices. Ideally, both qualities should go hand in hand: concentration holding of attention on the object of meditation and mindfulness noticing whatever is passing through the mind like distractions and interruptions in the flow of concentration.
You can’t develop mindfulness by force or struggle but at the same time it doesn’t happen by itself and requires gentle effort. You cultivate mindfulness by constantly pulling yourself back to a state of awareness: in formal meditation to the object of concentration and in daily activities to the task at hand. Mindfulness grows by noticing, acknowledging, accepting and letting go.
Concentration should be regarded as a tool. Like any tool, it can be used for good or evil. If properly used it can assist us towards liberation but it can also be used in service of the ego. Concentration alone will not give us a perspective on ourselves. It won’t lighten suffering. Only mindfulness is free to notice whatever comes up, our deepest secrets – hatred, lust, jealousy, egoism. Mindfulness has no fixed object of focus. It observes change without judging or categorizing. In a state of pure mindfulness our attention just flows along with whatever changes are taking place.”Now this, now this, now this”. In a state of mindfulness we see ourselves exactly the way we are. We see our selfish behaviour, our sadness, our suffering and how we hurt others. We pierce right through the layer that blames and justifies. Mindfulness leads to wisdom.
Concentration is exclusive. It concentrates on one item and ignores everything else. Mindfulness is inclusive and notices everything. Mindfulness is more difficult to cultivate than concentration. Concentration is merely focusing the mind. Mindfulness can see and understand the mechanics of the mind. Mindfulness requires a great deal of patience, the patience to see and accept ourselves as we are. No change is possible if we do not accept first what is.
In meditation mindfulness directs the power of concentration and concentration furnishes the power for insight. They should go hand in hand in a balanced manner. The initial stages of meditation are specially delicate. Too much emphasis on mindfulness at this point will slow down the development of concentration. When you start in meditation, one of the first things you will notice is how active the mind is. In yoga we call it “the monkey mind”. Don’t get discouraged, this happens to everybody. There is a simple solution: put most of your effort into concentration at the beginning (the breath, the mantra, the chakra). In a couple of months you will have developed concentration power. Then you can turn your energy into mindfulness without getting lost with inner or outer distractions.
Seated meditation is the practice where we develop our concentration and mindfulness skills but the place where we apply those skills is our everyday life. Even if we are beginners in meditation we must not stop trying to maintain mindfulness in every activity and perception through the day. As our concentration becomes shaper we will notice that being present and aware all the time also improves. This is very demanding and rigorous but it allows our mind to be open and alert, a state necessary for liberation. It is said that one may attain enlightenment at any moment if we are in a state of readiness. The most ordinary perception can be the stimulus: the cry of a bird, a sound in the street, the reading of these words on the computer screen. It could happen right here and now because there is no need to go somewhere else or be somebody else as “the earth where we stand is the pure lotus land, and this very body the body of Budha”. (Budhist prayer)
It starts with listening. Listening to the ceaseless display of sounds. Listening to others and their unspoken words. Listening to our mind like a patient parent listens to a child’s silly stories. Listening to our body, respecting its rhythms, limitations and innate intelligence because the body knows what to do while the mind gets in the way.
In listening we touch the silence that takes us to the core of the heart. Here we can drop our head filled with imagination and skepticism. Like the Sufi mystic Rumi we can become gullible and mad as wisdom and madness are one and the same. Shams Tabrizi, Rumi’s teacher, says that the chemistry of mind is different from the chemistry of love. The mind is careful, suspicious and advances little by little, whereas love says “let yourself go!” Can we then become crazy enough to be an unconditional listener rather than a man, a woman, a parent, a student, a leader, a teacher?
Meera Bai, the Rajput princess, says: “If you want to love be prepared to cut off your head and sit on it.” The Buddhists cut the Buddha’s head in a famous Zen koan because, after all, can we find Him in temples and churches or questioning philosophers and scientists? God is love and love is God. Is the highest love then spiritual or can it be material and physical as well? Kabir reminds us to not discriminate because love does not. Love IS, and we are either in, at the center, or out. But even under the illusion of being in the periphery, who is the one yearning for love? It’s in the yearning and in the fear of approaching the flame that we remember… and then we can rip our heart out and scatter it like smoke in the ten directions.
There are many styles of Yoga and even within the same school each teacher develops her own style. Each offers opportunities for bodily, emotional and spiritual insight and all have the same point in common: holding a posture passively. As the student becomes more proficient in her practice the period of holding increases allowing the muscles, ligaments, joints, bones, organs and connective tissues to lengthen and become flexible.
While a more active Yoga style calls upon strength and stamina, holding a posture allows the body space to do its work. Connective tissues do not respond to quick movements or short holds, rather they require patience and a slow steady pull. By improving stretching we open up our energetic channels, unblock obstructions and clear stagnation, the breeding ground for disease.
On your mat it may look like you are not doing much but there is intense activity going on inside your body as well as in your mind. Frantic thoughts might be racing through your mind: mental list making, doubts about the practice and a constant struggle dealing with discomfort. In holding a pose we have a profound meditative opportunity to move past our countless distractions and surrender to the present moment: the breath, the stretch, the twist… resisting constant shifting and looking at our discomfort. Gently recognizing our aches (not our pain which should be avoided right away!) and accepting them as they come and go. And as we hold the posture patiently, we settle into it, our breath becomes calmer and balanced, our muscles relax and our mind becomes spacious.
This approach to Yoga helps us then to acclimate the body and mind to meditation. By paying attention to where and when we feel movement or stillness, effort and rest, heat and cold, we become more in tune with our energy, how to replenish or use it and how to detect stagnation or over stimulation. Understanding these fluctuations and acting skilfully to restore balance in our body and mind will help us achieve greater wellness. But the ultimate benefit of concentration is to be aware of any inner or outer movement – pleasant or unpleasant, comfortable or uncomfortable – in order to acknowledge and accept it in a non-judgemental space. It’s only when the doer becomes the witness that he spontaneously knows what action to take. Then he lives in Yoga and as the Zen masters say, “he can walk into the market place”.
“Barechested, barefoot, he comes into the marketplace. Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins.” (The 10 ox-herding pictures)