Recently, I enjoyed an email exchange with my friend and fellow spirituality blogger Evan Griffith, a person who thinks deeply and is deeply . . . alive. Just the kind of person I like having around, in other words. I needed some advice about when to say “yes” and when to say “maybe later.” Here is what he generously offered.
Mollie: I am having a hard time deciding which opportunities are yeses and which are nos. Some are a clear yes or no, while others are just things that come up and either sound good or don’t.
First question: Do I only do the things I have a clear yes or no about? Pray about everything and be ruthless about waiting for a clear yes before moving forward?
Evan: You get to the pithy heart of things, man.
My inclination is to tell you to only engage in the clear yeses.
I say this partly because of what I know of your life, and partly because you need to keep creating books, putting work out there. Only say yes to powerful projects that keenly interest you–and keep diving deep into your self challenges, sharing them with all of us.
Mollie: Second question: If I do decide to only go with the clear yeses, how do I locate new opportunities? Do I seek them out or do I just wait and let them come if they come? I have always thought it was a recipe for mediocrity and small-mindedness to not search and explore; it really, really limits what you are able to do with your life to just the things that, for example, a suburban mom runs across. There’s a whole world of stuff to do, and sometimes I have a nagging suspicion that I’m not doing as much as I could. On the other hand, I have a friend who is never seeking out the next big thing and she is very, very happy and very Zen. Desire is bad, remember? Buddhism? Byron Katie also says she never plans anything, really. She makes day-by-day plans and if they happen, great, and if they don’t, then that’s fine, too.
Evan: My take is that 1) you stay ready to seize new opportunities that you search out, while also 2) not expending a great deal of energy to do so.
Here’s how that might look: You challenge yourself to take on a project that expands you, one that is fully within your personal mission but also stretches your boundaries a bit. In this way you are continuing to create your life’s work–AND at the same time making connections beyond your immediate community. This allows you to reach out and Zen it, too. You can reach out as much or as little as each week allows.
P.S.: I’m in the camp who believes desire is good–that it’s only negative when you attach too strongly to any one particular path. Abraham Hicks/law of attraction ideas are to me a contemporary restating of the Tao– finding the path of least effort to what is most meaningful. This way you get to have desires and soul surf your way there–or to an approximation of there–or even somewhere you didn’t know was there until your soul surfing toward the original there took you there . . .
Mollie: Extra credit question: What about when I felt something was a clear yes, but then it didn’t turn out well at all? Was I wrong?
I often wonder about that, too. There are times when my clear yes worked out swimmingly, and there have been yes pathways taken that seemed to bear no fruit–or worse, sucked!
I don’t have an answer. Except in the sense of kaizen: continuous small changes or improvements toward a goal. In my understanding of kaizen, every undertaking leads you to greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t, what’s right for you and what isn’t. This clarity leads you to better experiments, better improvements, other small changes that can be made toward your ultimate goal.
I would add that enjoying this process like a scientist, where no answer is good or bad but simply an enlightening answer that allows for further inquiry, is the ultimate spiritual mode of living.
Contributor: Subhan Schenker, who runs the Osho World of Meditation in Seattle.
Mollie: When someone is fully enlightened, do they feel psychological pain?
Subhan: I have heard that enlightened people feel physical pain but not psychological pain. They may have some awareness that there is a mind that has pain, but it’s very far removed; the mind has dropped into the basement.
Mollie: What do you do when the mind makes a judgment and tries to nudge you—sometimes not so gently—to do something, change something, or at the very least, abhor something about yourself or your life, which then separates you from that feeling of connectedness?
In other words: How do we react to the monsters in our heads?
Subhan: You don’t. It’s not about getting rid of anything. It’s about watching, noticing what’s there. Becoming aware of how the mind functions is tremendously helpful. You’ll be able to experience how parts of the mind push and pull you; that there are so many judgments–about you, about everyone else, about everything! This watchfulness becomes more and more available. And the distance between “you” and the thoughts starts to grow.
Mollie: Where do the monsters go?
Subhan: Once this dis-identification starts happening, the thoughts aren’t perceived of as monsters. They are simply the way the mind functions, and they don’t have to be taken too seriously! They lose their power over you.
I can’t explain it. I can’t intellectualize it. You have to try it for yourself. When you have a thought you don’t like, notice it, remind yourself that it’s not you. I tell people to step back just one-twelfth of an inch from the mind. That doesn’t seem too hard, does it?
Mollie: I do that. It doesn’t always work.
Subhan: No, it doesn’t always work. The mind is tremendously powerful. It can process an unbelievable amount of data in a mere second. It is a miracle that we have the ability to step back from it at all. The only reason we are able to is that what is behind it is indestructible. And usually, we only obtain just a flash of true silence. Maybe for ten seconds you are in silence, and those ten seconds can be life-changing.
Mollie: Why is this the way it is? Why is it so hard to detach from mind, from pain? It doesn’t seem fair.
Subhan: Maybe awareness isn’t that cheap. Maybe awareness has to be earned.
The truth is, though, it’s hard because it’s hard. Because this is the nature of the mind. Asking “why?” is a game of the mind, the one it plays a million times a day. Why can’t I have this? Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I be there, feel that way?
D. H. Lawrence was a very intelligent man. One day he was walking with his nephew in the woods when his nephew asked: “Why are the leaves green?” Lawrence didn’t answer right away; instead, he thought about it for a time, wanting to give an answer that was the truth. Finally, he said, “I know the answer, but you are not going to like it. The leaves are green because they’re green.”
Your mind is not happy with this answer. But your inner being is.
The leaves are green because they’re green. Asking “why” leads to a never ending work game!
“They’re green because of chlorophyll.” But why does chlorophyll create GREEN? “Because of the chemical reaction in chlorophyll.” “But why does this chemical reaction create GREEN and not RED?”
(Once a children learn the “why” game, they can keep adults over a barrel forever!) Ultimately the only real answer we can give is that leaves are green…because they’re green…!
Mollie: So what about when you really do want to change something about yourself or your life? Maybe your life is going pretty well, and you already have a lot of what you want, but you would just like to tweak something just a bit. What next?
Subhan: Well, the first thing I’d say is to watch that desire. Notice your perceived need to change things. Ask yourself what this tweaking is all about. That desire is the mind, and by accepting its ideas, you’re identifying yourself with it. But the truth is, you are not your mind. You are much bigger, much grander than it, and within the real you there is no idea of “lacking.”
What is the point in identifying with a lacking? Don’t. Don’t allow there to be a split between the reality of the person you are and the ideal of the person you want to be. Because whenever you have something called the ideal, you will be in conflict with the real. And if you’re in conflict with the real, you will never arrive. There will never be a time when the mind doesn’t want something different, or something more. Never. So, it’s better to sacrifice the ideal for the real!
Mollie: Then how do we ever change anything, do anything, get anything done? If we’re all perfectly content with things just as they are, won’t we end up sitting around and meditating all day like you?
Subhan: I don’t meditate all day. I am in constant contact with people. I do counseling sessions. I write. I teach classes at the college. I lead four meditation sessions a week at our center. I do numerous weekend workshops.
You see, the mind tells us that if we stop listening to it, and stop being in conflict, we won’t get anything done. But all you have to do is look at the great spiritual masters to see that isn’t true. Buddha, Lao Tzu, Christ, Rumi … They all accomplished a lot and many things change around them.
Subhan: When I am in acceptance of who I am, Existence does the changing!
Mollie: How? Let me slow down and look at this process you’re talking about because there’s obviously something I’m not getting here. So, there you are in a state of meditation, disidentified with the mind, blissed out. Then the mind comes up with another judgment—say, “My child is misbehaving, and I want him to stop.” This is the moment we’re really talking about—the moment that repeats itself all throughout the day. This is when you decide to either reidentify with the mind and become the one who is judging, or to not accept the judgment, and just notice it instead. But when you decide to just notice the judgment, isn’t that also a decision the mind is making?
Subhan: No. I don’t decide. We are part of an Intelligence so vast our minds are useless compared to it. When we are in a state of meditation, it is not our minds that do the deciding, but this Intelligence within us.
Mollie: But if you don’t use your mind, how do you speak? How do you carry out the instruction of this Intelligence—say, to hug the child, or to correct them, or to comfort them?
Subhan: For verbal and physical responses like these, you do use the mind and body. They are tools that allow us to be part of the physical world—to speak, to move our bodies. The key is to respond rather than to react. When you react to your child rather than responding, you’re not using your mind; it’s using you.
Mollie: Ah, I see. So you can still speak, talk, respond to the situation without using your mind to do so? Maybe we are defining mind differently. So there is the mind that’s the ego, the monster, the monkey, the neuroses, and there is the mind that’s a simple, useful tool, a tool we use to translate what is going on in our larger Intelligence? And so is the body, when we hug the child rather than yelling at him?
Subhan: Yes, that’s right. The mind is a fabulous tool … but a crappy boss!
Mollie: So how does a spiritual seeker, someone who is committed to becoming disidentified with the mind, make this switch? In that moment when the child is so-called misbehaving, how does she learn how not to react as the mind would like and to instead suspend thinking, then receive and act upon Intelligence, all without using her mind? This sounds like quite the skill. How does she learn how to accept a situation she finds unpleasant, without “making it into a problem,” as Eckhart Tolle says?
Subhan: Meditation. Meditation that really works, really functions, allows you to, for a moment, to be completely separated from the mind. This doesn’t happen overnight! So it’s best to start with simpler things and situations. Practice watching the thoughts whenever you remember to do so, in simple settings that aren’t triggering emotions and control issues, etc. You slowly build up the knack of watching – in your meditation, in simple situations, and then, ultimately in more “difficult” situations.
Mollie: Then what?
Subhan: Then, acceptance comes. And wisdom comes, the wisdom that is right for that moment.
Mollie: Then what? I will ask it again: How do we end up getting what we want out of life, if we’re always just listening to Intelligence and doing whatever it tells us to do?
Subhan: We try to force Existence to give us what we want, but this is ridiculous, totally futile. It’s like we’re playing the greatest cosmic joke on ourselves: We are buddhas, capable of extraordinary things, even peace and enlightenment, and instead we’re acting unconsciously. We pretend to have all kinds of self-imposed limitations, including a mind that has no clue what to do most of the time, that’s creating many more problems than it’s solving. It is our nature to be a buddha. Anything else is going against the flow. To paraphrase Osho: “The miracle is not when we obtain enlightenment. The miracle is when we conceal it.”
Mollie: So if we want to be truly happy and free of mind, we have to let Intelligence give us what it deems best for us, no matter what that may be?
Subhan: That sounds like the mind talking, not wanting to give up its control to a higher intelligence that resides within us. One we step back from the mind, it loses its control and the intelligence is THERE, waiting to be of immense service!
I tell people to ask for 100 percent of what they want, then let the Universe decide, because it will!
Mollie: So would you say that the main purpose of meditation is to teach us acceptance of whatever the Universe deems best for us?
Subhan: The purpose of meditation is to disidentify with the mind. Acceptance comes naturally after that.
Mollie: Then what? What happens after acceptance?
Subhan: Acceptance and gratitude, and peacefulness and fulfillment become real once there is the disidentification from the mind. I had an early experience of this before I became a meditator. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had dropped into meditation. When I was a young man I was driving my mother’s car when it slipped on some ice. In the ten seconds between starting to slide and hitting the car in front of me, I had my first experience of the meditative state. The mind understood that there was nothing it could do, no role for it to play in that moment, and it said, “I’m out of here. You’re on your own.” Those ten seconds felt like an hour. They were bliss. And the silence was so serene, so “palpable!”
Then I hit the car, and the mind said, “Oh, I can deal with this.” And it started in again: “What is your mother going to say, how much is this going to cost,” etc. It was much later that I realized that when the mind disappeared, something extraordinary emerged. And later still, it became clear that this space had something to do with an essential nature that is always there, although covered by the minds overthinking.
Mollie: I see. And yes, that bliss is what I want. But should I make it a life goal of mine to obtain it? Should happiness be something I strive for? Because it seems the more you try to get happy, the more neurotic you become.
Subhan: You’re right! Anything you desire is a product of the mind. And it will create misery around it. Do not make happiness a goal. In fact, do not make anything a goal. All goals keep you stuck in the mind. Life will give you what you truly need.
Mollie: So—and I realize that I’m really trying to pin you down here—would you say that if I practice meditation regularly, and practice living in a state of meditation and acceptance, I will certainly become happy?
Subhan: I will say that if you stay with it, there is every possibility that you will have more moments of feeling loving, feeling grateful, feeling at peace. And that’s assuming that you are doing a meditation that works for you. Because as I said, a lot of people are doing meditation techniques that don’t really work for them.
Also, be really careful because the mind that asks that question is more interested in the goal than the process. As long as you have a goal to your meditation it will keep you locked in your mind, evaluating whether or not your meditation session was “successful.” Every time the meditation happens the mind will judge it based on whether or not it has achieved that goal. The mind is very crafty. Instead, be there sincerely, without the notion of getting somewhere.
The mind doesn’t want you to be happy. How many times have you experienced a moment of joy and the mind has tried to throw you out of it, using every complaint, seeing every shortcoming, predicting every future bad result it could?
The mind doesn’t want you to be happy, because if you are it is no longer needed.
Mollie: And how long will it take for me to get there? How much meditation would you recommend that I do?
Subhan: There is no way for anyone to know that. There is no formula to it. It is a quantum leap. But after a while, you will notice that you don’t take life so seriously, that you have moments of greater clarity, and that you even feel more gratitude, just for being alive. These are clues that the meditation process is working.
Mollie: Is just meditating and noticing the workings of the mind enough? Is there anything else I need to do?
Subhan: Watching the mind is essential. But you can also find people on this path of discovery who can share their experiences and understandings with you. They offer workshops and sessions that can be of great assistance to you in coming back to your inner, essential nature!
Mollie: No mantras? I love my mantras.
Subhan: If you enjoy mantras, then use them! Some mantras can help you go deeper inside. Just remember, the point of meditation is to disassociate yourself from the mind.
Just watch the mind. A thought comes, and you watch it. Nothing more. This is the only real meditation. Saying mantras may be a good and helpful practice, but it may not lead you to the state of meditation, which is awareness, relaxation and no judgment.
Now, let me ask you a question. Have you had enough of what you don’t want yet?
Mollie: I would have to give that some thought.
Subhan: If you have to think about it, you haven’t. When someone is being physically tortured, and they’re asked if they’ve had enough yet, there is not a single instant of reflection. The answer is yes.
Mollie: That is true. I am getting there.
Subhan: I would hope you get there as fast as you can.
Recently Matt Kahn agreed to an interview. I know: how lucky am I? I got to ask him anything I wanted–anything at all. So of course I thought of the hardest questions possible. Enjoy.
Mollie: What spiritual practices do you keep up with regularly? How strict are you?
Matt: I am not strict at all. I meditate, breathe, send blessings to humanity, and love my heart on a daily basis, but only when I get the intuitive nudge to do it. I maintain a daily practice not only to continue my life-long exploration, but to practice for those who need it most, but aren’t in a position to open their hearts just yet.
Mollie: Do you practice self-inquiry, such as Byron Katie’s The Work? If so, is this an important practice for you? Do you recommend it?
Matt: I ask very intriguing questions, but only because my exploration is how I download new teachings to offer. Self-inquiry can be very beneficial, but it has a short shelf-life. The best approach to any process, including self-inquiry is to prepare to be without it. If not, you are subconsciously asking life to continually give you things to work out through your inquiry. If you can engage inquiry from the stand point of always moving beyond it, it can offer benefit. Especially knowing, it is not the inquiry that heals you, but the amount of attention you are offering neglected and repressed parts of yourself that represent the true keys to inner freedom. Undivided attention is the grace of love in action. It is life’s eternal liberator. Self-inquiry merely gives you a framework to face yourself directly.
Mollie: I’ve heard you mention the law of attraction and note that at some point we focus less on “moving around the furniture of our lives”–improving our outward circumstances–and more on increasing our inner joy instead. Is this true for you? At some point did you stop striving to improve the outward circumstances of your life, and focus only on internals instead, or do you still do some of both?
Matt: In each and every moment, life shows us exactly what each moment asks of us. If spending too much time waiting for things to be different, we overlook the fact that anything attracted into reality could only be a catalyst of our highest evolution. This is why I wrote, “Everything is Here to Help You”. While we should always envision greater circumstances for ourselves and others, it is our willingness to ask, “how is this circumstance giving me the chance to face my most vulnerable parts and shine even brighter?” that determines the trajectory of our soul’s evolution. Simply put, life only appears to not give you what you want while preparing you to have things beyond your wildest imagination. With faith in life’s cosmic plan and a willingness to love ourselves throughout it all, experiences deeper than loss and gain are given permission to be.
Mollie: I’m a hard worker, a doer by nature. I love lists, plans and goals. You seem more laid-back. How do you feel about striving toward goals? Is this something you recommend we do, given that our goals are healthy and peace-promoting? Or would you rather we wing it and let the universe take us somewhere we might never have planned to go?
Matt: It’s a balance of both. I have goals but I go about them from a peaceful space of being. Out of the being, the doing can be done with gentleness, precision, and ease. When we are solely focused on the outcome, we are not fulfilling each task in alignment with our soul, but attempting to outrun the hands of time to capture what we fear we were never meant to have. If it’s meant to be, it will come, which requires destiny along with our participation in taking inspired deliberate action.
Mollie: Do you listen for divine guidance for your actions–say, when to go wash the car or feed the dog? What is the terminology you use for this?
Matt: My intuition is always active and flowing. For me, there is a perfect time for everything and when I get that message, I follow through without hesitation. Like stomach grumbles that remind you when to eat, my intuition guides my every move without me having to micromanage anything. It’s just the joy of following the flow of each instinct. It’s a visceral flow of inspiration, not a mental calculation of any kind.
A year and a half ago, during one of the most difficult experiences of my life, I attended one of your live events. My friend drove me there and parked on the street, and after getting out of the car I immediately threw up. Once inside the venue, I went to the bathroom and cleaned myself up, then sat on the floor near the door while my friend held our place in line. I wanted so badly to learn how to love this–my nausea–but there was nothing inside of me that felt any amount of love. I just had no strength left. I wanted to talk to you after the meeting to ask you what to do, but I didn’t. Instead, I overheard a woman behind me telling her friend that she asked you what to do about her depression. You told her to “Be the best depressed person you can possibly be.” I didn’t understand this then, but I never forgot it, and I think I’m starting to understand it now. Can you tell me what you meant by this statement?
Matt: Using that example, I was pointing someone towards embracing the circumstances of depression, instead of being in opposition to it. In order for us to make peace with depression and use it as an evolutionary catalyst, it cannot be wrong to be depressed. It certainly isn’t comfortable or convenient, but the moment it isn’t wrong to be exactly as we are, we create space for a deeper reality to shine through. In the same way, your nausea isn’t preferred, but it’s here to be welcomed, honored, and respected for the role it plays in your journey. We don’t have to love the experience of nausea, in order to recognize how the one who feels so helpless, tired, and disempowered is the one who needs our loving support the most. From this space, we are no longer lost in our opinions about things, so we may be the best supporters of however our experiences unfold. This is the heart of true acceptance.
Mollie: What do you tell people who simply cannot love what they’re experiencing right now?
Matt: I say that we only think we cannot love because we don’t feel love as an emotion. Instead of thinking of love as a feeling to conjure or capture, it begins as a willingness to support ourselves or others no matter the details in view. Love is a response of empathy; when we see how deeply other people or even ourselves tend to hurt along our healing journeys, the awakening of love is a response of greater support to those in need. The more often we support ourselves and others in moments that matter most, the more supported we feel by the Universe, which at that point, manifests the feelings of well-being that everyone yearns to feel. Love is a willingness to be the most helpful person to the parts of you that hurt the most. This is the first bold step in cultivating heart-centered consciousness.
Mollie: So really walk me through this. You’re sitting there really not loving what is arising. Maybe you have chronic pain or a broken heart. Then you consciously shift your thoughts to “I love this, I accept this, This is what is meant to be, This is good.” But you can’t hold that thought for long, so soon your mind wanders back to thoughts of hating your circumstance. What then? I find there are only so many times I can think the thought, “This is good” before I just get bored and a little annoyed at myself for repeating this stupid mantra, and more than a little annoyed that I am annoyed. What then? Do I try to just switch to a different subject in my mind?
Matt: The trick is not trying to love the circumstance or feeling, but embracing the one who feels exactly as they do. We love the one who judges and hates, even though we may not love the act of judging or hating. Even the one who hates to judge is only here to be loved. The confusion is when someone is trying to love their experiences, instead of embracing the one having experiences. This is the crucial distinction that transforms self-love from daunting and dogmatic into an authentic and uplifting heartfelt communion.
Mollie: Can you tell me about a time in your life when you weren’t able to love what was in front of you–at least not at first–but then successfully shifted that feeling? How did you do it?
Matt: I’ve never tried to love what was in front of me because that would be denying the realism and honesty of my subjective human experience. Instead, I witnessed my feelings, beliefs, desires, and conclusions as parts that were waiting in line to seen through the eyes of acceptance and honored for being a unique aspect of my soul. I always knew the invitation was to love what arises within myself, while honoring any external play of circumstance as the perfect sequence of events to remind me where to send love in myself next.
Mollie: Lately, when I am not loving what I’m experiencing, I’m often able to shift my attitude quite a bit by reminding myself that this feeling or circumstance is my greatest teacher, the absolute best way for me to learn what I need to learn on this earth. For example, when I notice sadness, I remind myself to feel the sadness, to welcome it, because it is with me for some reason that I might not understand quite yet. Is loving what arises more about loving what comes of the pain, rather than about loving the experience of the pain? Or is it preferable to try to shift the painful feeling as well?
Matt: Loving what arises is about steadfast companionship. To welcome the pain, curiosities, worries and concerns, along with each and every insight that is birthed in the aftermath of loss or change allows us to be the parent we may never have had, the partner we are waiting to encounter, or the reliable friend who is always here to remind us how deeply we matter. When we take the time to befriend our feelings, the Universe steps forward to serve the evolution of our highest potential.
Mollie: Is your life hard? Is life supposed to be hard? At least sometimes?
Matt: My life isn’t hard. It’s exciting, sometimes exhausting, but its simply a matter of the balance I keep throughout my life. Life is hard when we forget its a process. A process is a chain of events that only unfold in time. So if we are not at peace with time, we rarely have time for the processes that matter most, which is the evolution of our soul. As we begin living on life’s terms and conditions by allowing the process of spiritual growth to be embraced throughout our day, we find deeper perspectives opening up, where a life that once seemed so difficult is now exciting at every turn. The difference between the two is how open we allow our hearts to be.
Mollie: You have mentioned something called “karmic clearing,” noting that we all need to feel negative feelings at times in order to clear them from the world. Why is this? What is the theological explanation? I would love to believe this is true–that my suffering has practical value for the world–but I’m skeptical.
Matt: Any notion of individual healing could only be our individual experience of clearing outdated patterns of ancestry as our personal contribution towards healing the collective. Our experiences may seem individual in nature, but it is always our unique experience of healing the whole that reveals astonishingly global implications through our willingness to heal. Additionally, perhaps the skeptical one is only using skepticism to request more loving attention, appearing to need answers and information, when it’s just an innocent way to request the gift of your attention.
“I am incapable of meditating,” admitted a friend of mine just the other day. “It ends up being just me silently agonizing over my to-do list.”
I totally get it; meditation is difficult. It’s definitely not a practice you’ll excel at right away. Just like you can’t pick up a golf club for the first time and expect to make it to the Masters Tournament next year and get that green jacket.
Okay, maybe that’s exaggerating, but you get the picture. The art of meditation can take years to learn, and you may never achieve perfect bliss, but it’s all about the practice.
And just like golf may not be your sport, certain styles of meditation may not be your cup of tea either. It takes some experimenting to find what works for you.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a deliberate practice and one that requires your most quiet, mindful state. The word is tossed around a lot, but you may not exactly know meditation’s actual meaning or function. If asked, I would initial picture Yoda summoning the Force. Perhaps this is a form of meditation, but we’ll leave that for the galaxy.
Though mediation varies and splinters off into different styles of practices, it begins with one specific application—calming your mind. It also (hopefully) ends with a similar goal—restoring balance. The in-between is where you can customize your practice.
As with most new endeavors, it’s helpful to be educated on the subject before you jump in. That’s why we’re here! In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn about the types of meditation, the benefits of meditation, meditation postures, and even some apps that will help you get in the zone. Then we’ll answer some common questions about meditation and silence any skeptics out there.
So what are some meditation techniques and tips to help you begin this transcendental journey? Stay tuned!
Types of Meditation
Vipassana meditation (observation of reality)
Vipassana is one of the most ancient forms of meditation. It originated in the Theravada vehicle of Buddhism (the school of thought used by southeastern Asian countries) and is said to use certain concepts from the Buddha himself—the refinement of mindfulness and searching within.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of meditation—concentration and insight. Concentration style meditation have you clear your mind or focus on only one thing. Vipassana is virtually the opposite, inviting you to unearth things about yourself.
Unlike these practices which discourage the movement of the mind, Vipassana meditation allows its students to explore and gaze at their thoughts from afar. You would then train your mind to reflect on your life experiences and view them objectively. Peeling them away layer by layer, you would ultimately be able to walk logically through your thought processes.
How to begin:
The simplest way to begin Vipassana meditation is to observe your breathing. Imagine your thoughts coming and going with the breath. Do not allow the thoughts to linger or be developed further beyond that one breath. This practice helps to relieve anxiety because anxiety is sometimes a result of thoughts being fleshed out to an irrational point.
This practice takes a lot of control. The mind’s natural tendency is to wander and see thoughts to fruition, but Vipassana asks you to allow thoughts to come and go like waves. Detached observation is often difficult for beginners.
Float tank (sensory deprivation)
Floating is a form of sensory deprivation. Its popularity is definitely arising because it can accommodate many abilities. Floating is done in a small tank filled with roughly 10-12 inches of water. The water contains around 800 pounds of Epsom salt, making it more buoyant than the Dead Sea.
In a float center, eliminating stimulus is the primary endeavor. The water is the same temperature as your body, so you don’t experience being too hot or cold. The room is completely dark, and the sound is nonexistent. Floats are usually done in 60-90 minute increments.
Remember the friend I told you about who said she was incapable of meditating? For her birthday, I surprised her with a 90-minute float. Honestly, I thought she would balk. Thankfully, I was wrong! She described the experience like floating in space, not being able to differentiate between water and air.
The benefits are medicinal in many ways. The calm sensory environment aids concentration, but the zero-gravity effect can help with back pain and stimulate sleep that’s equal to 4 hours of REM cycle sleep.
How to begin:
Obviously, you’ll need to find a facility that specializes in floating. The first visit is the most difficult because your body will take to allow the salts and sensory deprivation to relax your mind. Once you fall into a dreamlike state, though, then you’ll be able to implement your own specific practice.
Floating is expensive. Cost is usually not an object of meditation, so this alone could prevent you from experiencing floatation. Even if you could afford a float or two, meditation is recommended to be practiced often, so consistency would be difficult. Another downside (for Stranger Things fans only): unless you are Eleven, you’re not promised a visit to the Upsidedown dimension.
Guided meditation (instruction & response)
Guided meditation is probably the best practice if you’re a beginner. Most times you’ll have a narrator lead you through a practice. Whether the practice is about breathing or self-esteem, the scripts are designed to give your mind specific tasks that will reign in excessive thought.
When our brains create thought, we are also creating neural pathways. The more reinforcement we give to those pathways, the more likely we are to live into those thoughts. Our brains are programmed to absorb information and react to certain environments based on previous experience. How amazing that we hold the key to reformatting our minds to think more positively.
How to begin:
Getting started with guided meditation is simple. First, it’s important to choose an objective for your meditations. Since there is a vocally programmed aspect, you’ll want to feel that your script is beneficial. Are you wanting to quell anxiety or increase positivity?
Stay tuned for the segment later in the blog where we cover meditation apps that might assist you with guided meditations!
Guided meditation requires some outside resources like a program or application on your phone. Other options may include group meditation, but you might feel that this will prevent you from complete relaxation.
Check out this guided meditation to help with over-thinking.
Chakra meditation (personal inventory)
Chakra is an Indian form of thought which breaks down the body into a column of energy centers, each signifying a different color and trait. The 7 chakras correspond to our physical, emotional, and spiritual processes and, according to ancient Hindu healers, can become blocked.
Meditation and yoga are two of the most common ways to realign and unblock your chakras. Before I introduce you to a Chakra balancing meditation, let’s learn about each energy segment, starting from the bottom.
Red — The Root
The lowest chakra is at the base of the spine or the pelvic floor and is associated with concepts which ground you—basic instincts like shelter, self-preservation, and safety. Blockages in this chakra result in colon issues, lower back pain, and fear/anxiety
Orange — The Sacral
The next chakra is located between your navel and pelvic bone and is associated with your sexual nature—passion, joy, and complete wellness. Blockages in the sacral chakra include aversion to change, sexual dysfunction, or addiction.
Yellow —The Solar Plexus
The yellow chakra is located in your belly just below the ribcage and connects you to self-control and power. Blockages in the solar plexus result in moods of self-deprecation, poor time management, and digestive issues.
Green — The Heart
As it indicates, this chakra is located in your chest and is centered in love. The chakra, at its best, promotes goodwill and absolution. Blockages in the heart promote anger management issues, inability to cope with grief, and grudges.
Blue — The Throat
This blue chakra symbolizes communication and your ability to express yourself clearly without inhibition or fear of your own honesty. Blockages could result in trouble speaking your truth, shoulder/neck tension, and attention issues.
Indigo — The Third Eye
Located between your eyes, this chakra represents your brain and your vision. The purple energy dictates your ability to perceive and fine tunes your intuition. Blockages create poor judgment, erratic decision-making, and headaches.
Violet — The Crown
The crown chakra, like its location, is the highest energy and is related to spiritual connection. In its purest form, the violet chakra is fully conscious and aware of the universe. Disconnected, the crown chakra could make you feel isolated. Meditation is said to be most helpful for this energy source. During these times of mindfulness, your 7 chakras are at total, clear alignment.
How to begin:
The best way to begin Chakra-style mediation is to be familiar with the 7 chakras. Study the energies. What color holds your insufficiencies? What colors are your strengths? Once you underwent the colors and their connection to your mind and body, listen to a guided Chakra meditation for help navigating the blockages (see below).
As information-rich and enlightening as Chakras are, they are also abstract. Studying Chakras may be something you want to tackle down the road in your meditation journey. No sense in overloading your mind when you’re trying to silence it!
Forest bathing (gentle wandering)
What do you think of when you hear forest bathing? When I first heard it, I thought, You mean just being in the woods? Well, I go trail running, so this is nothing new to me. Who’s profiting from this glorified hiking class?
Then I took some time to research. Developed in the 1980’s, this Japanese form of healing helps converge nature and mindfulness in its students. It incorporates a slow walk through quiet woods, breathing exercises, and observation. You’re invited to use all your senses to connect with nature—seeing the green, hearing the birds, feeling the textures around you. (Another common misconception debunked: it’s not a bath, so you don’t need swim trunks).
Think about the objective of a hike or a trail run. The goals are finishing or having a defined destination. These add an element of rushed urgency to something that we assume is peaceful—not to mention, high elevation hikes or runs take a lot of conditioning. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel very peaceful when I’m out of breath.
How to begin:
Forest bathing can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. There are some programs and retreats you can attend which educate and guide you through the process. Another option is just to walk trails on your own and connect with your senses.
Some city dwellers may not have easy access to a forest. That’s okay. Find any green space or park. It may not offer the quietness you need, but the main thing is surrounding yourself with green.
Meditation teaches chronic worriers to quiet an active mind. Training yourself to halt the broken record of your mind’s worst case scenarios is not easy. It’s definitely not relaxing at first. But keep trying. The results outweigh the effort.
One of the main components of meditation is the self-awareness. Practices may be different, but a common thread is the attention it brings. Whether you’re tracking your breathing, guiding your thoughts, or listening to birds in the forest, you’re making an effort at awareness.
Meditation, in all its forms, calls for slow movement—unhurried, gentle thoughts as well as heedful physical movements. This world revolves around quickness and convenience these days, so it’s no wonder that the simple act of slowing down can improve your grasp on the nuances of life.
Mindfulness creates control
Our minds are hardwired to absorb tons of sensory information and interpret it. Not many moments go by when your mind isn’t working, worrying, planning, or wandering—except for when you’re meditating, that is. You already know that control is difficult. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried dieting. I see you.
The willpower involving food choices is tough, but at least these actions and reactions are slower (i.e. grocery shopping, ordering at a restaurant) Thoughts appear and vanish instantly, so controlling this traffic successfully creates a master of control.
Being present in our bodies helps us appreciate its function
Meditation asks you to dive deep. Listening to your breathing and the rhythm of your heart can only be a rote part of the process for so long. But when you really begin to investigate your vessel through mediation, you may find yourself grateful and amazed.
Gratitude can be a wonderful focal point during concentration meditations. The Chakra mediation we covered earlier is the perfect application for this type of appreciation. The presence of mind you’ll have while exploring your Chakras will help you learn a lot about your physical and spiritual qualities.
Quarter Lotus (Burmese)
The quarter lotus is a fancier name for sitting with your legs crossed (or as my preschool teacher would say—criss cross applesauce). For added comfort, I would recommend sitting on a folded towel to elevate your hips. This will relieve pressure on your knees and ankles.
Full lotus position is probably the 2nd most common association with meditation behind chanting ooommmmmm. It’s the pose we all envision. Instead of crossing feet under the knee, you pull your feet up to rest on your thigh.
Since the full lotus is intermediate to advanced, I only recommend you try this one if you already have pretty loose hips or your only plan on short meditations. If you have knee injuries, definitely avoid this pose.
Seated in Chair
This may not be the most picturesque pose, but it works for some people. If you think sitting down with your legs crossed will cause pain or discomfort, definitely choose the chair method. The point of mediation is to not fixate on distractions, so if your legs fall asleep due to poor circulation, that won’t exactly propel you toward deep relaxation.
For chair pose, sit up and don’t let your back rest against the chair. Your chest should be lifted and your feet planted firmly on the floor.
There’s some controversy around horizontal mediation positions because it could tempt you to fall asleep. Although sleep is positive (definitely means you’re chill), it’s not exactly the goal of meditation. If you have the self-control to remain conscious, try these yoga-inspired poses.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
This is my favorite yoga pose. Of course, you’re probably saying, because it’s lying on your back doing nothing. Well, you’re partly right, but in my defense, it’s not as easy as it looks. Sure, you can be stretched out on your back, but what is your mind doing? You’re either asleep or worrying if the chicken will be thawed by dinner time.
Corpse pose could be the most difficult to master. It’s not about the position as much as your consciousness while in savasana. You’re lying horizontal, palms facing up. You’re breathing with intention, eyes closed.
Supta Baddha Konasana (Bolstered Hip Opener)
This one’s a mouthful, but here’s what’s up. Also a horizontal position, this pose is often done in restorative yoga practices. You’ll be on your back with your legs in a butterfly position (soles of your feet together, heels pulled toward your groin) with a bolster pillow under your shoulders. I’ve taken part in a restorative yoga session before, and I really liked this pose.
This position opens your hips and aligns your spine. Pop quiz: which Chakra would you be using in this meditative position? (Hint: orange)
Is movement a position? Not necessarily, but because meditation has evolved, so must posture. Think about forest bathing. Though it’s perfectly okay to sit and bask in nature, the specific forest bathing technique requires slow wandering. I think this is just another way you can be present in your body and be aware of subtleties of movement.
Using apps on your phone may seem like it’s defeating the purpose of detaching and focusing, but I’m liking this option. I need the incentive to stay on task and build a habit. Whether that’s a monthly payment or simply seeing the app button on my home screen, I think we could all use a boost.
For sake of brevity (there are hundreds of apps out there), I’m gonna categorize them based on some specific factors. Here you go:
10% happier (for the skeptics)
This app was created to combat the skeptics who think meditation is sitting cross-legged on a mountain ledge at dawn chanting in Sanskrit. Phew! Good thing I’m here to change your mind! You could be missing out on some real ambient chill.
10% Happier addresses the science behind the ooommmm. There’s a lot of commentary, explanation, and basic practices to get you started.
Price: Free with limited features, $11.99 per month
Buddhify (for the indecisive)
To me, this program is the most aesthetically pleasing and is seemingly user friendly. The app opens with a color wheel inviting you to select your mood. Instead of stressing yourself out scrolling through options, just let your mood select the style. There are also a ton of guided meditations if you need some help navigating your thoughts.
Smiling mind (for the budget conscious)
This app is free! Are you sold yet? If not, check out these specs: the app chooses meditations based on your personality/career and tracks your progress. It was developed by psychologists and other healthcare professionals, so it’s free and trustworthy. Can’t beat that.
Headspace (for the best of everything)
This is the most compressive app of all. Forbes named this app one of its top choices, and for good reason. Tons of categorized meditations are available for your ever-shifting days and moods. There’s even an SOS feature for, particularly rough days. You can even have accountability check-ins with other app users!
Price: Free with limited features; $12.99 per month
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Are meditation and prayer the same thing?
A: This is a tricky question. A lot of people get confused or hesitant about starting any meditation practices because it seems associated with religion. Although its roots are in Asian culture and religion, no one is forcing you to submit or pray to a higher Being if you don’t choose to.
What meditation can offer is a vehicle or shell for your prayer. The seated posture, the inward-looking, and the quiet focus all lend themselves to great prayer environments no matter your faith. Faith-based guided meditations are a great way to incorporate both relaxation and religious practices into one sitting.
The largest difference I notice between prayer and meditation is where control is delegated. In non-prayer meditation, you are usually coached into being your mind’s own master—you and you alone are governing your sensory perceptions. Oftentimes in prayer, there is a submissive nature which relinquishes power to a higher Being.
Q: When is the best time of day to meditate?
A: Depending on the goal of your meditation, any time of day could work. If you need to channel energy and positivity, morning is a great choice. If you’re attempting to diffuse anxiety or a tough situation during the day, maybe a few minutes on your lunch hour. If relaxation is what you’re after, try meditating before bedtime as a sort of sleep prep.
Q: How long should I meditate?
A: Don’t set yourself up for failure. Don’t jump in and attempt to quiet your mind for a whole hour. That’ll probably be the last time you meditate. Try 10 minutes at first to see how your body and mind react. Once you’ve mastered this timeframe, you can move up slowly.
I consider an average meditation to be around 30 minutes. With life as busy as it is, it’s hard to fit any more time in—especially since you’ll need to incorporate exercise and vigorous activity in at some point as well. Damn you, self-care!
A: This is an excellent question and one that boils down to preference and how you react to stimuli. Though closing your eyes is most common and seems to promote focus, it can easily allow the mind to wander or drift off (to a rabbit hole of thought or to sleep!)
If you chose to practice with your eyes closed, you must find something to focus on—a consistent sound, your breathing, or the wind against your cheek.
With open eyes, it seems obvious that you might get distracted. Squirrel! But it might be simpler than you imagine. The key is to fixate on a focal point. Don’t place yourself in a visually busy spot. Find a consistent landscape, like a forest edge or a sunset. If you’re inside, focus on the collection of four-leaf clovers in a jar. Bottom line: understand how your mind works and what would allow you to focus.
I hope this guide has given you some insight into this therapeutic practice. For the skeptics, I hope you’re convinced that meditation is more than Yoda and lots of ooommmm. For seasoned meditators, I hope this has given you more tools and more angles to mix up your practice.
For the slackers like me, I hope this has reignited your energy toward bettering your mind. I don’t know about you, but after this post, I’m going to tend to my blue Chakra and stare at some trees.
There is no cure for depression. At least not one that works for everyone. Medication works a bit, and exercise helps a ton. But none of these things–even lots of meditation–won’t get you all the way.
However, in my experience, there are cures (note the plural): complex, sometimes time-consuming combinations of factors that can work together and give you relief.
Here’s my depression success story and the particular combination of coping mechanisms that work best for me.
Once upon a time, I was four years old. And even then, I was the serious girl. Nothing wrong with that–my mom called me “sensitive” and my dad said I had a “cute, worried expression.” But right before their eyes, and without any of us knowing it, I started, slowly, to withdraw. In the second grade my best friend moved away, and I had very few others as backups. I became shyer and shyer till, caught in the coming-of-age pre-junior high school years (fifth and sixth grades), I was really suffering. I hated how I looked. I had no close friends. At recess I hid in the bathroom or under the schoolyard stairs. I didn’t want anyone to see me sitting alone, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone and face rejection.
In Junior High School, I realized I had a problem. It wasn’t their fault that I was shy; it was mine. I went to a new school, made the same mistakes, and the outcome was the same, too. In the eighth grade, I hid in the bathroom every day, and though I made a few friends, they weren’t close. One day I read an article in my aspirational reading of choice–Seventeen magazine–about a girl who realized she had depression. She said that she figured it out after while riding a city bus, she burst into tears for no reason.
That’s ridiculous, I thought. I do that all the time. It sounds pretty normal to me.
But the thought sunk in, and soon after that, I realized I was depressed, too.
My first attempt at overcoming depression was a spiritual one. As a fundamentalist Christian, I knew the answer to all pain, all difficulties was faith. I also knew that I wouldn’t feel better until I got on the right path, and stayed there. If I only prayed enough, read the Bible enough–really committed to God–I would feel the love and job of knowing him. And the depression would be gone.
The plan didn’t succeed.
High school passed in perfectionistic frustration. Then college, then a few lovely years after graduation. My determined mindset helped me get rid of my shyness completely, and pursue a few other goals successfully. I got a job I love–waitressing–as well as a college degree and a house. And I started liking myself a lot more–even how I looked. I gained confidence, but my ultimate goal still eluded me–that of fully overcoming depression.
I still haven’t fully overcome it.
And yet, I have overcome a lot of it. Most of it, in fact. And I did it in two major ways. First, I dealt with the basics: I got a job, independence, a few friendships, a place to live. After that, I started refining my methods.
Here is my daily recipe for my mostly happy, sometimes joyful, and always deeply grateful state of mind.
I exercise most days for at least forty minutes. Sometimes, I exaggerate. Like the other week when I told my friend exercise is a cure for depression. It’s not. And yet, it sort of is. Because without my long walks, I’m not sure I’d be able to stay mentally healthy. For me, this is the absolute number one technique I recommend to overcome depression–even more so than spiritual practice. My personal habit is to take long walks with my kids. I often carry the baby and push the two-year-old on the stroller while my five-year old follows on his bicycle.
I get outside for at least an hour most days. Rain or shine, outside time is a must. I feel better almost as soon as I step out onto the porch. I take the kids to the park or we walk to the store or to a play area. In fact, I almost never drive a car, even though I have one.
I meditate briefly each day and pursue other spiritual practices. My meditation practice consists of repeating a loving mantra several times for several minutes, or just allowing myself to sit still and notice the thoughts that come, then refocus on my “inner body”–the sensations I feel in my hands and feet and breath. I also try to consult my inner guidance on a daily, sometimes hour by hour basis as I consider what to do next, or what decision to make. This helps me greatly. Finally, when a thought comes that is particularly stressful, I journal it, Byron Katie-style. For more information on all of my spiritual practices, see my Spiritual Practice Success Stories and Depression Success Stories on mollieplayer.com.)
I limit my junk food intake. Healthy food tastes good, too. It really does. I don’t limit fat and I focus on protein and vegetables. (I allow myself a few treats, too.)
I have hobbies I truly love: reading, writing, and gardening. The value of having at least one endless project cannot be overstated. I love feeling productive, and all three of these hobbies feels valuable and fun. I get the pleasure of the activity itself, plus the knowledge that I’m doing something worthwhile. If you don’t have a job, at least get a difficult, long-term, highly involved hobby.
I keep my house clean. For me, cleaning is relaxing. It gives me a sense of control and order. I love home organization, too.
I only wear clothes that feel good on my body and that I feel I look good in. This is huge, and took me a long time to learn. I hardly ever wear those “cute” clothes that other people say look good on me. I wear a uniform every day: black pants, a crisp T-shirt and maybe a sweater.
I keep my weight down. For me, feeling bloated causes anxiety. Though I don’t necessarily think extra weight looks bad on other people, I choose to do what it takes to keep my weight down (i.e. diet). For me, the tradeoff is worth it.
I take medication. Does it work? Yeah, a little. This is especially important and helpful in the winter.
I work hard. I stay busy. Staying busy is huge. Huge! The days fly by, and in the evening you can look forward to a TV show or a good book knowing that you did your work for the day already.
I do work I love, namely, writing and being a mom. For people with depression, work enjoyment is even more important than for others. I don’t make a ton of money, but I wouldn’t trade my work lifestyle for anything.
I spend time with good friends several time per week. Ah, friendship. This is a hard one for me. I’m a busy mom, after all. But I fold my friendship time into my mom time with lots of play dates, and once a month we have family friends over for dinner. Such an uplifting experience.
I don’t overschedule my days. I try to take things at my own pace, and the pace of good parenting. If you are prone to anger or anxiety, overscheduling is a huge problem. Though I love to keep busy, I choose projects that I can do at my own pace and on my own schedule. I only schedule one outing per day with the kids, and I make it a life rule to rarely leave the house in the evening. (Family time!)
I try not to yell at anyone. Conflict is such an emotional drain. Most of my relationship difficulties are handled in a calm, low-key manner. I just hate being in a fight.
I prioritize sleep. I don’t have a TV or computer addiction. In fact, addictions of all kinds scare me. I watch TV a few times a week, and go to bed at the same time my kids do. For alone time, I get a babysitter three times per week.
I try to do all the little “shoulds” we all have for ourselves, while also trying not to do too much. It is a balance. Such a tricky, precarious balance. But I’ve found that for me, there’s no way around it.
So, the list is long, I know. Maybe even a bit intimidating. Depression is such a huge, demanding thing.
There are no easy answers. But there are answers. And hey–that’s better than nothing.
Besides, all this self-improvement stuff? It doesn’t just keep my depression at bay. It makes me a better person, too. Most of it is stuff even someone who doesn’t have depression would benefit from. The main difference is that I feel I have no choice. Drop the ball on any two of these, and rough days are ahead. It’s not a self-pity thing; it’s just true.
I do remain hopeful that one day, my depression will be healed entirely. It happened to my dad and many others. Either way, I (mostly) accept myself right where I’m at. This is my life, and it’s a good one.
The first time I read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, I thought it was total crap. Okay, maybe “total crap” is an exaggeration. But definitely impossible, impractical and, worst of all, unpleasant. Not thinking about the future? Just paying attention to the Now? Sounds like the fast track to loserhood.
As a person struggling with depression and using any non-substance-based strategy I could think of to manage it, the advice sounded particularly terrible. I could do without past obsession pretty well–never’ve been much of a grudge-holder. But I needed–depended on–obsessing about my future. The future is when I would have everything I wanted: kids, a house, a great career. My plans for things to come and my determination to work hard towards them were pretty much what I lived for.
Stop thinking about the future? Stop thinking at all? Won’t that take away my hope, my reason for living?
The second time I read The Power of Now, I understood the concept a bit better. Oh, I don’t have to stop thinking entirely. I can think without being neurotic, and with long breaks. That actually sounds pretty cool.
Maybe I’ll try that someday. First, I have stuff to get done.
The third time I read The Power of Now, I finally had a breakthrough. The book taught me how to meditate, and how to absolutely love meditating. And now, it’s one of my very favorite books.
That’s another story, though. For today, we focus on this whole fascinating not-thinking thing, particularly whether or not it can help with depression.
Some people call it no-mind meditation, and I don’t think I’m the only one who’s ever cursed Eckhart Tolle or another teacher for telling her to try it. Being completely “present,” without plans or goals, as Tolle calls it, doesn’t come naturally to us human-types. In fact, it goes against pretty much our entire biology.
We think. We assess. We assume. We make decisions. Sometimes all in less than a single second. It’s one of our strengths and one of our weaknesses. But apparently, we can learn to overcome it.
But do we want to? And if so, how much thinking is the right amount, especially when you’re trying to overcome depression?
There’s no one right answer, but here’s my experience.
Achieving or attempting to achieve the so-called “no-mind” state helps us greatly. It makes us happier. It definitely eliminates depression. The problem: oh my goodness, it takes a lot of time. Unless you’re committed to Buddhist-like meditation sessions on a daily basis, your results may be very slow to come.
I love meditation. I definitely like to take breaks from thought, and when I have obsessive or anxious mind patterns, I realize it’s time to chill a bit. I clear my head by repeating a calming mantra, doing The Work or doing a “brain dump” on paper, and these techniques usually work pretty well.
But soon after that, I’m back to thinking.
And I’m okay with that.
Don’t get me wrong: on a bad day, I could use a lot more of this no-mind stuff. But on a good day, a lot of my thinking isn’t so terrible. It’s not the anxiety-producing stuff we all know is unhealthy. It’s just thinking–just plain old planning, reading, writing and working. Sometimes I even manage pleasant, pointless pondering. Today, for instance, I found myself lost in contemplation about the economics of private dentistry practice. Important? Not really. Interesting? Just a bit. Stressful? Well, not to me. On a good day, a lot of my thinking is like that. It’s not particularly harmful, or particularly anything.
It’s just thinking.
Of course, I also do the did-I-say-something-wrong what-does-she-think-of-me-now type stuff. But when I catch it, I’m often able to refocus pretty well.
One fine day, I’d love to experience the state of no-thought Tolle talks about. But I don’t plan to meditate for thirty years to get there.
Final thought: I’ve read all of Tolle’s books, and I couldn’t recommend them more highly. But I’ve also listened to the audio recordings of many of his conferences, and I can’t say the same. At the beginning of each, he makes a statement to the effect of, “I didn’t plan what I’m going to say today at all.” Yeah, Tolle, I get it; you’re inspired, “in the flow.” The words don’t matter as much as the spiritual energy you impart. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless, and it doesn’t mean thinking and planning is useless. Your conference speeches could do with a tad more forethought. (But you’re wonderful anyway, and thank you, thank you, thank you.)
I love advice. Love getting it. Love giving it. But there’s a problem with advice: We often don’t take it. And usually, it isn’t because we don’t want to, or don’t intend to. Usually, it’s because we forget.
Think about it: How many times have you read a parenting book or a marriage book, then followed its suggestions to the letter—for about a week? After that, our resolve blurs. We focus on other things, and our best intentions move into our peripheral vision, or even into the background.
Which is where my resolution solution comes in.
Often, when there’s something about my life I’d like to change, I first write down all of my related goals. The process of writing and thinking them through clarifies my intentions and makes my lessons more concrete and practical. It also stores them in my subconscious.
Nothing revolutionary so far. Here comes the real trick: I set the list of resolutions aside. A list that long does me no good; there’s no way I’m going to reread them every day. I put them in a place easily remembered and located later, when I’m struggling to carry them out—in my case, in a special file on my computer. Then I distill down the resolutions into a few concrete actions—just one or two. And I add them to my Monthly Checklist. I give myself an X every time I complete one of the actions, and by month’s end, I can see and appreciate my progress.
My Monthly Checklist isn’t your ordinary checklist. It’s an ongoing to-do list, one that incorporates all–and I do mean all–of my personal and professional goals, including writing, parenting, educational, marriage, exercise, spiritual, friendship goals and more. (Yeah—my checklist is really, really long.)
So maybe it’s corny. But it works; I swear it does. The checklist keeps me accountable, and reminds me of what I am working towards.
My goals don’t live in the back of my mind somewhere anymore. They live with me, and I interact with them several times each week.
Here is a partial example of my list. This one is from December of last year:
One day of meditation: 30x –
One glass of water drank: 30x –
One exercise session: 20x –
One reading time with kids: 10x –
One family chore time: 4x –
One TV show or total break time: 4x –
One random act of kindness: 4x –
One podcast or audiobook for kids: 2x –
One hour of educational music for kids: 2x –
One dinner with friends: 1x –
One family meeting: 1x –
My Monthly Checklist is my secret weapon. Seriously.
Mollie: I want to talk to you about a huge topic, depression. So many people experience this, some for many years. I have struggled with it my entire remembered life, and am currently seeking total recovery. My first question is, what is depression, exactly? What causes it?
Anonymous: Depression is caused by pushing down your energy, suppressing it.
Mollie: What is the primary technique you recommend for overcoming depression?
Anonymous: Meditation is essential. The kind I practice is dynamic meditation, which incorporates physical activity and helps us expand our energy. This expansion and release can help with depression.
Mollie: Some people say it helps to welcome the depression, to allow it rather than to fight against it. What do you think? Does this work? Or should I just ignore it, not give it a voice? For me, it always seems to get worse when I focus on it, but maybe I need to do so anyway as a first step towards acceptance?
Anonymous: Don’t suppress it. Give it a voice, but don’t give the labels and thoughts that accompany it a voice.
Mollie: So I should meditate on the depression?
Anonymous: Don’t meditate on depression. Meditate on what we call depression–the physical and other sensations you are experiencing in that moment–without labeling it. Don’t make it into something. Don’t put mind on it. The mind is creating the depression, and the mind is trying to get rid of it? No. That can never work.
There’s a saying I like: Not knowing is the most intimate.
Mollie: So do you think that if I do what you’re saying to do–meditate on the primary feeling of the depression, without suppressing it–that I will eventually overcome the depression?
Anonymous: I believe that this and active meditation can help people in your situation. But ultimately you need to do what works for you.
Meditation teacher Osho once said, “If you don’t feel much better after having meditated regularly for a time than you did when you started, your meditation practice isn’t working.” When I heard that I remember thinking, “What do you mean? Of course my technique is working. I feel better–a bit.” Later I understood what he meant.
Don’t stick with a practice for thirty years hoping that one day you will start feeling what you want to feel. Try something else.
Mollie: What if I can’t find something that works? Should I just accept that I am a depressed person right now, and make peace with it? Sometimes I’m able to do that.
Anonymous: I would tell you to work toward true acceptance, which comes when you disidentify with the mind. Not mere acquiescence.
Acquiescence is not acceptance. Acceptance is open arms. A full embrace. It is the knowledge that this condition or situation is an absolutely essential part of your healing. If your life was totally working the way it is right now, you wouldn’t be seeking the way you are right now.
Nothing fails like success.
Mollie: So, this disidentifying with the mind stuff. Can you tell me more about that?
Anonymous: The mind is an optical illusion. It feels like there’s a thinker, a mind, but really there are just thoughts. The mind is not real. You are real.
Mollie: What does it feel like to lose your mind identification?
Anonymous: It feels like you’re floating. You’re not pushing, you’re not pulling. But as long as you’re identified with the mind you are not floating. You are pushing and pulling.
Mollie: So the mind is this huge, powerful force that works against our emotional well-being nearly every moment of our waking lives. This just seems seriously unfair. Why does it have to be this way? Why does life have to be so full of pain?
Anonymous: Because it is. And so, you have two choices. You can choose to be a victim. Or you can choose not to be. You can believe that life is working against you. Or you can believe that you are just unconscious, and the Universe is doing everything it can every single day to wake you up.
Just before he turned five, my son wrote a story. And it was the saddest thing ever. As he finished it and I was scribbling it down, all I could think was, “Oh, my goodness. What is this kid picking up from me?” Here is that story:
“The first thing that happens is there’s alive vacuums and they bang and crush until they’re dead in heaven and then they knew to be not alive vacuums that are really alive vacuums. The end. (They just pretend that they’re not alive by closing their eyes and popping their arms in them.)”
“Oh, and put the title on it,” he reminded me.
“Okay. What’s the title?”
“Alive Vacuums Hurt.”
Wow, I thought. Alive vacuums hurt. Am I alive? Or am I pretending not to hurt, too?
During childhood, I was definitely alive. I cried all the time. These days, though, not so much. It’s a rare thing for me to cry even a little. I wish I wasn’t like this, but I am.
Which is probably why I loved the book Love Warrior: A Memoir by Glennon Doyle so much: it gave me an outlet for emotion. It’s about blogger Doyle’s marital difficulties as well as how she overcame addiction. But Doyle doesn’t just tell her story. She emotes it. She gives us the raw, even gory, details, scene by painful scene, till your own personal sadness surfaces to keep hers company.
I felt a lot of things while reading Doyle’s book. But mostly I felt inspired to feel more.
I don’t want to be an alive vacuum pretending to be a dead vacuum. I don’t want to be afraid of my feelings.
Here are a few passages from the book that were especially helpful to me:
“My mom’s voice quivers as she and my dad ask the usual questions: Why do you keep doing this to us? Why do you keep lying? Do you even love us? I sit on the couch and I try to receive their questions, but I’m a catcher without a mitt. My face is neutral, but the part of my heart that’s not spoiled is aching. I do love them. I love them and I love my sister and I love my friends. I think I love my people more than normal people love their people. My love is so overwhelming and terrifying and uncomfortable and complicated that I need to hide from it. Life and love simply ask too much of me. Everything hurts. I don’t know how people can just let it all hurt so much. I am just not up for all this hurting.”
“I sit and stare at my hands and I remember a story I saw on the news about a woman who had a stroke and lost all her language overnight. When she woke up, her mind functioned perfectly, but she couldn’t speak. So she just lay there and tried to use her eyes to communicate her terror about being trapped inside herself. Her family couldn’t translate what her eyes were saying. They thought she was brain-dead. It’s like that for me, too. I’m in here. I am good on the inside. I have things to say. I need help getting out. I do love you. My secret is that I’m good in here. I am not heart-dead. This is a secret that no one knows but me.”
“We begin to understand that to coparent is to one day look up and notice that you are on a roller coaster with another human being. You are in the same car, strapped down side by side and you can never, ever get off. There will never be another moment in your lives when your hearts don’t rise and fall together, when your minds don’t race and panic together, when your stomachs don’t churn in tandem, when you stop seeing huge hills emerge in the distance and simultaneously grab the side of the car and hold on tight. No one except for the one strapped down beside you will ever understand the particular thrills and terrors of your ride.”
“As we walk out into the sun, Craig says, ‘Is it going to be okay? He’s going to be okay, right?’ I look at him and understand that when your coaster partner gets scared you must quickly hide your own fear. You can’t panic at the same time. You must take turns. I grab Craig’s arm, hold tight, and say, ‘Yes. Absolutely. It’s all going to be okay. He is going to be amazing. This is just part of our ride.’”
“I tell them that I’m finally proud of who I am. I understand now that I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often—because I’m paying attention.’ I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide. If we choose to be perfect and admired, we must send our representatives out to live our lives. If we choose to be real and loved, we must send out our true, tender selves.”
“I’d been angry and ashamed because my marriage was so far from perfect. But perfect just means: works exactly the way it is designed to work. If marriage is an institution designed to nurture the growth of two people—then, in our own broken way, our marriage is perfect.”
Contributor: Gary Leigh. Gary offers energy cleansing, past life therapy, Bach Flower Remedies and more. Visit him over at psychicsupport.net.
When I was around nine years old, I began to hear thoughts in my mind that were talking independently. I would have conversations with them and eventually they got to the point where they would talk full-time. I don’t recall what was said now, but I do remember there were a lot of them and that they all became overwhelming.
As you can imagine, I assumed I was making this all up and it was just in my imagination.
Then around age eleven, I started to feel what I can only describe as a clawing sensation in my mind. It’s a very difficult thing to put into words, but it was highly unpleasant. It felt like something was trying to take me over. Not so much possess me, but eradicate my being.
Every day this would grow stronger until I was constantly engaged in my own hidden, private battle. As I could not really explain what was going on, I never told anyone around me until one night, when I was thirteen, I was staying with my mother at a friend’s place. I told her what was going on and instead of dismissing it as rubbish, she took it seriously. She had no answers, though.
But a month later, we went to visit these people who also happened to be Jehovah Witnesses. One night, she told them what I had told her, and the next day, they sat me down and told me that Satan was trying to get my soul and I needed to ask God for help.
So I began to do that and the attacks would stop for a short while, only to return a little stronger. So many times a day, I would say, “God help me, Satan be gone.”
In the meantime, I would carry on with my life as normal, and no one ever knew what I was battling. Over the years, I started to become weary and at the same time, more persistent with fighting Satan and attacking him back as best I could.
It was an ever-perpetuating circle and I was losing. Eventually, at age twenty, I had an epiphany that if fighting Satan with hate made him stronger, then maybe love would have the opposite effect. So I said to him in my mind, “You can join me, but only in love.” Then I sent him thoughts of love, compassion and peace.
The change was instant. The attacks stopped immediately, never to return–something I had never imagined was possible. At first I was cautious, just in case they returned, but instead of my old mantra of “God help me and Satan be gone,” my new one was a constant “Love and peace, love and peace.”
And that’s when my spiritual journey really started to take off.
Incidentally, this is a perfect example of the saying “What you resist, persists and what you look at and make your own disappears.”
What began after that was years of spiritual study and pursuit. I read everything I could find for answers to how the Universe worked, but true information was limited back in the 80s. Still, I slowly began to piece it all together. It took decades before I finally started to really remember who I was and why I was here and most importantly, why those attacks had happened.
Today, I practice sending love out daily. It’s a state of being now. It’s a message I’ve been trying to get out there for a long time. Especially for those so called spiritual warriors who believe that attacking and destroying the darkness is the answer. It’s not. You’re just feeding them a feast.
But love is only one part of the solution, which is why it doesn’t always produce the serenity that you desire. You also have to heal from past traumas and shift your perspectives.
True love is unconditional. It’s not judging others. It’s being there for all regardless of who they are. It’s compassion, healing and caring. But that does not mean you allow others to use, abuse or attack you. It’s standing in your own power and healing the lines that cause the attacks to begin with.
P.S. I can often do in a session or two what others tell me they have not been able to achieve in years of therapy. I heal the soul rather than treating the symptoms. If you would like to learn more about my services, visit psychicsupport.net. For full details of my journey and experiences, visit thephoenixarchives.com.
Contributor: Author Leta Hamilton, whose books include The Way of the Toddler and a four-book series called 100 Daily Messages.
Mollie: Tell me what your definition of meditation is—just your own. (Don’t cheat.)
Leta: Breathing with presence and awareness of breath. Breathing intentionally. Breathing and knowing that you are breathing. Breathing in and out with a mindfulness about the breath. Then, as you move through your day, things come and go and you are present to them. Life becomes a walking meditation.
Mollie: Describe for me your meditation practice.
Leta: I do a sitting meditation of five minutes a day where I am just sitting and breathing. Sometimes it lasts longer, but it’s always at least five minutes. Then I go back to my breath at all times of the day. I am praying consistently throughout the day. Not a prayer for something, just prayer. Life as a prayer. Life as a meditation. I pray peace, as my being-ness in the world. I pray in my heart with the mantra God, God, God. I say, “This—this—this is God.” I love what is and if I don’t love something, I watch myself as the observer and notice that I am not loving it and I love that I am not loving it. I step back and watch myself be in a situation and I love that.
Mollie: What might you tell a new meditator to help them through the first part of the learning process?
Leta: Breathe. Breath is so important. Just listening to yourself breathe in and out, in and out, in and out. That is enough. Five minutes of just breathing. Then, notice your breath throughout the day. Always go back to the breath. Remember to breathe consciously, mindfully and with presence. When you think of it, breathe. At all times of the day, remember to take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. You are breathing, breathing, breathing and suddenly, life becomes the meditation. Meditation and prayer come together in harmony because you are no longer praying as a plea for something to change, you are being the prayer.
Mollie: How long have you been practicing meditation?
Leta: Meditation has been in my life since my second child was six months old and my first was three and a half. That is about eight years. We used to walk William to his preschool and I would go walking with Oliver after drop off. He usually slept in his buggy and I would sit on a bench outside if the weather was decent or roll him into the apartment and sit on the couch if the weather was bad.
I would just sit and breathe. I continued with this practice when we moved into our new house and began to make a habit of getting up in the early morning hours before the children awoke. I sit on the couch and I just breathe.
If I don’t get up before the kids, I will look for another opportunity in the day to sit and breathe for five minutes.
Mollie: Have you had any unusual experiences during meditation?
Leta: After I’d been meditating for a year or so “religiously” (every day), and while I was reading The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda, I had a very profound personal experience where I felt a presence in the room with me as I meditated. I cannot explain it other than to say that it felt real. Though I could not prove it was there, or point to any evidence of its existence, I felt the presence of another being in that room as clearly as I felt the presence of my own body.
This presence stayed with me—strongly—for a full week. After that week, it went away, but soon after that another “outside of me” thought came into my consciousness while I was meditating: to go to the computer and type in the word “Michael.” I did so, and onto the screen came a dozen or more images of Archangel Michael. At that moment a voice over my right shoulder said, “Leta, this is Archangel Michael and I have come to work with you.”
I did exclusive work with Archangel Michael for some time and then, while driving home one day from a meeting with a friend, I heard, “Leta, this is Gabriel and you are also working with me now.”
I cannot explain these experiences rationally. They are not rational. Yet to me, they are as real as the experiences of giving birth to my children. They opened up a new path of expansion for me.
Since then I’ve had other experiences that are not rational, either, but are also real. One night, for example, I was awoken in the middle of the night by my husband, who was looking towards the ceiling of our bedroom and saying, “What the hell!” When I looked up, I saw a geometric figure of light that was directly on top of us. It had patterns and intricacy that was beyond a moon shadow. He got up and went to the bathroom, and the light went across the ceiling and out the window. I said, “I saw it too,” but we never spoke of it again. This was the beginning of another “opening” to other dimensions and ways of communicating with non-physical realities.
Another experience: Once, I was in the car and out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a child. I thought it was one of my children hiding in the backseat and I called out to them. However, when I looked behind me, nothing was there except the invisible presence of something.
“Okay. Who is here with me?” I asked.
The answer came in the form of a light being I can only reference as an elf. It sounds crazy. However, to me, it was as real as if I’d gone to Middle Earth and met the Elfin Kingdom itself! I sat there in the car and had a conversation with this elf who was telling me that I was now open to receiving messages from the elemental light beings who reside on this planet in non-physical form.
I have conversations with trees that are real. They talk to me and tell me what is up with my life from the perspective of a tree, which is a very long perspective considering how long trees live. I have also been visited by the trees in meditation and taken on journeys that expand lifetimes.
Mollie: Have you ever been healed, bodily or otherwise, during meditation?
Leta: Through meditation, I have been able to receive the lessons my body parts want to teach me. I also have been expanded so dramatically that I can now communicate with angels and light beings throughout the cosmos and consciously extend my energy out in all directions and to every corner of the Universe.
Due to meditation, my inner world is just as exciting as the outer experiences of my manifested reality in form. I cannot say that everyone will have my experiences if they meditate, but I can say that what you are opened up to through meditation is so interesting, so mind-blowing and so much fun that it becomes your joy to be with yourself.
How many people can say they are truly in love with who they are? I am. I believe that the greatest healing this planet can experience is the healing of Self-Love. I love myself more than I ever thought possible. I also love what is. And that, in itself, is a great healing for the planet.
Mollie: What are your spiritual beliefs? Are they grouped together as a recognized belief system of any kind?
Leta: Put simply, All That Is is spiritual.
I believe in the sacredness of the dirty diapers and the dirty laundry as well as that of the holy ceremony. I believe that if anything, the dirty laundry is more sacred than the holy ceremony because there is no pretention in it; it just is. Laundry is laundry. How you perceive the task of doing the laundry is either awakened to its beauty, its enlightened nature, its perfection, or not.
There is no established belief system or religion to which I subscribe. I am not Christian. I am not Buddhist. I am not Hindu or Muslim. I am the one who believes in the sacredness of dirty diapers and dirty laundry. I am the one who believes in heaven right here, right now, from the inside out. I am the one who works diligently to remove all beliefs so I am left with nothing—the great nothingness of my being. I am the one who examines my beliefs, my stories, and removes them one by one until I am left with only what is.
I am not here for people. I am not here to be anything to anyone. I am not here for my kids. They come for me, so I may learn from them, but I am not here for them. I nurture them to adulthood, but they don’t rely on me for anything, cosmically speaking.
I am here only for the earth. I am here to raise her vibration, to bring her peace, to place her at a higher vibration in the galaxy and beyond. I am here to be a peacemaker for the earth. If that helps humankind as well, it is a blessed byproduct. First and foremost, I bring peace to my Self so the earth may be more peaceful and thus raise its own vibration, one human loving him or her Self at a time.
Mollie: What’s the best thing about meditation for you?
Leta: I have enjoyed making meditation and contemplation the way I am in the world. I exist with my family and do all the usual mom things, but at the same time I’m never more than a breath away from a wonderful lightning bolt, an “ah-ha” moment where I suddenly understand something about humanity or the people around me or the universe in a way that was mysterious a moment before. It is fun!
Mollie: We all talk about meditation as if it’s a similar experience for all. And we now know that the same regions of our brain are activated no matter which practice we use. What do you think: how close is what one person calls being “in touch with God” to the feeling experience another has of mere “rest and relaxation”?
Leta: Being in touch with God is being aware of the active, vital force within the Self—the electricity charge that animates the Self. It’s what is “behind” the manifested personality and the persona you call “you” in a conventional setting. I am alternatively relaxed, rested, overwhelmed, calm, angry, loving and all the other emotions of the human, life-on-earth experience, but none of them touch my trust and faith in the God that is always present in me as a living force.
For me, God is not a belief or an idea or a concept. It is a vibrating Life Force that I feel real-ly, as a real experience. It is like the Chi of Taoism. That is the only way I know how to come close to describing it. Images of God from my childhood of the man in a robe with a big white beard are nothing next to this force, which is faceless, formless, timeless and infinitely expansive. It is like I have electricity running through me all the time and it makes me feel very much a part of the cosmos—no matter what may be going on in the world around me (think: laundry, dirty dishes and chaos!).
Mollie: What about when you’re depressed or angry or a bad mood? Does meditation still help you feel better? How often does it help you get out of your rut? How often does it fail to do so?
Leta: I rarely feel that I am in a bad mood these days, but that does happen sometimes. Then, meditation does make me feel better. I notice the bad mood and am grateful for the feeling of being in a bad mood. I remind myself that it is only the biggest and best blessing a person could ever have! Through all of these different feelings and emotions, I am given the opportunity to love God more, to experience the life force that is within me even more broadly and to expand into new understandings I didn’t have before. I am grateful for all of it. There is always another night’s sleep to come my way and a fresh start in the morning. I always have the opportunity to see myself from a deeper perspective and observe what is going on as I am angry, grumpy or whatever. I can notice at any moment how I am feeling and honor that immediately. When I am frustrated, I am lucky to have that emotion! All of it is a great blessing and I am grateful to be alive.
Mollie: How often does meditation feel good in the moment? How often are you itching to get out of the chair?
Leta: Meditation feels good all of the time, as does contemplation. Contemplation is a way of pondering through your day seeking greater understanding of all things around you. It is a way of going through life with a sense of humility so you are always ready to learn and expand. Humility is a great force because it gives you the space to learn and grow. What you discover is beyond explanation. It is bliss, pure and simple.
Mollie: What makes you continue to meditate?
Leta: Connecting to God, this life force I have described above, keeps me meditating and contemplating every day. I love how I feel inside. I love that in a moment I can go from “AAAAAHHHH!” (think: four boys all complaining about something at the same time, a house that was clean two minutes ago and is now a disaster, a dog that is barking, a husband who is not feeling well and a thousand other things that could be considered “my day”) to “I love you God. I’m so grateful. Thank you.”
Gratitude is always just a breath away. That is a really great feeling. I am beautifully blessed. There isn’t a lot else to it. It is incredibly difficult to describe. I don’t know if I have done it very well. I experience all the things that all humans experience, but I have a relationship with the inner divinity of Life (I call it God) that is hard to describe, but incredibly rewarding and incomprehensibly blissful.
Mollie: Is there anything else you would like to communicate to the reader?
Leta: I would want people to know that humility and surrender are great and powerful forces. They allow us to be moved in life to new vistas that are more glorious than anything we could have imagined. They allow life to work its magic on us. They create space for joy in IS-ness. They make the things we don’t like seem like gifts (and gifts they are). They give us room to unwrap the gift and see it for the beautiful thing it is. They keep us on our toes, looking for new understandings, broadened perspectives and inner growth. They enable us to go from, “I don’t understand this!” to “Oh, yeah, I totally get that” in about a millisecond (once we are practiced at it). I count humility and surrender as my very best friends in the non-physical realms. They make me laugh, cry good tears when I need them and have fun in life. So. Much. Fun!
I’ll give you an example. After I read over this interview to give my final approval before publication, I realized that I sound like a crazy person! I’d put myself in a hospital for deranged people if I weren’t so functioning and normal in every other way! Even though the things I wrote are true for my experience, I feel very exposed in the re-reading of them.
So, I come back to surrender. I come back to knowing that these feelings of vulnerability are perfect. It is a perfectly normal thing to feel outside of one’s comfort zone as you go into new places in your inner journey. These feelings are okay. I am allowing this interview to be whatever it is meant to be, whatever will serve the highest good, despite some complicated emotions about it and my feeling of lack of control. This is surrender. This is humility.
Contributor: Anthony Amrhein. Anthony became a trained New Thought minister, then served at the Center for Spiritual Living and the Beloved Community of Spiritual Peace Makers. He earned a degree in psychology and gained thirty years’ experience in the field of substance abuse counseling. Finally, he studied under enlightened master Gesshin Myoko, Master of Sound Yogi Russill Paul, Vipassana master S.N. Goenka, and Zen master Dae Gak, traveling often throughout the United States, India, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Costa Rica on his quest to experience the truth. Here is the interview we did for my book, The Power of Acceptance.
Mollie: What are your spiritual beliefs? Are they grouped together as a recognized belief system of any kind?
Anthony: No. I do not have a belief system. I relate most closely with the “crazy wisdom” of Zen. I call my meditation practice “the un-meditation”. For me, true religion is like a cheesecake. And the various religions are like the toppings on the cake. But no matter what the topping, when you bite down into the center of it, it tastes like cheesecake.
Mollie: How long have you been practicing meditation?
Anthony: I learned zazen from Gesshin Myoko in 1977 or 1978 and, over the following three years, practiced daily for weeks at a time. I would falter for weeks at a time as well until 1987. Since then I have been practicing zazen daily. I have also experimented with over 130 different types of “formal” meditation practices. Since they all produce the same result, I always return to zazen.
Mollie: What made you continue to meditate after the experience in 1978?
Anthony: My ego would not let me quit. At the time, I wanted to be enlightened for all the “wrong” reasons. What I got instead of that enlightenment was “nothing” other than peace and a lot of laughs.
Mollie: Tell me what your definition of meditation is—just your own. (Don’t cheat.)
Anthony: The word “meditation” is so loaded with preconceived ideas that I rarely use it. If I had to define it, I’d say this: Meditation is nothing more than sitting still and taking a good look at how the mind operates. In silence without the distraction of body movement it becomes easier and easier to see how emotions, desires and ignorance arise. Just a glimpse into the nature of the mind reveals that the mind is a conditioned phenomenon that operates in a series repetitive loops regardless of whether your true nature is watching or not. Your true nature cannot control these thoughts nor can these thoughts control your true nature. Thus these thoughts dissolve without attention and one’s life can change completely. Thoughts are chaotic but the space in which they occur is imperturbable joy and peace. That is just the way it is. Everything turns upside down. What was once interpreted as excruciating psychological pain can become quite beautiful when fully allowed to move within this space.
Mollie: Describe your meditation practice. Do you focus on a thought or image, or just not think at all?
Anthony: I just sit still. It’s the practice of allowing what is … whether beautiful or not, whether blissful or not.
Mollie: Is there a learning process to meditation?
Anthony: Not in the sense that you acquire something. My view is that it is more about letting go of the many conceptions we are addicted to rather than about acquiring some special skill. Simultaneously it is also a learning process in that we learn to trust what is and let go of any attachment to the idea that any person, place, or thing could be permanent. When the mind is still it becomes undeniably clear that our ground of being is fluid and moves. It is not something concrete or solid. I believe that is the significance of Jesus walking on the water. It was a demonstration of the fluid nature of our ground of being.
Mollie: Have you ever experienced a healing through meditation–bodily or otherwise? Can you tell me about it?
Anthony: Yes. I have been healed from a lot of drama. One day I decided to read the Bible. When I got to the ten commandments I realized I hadn’t disobeyed them in ages, but not because I had awakened and become a saint. It was because the drama wasn’t worth the momentary pleasure.
For me, it is as though the future and the present are the same. They occur simultaneously for me. This true of all things including financial prosperity. Because of this conviction, I experience the consequences of my actions in the Now.
My future is real. The only thing missing is time.
Mollie: How often does meditation feel good in the moment? How often are you itching to get out of the chair?
Anthony: It is very rare that I experience either feeling during meditation. For me, the whole practice is about not superimposing any value judgments upon what is.
Mollie: What about when you’re depressed or angry or a bad mood? Does meditation still help you feel better? How often does it help you get out of your rut? How often does it fail to do so?
Anthony: Depression, anger and bad moods are valid sensations in my book. I sense that all enlightened masters have these physical-plane experiences. The difference is in their impermanence.
When an enlightened master gets angry, it’s like when a dog barks at the mailman. As soon as the mailman turns the corner the dog immediately goes back to chewing its bone without a second thought.
From my perspective, so-called negative experiences should be welcomed like old friends. We need to take very good care of these sensations like they are small children and experience them fully without resistance. Then these physical sensations dissolve all by themselves, seemingly through no effort of our own. But we have to learn to just sit with them, whatever “they” are.
Mollie: We sometimes talk about meditation as if it’s a similar experience for all. And we now know that the same regions of our brain are activated no matter which practice we use. What do you think: how close is what one person calls being “in touch with God” to the feeling experience another has of mere “rest and relaxation”?
Anthony: Well, I think these are probably both just irrelevant delusions. I once had a very real vision of Buddha. I was very excited and could not wait to tell Gesshin Myoko. She listened very attentively and laughed quite a bit. When I was finished telling my story she looked me straight in the eye and with deep sincerity and slightly sad concern said “Don’t worry. That will probably never happen again.” Then she burst out laughing.
I was so upset. I thought for sure having a vision of Buddha meant I was totally enlightened.
Mollie: What’s the best thing about meditation for you?
Anthony: This one is going to sound odd. It’s the discipline. There are benefits to doing at least one “formal” good thing for oneself on a daily basis that are ineffable.
What is your ultimate life goal?
Anthony: My ultimate life goal is to enjoy free time with the people I love. So I measure wealth and success in terms of free time rather than money or possessions.
Mollie: What is the goal of your meditation practice?
Anthony: That’s an easy one. There is no goal. I call it the un-meditation. There is nothing to gain but there is something to lose. The sensation of fear, for example, has completely disappeared from my body. But that was not a goal. It was a side effect. So when I sit I have no expectation. For me, meditation is nothing more than the daily discipline of knowing I did something good for myself. Meditation is simply a process of tapping into and paying attention to “what is” and experiencing the subtlest sensation of “what is” that the human body is capable of in this particular moment. And sometimes “what is” is not particularly pleasant. But that is irrelevant. What is important is to just sit with it. In many ways meditation is more like coming home to the body after having had a long day dream about somewhere else.
Mollie: Why don’t more people meditate?
Anthony: Without some sort of disciplined practice people cannot stand witnessing what their mind is actually thinking and doing. It is out of control. The average person finds lack of control very irritating.
Interestingly, the discipline does not have to be meditation. It could be dance, aikido, tai chi, yoga, baseball … just about anything. However, one has to find and practice their one thing. After about five years everything else falls into place seemingly through no effort of their own. It takes about five weeks of sitting meditation every day for twenty minutes a day to begin to see the beginnings of profound changes in one’s attitude and outlook on life.
Mollie: What is one of your so-called “success stories” regarding meditation?
Anthony: I’ve had so many, all completely different yet somehow all the same. A common denominator is that at the time I was experiencing the “divine” or “inexplicable” they seemed completely ordinary. I noticed nothing special until after the experience was over. I was completely incapable of forming any sort of reflective judgment what so ever because “what is” had my undivided awareness.
An example: I was sitting on a beach in Costa Rica. Behind me was an infinity of forest. The waves were gently lapping. Suddenly the thought occurred to me “God, haven’t I done everything you asked for twelve years now? Why can’t you let me repeat the bliss of my very first spiritual experience?” I was counting on God’s grace, but nothing happened.
Somewhat disappointed but also resigned and accepting, I stood up and began to walk. I looked down at my watch to see how many minutes of meditation I had “banked” into my spiritual war chest. (Are you hearing the subtle arrogance in all of this?) It was then I noticed my watch had stopped.
I began walking into the woods. As I did so, I found I could hear different creatures and miraculously locate them in space. Not only was my sense of hearing heightened, I saw more than the usual eight to ten shades of green. I felt I could literally see thousands of different shades of green so that the defensive camouflage of the insects and animals was no longer effective. I could easily see everything naked where it stood. But it all seemed perfectly normal. Everything was just being itself.
On that trip I was showing my aunt and uncle around Costa Rica. This heightened awareness experience lasted another three weeks. We had conversations that were typical yet somehow profoundly intimate. Everything just flowed. My uncle who is a self-made man and slightly on the crass side was overwhelmingly gentle and kind to both me and my aunt. It was as though he felt heard for the first time, if that makes any sense. Everything had a spontaneous yet purpose-filled sensation within it. Even the rocks felt alive. The trees were treeing, the waves were waving, the rocks were rocking and so on.
Then, it happened. We were headed back home. First we drove down the sandy beach road. Then we drove down the bumpy gravel road. Then we hit the pavement. Then we crossed the bay on a two and a half-hour car ferry. Then we stopped at the first light. Nothing yet. I was still in “flow-bliss.” Then we came to the second light. While waiting for it, it suddenly occurred to me that I am a business owner and I had important things to do when I got home. That was my first reflective thought involving the perception of future time and immediately I felt it enter my body. It was the physical sensation of fear. Almost immediately I realized I had been in the Zen Zone for the past three weeks and was amazed. It was my first thought of the past. Suddenly I had left the eternal and was back in the tyranny of time. I was “re-burdened” with the foolish concerns of the ego.
Believe it or not, almost exactly one year later I was sitting on that same beach when my watched stopped again, and again I fell into the bliss state. As before, I did not recognize I’d been in it until it ended with the idea of “I am important.”
Contributor: Evan Griffith, author or Burn, Baby, Burn: Spark the Creative Spirit Within.
Mollie: How long have you been practicing meditation? What was your first experience of meditation like?
Evan: In my teens in the ‘70s, my very conservative yet searching Christian mom brought me to a yoga class that ended with meditation. Later in high school and college I sporadically experimented with meditation. By my senior year I became so enamored with the possibilities that I created an independent study course in Human Potential with a friend—approved by the college!—that focused heavily on exploring different types of meditation, yoga, guided imagery, affirmations, New Thought books, sleep experiments and more. It sounds so normal now, but it felt daring at the time, a little less than four decades ago.
The most memorable early meditation I can recall was with a candle—simply focusing on the flickering flame. We were high so it really doesn’t count. But it intrigued me enough to want to try it in a normal state of mind. Once I did so, mind-altering substances utterly lost their appeal. To me it was the difference between a sloppy beer-party tryst and falling in love. Deep, life-long, love.
Mollie: What made you continue to meditate?
Evan: From my earliest meditation attempts in college, I took to it right away. Even while experimenting with different forms of meditation, I felt profoundly at home in the process. From then on, meditation was a part of my life—though I didn’t develop an ironclad daily meditation process until many years later, after an intense spiritual experience.
Mollie: Have you ever experienced a healing through meditation, bodily or otherwise? Can you tell me about it?
Evan: I’ve experienced many healings that I associate with meditation—bodily, financially, creatively, relationally. I even credit it with helping me find my life partner.
The first time I realized meditation could be used for healing was while reading a magazine. I think it was a yoga magazine, or Oprah’s magazine—something with a cool spiritual slant. There was a brief article about how meditators could stop headaches.
Immediately, I sat up a little straighter.
I’m a meditator! I thought. Why can’t I do this?
I decided to try their simple process: After my first inkling that a headache was coming on, I stopped everything and got into a meditative space. After going deeply into my meditation, I brought my conscious awareness into, rather than away from, the point of pain. Then I visualized conduits and pipes running through the area of pain with pressure building up in them. Then I imagined myself turning a valve to off gas the pressure, releasing the tension, releasing the pain.
The very first time I tried this, it worked! Maybe only a month or two into experimenting with this game I never had a headache again.
Techniques like these are counterintuitive. We’re always shrinking from pain. We unconsciously tighten up around the pain points, in an attempt to block them. But meditators—people with sufficient practice accessing that deep state of consciousness where reality plays out fluidly within the body-mind—can transform the pain with their focus.
Incidentally, I’ve described this process to a number of people over the years. I’ve never seen it work for a non-meditator.
Regarding other types of bodily healing, years ago I settled into a simple pattern whenever I would feel some kind of distress coming on: At the earliest opportunity I would drop into meditation and bathe the area with love and healing. Then that night before falling asleep, sitting in bed, I’d drop into meditation again. At the end of my usual meditation practice I would envision healing … and then fast-forward to the morning. I’d see myself waking up and feeling wonderful—amazing—having almost forgotten that I even had an issue. Then I’d see myself remembering the issue and smiling, thinking to myself, Oh yeah, that’s gone. Love that process. I love how things work out so freaking well when I set the intention deeply.
With this, I’d lie down and drift off to sleep.
This process has worked astoundingly well for me, to the point where I can go years without getting sick. It’s only when I get cocky about it and don’t go as earnestly deep in my visualization that I seem to have issues.
Mollie: What is meditation to you?
Evan: Single-pointed stillness. More specifically: An enveloping shift sparked by single-pointed attention in silent stillness. You start with you and your little mind silent and focused, and when it goes well you spring through a cosmic bliss portal.
Mollie: Describe for me your meditation practice. Do you focus on a thought or image, or just not think at all?
Evan: My favorite practice is what I call “love zazen.” In zazen you sit comfortably and attentively. As thoughts come, you notice them, then let them go.
My method is similar: First, you sit quietly and comfortably, engendering a feeling of love or appreciation in yourself. This becomes quite easy once you get the hang of it. If you’re having difficulty with it, though, conjure up someone you adore. Or something you relish doing. Or a favorite place, a treasured memory, or an experience charged with affection. Focus on that person or experience until you feel washed in appreciation or love. Then focus on the sensation, and let go of the image that sparked it.
Next, begin to observe your thoughts. One by one, notice them, then consciously fill them with the love you’re feeling. Often thoughts of things you’re keenly grateful for will come up. Love and appreciate them. If a thought about some difficulty in your life arises, let your loving appreciation sensation surround it, too. Find something to appreciate about that difficulty. Appreciate the hell out of it! As you do this, whatever rises up in your thoughts will whisper away, and you’ll be left with just the loving appreciation sensation.
I swear by the moons of Jupiter that I’ve resolved more issues this way than by any other method. If I miss a day of this practice, I miss it in the way you miss a person; I’m actually sad about it.
Another favorite meditation of mine is a listening meditation—simply sitting comfortably erect, and listening. You become attentive to the sounds surrounding you, as well as the sounds and feelings within you. If you’re out in nature you might hear a brook, birds, a dog barking, squirrels skittering along tree branches, wind picking up and dying down, blowing through and around what surrounds you. If you’re in a more urban environment, you’ll hear cars and people and snatches of conversation. You’ll hear sirens or music or doors or creaking. I’ve practiced this in New York City on Ninth Avenue with jackhammers going—it still works. After a while you’ll start hearing the beat of your heart and the coursing of blood through parts of your body. A little while longer and you’ll swear to God that all the sounds are being orchestrated together. You begin to feel part of a great symphonic movement that is being played through all the elements of Earth.
Mollie: Is there a learning process to meditation?
Evan: Yes! It’s primarily learning to relax into the process. And learning that sitting in silence for five or twenty minutes—whatever your commitment—is meditation. Regardless of outcome. Many people think they’re doing it wrong … they’re not. Sitting softly erect, going calm, slowing your breathing down, focusing on the method you’ve chosen is all it is. Even when you feel unfocused much of the time. With practice, the pauses in between mind sparks become longer, more sensuous. You begin to feel the space between your thoughts … and it’s voluptuous. Rapturous even. In time that spaciousness envelops even your thoughts. It’s a loving saturation that comes to permeate the entirety of your being. Soul, mind, body, the external world … they all meld into that loving, saturated emptiness. I use the term emptiness because that space is devoid of markers. It’s a complete absence of all the things we normally associate with existence. And yet emptiness doesn’t do it justice. Because it’s also dense with life energy.
Mollie: What might you tell a new meditator to help them through the first part of the learning process?
Evan: I would tell them to take it easy. Flubbing it is meditation!
Pick whatever method feels natural to you and go for it. Fifteen minutes of Internet research will reveal at least fifteen different methods. There’s no wrong way to evolve your way through your meditation practice. Try as many methods as you need. You’ll find yourself coming back to one or two favorites. That’s your cue. Explore those that intrigue you most.
Mollie: Sometimes we talk about meditation as if it’s a similar experience for all. And we now know that the same regions of our brain are activated no matter which practice we use. What do you think: how close is what one person calls being “in touch with God” to the feeling experience another has of mere “rest and relaxation”?
Evan: It’s like sex. There’s a commonality. But within that commonality there’s a widely diverse experience, from rote to ecstatic.
Belief matters, even in meditation.
Intention and expectation frame the meditative moment intensely. Once I believed it possible, asked for it, and then went into meditation allowing for a deep spiritual connection, that’s what I got. My God was it ever mind blowing. Even now, sometimes it feels as though my neural circuits are being overloaded, in the best of ways. As though my own wiring is being rewired into something better.
Mollie: Do you have a particularly fond memory of a meditation experience?
Evan: Here’s a funny experience that happened with my friend Gil, who was in the independent study course with me. In a book we read by channel Jane Roberts and spiritual entity Seth we read that in a rare instance someone expands too quickly in consciousness—and then bursts out of existence. It’s as though their body was not equipped to handle the sudden energy surge.
This became a running joke with us. As in, “Watch out, I’m feeling the meditation vibe tonight; I might combust at any moment.”
Late one night we both decided to go down to the lake and sit on a berm and meditate.
That night was windy as hell. In Florida we get these intense storms, and this was the precursor to a particularly intense one. No rain yet, just wind that was whipping limbs and trees around. We settled down to meditate, but after a short while I became uneasy—wildly uneasy. It just felt off, eerie. We were in the pitch dark, side by side just a couple of feet from each other. The wind had picked up even more. I wasn’t gripped with fear as much as foreboding, as though something terrible was about to happen.
I opened my eyes and glanced at Gil. I could only see his silhouette, but he seemed to be deep into his meditation. Not wanting to disturb him, I silently got up and headed back. My girlfriend was in my dorm room and I spilled out how relieved I was that she’d shown up—I was that unsettled.
Maybe five or ten minutes later, Gil comes bursting into my room, flinging the door open so violently he almost destroyed it.
“Whoa, Gil, what’s wrong?” we both blurted out. As soon as Gil could regain his breath, he huffed out: “Jesus, I thought you had combusted!”
Mollie: How often does meditation feel good in the moment? How often are you itching to get out of the chair?
Evan: It always feels good to me. I drop very quickly into the meditative moment. I almost never find myself itching to stop soon—but I would certainly allow myself to do so if I were having difficulty.
I don’t set a timer or have any kind of prompt that ends a meditation session. I simply stop when it feels right. Consequently, a meditation can be just a few minutes to twenty, thirty or even forty minutes long. Most of my night meditations probably last twelve to twenty minutes.
During the day I am apt to drop into very short visualization-type meditations to suggestively pre-cast how I’d like an impending experience to turn out (a meeting, a negotiation, a conversation, an activity) or to ask for guidance or a solution to an issue. Sometimes I may be getting away from meditation and more into asking. I guess you could call it prayer. But I see it all as part of a continuum so I rarely make those kinds of distinctions in my own mind.
Mollie: What about when you’re depressed or angry or in a bad mood? Does meditation still help you feel better? How often does it help you get out of your rut? How often does it fail to do so?
Evan: Some form of meditative or contemplative or envisioning moment is my go-to method for any and all stresses. As well as all joys and triumphs and satisfactions. There’s nothing in my life that I don’t take into my practice of silence. It is that helpful.
The more I bring with me into the silence, the easier life unfolds. It’s that simple.
It is so effective a process for the turbulence that comes my way, that I know almost no other way to deal with issues. I say this with great respect for the importance of exercise, sleep, nutrition, expression and loving relationships as other pillars of a well-lived life.
I’m powerfully drawn to writing meditations as well. In fact, many days a week I write a Vision Page in the mornings. I also practice moving meditation, most commonly through walking. While driving I often speak affirmations aloud.
Mollie: What’s the best thing about meditation for you?
Evan: That it is so interwoven with the “rest of” my life that I can take it with me wherever I go.
Contributor: Art and meditation teacher Carrie Coe Phillips
Mollie: Do you have inner peace?
Carrie: A lot of the time, I do. It’s not all of the time. I deal with fear, health concerns. And I have backup for that–when I put it to use.
When I first started meditating, I felt ecstatically good. When you’re young and healthy, you feel totally in your life and loving it. These days I can say that the journey is not about happiness. It’s about self-discovery, about opening up, and about making yourself available to others.
Mollie: Is it possible for anyone to find inner peace?
Carrie: Yes, it is. Through meditation. I believe they must meditate.
All of us need brief interludes of non-conceptual experience. If someone wants a genuine spiritual path then I would include shamatha practice as well. (Not all meditations perform the same service. The one I’m speaking of is Calm Abiding or resting the mind, shamatha in Sanskrit. This is where the mindfulness movement found its source.)
Everyone is so absorbed in overwhelming struggles. Getting just a slight view of “no-self” is helpful. Even someone with the least bit of curiosity can easily experience a shift in how they view what’s going on.
What do you mean by “no-self”?
Carrie: The “no-self” that I speak of is from a basic tenet of Buddhism that proposes the lack of inherent existence in all phenomenon. Briefly, all things exist relatively. Everything that exists does so in reaction and relation to something else. There is how things appear and how things truly are from the perspective of enlightened mind. When we loosen our grip on a solid-self through meditation, and also through a combination of contemplation on the study of and or listening to the teachings of qualified teachers, then in my experience the path to “freedom” reveals itself in a myriad of ways.
Mollie: What would you say to someone who is struggling with depression?
Carrie: I’m not a stranger to depression, and I have two close family members that have struggled with depression most of their lives. Both have a daily meditation practice. My best advice is, don’t use your meditation for your depression. Use your depression for your meditation.
Mollie: Interesting. What do you mean by that, exactly?
Carrie: I mean that if you’re looking to meditation for happiness, and you hit a bump in the road–then what do you do? Do you give up? Do you find something to blame? Look at depression as something to meditate with rather than looking at meditation as something to cure depression.
Meditate on depression means to be with it, not to contemplate it while meditating. You can add a brief contemplative practice before or after your session of meditation if you like.
Mollie: What else? Any other thoughts on depression?
Carrie: The advice that I take from Pema Chodron is to lean in to the sharp points. If you’re feeling this wretchedness anyway, what have you got to lose by opening up to it and saying, “Okay, here I am, give me your worst”? You feel whatever you’re feeling and don’t reject it. If you can do that even for five seconds, the next time it may be seven seconds. And you’re on your way. Leaning in to what you would normally reject turns ego upside-down. It widens your comfort zone and increases possibilities for learning and change.
Within ninety seconds of any emotion or sensation, if the emotion or sensation isn’t fed by concepts or belief and is allowed to be experienced as the primary sensation regardless of content, the source, or preferences, it is going to change, to morph, to decrease, to leave, perhaps increase briefly, but nothing remains the same. Not a thing is static.
Life is all about patterns. These patterns, whether negative or positive, are reinforced when you’re distracted. But when you watch the patterns, meditate, your mind slows down and they start to weaken. You come back to the present moment–often some sensation in your body–and watch that. Some say to feel your inner body (“What’s my toe doing right now?”) and others follow their breath, but if you have a strong sensation happening anywhere in your body, you go there. If it’s distracting enough that you aren’t able to focus on the breath, go there. This includes heart-based feelings like sadness.
Don’t go to the depression with concepts. Go to it without labeling it. Just notice the primary feeling–where it is in your body, how it feels. Just notice and send gentleness. At this point, it may be uncomfortable but it’s no longer fear-producing. And it’s the fear of that pain that makes it seem unbearable, not the pain itself.
Pema’s first teacher–and author, artist, poet and great meditation master–Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said: “Put the fearful mind in the cradle of loving kindness.” Love yourself, however you find yourself. Identify yourself as part of all the other living beings that you’re practicing love for, too.
Contributor: Art and meditation teacher Carrie Coe Phillips
Mollie: How did you come to meditation?
Carrie: When I was a teen I was in a very troubled environment. I wanted to run away but I was smart enough to know I didn’t want to end up in a ditch. I had a friend whose mom had a safe-feeling home. In that family the aunt was a TM (Transcendental Meditation) trainer, and I watched as they all started getting into meditation and becoming even closer as a family. I took the training and found it was very simple. From then on, I never went back.
I did TM twice a day for twenty minutes for four years solid. It launched me into the next phase of my life in a way I could never have predicted. It helped me get to college and start earning my own money. It also helped strengthen my self-concept as an artist, and to deal with my mother.
For example, one day my mother (who didn’t like me meditating) burst into my room and got right into my face screaming. But because of my practice I was able to just open my eyes and watch the experience. Eventually she stopped, and ever since then things were different between us.
Other curious ways that TM helped me as a trouble teen: I left harmful friends; gained kinder, more positive ones; my grades drastically improved; I developed as a painter to the degree that knew I was an artist and would pursue it as a vocation; without guidance from others, or financial help, I managed to earn save and direct myself into a good college.
Most importantly, the meditation taught me to stay in my family home environment until it was the right time to leave. I turned my bedroom into my art studio, developed my interests and relationships and gained some self-control. To stay at home was to change my experience from the inside.
Mollie: Why do you like Buddhism? What makes it better for you than a more open-ended approach to spirituality?
Carrie: I like it because it goes right to the root of the problem. Some spiritual systems try to prescribe cures for every different thing that ails you. But there are only so many fixes. At some point you just have to get down to the root. Buddhism does this. It addresses anyone, no matter where they’re at or how unique their circumstances are.
Buddhism is a very simple but very profound thing. You can describe it in just a few words, and then you can spend a very long time trying to figure out what those few words mean.
Mollie: In Buddhism, are there rules for inner peace?
Carrie: Somewhat. In Buddhism there is a progression of truth, each stage of which is revealed to you when you’re ready. This is still relative truth, and it is the path to enlightenment. If we were already enlightened, there would be no need for this path; however, from where we are it is quite valuable.
As far as following rules in Buddhism, it’s not a contract or deal. There are rules to follow like guidelines. Relative truth is the path and we recall the ultimate until the relative is no longer fully operational. Grasping and fixation just drop off by themselves if you don’t give up.
There is a quote from Padmasambhava, who Tibetans refer to as a second Buddha: “Keep your actions as fine as dust and your view as vast as the sky.” This means that we carefully follow the guidelines while also holding onto the vast view, which is ultimate truth.
Mollie: What is the ultimate truth?
Carrie: Good question. The ultimate truth is emptiness with awareness, a nondual non-conceptual wisdom. Another way of describing the inexpressible is a Timeless Awareness. There are elements of love and compassion to it, too, and wisdom, which is the ultimate compassion.
Mollie: And what are the rules for inner peace?
Carrie: “Do no harm, do good, train your mind thoroughly.” This is one of my favorite quotes of Buddha because it outlines the path. Of course we practice all three from the very beginning. But hidden here, also, is the path’s three vehicles. “Do no harm” refers to the set of beginning or foundational teachings and guidelines from the Buddha that refer to daily habits of life and mind. “Do good” is a different group of teachings that focuses on others. It is a more expansive view of your practice and of the world. “Train your mind” refers to a third group of more esoteric teachings that focus on yet other methods for reaching enlightenment.
Mollie: If someone is interested in learning more about Buddhism, where should they start?
Carrie: It doesn’t hurt to start with meditation. Meditation is the heart of Buddhism. One thing I would point out, though, is that if you’re using meditation just to feel better, it’s not Buddhism. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but for Buddhists, meditation isn’t meant to be a way to feel better, or calmer, or to relax. The intent is to wake up, to increase your awareness, to let the mind unfold and show you its natural stability, its natural clarity and insight. With that, with time, there is an opening of the compassion, of the heart, and struggling does eventually abate.
Mollie: What, exactly, does meditation involve?
Carrie: There are four parts of meditation practice according to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I’m paraphrasing from his book Journey Without Goal:
1. Recalling the instructions and applying it (i.e. holding the posture, returning to the breath or other object of the meditation, not fixating on thoughts, getting to the cushion with consistency, or not giving up);
2. Relaxing (it’s built in);
3. Not judging, being gentle with yourself; and
4. Having a positive attitude that something good will come from this activity.
Mollie: So why meditate, then, if not to feel better?
Carrie: Many many people these days come to meditation to feel calmer or better. More come to it or to Buddhism out of loss or grief. Generally speaking, seeing your own dissatisfaction is enough to begin meditating.
I can say that with meditation you will feel calmer, better and more aware of everything, including your environment. Some find their clairvoyance, but these are fringe benefits.
Why not set out with a greater motivation than feeling better, with the motivation to wake up to your world? Meditation is a path of realization.
We meditate to know the truth. We do it because we suspect there might be more to life then then what we presume.
What books or other sources do you recommend?
The Lion’s Roar, an online magazine, is my my pick for you and your readers–handy, frequent, free, and packed with inspiration and wisdom. Also see:
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: This book might be advanced but I’ve returned to it many times. Different chapters at different points on your spiritual path give up its mysteries.
Pema Chodron, an important early student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and an American nun: Anything she has written or recorded will be helpful, especially one of her earliest books for people struggling, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s books, including Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, in particular for working with anxiety, which he describes having had a serious case of. He is also part of the interface of neuroscience and Buddhism. Look for him on YouTube.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s two titles, Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind, and Emotional Rescue: How to work With Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You.
For basic meditation instruction with a modern take on a spiritual path for beginners and intermediate study, read Turning Your Mind Into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham. Also, his book Running With The Mind of Meditation for those on the run.
Contributor: Art and meditation teacher Carrie Coe Phillips
Mollie: Some forms of spirituality are more rule-based than others. In my limited experience with Buddhism, it seems that it is somewhere in-between the extremes: not particularly dogmatic, but at the same time, often prescriptive. What do you think?
Carrie: It can be dogmatic. It doesn’t have to be.
Mollie: Has there ever been a time in your life when you truly questioned everything that you believe? How did you circle back to where you are now? Tell me the story.
Carrie: Every so often I wonder why there has to be so many images in Buddhism. Coming from a background in which there’s a restriction against statues and images, it bothers me a bit.
I get different explanations for why they’re there. One is that historically the statues weren’t a part of it, and they were only added later after the Silk Road opened up (due to the influence of Greek imagery), and therefore they aren’t a needed part of the practice. Another is that the images are representations of enlightened energy, an enlightened mind. There is a myriad of methods for people at different stages of practice; some work for some people but not others.
Mollie: What if you’re wrong? What if after death you find out that Buddhism is just partly true, or not true?
Carrie: The Tibetan Buddhist teachings on both the death process and the afterdeath process are unlike any other teachings. There are very careful instructions on what to do. I have complete faith in these Tibetan teachings.
You know, when you meditate with some consistency, your mind will want to wake you up to the truth. Then, when you look around, when you listen to or read what’s been written by other meditators, and your truth matches the other person’s truth … now you are on to something. You have insight.
Mollie: What do you mean by insight? What kind of insight?
Carrie: By insight I mean a momentary flash of wisdom. You might not even recall it but it changes you on a deep level. Buddhists also call it clarity.
Mollie: Do you have clarity? How much do you have, would you say?
Carrie: Sure, I have some. There’s no way of telling how much. I can say that the more I meditate the more the chances are that I will.
Do you mean do I have flashes of insight? Sometimes. It’s not something you go looking for; you can’t direct it. And as I said before, the difference between ordinary insight (which will also increase with meditation) and true spiritual insight is that you will probably not remember true spiritual insight after it happens.
In a desperate attempt to cure myself of my depression, I read everything I could on the subject. I took the psychological approach as well as the religious approach. The stronger the depression, the more aggressive my search. Self-help courses and recovery groups brought minimal relief but never a cure. Each improvement was eventually followed by a setback.
I began to believe that I was inherently flawed. It was even suggested that I was possessed by an evil entity, a thought I rejected. And yet, when the feelings were at their strongest, I doubted myself and believed I might be. I became even more frightened.
One day, I realized just how terrified I was. Desperate feelings require desperate measures: voluntarily I went in for psychiatric evaluation. I began weekly therapy and was prescribed a drug which altered my mood almost immediately.
I gained many insights during therapy, but eventually the prescription drugs caused me to experience the side effects of hyperactivity, chills and headaches. I felt as if the cure was worse than the disease itself and so I took myself off the drugs without consulting my doctor (something I don’t recommend). I did, however, continue therapy.
I thought therapy had solved my problem with depression until I had an extremely devastating setback and experienced the worst depression of my life. Suicidal thoughts began to intrude into my mind, and yet no matter what, I would not surrender. I lived with my depression for years, just tolerating it. If depression was going to slowly squeeze the life out of me, I decided, it would do so without my help.
I struggled through, day after day, hiding my depression from everyone, but when I got home and I was alone I would realize I was exhausted. I just wanted to lie on the couch and do nothing. I felt hopeless. After many years of living this way and contrary to professional advice, I isolated myself, knowing when I was alone with my depression, I felt it the strongest.
One day I realized that I was at a standoff with my depression. It wasn’t getting any worse and it wasn’t getting any better. So, I decided to start analyzing what was going on with me. I knew I couldn’t feel any worse, so I might as well treat my condition as a mystery that needed solving rather than a problem to fear.
First, I went back to the basics. I looked up the word “depression” in Webster’s dictionary and found the definition: a disorder marked especially by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentrating, excessive sleep, feelings of dejection and hopelessness, and sometimes suicidal tendencies. Yes, I agreed, the dictionary was intellectually correct. I experienced all of those things, but when I explored my feelings, I made some amazing discoveries.
One of my discoveries was that my depression was actually made up of a variety of strong unexpressed feelings interwoven together. These feeling included unexpressed anger. This entanglement of unexpressed emotions left me feeling like a net had been dropped over my spirit and pulled tight. The more I struggled, the more entangled in them I became.
Instead of judging my feelings of depression, I decided to observe them. I noticed that I was afraid of my feelings. I also observed that throughout my life whatever I feared eventually became my enemy. How did I make my depressed feelings my enemy? I did it by accepting someone else’s belief that my depressed feelings were dangerous. By accepting this belief unedited, I erroneously concluded that my feelings could lead me to killing myself. In making my feelings the enemy I gave them power over me; the moment I did that, they dominated and controlled my life for over thirty years.
After this realization, I decided to start allowing the feelings to come without being afraid of them. If depression was going to defeat me, I decided, I wanted to feel it absolutely. I was tired of running from the monster within.
This one change made all the difference.
Today, I view depression in a totally different way. I believe that my inner guide uses depressed feelings to let me know when I’m off track in my thinking, trying too hard, headed in the wrong direction, or not taking proper care of myself. I no longer struggle with “depressed feelings.” When they come upon me, I embrace them, and in embracing them, I can hear the message of guidance and advice that is being directed to me. When I hear the message accurately, the depressed feelings leave me, and I am filled with an exuberance and a renewed passion for life.
My advice to others experiencing depression: Allow your depressed feelings to harmlessly pass you by like clouds in the sky. You do this by choosing to intensely feel what you are feeling without judging what you feel in any way. If you are willing to let your feelings of depression become your friends–if you are willing to learn from them, embrace them–you too will once again be excited about living life generously and passionately.
In life we are either expressing ourselves or depressing ourselves. These days, when an occasional feeling of depression washes over me, I ask myself which thoughts and/or feelings am I depressing. Once I discover what they are, I express them, release them, let them go. I set them free so I can return to my natural state of mind which is happiness, harmony and peace of mind.
Contributor: Subhan Schenker, who runs the Osho World of Meditation in Seattle.
Mollie: Tell me about your meditation practice.
Subhan: I teach and practice active meditation techniques that incorporate body movement. The reason I chose these techniques is that when I first attempted meditation many years ago, I couldn’t do it; it was torture. I hated sitting still. One day in the midst of this learning process I went to a bookstore and asked the clerk what I should read about meditation. He directed me toward Osho, and as soon as I started reading it I knew his was the technique for me.
Our lifestyles aren’t what the monks of the past knew. They carried water, chopped wood and worked hard all day, which helped them release their emotions, allowing their minds to become less active. Then, when it was time to be still, their bodies were ready for it. We need the same kind of emotional release in order to ready us for stillness, for what I call “the Grand Canyon of silence.”
I invite you to go to our center’s website, worldofmeditation.com, or to osho.com to learn more about active meditation techniques like dynamic meditation and no-mind meditation.
Mollie: What about people who do have active lifestyles? Would you still recommend these practices?
Subhan: I would recommend that they try them. And that they try other techniques, too, until they find what works best for them.
Truth is what works.
Mollie: What is meditation?
Subhan: It depends on what you mean by the word. The meditative state is the state of relaxation, awareness and no judgment. It is the state of not thinking. Watching the thoughts, watching the mind, is the technique you use to get to that state. You know your meditation technique is working when, for a flash here and a flash there, you arrive into the state of meditation.
There are many, many people who are trying meditation techniques that don’t get them to the state of meditation. They may help them feel a bit better, but they don’t separate them from mind and therefore aren’t going to get them to the awareness, silence and stillness that they’re looking for.
Mollie: What do you tell beginning meditators about meditation?
Subhan: First, I tell them that meditation is not separate from life. The technique of meditation is something you have to create time to do, but the meditative state has to be part of all the rest of your life or there isn’t any substance to it.
Mollie: Any other basic advice regarding meditation?
Subhan: I often tell new meditators that in order to finally get what you want, you have to get enough of what you don’t want. Here’s what I mean: For each of us spiritual seekers there came a point at which we realized that everything we were told about the way happiness works, the way the world works, isn’t true. We did everything our parents and our society told us to do, but we were still miserable and unfulfilled. When we had enough of the anxiety, the fears, the worries, the difficult dances in relating with other people—the stuff we didn’t want—then our quest for true happiness began.
I often see new meditators give up very quickly. Partly this is because they don’t want to experience the emotions that meditating brings up in them, and partly it’s because they haven’t had enough of what they don’t want yet. They’re not ready.
Mollie: Okay. Now, let’s address the proverbial elephant. Are you a guru?
Subhan: No. I’m not a guru. I’m not a teacher. I’m a sharer. And who knows? Maybe even that’s saying too much. The truth is I have not a clue who “I” am
Any time there’s a notion of who “I” am, it usually gets shattered.
Zen masters say, “Not knowing is the most intimate.” It sounds odd, but the moment you finally stop projecting your ideas of who someone is upon them, when you finally decide to not “know” them (according to the mind), is when you experience the greatest possible understanding of who they are. This is also true of oneself.
Mollie: Are you special?
Mollie: There is nothing about your past lives, maybe, that makes you further along the path than others?
Subhan: I don’t play that game. Some people get involved in past lives, but I am more interested in this life!
I appreciate my own uniqueness and the uniqueness in every person. And I have no interest in trying to change them. I do have a mind that wants to try to change others and change the world. I was a lawyer in the past and I still have the mind to go along with that. But that mind is not me. I allow Existence to be.
Mollie: Existence being your word for God?
Subhan: There are many words. I like Existence. I like many others. What I know is that I’ve experienced moments of connectedness with something that feels so big, so vast, so beyond anything the mind can comprehend, that I just know it is real, whatever it is called. And then there are times when those moments are gone and the mind takes over again.
Mollie: Do you have challenges?
Subhan: Oh, yes. I love challenges. When I remember that I have support, they are wonderful.
Mollie: What do you mean by support?
Subhan: I mean things like meditation, relationships with people who are also on the path of discovery, and the words of spiritual teachers and mystics, and their books and recordings on spirituality. There are many more.
One of the great supports is to stop doing what you don’t love to do. Not filling up your life with have-tos.
Mollie: Are you enlightened?
Subhan: No. Yes and no. We are all enlightened, but most of us are also still identified with the mind, which conceals the enlightenment. I am often identified with the mind, too.
Mollie: How does one become enlightened?
Subhan: There is no way to teach that or describe that. It is a quantum leap. After having tried everything possible for six incredibly difficult years to disassociate from his mind, Buddha came to the point where he recognized the impossibility of getting somewhere that is not the mind. He sat under the Bodhi tree and surrendered—and then it came. He entered the no-mind space. Osho describes a similar giving-up experience leading to his enlightenment.
Until that moment of true letting go, we only get very brief glimpses of enlightenment. When this happens it looks so close, but it’s still very far away as long as the mind is there.
It’s a quantum leap. It’s illogical. You can’t get there by trying, and you can’t get there by not trying! What a paradox!
I was pregnant. I was exhausted. I was potty training two kids. So it would’ve been easy to chalk it up to stress. But when earlier this year I discovered how negative my thinking had become, I didn’t dismiss it. I became genuinely concerned.
I made the discovery when one difficult evening, for the first time in ages, I picked up a pen and journaled my true feelings. Not my affirmations. Not my goals. Not my prayers. Just my ugliest, most despicable feelings.
In the end, I had four handwritten pages covered solidly back and front with nothing but the crazy in my brain. When I showed my husband, he said, “Wow. That’s a lot of bad thoughts.”
“Yes, it is,” I replied.
A few hours later, I was sitting in my office, scanning my memory for a solution. At one point I idly glanced over a bookshelf I don’t usually pay attention to, and there it was: The Feeling Good Handbook.
Reluctantly, I took it from the shelf.
A book my doctor had recommended a year or so prior, the Handbook didn’t hold much interest for me at the time. I remembered flipping through its many detailed descriptions of medications and skimming some of its seemingly pat advice. This time when I opened it, though, I found something else.
I found a different book entirely.
The Feeling Good Handbook is written by psychiatrist David Burns, and it’s about a well-known, widely used form of psychotherapy called (unfortunately, I think) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT for short). The book is far too long—full of flowery ideas and applications. What is comes down to, however, is this: negative thoughts are not the truth. They’re a perspective, and often pretty screwy one—one with only a bit of basis in reality, if any at all. The best way to work through them—to eradicate them, and in doing so, eradicate depression—is to write them down, then write down their opposite: the more objective (and yes, more optimistic) view of the matter.
I know, I know. Big damn deal, right? Isn’t this just positive thinking with a fancy name? But sometimes, that’s what it takes. Sometimes the fancy name or the scientific research backing a technique gives you the faith you need to give it a go. And then there was the timing thing; at this reading, I was more willing than before to try something new.
Later that day, I wrote out my negative thoughts again, but this time I countered them with more positive interpretations of the situations. To my great surprise, after doing so, I felt better. Much better. Even … well, good. I felt the way I normally feel after a brisk four-mile jog or walk—and the feeling stayed with me for much longer.
A week later, after journaling two or three more times, my acute depression still hadn’t returned. And that’s when I really knew I was on to something.
We spiritual people can all say all day long that we’re want to learn to accept everything, even pain. The truth is, though, that often, we don’t have to. We can work through it instead. Change what you can change, and accept the rest. And, of course, learn the difference.
Here are some of the results I recorded in my journal during my first week of CBT:
One of my least favorite things in the world is the sound of a child whining. But at one point as I was waiting out yet another of these patience-trying incidents, I started saying to myself, “This is the good stuff.” I did a mini version of CBT, and it worked; I felt calmer. Later, I had a conversation with that same child after he complained (ironically) about his brother’s loud voice. “In life, there are things that we like, things that we don’t like and have to wait through, and things we don’t like but get to figure out a solution for, and all three are good in different ways. Life is a fun challenge. The hard stuff is the good stuff.”
When a friend called to describe at length a difficult problem that I felt she’d brought upon herself, I got angry. Not on the phone (I was merely impatient), but after hanging up. A rush of anxiety came over me as I thought about her unfortunate situation, but instead of ignoring it, I thought it through. I identified the stressful thought that the whole thing was her fault, which helped me see how ridiculous it was, and later I noticed thoughts of love for her coming to me spontaneously.
Finally, I did CBT on a long-held misbelief of mine, namely that I’m not productive enough. Then that night when my husband took the kids out for four hours, I binged on stand-up comedy specials. The next day when I woke up I thought, I want to write today. And that’s what I did off and on all day, in spite of the usual challenges. The rest had helped.
“I envision stacks and stacks of papers listing all my negative thoughts,” I wrote the following week. “These stacks will be the dumpster—no, the landfill—for all of the crap inside my head. It’ll be great.”
CBT isn’t easy. It’s tedious and time-consuming. But it’s a fun challenge, too. One of the best compliments you can give any self-improvement technique is that it’s as good as they say it is. I believe that compliment applies here.