Introduction to MINDFULNESS and MEDITATION
"The mind is like a lake, and stones that are dropped into it (or winds) raise waves. Those waves do not let us see who we are. (...) The waters must be calmed. If one remains quiet, eventually the winds that ruffle the water will give up, and then one knows who one is. God is constantly within us, but the mind obscures that fact with agitated waves of worldly desires. Meditation quiets those waves" ~Bhagavad Gita V.28
— Huston Smith, Foreword, The Bhagavad Gita: Twenty-fifth–Anniversary Edition
One of the first yoga sutras says, "Yogas citta vrtti nirodha": Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. Our brain, or mind, is a powerful tool of perception, creativity, problem solving, and identification. However, the nature of the mind is to think, plan, analyze, and compartmentalize, and it tends to work on overdrive. If we can see the brain for what it is, an advanced instrument to use as we need it, and rest when we don't need it, we can broaden our sense of self to beyond the workings of our mind, and begin to notice the interconnectivity of our being with the entire cosmos. By practicing awareness of our thoughts, or mindfulness, we can access moments of peace and stillness unavailable to us when our mind is constantly racing. Mindfulness practices bring us to focus on what we are doing and thinking, and gradually through these practices, we begin to notice we have more control over our powerful brain, rather than letting it control us. We realize that what we think determines the reality we experience, and notice that by directing our minds to thoughts of peace, joy, and gratitude, we begin to truly live the experience of peace, joy, and gratitude.
There are as many ways to practice mindfulness as there are people alive on the planet. The following are some of the most powerful practices that have worked for me. I encourage you to explore beyond the practices outlined here. Some of these can be practiced anywhere: in the car, waiting in line, brushing your teeth, etc, while some are more suited to a traditional seated meditation posture. Focused breathing (pranayama) is another way to practice mindfulness, and in following modules I will continue to introduce more pranayama techniques. Mantra repetition is another way to practice; a following module will offer many powerful mantra practices. As we are learning in the Yoga Sutras and the Baghavad Gita, the practices of quieting the mind and regulating our energy are to lead the mind to a state of such peace and clarity that we actually expand our conscious from our individual mind/body to a sense of vastness, the union of our small selves to our higher Self.
"One must elevate, not degrade, oneself
By one's own mind.
The mind alone is one's friend
As well as one's enemy.
The mind is the friend
Of those who have control over it,
And the mind acts like an enemy
For those who do not control it.
One who has control over the mind
Is tranquil in heat and cold,
In pleasure and pain, and in honor and dishonor;
And is ever steadfast with the Supreme Self.
A yogi is called Self-realized
Who is satisfied with knowledge
And understanding of the Self,
Who is equanimous, who has control over the senses,
And to whom a clod, a stone, and gold are the same."
Krishna, The Baghavad Gita, Chapter VI
Daily Mindfulness Practices
Wake up/Bed time Gratitude Practice
First thing in the morning when waking up is potent time to offer a blessing/prayer/gratitude, because as you are first waking up is a quiet time of stillness before the business of your day brings all its distractions. Similarly, just before you fall asleep, as you lie in your bed after the day done, is a very sweet time to take a moment to reflect on all the things in your life that support you. As you lie comfortably in your bed, before making your daytime lists or reflecting on your day, take a moment to silently say "Thank you" for each of the people/places/things that nourish you, support you, bring you joy, and even the things that challenge you, honoring these as a vehicle for personal growth. You can also use this time to say your prayers.
Mealtime Mindfulness Blessing
Before meals, take a moment of mindfulness to acknowledge the source of the food you are about to consume, to feel gratitude for the nourishment, as well as for all of the blessings in your life. Begin by taking a deep breath as you let the right words come to you. You can memorize a specific prayer that you repeat each time before eating, or you can just let the words of gratitude flow in the moment. For example: "I take this moment of gratitude for this food, saying thank you to the farmers who grew this food, thank you to the sun and water and earth which nourished it as it grew, thank you to all the hands and transportation that brought this food to my kitchen, thank you to who prepared this beautiful meal. I say thank you for this home, my family, my friends, my work...etc. May this meal nourish my body so that I may do my work in the world for the benefit of all beings."
Taking a mindful walk is one lovely way to still the mind while getting some exercise at the same time! There are many ways to practice a walking meditation. A walking meditation can combine mantra practice or simple Pranayama. For example, a simple counting breath combined with an intentional walk would look like this: Inhale for four steps, exhale for four steps, repeat. Or, take one step with each syllable or word of your preferred mantra. A very grounding and simple practice is to go outside to a trail or meadow, take off your shoes and socks, and practice walking very slowly and mindfully to avoid stepping on anything sharp or stubbing your toe. While walking, keep your gaze soft, looking just a short ways ahead of a you, while allowing your peripheral vision to take in your surroundings without become fixated on any one thing. Notice your mind observing the sights and sounds around you, without attaching. If you become absorbed in a thought process, notice, without judging yourself harshly for it, and bring your attention back to the intentional rhythm of your stride and breath. Walking meditation can be a prelude to a seated meditation in place of asana practice to work out stiffness in the body and bring a scattered mind into focus. If the weather is not cooperating, you can even practice this while walking in circles around your house!
Water is the basis of life. Without water, nothing can grow and we would quickly die. Water is a precious resource that needs to be protected. We can do our part by recognizing our use of water. Taking a moment to bless water each time we use it, whether we are washing our hands, starting a load of laundry, taking a drink, washing dishes, going for a swim, or taking a shower, will remind us to be grateful for this precious resource and to use it conscientiously. You can simply say, out loud or silently, "Thank you Water" at each of these moments, or come up with your own water blessing.
Here is a beautiful song by Katrina Blair to chant while using water, or enjoying the rain: "Thank you, Water. I love you, Water. I'm so grateful for you Water. You are the rain falling down, you are the river flowing over ground, you are the ocean. The sweet big body water mama ocean."
Simple Seated Meditation Practices
This meditation is useful to still your mind when it is racing. It can be practiced on its own or after the following self-guided Yoga Nidra practice. Simply use the silent phrase, "I notice", followed by any sound, thought, or sensation you observe. If you find yourself in silence without noticing anything, great! Just rest in the silence. As soon as another sound or sensation occurs, say to yourself, "I notice...." If you notice you are following a train of thought, just notice it, saying to yourself, "I notice I was thinking", then bring your attention back to whatever else you notice in the moment. You can practice this in a traditional seated posture, a comfortable lying down position, or while waiting in line somewhere, while sitting on a bus/train/plane, etc, to focus an over stimulated mind and take your attention to the present.
Count to 10 Meditation
This is a method of stilling a restless mind. Sit in a comfortable position with the spine erect. Silently count slowly to 10, then begin again at 1 and repeat. If you realize you lost the count and the mind became distracted with thoughts, simply start over at 1. Practice for 5 minutes to start and gradually increase.
Instant Stress Relief
This mindfulness practice cultivates the healing power of the breath and can be used anytime to quickly settle the nervous system and provide instant stress relief. Start by taking a few deep breaths, holding at the top of each breath for a moment for releasing it fully. Then begin to count each inhale to the count of 4, and each exhale to the count of 8, so that you are slowing down the exhalations and bringing your awareness fully to each breath.