Can I Get a Witness?

 “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” —Ram Dass

Suffering is part of the human condition—especially for those of us living out our dharma in the fast-paced, urban trenches of Los Angeles. Sometimes, when we are highly emotional about something, we say we are “really in it”, as if we are submerged in the suffering itself. The most powerful—and perhaps, essential— ways to navigate emotional suffering is to develop the ability to be simultaneously SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE—to observe ourselves in this state without judgment. In other words, we can have our feelings, but we are not our feelings.

The greater our ability be our own witness, the more adept we become at acknowledging, recognizing, understanding, accepting, and releasing our suffering.

Here are 6 ways to cultivate your witness:

1. Slow Way Down

Stillness is the prescription for bringing consciousness to anything. Rushing through the experiencing of anything, including feelings, means that we miss subtleties and nuances that feed our understanding of it. The first step in separating ourselves from our drama is to slow down and be with it. Resist the urge to DO. Simply BE.

2. Invoke Your Third Person

It may feel silly at first, but when you are in the middle of an emotional reaction, stop and say, “This is Zoë having an emotional reaction.” Or, “This is Zoë feeling angry.” Work your way through it until, “This is Zoë accepting what is and knowing that all will be okay.” If you don’t get all the way there, don’t worry. This is a practice in distinguishing yourself from your emotions, first and foremost.

3. Checkpoint: Mindfulness

Set an alarm at regular intervals four times a day. When the alarm sounds, do a brief mindfulness practice. Notice your physical presence in its environment. You might articulate it like this: “Feet on the floor. Feet on the floor…Hands on the keyboard. Hands on the keyboard…” Repeating it twice gives the mind and extra beat to become fully present and objective.” Interrupting the flow of the day with Mindfulness develops our ability to discern between emotional and physical experience.

4. Take a Nature Walk

The muscles we use to observe the world around us are the same ones we use to witness ourselves. The way the clouds drift in the sky, the palm fronds rustle in the breeze, or birds fly in formation, gives context to our suffering, by reminding us that we are one small part of something much greater than ourselves.

5. On the Arc of a Rainbow

Just as connecting with nature can set a context for a difficult moment, stepping back and considering how that moment fits into your life story can set a different, and equally powerful context. We tend to assign undue urgency or importance to our experiences—especially when they are emotionally-charged—when they are really just one small chapter in the arc of our entire story.

6. Lighten Up

There is a not-so-fine, and fairly blurry line between pain and self-pity. Denying or burying our emotions can be hazardous to our health. At the same time, so can taking ourselves too seriously. Holding things lightly can go a long way in cultivating grace in the dancing with our feelings.

Reasons for Ritual

“When I was a kid, our family used to watch ‘Bonanza.’ I really liked having a Sunday night TV ritual.” —Anne Lamott

When I was a kid, my family’s TV ritual centered around “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” on Monday nights. I learned a lot from this time spent together—about our values, our sense of humor. It helped define who we are as a family, and ultimately who I am as an individual. Assembling once a week in this way, to share a laugh and each other’s company created bonds and shared experiences, which we continue to keep alive today. If our first Guru is our mother, as Swami Satyananada Saraswati says, then our family is our first sangha, or spiritual community. From this perspective, family rituals, of any sort, take on a special significance.

Rituals can be used to mark a rite of passage, like a bar mitzvah, a graduation, or a visit from the tooth fairy. In this sense, they draw a line in the sand as we pass from one phase to the next. They help us celebrate as we complete the old and step into the new. But rituals can serve us in our daily lives too. We’ve heard over and over that humans are creatures of habit. And according to Aristotle, “we are what we repeatedly do.” As we look to create shifts in our lives—whether external or internal—adding rituals as “conscious habits” can be an effective tool.

Here are 4 reasons to incorporate ritual in daily life:

1. To Support Transformation

Sustainable transformation begins with a vision. In order to become it, first we must see it. For instance, if I want to lose weight, I must envision myself as someone who has a healthy relationship with her body and the food she puts in it. Designing a ritual aligned with this vision, allows me to embody the new way of being. I might choose to start my day with a warm cup of water to spark my digestive fire, or I might commit to doing three sun salutations before breakfast. Setting aside a specific time and space each day to practice in alignment with my goals, keeps the vision alive and supports sustained transformation both throughout the day and over time.

2. To Nurture Relationship

Life gets hectic! Most of us manage numerous—and often conflicting—demands on our attention. Often the biggest casualties are our relationships with the people closest to us. Even the most accomplished multi-taskers have a habit of taking our loved ones for granted. Setting a specific time to connect with family or friends can sustain and deepen our support systems and relationships. A regular date night with your partner, Sunday morning Scrabble with your parents, a weekly visit with friends to the Korean baths are just a few examples of rituals which nurture relationship. Community is important; it gives context to our lives. Plugging in on a regular basis helps to remind us of the larger picture and not to take ourselves to seriously.

3. To Invoke Energy

There are times when life feels out of balance. Perhaps we need more downtime, or money is a little tight. Ritual can be used to symbolically attract the more of the desired energy. For instance, if I am hoping to conceive a child, I might meditate on the second chakra, or chant mantras for fertility. If I want to increase the lovingkindness in my life, I might listen daily to a dharma talk on the Buddhist practice of metta. The Law of Attraction dictates that we manifest what we focus on. In this spirit, ritual is a powerful vehicle to bring conscious focus to that which we want to cultivate in our lives. 

4. To Feel Good

The other casualty of our hectic lives is our own self-care. It is important to remember to make time to nurture ourselves. Whether it comes in the form of a warm, candlelit bath, a bedtime cup of tea, a midday walk in nature, or a daily date with our journal, sending a regular “love note” to ourselves forms the basis of a grounded, peaceful existence.

Perspective as a Power Tool

“I kind of quit surfing when I got out of high school, but then a few years ago I started to take it up again. I’m not an expert by any means, but it’s so wonderful to get out in the ocean and get a different perspective on things.” —Jeff Bridges

It’s part of the human condition that we come upon challenging moments when it feels as though the people in our lives—or life itself—is beating us down. Or perhaps there is a specific aspect of a situation or relationship that is showing up as a persistent source of discomfort. At these times, we lose objectivity and become immersed in our own myopic experiencing of the circumstances. Emotional pain has a way of clouding our vision. The suffering can be compounded when we react with emotional charge, without the benefit of time and distance to balance the way we see things. The first step in deciding what to do with something is choosing how to be with it. Perspective can be defined as the interrelation in which a subject—or its parts—is viewed in it’s context. Bringing choice to the way we hold our experiences, releases us from victimhood and hands us back our personal power.

As Byron Katie says, “Don’t believe everything you think.” So how do we change the way we perceive things? Here are 3 ways:

1. Change Your Geography

Changing our external environment can shift our internal landscape. Going to a yoga class, taking a weekend out of town, or even just stepping away from our desk for moment can not only divert our attention, but the visceral feeling of a new environment can cause a somatic shift in consciousness. How many times have you said, “Let me look at this from a different angle?” Taken literally, it means moving your body to a different location to see what things look like from there. Adding the element of physical exercise draws energy from the mind to the body—breaking up fixated thought patterns, and opening up pathways to a new perspective. 

2. Try on a Role Model

We all have people in our lives who we admire. Maybe they have qualities we find admirable or maybe it’s the sum total of how they show up in the world. When we are struggling with a situation in our own lives, it can be a great exercise to try on the persona of someone we would like to emulate. Ask yourself, “What would the Dalai Llama do?” Whether its your sister, your teacher, or Meryl Streep, borrowing the consciousness of someone we look up to and applying it to our own situation can fast track a shift.

3. Pull Focus on the Big Picture

When we are in the thick of a situation, we tend to be focused on the intensity of our own personal experience. Taking a moment to balance the micro with the macro can be like a breath of fresh air. “How does this moment fit within the larger context of my life? What feels important about this? What values are being challenged?” are all questions which have a perspective shift built into them. Another way to reframe is to ask yourself what you would like to say about this moment when you look back at it five years from now. Considering the context of our personal life history is often just the change in perspective we are looking for.

Shut Up and Listen

 

“Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” —Hermann Hesse

Life can often feel like an act of survival. It’s a hyper-connected, multi-tasking, texting-tweeting-downdogging-180-degree-latte kind of world, and it’s easy to get so caught up in the juggle that we forget we can simply put down the balls and breathe. Simply stopping the motion periodically provides us with an opportunity to redirect our attention inward, shifting the focus back to ourselves. Developing a stillness practice helps us tune in to our inner voice, so that we may remember who we are and reconnect with our own personal power.

Here are five practices to cultivate stillness in your busy life:

1. 7-in-Heaven

Begin each day by sitting in silence for seven minutes. Take advantage of the moments in the morning when outside stimulation is at a minimum and your mind is clearest. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and slow your breath. Pause at the top of each inhalation and at the bottom of each exhalation, creating a moment of stillness. This sets a baseline for inner peace and connectedness, which we can return to throughout the day.

2. Alarming Presence

Set an alarm to go off four times during the day (for example: 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm). Whenever the alarm sounds, bring your focus to what you are doing. Take a mental inventory of your physical presence and articulate it something like this: Feet on the floor. Feet on the floor. Thighs on chair. Thighs on chair. Hands on keyboard. Hands on keyboard. Repeating each item twice gives your mind a moment to really become present to the simple mechanics of what you are doing and encourages the transfer of energy from the mind to the body.

3. Quiet on the Set

Sometimes I feel like my life is like a huge movie production with many people hustling around. It is noisy—figuratively and literally. Take steps to reduce the noise level in your day. Turn down the music, turn off text and email alerts, and stop talking! Silence is not the same as stillness; lowering the overall volume of your life will keep you from getting so over-stimulated that you spend the better part of your stillness practice recovering from auditory overload.

4. Dirty Feet

Chaos in our lives is almost always reflected in our physical energy. We get caught in our heads as we try to manage many things at once and regain some sort of order and control. Even at moments of critical stress, stepping outside and putting our feet in the dirt (grass or sand will do) has a calming effect by drawing the energy down through the chakra system. When someone we know is level-headed, we say they are “grounded.” Feeling connected to and supported by the Earth is a path to instant stillness.

5. Time-Out from Technology

Take one hour each day to be completely off-grid. Schedule this time at a regular hour, just like “Happy Hour.” This works not only to foster stillness in the moment, but also to counterbalance and recalibrate your participation in the chaos that can result from perpetual accessibility through multiple technology-enabled information streams.

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Author of The Distraction Addiction, says, “It’s not about forsaking the digital life for ‘real life’; it’s a way to discover a richer life where your devices, your social world, and your rediscovered, unburdened self can coexist. Like any practice, you need to do it regularly, work past the hurdles and uncertainties, to see the benefits flower. And while you’re cultivating them, don’t worry about your phone or Facebook. They’ll be there when you get back.”

 

The Art of a Truly Restorative Vacation

“I NEED A VACATION FROM MY VACATION.”

We’ve all said it; we’ve all felt it: the blanket of exhaustion that unfurls upon our return from what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation, the disorientation tinged with melancholy that always seems to take us by surprise. Imagining and fantasizing about a trip is energizing. Researching and planning is exciting. But as months of anticipation turn into weeks and then days of preparation, the logistics of extracting ourselves from our busy lives loaded with responsibilities can be daunting and leads to a phenomenon that I have come to call, “the pre-vacay crescendo.” Work, kids, packing, dogs, mail, passport, newspaper—whatever your particular moving parts—putting them all on hold for a while takes considerable energy, and the days and hours leading up to departure inevitably feel like a mad rush to get it all done. I often find myself saying, “I’ll relax when I’m on the plane.”

But, is this scenario really inevitable? Must every vacation be bracketed by depletion? Is it possibly to have a truly restorative vacation? When a colleague handed me a press release about Rancho Bernardo Inn’s new Wellness Rooms, it sounded like a perfect laboratory for an experiment. One of Southern California’s most renowned spa resorts has taken several guest rooms near the spa and refashioned them with a focus on wellness. Each room was adorned with calming lavender scented candles, house-made body scrubs, neroli water spray, in-room yoga mats, exercise balls and fitness DVDs, plus a 15% discount on spa treatments and exclusive access to the exclusive spa pool. I booked a room, packed a bag, and headed down the coast.

The word vacation comes from the Latin root vacare— to be empty; free. As I drove the nearly two hours from Los Angeles to San Diego, I emptied myself of all the things that usually demand or capture my attention, so I was free to be present in my exploration of personal restoration. I did my little “presenting practice” of systematically taking inventory of my physicality and the accompanying sensations, repeating each observation twice, like this: “Hands on the wheel. Hands on the wheel. Wrists relaxed. Wrists relaxed. Elbows gently at sides. Elbows gently at sides. Butt in the seat. Butt in the seat.” By the time I hit the 405, I had left my life behind and was making a list of what typically gets in the way of a relaxing vacation. Here’s what I came up with:

FAILING TO DOWNSHIFT

Like it or not, most of us move at mach speed through our very busy lives. We are required to be master multi-taskers. With our devices perpetually in our hands, our attention is almost always fractured. It’s practically not a choice anymore; it’s what we must to do—who we must BE—in order to function effectively in our fast-paced, hyper-stimulating, über accessible, urban world. Without realizing it, we tend to maintain this energy level even when we could be slowing down. Vacation is a time to get off the Autobahn and take the scenic route.

FOMO

“Fear of Missing Out” is a term I only recently heard. I wasn’t late to this party; I just didn’t know what the fete was called. We are blessed to live in the Land of Opportunity and we like to make the most of every one of those opportunities. When it comes to vacations, Travel Channel and TripAdvisor have brought the world into our homes and heightened our awareness of all the extraordinary places to visit and experience on the planet. I often find that in planning a trip, I make an impossibly long list of everything I want to do and see. Self-imposed pressure to not miss a thing is a roadblock to my relaxation.

GUILT SHMILT

I’m not sure what it is about our society—or maybe it’s just me—but it seems like we feel guilty when we relax. Productivity is paramount, and with everyone manifesting all over the place, it can be tough to give ourselves permission to drop out of the production line. I am sure every European takes the customary month of August off without a shred of guilt. It’s time to let ourselves off the hook. Our kids, co-workers, and pets are fine without us. And if they are not, they are developing coping skills.

STAYING ONLINE

Unplug. For realz. Enough said.

 

Arriving at Rancho Bernardo Inn with my commitment to wellness at the forefront of my consciousness, I pulled up to the valet, grabbed my bag, and handed him my keys. My plan was to slow way down and evaluate every choice by it’s alignment with my wellness. After an easy check-in, I dropped my bag in the room and headed to the spa. On the wellness-scale, a “Heaven and Hops” treatment is a no-brainer. My therapist oiled me, massaged me, scrubbed me with crushed grape seed and olive oils, slathered me with barley and hops, and wrapped me like a burrito in warm towels. When my muscles were the consistency of pudding, and my mind was sufficiently empty and free, she showered me, stuck a pint of craft beer in my hand, and then led me to my own private poolside cabaña where I stayed all day. I read a book. I took a dip in the pool. I had the pool boy bring me a salad. I watched the birds. I finished the book. I drank water. I watched the butterflies. I relaxed. Here is what I didn’t do: worry about paying bills, check my email, think about the freelance gig I was trying to land, wonder if my son was having a good day at school, try to figure out what snacks to bring his soccer game that weekend, wonder why that guy I met the other night hadn’t called yet…you get the idea. I was successfully present to what was happening in the moment.

Back at my room, I unfurled the provided yoga mat and saluted the setting sun, falling into a slow yin practice and pranayama. With each inhalation, I felt the pull to go do something: to get dressed and check out the scene at the lounge, to try one of the restaurants. With each exhalation, I let the restless energy go. It’s not that going out would have been relaxing, quite the opposite. But in that moment, with the limited time I had, what served my wellness most was stillness. I ordered in, drew a bath, and ate dinner in bed with a movie.

The rest of my stay looked exactly the same. Checking out, I found myself longing for more time. The post-vacay melancholy was making an early appearance. So I used my drive home wisely by developing a strategy for a graceful reentry. It comes down to these two things:

  1. Take a day or two to fully integrate (with a longer vacation, three or four days). In other words, go easy on the productivity and manifesting. Take care of business and let the chores go. Or, do some laundry, but order in dinner for a couple of nights.
  1. Identify a peak moment of the vacation and define what made it powerful. Use that as a basis for ritual in daily life. For me it was the experience of being swaddled like a baby during my spa treatment. As a (blissfully) single woman, I rarely have the opportunity to be held. I forgot how therapeutic it can be to have the nervous system calmed by gentle constraint. Since that moment on the treatment table, I have climbed into bed under heavy blankets to get the same effect.

What I learned in my experiment is that, indeed, it is possible to have a truly restorative vacation. I’m not going to lie… I will often choose to have a whirlwind vacation filled with sightseeing by day and bar crawling by night, soaking in as much local culture as I can absorb—the kind of vacation that leaves you physically drained but even more mentally and spiritually full. But, after seeing the restorative effects of slowing down, turning in, and simply choosing wellness, I am much more likely to schedule in some downtime during such a trip with some stillness in the midst of perpetual motion. And I will always make a plan for a mindful reentry.

 

9 Essentials for a Truly Restorative Wellness Retreat

1 SLEEP  According to the CDC, sleep deprivation has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Sufficient sleep is the foundation of wellness. Use your wellness retreat to catch up and to feel what it is like to experience a full night of sleep.

2 STILLNESS  Taking the opportunity to slow way down will disengage the sympathetic nervous system, allowing you to reprogram your brain. Meditate, soak in a hot tub, take a sauna, lie in a hammock, and let your brain unwind.

3 MOVEMENT  Just as we tend to lack mental stillness in our daily lives, we also tend not to move our bodies enough. Go for a run, play golf, take a yoga class, or swim laps. Moving your body gets the blood pumping, increasing oxygen to your organs, including your brain.

4 READ  Let your mind travel from its everyday focus, along with the rest of you. Whether you choose a novel, a magazine, or the sutras, expanding your intellectual world can offer a healthy respite from your mental chatter.

5 NATURE  Intrinsic to wellness is balance. Connecting with the world around us reminds us that we are one small part of something much greater than ourselves and puts our own struggles into perspective.

6 NURTURE  There’s a fine line between self-care and self-indulgence. Make choices that promote your wellness. Moment-by-moment presence will help connect with what you really need for your own care and restoration.

7 NOURISH  Eat clean. You know what makes you feel good and healthy. Everyone’s system is unique. Listen to your body and choose well. And hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

8 GRATITUDE  “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” —Eckhart Toll

Transforming Suffering: Tonglen

These days, it is easy to be aware of the suffering in the world. All we have to do is turn on the news, open the newspaper, or scroll down our Facebook newsfeeds to get a clear sense of the struggle to find peace in the world—as individuals, and in local and global communities. As witnesses to suffering, it is natural to seek peace by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. In this sense, the practice of Tonglen is counterintuitive, but it is one of the bravest and most powerfully transformative practices in the Buddhist tradition.

Tonglen translates simply to “Giving and Receiving”. The focus of the practice is not to turn away from suffering, but to connect with it, everywhere we go. As the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us.”

Begin to familiarize yourself with this powerful practice by focusing on someone you know personally who needs some relief. Perhaps a friend or relative who is ill or suffering a loss of some kind. Once you become more comfortable with the practice, you can extend your focus to groups of people who share a particular set of circumstances. You can even practice a quick on-the-spot Tonglen whenever you notice someone suffering as you move through the world on a daily basis by breathing in darkness and breathing out light. It’s a generous way to embody the words of Gandhi and “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Tonglen Practice as described by Roshi Joan Halifax:

  • Sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You want to feel relaxed and open.
  • Begin by breathing in whatever you are feeling—fear, agitation, anger, resistance—and accepting it. On the exhalation breathe out well-being. Continue until you feel settled.
  • On your inbreath imagine that you are inhaling heavy, hot air. On your outbreath visualize exhaling cool, light air. Continue with this pattern—breathing in heaviness and breathing out lightness—until it is familiar to you. The heaviness is suffering; the lightness is well-being. Now imagine that you are breathing through all the pores of your body. On the inbreath heavy, hot air enters every pore. On the outbreath, cool light flows from every pore.
  • Now visualize a metal sheath around your heart. This metal sheath is everything about you that is difficult for you to accept: your self-importance, selfishness, self-cherishing, self-pity. Dissolve this metal sheath and open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness.
  • The reason you are doing this practice is that you are suffering, others are suffering, and you wish with all your heart that all beings could be free from suffering. This wish needs to be specific, personal, and sincere. Bring to your mind some being, dead or alive, with whom you feel a deep connection. You would do anything to help this one. Be with this one and feel what she is experiencing. Let your whole being turn toward her suffering and your wish that it might be relieved. See how vulnerable she is. Like a mother who will do anything to help her child, you will do anything to help your friend.
  • Visualize the suffering of your beloved as polluted, hot smoke and breathe it in through your whole body. The instant that the inbreath of suffering touches the metal sheath of self-centeredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart, and your heart opens to the suffering. The hot smoke instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space spontaneously arises an outbreath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, light, and spacious healing breath to your friend.
  • Let this one friend’s suffering remind you of the many others who find themselves suffering in the same way. This friend is your connection to them. Breathe in their suffering. Let your heart break open. Send them healing with your outbreath. Continue with this practice.

Fall into the Gap: Primordial Sound Meditation

Deepak Chopra created Primordial Sound Meditation in the tradition of Transcendental Meditation (TM), originated by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Both use the repetition of mantra to alter one’s consciousness and reach a state of restful awareness. Usually a mantra is given directly by a guru. With Maharishi’s permission, Dr. Chopra and his partner, Dr. David Simon, developed a way of ascertaining an individual’s mantra according to the time and date of their birth. Essentially, your personal mantra is the sound the universe was making at the moment you were born. The Chopra Center incorporates mantra initiation into all their programs. It is also wonderfully effective to use the mantra, “So Hum,” for the Primordial Sound Meditation. So Hum is a Sanskrit phrase that translates roughly as, “I am that.”

Primordial Sound Meditation:

Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Take a slow, deep breath through your nose while thinking the word, “So.” Exhale slowly through your nose while thinking the word, “Hum.” Continue breathing easily, while silently repeating, “So…Hum…” with each inflow and outflow of breath. Whenever your attention drifts to thoughts in your mind, sounds in your environment, or sensations in your body, gently return awareness to your breath, silently repeating the mantra. Continue this process for 20 minutes with an attitude of effortlessness and simplicity. When the time is up, sit with your eyes closed for a couple of minutes before resuming your regular activity.

Tips:

Maintain an attitude of “no resistance” during meditation. Relinquish your need to control or anticipate what is occurring during the practice.

You mind will drift off into a stream of thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts will be almost dreamlike and other times you may feel that you are just thinking with your eyes closed. In either case, when you remember that your attention has drifted away from your breath and the mantra, gently return to it.

Eventually, you will have the experience of a thoughtless state. Your mind is silent and your body is deeply relaxed. This is called “going into the gap.” With regular practice, the inner silence you experience in the gap will infuse every aspect of your life.

Peeling Potatoes: Zen Meditation

American pop culture has embraced the word Zen as an adjective to convey serenity or simplicity. “I am so Zen. This guy cut right in front of me in line at Starbucks and I just smiled and told him I liked his shirt.” Perhaps you have one of those novelty trays of sand for your desk with a tiny rake and a few stones: a “Zen Rock Garden”. The mainstream perception of “Zen” makes some sense, though its true essence is far more complex in it’s simplicity than its common use suggests.

Zen is a school of Buddhism that developed in China during the 6th century, and later spread to Japan, Korea and Viet Nam. It emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment through direct, personal insight into Buddhist teachings, rather than through the study of scriptures and doctrines. As the great philosopher, speaker and self-described Zennist, Alan Watts said, “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”

The focus of Zen is finding spirituality by discovering the self in the ordinary, dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts: “Sun is warm. Grass is green.” Though the true and full practice of Zen involves working individually with a master teacher in the confines of a monastery, the essense of Zen can be incorporated through the practice of Zazen.

Zazen:

Zazen literally means “seated meditation” and is a focused investigation into the nature of the self by subtly abandoning anything that resists the simplicity of just being.

  1. Body Position: Settle into the stillness of a seated Buddha position with an upright spine and a slight curve at the base of the spine, assisted by a cushion that subtly tilts the pelvis eliminating any strain. Gently fold the legs so the knees touch the floor and create a stable triangular base. Hands can be held in “cosmic mudra” as pictured.
  2. Facial Postion: Gazing 2-3 feet in front of you, keep the eyes mostly covered by the lids, lessening the need for frequent blinking. Gently press the tongue on the roof of the mouth and swallow once, creating a seal that will lessen the need for frequent swallowing. The chin is slightly tucked in.
  3. Breathing: Breathing naturally and through the nose, begin stabilizing the mind by counting the breaths up to ten. Then begin again. At first, count each inhalation and exhalation separately. When you are able to stay with the counting without drifting and repeat it several times, start counting each pair of inhalation and exhalation as a pair. Eventually you will be able to abandon the counting altogether and just be with the breath.

Meditation in Motion: Vipassana Walking Meditation

Vipassana is a meditation technique that focuses on the deep connection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to physical sensation. This style traces directly to the way the Buddha himself practiced, and although non-sectarian, it is common to all Buddhist traditions. What we commonly call Mindfulness Meditation is rooted in Vipassana.

Most people think of meditation as sitting quietly, but traditional Buddhist teachings identify four meditation postures: sitting, walking, standing, and lying down. Walking meditation brings a number of benefits in addition to mindfulness: awareness, concentration, and stamina.

Buddhist teacher and Theraveda monk, Gil Fronsdal says, “In our daily lives, we spend more time walking than sitting quietly with our eyes closed. Walking meditation can serve as a powerful bridge between meditation practice and daily life, helping us to be more present, mindful, and concentrated in ordinary activities. It can reconnect us to a simplicity of being and the wakefulness that comes from it.”

Formal Walking Meditation:

Find a path 30 to 40 feet in length and simply walk back and forth. When you come to the end of your path, come to a full stop, turn around, stop again, and then start again. Walking back and forth on a single path allows your mind to disengage from negotiating the path. Keeping your eyes cast down, settle into a slow, easy pace. Bring your awareness to your legs and feet, and the physical sensations of walking. Labeling each step as “left, right,” or simply, “stepping, stepping,” will help you stay present. Try to dedicate your attention to the sensations of walking and let go of everything else. When thoughts or feelings come up, turn your focus back to the physical sensation of walking. Though there is no prescribed length of time for a walking meditation, a minimum of 20 minutes will allow the mind and body to more fully surrender to the process.