One of the nice things about meditation is that when we sit with these moments as they arise, we start to trust in them and in the dark grace.
After meditating with my first meditation teacher, Arvis, for some time, I decided to do a weeklong silent Zen meditation retreat. Arvis said, “I feel good about a teacher named Jakusho Kwong up at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center. Maybe that would be a good place for you to go.” I was excited to experience an authentic retreat in a Zen Buddhist temple with all the accoutrements — the bells, the robes, the rituals, the whole thing.
I got there in the late afternoon, and the retreat was scheduled to start in the early evening. After we had dinner, we went into the Zendo for the first meditation session. It was a very formal place, and I had no idea what the etiquette was. There was minimal instruction, so I learned what I was supposed to be doing by watching other people, which heightened my awareness right away. I sat down on my cushion with all my gleeful anticipation about this experience as the temple bell was struck three times to begin the period of meditation.
As soon as that bell rang, adrenaline flooded my body. It was not fear, but my whole system went into fight-or-flight mode. All I could think was, How do I get out of here? Let me out of here! which is silly because five seconds earlier I was thrilled about being there.
Fortunately, a small, quiet voice inside me said, You have no idea how important this is. You must stay. So even though I had adrenaline rushes twenty-four hours a day for five days and nights in a row, I did not sleep throughout the entire retreat, and I contemplated leaving many times, I managed to hang in there — barely — and finish. Not an auspicious beginning for a future spiritual teacher, but that is what happened. I never knew exactly why I had that reaction, but I have a hunch. When you undertake a retreat like that, something deep within you knows, Oh, boy, the jig is up now. This is not make-believe. This is the real thing. Something in me knew that this was going to be a complete life reorientation. I did not realize this consciously, but unconsciously my ego reacted as if threatened: This is it. This guy is considering the nature of his own being as far as the egoic impulse running the rest of life.
In some ways, my first retreat was a disaster. The only thing that got me through was a mantra I came up with on the second day. Thousands of times over those five nights and days, I said to myself: I will never, ever, ever do this again. That was my big spiritual mantra!
One of the things that impressed me during that retreat was that Kwong — the roshi, or teacher — gave a talk each day, and that talk was my respite because I got to sit and listen and be entertained. It was a relief from the bone-jarring meditation, the never-ending silence, and the pain in my knees and back. Kwong had recently returned from a trip to India that had a huge impact on him. I could tell because as he was recounting stories about his trip, tears streamed down his cheeks and dripped off the bottom of his chin.
See also Try This Durga-Inspired Guided Meditation for Strength
One story especially touched me. Kwong was walking on a dirt road through an impoverished area. There were some kids playing a game with a ball and a stick out in the middle of the road. One kid stood apart from the group, as if ostracized. This boy was watching the kids play and had a sad look on his face. He had a cleft palate, so his upper lip was severely deformed. Kwong walked up to the boy, but they did not speak the same language, so he did not know what to say. There was a moment of indecision, and then Kwong took the boy’s hand in his and with his other hand reached into his pocket and pulled out some money. He pointed to a little shop that sold ice cream and gave the money to the boy. I thought it was a sweet way of giving a little comfort and acknowledging this poor kid’s existence, his loneliness.
As Kwong did this, he gestured to the group of children that seemed to have rejected the boy as if to say, “Go get them and buy them ice cream.” He had given the child enough money to buy treats for all the kids. The boy waved to them and pointed toward the ice cream shop, and all the children joined this one kid who had been lonely and sad. Suddenly he was the hero! He had money and was buying ice cream for everybody. The kids were laughing and talking with him. He was included in their group.
Kwong sat in full lotus position on his cushion in his beautiful brown teacher’s robes and told this story in a resonant, soft voice, deeply touched by the poverty that he saw and by the loneliness of that child. He never hid his tears, and he never seemed embarrassed by his emotion. Watching another man embody this juxtaposition of great strength and tenderness taught me more about true masculinity than anything else in my life. Hearing him speak with such fearlessness was extraordinary. For a young, aspiring Zen student, to have this be my first encounter with a Zen master was a tremendous stroke of good luck and grace, especially since during this whole retreat, except for the talks, I was hanging on by a thread. I continued to study with Kwong, did some retreats with him over the years, and appreciated his great wisdom, but I never again saw him in the state he was in on that first retreat. His openness and dignity were a powerful teaching — it was like being bathed in grace.
Since then I have attended and led hundreds of retreats, but I still look back on that first one with Kwong as both the absolute worst and absolute best in my life. I did not know how powerfully it had affected me until months later. Staying with whatever arose for me despite being flooded with adrenaline, sitting with it in a raw way through all those hours of meditation instead of running away, was profound. When you are having that experience, when you are being pushed to your limit, you do not think of it as grace, but the real grace was that I was in that environment. I was in a place where I could not go anywhere, where I could not turn on the TV or listen to the radio or grab a book or enter a discussion. I had to face the entirety of my experience. Afterward, when I tried to describe the retreat to people, I would end up in tears — not tears of sadness or even of joy, but of depth. I had touched upon something that was so meaningful, vital, and important that it opened my heart.
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Meditation Helps You Feel Your Feelings
As we go through life, we eventually have enough experience to see that sometimes profound difficulty can also be profoundly heart opening. When you are in a tough position, when you are facing something hard, when you feel challenged, when you feel like you are at your edge, it is a gift to have the willingness to stop, to sit with those moments, and not to look for the quick, easy resolution for that feeling. It is a kind of grace to be able and willing to open yourself entirely to the experience of challenge, of difficulty, and of insecurity.
There is light grace, and there is dark grace. Light grace is when you have a revelation — when you have insights. Awakening is a light grace; it is like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. The heart opens, and old identities fall away. Then there is dark grace, like what I had on that retreat. I do not mean “dark” in the sense of sinister or evil, but “dark” in the sense of traveling through the darkness looking for light. You cannot see the way through whatever you are experiencing and whatever the challenge is. One of the most amazing things that daily meditation has taught me over many years is to have the wisdom and grace to quietly and silently be with whatever presents itself, whatever is there, without looking for a solution or an explanation.
To see yourself is the heart of what a spiritual discipline like meditation is all about. When people come on retreat with me, we meditate for five or six periods a day. The idea of meditation is not necessarily to get good at it — whatever your definition may be of being “good” at meditation — but the most important thing, the useful thing, the reason we are meditating is so that we encounter ourselves. If you are not using your meditation to hide from your experience or to transcend it or to concentrate your way out of it, if you are being quietly present, meditation forces honesty. It is an extraordinarily truthful way to experience yourself in that moment. This willingness to encounter yourself is vitally important. It is a key to spiritual life and to awakening: being present for whatever is. Sometimes “whatever is” is mundane; sometimes it is full of light, grace, and insight; and sometimes it begins as a dark grace, where we do not know where we are going or how to get through it, and then suddenly there is light.
One of the nice things about meditation is that when we sit with these moments as they arise, we start to trust in them and in the dark grace. We realize that it is in feeling lost that our true nature finds itself. In meditation we encounter ourselves, and it elicits a real honesty if we are ready for it. You can read about things forever, you can listen to talks forever, and you can assume that you understand or that you have got it, but if you can be with yourself in a quiet way without running away, that is the necessary honesty. When we can do nothing and be extraordinarily happy and at peace with that, we have found tranquility within ourselves.
Through experience, we find we can trust the moments when we do not know which way to go, when we feel like we will never have the answers. We know we can stop there and listen. This is the heart of meditation: it is the act of listening in a deep way. You could boil all of spirituality down to the art and practice of listening to nothing and trusting in the difficulty. That is what I learned on that first retreat. It taught me that a direct encounter with challenge is a doorway to accessing our depth, coming face-to-face with our most important thing, and being able to trust in the unfolding of our life.
As a teacher, one of the things I see is the failure of people to trust their lives — their problems and sometimes even their successes. It is a failure to trust that their life is its own teacher, that within the exact way their human life is expressing itself lies the highest wisdom, and that they can access it if they can sit still and listen. If they can sink into themselves, their own nobody-ness, and allow difficulty to strip them of their somebody-ness, then they can do away with the masks of their persona. Spiritually speaking, this is exactly what we want: to remove the masks. Sometimes we take them off willingly, sometimes they fall away, and sometimes they are torn off.
Unmasking is the spiritual path. It is not about creating new masks — not even spiritual masks. It is not about going from being a worldly person to a spiritual person or trading a spiritual ego for a materialistic ego. It is a matter of authenticity and of the capacity to trust life, even if life has been tremendously tough. It is stopping right where you are and entering profound listening, availability, and openness. If you feel wonderful, you feel wonderful; if you feel lost, you feel lost, but you can trust in being lost. You can do this without talking to yourself about it and without creating a story around it. We must find that capacity to trust ourselves and to trust our life — all of it, whatever it is — because that is what allows the light to shine and revelation to arise.
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We see it when we stop and listen, not with our ears and not with our mind, but with our heart, with a tender and intimate quality of awareness that opens us beyond our conditioned ways of experiencing any moment. My first retreat, as difficult as it was, taught me that the most amazing things can come out of the most difficult experiences if we dedicate ourselves to showing up for the situation. That is the heart of meditation and the heart of what it takes to discover who and what we are as we turn away from external things and toward the source of love, the source of wisdom, the source of freedom and happiness within. That is where you will find your most important thing.
Excerpted from The Most Important Thing: Discovering Truth at the Heart of Life by Adyashanti. Copyright ©2018 by Adyashanti. Published by Sounds True in January 2019.
This is the Reason I Take the Subway 45 Minutes Uptown to Work Out—Even Though There’s a Gym On My Block
Here’s why one yogi opts for inconvenience, all in the name of her meditation practice.
“Wait, what? Why?” is often the response I get when people discover that I belong to a gym on the Upper East Side, a 45-minute commute—each way—from my Brooklyn home.
It makes no sense.
My neighborhood is chock-full of ways to stay fit, including a pool down the road and a Crunch, SoulCycle, and Orangetheory each less than a mile away. Not to mention, I have the lush green Prospect Park in my backyard, complete with a 3.4-mile paved loop that’s ideal for walking, running, or biking year round, free of charge.
So why exactly do I choose to spend 90 minutes of my day, two to three times a week, on the train to chase an endorphin high? The answer is simple: I use the commute time for my Transcendental Meditation practice.
See also YJ Tried It: 30 Days of Guided Sleep Meditation
How I Stick to My Meditation Practice
Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is a mantra-anchored practice brought from India via the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the guy who taught the Beatles) to the U.S. between the 1950s and 1970s. I picked up the popular practice (along with some six million people worldwide) in 2013 as a means to quell my anxiety, which was manifesting in the form of perpetual stomachaches.
After months of taking herbal supplements and getting regular acupuncture with no improvement in my symptoms, I turned to TM, learning the practice from a well-respected teacher at the David Lynch Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2005 by the renowned film director to help fund TM training for underserved students, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, victims of domestic abuse, and a slew of anxious folks, like me.
Within months of working with the wise and wonderful Joanna Pitt, who also teaches lots of celebs, my tummy troubles subsided, and I suddenly had an amazing new tool in my belt for managing stress.
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The trouble with my meditation is—much like my workouts—if I don’t plan it, it doesn’t happen. While I wish I could be one of those disciplined practitioners who subscribe to RPM (rise, pee, meditate) first thing in the morning, I always prefer to hit snooze or scroll through Instagram in bed. So, when I started going to TS Fitness, a boutique workout studio run and owned by Noam Tamir, I decided to use 20 minutes of my 45-minute New York City subway commute to disconnect from the outside world (there’s little to no Wifi underground, thankfully), and reconnect within.
The Art of Meditating on a Train
Meditating on a loud train is not easy, at first. It takes effort to zone out the external and home in on the internal. This is one reason why I love TM. Whenever my mind starts to wander to the conversation next to me or the music playing from the boombox of the subway performers, I come back to my sacred mantra—a personalized, meaningless, one- or two-syllable sound prescribed to me by Pitt—which helps me come back to my breath and calms my mind.
Once I’ve succumbed to the bewitching practice, it almost always helps me enter a state of total rest and relaxation. (In fact, I often return to reality after my 20-minute session half asleep, which, unfortunately, is not a great headspace for high-intensity interval training.)
While TM officially calls for two 20-minute sessions a day, I’m very happy sneaking in two to three 20-minute sessions a week. It might not seem like much, but it does accumulate over time, which means that I still get to enjoy some of the benefits of a consistent practice. Sure, it would be way better if I practiced twice daily. It would also be great if I ate broccoli every day. But let’s be real.
See also The Science Behind Finding Your Mantra and How to Practice It Daily
The good news is, I can make every train ride—not just my commute to the gym—an opportunity to get my TM fix. After a couple of years of TM-ing on the train, I’ve developed a Pavlov’s dogs response to meditating during every ride, even if it’s just 10 minutes. Actually, just yesterday, I only had a seven-minute train ride and I still managed to slip in and out of my practice with ease, enjoying the benefits of a few moments of calm before a client meeting. And I’ve learned that taking advantage of any free moment—whether it’s my train, waiting at a doctor’s office, or sitting on a plane—is one of the best and easiest ways to maintain my practice and reap the rewards.
Try This Durga-Inspired Guided Meditation for Strength
Here’s how to call on this powerful diety when you need your strength
Become aware of the Durga shakti as a shimmering presence around you.
You can visualize her seated on her lion (sometimes she rides a tiger—see which feels right to you!). Her dark hair streams over her shoulders. She wears a golden crown, necklaces, rings, bracelets, and a scarlet silk sari. See her magnificent arms, strong and bristling with weapons: bow, sword, trident, mace, discus. See also the lotus she carries. Offer your salutations to her.
Ask her: “What is the major inner obstacle I have to face now? What do I need to let go of? What should I be paying more attention to?”
Or, ask her for guidance in a decision or for the strength to stand up for something you know is right. Close your eyes and ask the question in your heart.
Begin to write. Let the writing come naturally, without thought. Keep writing until you feel there is no more to say. Look over what you have written. Offer the obstacles to Durga, saying, “I offer all this to the Durga shakti, asking that your grace dissolve all obstacles, inner and outer.”
Now, with an inhalation, feel that you breathe in the goddess’s energy.
Exhaling, feel that you breathe it through your body and into the world.
When you come out of meditation, see if you can move with the feeling that you are walking or moving with the power of the Durga energy. Walk with the sense that Durga is walking. Speak with the sense that Durga’s power comes through your words. Notice how you feel when you let yourself be filled by the energy of Durga.
See also 10 Best Yoga and Meditation Books, According to 10 Top Yoga and Meditation Teachers
Meditation Improves Leadership Skills
Mindfulness research suggests that meditation increases emotional intelligence, attention, memory, creativity, and resilience. Wildly successful business leaders such as Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Arianna Huffington credit meditation for their ability to lead with compassion and a competitive advantage.
About the Author
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It. Find her at sallykempton.com.
YJ Tried It: 30 Days of Guided Sleep Meditation
Want to snag more (and better quality) sleep, and always wondered if meditating at night might help? See what happens when one Yoga Journal editor tries 30 days of sleep meditation.
Meditation is non-negotiable when it comes to my everyday routine.
Most of the time, my meditation practice consists of dragging my Sugarmat meditation cushion out from under my living room couch into the small area of floor space I have in my tiny New York City apartment. From there, I pull out my smart phone, launch the Calm app, and listen to the #dailycalm—a 10-minute guided meditation led my Tamara Levitt. While the guided meditation I listen to changes every day, I can always count on learning something new and finding my center in 10 minutes flat. On days I have more time, I go to MNDFL, a meditation studio in Manhattan and Brooklyn, for a longer sit.
I have been using the Calm app for more than a year and have found that holding myself accountable to meditating 10 minutes a day is realistic. Even better, it has had a noticeable impact on my life. I’m, well, calmer. I feel more grounded. I’m less likely to react to things like a pushy New Yorker or late subway train.
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So, while I’m not someone who struggles to fall asleep, I do notice that even after 7 to 8 hours of shut-eye, fatigue hits me throughout the day. I’ll be answering e-mails trying to fight the urge to curl up for a 20-minute power nap. (I work from home most days, so this is especially tempting.) Or, I’ll have to do something for a quick hit of energy—pounding a pint of water, or dancing around my living room—after a long day of work and before I teach yoga in the evening. Could my quality of shut-eye be lacking? And could sleep meditation help?
To answer these questions, I set a goal to try 30 days of guided sleep meditation every night before bed. Disclosure: There were a few nights that I bailed on my bedtime meditations because, well, life. But after at least 25 days of sleep meditation, I have a lot to say about the practice.
Sleep Meditation: What’s Happening in Calm Sleep Stories?
I started my month-long sleep meditation adventure using the Calm app, which has a feature called “Sleep Stories.” Essentially, it’s a library filled with soothing bedtime tales for grown-ups, narrated by the dreamiest of voices (think Matthew McConaughey, Leona Lewis, Stephen Fry, and Calm’s very own, Tamara Levitt).
“We integrate mindfulness elements into sleep stories in a very deliberate way, giving the stories a grounding, calming quality,” says Christian Slomka, Calm’s community manager and a yoga and mediation instructor. “Instead of an elaborate buildup, Sleep Stories are a gradual unwind.”
There are three main elements of Calm’s sleep stories:
1. Find an Anchor
Slomka says the sleep stories are geared to helping listeners focus their attention on an anchor—usually the breath—to quiet the mind and help shift the listener away from overactive thoughts. As the character in the story travels along her journey, she is fully immersed in the present moment. The thinking is that the listener will experience this immersion along with the sleep story’s character.
2. Practice Body Awareness and Relaxation Techniques
Another mindfulness element that sleep stories touch on is body awareness and relaxation. When a story opens, the narrator walks the listener through a brief body scan exercise to help quiet the mind and relax the body. Throughout the story, the character also scans through her sensations, and the hope is that the listener does the same.
3. Sensory Awareness
The way the scenes in each sleep story are described cultivates a sense of sensory awareness. Mindfulness involves perceiving ordinary moments with curiosity, a beginner’s mind, and a sense of wonder, says Slomka. One way to experience this is by coming into contact with nature. The idea is to observe the beauty of nature in all its exquisite detail: the colors of a flower, the movements of a bird, the sounds of a river, the smells of a forest. This attentive observation keeps the listener in present moment awareness.
See also Get Your Sit Together: 7 Best Meditation Cushions to Support Your Practice
Week 1 of Sleep Meditation: Am I doing this “right”?
Imagine the quintessential New York City hustle—then, imagine me in it.
I wake up at 5 a.m. on the regular, teach yoga in the morning, work out, plow through a full work day, and sometimes even teach yoga again at night. So, you’d better believe that when my head hits the pillow at night, I’m out like a light. When I began this challenge, I decided to make a conscious effort to not only try to go to bed early, but to actually start winding down before leaping under the covers (a.k.a. not scrolling through Instagram or watching Netflix before bed). Sounds dreamy, right?
The first week of my sleep meditation was extremely frustrating. Maybe it was because I’m impatient and didn’t notice a difference after a few days. Or maybe it’s because this sleep meditation challenge just felt like another task on my long to-do list at first. Also, I would fall asleep within the first 5 minutes of each 25-minute sleep story, which, looking back, was a good sign. But during the first few days, I was annoyed at my inability to stay awake and listen to more of the story.
But around day 5, I discovered that Calm’s sleep stories were designed to mimic the kind of bedtime stories most of us experienced when we were kids, which means the whole point of them was to lull me into a deep, restful sleep—not keep me awake, on the edge of my seat.
At the end of my first week of sleep meditation, I stopped judging myself for whether or not I was doing it “correctly” and focused instead on how grateful I was to be able to fall asleep.
See also This Simple Meditation Will Help You Get in Touch with Your True Self
Week 2 of Sleep Meditation: Building Intention and Awareness Around Sleep
After the first week, incorporating sleep meditation into my nightly routine became second nature. I would climb into bed, ignore any lingering texts, switch my phone to sleep mode, and turn on my sleep story. From the moment each sleep story began, my mind started to move with the story. However, my skepticism continued. Was this new practice really helping my quality of sleep—or would I have gone to sleep just as easily without the guided meditation?
It wasn’t until I went a day without the sleep story that I realized how much of an impact it was having on me. On night No. 12, I skipped my sleep story—and I woke up every hour, on the hour.
Whether it was the intention behind setting myself up for sleep, or something about these sleep meditations that was improving my sleep quality, I realized that if I wanted to sleep well, I would have to make an effort to do so—not just let my head hit the pillow.
See also The 9-Minute Meditation You Need to Create More Space in Life
Week 3 of Sleep Meditation: Appreciation
On Day 16, my appreciation for sleep meditation hit an all-time high. A few minutes in to my sleep story, I noticed my attention effortlessly shifted from what had happened that day and what I had to do the next day to the story. It was almost like the person leading the sleep story gave me the permission I needed to let go of the day and let my mind and body go to sleep—instantly. I started looking forward to my sleep meditations—a sign any seasoned meditator will tell you is one that means your new meditation habit will likely stick.
See also 7 Simple Ways to Call in More Joy—and Feel Less Stressed
Week 4 of Sleep Meditation: Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
The final week of my 30-day sleep meditation challenge was filled with travel, holiday crazies, and pretty much zero normalcy when it came to my sleep. Which is why I went a few days without sleep stories each night.
The result? After a typical 7 hours of snoozing, I woke up feeling tired and sluggish—not well-rested, like I had been after falling asleep to my sleep meditation. Which is when it hit me: Just like my daily meditation practice keeps me energized and focused during the day, the quality of my sleep is determined by what happens right before I go to sleep.
My biggest realization at the end of this month-long challenge is that whether you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, how you set yourself up for sleep is critical.
Thanks to sleep meditation, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in my sleeping habits. Even when I don’t listen to a sleep story to help me drift off, I am way more conscious of the way I set myself up to go to sleep. And for those nights when I do feel like I could use a little help, I know a sweet bedtime tale read by Matthew McConaughey is just a click away.
See also This One Simple Practice Will Change How You Feel About Yourself
About the Author
Bridget “Bee” Creel is the editorial producer for Yoga Journal. She works as a yoga teacher in NYC and is the co-founder of the wellness community, Mood Room.
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