Back in October, I signed up for a five day silent retreat/meditation with the Teton Yoga Sangha, a community which supports silent meditation and dharma study in northwestern Wyoming.
The Sangha follows a type of insight meditation otherwise termed Vipassana, a simple and accessible vehicle for opening the heart, clearing the mind and living in a peaceful and free manner. Vipassana meditation is derived from 2500 years of Buddhist teachings and it’s anything but SIMPLE in my experience. I lovingly nicknamed Vipassana the ‘kick ass’ style of all meditations.
One of my yoga students invited me to this five-day retreat. She explained that she is particularly ‘good’ at meditating because being naturally ‘lazy,’ it comes easy for her. In her defense I would say Meditation is NOT for the lazy, it’s for the dedicated and disciplined.
Yogi Bhajan says, “Meditation is cleaning house, when you meditate the entire garbage of the subconscious starts floating. Meditation is not pleasant. It cannot be pleasant, otherwise it is not meditation. Meditation is just cleaning the house.”
Sounds delightful doesn’t it?
Well I did sign up for this retreat, not knowing we would be sitting in Vipassana meditation for six hours a day. Our meditation time was broken up into increments of 45 minutes throughout the day, and at the end of the five days I could tell you how many minutes and seconds that equaled.
Talk about monkey mind, mine went berserk! I realized how entertaining, judgmental, fearful, remorseful, attached, and aversive I could be all in one 45 minute sitting.
The silent part of the retreat came easy for me; it was the requirement of being still in meditation that put me over the edge! I witnessed the fluctuations of my mind stuff up close and personal! Yet as my student and I left the retreat, joyfully and ecstatic that it was finally over, the most profound transformation came over me. I experienced a bliss that is hard to put into words. A teacher once told me ” there is no replacement for experience”. The after effect – or – post meditation bliss was quite an experience and decided after the retreat I’d take up meditation daily, even for 5 minutes. Let’s face it; 5 minutes is a piece of cake compared to six hours a day!
The hardest part is getting started so I’ve come up with a few simple guidelines:
# 1. Keep it Simple.
Allow your moment of meditation to be a natural part of your day. Forcing a time or over thinking your meditation time will create more stress.
I sit in the morning after I brew the coffee and feed the animals so there is no distraction. I bring my coffee cup to the meditation cushion! Yes, I really do! Whatever helps and keeps me there. I also let the dog and cat join me. I set a timer so my mind does not obsess with how many minutes have gone by and how many there are to go.
#2. Use a point of focus.
Oftentimes I start by observing my breath and practicing one of my favorite pranayamas. This sets the atmosphere for meditation. A visual focus can be helpful like a candle or a beautiful picture in which you observe all of the details in the picture.
#3. Find an appropriate physical posture.
We know that our physical posture affects our mental state. If you assume a posture that is too relaxed, especially if you lie down, chances are that your meditation will stray into drowsiness. If you hear someone snoring it could be you!
In Vipassana meditation, a “seven-point posture” is recommended:
i. The legs are crossed in the lotus position. Begin by folding the right leg over the left, then the left over the right. If this is too difficult, you can use the half-lotus posture, also known as the tailor’s pose. In which one foot rests on top of the opposite thigh and the other foot under the other thigh.
ii. The hands rest palms up, on the lap in the posture of equanimity, with the right hand on top of the left and the tips of the thumbs touching each other. A variation is letting the hands rest flat, palms down, on the knees.
iii. The shoulders are balanced, allowing a bit of space between the upper arms and the torso, so that the chest is open and relaxed and you can breathe freely.
iv. The spinal column is quite straight “like a pile of gold coins”
v. The chin is tucked in slightly toward the throat.
vi. The tip of the tongue touches the palate, near the front teeth.
vii. The eyes are wide open or half-closed, the gaze directed straight ahead or slightly downward, following the line of the nose.
If you have difficulty staying in lotus pose then it is fine to sit in a chair or on a raised cushion on the floor. The essential part is to maintain a balanced posture with the back straight, and follow the other posture points described above. When your spine is straight, the subtle energy channels will also be straight, and as a result, the mind will be clear.
Some Gentle Advice:
Maintain the continuity of meditation day after day, because in this way your practice gradually gains substance and stability. Short, repeated and regular sessions have a better chance of being high in quality than occasional long ones.
Whether your meditation session is enjoyable or irritating, easy or hard, the important thing is to persevere. If you get bored while meditating, this is not the fault of meditation itself but due to your lack of training.
It’s when you don’t feel like meditating that doing so may actually have the most beneficial effects, because at those times meditation is working directly against some obstacle that stands in the way of your spiritual progress.
And finally, haste and meditation do not go together: any profound transformation is bound to take time. The important thing to know is that if you remain patient, you’re headed in the right direction. In essence, what matters is not that you have an occasional transitory experience, like my post-retreat bliss, but to see that you have undergone a genuine and lasting change after a few months or years of practice.