Self Possession,Soul Retrieval and Concentrating the Life Force with the Habit of Practice

With all the demands and busy-ness of life it is easy for us to get scattered in so many different directions. Our focus and concentration can get dissipated to such an extent that we begin to feel a loss of inner balance. When we get off balance we may feel a loss of confidence or effectiveness in the purpose we’re pursing in life.

My experience of this became very apparent in the irregularity of my meditation practice recently. As I’ve tried to expand my practice and service to my community, maintaining my inner balance with increased demands has been challenging. This has been a signal for me to practice what I preach.

For me that begins with a renewed devotion to meditation practice. Meditation, for me, is a way to call back the disparate parts of myself that can get lost when I’m trying so hard to do all the things I think I should be doing. It’s a way to reconstitute my energy, life force, or prana in the language of yoga.This is my essence, my true being, the genuine expression of my unique individuality.

Meditation is literally a technique to cultivate the power of the human being in body, mind and soul. As we carefully watch the breath at each stage of inhalation and exhalation, we focus until we develop unwavering attention. Pausing at the top and bottom of the breath to reset our focus will then naturally become dharana, or concentration.

As we hold fast to our dharana, we soon make an almost imperceptible shift into dhyana or meditation. I liken this to the process of distilling spirits. The spiritual energy we circulate in meditation is condensed and purified until it infuses our whole being with its power. This is the life force that helps us accomplish our goals on the spiritual path.

But, as I have seen, if I allow myself to lapse in this regular practice, my life force can once again be diluted.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that spiritual success comes from constant practice. Like the New Testament admonition to pray without ceasing, we are encouraged by the Sutras to develop habits that become attitudes, always pointed in the direction of practice, faith and goodness.

We all have different ways to achieve our goals. One that works for me, and may work for you, is to make a written promise to your self. In your journal or any piece of paper, write a vow to yourself that you will practice at the same time for a particular number of days. Forty days, a particularly meaningful number in the Judeo Christian tradition, is challenging and meaningful. Persevering toward such a goal helps me build self respect. If there’s someone I don’t want to disappoint, it’s me. If I can keep my promises to myself, I’m more likely to keep my promises to others as well.

When you have fulfilled that promise it is easy to relax a bit. Personally that’s when I find that I begin to lose the potency that I had earned from concentrated practice. So, I’m challenging myself to renew my vows as they expire. This, I hope, will ingrain my spiritual habits within me to a point that they are no longer temporary but permanent.

Perhaps you’d like to try a 40 day practice as well. If you do, I’d love to hear how it goes for you. One thing is for certain: If we stick with our practice and renew our vows regularly, we will surpass our goals and find ourselves in fresh, amazing states of being that will lead to even greater fulfillment of our human potential.

All the best to you in your practice. May you be supported by the energies of all the saints past and present.

Om, Om, Om!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Basic Meditation Lesson

Some weeks ago on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR, I heard a famous Buddhist monk talking about the benefits of meditation. I was all ears, naturally. A caller to the show who found meditating difficult asked the monk for advice about how to achieve a better meditation. To my surprise and disappointment the monk simply told the man to keep practicing without inquiring about the details of his difficulty. Neither did the monk offer any technical advice that might have helped the student.

Meditation can be difficult at any time, especially in the beginning. The mind is a wild place full of distractions to keep us from achieving our natural state of bliss. With a little practice and perseverance ANYONE can develop a life-changing meditation practice.

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First, regardless of your religious tradition or lack of one, you can meditate. Meditation is found in all traditions. Atheists and agnostics can also meditate. Meditation is not about belief; it is simply about cultivating the mind. If you have a spiritual tradition, it will enhance your personal practice.

If you have a yoga asana (posture) practice, this will make meditation easier. The purpose of the physical culture of yoga asana is to strengthen the body to sit comfortably so that we can explore infinity without the distractions of a cranky joint or spine. Before you begin do a few yoga postures with deep breathing and attention on the breath and body. Developing a simple, regular asana practice will make meditation easier.

Now, find a quiet place. Sit in any comfortable way you like. Keep your back straight by grounding into the sitting bones of the pelvis. Be erect, but relaxed. A long, straight, spine and erect posture enable energy to travel efficiently through the body. Notice how you feel; listen to your body. If you need a pillow or other prop to help you feel comfortable, by all means use it. The word asana in yoga can be interpreted as “comfortable seat.”

Close your eyes if you feel safe to do so. If not, fix your gaze on a stationary object. A spot on the floor or wall will suffice. A yantra, or artistic yogic design is even better. Let your eyes be soft and out of focus.

Allow your breath to open up into your abdomen by using the diaphragm, the lateral sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdominal cavity. The belly should swell with each inhalation. If your belly retracts or sucks in during an inhalation, you are reverse breathing. This will build stress and prevents you from entering meditation. If you reverse breathe, spend a few minutes with your hands on your belly and practice abdominal/diaphragmatic breathing until it feels natural and easy.

(Note: In our culture we are encouraged to look fit and attractive by sucking in our bellies, throwing out our chests and pulling our shoulders back. This has led to an epidemic of reverse breathing which builds stress. Stress is a precursor and catalyst for disease.)

Begin to follow your breath with your attention. Watch as each cubic centimeter of breath enters and leaves your body. Concentrating on your breath with this kind of detail will help keep you focused. Slow your breath down gradually.

See if you can count ten breaths without losing count. If you can, begin again. Practice this for several rounds until it becomes easy. If you lose count, simply begin at one and try again. Please be kind to yourself without allowing your inner critic to judge you if you don’t succeed right away.

You may want to continue with this simple counting technique for awhile, which is just fine. You are developing the art of dharana, or concentration, one of the eight primary aspects of yoga. Dhr, the root of dharana, means to hold. So, we are learning to hold or focus our attention on a single object like the breath to the exclusion of all other objects. You are developing one pointed focus with dharana.

You may also consider using the following techniques to help you develop concentration. Mantra japa is a method of mentally repeating a brief combination of syllables, a mantra, to entrain the mind for meditation. The simple two syllable mantra of So Ham (pronounced Hum) is a Sanskrit term that means I Am or I Am That. It is a way for us to identity with the great All That Is or God or Universal Energy, what ever your conception of universal creative energy is. You could just as well use Blue Sky, White Clouds if thinking about divine energy disturbs you in any way. You can also use any word that has personal significance or sacred nature to you.

Another simple but effective tool for building concentration is a mala, or a string of beads similar to a rosary. The use of stringed beads for developing concentration is an ancient shamanic method that goes back to ancient times. Hold the beads in either hand and simply move one bead per breath as another way to reinforce your concentration.

This trio of devices, the breath, mantra and mala will help you build powerful concentration as you begin your meditation practice.

So, when does dharana or concentration become meditation or dhyana? This is a hard question to answer. When we have banished the fluctuations of the mind as Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutras, we have achieved meditation. Do not dwell on the distinction between these two aspects of yoga. Concentration naturally leads to meditation just as naturally as a river flows to the sea. The more we practice the easier it becomes.

So, there we have a basic lesson in meditation. Simple, right? Simple doesn’t always mean easy. As I said earlier, the mind is a wild place. I’ve heard the expression: The mind is like a monkey stung by a scorpion. It can careen in countless directions like a pinball machine. Practice this method regularly and you will begin to get results. You will be able to achieve a strong, peaceful disposition that is resilient to the storms of life. A mind trained in meditation is a mind that can help you achieve your loftiest goals as you sail smoothly above depression. Meditation will help you accept life on its own terms as you navigate with purpose to reach a stronger state of being.

Begin with 5 minutes or so and then work your way up to whatever delivers good results. Many recommend 20 minutes twice a day. From my experience, the longer the meditation the deeper you go.

As you practice you will originate techniques that are unique to your style of meditation. The method I’ve taught here is one of many. This one works for me. Explore and see what you come up with. Infinity awaits. Sixteenth Century Christian Philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The questions we pose in meditation will always be answered with wisdom.

Please also refer to my posts about how meditation can change the physical state of your brain. The work of Harvard neurologist, Sara Lazar, shows the wonderful ways your brain changes with regular meditation.

Cultivating your mind through meditation is the beginning of realizing your full potential as a human being. You are as unlimited and boundless as the universe itself. You’re made from the same stuff as the stars. We are miniature replications of the universe. Meditation helps us remember our connection to infinity and helps us align ourselves with its unstinting energy.

As always, I would love to hear from you. Connecting with you inspires me as I hope it does you, too. Please, leave a comment. If there is some aspect of yoga you’d like me write about, please let me know. We are all on the same path. I would love to hear about your experiences, too. I am merely a student. If you have something to impart to me, please, I’d love to hear it. As we grow together in yoga, the world gets better for all of us.

Namaste’.

Gratitude and the Yoga of Boundless Potential

Though it may seem fairly cliché to look back at the end of the year and take stock of one’s life, it is nevertheless still a worthwhile action. During such times of reflection we are encouraged by the wise among us to practice gratitude for the goodness we’ve received and also for the challenging, difficult or less than perfect parts of our lives. Of course, it’s easy to give thanks when things go our way, but it takes some seasoning and maturity to see difficulty or misfortune as equal threads in the fabric of our lives.
This has been a personal problem for me. Even when things are good, I may often see them as not quite good enough. When serendipity comes my way I am apt to be glad of it, but also disappointed that the boon did not include some greater more satisfying aspect. This continuous grasping or lack of contentment defaces my joy and sours the honey of life’s treasures. It is a crime I commit against myself and the universe of all beings. When I trespass upon providence by criticizing the bounty of its measure I participate in a form of blasphemy. I not only issue a kind of childish psychic complaint, but I bruise or disable the conduit through which my blessings are generated.
Yoga, the ever-dependable universal tool box, offers two explicit and direct concepts to steer me away from my deficient attitudes: aparigraha and santosha.
Parigrah is synonymous with craving, greed, hoarding and possessiveness. The addition of the prefix “a” equals “non”. So by practicing aparigraha I may restrain myself from grasping, lusting and reaching for things in a way that upsets my mental/emotional balance. Upsetting myself in this way may sound benign, but it is the kind of calamity that can be compared to the capsizing of a boat; it can mean utter and complete disaster. Aparigraha and santosha are the attitudes that lead away from poverty toward practical, sustainable bounty.
Santosha helps me to embody the opposite of Parigrah; it is about contentment and satisfaction. Practicing santosha helps me to be comfortable where I am and with what I have in a full and complete way. The corrosive agent of malcontent on the other hand acts as a poison that leads to a chronic state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that will eventually present itself as dis-ease.
Satisfaction and contentment are also in perfect alignment with goal setting and achieving greater of expression of my potential. Indeed, santosha helps to me express confidence in the infinite supply of the universe as I connect with that generosity through my goals.
Coveting, hoarding and constant grasping are manifestations of fear, want and lack. If I allow fear to govern my approach to life I constrict the universal flow of plenty.
When I am gratefully content with my present situation the stage is set for me to receive the unlimited potential of all goodness.
Aparigraha and santosha come to us from the first limb of yoga, yama and niyama respectively. These are the ethical considerations of yoga or the precepts of wise living.
As we begin the year it is worthwhile to look back at where we’ve been and forward to where we’d like to go. Availing ourselves of all the eight limbs of yoga, beginning with yama and niyama, will serve us well as we integrate them into our lives. Indeed, they are here to assist us in achieving our yoga or union with the divine or the great unlimited power of universal creation.
May your new year be healthy, happy, prosperous and fulfilling as you practice the yoga of boundless potential.
As always I would love to hear from you about how yoga is transforming your life experiences.
Namaste,
Tim

Yoga And Basic Virtue

As we walk through this wondrous, if baffling experience called life, we encounter rules, maxims, commandments, sutras and all manner of recommendations for our conduct as we go. No doubt many of these are instructive and valuable, the golden rule probably being perhaps the best example. Treating others the way we want to be treated is the best way to create good relationships with all beings. Patanjali made it first among his precepts for living when he enunciated ahimsa or non-harming in the Yoga Sutras. Even though the general idea of basic kindness is enshrined in religious doctrine across all traditions we still fail to master this most elementary of principles.

Recently I’ve heard rumblings from some quarters of certain political persuasions that kindness, love and goodness as a concepts for behavior in the sophisticated matters of political action are naïve and unrealistic. That strikes me as shockingly cynical and nihilistic. But this leads us to the age-old problem that may yet seem to have no satisfactory solution: the problem of goodness and its seeming impotence in the face of unremitting evil.

Perhaps these objections rise because concepts like love, kindness and goodness are often times just the hollow offerings of equally hollow traditions whose clean fingernails belie that fact they’ve never gotten down to the business of practicing the virtues they preach.

The problem with virtue, many people believe, is that there is no guarantee that its practice will result in equal treatment from others, that virtue is like a defenseless lamb before a world of wolves. But this assumes that the virtuous have the same intelligence quotient (IQ) as a lamb. Being virtuous doesn’t necessarily mean stupid, innocent or uninformed. Neither does the practice of kindness presume that others will react in kind. Kindness contains in itself a determined non-attachment to its results knowing that the law-of-averages is in its favor. The lineage of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrates the power of a particular form of kindness that Gandhi called satyagraha, or soul force. Satyagraha is a Sanskrit word that means “insistence on truth.”

“Soul Force was originally used by M.K. Gandhi, as a part of “Satyagraha” or reliance on Soul Force. This was a philosophy brought about from the teachings of Jesus. Gandhi used Soul Force during the Indian people’s movement to transform their society through a peaceful means.”[1]

Next, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used Soul Force as part of his nonviolent philosophy as he sought to help lead the African American people toward freedom. He even mentioned this term in the “I Have A Dream” speech,

“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. Source: Martin Luther King, Jr: The Peaceful Warrior, Pocket Books, NY 1968[2]

Insistence or the persistence of truth stands equal to kindness in its power as a change agent. Persistence erodes resistance like running water on a stone.

Another aspect of kindness that may not be readily apparent from its dictionary definition is curiosity. Kindness denotes open-heartedness. Open hearts quest for truth and intimate contact. Quest-ioning or curiosity lead to understanding which is followed by respect with the possibility of peace between serious parties.

Kindness, persistence and curiosity whether they are policies of governments or individuals provide the basic foundation of virtue by which humans can conduct their affairs. If you think that’s naïve, just look where subterfuge, deceit, greed and war have gotten us.

 

 

 

A Doorway to Realizing Full Human Potential

Human kind has been living under the illusion that chronology is the best way to measure time. Of course, dividing time into years, months, hours, seconds and beyond does serve myriad purposes. Precise measurements and split second accuracy benefit us in many ways. But they tell us little to nothing about the quality of time in human experience.

I’ve heard it said that yogis measure the moments of their lives by each conscious breath. Since we are only rarely aware of the breath that keeps us alive, it may boggle our minds that the human breath would even be considered as an increment for evaluating time. How could computing time by each inhalation and exhalation be of any use to us at all? Such an idea might even seem silly and unworthy of further deliberation. But anytime you think something is just plain hooey is exactly the time to stop and ponder that idea from another angle.

Raising “consciousness” has long been a hallmark of what some would call the New Age movement. For that very reason one might dismiss it out-of-hand as a crackpot concept to be flushed away as so much refuse. Though New Age thought may have its share of sloppy or wishful thinking, becoming more aware is not something that came along with the Age of Aquarius. To the contrary—since the first human being sat still with eyes closed following the rhythmic breath, acute awareness and expanding consciousness ensued. Jane Hirshfield in her poem “The Door” puts it aptly: The rest note, unwritten, hinged between worlds, that precedes change and allows it.” As a compliment, T.K.V. Desikachar wrote in his book, “The Heart of Yoga”,: “Yoga attempts to create a state in which we are always present—really present—in every action, in every moment.”

“Yeah, so,” you might ask?

I would answer, “When we are truly present within the ebb and flow of each breath, we open the connection to the full potential that human experience has to offer.”

Poet, Danna Faulds, in her poem, “Breath” nails it down succinctly. “In the breath, the soul finds an opportunity to speak.”

As I sat in meditation this morning, I swam my way through the usual distractions. (Note: The intensity of distractions often correlates directly to the amount of visual media I’ve consumed). But I’ve found a method to help wash distractions away— attention on the breath. Before the beginning of each inhalation and exhalation, I pause and recompose my attention to the pinpoint of that moment with my focus on the third eye or ajna chakra. (Ajna chakra corresponds to the pineal and pituitary glands in the brain. Both are powerful hormone producers that regulate essential body functions). Combined with the simple mantra, So Ham (Hum), I can practice one-pointed attention on my breath. To reinforce this technique, I further merge my attention to the action of my body as it breathes. Feeing the ebb and flow of the breath into the belly and chest supports the mental aspect of breath attention. By using this technique we can learn to displace the distractions that so often limit the depth of my meditation. By no means am I an accomplished adept at this technique, but this practice offers tantalizing evidence of its value.

Developing one-pointed concentration is the difference between attempting to do something and the mastery of that thing. Peak performance, as anyone who has achieved it will tell you, is a matter of being “in the zone.” The door way to the zone is samadhi or absorption into the object of your concentration as Patanjali said in the Yoga Sutras. Jesus of Nazareth confirms this in Mathew 6:22 when he says “…when your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.”

Regardless of your religious beliefs, a mind trained to one-pointed focus can achieve bliss, excellence, joy, ethical groundedness and accomplishment beyond normal everyday existence. We see this in champion athletes, business tycoons, great religious figures and intellectual giants. These seemingly super-normal human beings have simply mastered some aspect of absolute concentration.

This ability to be full of light is the doorway to our dreams as individuals and as a species. The only limits are those we impose upon ourselves.

So, is it a watch with a second hand you want or the conscious quality of your breath?