There are so many different ways to meditate but this year I have found myself returning again and again to three main principles by remembering to sit, let be and imagine. Knowing how techniques work can inspire discipline and practice and therefore benefits. Here are three meditation techniques that have emerged most strongly for me in 2018, both in my own personal practice and also when instructing my group classes in 2018. I hope there is something among these techniques that might be of benefit for you as well.
Let Things Be rather than needing to Let Things Go.
Don’t we all have some things we find hard to let go of? At times we can try to let go of something and then get even more frustrated or disappointed when that thought, feeling, memory or reaction keeps cropping up or gets retriggered by another event? One reason some people give up on meditation is that they feel a failure if thoughts, feelings or so-called distractions keep coming up while they are focusing on a practice such as breath awareness. And yet this is an essential part of the practice as each time our minds drift we gain opportunities to be aware and refocus. Since much of what we spontaneously think about is beyond our control and not necessarily true, we can notice the virtual realities playing out in our heads with curiosity but without jumping further into any obsessive thought-trains, ruminating or judgements.
I’ve often heard and also repeated the instruction myself to ‘”take a long breath in and out and let everything go”. But this can set up expectations and also encourage more “doing” when we really need less “doing” and more “being.” How can we really let “everything” go anyway? Instead of beginning with long breaths, start by observing the natural breath with curiosity to feel how shallow or deep, fast or slow, rhythmic or non-rhythmic our breathing cycles actually are. We can notice the temperature and feel of the breath at our nostrils. By continuing to observe natural uncontrolled breath we genuinely reduce our fight-flight-freeze responses and therefore relax more naturally into letting things be exactly as they are without any desires. When we desire things, in other words cravings or aversions, we get caught in expectation and when we expect certain things, we are not meditating on what is actually present or developing a capacity to accept circumstances as they are.
Being able to let things go fully can certainly be liberating but it can also become a mantra of expectation that creates neuroticism and further worry, for instance, when people who are dealing with grief or other life stages can’t let go or move on according to their own or others’ expectations or timelines. And although we are living in throw-it-away times, trying to let go of something prematurely without fully processing an experience can be quite counter-productive. Many people live with ongoing physical pain that can’t be let go of by wishing it away. However, the relationship to pain can change through the practices of unconditional awareness and acceptance. Meditation is the business of letting real needs emerge rather than idealised wants. We’d probably all like to have more of those blissful or calming meditation experiences but part of the package is also sitting with real discomforts of both body and mind. Life has plenty of uncomfortable moments and the more we can practise sitting with discomfort in meditation, the more we develop the skill of equanimity for when life inevitably throws us curveballs.
The seated physical posture for resilience building
The seated meditation posture can teach us to feel both strong and soft – strong through the upright spine and soft and open at the chest or heartspace . We are strong when we can be vulnerable enough to be truly touched by our own and others’ pain and joy. As social work researcher Brene Brown outlines in The Power of Vulnerability there really is nothing soft and fluffy about compassion. This is the same in meditation – it can be quite a challenge to sit upright in a seated meditation position. When we physically sit in meditation with an upright spine and remain still for long enough through various discomforts and distractions, we can feel resolve and inner strength in our spine. The Buddhist mantra “strong back, soft front” reminds us that we can be brave and strong precisely because we are not spineless. Like a tree trunk, we can feel what it is to be firm and upright via perseverance in the seated posture. Because we know we have the foundation and groundedness through our upright back in our firm position, we can draw our shoulder blades back towards each other and thereby create an opening in the chest and the heart. Strong back – soft front. Just as tree branches can expand out from a trunk and bear bounty, our heart has the expansiveness and openness to give and receive when the front is supported and aligned with the back. It is not always easy, but we learn psychological resilience through sitting with perseverance in a seated meditation position. The discomfort we feel in sitting without reactions or movement provides opportunities to practice equanimity. As we learn to sit still, we know discomforts come and go and we can accept them as passing sensations without responding with aversion or craving for something more comfortable. All things will pass and in meditation we notice sensations without expecting or rejecting anything.
Focusing on intentions – using our imaginations.
The practices above reply on working with the spontaneous sensations that arise in each moment. It can also be beneficial to use the imagination to consciously choose a focus. In my early days of Satyanada yoga training, I learnt the practice of repeating a ‘Sankalpa’, a sentence of deep intention. During moments of deep relaxation when the mind is most receptive to believe and integrate messages, we repeat words of deep personal meaning. The practice is to brainstorm a sentence and then repeat these same words as an affirmation or deeply-held resolution each time we begin to relax into ourselves.
There are also other ways to work with intention. Meditation teacher Tara Brach starts many of her guided practices these days with space to reflect on the personal intention for practice. Sometimes intentions can come to us in very clear, blunt ways or something can also be felt in deeper, more percolating ways. We simply ask ourselves the question ‘what is my intention for practice?’ and gently wait and see what might spontaneously appear. We can also visualise a place in nature or something safe and calming and while doing so be aware of why we might have chosen those particular elements in a visualisation as each constructed inner world is unique and can reveal meanings. Just as we watch the breath with curiosity, we know we are creating a visual landscape and watch ourselves interacting with it, always being grounded by the act of witnessing. Or we can visualise ourselves doing something or being something we’d like to actualise.
Some people do not find visualising meaningful or even possible but it is only one of many ways to engage our imagination and focus on something that both strengthens the witnessing capacity and provides us with learning and rest. Music, sounds in the environment or other recalled soundscapes can be imagined and called upon as an inner resource. Our ability to imagine future possibilities can propel us towards new freedoms and as we observe ourselves engaging in imagination we develop our capacity to witness and inquire into experience. In a world that is getting louder and more crowded with possibilities, regularly reflecting on and shaping our intentions can be a profound way of learning more about what we each need or don’t need. Knowing our own deep intentions can help us to focus our attention, protect us from distractions, and free us from any fears of missing out. Through ‘sankalpa’ or active imagination we can be in touch with a true inner compass and homecoming.
The three approaches above happen to fit neatly into the categories of breath, body and mind practices. The great thing about meditation is that there are so many different ways to practise and train attention. Meditation techniques no longer need the hard sell they once did but our imaginations are still something to be in awe of. We know that when areas of the brain are more relaxed, messages of personal meaning and intention are more-readily received and activated. Sports stars are visualising kicking that winning goal, artists can see paintings emerge from behind closed eyes and we can recall the smell of a favourite flower or a loving voice long after they have faded. Our imaginations cannot be taken away from us as easily as many other things that drop away or change over a lifetime. Meditation practices can enhance the dialogue with our imaginations, resilience and inner resourcefulness. Know when you’re breathing in, know when you’re breathing out and be aware of anything else that you notice as you continue to breathe. Keep going. Mind wandered? Start again to watch the spontaneous arising of thought and sensation. Or being to Imagine. Know when you’re imagining something and perhaps why. Meditation is awareness. And awareness can’t fail you.
As always, my group classes wind up mid-December until early February and I wish you all a time of rest, rejuvenation and whatever else you need in setting up for a new year. In January I plan to record some guided meditations and make them available via the website and from February I will be commencing further training with inspirational teachers Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.
Thanks to everyone for your support in 2018! I am so very grateful for the practices and the opportunities to share and learn with others. With love, Suzanne.
© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications