redhead1It is not easy to put aside ten days to sit in silence in our noisy world but that is exactly what I did last year by attending a Vipassana meditation retreat. Vipassana translates as insight. Here is an attempt to make sense of the adventure I both loved and hated (note: the basic premise of Vipassana meditation is to drop like, love, hate… or any other reactions of preference).

First, when they say it is a ten-day silent retreat they really mean it. Vipassana provides an incredibly unusual way to throw oneself into a challenge. Some people leave on the first day and some would never even contemplate it. The rules include no speaking, no reading, writing, music, or even looking directly at other participants. This meant some major effort and for a few years I had thought about trying it but certainly hadn’t put myself forward. The idea of a stretch of time with no work, driving, cooking, housework, telephone calls, social media and other routines did appeal. But I also knew I would be confronted by the contents of my mind, and in particular, things I wasn’t sure I wanted to remember or integrate. Don’t most of us find multiple means of distraction to avoid certain thoughts or things in life? Would Vipassana crack these patterns wide open?

This Goenka-style Vipassana involves two general techniques. For the first three days participants sit and follow the breath at the nose. Then, for the next seven days we continue to sit but then scan up and down the body observing any physical sensations. There are three group sittings which are in the morning, afternoon and evening, as well as plenty of further time to stay in the meditation space and do what you come for – meditate. Besides meditating, the only other activities are walking (in confined areas), sleeping and eating, plus video instruction each evening where the Vipassana teacher S. N. Goenka reviews the day’s processes and the next day’s program. By the time he died in 2013 the Burmese-Indian Goenka had led thousands of people in the ten-day program he had designed, so he seemed to have the knack of predicting how participants might feel on different days and provided instructions, warnings and encouragement. Still, nothing could have prepared me for the deep fears that arose and released from my body during the retreat.

As mentioned, this style allows for two meditation techniques only – following the breath at the nose and scanning sensations up and down the body. Perhaps by only having two techniques the discipline of practice develops quite rapidly and participants go very deep into themselves. No other techniques are allowed. I even had to sign a form on enrolment agreeing that as a meditation teacher trained in the Satyananda style, I would not engage in any other practices I knew. There would be no visualising, no mantra or Aum chanting, no movement, no noticing or moving the breath around the body, nothing but keeping the focus on the breath at the nose and/or observing the sensations in the body. The reason given for committing to these two practices exclusively is that other techniques might lead to attachment and delusion. For example, by visualising we can distract, excite, or soothe ourselves. At this retreat the aim is not to aim for anything at all, but instead observe whatever arises with absolute non-reaction or non-attachment. When holding the attention on parts of the body and grounding and feeling into our physical experience only truth can be revealed, goes the theory. The basic and yet profound premise repeated via each night’s instruction video is that we meditate in order to practise ‘equanimity’. In other words, we observe whatever we experience without desiring more or less of whatever is happening, whether those moments are pleasurable or painful. Each evening our teacher Goenka reminded us that since everything is impermanent, we can be equanimous in the face of suffering. ‘Equanimity’ is a profound word and an even bigger task to perform seriously, regularly and without mistaking it for any form of denial. Equanimity is not an established part of my general disposition, but dictionaries have accurately described it as ‘calm and composed’ or if you rely on Wikipedia, ‘a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.’

Tough things happen often in life and even the strongest people can ‘lose the balance of their mind’ when exposed to enough pain and suffering. It’s tricky, of course, as we need to address our pain but at the same time this can feel like or really be like playing with fire. In my own classes, I often instruct participants to anchor through deeper breaths if anything is triggered while meditating on any part of the body. The thing that astonishes me the most about the power of meditation is its physical capacity to support us when processing difficult, almost unbearable or seemingly unbearable, feelings or memories. By focusing our mind and witnessing the experience from moment to moment our flight-or-flight response is soothed or halted long enough for us to feel safe enough to process stuff. We’ve all got stuff we need to sort out, let go of, admit to, accept, learn from and so on. When we can sit quietly enough to process any of our shadows then we get to short-circuit more habitual reactions. In these more relaxed states we see more clearly, feel more clearly and integrate things that our more day-to-day automated minds and bodies can keep avoiding, particularly if unpleasant. Without awareness, discipline and practice, we can also be caught in the trap of constantly seeking pleasures and this too creates hyperactivity in our nervous system and therefore stress.

In meditation, we can sit with the unpleasant and at Vipassana retreat there is plenty of time for unpleasantness, or at least boredom. Across the ten days we learn that constantly reacting either to pleasant or unpleasant moments is counter-productive since this continuously activates our fight-or-flight response and adrenalin system, often leading to burn out. Our great passport to freedom is stamped the moment we really realise we can’t keep going around controlling things in order to usher in the pleasant and shield ourselves from the awful. Shit happens. We can’t always stop it. And joy happens too, but we can’t bottle that either. What we can find is some calm in the face of it all. I think of this temporary calm as moments of stillness.

Vipassana is an incredible training ground so in case you’re interested in trying it out, or just curious, here are the six main things I learnt from the retreat:

Thoughts can be so totally unreliable and mischievous. I’ve seen the cute warnings of don’t believe everything you think floating around Facebook often enough but at the end of the Vipassana I realised how true it can be. Remember how I said that rule number 92 (well, there were lots of rules) included no eye contact or body language conversations with people? Well, I cheated. I did notice others around me a fair bit. My totally unreliable thoughts had decided that the gorgeous-long-haired-Byron-Bay-looking-yogi-in-the-flowing-robes was finding this retreat an absolute breeze. The night before the silent retreat had commenced she had told me she was a second timer. Repeat attendees only eat two meals per day, not three, and I had watched her floating in and out of the dining space a few times. On the last day when we were allowed to finally break our silence we ate together. She then told me that on day four she thought she was having a breakdown and that she nearly left on day five. How wrong my judgements were! I also judged the person I sat next to in the meditation space quite differently to the way she later appeared when we talked on completion. That’s another rule – we had to sit in the same spot each day – so I could not help read some of the body language of the person next to me. I just read it incorrectly. As well as having to sit in the same spots daily, meditators are divided into segregated male and female only spaces at all times to avoid further possible distractions. In any case, there were plenty of possible distractions from the meditators directly around me as we all sat very close. This woman next to me, who I had judged as very self-assured, actually seemed very concerned about how much she had disturbed my meditations through her coughing. She wanted to talk to me at some length about this, and launched into detailed information about her allergies and how if she had removed the nearby blanket which had irritated her throat she might not have coughed at all. In fact, while I had noticed it almost daily, her coughing did not disturb me at all. When my husband did the Vipassana a few years before me, he had someone telling him on completion that he had looked like a plumber. Odd that someone was even wondering what another’s job, status or roles might be in life, and not just meditating and minding his own business? But don’t we all do that? Anyway, I certainly take my thoughts far less seriously these days!

Discovering deeper levels of feelings can bring us freedom. Some people walk around as if they are brains on a stick and I was one of those people who thought I could figure things out if only I just thought hard about things for long enough. Often enough, quite the opposite is true, of course. If I can shut my thoughts up for long enough, or attend to them without adding further mental fuel, I might discover more about my feelings. Many of us have developed our very active brains as a way to suppress a range of feelings, a way to feel in control, minimise risk and reduce ambiguity. For those of us who have overactive minds for any durations of time, meditation can remind us that the bodies have wisdom and also limits and our nervous systems respond accordingly. In meditation we can find the freedom to observe, rather than respond in old or unhelpful ways. We can become humbled and more open by realising how delusional so many of our thoughts can be. New or deeper access to feelings that were previously suppressed for good enough reasons take time to be integrated into one’s daily life. But as they do, life becomes more and more real. And there is relief in just allowing feelings such as sadness to exist. Of course sadness and grief are far more pervasive than day-to-day conversations or mainstream Instagram posts reveal. Our sadness often traps, contains or releases the pearls of joys, depending on how we manage it.

Reminders that ‘everything is impermanent’ can really help us. I am not talking about being indifferent to change and suffering because if we were calm all the time there would be no great poetry, art, music, social activism or justice. The nightly Vipassana video instruction repeated the great Buddhist mantra about attachment. Attachment can lead to suffering because eventually or instantly everything can and will change and we will all experience suffering. Knowing this doesn’t actually make me feel less attachment towards the people or things I love. But it does make acceptance, letting go and compassion more real in the day to day, and it certainly allows the meditator to experience thoughts, physical pain, feelings and other sensations without going into fight-or-flight mode. Sitting for one hour in meditation without moving numerous times a day can feel like an eternity and then when the hour or hours are up it also feels as though it all flashed by – impermanence.

You are your own best teacher. Vipassana retreats have helped millions of people. The way Goenka has programmed two meditation techniques into an easy to access package is brilliant. But the book title, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him (Kopp, 1972) really did apply for me. On day six I experienced intense fear, terror, during one meditation sitting and I felt that my heart had either frozen or would give out. In that situation it was slowly returning to deeper and deeper breaths that first helped lift me from a place too dark. In those moments I also felt no choice but to break the Vipassana code and visualise hard on something safe and nurturing to soothe myself. This was how I looked after myself. At the end of the retreat one participant told me about the shoulder muscle agony she had persisted with during the three times daily one hour-and-don’t-move-meditation sessions but she had trusted the video instruction about body pains arising from present but also past lives and so committed to not moving an inch when meditating. I suggested that had she just briefly moved her shoulder a bit and then quickly come back into alignment and stillness she might have avoided the extra suffering. We laughed about it but her shoulder was still in a lot of pain so the laughter was one more of compassion than humour.

Our bodies really are our temples but not in a body-beautiful way. Our bodies are crumbly as we age, they ache in places, store memories, break down, need to be held, respected and paid attention to. Most importantly, through our body awareness we can learn more about what we need psychologically. Through attention and rest our bodies can be the first and safest place to go to for healing. Past traumas can also be integrated as slowly and safely as they need be and we can be more at ease in our own skin. In meditation our brain waves literally slow down and we can witness difficult things that require attention without wanting to flee the scene. Our biological processes can help us, if we allow them to, by resting the nervous system and thereby providing ourselves with a sanctuary.

Sitting for meditation is now easier. Hey, I sat for long periods of time. As mentioned above, the body remembers. Now I can grab some cushions and more easily settle and sit for longer periods of time. However, after years of yoga training, I already knew a fair bit about sitting in an aligned manner. It is fine to lie down to meditate too but when we sit awake and alert we are often more aware of whatever arises. A meditation tutor of either gender is in attendance during each meditation sitting and they are also available for ten minute private sessions at lunch times via a (silent) sign-up sheet. Many participants took the opportunity to meet with a teacher and talk about their difficulties or perhaps just to take the opportunity to speak. I used this opportunity once to request a kneeling stool which I used from time to time. I don’t see how providing some initial instruction on aligned sitting positions would detract from the Vipassana methodology but then of course I was not leading this retreat and letting go and submitting to an established program for a mere ten days of my life was all part of the learning.

This type of Vipassana retreat is not suitable for everyone at all stages of their lives. In fact, the application process requires demonstrating some readiness and stability before giving it a go. Staring into the contents of your body and mind for ten days is not a normal process, but if you can go there, it can take you quite somewhere else. Where, I am still not fully sure about myself but the glimpses of calm are enough to keep me going.

© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications

For more information about Vipassana retreats around the world: https://www.dhamma.org

WHY CALMNESS IS ONLY PART OF THE MEDITATION STORY

January 3rd, 2017 | Posted by sfrydman in Healing | Meditation - (Comments Off)

It’s no secret that a meditation practice can bring more calm to one’s life.  What is also well known are other benefits, and yet the repeat mantra of calmness is what seems to get top billing.

We know that telling someone to calm down at the exact moments when they are upset or angry about something is usually counter-productive, even patronising, and yet the wellness industry keeps churning out images of calmness; if you only sit on a cushion or lie down in a room with a view. Some apps promise it in downloadable bite-sized guided recordings of 5 minutes so that you can then rush back to your to-do-list.

The problem with telling people new and familiar to meditation it will bring calm is that often when we sit down to meditate we might be feeling a range of things besides calmness. And when we don’t feel we can quieten the mind, body, emotions into as much calm as a fluffy cloud or clear lake we might get disappointed, even give up the practices.

It can help to understand why we might gain a sense of calmness or peace during and after meditation, but then it’s best to just let it be a by-product of the physiological processes that take place in our brain and body. A great mantra for meditation is – “Accept, Don’t Expect”. Through various practices, particularly following the natural breath, our fight or flight response mechanism might be somewhat released and some relaxation might be experienced. Here’s what else might happen:

GROUNDING OR STILLNESS:

We might stay long enough, for whatever that stretch of time is, with our own experiencing – whether it be the soreness in the knee, the sound or feel of the blowfly hovering around us, buzzing thoughts, empty or blank mental spaces, strong or vague feelings, or numbness and other sensations. In a word, this is Mindfulness – we witness from moment to moment aspects of our experiencing. There might be some feelings of stillness or grounding, however fleeting these may be, and these might be achieved through staying with bodily sensations or scanning parts of the body, noticing the posture, or other practices such as breath awareness, sound awareness or watching of one’s thoughts.

GRIEF, SADNESS, ANGER AND A RANGE OF OTHER EMOTIONS:

When we sit and let go of some of our defences then strong emotions may surface, and exactly the ones we often push away through busyness, eating, incorrect thoughts, blaming others and a range of other techniques our species apply in order to get through difficult times. When we take time to sit more quietly, or do practices such as following sensations at the heart, our “stuff” can bubble up. Sometimes people want to access these buried or simmering feelings and meditation can provide the entry points. For others, this can be deeply confronting and even unsafe and in those cases  more conscious deeper breathing can help some return from deeper states. The amazing thing is that meditation can support people to be in those more difficult spaces because the autonomic nervous system, through the parasympathetic system, provides more of a physical shield of safety than would otherwise be available during our more externalised daily fight-flight response modes.

COMPASSION AND CONNECTIVITY:

MeditatConnectedion practices often have a long history of spiritual traditions behind them and practices to expand one’s compassion for self and others are certainly part of this tradition. When we sit in a room with others meditating together and keep an open mind to others’ possible suffering, hopes, dreams and unique stories, we can remember to soften our hearts, lessen our judgements and listen more closely to the whispered stories that others might be sharing with us without words. As we reflect on the world beyond our doorstop, we can be activated into further commitments to act with compassion where we see injustice. We can do this as calmly as we can but calmness alone might not be a starting point for social action. Through witnessing our thoughts and intentions, we can check that we are not erroneously using non-attachment or calm as a means of superiority, non-connection and absolve of our responsibilities to assist and care for others and ourselves.

GRATITIUDE:

Much has been written about neuro-plasticity. When we focus on certain things, such as gratitude and happiness, they can become acquired or developed skills or states through changes in the brain. Some days we may notice that we are warm, safe and fed and on other days we may forget about these blessings entirely. When choosing to focus on a space for gratitude during meditation a range of other blessings often become more known, remembered and prominent for us. We can sit with an ever-expanding heart.

FORGIVENESS: 

We know that forgiveness is good for us, but why and how do we do it? It’s easy enough to forgive minor things. In a meditation space we have more access to the softer, kinder parts of ourselves, again through the physiology of being less reactive, safer and receptive. We have an opportunity to sit bravely through grounding and stillness with more difficult experiences and feel what it might be like to forgive others we perceive have harmed us. We might even begin to see things in a different way as well. Which brings me to another major benefit of meditation practice…

KNOWLEDGE AND FREEDOM:

We can learn as we watch ourselves react to discomfort or comfort, get attached to things and then practice letting go of these same things – such as an expectation of calmness. We can feel whatever we are feeling without judgement. It is often our own added layers of judgements about the validity of our emotions or actions that can cause the most difficulty. Instead of judging ourselves or others harshly we can befriend that part of us that worries if “we don’t quite know what might happen next” (who does?), or “we shouldn’t have said that, done this, felt like that…” We can get to know ourselves better, which isn’t always such a calming route in the short-term, but it is a path towards freedom.

Artwork: Connected by Suzanne Frydman

© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications

TAKING YOUR SEAT IN MEDITATION

December 3rd, 2016 | Posted by sfrydman in Meditation - (Comments Off)

sitting-in-meditationOne of the things students sometimes wonder about is whether to sit or lie for meditation, so this article summarises some of the benefits of sitting in meditation.

Staying awake – clearly, in order to know about one’s experience it helps to stay awake. Meditation is about witnessing our experiencing. Being alert in a seated meditation posture obviously helps. However, there are times, many times, when our bodies need full rest so we lie down. My students are always welcome to sit or lie down in any part of the sessions as their bodies require. Sometimes, entering that feeling of deep relaxation or half sleep is also exactly what people need to have a real break from difficult thoughts, emotions and physical pain and in those times lying down can be ideal.

Feeling the stillness – when we lie down our body and psyche know rest is intended and therefore we can be triggered into sleep. Yes, in lying down we can let the whole body settle onto the floor and let go. But perhaps letting go is only part of the story. In sitting meditation, we can gain strength, purpose, resolve, energy, and grounding through the position of our upright spine in particular.  On a physical level, with each in-breath we can adjust and lengthen our spine slightly, and with the out-breath then settle into a grounded posture. Through physical positioning we find and express ways to be with ourselves emotionally, including stillness through our own resolve and focus. As the Buddhist saying goes, “soft front, strong back” – we can feel the spine supporting us and we remain strong, while open and vulnerable at the front of the heart space. This is no easy task, but so worth the practice.

Discomfort as the focus – we, and that is every one of us, are not always comfortable with discomfort. The discomfort might come in the form of thoughts, physical aches and pains, feelings, new knowledge and aspects of ourselves that we’d prefer remain hidden. When we sit down and move into seated stillness there can be many distractions, discomforts and challenges and we can use all of them in meditation. When we meditate and physical discomfort arises we can bring further focus to the area and our responses to pain can often transform in some way. Likewise, uncomfortable thoughts that we tend to push away at other times only grow if we deny them. In meditation we can process some of our own shadow by being aware when difficult thoughts arise and greet them with friendliness and compassion, or at least, less reactivity. Meditation allows our body systems to slow down and in this way provides more safety to look into our thoughts and hearts with bravery.

Non-attachment to pleasure as well as discomfort – we meditate in order to know what is – in the present. And sometimes it is quite pleasurable physically. Usually, this is the parasympathetic body system bringing that stillness about through the slowing down of brain activity. It’s nice when we get all fuzzy and tingly, but the trap is then grasping for this in future sessions, and when this doesn’t happen according to our expected timelines we can get disappointed and give up. This is why I often say that there is no such thing as “a bad meditation” – in some sessions we might have more moments of stillness, and in others our mind or body might be putting up a riotous performance of disturbance. Either way, it is a blessing to know where we’re at from moment to moment if we are committed to knowing ourselves.

Some tips for seated meditation:

Which posture is best?

The best seated posture is often the one you are most comfortable in, not just during the meditation, but when you come out of meditation. For instance, if you find you have a sore neck when you come out of meditation, next time pay further attention to the position of your chin – it might need to be lower or raised, so the head and neck are fully supported by your trunk and legs. It can take quite some time to explore different sitting positions. I experimented with different alignment to suit my body over the two years of my yoga teacher training, and I still adjust and change positions when using cushions and blankets on the floor. In all my classes, chairs are available. Many older mediators use chairs and neither sitting on the floor or chair makes one more or less spiritual. But looking after your body and mind might.

So can I move a bit?

Again, putting up with extreme pain does not make us more spiritual but awareness of discomfort can be used as a focus of any meditation and it can help to resist moving position when each itch and twitch presents itself. Most of us have days full of small and large irritations and knowing how to be less reactive to these can be learnt by resisting similar restlessness in meditation.

In a longer meditation retreat I attended earlier this year, I was told to stay with the discomfort as it would be past life stuff coming up. Rather than worrying about possible past lives, I preferred to check my physical alignment, as sometimes slightly adjusting your seated position can relieve the pain and you can return to meditation with more focus. Making a physical adjustment briefly and consciously can be quite sensible, and of course, it is always about doing no harm to yourself, so any instruction from a teacher, including myself, is an offering for you to decide to integrate in a way that is right for you. Did I mention that great quote from Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind? “If you meet the (symbolic) Buddha on the road, (metaphorically) shoot him”. In other words, use your own discrimination about what works safely for you as this is what meditation is all about, after all. And developing your own practice can be the best motivator.

So which technique works the best in seated meditation?

If you are finding it hard to sit in meditation, it might be that some practices will work better for you than others. For instance, people who are naturally kinaesthetic learners often enjoy practices that involve mentally scanning through parts of the body and noticing physical sensations. Others might become more settled through focusing on the natural sounds around them, or a mantra or music. Visually-inclined people might choose to explore an imaginative landscape of their own. I particularly enjoy a practice called Antar Mouna, which involves consciously watching your own thoughts and their interconnected patterns. And of course, watching your breath is the go-to-practice, especially if intense feelings or thoughts do bubble up.

Finally, if you find seated meditation is not your preferred option, most styles of meditation practice can of course be done lying down, or even standing up or walking. The main ingredient is to develop the witness. When we witness we gain the space to take a step back, and as we lesson our reactivity we can be more with our joy, compassion and whatever else presents itself through life.

© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications

KARMA’S GONE MAD

May 15th, 2016 | Posted by sfrydman in Healing | Meditation | Yoga - (Comments Off)

Being in the yoga world for some time now, I often come across talks, article, and memes about one of my least favourite topics – feel good notions of Karma from a New Age Western perspective. Often these messages are accompanied by pretty lotus pictures. A recent Karma-claiming site started with “The Great Law” – whatever we put out into the universe will come back to us. So here is my wish-list for karma:

Dear Karma, Universe, Quantum Physics, or Whatever (it is I don’t understand),

I’d like to be a 7-foot tall basketball player. And please remove any chance I might get cancer from any environmental causes (think Asbestos, not “manifested thoughts”). I’ll stop the list here because what I’d like to put out to the universe is both too private and too common, something along the lines of good health, sex, food, shelter (yeah, not in that order).

Respecting other people’s right to beliefs that I might find magical thinking is a wonderful opportunity for me to practise non-judgement. Of course we are all entitled to our own spiritual beliefs. But to be more honest and responsible, I often worry about the subtle and obvious extensions of this karma business: If, whatever we put out into the universe will come back to us is a universal law, then it follows, or can certainly be interpreted that when terrible things happen to us they are our fault too. At times, when I’ve tried to discuss this with others, I’ve been told that I’m simplifying this karma stuff.  If that’s the case, then for me enlightenment is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be.

I believe this karma stuff encourages excessive narcissism at best and destructive guilt and shame at worst, especially among more vulnerable seekers who are often the ones searching out different philosophies and lifestyles. Is it really about Karma or rather a grand illusion of entitlement and control? A quick flick through any news source can remind us of the suffering all around. In workplaces, the media, families and so on, some rule and others struggle, unless the status quo is successfully challenged. Is it the less powerfuls’ karma for being lazy, dumb, reckless or whatever karma caused such bad luck? Empowering oneself is easier when born with a few tools along the way – such as fresh air, clean water, good health, and opportunities for education. In reverse, when good things happen to us we can feel quite proud of how our seemingly direct efforts or energies have translated into that nice pay packet, great outfit, beneficial relationship. Again, isn’t this a further enactment of entitlement?

Of course we can influence and change many things in our lives through setting up the right thoughts and mindset. Yes, we need to take conscious action about the things we don’t like. It doesn’t take much imagination or life experience to see connections between self-destructive behaviours and potential results. But it stops there. We can’t influence many of the circumstances in the tiny part of the universe we inhabit, or assume things about others’ good or bad luck (yes, as a form of logic we are doing that when we play with the karma gods). We might not think we are judging others’ circumstances but fluffy karma theories can directly diminish or distract us from the capacity to hold intense compassion for others and ourselves. If any absolute laws of karma operate, then for me they remain mysterious. In the meantime, opening to compassion keeps us afloat.

Rather than discussing karma, perhaps there is a real human desire to express gratitude, internally and externally. Certainly, when we sit in meditation or move about the world with a focus of gratitude we notice more; expanding the capacity for even more gratitude.  And sometimes when things happen, no amount of lotus flowers will bring certain pieces back together. At those times we can hold each other in our hearts with fierce compassion (yes, compassion is not fluffy either). And we can also remember in our hearts those who were unable to rise from the mud, lotus-like, when the hard knocks became all too much.

Rewards are a direct result of the energy and effort we put into it – was the last karmic declaration on this particular facebook list. Tell that to the intensive care unit nurse who lost her job due to adjusted patient: nurse ratios and a new CEO pay rise.   To all the folks who are out there fighting the good fight, I don’t know about karma. I wish I did. Karma’s gone mad. Suzanne Frydman ©

Crosses

FALLING OFF THE CUSHION

April 11th, 2016 | Posted by sfrydman in Meditation - (Comments Off)
In meditation, patterns and hues reveal and untangle

In meditation, patterns and hues reveal and untangle

“But what about your meditation?” is a response I sometimes get when colleagues or new friends see me caught up in frantic and frazzled moments. My response, “what, you didn’t know I teach what I most need to learn?”

Recently I got angry when a familiar scenario of letting someone take advantage of me rolled around again. Next I got angry at myself for being angry. The old self-talk, internal shaming and recrimination was instant. Of course, this will all happen again soon enough. With any luck, the next round might include some small noticeable shifts in response and new patterns. Watching thoughts as an observer and they can lose their power over us, or direct them where required, say the experts. Have compassion for ourselves and others and we can move more easily through the world. Meditation can and does make us calmer.

But here’s the thing, meditation also helps us express our anger and disappointment, as well as accept our more frazzled moments. When others query my seemingly abandoned meditation practice in the middle of my moments of fury or pain I find it a curious thing. It is like telling an irate person to calm down. Sometimes things need to be said (nicely) or felt deeply. Other times things come out not so nicely, which is unfortunate but human enough, especially for the more emotionally or sensitively inclined among us.

Meditation has helped me identify more quickly when things are not ok, revealed my well-ingrained but reducing responsiveness, and guided me to speak up when required or shut up, and of course, let things go. Finding out that meditation can bring such liberation, I then set out to teach it.

To share with you the benefits of meditation, I could quote some of the latest evidence-based research into the brain functions of monks, gurus, wise guys and matriarchs meditating up in the mountains and even cities. But I suspect that rather than research-based promises for deep healing and inner peace, stories of our human frailties and small steps are more promising.

I’m no fan of labels but throughout my life I have hovered up and down the spectrum of anxiety, with a few traumatic life experiences temporarily shooting me right up the higher scale at times. Without meditation, I doubt I would be driving a car again, tolerating flying in airplanes, or averting bridge-burning behaviour when situations don’t seem to suit my interests or appear threatening. I would certainly not be finding as much day-to-day joy in this wonderful, but unpredictable life. With a meditative approach the blessings of our daily lives are magnified and the horrors somehow more contained.

When awful things happen, particularly all at once, the tunnel of despair can turn endless. Yet the curveballs or tragedies that come our way need to be dealt with at some point. All types of meditation are not suitable for all phases of our lives, and sitting with parts of ourselves might be uncomfortable and even excruciating. But if we don’t go there, we don’t go anywhere else much.

Teaching meditation is not always easy. In particular, if I teach it, I need to do it. Regularly. For that, I give thanks to my students and all my teachers. And thanks to those shitty experiences too – those unwelcomed curveballs containing the seeds of compassion that can burst open on the cushion. And the friends who keep me on track by asking “but what about your meditation?”

Unfortunately, I doubt I will ever quite be liberated from my heavy-headed fretting or existential angst about life’s unpredictability.

But in the meantime there’s meditation. It’s not always pretty, but it is almost always good.  Suzanne Frydman ©

KEEPING THE YOGA

May 14th, 2015 | Posted by sfrydman in Meditation - (Comments Off)

In December 2014, the Royal Commission (RC) into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia turned its focus to Satyananda Yoga’s Mangrove ashram in New South Wales, events there in the late 70s-80s, as well as the ashram’s more recent dealings with survivors.

While this commission affects everyone, it is the survivors who need to be acknowledged first and last. There are no words for their bravery but there are ways to offer support and this includes the rest of us finding clarity or space enough for our own questions and responses.

Based on information that has come to light during and since the initial hearings of the RC, combined with my own journey of doubt and faith that has run parallel and prior to this, I have one clear enough answer at this moment. I honour the training and practices I acquired from the Satyananda Yoga Academy in its current form, however, I wish to go forward simply as “a yoga teacher”, rather than a trademarked, patented, labelled yoga teacher exclusive to one tradition or another. While there is loss in this, among other things it is also a more authentic way of continuing to integrate other styles into my own practice. Yoga is about “union” after all.

YES, YOU CAN MEDITATE

January 22nd, 2015 | Posted by sfrydman in Meditation - (Comments Off)
Thoughts can disengage, disintegrate,  reconnect, illuminate...

Thoughts can disengage, disintegrate, reconnect, illuminate…

 

Saying that there is a right and wrong way to meditate can in many instances be like saying that there is a right and wrong way to pray, hope or love. One of the most important elements is the intention – to learn how to be less reactive or non-reactive. Non-attachment.

The process of calming one’s adrenalin system down enough to simply sit (or lie, or walk, or talk…) with non-attachment can involve a range of techniques, as some methods suit some personalities more than others.

 

Many books, including centuries of Buddhist philosophy in particular, have discussed this term of non-attachment. Perhaps one clear way to define it is to see non-attachment as acting, or not acting, from non-reactive spaces because in my own personal practice and teaching I have found the following experiences and misconceptions about meditation.  Here are some of these misconceptions that move us away from non-attachment:

‘Meditation is about achieving a blank space, an empty space where there are no thoughts’ – this might happen on occasion, and particularly as one practises for longer and deeper periods of time, however, this is more commonly not the everyday experience, and if one has this as an aim and feels disappointed when this does not happen, then there is clearly attachment to unnecessary and unrealistic outcomes. And for some of us, if we don’t feel we are any good at something, we give it up. So, don’t set yourself up before meditating, but rather intend to remain open and develop the witness to whatever comes as a way of developing non-attachment.

‘I had this amazing experience where I saw colours and other things. I love visualising and will definitely meditate this way again if this is what happens’ – obviously this is attachment. However, what do we do with this interesting or even the fascinating stuff that might come up? We accept that this was an experience in the moment, but we do not aim for a similar or more powerful experience the next time. And we try to take care not to conclude things about our meditation when not meditating as the connections and associations we make about experiences can so often be misleading. Meditation is not meant to be a high, but rather an experience where different connections can take place in our brain as we slow our metabolic system down.

You, your teacher, and your practice does not need to be brilliant or anything else with a hook, rather it needs to be natural and always available to you as the expert and empowerer of your own experience.

 ‘But I could never slow my thoughts down’ – I thought this myself once. And sometimes, as I meditate, my thoughts don’t slow down straight away. In fact, I sit there and become acutely aware of my riotous mind. It’s often like a ‘wow, I am really doing this to myself’ moment and then as I watch my breath my thoughts tend to slow down anyway. The first step is to develop the witness and become aware of our thinking, our emotions, the parts of the body that need attending to or relaxing, or anything else that comes up. We don’t need to do it on a mountain top. The sounds around us can all help us develop the witness, whether it is the washing machine whirls from the other room or more ‘spiritual sounds’ like bird calls or recorded bells.

‘But I have thoughts and feelings that I don’t want to think about’ – this is a big and completely understandable concern.  Some experiences are so deeply overwhelming that why would a person voluntarily return to these moments of anguish.

There are a few answers to this – the psychological one is that when a person is ready, facing and releasing some of one’s grief can provide catharsis for body, heart and soul. What we have previously felt and experienced is what we carry around in our body regardless.  So it can help to release some of our burdens when we are ready.  Most importantly, meditation can help with the ‘when we are ready’ part because in a meditative state the limbic system in the brain is less reactive This is the area of the brain which generates strong emotions such as fear, apprehension and anger. So, in meditation we can sometimes cope more easily with deeper emotions than at other times because the reactive adrenalin-producing sympathetic system is calmed and the balancing action of the parasympathetic system is supporting us by slowing down the reactivity of the body and in this way cradling us at a higher level of safety.

While all meditation methods will hopefully lead to a less reactive but more open and safe state, there are wide differences in techniques. For the person who doesn’t want to start by witnessing his or her thoughts, focusing on parts of the body, the breath, a real or imagined candle flame, or a repeated mantra or sound can assist in staying in a focused or concentrated state.  More physical-based focuses are usually recommended for people who suffer from depression as relief from incessant thoughts can allow for the meditative switch-off button. Using these techniques, some people can let go of all or most thought for some duration of time, and when thoughts enter awareness the meditator is encouraged to let them pass by and move on.

On the other hand, sitting and consciously watching one’s thoughts as a practice (with non-attachment) is a great revealer and separator from ongoing mental chatter as it can reveal connections between thoughts. Patterns of thought can be witnessed and as they are witnessed they tend to drop away, disintegrate, bring insight and/or untangle lived experience. In meditation thoughts will come and go, just as body aches will sometimes come and go. Pain itself can be used as a great focus of meditation. As one sits and inquires into the nature and qualities of physical, mental or emotional pain, some relief can often be found from the reactivity to this pain. In other practices, rather than letting thought free-fall, we can choose to start by focusing on a particular thought, such as gratitude, or even a topic or area of personal challenge, and then see what thoughts and experiences arise.

I have found that people tend to have a preferred way to meditate once different techniques are acquired. For instance, some people are not particularly visual, and therefore trying to focus on an image, such as an imagined candle flame, can bring up frustration and disappointment. Some people are very aural and therefore repeated sound awareness such as silent or aloud chanting is a great way to move inwards. Body scanning techniques where the focus moves slowly from body part to body part is often recommended for beginners, but this is available to all of us at all times, as we are all in essence beginners. It is important to note that different meditation techniques are not suited to all mental health conditions, but there are ways each of us can stay present, even if briefly.

For everyone, the breath is always present and available. We all know how to do that, so by just watching our breathing we tend to slow our system down. Here witnessing the natural breath flowing at the nostrils is sublime. They do not need to be long breaths. Often, any instruction to ‘slow the breath down’ is too active and activates the adrenalin system in decision-making and thereby moves us away from subtlety and deeper knowledge. Here, the one goal is to watch the breath AS IT IS, in its natural state.

Meditation is the observance and accepting of things, as they are, in their natural state. Try it, it can’t fail you.

Suzanne Frydman ©

A WALKING MEDITATION – LOOPING AROUND FORREST

January 5th, 2015 | Posted by sfrydman in Meditation - (Comments Off)

forrest 8_webEngaging with nature can encourage meditation by providing enhanced opportunities to follow the breath, body, mind and senses. Meditating in a supermarket, on a train, or any other noisy place is also possible if certain practices are developed, but a forest can provide props that fast-track this experience. And what a forest floor there is in Forrest! Perhaps one can’t help but meditate when entering it.

Finding rainforest: A good pathway to quiet meditative walks is to continue south from Forrest for four hundred metres and then turn off left towards the West Barwon Reservoir. One hundred metres towards the reservoir look out for a sign on the left for the Fern Gully Walk.  This takes you through untouched rainforest, around grassy banks, and over narrow fern-covered bridges that cross over a trickling creek. The rich mix of undergrowth and trees are in contrast to the well-ordered forestry trees on the other side (west side) of the Forrest-Apollo Bay Road. Taking one slow step after another, nature releases you from the busyness of the outside world. Twenty minutes delivers you to the reservoir picnic grounds and surrounding tree tops. From there your walk can extend to an exploration of the weir and the shimmering, still lake. Following the river and heading north will bring you back to the Forrest township where there are gardens, hand-made structures and historical reminders to admire.

Forrest is indeed an ideal place to unwind. Meditation is a process where there is always something new to emerge or release. Walking slowly, deliberately and establishing a rhythm creates a break from our more regular unconscious physical movements. Walking in silence allows for even more awareness. By doing things meditatively we can interrupt or slow down the adrenal system enough so that we are not in fight or flight mode. When then brain and the body relax enough or in new ways, the whole body system calms down and begins to repair itself. New insights can arise and we can physically feel changes taking place.forrest 23_web

The Breath: With no phones to check (hopefully) we can set off with the company of our breath. One of the quickest ways to connect with deeper parts of ourselves, and slow down that adrenal system, is through following the natural breath. This initially involves not slowing or lengthening the breath in any way, but simply observing what our breath is doing in any moment. It is amazingly simple yet regularly forgotten. And just by watching our breath, it tends to slow down, regulate itself and restore our cells. What better place to do this than in a forest full of natural energy.

The Senses: Engaging with our senses can mean disengaging from our thoughts, worries and plans long enough to be in the moment. Placing ourselves in a context bigger than our own thoughts is perhaps a necessity. The Fern Gully path lives up to its name. Here endless varieties of green, light, and patterns hold our attention. In this setting our eyes can both rest and remain curious with each step. Research has revealed how stimulus from our senses can either soothe or over-stimulate our body systems. The rainforest is not a place to be bored, unappreciative or negative. Simply, it is bigger than us and the whole body intuits this message.

The Mind: After we have walked for a while with a focus on our breath and/or senses, we might notice that some of our thoughts have lost their grip. Or not. Honestly observing whatever is in the mind is one of the ways to loosen our thoughts’ grip on us. Often, when we are still enough to watch thoughts float past the screen of our minds, some lose their power and float away. In this way, new insights can arise. At the reservoir lake, water is a great element to meditate on – it can be calm, choppy, narrow or deep – just like our minds. A forest meditation can also continue long after the walk has ended as the pictures and qualities of nature remain in our mind’s eye.

Forrest has so many beautiful pockets such as this loop walk, or Lake Elizabeth and/or other trails. Choosing to walk any of them is a privilege for each walking moment is unique, like each of us. If completing a walk with others, it is fascinating to ask them what took their attention?  We are or become what our attention is.fern-gully-walk

Suzanne Frydman       www.relaxcommunications.com.au

This article first appeared in Otway Life Winter 2013 Issue 3

DROL KAR BUDDHIST CENTRE

June 12th, 2014 | Posted by sfrydman in Meditation - (Comments Off)

DhondupDrol Kar Buddhist Centre is a centre of calm in a lush area of Paraparap, close to Angelsea. Drol Kar means White Tara, the goddess of motherly compassion. Whether you are a believer or not in this particular spiritual tradition, places of retreat and devotion often gather an energy that can be felt and enjoyed by visitors. People from various backgrounds have been coming to this location for nearly a decade.

Dhondup’s welcome:

Anyone who visits Drol Kar will probably be greeted by Dhondup, the resident terrier whose genuine excitement, minus any bark, is most inviting. Once a rescue dog, Dhondup (‘good fortune’) now displays a great sense of inner security and joy, and this is perhaps symbolic of much of the great work this centre initiates.

Background:

Drol Kar Buddhist Centre was established in Geelong in 1999 and moved to Paraparap in 2005. Venerable Geshe Sonam Thargye is the centre’s spiritual director and founder. Geshe Sonam Thargye is from the Mahayana line of Tibetan Buddhism and he first came under the direct guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama when seeking refuge in Dharamsala in India. This connection to the Dalai Lama has continued throughout Geshe’s life and work in Australia. Geshe Sonam invited the Dalai Lama to Geelong on two occasions (2002 & 2007). His Holiness visited the Drol Kar Buddhist Centre on both these visits – firstly in 2002 when the centre was in Geelong and the second time in 2007at Paraparap.

The centre is managed by a dedicated committee and its resident teacher is Venerable Jampa Drolma. The calendar hosts a range of programs and there is also a shop full of excellent resources. Geshe Sonam’s Nying-Jey Projects (http://www.njp.org.au/) is an international sponsorship organisation that has provided health and educational opportunities to communities in India and Tibet. The local and global vision of this spiritual leader becomes clearer the more you spend time at Drol Kar.

The Grounds and Temple:

This is an oasis for quiet reflection. Sometimes these places can actually be hard to be in, as we must be still in ourselves. The gardens have enough pockets to safely fold one’s self into in order to experience the moment, sit, walk quietly and/or engage with the environment. There are local people who come here regularly to reflect, study, volunteer and be part of a community of shared intentions. The gompa (temple) has been the vessel for many people’s prayers and inner thoughts. Spending time in this space, as any spiritual place, perhaps allows the recipient to enter the prayers and hopes of others who leave their footprints here. When in the temple, nature’s sounds are all around and the border of inner and outer seems to drop away.

Meditation:

There’s a saying that the less time you think you have for meditation, the longer you should do it for. ‘Mindfulness’ is a buzz word at the moment and can mean different practices to different people. Helen McKenzie is a committee member who has been connected to Drol Kar Buddhist Centre since 2001 and has been living at the centre in Paraparap since its establishment. On inquiry, Helen provided an excellent definition of ‘mindfulness’ that goes beyond any differences in techniques. Helen explains mindfulness as ‘being in control of your mind, rather than your mind in control of you’ and the road to getting there as ‘understanding the mind.’ Some mindfulness techniques include visual imagery, following the breath, and other mind and body awareness practices. Ideally we can do these things in a range of situations, but being in this place perhaps gives us more permission, reminders and guidance of how to do so meaningfully.

The Dalai Lama’s Visit:

In 2007 the Dalai Lama visited and unveiled the plaque in the stupa (pagoda) and blessed the gompa (temple). As the great leader’s schedule was tight, he was actually helicoptered in from Melbourne. Landing on the neighbour’s adjoining property, he was greeted through a gate by overjoyed community members and walked along a prepared path into the temple where he shared some teachings. An hour or so later he was then helicoptered off to Geelong for a much larger appearance that many locals still remember.

Your visit:

Drol Kar Buddhist Centre is available for all members of the public so it is certainly worth taking a look at their yearly program or calling the centre for further information about types of visits. While perhaps the whole of the Otways is a temple where each of us can find awe, this is a place on the way there that captures and symbolises some of the things us humans might be doing when we identify with things bigger than ourselves.

Further information: www.drolkarbuddhistcentre.org.au

Phone: 03 52661788

This article first appeared in Otway Life Autumn Issue 2