MEDITATION’S STAYING POWER – SIT, LET BE AND IMAGINE

November 22nd, 2018 | Posted by sfrydman in Healing | Meditation - (Comments Off)

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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.

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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

STAYING SAFE IN MEDITATION

November 17th, 2018 | Posted by sfrydman in Healing | Meditation - (Comments Off)

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We can experience a range of things when meditating such as boredom, bliss, emptiness, busyness, frustration, anger and sadness. These and other states are all normal and possible processes that can arise when we look more deeply into ourselves. At times we can also experience extreme feelings of grief, anger or fear.  Memories can also arise and some experiences can be very difficult to sit with. Even those of us with no known history of trauma might recall something we were not aware of.

The following are some strategies for managing ourselves during mediation if we begin to feel overwhelmed:

  1. Be somewhat prepared. Meditation is the business of getting to know yourself deeply. Be aware that intense experiences might occur during meditation. If you are attending group classes, please discuss concerns with your teacher prior and post participation and/or let your teacher know if you experience any major distress during any practices.
  2. Remember that the breath is the go to place! This is perhaps the most important instruction of all and sooner or later we’ll all be in situations in life beyond the mediation cushion when the best we can do is consciously keep breathing from moment to moment as we adjust to new realities. The same applies during meditation – if/when the going gets tough, keep returning to the breath and stay with each breath in and out. Lengthening the breath can help. Taking deeper breaths in and out can move us away from more subtle states. It is exactly these subtle states that can allow us access to deeper feelings. If these deeper feelings or states become overwhelming, then taking deeper breaths can feel safer. Move breath awareness from the nose to a larger area such as the abdomen. Counting breaths can also help.
  3. Go to a part of the body that feels safe and grounding and keep your focus there. Similarly, when mentally scanning around the body, do not stay on any part of the body that might trigger overwhelming responses. This is of course unique for each person but if we notice ourselves beginning to feel unsafe, then discontinue any physical or other practice and return to somewhere safe, whether through deeper breaths or holding the awareness somewhere more grounding in the body. Focus on something more externalising such as the feet in contact with the floor.
  4. Use a visualisation. Visualising a safe scene or place can be both a very soothing practice and something you can return to at any time. By consciously focussing on this safe space you move the attention away from other experiences you might not be ready to sit with or integrate. The visual space is something an individual can create that is entirely unique and meaningful for them.
  5. If required or helpful, open the eyes. One way of coming out of deeper states is to gently start to bring yourself back by opening the eyes. This can be done in stages such as blinking for some time and then staring or gazing at the carpet, a blank wall or some other focus that still remains somewhat internalised but might feel safer and more grounding.
  6. Use any other technique you think will keep you safe. Remember that you are in charge of your own experience and therefore please ignore any instruction given to you in a meditation class that it is not right for you. Feel free to guide your own practice in a way uniquely suited to you in each moment. After a few years of coming to my classes a participant once told me she used to repeat the words “pink elephant, pink elephant” as a mantra that worked for her. Whatever works! A personal Lovingkindness mantra or affirmation that an individual knows in advance might be soothing can be used. There is also no shame in ceasing a practice that is too triggering – it might be that the same practice done for a shorter length of time can be safe but if done for too long, it might feel too challenging.
  7. Finally and most importantly, if/when you are able to stay with difficult experiences through the support system of your own internal witness, please do it. The magic of meditation is that it allows us to be less reactive. Meditation can help us to integrate experiences and accept things in ways that bring freedom. When we are in a more-relaxed state in meditation, we reduce our fight-flight-freeze responses and therefore can more easily bear witness to things that might otherwise overwhelm us when we are in more aroused states. By facing our fears or other difficulties through meditation, we can reduce or get to know the shadow or challenging parts of ourselves. This is the deep work that can take place in meditation because our nervous system is supported and soothed through our concentrated attention. It’s not easy but sometimes feelings and thoughts bubble to the surface exactly when they require our attention or they finally arise when we feel it might be safe enough. If it is safe enough, then meditation can help us stay with experiences long enough to integrate rather than continue to suppress, run on react. It is the stuff of bravery but also of freedom.

 

© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications

BEYOND MINDFULNESS – EXPLORING OTHER MEDITATION PRACTICES

August 12th, 2018 | Posted by sfrydman in Healing | Meditation - (Comments Off)

Space1Teachers teach what they most need to learn, a saying goes. And so it follows that I like sharing my own learning with interested others and those who come along to my classes. Recently, I have been practising compassion practices such as Metta – Lovingkindness and Tonglen – Giving and Receiving more often and have started integrating these styles into my group classes. In this article I have attempted to present how some meditation techniques can support us but also how they differ in approach and possible benefits.

It is interesting that mindfulness breath-awareness practices have become so popular recently while there are other styles of meditation that are also very much part of long traditions and yet are not taught as regularly. Once we’ve more or less settled the mind or the body through mindfulness practices, what next? In classic mindfulness we stay with breath awareness and while we might be creating some conditions for calm, rest and awareness, at times we could actually be practising aversion by not staying longer or deeper with a thought or feeling that comes up while we follow the breath. There is also much talk in meditation circles about practising ‘letting go’ but what actually helps us to let go? Compassion-focussed meditations and other practices beyond classic mindfulness can provide profound ways for us to integrate, accept, let go and even transform thoughts and feelings. For instance, just through willpower, it can be very hard to let certain things go, but through the softening we derive through concentrating on tenderness and compassion we might indeed open further to letting go and connecting with our common humanity.

Thupta Jinpa was once a monk and translator for the Dalai Lama and is now a leading researcher, writer and teacher of compassion practices. Jinpa explains that mindfulness practices offer a window for greater self-awareness but are generally neutral or values free whereas compassion-focused meditations will start with a definite intention, work to expand or amplify particular states or emotions and impact one’s motivation. Sharon Saltzberg, another leading teacher in this field, calls it changing the default mode. In these specific compassion practices we gain further opportunities to watch some of our resistance, hurts or well-crafted defence mechanisms.

Mindfulness using the breath:

As mentioned above, the trend in the west is for a type of mindfulness practice that is based on following the breath or scanning around the body as you let thoughts and feelings come and go. There are many online recordings, apps and articles that offer mindfulness programs and many of these are inspired by the work of Jon Kabat-Zin’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) which took off in the early eighties. Around this time Kabat-Zin’s work with participants was clinically tested on participants who engaged in eight-week mindfulness meditation programs and the success of these and similar programs led to mindfulness courses being funded and more widely used elsewhere.

While there are some variations, the basic three instructions for this style of mindfulness are:

  1. Watch the breath at the nose and watch the inhale and exhale (using different ways to watch the breath at the nose to keep the focus…).
  2. If there are thoughts, know you’re having them.
  3. If you are feeling something, know you are feeling it.

And back again… 1. Watch the breath at the nose. 2 …  3 …

This is the cornerstone of mindfulness as presented by modern, secular teachers who now have science on their side ever since neuroscientist and long-time meditator Richard Davidson flew monks from Nepal and Tibet to labs in Madison, Wisconsin in order to scan these advanced meditators’ brains (2001). Mindfulness using the breath is a major technique that is sold as a way of offering some space, peace and calm. And this works, certainly in my experience. The space created while watching the breath provides the practitioner some reprieve from constant thoughts, worry or pain. Thoughts can indeed pass across the screen of the mind like clouds and as they pass we can also notice things with a different quality of awareness because we are in the role of a witness. We can take our thoughts and feelings less seriously, be more curious and accepting of them, let them go and/or perhaps take further action when they really do require more attention.

However, from teacher Jack Kornfield I have learnt that rather than returning to the anchor of the breath so rapidly each time we become distracted, actually staying a few moments and observing whatever thoughts and feelings arise can provide further opportunities for growth and knowledge. For example, if we are watching the breath and sadness comes up, then name it for a few moments… ‘sadness, sadness’ and then go back to the practice of watching the breath. Or if we have replaying thoughts, label or group them where any themes exist. For me it is often, although not singularly, ‘worry, worry’. We can try letting thoughts or feeling go or instead we can stay with them for longer, travel into their depths and quirks and in that way both experience things as they really are and find out more. So much focus is usually given to staying with the breath at all times. Yet intentionally naming the feelings or thoughts as they come and go can be a missed but valuable opportunity. By staying for longer and inquiring more into momentary experiences, we might sit with more friendliness and openness to the many waves of distraction such as ‘itchy’, ‘pain’, ‘tired’, ‘obsessing’, ‘boredom’… In this way, we continue to develop resilience through honest and open observations.

Vipassana or Insight Meditation – using Body Scanning:

We can also use the body as a focus. During ten-day silent Vipassana retreats the first three days are spent watching the breath at the nose, and then the next seven days are spent scanning up and down body parts. The same principle as the mindfulness-on-breath principle above applies: 1. scan up and down the body 2. know when thoughts arrive and then return to the body and continue the body scanning 3. know when feelings arrive and still return to the body and continue scanning.

Before describing other practices below, I would like to emphasise that I believe the mindfulness techniques above are the cornerstones of meditation. Journalist and once meditation-skeptic but now practitioner and advocate Dan Harris reports that mindfulness meditation has made him 10% happier. I am sure it has made me 10% less crazy. We can indeed tame, channel, express and even transform our thoughts and feelings in ways that continue to provide benefits for ourselves and others. The practices described below are also well worth exploring because they seem to provide a road map of what to do with some of those thoughts and feelings that we find arise in mindfulness practices and in our daily lives.

Metta – Loving-kindness Meditation:

While not as established as scientific trials conducted into mindfulness courses, research is also now being conducted into the effects of compassion-style practices where practitioners sit and repeat mantras of goodwill such as “may you be happy, may you live with ease…” The words chosen for repetition can vary and be chosen for personal meaning and resonance by the meditator but the formal purpose and structure is to sit with these intentions in stages for yourself, for a loved one, for acquaintances, for someone you might find challenging and for all people and living beings. I still have my training wheels on in this practice and my guiding in class is probably clunky at times, but there are great recordings available by Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein and many others. Some words I recently heard Jack Kornfield use in guiding the practice are “may I be held in compassion, may my pain and sorrow be eased, may I be at peace”. Who wouldn’t want more of this in their lives? One major principle in this technique is that it might be hard to wish ourselves well and therefore we can start by first holding the wishes for happiness, ease and peace for a loved one. After feeling the natural expansion of these intentions for a loved one, we can then do it with more confidence or openness for ourselves. We also extend our wishes for peace and happiness to people and relationships we might find challenging. This is the opposite of shadenfreude or pleasure derived from someone’s misfortune because when we notice that we can’t easily extend good wishes to someone we find challenging then, as Sharon Salzberg explains, we are clearly the ones who are suffering in those moments. While we repeat certain phrases or intentions, we can be aware and watch the distraction of our reactions and just as we would do in other focused practices we keep returning to the phrases of goodwill while making a note of any ambivalences or resistance.

Tonglen – Giving (happiness) and Receiving (suffering):

Tonglen meditation comes from a Tibetan tradition where practitioners choose to sit with another’s pain and their own pain. Pema Chodron is the leading exponent in this area. There is little doubt that some of our own suffering comes from a reluctance or refusal to be with pain and suffering. Our inner compasses are often set to draw away and numb ourselves from pain and this seems reasonable – who wants more pain? And yet through sitting in the eye of the storm and weathering pain, we can soften, have less fear and grow in compassion. Pema Chodron writes beautifully about how we can handle pain and sit with it in transformative ways that create compassion and healing. Central to this practice is the work of sitting with others’ pain and feeling the universality of suffering in order to develop the strength of compassion. In preparation for this practice, we breathe in a sense of heaviness, heat and thickness and then breathe out lightness and coolness and continue doing this for a while. Once this breathing pattern is established we then breathe in and take in the heaviness of another’s or our own suffering and breathe out into lightness and coolness while sending out love and good wishes to others and by extension ourselves. When I have guided Tonglen sessions I have often had people talk to me about the powerful effect of the practice. For myself, I can’t get enough of Pema Chodron’s work and how she translates and guides this practice for modern contexts. Pema has written many books including When Pain is the Doorway, When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are. Her writing is as beautiful as these titles suggest and she has also recorded many talks on the subject of Tonglen and other practices.

 Antar Mouna – Inner Silence:

Antar Mouna is a practice I first came across during my Satyananda yoga training and it was THE technique I resonated with the most. In Antar Mouna time is first spent settling the body into sitting with some stillness and then the focus moves to watching thoughts in stages. Stages can range from watching spontaneous thoughts, to choosing starting points such as thinking about a minor challenge and then moving to a more challenging situation. Once we choose a challenge to hold in awareness, we then watch what thoughts and feelings flow from that and how these might be inter-connected. We watch and observe those thoughts with gentleness and curiosity without having to believe them or act on them. In this way, we watch the virtual reality of our thoughts, rather than hoping they will pass like clouds or expecting to let go easily on request. At intervals, we can provide ourselves opportunities to drop the practice completely and return to another focus such as the breath. I love this practice as it allows us to practice some stillness while still fully observing our thoughts. For a large part of the practice, we don’t use any other focus such as the breath or the body since our thoughts are our total focus.  As we sit, we can notice the web our thoughts often create. One instruction is to notice as soon as a new thought arises. In this way, we are not freed by finding an empty mind space, but rather by fully noticing the virtual reality and inter-connected weaving of our thoughts, particularly as happens when we chose a thought, theme or experience to focus on as a starting point. While predominantly a mental practice, we can follow the same steps when observing feelings. For example, if you are someone grappling with a lot of anger, you can choose that as a focus and see what arises in the form of any thoughts or feelings. Often enough, if we sit long and deep enough with anger we are presented with fear as a major underlying cause.

Gratitude practices and the ‘Inner Resource’:

The Positive Psychology movement has popularised ideas and practices that perhaps some monks, spiritual practitioners, poets and many others have known and benefitted from for many centuries. Researcher, teacher and educator Rick Hanson has recently written a book called Resilient and another is Hardwiring Happiness. Hanson explains that while in meditation we of course sit with and allow whatever is inside us to come up but that we also need to ‘cultivate’ and consolidate things inside us or amplify aspects of our experience that will help us build resilience. This is not really a new concept. Both compassion and gratitude meditations do this. In a gratitude meditation we sit and list or recall things we are thankful for. We know that as humans we are at risk of our own negative biases, remembering and recalling the negative things that happen to us with much more skill and therefore consequence than recalling and valuing all the positives things that happen to us and around us. What is new and exciting is not that we can have or find resilience, but how we can actively develop it through specific practices of focus and concentration in meditation and how our brains change along with practices.

This resilience is also developed in a style of meditation/deep relaxation currently finding favour called iRest. In iRest practices the teacher first guides participants to find their ‘inner resource’ or place of safety and calm, often created visually. This is then a place or space the meditator can return to or call upon at any time in the practice, such as when recalling challenging things. iRest has its origins in ancient yoga nidra traditions and was developed by Richard Miller for use with military veterans in the USA. While of course it can at times be essential to suppress some things for personal safety, it is also deeply therapeutic when experiences can be processed and this work is trauma-sensitive because if offers a way to slowly and safely hold aspects of challenge and trauma alongside an ‘inner resource’ or place of deep safety. While not all of us have experienced trauma, we all possess bad habits or ways of thinking that we’d prefer not to persist with and this is where taming the negative bias and integrating the negative with the positive by building inner resources or resilience free us.

Most of us need to let go of things but how can we do that, asks Rick Hanson. And this is spot on – we might know what we need to do in order to live better lives but how can we do it. At times, we all need to feel more loving, forgiving and calm. Clinical definitions of mindfulness direct us to watch our thoughts and our feelings. This is not always easy but the ‘simple’ act of watching thoughts and feelings can allow us to understand them and maybe act with more wisdom. However, in some cases observing our thoughts and experiences in meditation might not lead to changes in our everyday actions. We might need more than witnessing, observation and non-reaction. Equipping ourselves with further inner resources and intentionally focusing on compassion, gratitude, safety and other states might encourage the growth, positivity and freedom we desire and innately know possible.

There is no one perfect prescription of meditation techniques but we are learning more about how the brain works all the time. When we practice meditation, we can feel it working. How wonderful that these days scientists are on the job of showing us the how and why! Ten percent less crazy sounds good to me and these compassion practices can feel pretty good too. So onwards!

Artwork: Imperfect Spaces by Suzanne Frydman

© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications

Puzzle 2Closing one’s eyes to meditate is a simple enough action and yet it can be more important than any other technique. With eyes closed we gain opportunities to feel where in our bodies we are slightly or significantly unbalanced, where we might be leaning into discomfort and how to release from automatic or learnt habits. Unlike in many workplaces, supermarket checkouts and social situations, in a group meditation class we don’t need to answer questions, ask the right questions or even interact in moments when we don’t feel like it. And yet participants in a class often feel the combined energy and group intentions of kindness, rest and inquiry. Support is given and shared. Meditation teacher Tara Brach reminds us that ‘present-ness’ does not necessarily mean ‘pleasant-ness’ but it does mean feeling our ‘aliveness’.

Comparisons with and judgements of others can easily take hold of us while we operate in contexts where superficially looking good is increasingly taking precedence over depth and genuinely being good. In large sectors of society, whether corporations, politics or kindergartens, performing certain roles and making the right moves lead to external but merely temporary ‘rewards’. When we close our eyes we can stop making moves or engaging in external noise long enough to feel more of our inner edges. In moments of stillness we gain a deeper understanding of what we really need. Somewhere amongst the maze of our actions is a pattern of intention, conscious or not.

When seekers first join my classes, I am often asked whether it is better to sit up rather than lie down for meditation. Whatever you need, I reply. If you lie down, you might fall asleep but maybe that is just what you need. If you sit up, you might feel some discomfort but that is a great opportunity to observe more and react less. The space offered from behind our eyelids provides a relief in not caring whether we are ‘doing it right’ or are ‘good enough’ and in the first few minutes of meditating with our eyes closed we can adjust and choose our final position in order to remain as still as possible for longer. Stillness in the body can help create conditions for more stillness in the mind and we can feel this quite strongly through first letting our eyes rest.

Volumes of information enter us through the eyes but when they are closed we focus more kinaesthetically and in doing so our bodies will provide us with information. When sitting upright, we can ground down through our sitting bones and through the physical posture we can lock in a mental sense of resolve, stamina and grounding from a base. ‘Strong back, soft front’ is a lovely Buddhist mantra and we can literally feel this in the spine from behind and the chest from the front. When we lie on our back the weight can spread evenly through all the limbs, the shoulder blades, both buttock and the back of the head. In this way we can be fully supported by the floor and the earth holding us. When it is painful to lie on the back in supine position, placing a bolster, blankets or rolled up yoga mat under the knees can help. Or lying on one’s side, in what is often known as the resting pregnant position, can be more ideal. Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says that lying down for meditation is like ‘poor man’s nirvana’ but I say ‘whatever works’ (no doubt he says that as well). Meditate like no one’s watching because it is unlikely that anyone else is watching. When we close the eyes we can reduce noise in much the same way as we need to close our eyes on our inner critic in order to do anything creative, whether that is writing or kicking a winning goal after the final siren. If we are expecting rewards or failure during the task then we are only being limited by expectations. However cliché it may sound, when it comes to creativity or the work of the soul it is best to trust the process and dive in.

The benefits of a meditation practice are out there loud and proud these days. On collecting his Brownlow medal last year, Australian rules footballer Dusty Martin thanked his family and his football club. He also thanked his meditation practice! While this instantly resonated for me I still replayed the video a number of times to check and hear that Dusty had actually said this. Thank you Dusty for promoting a profession or practice that is sometimes seen as flaky or indulgent (yes, you know the mantra, ‘I’ll do this self-care business when I’m not so busy…’). Just like what happens to musicians and other artists, some organisations ask meditation teachers to run sessions for free as this will no doubt ‘be a good opportunity for promotion’. Never mind the petrol or insurance, I grump, and then go pack my mats and blankets and do it anyway.

Earlier this year while wondering how to get the next gig or cover further study plans, I received a cold call to run meditation sessions for groups of accountants. So I took some deep breaths, Iooked into the space of the closed eyelids, remembered not to pack any incense, bells and whistles and drove into the hills to meet mostly men in dark suits who already suspected there was something behind all this meditation stuff. And beyond the labels of the eyes, both mine and theirs, we found space to sit with our stuff, let go a bit and take the necessary time out. Yes, we really do and should know better these days – of course it is better to do this self-care business before our bodies or lives force it upon us. And there is certainly nothing fluffy or flaky about calling on or keeping up a meditation practice. A group of terrified young Thai boys and their football coach were recently trapped in a dark cave and took to meditation in order to conserve their breath and the limited oxygen available as their lives were at risk. Those of us who are ageing (well, we all are) know that our bodies are not working for us as efficiently as they once did and that we need to rest more. And all of us know we have mental patterns and behaviours that don’t work so well for us and we benefit from exploring ways to see more clearly ahead.

There are people who don’t feel safe closing their eyes. I have delivered meditation sessions inside the prison system. Look down at the carpet or floor, I suggest. Lower the eyes. Cast the gaze inwards – not to check if you have a navel. You do. But emanating from it, you have a body that has stored memories. There is now an abundance of scientific research into the ways our experiences are stored in our bodies and we all know how our thoughts can become fossilised or repetitive if we are not aware of when we are repeating the same old stories. We can unlock much of this pain slowly and safely by closing our eyes and looking inwards to the breath. And looking inwards is what we owe ourselves since everything can and sometimes does change in an instant.

Our bodies and our hearts benefit from looking away from screens, temptations, flashing buttons and shiny new things and more towards our deepest intentions. We might as well inquire into our intentions or life purposes because they are waiting just behind the screen of the mind and sometimes the more we look away the more they then beg our attention in more mischievous and disturbing ways. That childhood dream, that great skill, creative vision or deep sense of purpose is there somewhere within and meditation helps us connect to ourselves.

To meditate, you really don’t need to do anything major except close your eyes and observe your experience. In fact, don’t do anything except close your eyes for a while. Watch one breath in and then one breath out. If you’ve done that, then you’ve meditated. No bells or whistles, although they can be fun too. There are a range of techniques for developing and sustaining a meditation practice and some methods will suit an individual better than other styles depending on each individual’s personality and learning styles. Closing the eyes as an initial practice helps because at other times we spend so much open-eyed energy assessing dangers and activating flight or flight responses. In meditation we want to do the opposite, that is, slow our adrenalin system down in order to listen or see more deeply. There are meditation practices done with eyes open, such as gazing at a candle flame, forest walking, painting and many other pursuits. These meditative activities all create flow states through a type of focus that also encourages witnessing and different types of seeing. Being still with eyes closed before engaging in these activities can allow even greater focus, and in the case of meditating on a candle flame or visual focus, some prior time with eyes closed is part of the approach.

If only closing the eyes and catching one’s breath and focus were encouraged in many other situations. Depression and anxiety rates, particularly amongst young people in the west, have never been higher. School children engaged in various resilience and happiness building programs are now being offered more time to lie down, close their eyes, move around, get away from screens and chill out. While some progressive workplaces have an assigned room for meditation and quiet, more workers are now operating in open-plan style offices with less space for both personal and professional needs to be met. Self-care and spaces to practise self care are not priorities to be put in brackets for when we have more time, bigger budgets or innovative leaders. The time is now, or at least, tomorrow. As the saying goes, if you can’t find twenty minutes to meditate per day, then do it for an hour.

We owe it to ourselves to create conditions where we can safely sit and rest with our eyes closed and our inner light shining. Sometimes we are reminded of this urgency only when we lose our mojo. I always keep on with my meditation practice because I know what my life would be like without it. However, there are times when I lose the anchor or sweet spot. Due to multiple life events, this has been the case for me over the past few months. More than ever, I have needed to close the eyes, listen to the pull of intuition and make decisions.

Recently I enrolled in a two-year mindfulness training course with the great Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Both these teachers are stunning writers and long-time meditators. This course of action seems to makes no sense to the current bank balance, my limited available time and the fact that the more qualifications I get the less employable I seem to become. And yet my heart is already singing at the thought. I can’t quite see where I am going with my eyes open so I might as well trust in them closed. Let me know when and how you do that too? See you in meditation soon.

Artwork: Puzzle by Suzanne Frydman

© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications

SHARED MEDITATION, TIME OUT AND THANKS

November 10th, 2017 | Posted by sfrydman in Healing | Meditation - (Comments Off)

Bell2Before I take a break from weekly meditation teaching to retreat further into my own practice, I’d like to share what I’ve learnt so far. I had taught yoga before but when I started my meditation classes in Colac four years ago I was still new in town. People came along with an open mind and became regulars, others tried the classes for a while and moved on and a few made inquiries but never quite got there. To each one of you I am so grateful as you all helped convince me of the following…

Something unique happens when people gather for meaning-making. Being a bit of an introvert and independent doer, it took me quite some time to really understand the power of groups but in a meditation class there might be a range of people quite different from you (hopefully) and yet everyone can sit or lie in the space and work to let go of the many distractions and challenges that affect peace of mind or way of life. When we sit together we often hear each other’s restlessness and other whispers from the soul. In these moments we are most genuine and reminded of our common humanity and shared need to rest, heal and flourish. Where people gather and let go of masks or performances, compassion shines.

We learn something new, maybe even something we don’t like. The great thing about coming to classes is exploring new techniques. I have my own favourite ways to get into the meditation zone, but when facilitating classes I usually offer a range of techniques since different things work for people for a range of reasons, including people’s learning styles and personalities. Practising new and uncomfortable styles is a gateway to develop the witness, and whatever technique we use, meditation is about Witnessing. Although not always easy, it is great to step out of the comfort zone and this is one of the best ways to establish our own home meditation practice. After being introduced to new practices in class we can then return with more clarity to what works best for us at home and also integrate new aspects to advance our practice.

We find the discipline to actually meditate. While offering the classes myself, I have needed to keep my own meditation practice regular. Perhaps without this commitment to teaching weekly classes, my own practice might have dropped off or wavered. We can all fool ourselves into delegating things to an I-will-do-it-tomorrow-wish-list or even think we’ve done some meditation when it really was the week before last that we actually sat down and watched our breath. When we do watch our breath it often isn’t for very long and longer classes or sessions can provide the framework to strengthen this capacity.

Can you be too tired to meditate? People sometimes share that they don’t come to class or meditate if they feel too tired and yet I think this is absolutely the perfect time to meditate and rest the adrenalin system in a much more efficient way than screen time or wine o’clock at home. We can sit or lie down for meditation and when we externalise and end the practice we usually feel more refreshed.

Meditation can be about so much more than mindfulness. Mindfulness is great (really great) – don’t we all want a clear, calm and non-reactive mind? But the search for mindfulness can also be a trap into attaching one’s self to superficial needs and unrealistic expectations. When someone or something close to us inevitably dies or we face rejection, physical pain and other difficulties, posting sticky notes of affirmation all around the house will not usually change the circumstances, but sitting with deep feelings can bring acceptance and a lighter way of being. When we acknowledge and integrate our own suffering and joy, we can build a compassion based on our shared vulnerabilities and strengths. Sometimes, often times, we humans are brave. We can also be our own worst critics. I certainly know I am. Through sitting still and bringing our attention to our moment to moment experiences we can soften in places, allow for our imperfections and even feel a sense of homecoming. Meditation is love, or at the very least, a practice of meaning making. It does not guarantee expected outcomes (despite much of the mindfulness-based marketing hype out there) but it always provides an entry point into ourselves, if we are brave and honest enough to sit with our shadows.

Meditation can be spiritual. Moments of stillness can and often do lead us into spiritual or surprising places. I’ve always been reluctant to use the word spiritual in my classes as I think it can be such a deeply personal thing at best and spiritual talk can also be elitist and narcissistic. Drawing the occasional mandala in a meditative state, chanting aloud, wearing certain uniforms, or even loudly proclaiming how meditation works for you is not a humble or quick route to being any better than another person. But if we can fight off inner and outer noise and attachment by engaging in meditative practices a route to meaning making and spirituality becomes established. Our values can be most tested by what we do when no one is looking and in meditation not only is no one else looking, but the veil of what we hide from ourselves is blown away and we can sit with truths.

Right now, I don’t know where my own meditation practice will lead me but I continue to try (and often fail) to make peace with processes of change, non-attachment and letting go.  I do know my meditation practice has continued to evolve, in a large part thanks to the people who have shared the journey and discipline with me, asked many questions and provided feedback about their own experiences. I feel touched and honoured to have had the opportunities so far to facilitate the different techniques we have explored and I hope to be in touch in the new year to continue further conversations about meditation and meaning making.

With love, Suzanne

 

© Suzanne Frydman / Relax Communications

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

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

BEING PRESENT THROUGH CREATIVE ARTS THERAPY

August 16th, 2014 | Posted by sfrydman in Healing - (Comments Off)

According to my training & practice here are some of my applications:

It is about being in the flow: when we are engaged in an activity that requires full attention our body systems get a chance to relax. Full attention on a safe and engaging task gives our adrenalin system time to slow down, and activates the parasympathetic system. Or in other words, it simply feels good.  And if it doesn’t feel good, it at least often offers relief from other thoughts that can grip us and prevent us from being in the moment.

It is about personal learning: when we turn on our creativity (yes, we are all creative in unique ways) significant personal learning often takes place. We all have our well-known narratives, stories we tell ourselves and others, and when required, we retell and explore these themes to therapists and counsellors. Traditional talking therapies can certainly be most effective but creative arts therapies are great for creating spaces where new knowledge can emerge. Sometimes our old stories or narratives are exactly what can hold us back. By creating something in a new way there is usually some surprise, strength and direction that reveals itself. When we are engaged in some form of creating while we talk or sit quietly, such as drawing or doodling, ideas can flow in interesting ways.

For when we don’t want to talk about it, or can’t: drawing, writing, movement, clay and sand tray work are all options for when we either can’t talk about some things or are not ready to. With negotiated prompts from the therapist (also often called the Companion in this methodology), the client/inquirer can create a safe language in which to express things that need to emerge slowly. This creates both release and containment of issues as not everything should be expressed at certain times or all at once. Containment alongside gentle realisations is a form of catharsis that is important and meaningful. This is particularly relevant when dealing with trauma which often first presents in the body.

Journey is enough for the vase

Journey is enough for the vase

It is multi-modal: in this methodology the inquirer can move from one form of expression to another, or stay with a form they are most comfortable with. Some choose to write, some draw, and others a combination of various forms of expression. When clients are comfortable switching into different modes of expression as the dialogue progresses, this can create great personal learning. For example, automatic (non-stop) writing can then be followed by picking out key words that immediately stand out, then perhaps moving to crayons, clay… The choices are varied and decided by the client.

The inter-subjective response: the therapist or companion usually offers a response to the inquirer, again in creative form of some kind (examples I’ve recently been drawn to have included playdough, poetry and pieces of music). This is a “giving” that the inquirer might resonate with in any way and can form the continuation of the dialogue. It also reduces power imbalances between “therapist” and “client” by allowing the clients to take ownership of what does or doesn’t feel right, according to their needs and experience. In other words, this is very much a client-centred or person-centred approach. Sharing with another, particularly in group sessions, is a powerful way to connect to self and others, and this is even more relevant in the age of so much on-screen time. The therapist or companion is there to provide prompts and open up dialogue but the client is the expert of his or her personal experience.

It is about commitment: committing to a session is a great way to discipline oneself, and perhaps develop a personal practice. We might know all these things above, but do we actually do them regularly? If not, you’re not alone in this challenge.

It is about resonance – what rings true. Research into the effectiveness of different counselling approaches has repeatedly concluded that it is the “therapeutic relationship” that makes the difference, regardless of methodology. The client needs to feel that the therapist “gets him/her” to a large extent or at least is creating a safe and open space for exploration. Anything less is a compromise not worth pursuing. If, after allowing for the discomfort of being challenged, the client feels empowered and heard, then much healing can take place.

And what creative arts therapy is not:

  • It is not about becoming or being artists, writers, sculptures etc.
  • It is not ‘art therapy’ alone as forms of expression might include writing, movement etc.
  • It is not something only ‘creative people’ can do. We all create every day.

For those interested, I will be running a yoga and creative arts workshop at Rocklyn Ashram (near Ballarat, Vic) on Nov 21-23. Day options are available. For further information and/or bookings see http://www.yogavic.org.au/. For information about my creative arts therapy training see: http://www.miecat.org.au/

Suzanne Frydman ©

WHY I TOOK A SPIRITUAL NAME

January 10th, 2014 | Posted by sfrydman in Healing | Yoga - (Comments Off)

Before I went to the ashram for Swami Niranjanananda’s Easter visit to Rocklyn ashram in 2009 a friend asked me if I would take on a spiritual name. Why in the hell would I do that, I told her.

I left the retreat with a spiritual name Shakti (feminine energy). Now sometimes people ask me why I took on a spiritual name and what it means to me and so…

The process goes something like this in Australia: you reflect on why you’d like to take an initiation and what it means for your personal yoga and life practices, you read up on the guidelines provided at the ashram prior to the ceremony, sign up for this commitment, and then on initiation day the visiting Swami from India might give you your name, mantra, symbol etc. The name given is not chosen by the initiate, rather it is given by the Guru.

SAMSUNG

I went along to this retreat merely curious. I had already completed six months of my (two-year) Satyananda yoga training and was most passionate about the creative and all-encompassing yogic ways of Satyananda, which to me includes not just asana etc but colour and sound vibration and an ashram environment that envelops you and provides space for deep exploration and acceptance.

What I knew about Swami Niranjanananda was that he grew up under the guidance of Swami Satyananda. I wondered what someone who had been involved in these deeply healing and spiritual practices since childhood would be like.

But when Swami Niranjanananda entered the ashram grounds the whole atmosphere lifted. I started feeling this for a number of minutes before someone explained that he had arrived. I believe he himself changed and elevated the vibration of the place, but I am satisfied enough to have it more logically explained as people reacting to each other and the signs in their environment. Probably these things come down to belief, and I have always believed we operate psychically anyway.

SwamijiFor the next three days I watched as the Swami talked, prayed and moved with us (or us with him…). One afternoon he entered the room and I just started crying, overwhelmed by emotion. Before this actually happened to me, I had watched all sorts of clips of hippies (I couldn’t be one of them?) crying as they sang devotional songs, and had slight envy of their access to emotion, alongside major disdain for what might have been fake. Yet there I was in awe of a Swami in orange. Those people?

Mostly I laughed a lot during the long weekend. Like the Dalai Lama, Mandela and other great leaders, Swami had the lightness of being that allowed him to smile and laugh his way through all sorts of snippets of wisdom, and he constantly gave the rest of us moments of a-ha recognition we could feel in our bellies. One of those snippets I clearly recall was about taking responsibility. In the end Swami Niranjanananda knocked me off my meditation cushion through his intellect, although the laughter helped build the trust.  The wisdom and reminders he gives are practical and intelligent nuggets that can steer us towards right action. Although I can’t replicate the ethereal way he expressed the need for responsibility I was struck by his urging us to speak our truth, the “if we have a tongue, use it…” metaphor has stayed with me at times when I would rather have avoided clear communication, avoided risking conflict, and/or the need to define myself. I know from Swami Niranjanananda that I can’t escape to my yoga mat or feel sorry for myself for too long.

Over that weekend each time I saw him walking out of or into a room or along a path I moved aside and retreated. To be honest, my awe bordered on intimidation and for me I took that as a positive thing. Or at least, unusual.

After my initiation, I had quite a journey still to complete in my yogic studies. There were times when I thought of taking a plane flight and completing my yoga training  more quickly at other venues. I think having made the commitment at initiation helped me find the energy (shakti…) to stick with the challenge of Satyananda yoga.

And it is still a challenge. Compliance and adherence to rituals are not so easy for me. And yet, when I have these questions about ritual I feel the guru I chose would accept me battling with my intellect. As long as I come out of it through my heart. I am not even sure what I mean by ‘guru’ as I don’t believe Swami Niranjanananda wants or needs ‘followers’. I am however, most grateful to the Satyananda tradition for both the freedom and the direction it provides.

Last year I attended another retreat during which Swami Satsangi, Swami Niranjanananda’s next in line, was initiating yogis. I did not take further initiation this time. I think my heart is still opening, thanks to Swami Niranjanananda.

Suzanne Frydman ©

LESSONS FROM MY GARDEN

June 20th, 2013 | Posted by sfrydman in Healing - (Comments Off)

garden1

 

Having never gardened before I moved to the Otways, and now having gardened for two years, I have been reflecting on what digging in the patch has taught me.

That mothers are right.

Beginners luck, she said I would have. So when my tomatoes grew big, red and juicy and hers floundered, we would laugh and she would tell me to shut up.

Of course secretly, or not so secretly, mum was proud of my success.

 

 

Results can’t be measured by volume.

garden2Two spring seasons in a row I sprinkled California and Iceland poppy seeds. Not one flower in sight, until finally one lone poppy emerged, and disappeared almost as quickly. Its short stay provided enough bliss to make all previous efforts worthwhile.

When my husband’s two zucchinis never made it to anywhere near the potential marrow proportions he’d warned me about we smiled at our optimism at planting them too late, and enjoyed whatever they had become, or not.

When “frosts” hit the soul, wait. Something is still growing inside.  

Events in life can occur and frost all self-expression. The year 2013 started off with a January that included some major personal challenges for me. For a number of weeks over summer I was unable to stay still in the garden, or still anywhere in myself. Anything that would have helped connect deeply with self, such as music, yoga and the newly found passion for gardening, was hard to do. Yet while I was regrouping inside, rocket plants went on with their cycle, dropping uncollected seeds all over the patch. Autumn then included masses of extra rocket in clumps that grew from the seeds that had jumped, or flown, rows.

It’s best not to be a “know-all” – humility is a form of serving.

When I was first sent to a veggie garden during my yoga training at the ashram, I would be quite nervous and ask before I pulled anything out of the ground. A number of years on, and I struck on a lovely tarragon “weed.” When my supervisor saw that I had pulled out such a delightful herb, he was so surprised and concerned for its survival that he immediately busied himself placing it back into the soil as if it has never happened, and didn’t mention my folly. Ahhh, finally a doozie of a mistake in the ashram garden. And not the last.

Ground one’s self in what works best.

It is fine to learn from mistakes, have wonderful accidents, and try and try again for that one lone poppy. Each of these bring their own lessons, but for developing real confidence and bringing food to the table, know what works. Know your strengths and limitations by grounding practices in knowledge. This of course is true of any endeavour. In the garden, know your soil. Leafy greens have been a delight to grow, but each time I have planted carrots in the same compost-rich soil they have formed into longish keratin fingernails. Don’t plant things in the same place each season, especially if they didn’t have much success the first time around. Knowing what works for us frees up energy and space. A successful garden is well-observed and well-planned.

Embrace abundance. Remain curious.

garden3There are many varieties of greens out there. This autumn plate (see picture) includes cress, mustard mizuna, and radish leaves collected at the end of our summer garden. Leafy greens have been the easiest to grow, both from pots and patch, and there are so many greens to choose from. I had early success with beetroots, which has informed my interest in different varieties. Try seedlings, seeds and seed collecting. Read widely on a range of techniques. Embrace the opportunity for life-long learning. Ask others what works for them.

A ninety-four year old gardening legend and friend, who when he hit ninety taught himself about computers, advises me “Google Peter Cundall.” These days there is such an abundance of information on the net and a wide range of gardening groups all over the country.

If it doesn’t smell right, fix it.

Yes, the guts of the compost. The head can’t always figure out or remember measurements, but if it doesn’t smell right or look like it is on the move, do something. A pile might need a bit of water, or more shredded newspaper carbon in the form of car and real estate sections. Following what is brewing through observation and gut instinct can allow us to adjust and repair before we are left with a stinking mess. Following one’s intuition, as nature expertly does, can help guide us and can certainly assist in halting further problems.

Finding our uniqueness.

garden4We often identify parts of ourselves through our job roles and relationships. But perhaps reflecting on what we resonate with in nature can reveal even more. Ask yourselves, which plants are you attracted to and why?  Think about form, colour, longevity, brilliance, statement, understatement, to name a few qualities. While I am often inspired by a changing range of flowers, for me it is the iris that I most relate to. Observe your own reactions to the environment around you.

Access nature to access the self.

Happy diggin…

Suzanne Frydman ©