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Monday, October 29, 2012

Power sitting

What is your body doing right now? Are you making yourself small, legs crossed, arms hugging your body? Are you expansive and taking up space?

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School, says in this Ted talk that your body language affects not only how others see you but how you see yourself. Cuddy describes power poses that have been demonstrated to change the chemicals in people's brains, increasing testosterone, which makes a person feel confident, and lowering cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

What does this mean for meditators?

The traditional meditation posture -- straight back (strong but not rigid), level head, open chest -- have a lot in common with the power poses Cuddy cites, the ones that increase confidence. Confidence is one of the qualities cultivated through meditation -- by examining the habits and old beliefs that undermine our ability to tap into our true, brilliant nature.

So maybe the benefits of meditation aren't just a result of working with the mind but of learning to carry ourselves in a way that our biochemistry contributes ... the interdependence of bodies and minds.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sitting by yourself

For a great description of what it's like to attend a three-day silent meditation retreat -- albeit on a beach in Australia -- read this article.

By being silent and being with yourself, the idea is to interrupt the perpetual loop of thought many of us have on repeat; learning to bring yourself back to the experience of right here and now, engaging without distortions of judgment, criticism or fear.

It is a beautiful experience in many ways. But, it is an awful lot of time to spend with yourself, without words and without the distraction of phone, television or computer. The silence and space brings perspective and with that I realise how much pain from the past paints the picture of my present.

The beach at Bundagen where the retreat was held.

Of course, writer Sarah Berry observes, you don't have to go to an extraordinarily beautiful location to experience this.
And once you have had the realization you don't need to stay there, separated from society. You can experience it while listening to music, talking with friends, eating -- or nude body surfing. (Read the article.)

A way to be awake

"First, come into the present. Flash on what’s happening with you right now. Be fully aware of your body, its energetic quality. Be aware of your thoughts and emotions.

Next, feel your heart, literally placing your hand on your chest if you find that helpful. This is a way of accepting yourself just as you are in that moment, a way of saying, “This is my experience right now, and it’s okay.”

Then go into the next moment without any agenda.

This practice can open us to others at times when we tend to close down. It gives us a way to be awake rather than asleep, a way to look outward rather than withdraw."

(From Pema Chodron's "Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change")

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Meditation works!

Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, improve health, and reduce reactivity. But can it make you a better worker?

The Harvard Business Review's blogger Peter Bregman says yes.

In this blog post, Bregman writes:

Meditation brings many benefits: It refreshes us, helps us settle into what's happening now, makes us wiser and gentler, helps us cope in a world that overloads us with information and communication, and more. But if you're still looking for a business case to justify spending time meditating, try this one: Meditation makes you more productive.

How? By increasing your capacity to resist distracting urges.
Bregman describes his daily 20-minute practice and the benefits he's seen from it. It's not what you might hear in a meditation class, but that just shows that benefits of meditation are pervasive.

For example, when an employee makes a mistake and you want to yell at him even though you know that it's better — for him and for the morale of the group — to ask some questions and discuss it gently and rationally. Or when you want to blurt something out in a meeting but know you'd be better off listening. Or when you want to buy or sell a stock based on your emotions when the fundamentals and your research suggest a different action. Or when you want to check email every three minutes instead of focusing on the task at hand.
Meditating daily will strengthen your willpower muscle. Your urges won't disappear, but you will be better equipped to manage them. And you will have experience that proves to you that the urge is only a suggestion. You are in control.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Beyond Happiness

There are 30,083 books with the word "happiness" in the title on Of those, 10,484 are in the self-help category, and 6,436 are listed under religion and spirituality. Clearly happiness is a hot topic.

 But many of those books are misguided, Nancy Colier says in her new book, "Inviting a Monkey to Tea: Befriending Your Mind and Discovering Lasting Contentment." Colier maintains that there is a state beyond happiness, which is fragile and dependent on outer circumstances. Rather, Colier proposes that we can attain well being, "a state of being that is deeper than happiness, one that can support us and keep us eternally OK."

Colier lays out a clear road map in her book, which draws on her training in eastern spirituality, flow states, and psychotherapy. She uses highly relatable stories from her clients to illustrate how travelers on the path to wellness get there: A woman who shops to avoid the feeling of anxiety, a man who gets upset about missing the train and arriving late for an appointment, an athlete whose body can no longer be a source of pride.

The book offers a step-by-step guide to achieving well being, starting by describing our personal and cultural addiction to happiness and ending in the state beyond happiness, where all events, emotions, and mind states can be accommodated with a sense of ease and confidence.

 Colier knows the path well, which provides both inspiration and assurance.

"As a student of Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism, I have been practicing awareness and meditation for a long time. For a good part of that time, I was using my spiritual practice to try to make me feel a different way than the way I felt, or maybe, more accurately, to take me somewhere else internally -- anywhere other than where I was. Peace and happiness were the goal for my spiritual practice," she writes in the introduction.

Colier says she experienced glimpses of that, but "again and again, when life presented its toughest challenges ... the peace and happiness that I had achieved on the meditation cushion slipped away." Tired of continually trying to get back to a fleeting state, Colier changed the focus of her meditation practice. Rather than meditating to find happiness and peace, Colier began meditating to see what was true in her life at that moment.

"I suppose you could say that I stopped using my meditation practice as an object whose purpose was to provide me with something, transport me somewhere else, make me someone else," she writes. She began to use her meditation as a way to be with whatever was happening. That led her to "a peaceful, contented state that fed on what was real, here, and now."

"It was not until I stopped relating to happiness as an object to be gained, stopped searching for happiness -- as a way out -- and started searching for what is --as a way in -- that I discovered a doorway to somewhere far more blissful than happiness had ever taken me."

Want to go there? The book is a step-by-step, detailed guide. None of it will be surprising to students of Buddhism or psychology. This ground has been walked before. But Colier -- who is a regular columnist for the Huffington Post as well as an interfaith minister, psychotherapist, and public speaker -- presents it in a clear, contemporary, straight-forward way, balancing theory with enough personal details from her own life and from clients in her practice, to make it possible.

It's also clear that just reading the book won't get you there. You have to do your own work to get beyond the addiction to happiness and into the land of well-being. You still have to get to the meditation cushion. But this book is a helpful guide for working with what you find there.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Embodied meditation

Can't sit still? Too much going on in your mind?

Learn to use your body in meditation at tonight's class at Samadhi. 7:30-9.

We'll review concentration practice and move -- literally -- on to mindfulness, starting with mindfulness of body. Walking meditation. Body scans. Maybe even chocolate.

It's week 2 of the How to Start a Home Meditation Practice series, but it's never too late to start.

Get your mind together

Meditators are able to bring various areas of their brains in synchrony, working together in near lock step, Scientific American reports.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that during meditation, Zen Buddhist monks show an extraordinary synchronization of brain waves known as gamma synchrony--a pattern increasingly associated with robust brain function and the synthesis of activity that we call the mind.
The results seem to confirm that Zen meditation produces "not relaxation but an intense though serene attention," similar to trained musicians listening to music--another form of calm but intense focus.