Look Forward – Meditation & Baby Steps For 2016

Welcome to Monday and to the year ahead.

Do not look back. Look Forward to School, to Work, and to  Life.

The holidays are over, so it 2015. It’s time to face 2016 with elation, excitement, and energy.

If those feelings are not there, meditate for a moment but no too long. If there is some trepidation, do not allow yourself to become overwhelmed. Turn that knot into a fiery ball of energy from within and without.

Know that some loose ends will never get tied up. Simply assess the hand you have been dealt and move on – past the loose threads that are left behind.

Better still, use them to plot your course for the year ahead. Take one step in the direction you want to go. Do not over think the year past or the year ahead.

Life does not come with a cleanly pressed hem. Life presents a rough edge that it is tattered and frayed. It is up to you to accept that as the beauty that is found in the imperfections that is.

Take one small step in the direction you want to go. Reflect on where it is leading you. Find the inevitability on where your path leads. If an opportunity comes, take it. If it moves you in the right direction, stay with it. If it doesn’t spread out your hands and find another path to follow.

Forget about those big resolutions you used to make. They will only end in disappointment. Forget about setting goals for the physical world you may never meet – there is too much going on outside to take it all on your shoulders.

Instead, focus on how you want to maintain yourself. Focus on your intentions, on how you want to live your life, how you want to be known, or how you want to look back at the end of 2016 and realize how you want to see yourself.

Then become that person.

 

Is Your Style of Meditation a Cup or a Sword?

Which style of meditation or yoga is right for you?

Some people tends toward the cup, while others tend toward the sword. One reflects the masculine side of human nature, the other the feminine. Neither is right. Neither is wrong. Each simply connotes the basic nature of the human experience. They have little to do with being a man or a woman, and everything to do with the nature of existence. One speaks toward nurturing, the other toward a well defined path. They are simply facets of our humanity.

Many teach a softer form of yoga and meditation; that is more reflective of the cup. Yes, there are elements of the sword in those styles, but for the most part, they are soft and gentle. The other style, found in practices like Zazen, are more reflective of the sword, providing a strong foundation and a solid path upon which to grow.

Many men find this style more reflective of their natural state of mind. The important element to keep in mind, is not hard or soft, but which is right for you and when. The Simple Truth Method is created to help men and women from all paths to decide for themselves which techniques to use for different purposes. Yes, our students learn to weave a tapestry that aligns with your natural state. At some times, that state tends toward the sword, at others it tends toward the cup – depending on what you are going through in the modern world we now live in.

If you are seeking a style of meditation that reflects who you are, and have not found that in such styles as Samatha or Vipassana or Transcendental, then you may consider the Simple Truth Method, a style that helps you become who you are.

It is why so many men and women have found themselves more comfortable weaving traditional techniques together, into their own practice. On that fits their needs, in a way that works for them, free from judgment, free from the need to fit into something that they simply are not.

Sword or Cup – which are you? Which do you naturally tend toward?

Morning Meditation

Before waking this morning I lay in bed, one hand on my stomach, the other on my chest feeling the slow rise and fall of each inhale and exhale as I allowed my mind to stir in a gentle Buddha Breath. My mind woke, but not too much, never leaving the gentle meditation of my waking.

As time slid by the light changed across Manhattan. I rose and walked to my cushion. There I sat. I brought my Waking Buddha Breath with me as I lowered myself into a formal seated meditation. I started with a Pranayama OutBreath to clear my head of my dreams and focus my mind. The rapid chuffs of air that escaped through my nose in the short, sharp puffs that has given this technique its name were strong and even. One every second or so which started in my abdomen and worked themselves up to the room and the world around me.

When there was no more air to give I was left floating on my seat, my awareness followed my meditation, naturally landing on that place where my sit bones met my seat. It drew my attention down, to my feet, to my ankles as they pressed against the floor, tooting me  to the pillow and the earth below. Each reminded me of the roots of the tree that my body began to emulate.

They rose up the trunk that was now my spine and body as my consciousness gently scrolled through my five senses. My eyes, I was aware of the patterns on the back of my eyelids as the last dreams left me. My ears, as I heard the sounds of the room, the building, the world gently coming to life around me; aware of each, acknowledging and welcoming them into my world, my awareness, my consciousness. My sense of touch as my sense of self dropped to my hands and my heart.

My meditation paused at my heart for a moment as my breath slid from quiet into a mantra meditation. Less a mantra actually and more the wonderfully rasping sounds as I felt it stir against my vocal cords, delivering that wonderfully deep and soulful sound one associates with monks; resonating low and vibrating deep as if reaching to the energy that surrounds each of us.

That same resonance and vibration found its way downward to that place in my lower abdomen and centered itself within me. It wrapped itself around my chakra and shifted into the thoughts of safe, healthy, happy. My own mind followed those thoughts as the vibration of my chanting extended those thoughts of me to you, from I to us, and from us to a feeling of one.

My mind, my awareness, my consciousness shifted somewhere in there I became nestled in that wonderful network of Love that is the backdrop to our world, that we so easily forget is there. With the feeling of energy coming back to me as I connected with each of you, I smiled and continued to breathe. I let go of the callings of the morning and they let go in return.

There is no need to start my day just yet. The day will come soon enough. I simply need to watch the morning sun lighten the sky. I simply need to watch myself to stay centered in the bliss that my morning practice has given me this morning and every morning that I remember to follow it.

 

Much Love

Wonderful Journey Through Meditation

This is such a wonderful Journey we are all on, let’s travel it together.

Whether you follow me or not, you have probably noticed I not been posting for a while.

I took an unexpected sabbatical almost eight weeks ago, something my doctors refered to as a series of severe seizures. Sabbatical or seizures – the implication is really a matter of semantics; the reality depends on what you do with your time.

From the doctors perspective, these were not the kind of seizures that jumps into people’s minds, complete with dramatic tremors and spasms. These were more internal than that – the kind that shuts off the connection between the cognitive segments of your brain and the motor skills of your body.

I have lived through enough of these to get over the shock pretty quickly. The first few days of my forced sabbatical are nice. All of my needs were taken care of and people respond to my smiles and eye rolls without too much conversation.

I was able to see, hear, and taste, I was able to contemplate big ideas and follow them to their eventual end, free from distractions, I just could not do much about them.

There was plenty of time for meditation and contemplation. The problem was I could not really read or write; my brain simply could not track a sentence let alone an entire paragraph that covered more than a single subject. The thoughts just overloaded my wiring – you will have to wait for my article about multitasking and distractions.

What I have learned is that time becomes irrelevant. Things take as long as they take and there is not much you can do about that, except stay focused on your thought.

Over the years I have learned that if you are able to write down the big ideas and the finer points, as my father taught me to do, you end up with a pretty amazing list of topics to dive into when you can write. You also have a list of well thought out points to support them with.

This is why I call it a sabbatical. With time not being an issue, I am left with little to do except to ponder and let my mind wander as my rehabilitation gets my body caught up with my brain, and my brain with my mind – connecting all that wiring, as it were, to re-teach me to walk, to read, to write, and yes, to smile.

If I am successful, I am left with what I think are, a pretty amazing list of articles to jump into, with such subjects as:

  • The Hypocrisy of the Hippocratic Oath
  • Returning the Barriers Back into Your Life
  • Even Yogis Duke It Out
  • There is Always A Choice – The Problem Lies in Taking Action
  • Dreaming is okay, but at some point you have to work for it
  • Estee Lauder & Colin Powell: 5 Tips That Will Focus You Mind, Body & Soul
  • Hipsters and Hippies – The Mistakes They Made The Last Time Around

Also, we will begin again with our weekly emails “Mindful Moments,” s well as the launch of our much awaited program: 5 Weeks to Meditation.

This is a wonderful Journey we are all on, join me, let’s travel it together.

Q+A – What Does It Feel Like When The Brain Reboots? Seizure Pt II

Moments of Enlightenment

This is the wiring diagram of a human brain. It helps me to understand the complexities of the brain and of my recoveries.

I used to describe the recovery from a seizure as a series of awakenings, as an ongoing experience that rolls out before you and continues to grow and expand as my brain reconnects itself and comes back online. But it is more than that. It is part physical, part psychological, and yes, part spiritual.

I would describe it as an expanding experience that includes a higher level of cognition which pushes beyond where my experiential limits used to be. It is as if, once opened, the pathways that were at once limited become limitless – beyond where the eye could at one time see.

I know this is as much physical as it is metaphysical. I realize much of this is a function of my brain repairing itself and my neurons re-knitting the old pathways, but I cannot help but drop the limiting thoughts that used to define me, to peek into the void beyond the horizon.

Physically, I understand that the myelin that sheathed my nerves was probably weakened during my seven weeks of radiation. [Myelin is the insulating covering of protein and fatty substances that protects the nerves of the brain, spinal cord and body. Unlike the insulation of a power cord, it is not designed to prevent electrical shocks as much as it is to hold the electrical impulses within the neurons, enabling them to transmit signals more quickly and efficiently along the neural network of cells.]

It is one reason the doctors and I think I had my seizure  in the first place. Seven weeks of radiation has a way of wearing away the myelin, leaving the nerves a bit raw.

As the myelin rebuilds, the synapses in the brain become stronger, the neurons engage and mesh together, recreating the network and the memories that I remember having. I am sure a certain level of neuroplasticity comes into play as the brain takes into account what is going on around it, enhancing the most relevant areas first, even letting go of some areas it deems less important.

In a way, I get a new brain. As this happens, it feels as if I am witnessing my memory expand at a rapid pace. The result is a hyper fast experience of watching my mind expand, not just rebuilding its old self, but often going beyond where it was, pushing past the old boundaries, and sometimes even forgetting or ignoring where they were.

In terrestrial terms, when I first left the hospital I had a very limited awareness of where I was. We often speak of being present – well, this was it. My focus was on the pavement immediately in front of my feet. I was not worried about what happened yesterday or the day before. I was not worried about what was coming up. The past and the future were not even concepts I could grasp. Mine was a very immediate and present-moment experience, all day, every day.

As my memories and my cognition came back online, I became aware of the entire block in front of me. I began to realize at some point I would reach the end of the block, and with it the concept of the future came into being. With that concept the street names beyond the block I was on became real.

I quickly learned if I went out on a ramble I would easily become lost, as in 100 feet out, I would lose my sense of direction and have to stop for a few minutes to regain my bearings. If instead I followed a set path, i.e., walking down a street I was familiar without turning down a side street, the streets in front and behind me would start to scroll as if a map was being unrolled with every step I took. Even the side streets would start to roll out and expand in every direction.

It was a fascinating experience to watch as my brain reconnected itself. I would have sudden realizations of the stores that were on this block and the next. I would not always remember their names, but I would often remember the smell of a bakery, the energy and the bustle of a coffee shop, or the emotional connection to a bookstore. The memories were not just physical, but emotional as well.

As the grid around me expanded from one block to three and to ten, I found myself having to stop on a corner, standing still and staring blankly at a sign or a tree, as my awareness and cognitive abilities caught up with my physical location and my brain’s growing network.

When I finally made it to the Hudson River – perhaps six blocks away – I practiced a walking meditation as I took in the smell of salt in the air. I removed my shoes to feel the cold planks of the boardwalk beneath my feet. I kept to the edge of the path to feel the reeds against my legs; it was the sensations I was after.

As those came in, I begin to smell the more subtle scents along the path, I could hear the birds singing, I could even hear the wavelets along the banks of the river. I became aware of the individual sounds that make up that wonderful tapestry of white noise that we all live in.

Perhaps this is why I teach a meditation that enables my students to embrace the world around them; to acknowledge and appreciate the individual sights and sounds that make up their world without feeling the need to attach themselves to each one.

About this time I also looked across the river to see the trees and the sky and the clouds that are beyond the walls of Manhattan. I can see where the Hudson flows out into the ocean and my mind quickly puts it all into place, that yes, there is a big beautiful world out there.

This is also the moment where I let go and allow my mind to roam, not stopping it at the edges where my brain says “real” or “not real”, or separating the “physical” from the “metaphysical.” Instead I enter a playground where I allow the sensations from each to overlap.

I begin to remember what happened during my seizure. I remember feeling the overload. I remember my brain shutting down. I remember my body closing off, and I remember giving myself up to the kindness of strangers, unable to move or to respond. And it is about this time that I am reassured of the kindness of human nature. Where not once has my experience tuned into the torture scenes so often found in the movies we are forced to endure.

Instead, people have always reached out, helped, and done so with kindness. It is about this time that I find myself smiling, knowing that I am on the right path.

 

 

Meditations & Seizures to Recovery – Seizure Pt I

This past Saturday I practiced yoga for the first time in two weeks – it helped align my muscles.

Yesterday morning I enjoyed a walking meditation along the Hudson River – it helped align my mind.

Yes, the birds do sing along the Hudson. Yes there are quiet places in the middle of the world’s largest metropolis. It simply depends on where you decide to place your attention and what you decide to focus your attention on.

This post is a story of what you can do when you place your attention on a single point of focus, and where that focus can take you.

Both practices, the yoga and the walking meditation, were the first time I was able to abide them since I had a rather massive seizure on September 20th. It knocked me down and took me out for several weeks. There was no convulsions. There was a simple shutdown as my brain experienced an overload and quietly rebooted itself.

In between these events, the September seizure and my walking meditation, I have floated in a muddle of missed connections and forgotten streets, of thoughts that have gone unexpressed, and of the constant reminder that the human experience is a glorious thing to behold.

Throughout it all, I knew the information was in there, I was just unable to access it. The process of which has been a process of breathing and patience, of stopping in silence, interrupted by flashes of knowledge as my brain awakened itself.

It has been a path of following the tried and true, interrupted by frantic thoughts and the need to quiet my mind, of getting lost in a city in a well laid-out grid, of waiting on random corners as my neurons settled down, of not moving until my sense of space and direction returned to me. Of getting lost in time on a park bench, blankly contemplating a leaf in empty silence until something sparked a memory in the back of my brain and stirred my mind to life.

 

The Seizure

On September 20th, the last coherent text I sent out was at 4:39 in the afternoon. After that my wife received a call from a stranger at 6:49, telling her I was sitting in our lobby, unresponsive and not moving. Unseen by either of them, the electrical pulses in my brain had quietly lapsed as it seized.

During this time, my brain was reducing the input, shutting down my sight and my hearing as it went through its own reboot. My sight closed in on me, reducing my field of vision to a very narrow band of light. My hearing began to fail as my brain, the good computer that it is, shut off the sounds that overwhelmed it a short while before. My fingers tingled and went numb as my sole focus was to painstakingly scroll through my phone to my wife’s number in the hopes that I could find someone to dial it before everything went dark.

What usually takes seconds took me well over an hour that afternoon – all with the thought of preparing for the chance passing of a stranger.

If I could have spoken intelligibly, I knew what I would have said, but the words and thoughts were trapped deep in my mind at this point, unable to be expressed. So I sat down on the stone steps of the lobby, resigned to setting things up; remembering, forgetting, taking each step one at a time before forgetting and having to reverse direction once again, reminding myself what it was I was trying to do – prep my phone so that I could hand it to a stranger and point to the dial button.

This was how I spent the seventy minutes between those two points of contact.

I remember the conversation going on inside my head. One voice saying “this could take for hours,” the other voice saying, “Well, it’s not like we’re going anywhere anytime soon, so just breathe and focus, and move as smoothly as you can so you don’t make any mistakes.”

It was a meditation of remembering, of forgetting, of focusing and of letting go.

As luck would have it I saw movement somewhere in the lobby. I tried to speak and showed him the screen of my phone. I may have said the word “wife” but I am not sure if that is what made it out.

He called her from his phone before realizing his phone was a stranger’s number to her, and he pushed the send button on mine.

In minutes I began to hear the wail of sirens as the ambulance raced my wife for the lobby to take me to the Emergency Room at NYU.

 

Collapse & Recovery

My seizures are somewhat unique in a way. They are the result of 9 brain surgeries that have removed more than 20 tumors in as many years, as well as a few rounds of radiation that have left my brain swollen and angry.

It is not that I lose consciousness of what was going on around me. I am actually hyper-aware of the input coming in – I am just unable to process it into anything meaningful. I can walk up to a door, I know that on the other side of this door is my destination, but I am unable to understand how the door works. I can see the key in my hand, but I have no idea how to fit it into the keyhole, let alone to turn it in order to open the door.

In this case I was able to make it into the lobby of our building, but that was about as far as I could get. So, there I sat, in a stupor, patiently abiding my breath as I gave myself up to the actions of those around me, trusting they would do the right thing.

In so many ways these seizures remind me of the inherent kindness and goodness that is within us all. It would have been so easy for someone to grab my wallet, my mobile, or to shuffle me off to some nightmare scenario that screenwriters are so quick to turn into a blockbuster. But this has never happened.

Not once in all my experiences has anyone ever done anything other than to help, to assist, to see me through. For that I am eternally grateful. I am also eternally optimistic that the human experience is not one based on hate or anger or fear, but on love and compassion and understanding. That it is within each of us to reach out and lift up those who are in need, as has happened to me again and again and again.

 

The Fall

This seizure followed a fairly predictable pattern. I was running a number errands and had forgotten to take my Keppra – an anti-seizure drug. I dehydrated myself and skipped lunch which lowered my electrolytes and blood sugar, in order to get one more errand done. I put myself in what I call the danger zone, by adding level of stress to the whole situation, until I ran into a market that was loud and crowded and bright with more food choices than you could ever hope to see, and that is what flipped the switch. It over-stimulated my senses with brighter lights and jostling people and more noise than I could handle; and that is when my brain just said enough.

When then the seizure starts, it comes on pretty quickly. The signs give me perhaps a thirty or forty minute warning. It is like watching my brain shut down the inputs so that it can reboot. My field of vision quickly diminishes to create a tunnel. I begin to see flashing lights. My hearing begins to dim, and I get a numbness and tingling in my fingers and toes.

On this occasion I determined I had enough time to get home.

As I focused on the streets I knew it would not be long until my speech become unintelligible. I also knew I would start forgetting how to make the connections we all take for granted – like how to use a key in a door, how to take an elevator upstairs, or how to make a cell phone work. It is the funny thing about my seizures, I conceptually understand what something does, I simply cannot for the life of me make the connections that are necessary to make it work.

It’s kind of like being a car without a driver. The engine is idles just fine, but it’s not going anywhere without someone turning the wheel or stepping on the gas, let alone being ready to step on the brake.

In some cases if I catch it in time, I can stop the seizure by taking a cold shower to lower my body temperature, drinking an electrolyte replacement designed for marathoners called Skratch, or meditating to quiet down my brain’s activity. I can even nap for a few hours, or collapse into a deep unmoving sleep, until things seem to return to a normal path of recovery.

Needless to say, this time I missed that window of opportunity.

Instead, I felt the growing disassociation with the world as it shrunk in around me as I headed home, key in hand. I remember putting myself on as direct a path as possible. It was only a few blocks to our loft, not even ten minutes, but by the time I got to our front door, I wasn’t sure how to use the key that was in my hand in the lock.

I knew what was going on, so I stopped and breathed and settled things down. I focused on my breath until a connection was pulled together and slowly slid the key in, turning it, and opening the door.

In front of me was the steel door of the elevator that would take me to our loft. I knew what the elevator was for, but by this time I could not sync up the concept of the elevator with the idea of how to operate it [i.e., put the key in the lock, turn the key and push the button for the right floor].

I also somehow knew having my wife find me collapsed in the apartment would be less desirable than accosting someone in the lobby and getting them to call her. Don’t ask me how, but this is the way my brain works in times like these.

So I sat inside the lobby with my keys in my hand and waited. My vision continued to degrade into a very narrow band of light, into which I scrolled my phone one step at a time. I remember thinking to myself, “this is just like yoga, one movement for each breath. Slow and steady,” with the idea that if I could set everything up, if someone came in, if I could catch their attention, I could just push send and give them the phone.

As you already know, a neighbor eventually did come in. I managed to garble out the idea for him to use my phone to call my wife. How he understood I have no idea, but he made the call.

Alex, I thank you for that.

06:49 – Laura sent a text that she was on her way down and calling 911

 

Into the ER at NYU

I remember sitting there, sweating and listening to the sirens as they approached. Alex stayed with me until the ambulance arrived. I acutely aware of my head hanging down as I focused on my breath. I was aware of everything going on around me, without placing too much attention on any one detail. It was as if my brain was absorbing the events in a very distracted way. It was detached, but taking it all in, as if floating just beneath the surface of a lagoon, watching what was going on above the surface without being able to interact with it; calm and serene.

I could not see the EMT when they came into the lobby, but remember hearing them. I was trying to say something, but realized whatever I was saying made no sense. I knew what I wanted to say, but could not get the words out, so I just let it go and let them handle the situation.

I could feel them moving me this way and that, strapping me onto a stretcher and loading me out the door. It occurred to me that this was what Stephen Hawkins must feel like. Able to take in the world around him, observing and noting from afar, without the ability to interact.

Laura climbed into the ambulance and told them NYU, and off we went. The ride itself was a benign trip through which I closed my eyes. I felt safe, knowing that from this point on, everything would be fine.

When I opened my eyes, it was to the noises and lights of the ER. We had arrived at the NYU Medical Center where the doctors have had me on file for decades.  The orderlies were taking vitals and placing electrodes on my chest and head. The nurses were securing IVs into my arms. There was nothing for me to do but lie there and breathe. Everything that could be managed was being managed. I was stable.

 

Recovery

When I woke, it was to the flashlight of a nurse checking the dilation of my eyes. It wasn’t great, but they would get better.

The key difference between my seizures and the seizures caused by something like epilepsy, is that in my case, it is all about the buildup. I hover in the yellow-zone for hours until something pushes me over the edge. I get over-stimulated by some trigger, my brain gets overloaded and simply says enough as it starts to shutdown.

After the seizure occurs, the event is over. There are no follow-up seizures. It’s a one-time event before my brain goes into repair mode, busying itself as it re-establishes the neural connections it once mapped my life to. There are no cascading of electrical impulses where the brain continues to misfire. I am not sent down into a series of seizure after seizure after seizure. And yes, I consider myself extremely lucky in this sense.

It took a day or two of observation for the doctors to confirm that my brain’s activity had normalized, after which they saw little reason to keep me. In effect, releasing me on my own recognizance.

 

The Road Back

What I have learned over the various surgeries and seizures that I have had, is that the physical brain is a truly remarkable organ. Not only does it have millions of connections that not only keep the body alive, but it reorders those connections every second of every day in an infinite number of combinations to create the thoughts and dreams we call the mind.

It also reprioritizes the way in which those connections are put together, in order to better respond to the world around us. A London taxi driver’s hypocampus, the area responsible for mapping and directions is heavier and more deeply folded than yours or mine. It is a survival skill they need having to drive through the more than 10,000 streets of London that have been built up over the past several thousand years – few of which follow any kind of a grid pattern.

I was reminded of this as I began to look out the window of our apartment at the streets of Soho in Manhattan. This is the haphazard area that was laid down before the grid on Manhattan was established. No right angles. No first, second, third or fourth. Instead it is a mishmash of Spring and Mercer, Prince and Wooster, it was this pattern that I needed to access before I could leave the loft.

The amazing part of relearning the streets is that the harder I tried to picture them, the more difficult it was to do so. Instead, the more I relaxed, that more I let go, the quicker the image of the streets would come to me.

On the one day I went out thinking I would wander around the reacquaint myself with the neighborhood, I got lost within half a block. I could not remember what was North or South, East or West, uptown or downtown. I had to stop against a building and breathe for several minutes until I slowly realized where I was, and more important, where our loft was.

That was enough to send me back home for a very long nap.

On my second trip out, I thought of taking a different approach. I would take a left out of the apartment and stick to one street. As I walked down the street I read the signs as they begin to spark my memory. I could feel my brain make the familiar connections that were already there.

After several days of this I begin to visualize a grid around me. It was only a few blocks, but I begin to remember the names of the streets several blocks away. I even began to see the stores on the next block as if they were appearing out of some recess in my memory.

In between, there were moments of standing on a corner for minutes on end, unwilling to go any further until my brain could catch up with where I was. I was taking baby steps, allowing my brain to familiarize itself with the neural network it had slowly established over decades.

As my brain mapped the streets of the city, I could feel other aspects of my mind coming online. I learned it helped to put everything in a very specific place, and to not take any shortcuts. Life became easier when I was able to create familiar patterns that I could return to. As these patterns established themselves within my head, I could expand upon them more easily.

The moment I took a shortcut, was the moment I would get lost or confused, and have to take several steps backwards before starting over.
My conversation begin to get tighter. My writing became crisper. I could even remember the focus of a paragraph from the time I started and finished writing it. Oh, and autocorrect no longer confuses me by misspelling my words.

 

Modern Meditation Profile – Shalini Bahl

Shalini Bahl – “…what was left, was the most profound silence I had ever experienced.”

In many ways, Shalini Bah, the founder of The Mindful Universe, is like myself. She is like so many of you. She pursued a conventional path until she faced an awakening of sorts; within a shaman’s circle in the jungles of Costa Rica.

It was, as she put it, “a pivotal point in my life. It is where I started breaking down my barriers and discovered my true calling.”

Shalini grew up in a very loving space, and a very comfortable environment in Kuwait. She got married and started on the path that was expected of her, but not one she necessarily chose for herself. Her marriage was not what she thought it should be, and increasingly dissatisfied with the life before her, she asked for a divorce – something a woman in India simply did not do.

After her divorce she began to question what she had grown to accept in her world. It was at that time that she, by her own admission, came out of a very dark place in her life. She moved to the United States to pursue a PhD. It wasn’t until several pauses occurred in her life, that she began to reflect upon all that she had gone through.

She remarried and began following a traditional path, when she had an opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with her second husband and son to take part in a Shamanic ritual. Upon arrival there they were explained that the ritual involved drinking Ayahuasca and would last all night long.

As someone who grew up in a culture where alcohol was shunned, let alone hallucinogenics, she was skeptical about trying it. Her husband decided not to participate. She remembers thinking that she “should not” drink a hallucinogenics when a small voice in her asked, “says who?” She felt that she was there for a reason and had to go through it, even though it was the most frightening thing she had done in her life – sitting with 100 strangers in the middle of the forest for an all-night ceremony that involved drinking Ayahuasca.

The first time she joined the Shaman’s circle and drank the Ayahuasca, she felt her senses open up for the first time. It was enough of a taste that she decided to attend the second ceremony. On the second night she received a larger amount and within minutes could feel the energy being pulled out of her body. She felt like she was being asked to jump off into the unknown at the end of a dark roller coaster ride. As she put it, “I could hear my very academic voice, my parental voice, giving advice that this was not real, but the fear was real. I could feel my fear of death, my fear of life, echo within me. I resisted all night and eventually in the early morning hours I gave in and surrendered to it. What was left was the most profound silence I had ever experienced.”

“I realized the noise of my mind, a noise I had relied upon my entire life, that everything I had prided myself on was meaningless. I realized how so many of the conversations that we have are there to show how smart we are. I was always an “A” student, and suddenly here I was in a place where a lot of that was without importance. As were a lot of my ideals – right or wrong.”

It left her feeling shaky and ungrounded. She knew her experience was not real, but then she began to ask, if that was not real, then what is?

When she returned to the United States and to U Mass, she used her experience as a subject for her dissertation. It was during the writing that she realized what the various voices were. They were the same voices we all have, that compete for our attention.

The title of her dissertation was; Multiple Selves and The Meanings They Give to Consumptions

Her dissertation was published in a top marketing journal. It led to a job on the faculty of a well known university. All was going well, but her changed perspective on her experience kept coming back to her.

She was somehow changed by her experience in a way that others began to notice. Even her son, at one point, commented on her new ability to remain open and say “that’s interesting. Let’s explore that,” instead of shooting a new idea down.

“When things are going fine, you don’t ask. It is only when things begin to turn upside down that you begin to explore the source of your suffering and very often you are the source.”

It was not long before her second divorce was finalized, “when I wondered what I should do, I realized it was not my husband, it was me who had changed. I was not trying to be a rebel, but realized that the choices I had made in the past lacked awareness of who I was and what I wanted in a relationship,” she recalls.

“I was stuck on a track I had been set on by society and by my family. Never once did I ask what I wanted in life. It was only after leaving my job as a tenure track professor to marry and this time with more awareness, did I ask myself, if I could do anything, what would it be and the answer was clear, it was to teach mindfulness.”

Because of her academic training and business experience she chose to bring mindfulness to business and academia and started to look for a training that would be secular and accessible to these audiences. “The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program was ideal for what I had in mind and was only 45 minutes away from where I lived, so I underwent my training there. I remember the first time trying the choiceless awareness meditation and finding it so clinical and boring. Immediately something within me realized that all along I had used my practice to find bliss and get into a particular state rather than be ok and fully present with what ever is arising. In that moment I was able to see my striving even in my practice.” It opened a new door – a level of peace and calm, away from all the striving – and allowed her to just feel what was.

Earlier on she had explored Zen and different forms of Meditations. Neither really fit her life or her style. Neither aligned with her views, or her need for a less dogmatic approach. After leaving such a formal growing up, she did not want to be tied to any specific doctrine. Like many of us, she wanted a touch of spirituality but she also needed to fulfill the scientific approach she had grown with, to create a solid foundation from which to launch. The mindfulness meditation gave her the freedom to explore each experience for what it is with curiosity and compassion and has been her practice of choice since then.

“When I feel that I am tight, I can contemplate what is going on around me and understand how that relates to what is within me. Once I identify the dominant thought in my life, I can then choose what I want to do with that thought instead of the thought dictating my actions on autopilot.”

Today, it is these times of mindfulness that bring her back to a sense of balance. It affords her a point of balance with which to calm herself and enhance the quality of her awareness. Creating the quality of her awareness so that she can understand what she needs in that moment.

She laughs, “I still get triggered in certain situations, but I find I now step back to pause, so that I can return to a state of objectivity. This can happen before sending an email or enjoying a true dialogue. I find that I bring my practice of non-judgment and of curiosity so I can respond more skillfully to the world and the people around me. It is amazing to see the mind – and realize how you still cannot be objective.

“I realized at one point, that you can live your life without seeing past the blind spots, without even seeing the blind spots. They are blind spots, so by definition you cannot see them. But with the training of meditation we can confirm our own experiences. So when an experience triggers the wrong response, we can create a change in the actions that we take while being kind to ourselves.”

“Only 5% of decisions are made consciously. The rest are made based by our subconscious mind, which is very often in a fight or flight mode, which can lead you down the wrong path, to make the wrong decisions. But this is nothing to be afraid of. In the end we can be relieved to know that we all make mistakes. We are all human. It is how we learn.”

This is one of the lessons found within her new project and her new website – The Mindful Universe.

 

[learn_more caption=”Click to See The Full Interview”]

What drew you to yoga and meditation?

What drew me to meditation was my suffering. There were personal transitions in my life in India that I didn’t take the time to process at the time. Once I moved to the US I found myself in a new country without my usual support system – family and friends – that left me feeling empty and void. This feeling of emptiness was the start of my search for answers to questions I didn’t have. I naturally fell upon meditation as a way of quieting my mind to access answers that were beyond my usual thinking mind.

Soon after I experienced my first spiritual breakthrough at a shamanic journey in Costa Rica, where I experienced complete silence of the mind after going through a night of near death experience. That broke away many beliefs I had held all my life as reality and opened me up to experiencing life in an entirely new way. I came back from that looking for a formal meditation practice and teacher. This was way back in 2002 and have been meditating since then, albeit more regularly in the past 8 years.

How have they changed your life?

Mindfulness practice has touched every aspect of my life.

The most important discovery for me has been to see the limits of my thinking mind and how mindfulness – a curious and compassionate attention to what is – helps me expand my lens to get a bigger perspective and choose more skillful responses even in challenging situations. And when I fail, this training has taught me to learn from my failures and be kind to myself.

Being an academic and researcher by training I love the inquiry based framework it offers to view my experiences with open curiosity and kindness so I continue to learn each day about places I am still stuck in autopilot, very often without my conscious knowing. It is such an aha moment every time to see that – I had no idea that I was living that aspect of my life in a limited and reactive way. We are blind to our blind spots and this practice is helping me see my blind spots.

The other thing I am working with is how can I have impact while living with ease. I am finding that once I have clarity around what it is I truly value then all I have to do is align myself with that vision and get out of my own way. Breaking away from dogmatic principles and practices.

How should a practice make someone feel?

Mindfulness meditation is an exploration into what is going on for you in this moment. When we explore with an open, gently and curious mind we reconnect with our mind, body and emotions with clarity. With this clear seeing we have access to more information about us and can make more skillful choices indtead of running on autopilot. The practice is a little counter intuitive in that we come closer to even the negative sensations and discomfort without trying to push it away. In learning to be with whatever is arising, we see our own reactivity and how we might choose differently to be a little kinder, a little more aware, toward ourselves and others.

There are times when you want to retreat to your own comfort zone, but the practice is there to see if there are any attachments you are holding onto or striving for, that can hold you back, or push you away.

People often talk about whether they are a good or bad meditator.  How does this resonate with you?

There is no wrong way to meditate. Just your intention to sit is the practice. That will help you develop the tools to be more present, more curious, more kind. You should always ask yourself if you can be more kind, more gentle, more quiet. It is okay if your mind is racing, and when you notice that you come back with kindness again and again. It is all about coming back to the present with the quality of compassion and equanimity.

The practice is about showing up each day. At a macro level, mindfulness is not a panacea for all of our problems. However, it offers a foundation for exploration in all sectors of our society. It is a broader lens for people to see the bigger picture and interconnectedness of all our actions so we may work toward finding solutions to make this a better world for everybody.

At what point did you decide to teach others?

This was a natural happening. It is not something I thought of doing but was natural to who I am in that situation. I was an assistant professor of marketing at a business school and ended up speaking with many stressed out students. At some point it became inevitable bringing in what I know about meditation and started organizing the Science of Breath seminars on campus and helped introduce the Art of Living classes on campus and in the community. Interestingly, at the time I was told by my colleagues it wasn’t my job to teach mindfulness or worry about the students’ stress and now it is my full time job. I changed my career from being a full time academic to part time and my main focus now is in bringing mindfulness to business, academia, and my community.

What do you find most rewarding about working with others?

Every time I teach I am touched by the experience of our shared humanity. It is in these moments I see how we are all one and the same no matter where we come from and what our personal history is. It has made me more empathetic in how I see people now. It is a rewarding feeling that no matter how challenging my day was, when I go in and let go of my strivings, which is an essential aspect of teaching, we all come out of the class feeling just a little more open or compassionate, in very small and big ways the difference it makes in our lives when we do this work together. It is humbling and empowering.

The other aspect of this work that energizes me is bringing mindfulness into corporate and academic settings because that’s where the rubber meets the road. Now we are not just talking about finding inner calm but how that inner calm can help us make better decisions. Exploring and seeing how mindfulness opens people up to finding their potential when they were feeling stuck or making decisions with more empathy and clarity to come up with creative solutions that maximize the well being of all stakeholders is very encouraging. It gives me hope that we can bring empathy and wisdom to make more skillful choices in education and business and now even in politics and other sectors of society.

What is your advice for someone just starting on their journey?

I know there are many self help books and programs but I recommend finding a teacher and a class that resonates with the person when they are starting out and then using the books to compliment and deepen their learning. This work and knowledge is subtle and many nuances can be missed when trying it on your own. It can leave people disillusioned or with the wrong impression that this is not for them simply because they didn’t know that what they are experiencing is normal and expected. So having a teacher who can guide through these misconceptions and the rich experience of learning from others in class and sharing in an open, authentic way is as important as the practice itself.

What should someone look for in a studio or an instructor?

I recommend trusting your intuition if the teacher’s style resonates with you. Try a free intro class with the teacher and see if it is the right fit. I would also add that humor, ease, and authenticity in the teacher typically are telling of the teacher’s embodiment of the practice. When checking out a teacher you may want to see where they got their training from since I am finding many people starting to teach mindfulness without sufficiently immersing themselves in the work. A final thing to look out for in a teacher is if they hold the interests of the participants up front or are their behaviors self-serving.

What does the term Modern Meditation mean to you?

To me modern meditation means a practice that is neither dogmatic nor prescriptive but works for every individual taking into account where they are and their personal needs. There is personal discipline involved even within modern meditation but the approach is fundamentally kind and flexible to accommodate the needs of the individual. The important question to hold gently is if the meditation is making you a little kinder, a little less reactive, and more aware in your life.

How have you adapted traditional meditation and yoga in your life outside the studio?

My formal practice of attending to the present moment with the attitude of kindness and curiosity is what I bring into life outside of the practice. It is not a striving kind of focus but a gentle awareness and presence that I remind myself to bring in my work, interactions and all activities.

How has expanding and deepening your practice, improved your life?

I lived the first half of my life without this practice and know that I lacked self awareness and agency to create a meaningful life. I ended up hurting others and myself, even when I didn’t mean to, because of my lack of awareness. This practice has changed my life and I cannot imagine living without it.

Research tell us that 99% of our DNA is shared. How can we use this concept to further humanity and the world?

The science of genetics and evolution is useful to remind us of our shared humanity. But I am always blown away with the authenticity of the connection that we feel when we come together to practice together. We all tend to judge, but at the end of an eight-week class we realize that we are all the same, we have all experienced the same emotions and want the same thing in life, to be happy.

There is an exercise I use all the time. It is to look into each other’s eyes, to acknowledge that this person across from me is just like me. They have suffered just like me. They have laughed and cried, just like me.

When I see people participate in this exercise, it is common to find people break down their barriers and cry, being moved by this person across from them. It is worth trying it. We call it Just Like Me.  It can be a very profound experience to bring out the natural state of empathy and compassion within everyone in addition to the intellectual knowing that we are connected.

What is your Simple Truth?

My simple truth is to live with open awareness, gentle curiosity and compassion. This reminder helps me to stay open to what is and notice where in my mind, body and thoughts am I holding on or resisting. What can I let go of so I may access the wisdom in this moment to choose skillful actions for the highest good of all involved? [/learn_more]

Modern Meditation Profile – Alan Muskat

Alan Muskat – PhilosoForager: Looking Without Seeking

Alan Muskat is a naturalist in the tradition of Muir and Thoreau. He has brought the art of foraging to new light, both as a meditator and a philosopher. As someone who is stepping into Modern Meditation, he calls his approach that of a philosoforager.

Alan pursued the martial arts in middle school, before studying Daoism while in college. He entered the Back to the Land movement in the 1990s; a precursor to today’s Slow Food and Locavore movements. For him, it was simply an idea that resonated. Eventually he began to simplify his life, and soon enough, to simplify everything he did. He found each step returned him to a more natural state of being, and he liked what he was experiencing.

For the next twenty years, as Alan recalls, he continued to chase after material things until he found, as many of us have, that he was living in fear: the fear of not Forest Meditationhaving enough. It was with this understanding that he came to the realization that the only way to remove fear from his life was to stop collecting those things that he simply did not need.

You see, a forager is not a farmer. He or she does not put down roots. He does not store the crops he has raised. Instead, a forager is endlessly wandering, searching without looking for anything in particular.

“What many people don’t realize is that foraging is not about intention. It is about letting go,” as Alan puts it. “I try not to go into the woods with the idea of finding something specific. I never know what I will find. I can look for something, but I may not find it.” He smiles, “In April everyone wants morels.  But to seek them sets you up for frustration and disappointment. It really is a practice of non-attachment.”

Today, when Alan wanders into the woods, alone or as a guide, he finds himself reminding those Slide3who wander with him to “look without seeking.” When people seek him out, most are not looking for the philosophy behind the foraging. Usually, they just want to know how to get the food.

But it’s not that simple. “This is not about making nature into a grocery. Some of the prettiest things can be the most poisonous, while some of the tastiest can be the least attractive. All the while, we are fed by beauty and the sounds of nature. Even if you don’t find anything to eat, you are continually being fed.”

For Alan, this is how foraging can be a walking meditation.

“When I am sitting, I get distracted. But when I am in the forest, nature takes my attention.  Like Krishnamurti says, ‘meditation is like the breeze that comes in when you leave the window open.’ I can’t easily find the beauty in life, outside of my thoughts, when I’m sitting in a room.”

For Alan, as it is for me, going into the woods is a wonderful context for meditation. But then, it was like that for John Muir and Henry David Thoreau too. May it be the same for you.

 

[learn_more caption=”See The Full Interview Here”]

There’s a love that’s divine

And it’s yours and it’s mine

Like the sun

Van Morrison

 

What drew you to yoga and meditation?

Well, I was mostly forced into it. I have adrenal fatigue and other stress-related conditions. For me, it was a matter of necessity.

How have they changed your life?

I’m slowly developing better habits. Basically, in stressful situations, I go into my body instead of into my head. It greatly reduces my stress and provides me with a wonderful sense of calm no matter where I am.

At what point did you decide to teach others?

I teach something as soon as I learn it. Or rather, I argue for the importance of it, based on my own experience and reflection. There hasn’t been a “point” at which I began to teach yoga or meditation because, for the most part, that’s not what I teach, at least ostensibly. But I have been slowly integrating more of both into my work as a nature guide.

What do you find most rewarding about working with others?

I like making friends with others, finding common ground. If I can get past superficialities, I always learn something. I also pick up simpler ways to express my teaching when people reflect it back to me.

What is your advice for someone just starting on their journey?

Probably just to “be in your body.” Most everything else important comes out of that.

What should someone look for in a studio or an instructor?

I think of flexibility, like you are promoting. Someone you can relate with, and v.v., who bridges the gap between “teacher” and “student.”

What does the term Modern Meditation mean to you?

I’d like it to mean something integrated with daily life, a way of walking any path, rather than a technique to take time out to do. Mindfulness, I guess.

How have you adapted traditional meditation and yoga in your life outside the studio?

I have not developed the discipline to do a regular practice on my own. I am starting to remember to use these tools when the need is flagrant, like first aid.

How has expanding and deepening your practice, improved your life?

Probably my deepest practice is self-forgiveness. For example, ‘if I don’t meditate, that’s OK.’  I fall into my workaholism and fritter my time away again and again. Harping on myself doesn’t help. It’s where I’m at, and if this “plant” is going to grow, I need to water it, not yank on it.

What is your Simple Truth?

I adhere to Advaita (non dualism). I would sum that up by saying that life is a dream and the challenge is to stay awake in it. To be awake in the dream of life is not to believe that “nothing matters” but to recognize that the best way to alleviate suffering in the world is to find and/or maintain a peaceful, open heart in the midst of it. Simply put, “all we need is love.” Foraging helps me to see that with love, everything else comes easily.

[/learn_more]

Monday Moments – Touch The Earth

Every year life seems to rush a little faster.  It is as if the universe itself seems to speed up a bit, to spin a little faster each year.  It is why it is so easy to feel like you are spinning out of control.  Like a top, just one rotation away from toppling over.  It is also why it is so important to touch the earth when you can.

You do not need to have a secret ceremony for this.  You do not even need to cross your legs in lotus pose. You simply need to pause for a moment. To take a nice, slow breath; down deep into your lungs, and place two fingers onto the ground around you.

It is said this is what Siddhartha Gautama did just before realizing enlightenment to become the Buddha. It is how he answered the demon Mara, who attacked him with his armies of monsters to frighten him from his seat. When the demon asked the would-be-Buddha “who will speak for you,” Siddhartha reached down to touch the earth with his hand, and the earth itself cried out “I bear you witness!” As the tale goes, when the morning star rose, Siddhartha realized enlightenment and became the Buddha.

The act of touching the earth is an act that is called The Earth Witness Mudra. It is both grounding and revelatory that helps the man or woman seeking enlightenment to stay in tune with the fundamental structure of the universe.

But, even if you are not seeking enlightenment, it can simply be a reminder of where you came from.  It can be a way to balance yourself in your day, as if you were a Buddha.

You don’t need to meditate to do this.  Just breathe down deep into your lungs and smile as you touch the ground beneath you.  Then enjoy the feeling of calm as it creeps up your arm and fills you with balance.

After all, it is YOUR life.

Why not live it YOUR way?

Q+A – Why Do You Meditate?

Over the past few millennia we have been introduced to meditation.  Our teachers have taught us how to become aware of our bodies and our minds.  This awareness has helped us foster a better understanding of our own thoughts and actions, both within ourselves, as well as with those, and even the universe around us.
Meditation has even allowed some to peer past the veil of existence to see what lays beyond.

Those same teachers have, through faiths like Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, taught us the art of compassion, love, and kindness. While their philosophies do not always overlap, they do interconnect through the paths of meditation and awareness.

For those of you who choose the path of meditation, you are often rewarded with an understanding and a sense of growing enlightenment.  Each of which enables you to grow beyond yourself.  The further you follow this path, the more you are able to move beyond the sense balance and calm you initially sought.  In time you may even find a level of insight which will free you to cultivate wisdom free from oversight.

It is this insight that opens up an entire future where you are free to explore.

Simply knowing this gives me hope for the future. While it is not in my hands, it is there in my heart.

Thanks to the methodology of Western science, the physical and psychological effects of meditation have been proven ad-infinitum.  With this approval, meditation is now being taught to children in schools and to employees at work.  Both of whom are showing greater compassion and understanding for those and the world around them.

It gives me hope that we are building a foundation of peace for the next generation. I do not say this lightly, but if it is not for you that you meditate, then it is for your children and their children after, that you meditate.  That with our energy, you can in fact leave the world a better place than when you arrived.

This is why it is so important to go beyond the self; to go beyond your own stress and unhappiness, and to look at the bigger picture – so that you truly realize how your actions are moving the world in a better direction.

So when I am asked by a student, “what is next?” I smile.  For that answer is not found in yourself.  It is found in everything and everybody around you. It is knowing that when you hit someone, you are also hitting yourself, a smack that you will carry with you for years to come.  It is found not just in one bottom line of Profit, but in a triple bottom line that balances People, Planet and Profits for the future.

“What is next?”  Next is using the stability and clarity that you have gained to develop your own wisdom and to share it with those around you.  And by wisdom, I mean the wisdom of the heart and the mind.  For it is in that wisdom that you will find your divine.  Not within yourself, but in the connections you enjoy with the those around you and with all of existence.

Keep that in mind if you ever ask yourself why you meditate.  Or more likely, if that 40,000 year old brain of yours ever asks you what you are doing, while shooting in some adrenaline and cortisol to get you worrying that you have better, more immediate tasks to do.

The next time you question what you are doing, simply stop.  Simply dip your toe in the water of meditation with three simple breaths.  Let those three breaths lead you to wade into the pool of calm as you leave the world crashing in the waves behind you.

Let yourself be carried away in the gentle currents of Love that you will quickly remember is meditation.