Why Are You Chanting, Seriously? April 07, 2019 20:36
I spend an hour every day chanting mantra. I begin my day by practicing a short sadhana and use a quarter mala to mark the twenty-seven recitations in the morning. Then, later in the day, usually in the afternoon or early evening, I chant using a full mala (108 beads).
WHY? There are so many other things that I could do with this hour every day. I could watch something on Netflix or YouTube. I could sleep in for an extra hour, or take a nap in the afternoon. I could feed my brain with information and read a compelling article or blog. I could take a long walk. I could declutter and organize my kitchen cabinets or volunteer at an animal shelter or soup kitchen. Why would I choose to spend this time chanting Sanskrit mantra?
These are reasonable questions. For the last five years I have practiced japa on the daily, and given the choices listed above, I’d rather continue to invest the time practicing mantra recitations, and here’s why…
- “Mantra’s nature is to protect the mind from negativity.” Ven. Lozang Yӧnten
Unsupervised, I am prone to worry and restless anxiety. Driving, for example, can be a trigger for me. If traffic is heavy, or delayed by construction, if I’m concerned about being late, or if an unexpected warning light suddenly appears on my dash board, I can go from focused and alert to tense and frazzled in .02 seconds.
When these unexpected surprises occur, I find that reaching for the clicker counter that I keep in the closest cup holder and chanting while I’m on the road helps to keep me calm, relaxed, and focused, and it also prevents me from spinning out into a vortex of nervous loops of spazziness. Chanting keeps me grounded, present in the here and now, and prevents the infinite “what if” scenarios from taking over—it keeps me moving forward, even if I’m at a standstill in traffic.
- “By practicing mantra, we can drive our awareness deeper into the bones, muscles and tissues of the body to gain a greater sensitivity and understanding of our makeup and amplify the emotional energies latent within, much like the potential energy present in mountains that then becomes kinetic in the form of an avalanche when the earth quakes.” Gabriel Axel (“Your Brain on Om: The Science of Mantra, U.S. News and World Report , 2 Oct 2013)
In other words, a mantra practice can recalibrate the body and the mind, motivating us to reflect and improve. Managing transitions is not one of my strong suits. When I come home from work, for example, I’m energetically exhausted and disoriented. I’ve entered that awkward bardo state between busyness and rest, from structured time to unstructured time, and japa practice can act as a helpful buffer. When I sit on my cushion for formal practice, chanting mantra helps me navigate the change of environment and gives me permission to let go of the need to accomplish tasks. If I chant soon after coming home from school, I’m less likely to either go into Type A taskmaster mode (doing laundry, dishes, making dinner, or creating more items on the “to do” list) or self-soothing by taking refuge in junk food.
Sitting for thirty to forty minutes in the afternoon gives me an opportunity to process the events of the day, to relax, release, and ease into my evening. I feel more present and embodied.
However, if I wait too late in the evening to practice, I grow tired and impatient, and my mind is too fuzzy or groggy to benefit from the practice. Late afternoon to early evening is ideal for me—it creates a smooth transition from Do-Do-Do to Be-Be-Be.
- “By allowing the mind to be permeated with compassion, you become one who upholds the integrity and purity of the practice. This, itself, is the key to liberating all sentient beings.” H.E. Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche
This chanting practice is not just about me, and it doesn’t simply benefit myself. It can help others, too. The sadhana and mantra that I work with are part of a specific purification practice. Through it, I resolve to relinquish negative habits of mind and tendencies that harm myself and others. I acknowledge, regret, and affirm not to continue these thoughts, actions, or habits that have the potential to cause harm (i.e. judging others harshly, being snippy or snarky with people when I’m impatient, spending money on things I don’t need, laziness, arrogance, etc.). There’s a visualization component to this practice—and mantra recitation is at the heart of this practice as well. By actively and consciously acknowledging these habits and traits—and taking steps to cease, desist, and purify them, I am not only improving my own life, but making the world more tolerable for people who happen to be around me.
Outside of the purification practice, sometimes I will dedicate a round of mantra recitations to someone who is suffering (friend or stranger), or to a challenging situation or conflict (local or global). Chanting in this context becomes an offering and an act of compassion for others, and there’s never a shortage of subject matter since suffering and turmoil are ubiquitous. The mantra can be short and sweet—it doesn’t have to be complicated to be effective. Om Mani Padme Hum is just one example. What matters most is the intention behind the chanting practice, and the genuine focus and attention to the practice.
While watching Netflix or scrolling through Facebook may provide mindless entertainment and endless opportunities for distraction, mantra practice can actually improve focus, keep the monsters of attachment at bay, and help foster genuine compassion for others.
This Is a Test...of Your Meditation Practice...This Is Only a Test February 20, 2019 18:24
My practice said, “Bring it!”
The universe said, “OK!”
I recently completed a five-month meditation program in Crestone, Colorado, that included daily somatic meditation sessions, readings, lectures, monthly group calls, individual check-in calls, and two, week-long silent retreats, one at the beginning, and one at the end of the program. In addition to all of this, I also included daily personal practices: a sadhana and japa recitations. So, I’ve been doing a lot of meditating over the course of the last few months, and I’ve noticed an interesting trend…I am attracting all kinds of irritable, defensive, and angry people along with a few tumultuous situations as added bonus features.
What’s interesting…and new for me…I’m not freaking out about these cranky peeps and problems. In fact, I’m leaning in to welcome them…and to learn from them.
During these last few months, I’ve noticed that I’m more inclined to remain calm and steady, and I’m not taking the agitated behaviors or the unexpected surprises so personally. These practices have helped me navigate my way safely into the “eye of the storm.” I may be surrounded by upheaval and drama, but I am no longer contributing to it or participating in it.
I’m also not running away from it, which is new for me, too. I’m holding space and finding equanimity, and I credit these daily practices for helping me to remain calm and to generate compassion for these challenging people and circumstances.
I recently shared an interesting article that I read on a social media platform. It was about meditation—how important it is to choose your words carefully when cueing if you are leading a meditation session in a yoga class environment, particularly if students who are prone to anxiety are present in the class. This article was a personal narrative from the author’s blog. I thought she had some valid points and an interesting perspective, so I shared it.
A few minutes later, a Buddhist friend of mine wrote seething criticism about the article and questioned the author’s credibility as a meditation teacher. Clearly, he held a different view and interpretation of this article, which is fine, and as we exchanged comments, his language choice became increasingly more judgmental, agitated, and angry. The author did not write her blog from a Buddhist perspective, and she hadn’t trained in a specific lineage, so to my friend, this was not only appalling, but inappropriate. To him, only meditation teachers who trained with Buddhist masters for decades could be qualified to lead meditation sessions, even those occurring in local yoga studios. Ultimately, my friend commented that defending this author was deplorable, and before I could respond, he unfriended me.
The old me wouldn’t have engaged in an online debate to begin with. I would have been too timid to express my own views and explain why I found the article interesting and relevant. The old me would have complimented my friend’s vast knowledge of Buddhist wisdom (overlooking his obvious attachment and arrogance, of course) and apologized for posting the article in the first place. The old me would have immediately deleted the article from my timeline.
This time, however, I didn’t evade, avoid, apologize, flatter, or delete. Instead, using calm, respectful language, I defended my viewpoint. I remained open-minded and open-hearted as our written conversation progressed. I wasn’t participating in an argument—I was communicating in a clear, honest way. I wasn’t ashamed, angry, agitated, or scared. Instead, I felt relaxed, steady, and open. I also felt compassion for my friend, who was clearly growing more agitated as the conversation continued, but I didn’t take his reactions personally, and I also didn’t push my viewpoint or claim it was more valid than his. I did, however, feel sad that he ended the conversation abruptly and severed our social media connection. I would have gladly recommended that he look into the meditation program at Crestone :).
Granted, I still have a lot of work to do (Don’t we all?), but it’s promising to see the positive benefits of a steady meditation practice both on and off the cushion. These are just a few that I’ve noticed from my own practice:
- I’m less judgmental and critical of others
- I don’t lead with my expectations (or ego) as often
- I’m more relaxed
- I’m more open-minded and receptive
- I’m more courageous and confident
- I speak up more
- I’m tactfully honest (or, at least aspire to be)
- I’m more accepting
- I’m more present
I've completed a retreat program, but I'm not planning to stop practicing anytime soon. These benefits will continue to motivate and encourage me to embrace whatever surprises may come my way... and to grow from them.
Surviving Abuse and Staying Grounded with Mantra, Movement, and Meditation January 12, 2019 10:15
2018 was a year of reflection for me. 2019 will be about speaking up, reclaiming my own power, and healing. I taught yoga at a local studio in Greenwood for a few years. I came to the studio while I was taking a sabbatical from a high school teaching career. I enjoyed yoga and figured this would be a great time to take a 200-hour YTT training. It’s hard to spot toxicity and deception when you’re practicing something that’s supposed to be good for you and that makes you feel good. However, there were definitely some red flags at this studio. It took me a while to see them, and even longer to act on them, but having a solid network of support and a grounded personal practice that included mantra, movement, and meditation was crucial for me to heal and move forward.
Things started out normal enough. I had taken a variety of classes and enjoyed them before eventually paying $3K for the YTT program. As the trainings and classes progressed, though, I started to notice some disturbing patterns. Sometimes, and for no discernible reason, there would be a heavy, thick tension in the studio space. The studio owner would be aloof and moody on occasion, and then more frequently, and for longer stretches of time. She angered easily, she was easily triggered, and she often threw her then business partner under the bus at the slightest sign of drama or conflict. I assumed these were flukes—simply occasional private issues on the business end that were leaking into the public studio space. No worries, right???
However, as time passed, secrets, half-truths, miscommunications, and, at times, a total lack of communication became more prevalent and pervasive. I was slated to complete my training in early fall 2013, but the business owner ran off to Vegas for several weeks. All modules and YTT trainings ceased, and her business partner was left to run the studio alone. Students and clients had lots of questions, and understandably so—they wanted to know where she went—and when she was to return—and why she left so suddenly. These were all reasonable concerns (I was concerned she was gambling away our YTT cash!). Her business partner's response? She went to Vegas to have dental work done—and he wasn’t sure when she was coming back. Uh-oh—serious doubts were beginning to germinate!
The good news is, I did eventually graduate from their YTT program, albeit several months after when I had anticipated. Apparently, Vegas has very meticulous dentists! She and her partner are very knowledgeable about yoga; that's what made their program so appealing--but knowledge alone doesn't make an effective teacher. Ethics matters--how you treat people matters.
I was asked to teach a Yin class at the studio later that spring. I enjoyed practicing Yin, and I had also taken additional training with Bernie Clark in Vancouver, which I enjoyed immensely. I enjoyed teaching Yin as well. I loved working with my students. I enjoyed creating sequences and providing modifications or alternative poses for them to explore in order to discover what was right for their own bodies. I also went to Kripalu for specialized training in Prenatal Yoga, and I taught a prenatal class at the studio as well. I also picked up an all-levels class during the day. I spent a lot of time at the studio—either taking or teaching classes.
While I focused my attention on my students and on improving my own practice, the red flags were still present, and they were multiplying.
Now that I was on the studio’s payroll, I felt like I was walking on egg shells. I never knew what mood the business owner would be in, and I never knew what would set her off. She could be very domineering and manipulative in and outside of her classes. She would befriend a select few of her students—she'd laugh, talk, and even socialize outside of class with these favorites. She'd compliment them, brag about them in class, let them in on secret jokes, but then she’d ignore others, and she would be quite cruel and emotionally abusive to those she deemed weak or fragile. She could be unnecessarily harsh at times, a cruel and manipulative bully. I was never one of her favorites, but she didn't unload her wrath on me, either. She was occasionally snappy,rude, and judgmental with me--I was just a collateral nuisance.
In September of 2016, I stopped attending her classes. I reached the point where I couldn’t listen to her voice without feeling angry. It was disrupting my own practice. I continued to teach at the studio, however. I had hoped that avoiding her classes would create enough of a distance. I would focus on my own students and my own practice. This worked for a while…sort of.
She was never a transparent communicator to begin with—very mysterious and aloof. Because I didn’t see her in the studio as regularly, the communications I did receive were either urgent, demanding emails (about things that weren't urgent at all) or passive-aggressive Post-it notes left on the desk, stereo, thermostat, or bathroom door. Her lack of professionalism was staggering.
Her business partner had departed by this point, and she continued to host YTT immersions on her own. I was fortunate to have been in a training that spanned up to two years to complete. At this point, however, she was hosting more frequent intensives that ran only three-months long, which is not nearly enough time to integrate the material necessary to be an effective yoga teacher. I wasn’t on the receiving end of the emotional abuse and unnecessary dramas that she was inflicting on these YTT students, but many of them were, and they were coming to me to vent and share their concerns.
At this time, I was taking a meditation teacher training program at another yoga studio in the area. I was thoroughly enjoying the daily meditation practices. When I took occasional trainings and workshops at other studios, the studio owners and students were so genuine, warm, caring, and professional. The contrast was alarming when I compared it to where I was teaching. At this time, I had also discovered Reggie Ray’s The Awakening Body and was practicing somatic meditations daily as well. This, along with my japa practice and home yoga practice were keeping me rooted, grounded, and sane.
I stayed at this studio because I enjoyed the practice.
I stayed at this studio because I enjoyed teaching yoga.
I stayed at this studio because I enjoyed working with my students.
I stayed too long…
Even though I had stopped taking her classes, I did not feel right about teaching in such a toxic studio environment, and I didn’t feel right working for someone who I did not respect. I continued to hear from her students about her outbursts of rudeness and cruelty, and I didn't know what to do about it. I don't think others did, either--they just left and didn't return--and a lot of people left. She blamed it on "the space." Said it determined who stayed and who didn't. Looking back, that's just nuts!
Hindsight can be quite painful, and in hindsight, I knew that by continuing to teach in her studio, I was guilty, too, guilty of willful blindness and complicity to this abuse, even though I was an occasional victim myself. Even though I didn’t participate in the abuse itself, I was a bystander, and I didn't speak up, and that was not acceptable.
Ironically, though, I don't think a lot of the students who took weekly classes there were even aware that this was going on. It was so subtle--or behind the scenes. Maybe they caught a glimpse--a snatch of her moodiness--a sliver of tension. It wasn't blatant enough or direct enough to catch their collective attention, however. If it did, they ignored it, too.
Late in the fall of 2017, when I found out about a somatic meditation retreat program in Crestone, CO, I decided to leave the yoga studio.
I had been mired in and teaching in a dark, toxic environment, and I had found something nourishing and positive to lead me away. But, I didn’t leave without help. I found Diane Bruni’s Facebook group to be extremely helpful. It was here that I was introduced to alternative movement modalities to supplement the gaps that yoga doesn’t fill for me. I also discovered Matthew Remski’s research and writings about cult dynamics. His research proved to be a life raft for me. He has a book coming out in March of this year that I can’t wait to read (Practice and All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond). I also found Rachel Bernstein’s work to be extremely helpful as well. She’s a licensed therapist who has twenty years of experience working with cult survivors. Her podcast, IndoctriNation, is an excellent resource. I’ve recently started to work with a holistic chiropractor in Franklin. Dr. Amanda Meyers is excellent, and she is helping me to address and heal the physical symptoms that have manifested in my own body as a result of this traumatic experience.
Since leaving the studio, I no longer teach yoga publicly. Instead, I have spent the year focusing on my business and my own mantra, movement, and meditation practices at home. These practices have been healing for me, and they have restored my own sense of integrity and authenticity. I’ve also found a source of comfort and support at TMBCC, a Buddhist center in Bloomington, and I continue to surround myself with kind-hearted, positive, genuine people.
What have I learned from all of this?
- Be very, very careful about choosing a teacher (yoga, meditation, dharma, etc.). While it’s important that he/she is knowledgeable, knowledge alone is not enough—being professional, having integrity, compassion, empathy, and ethics are essential, too.
- Listen to your intuition and your body (if I had listened to the soft whispers of intuitive wisdom and the nagging aches and pains sooner, I would have moved on sooner, or responded differently!)
- Cultivate and maintain a personal practice that suits you in order to nourish yourself. I hope that while I was teaching at this studio, I was able to make a positive impact on the students I served. They mattered to me, and I stayed as long as I did because of them.
- Speak up! Bullies, narcissists, and leaders of high need groups require passive bystanders in order to get away with spewing their hateful cruelty and crazy talk. I wish I'd had the courage to speak up in the studio--to look her right in the eye and say, "Enough! That's inappropriate! Stop it!"
I'm speaking up now--better late than never.
Knowing When It's Time to Move on... November 23, 2018 17:46Sometimes, when you let go of something, you make room for something even better to come into your life. Giving yourself time to start small and practice a new skill set, paying attention to clues along the way as you continue to practice, and honoring clear patterns and synchronicities can help you determine the right course of action in whatever you do.
Navigating Change: The Benefits of Boundaries and Japa August 22, 2018 11:23
Just as the pericardium is a natural boundary that protects and stabilizes the heart in the human body, a regular japa practice can offer stability for practitioners, and it can also reinforce the importance of establishing healthy boundaries in life.
On a mala, the knots represent the challenges or obstacles, and the beads represent the beautiful aspects or treasures of life. On some level, the mala itself is a metaphorical boundary, and the japa practice symbolizes the importance of setting healthy boundaries. The beads and knots are bound together, sharing space on a single cord or sutra. If boundaries are too tight and rigid, they are confining and stifling—the beads crack and break under the pressure. If the boundaries are too loose, or porous, the beads slip, or worse, the cord snaps and beads scatter. Either way, the practitioner loses touch with the benefits of the practice if his/her boundaries are out of whack.
“Our boundaries are the truest measure of how we love ourselves.” Wendy Strgar
My life was significantly more tumultuous and stressful before I practiced meditation. When I was in my twenties, long before I discovered japa, meditation, and movement practices, I taught English at a very large high school in Indianapolis. In the beginning, the job, while rewarding, was also demanding, stressful, and at times, overwhelming. As time passed, the expectations, demands, and responsibilities steadily increased. I was dedicating more and more of my time and effort to my students, and less and less to myself and to my family. By the time I was in my mid-forties, I was physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and had reached the point of burnout. I had been giving too much, and I wasn’t honoring my own boundaries. I knew that if something didn’t change, I was dangerously close to manifesting a serious illness.
“Setting a boundary is equivalent to letting go of the outcome in any situation.” Martha Beck
In 2007, I had an opportunity to teach at a much smaller, dual-credit high school in the same district. I gratefully accepted this new position, and I also made a promise to myself (setting a boundary): if I started to feel the slightest twinge of burnout, that ache of overdoing and over striving, I wouldn’t hesitate to make a career change. I had options. I could serve in another capacity, and that would be OK. I wasn’t practicing meditation or japa yet, but I was learning to honor my own boundaries. I was listening to my heart, and, as a result, I started to find balance in my life and enjoyed teaching again.
“To thine own boundary-defined self be true.” William Shakespeare (with a slight addition)
The leap occurred six years later. At this time, in addition to a full-time teaching gig, I was practicing yoga regularly, and I was also beginning to explore meditation and japa. I’m not sure if my personal practices were the catalysts for change, or if I was simply honoring a boundary and promise that I had made six years prior. Those old feelings of fatigue, stress, and overwhelm started to resurface, so I quit teaching full-time, started tutoring part-time, and I also taught a few yoga classes at a local studio.
“When you can be a loving presence for yourself, you will draw more love into your life.” Martha Beck
What I discovered through these practices was the importance of listening to my own heart and establishing clear personal boundaries. Coming to this practice allowed me to come back to myself. My japa practice has been a steady, reliable constant, a trustworthy friend, which allowed me to shift and move gracefully though life’s inevitable changes.
I’ve noticed that my life is changing more rapidly now, but I’m not daunted or overwhelmed by these changes. On the contrary, I look forward to future opportunities, and I’m less prone to endure and tolerate situations and circumstances that are not a good fit for me. I’m finding that I’m able to recognize and release toxic people, places, and situations much more quickly than I used to. I’m also discovering new practices that complement and enhance what I’m already doing. For example, I’ve recently moved beyond teaching yoga in a public studio. I’m finding that incorporating somatic meditation and alternative movement modalities in a private setting is much more satisfying and authentic to me.
One of the unexpected side effects of a consistent, daily japa practice is it has helped me learn to establish and honor my own personal boundaries. As a result, I continue to listen to my heart and enjoy the heart of my practices…and my life.
The Heart of the Practice May 16, 2018 15:02
I had some time to myself on Sunday in the early afternoon, so I decided to work on creating a mala...for myself, which is a rarity. I have recently been working with a supplemental mantra in my practice honoring Kurukulla, the semi-peaceful, semi-wrathful goddess of unconditional love, passion, and transformation of consciousness. Kurukulla is a dakini, an embodiment of ultimate wisdom who turns raw, negative emotions into pure awareness. Blazing red skin, four arms (two of which are holding a bow made of flowers), and three eyes, she is fiercely protective, magnetizing, and powerful.
I laid out a design with Dragon Blood Jasper and Hessionite Garnet beads and strung the mala with a deep wine-colored sutra and matching tassel. I finished the design before my daughter came over to celebrate Mother’s Day with me, so I posted a quick photo of the mala on my Facebook page.
A few hours later, a friend had responded, indicating that the mala spoke to her, and she was interested in purchasing it. I had created the design with an open heart, and even as I was stringing the beads on the sutra, I was chanting Kurukulla’s mantra (Oṁ Kurukulle Hrīḥ Svāhā), invoking her wisdom as I worked.
A regular meditation practice often brings unexpected opportunities to the surface. One event leads to the next, like beads on a string. I thoroughly enjoyed creating this mala and savored the opportunity to practice japa while stringing it. I was equally joyful about adding it to the MMM online shop so my friend could purchase it. I knew she would appreciate it, and she even purchased a second mala for a friend.
Ironically, this was not the only unexpected opportunity that I would experience on this day. After finalizing the transaction and finishing the online conversation with my friend, my computer crashed. Most of my photos and documents….gone! This unexpected opportunity was a bit more challenging to navigate. Kurukulla was definitely messing with me…on Mother’s Day, no less!
After a day or two of trial-and-error problem-solving, consulting a tech-savvy friend, and a trip to Best Buy, I realized that my hard drive had stopped—and came to accept, reluctantly, that the heart of my computer was dead.
My sitting practices during these two days were discursive and distracted, to say the least, but I continued to focus on the heart…on my heart…on somatic, heart-opening meditations, visualizations, and japa. These practices were raw and uncomfortable, but they proved to be a powerful medicine that allowed me to let go of what was, to embrace the unsettling state of “not knowing,” and to simply hold space and be present. Kurukulla wasn’t just messing with me; she was also teaching me to get clear—to be open—to have the courage to start fresh—to make room for new opportunities by letting go of what is no longer necessary. My computer may be broken, but I’m not.
I look forward to creating new mala designs, taking new photos, creating new documents and poems, and shopping for a new computer (and an external hard drive). In the meantime, I have my practice, I have this moment, and I have an open, accepting heart.
The Power of Silence, the Importance of Retreat April 11, 2018 20:22This place and this retreat cracked my heart wide open. It allowed me to release what I should have surrendered a long time ago, and it also allowed me to connect with myself, with others, and with the environment on a deep and meaningful level.
Procrastination and Meditation: A Call to Action March 02, 2018 11:46
It's been a challenging week at school; it always is when major essays are due. Even though I remind my students to come to their tutoring sessions prepared with completed drafts well in advance of the due date, and they nod their heads in understanding, and they assure me that they will arrive to their sessions prepared; alas, they rarely do.
Instead, they wander into my office with their computers open, wondering what their thesis statements are, or they've written several pages without citing a single source, or worse, without having read any of their sources yet. When their essays are due within hours, or the next day, but their drafts are train wrecks that cannot possibly be salvaged in a twenty-minute session, it creates tension and pressure, both for me and my students. This is the unfortunate end result of procrastination.
Procrastination is an insidious, time-wasting diversion. Partly rooted in motivation, or a lack of motivation, partly linked with priorities, or mismanaged ones, procrastination is an expression of laziness and attachment. We're all guilty of it. I put off scheduling doctor's appointments; my attic is filled with miscellany that I should have cleaned out, sorted through, or donated a long time ago; I still need to call the car dealership and arrange to drop off my vehicle for a necessary recall--something about the gas tank and the risk of explosion ( I received a notice months ago).
I get it! We prefer short-term pleasure to the hard work or inconvenience of reality. We are attached to the avoidant coping response of procrastination to dealing with the negative emotions associated with the task.
This is where a meditation practice comes in handy. The practice cultivates awareness of the present moment. This awareness allows us to recognize when we are averse, freaked out, or bored out of our minds about an impending task. Ultimately, this awareness can signal the need to inhibit our habit of procrastinating. If we are aware of our emotions, we can then exert control, stay focused, and take action.
I keep a small quarter mala in my desk drawer at school. There are 27 beads on a quarter mala, so it takes less time to chant a circuit of recitations in between student sessions. I happened upon a lovely mantra recited by Pema Khandro Rinpoche, and I chanted it between student sessions, not only for my benefit, but for theirs as well:
Sentient beings are numberless, I train in order to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I train in order to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I train in order to realize it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I train in order to embody it.
This helped me remain focused and patient with my panicked students.
Mindfulness is a fundamental step and an important part of the solution. Action, however, is essential to avoiding the pitfalls of procrastination.
Several of my students recognized the benefits of coming to their sessions prepared after the fact, but they remained optimistic: "I have a government paper due in a couple of weeks--I'll bring my rough draft to our next session."
Yesterday, I finally went to a lab to have a routine screening that my doctor had ordered. I didn't have to wait long, and the lab tech had a great sense of humor. I left feeling good that I did something to benefit my health, and I'll call the car dealership as soon as I finish this blog so I don't have to worry about my car exploding on my way to work on Monday.
How Mantras and Memorization Benefit the Brain February 01, 2018 18:30
I spent nearly a week memorizing a new mantra. Most of the mantras I work with are in Sanskrit, but I came across a Tibetan mantra that resonated with me. The Guru Rinpoche mantra is only eight lines long, but learning it was slow-going and challenging. I don't read the Tibetan language (same is true for Sanskrit), so memorizing a transliterated text is a lot like learning a language within another language, and as a visual learner, it offered a new set of challenges for me. The sounds were new. The combinations of syllables were clumsy and awkward at first. From the outset, memorizing eight short lines seemed very daunting.
I work as a tutor at a local high school, so in between student sessions, I listened to an audio recording of a lama chanting the mantra over and over again (thank goodness for YouTube). My commute home is usually 30-45 minutes long, depending on traffic. Each afternoon I chanted two lines of the mantra while driving home. On Monday, I worked with the first two lines. Tuesday, the second pair, etc The chanting was very slow at first. There were long pauses and hesitations as I worked to find the right sounds in the right order. I had to remain intensely focused, not only on driving, but on reciting each line over and over again. Slowly, over the course of the week, I was able to chant the entire mantra. It required time, effort, and painstaking dedication, but it was worth it. Not only do I have another sound tool to play with in my energetic repertoire and practice, but I did something good for my brain, too. Here are some of the benefits of memorization:
* Mental Flexibility and Agility
Just as consistent, challenging exercise benefits the body, memorization is a useful way to stimulate the brain. Functioning like "mental gymnastics," memorization makes the brain more quick, agile, and flexible.
* Improved Neural Plasticity
Medical research has found that rote memorization benefits the hippocampal foundation, which is crucial for episodic and spatial memory in humans. In a recent Irish study of participants aged 55-70, researchers concluded that repeated activation of memory structures in the brain promote neural plasticity in the aging brain. In other words, we need to use it, or we're going to lose it.
* Improved Focus and Creativity
Working memory involves storing, focusing attention on, and manipulating information for a relatively short period of time. According to Paula Fiet of Weber State University, working memory is essential for learning to occur. Completing exercises (such as memorizing a new mantra) that are aimed at building short-term memory benefits our capacity to learn and to focus.
Working memory is also important for creativity. Dutch researchers have concluded that those who learn to focus and develop their working memory through memorization tasks can free their mind in order to pursue other creative tasks.
* Delayed Cognitive Decline
Researchers from the National Institute on Health and Aging (NIHA) found that adults who engaged in short bursts of memory training maintained higher cognitive function delays. Memorization and other memory training exercises can delay cognitive decline for 7-14 years. So, memorizing mantras can help you stay sharp for years to come.
Over the next forty days or so, I plan to work with this new Guru Rinpoche mantra along with a mala (not while driving, though :). I like the idea of starting the New Year with a new mantra and a new sadhana. I'm looking forward to seeing where this mantra will take me in my practice--how it will benefit my subtle body as well as my mind and body. I'll be sure to keep you posted. In the meantime, find a mantra that resonates with you, and commit it to memory.
the data mentioned in this post came from the following source:
*"In Praise of Memorization: 10 Proven Brain Benefits" (http://www.bestcollegesonline.com/blog/in-praise-of-memorization-10-proven-brain-benefits/)
Beauty...Beads...Breath: Practical Alternatives to a Chanting Practice October 05, 2017 19:43
I have a friend who loves malas, and she's purchased several Middle Moon Malas and requested various custom designs; however, she's not big on chanting. She recently asked me if chanting mantras was required. She was concerned that she was misusing her malas by not incorporating a japa or chanting practice. My response--absolutely not, and I offered her the following simple alternatives.
* Setting an Intention
Setting an intention or offering a dedication at the start of a yoga class can add even more meaning and significance to the practice. Similarly, setting an intention before donning a mala can be a powerful part of a yoga or meditation practice. It can serve as a meaningful reminder throughout the day, and it can help bring your meditation or mindfulness practice from the cushion or mat into your daily life.
Let's say you set an intention to be more present, more focused on the here and now. Each time you catch a glimpse of the beads around your neck or resting on the corner of your mat, each time you feel the beads against your skin or feel the weight of the mala as it shifts and moves across your body, as you shift and move throughout your day, these all serve as reminders of your intention. Be here. Be present. Be aware of this moment.
My intention with Middle Moon Malas has always been to create designs that are both functional and beautiful. Many of my customers tell me that they frequently receive compliments on their unique designs. Each compliment, each inquiry can also be reminders--be present--be here--be in this moment. No chanting necessary.
*Working with Breath
Another alternative to chanting is to incorporate a breath practice. Variety is important and valuable to just about anything in life. Just as practicing the same physical poses over and over can lead to repetitive stress and injury, mindlessly chanting the same mantra can lead to boredom and lack of focus.
There are no benefits to simply repeating or chanting a mantra--sharp focus and clarity of mind are essential to any meditation practice. Sometimes it's good to shake things up and add something different to the practice.
While I do have a daily recitation practice, sometimes I'll sit with my mala and let the breath be my focus. My right hand thumb and second finger on the first bead next to the guru, I take a long, slow inhalation. At the peak of the inhale, my fingers slide to the second bead, and I release a long, slow exhalation. One inhale, one exhale at a time, shifting to the next bead during the pauses between breaths. Again, no mantra, no chanting required. The breath becomes the focal point--the beads become tactile and visual reminders to remain present. Each sustains the other--to remain present--to breathe--and to be.
As with any practice, it's important to do what resonates with you. If chanting works for you, great! If not, great! You have options and choices. The important point is to cultivate a meaningful practice that is beneficial to you and that works for you.
One, Two, Three: Counter Beads and the Purposes They Serve September 06, 2017 18:20
What are counter beads, and why do some malas have them? A standard mala contains 108 beads; however, some malas include counter beads as well. These beads aren’t randomly placed extras. A japa practice is similar to a road trip, and counter beads can play an important part along the path of this mindful, meditative journey.
One of the primary purposes of counter beads is they act as rest stops or pause points in a meditation practice. Just like the brief pause at the peak of an inhalation, and the suspension at the base of an exhalation, counter beads can act as natural pauses in the recitation practice. They give practitioners a moment to hold space and take stock of the quality of the practice in that moment. The point of a japa practice isn’t simply to barrel through 108 recitations of a mantra. It’s not a race, and there isn’t a trophy waiting for us at the end of the finish line. A mantra practice is about training the mind; it’s about aligning and elevating our energetic frequencies so that we can become our best selves, and experience a sense of connection and interconnection with others and our world. There needs to be a balance between effort and rest, so in our practice, when our inner world is calling, counter beads remind us, “Please hold.”
Another important purpose that counter beads offer is they act as mindfulness markers in the practice. Much like street signs or mile markers on a highway, counter beads remind us to stay present, focused, and alert in our practice. They encourage us to drive safely and to stay on course as we navigate the circuit of our mala. They help prevent our minds from wandering away from our intentions, and they prevent us from getting caught up in a tangle of mental chatter. Counters help to gauge both time and distance in our practice, and they can ease the restless monkey mind when it asks, repeatedly, “Are we there, yet?”
Finally, counter beads can add a little bling, shimmer, and character to the mala and to the meditative journey. Much like fuzzy dice, a bumper sticker, or fancy detailing on a car, jazzy counter beads add a little bit of extra sparkle to help bring balance to the design of a mala. As a designer, I like to add counter beads that are different sizes, shapes, colors, or textures to break up the pattern of the design. Sometimes, it’s just a single counter bead after the 54th bead, or midpoint. Some malas include counters after bead #27 and #81, marking the first quarter and the last quarter of the design. For other pieces, I incorporate three counters, dividing the mala into four equal segments. Counters can be aesthetically pleasing to the eye or to the touch, offering visual or tactile interest to a design, which, as an added bonus, can inspire a meditator to practice, or simply make the journey more personalized, pleasing, or fun.
Whether you prefer a mala that includes counter beads or not, a japa practice is a meaningful journey, and having a mala that motivates you to practice and that reflects your intentions will help you grow and enjoy the ride.
Finding Perspective in Your Practice: Dealing with Distractions August 01, 2017 14:33
What’s right in front of you matters. This moment matters. Navigating now seems simple in theory, but in practice…distractions can compete for your attention and hijack your intentions. They can dominate your view and force you to take unexpected detours and delays.
Last month, I took a personal retreat and spent a few days nestled in a small, circular cabin in the woods. My intention was to use this time to practice yoga, meditate, read, write, and simply enjoy being mindful and present.
On the first day of my retreat, I noticed a small spider that had created a web on the railing of the deck. Stretching to a cluster of branches in a nearby tree, this web was a perfect circle, and the spider sat in the center, patiently waiting for her lunch to arrive. She was beautiful. Her pale green body shimmered in the sun, and each leg curved like a tiny arch. I wanted to capture this moment, this now, by taking a photo.
Over the next three days, I attempted many times to snap a close-up photograph of this lovely, eight-legged architect. I had a small tourist camera—nothing fancy or expensive, but it had a decent zoom capacity. Unfortunately, it didn’t recognize the spider as the focal point of the shot, so it would zoom in on a nearby cluster of leaves or the trunk of a tree that was behind her instead. I struggled to capture the image that was right in front of me—the image that mattered most was elusive—the lens of my camera couldn’t recognize it as meaningful like my eyes (and mind) did.
I changed position, experimented with different angles, moved furniture around…no luck. In the meantime, I practiced yoga, meditated, read, wrote, hiked, and simply savored just being in each moment. Morning eased into evening. Sunlight shifted, moved, and disappeared through branches as the days progressed.
Meditation can be like this, too. Your intentions are good—you want to practice—you want to sit and focus on mantra recitations—but the phone rings, a siren sounds in the distance, a random memory or thought surfaces and will not let go. Distractions are a part of navigating now. Ignoring them, or growing impatient with them rarely helps.
Acknowledging them, however, is essential. It’s part of the practice. The phone is ringing…that’s an ambulance…this is a thought…that is a memory from the past. Taking a moment to breathe, briefly acknowledge what surfaces, and then offer a little time and space for these distractions to move, shift, and pass will help in navigating the detours.
Be gentle, and give yourself permission to continue your practice—to pick up where you left off—without berating or judging yourself for succumbing to yet another distraction. Be kind, mindful, and consistent with your practice. Eventually, the benefits will unfold and appear.
On the last afternoon of my retreat, I had returned from an hour-long hike in the woods. The sun was at just the right angle on the deck, creating enough shadow for me to zoom in and capture a close-up shot of the spider and her web. As an added, unexpected bonus, tiny orbs of dappled sunlight appeared to be caught, glistening and suspended in her web. Patience and consistency, these are the jewels of any practice.
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