Spirituality

Book Review - Peace is Every Breath

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I love me a good Thich Nhat Hanh book. They're usually quick and simple to digest, chock-full of easily-applied sage wisdom from one of the most influential Buddhist leaders in the West. Peace is Every Breath is no exception.

Hanh is a world-renowned Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master, poet, scholar, and peace activist who attempts to show people how to incorporate the practice of mindfulness into each and every waking moment. The followup to his bestselling classic, Peace is Every Step, the chapters of this book flow together as a helpful guide that the reader can use to live a fuller life.

He writes:

Mindfulness is what brings us back in touch with what's happening in the present moment in our body, in our feelings, in our thinking, and also in our environment. It enables us to be present in the here and the now, mind and body together, aware of what's going on inside us and around us. And when we are very mindful of something, we are concentrated on it.

This book shows the reader how it is possible to practice cultivating mindfulness in each and every moment, featuring short chapters on various everyday activities that are often tedious and unmemorable for most of us, such as waking up each morning, eating breakfast, and brushing your teeth. I think that Hanh successfully unpacks the concept that we can continue our meditation or yoga practice even if we have gotten up from our zafus or stepped off our mats for the day. While I enjoyed the first book, Peace is Every Step, a bit better than this one, I still think that Peace is Every Breath is well worth reading and would encourage you to check it out if you're in need of a relaxing deep breath.

3/5 stars. 160 pages.

Banner image by Larisa-K, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Book Review - An Appeal to the World

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This is a short—but incredibly sweet—book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was published in 2017 and contains myriad great wisdom for troubled times. The Dalai Lama once told the co-author of An Appeal to the World, Franz Alt, "I don't have any enemies, only people I haven't met yet." He has spent his life cultivating this positive attitude, and it can be found on every page of this book.

Today's world is marked by division. Politicians are promoting borders rather than inclusion, economic inequality is running rampant, and religion is breeding violence. Yet the need for unity has never been more urgent, because the crises that humanity faces are affecting people all around the world. Many people have lost all hope for the future and wonder what we can possibly do to move forward.

Well, they're in luck, because the Dalai Lama and Alt have created a brilliant book that is capable of watering the seeds of world peace that are already located inside of each and every one of us—even though many people do not know or believe that they exist. He reminds us that all people have two things in common—our universal pursuit of happiness and the compelling desire to avoid suffering. Finding common ground and engaging in an open dialog is an effective way to mitigate the division that we otherwise experience.

One theme that the Dalai Lama repeats several times throughout the book is the concept that ethics are more important than religion. He even goes on to say, "On some days I think it would be better if there were no religions. All religions and all scriptures harbor potential for violence. That is why we need secular ethics beyond all religions." He explains that the core tenets of secular ethics are mindfulness, education, respect, tolerance, caring, and nonviolence. I was pleasantly surprised by how strongly and frequently he spoke about our need to cultivate secular ethics throughout the book.

I was also happy to see that the topic of Trump was also addressed in the book. A lot of people are experiencing suffering because he is currently our President, and hopefully the Dalai Lama's words on this topic will help soothe their psychic wounds.

An Appeal to the World is already a major international bestseller, and for good reason. It's an inspirational, powerful book written by one of the most revered spiritual leaders of our time that has the potentially to truly change the world. It would probably take the average person between one to three hours to read it from cover to cover, and I highly recommend that you do.

4/5 stars. 128 pages.

The Seven-Point Meditation Posture

   Image  by  nandhukumar , courtesy of  Creative Commons  licensing.

Image by nandhukumar, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

This is the fourth post in a series featuring helpful meditation techniques. Previous posts focused on introducing mantrascompassion meditation, and breathing meditation.

In previous blog posts about meditation I have discussed the benefits I have experienced by committing to a regular meditation practice, an introduction to mantras, and the fundamentals of compassion meditation and breathing meditation. You may have noticed from previous posts covering meditation that it is important to spend some time getting into a comfortable position before each meditation session. In this blog post I will introduce the concept of the seven-point meditation posture and explore some simple ways to incorporate it into your own meditation practice.

What is the Seven-Point Meditation Posture?

If you've ever seen a Buddha statue (and let's be honest—if you read Think Wilder regularly, then you've definitely seen a Buddha statue or two!), then you've most likely already seen this meditation posture in practice. The definition of the seven-point meditation posture is fairly self-explanatory.—it consists of seven distinct points, each of which corresponds with a separate area of the body. The posture has been used by meditators for thousands of years and serves as a solid foundation for a successful meditation practice. Before each meditation session it is helpful to check in with each of the seven points to make sure that the body is positioned as comfortably as possible. This will greatly impact the overall quality of the meditation session.

For someone who is new to meditating, this particular posture can be quite difficult to achieve. In fact, I am still working on improving my posture during meditation! Making even a small effort to practice the seven-point meditation posture can result in a more productive meditation practice, so it's worth giving a shot.

The Seven Points

Some meditation traditions present the following points in a different order than others, however the sorting order isn't all that important because all of the individual points add up to a complete picture of ideal posture, regardless of which ones come first. I am going to present them in the order that I first learned them, when I attended classes in the Tibetan tradition of Mahayana Buddhism.

  1. Legs

    The first point in this meditation posture focuses on the legs. Those who are capable of sitting in Full Lotus Pose (also known as Padmasana) should do so. If you are unable to get into that position, perhaps you could try the Half Lotus Pose (Ardha Padmasana).

    If neither of those positions are comfortable enough for you to relax during your meditation session, then you could try sitting in a cross-legged position instead. Many people (especially in Western society) are unable to sit on the floor at all, and it is completely possible to modify the seven-point meditation posture so that someone sitting in a chair or on props can practice it.

    Make sure that you choose a sitting position that you can sit comfortably in for a long period of time, and do not feel like you have to choose the most impressive option—being comfortable and relaxed is more important than showing off.
     
  2. Arms

    Next up are the arms. Your hands should be held loosely in your lap, with the right hand resting in the palm of the left, palms upward, thumbs lightly touching, forming the shape of a teardrop or flame. They should be positioned roughly 2-3 inches below the navel. Make sure to relax your shoulders and your arms. It can help to keep your arms slightly away from your body so that air can circulate. This will help prevent sleepiness during meditation.
     
  3. Back

    The most important point in this series is the back, which should be straight, relaxed, and fully upright, as if the vertebrae were a stack of rocks effortlessly balanced in a pile. The position of the legs contributes greatly to how easy it is to keep a straight back. The higher your butt is and the lower your knees, the easier it is to maintain. Experiment with various sitting positions to see what works best for you.
     
  4. Eyes

    In the beginning, it is typically best to keep your eyes fully closed because it helps facilitate concentration. This is completely fine. However, after you gain some experience with meditation it will become possible to leave your eyes slightly open in order to admit a little light, and to direct your gaze downwards, not focusing on anything in particular. This is optimal because closing the eyes can result in sluggishness, sleep, or daydreaming, all of which are obstacles to a clear meditation session.
     
  5. Jaw and Mouth

    Keep your jaw and mouth relaxed, with your teeth slightly apart, relaxed, and with lips slightly touching.
     
  6. Tongue

    It can be helpful to rest your tongue against the upper palate, with the tip gently touching the back of the teeth. This prevents the production of saliva, which reduces the need to swallow and can also eliminate the undesired side effect that many monks and nuns experience during extremely long meditation sessions—drooling.
     
  7. Head

    Finally, slightly incline your head so that your gaze is directed naturally toward the floor in front of you. This is all about finding a proper balance—if your chin is held too high you may have problems with mental wandering and distraction, whereas if you drop your head too forward you may experience mental dullness or sleepiness.

Conclusion

Although it may be challenging at first, this meditation posture can really help cultivate concentration and mindfulness. Now that you have an idea of how to get into the seven-point meditation posture, I encourage you to begin to incorporate it into your own meditation sessions. Hopefully it will help deepen your practice and eventually lead to enlightenment.

Namaste.

Breathing Meditation - An Introduction

   Image  by  4144132 , courtesy of  Creative Commons  licensing.

Image by 4144132, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

This is the third post in a series featuring helpful meditation techniques. The first post focused on introducing mantras and the second post covered compassion meditation.

In previous blog posts about meditation I have discussed the benefits I have experienced by committing to a regular meditation practice, and introductions to mantras and the concept of compassion meditation. Another technique that can be used while meditating is to focus on the breath. In this article I will introduce the concept of breathing meditation and explore some simple ways to incorporate it into your own meditation practice.

What is Breathing Meditation?

In almost all forms of meditation, there is an object of focus. (There is one meditation approach that some call "do-nothing meditation" that involves letting go of any particular focus and instead allowing thoughts to come and go on their own—all while being fully aware of what is happening.) The other meditation techniques that I have introduced have involved mantras and compassion as the focus objects, and breathing meditation places its focus on the breath. There are various ways to focus on one's breath and this technique can yield many positive effects for the practitioner.

How Can Breathing Meditation Help?

There are several benefits that you may experience when practicing breathing meditation. To start with, focusing on the breath can help you reduce stress, anxiety, and negative emotions. If you struggle with any or all of these things, think about how great it would be to go through life with a sense of inner peace and a calm mind—believe it or not, that's actually achievable by sticking to a consistent meditation practice. If you're liable to lose your cool when you get frustrated, you may want to give breathing meditation a try. It can help you let things go and regain composure when tempers flare. Breathing meditation can also sharpen concentration skills, because part of the practice involves maintaining focus on one thing at a time. And these benefits don't just happen while you're on the yoga mat—practicing mindful breathing during a meditation session can actually help you cultivate mindfulness in everyday life situations as well. Focusing on something for an extended period of time can even affect your thought process. After some experience practicing breathing meditation, you may notice that your mind is less distracted by wandering thoughts. All of these benefits can lead you to live a more enjoyable life.

How to Practice Breathing Meditation

First things first, you should find a quiet, serene space in which to meditate. In order to reduce the potential for distraction, there should not be any loud noises or off-putting odors in the space. Indoor spaces do tend to have less distracting sounds, however you can always head outside if you prefer to enjoy the fresh air. Just make sure that there are not any cars or people nearby.

It's incredibly important to get as comfortable as possible at the beginning of your meditation. It really doesn't matter if you are sitting in lotus position, walking in a garden, or lying down on the couch—making sure you are comfortable in whatever position you choose for your meditation session will have a lot of influence over your experience.

Once you settle into a position, try to notice and relax your body. Begin to tune into your breath. Simply focus your attention on your breath, noting each inhale and exhale. If your mind starts to wander, that is completely fine. Distracted or uncontrolled thoughts are normal to experience, so you should not beat yourself up. Instead, gently redirect your attention back to the breathing when your mind has drifted a bit.

If you are trying to calm yourself when you are stressed, it may help to take an exaggerated, slow breath. Deeply inhale through your nostrils for several seconds, hold your breath for a few seconds, and exhale through your mouth for longer than you did when inhaling.

Another type of breathing meditation is known as pranayama, also known as the nine round breathing technique. To perform this technique, cover the left nostril and breathe in and out through the right nostril for three full breaths, including both the inhalations and exhalations. Then cover the right nostril and breathe through the left nostril for three full breaths. Finally, breathe through both nostrils for three more full breaths. At this point, you can continue your breathing meditation with other techniques.

You may begin to notice that when one breath ends, the next breath begins. Try to observe each breath without trying to change it. If you feel like you are manually controlling your breath, you can try focusing on the sensation in your nostrils or the rise and fall of your chest.

One sure-fire method you can use to focus on the breath is counting. Count one on the inhale, two on the exhale, three on the inhale, and so on up to ten. Then start back over at one. This method can help even the most distracted meditator focus on her breath.

Breathing meditation can be done its own or as a preliminary practice that helps calm the mind in preparation for more difficult meditation techniques such as reciting mantras or practicing compassion.

Conclusion

Breathing meditation is one of the easiest and most effective meditation techniques available. Focusing on the breath can help calm your mind and reduce stress and anxiety. If you're a bit of a hothead, this technique might help cool you down when your buttons are pushed. And it may help improve your concentration. No matter who you are or how much meditation experience you have, everyone has a breath that they can focus on. Breathing meditation is a simple practice that can produce excellent results. I encourage you to give it a try.

Namaste.

Compassion Meditation – An Introduction

   Image  by  Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. , courtesy of  Creative Commons  licensing.

Image by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

This is the second post in a series featuring helpful meditation techniques. The first post focused on introducing mantras.

In previous blog posts about meditation I have discussed the benefits I have experienced by committing to a regular meditation practice and an introduction to mantras. Another technique that can be used while meditating is to focus on compassion. In this article I will introduce the concept of compassion meditation and explore some simple ways to incorporate it into your own meditation practice.

What is Compassion Meditation?

The practice of cultivating compassion during meditation is extremely beneficial. Unlike some other types of meditation, compassion meditation always involves an object of focus, rather than simply a general feeling of loving-kindness or goodwill. Without this focus on an object—which could be another person or the meditator—the compassion would seem shallow and the meditator would not reach the same potential as they are able to when directing their feelings of compassion toward a specific object. The concept of compassion reflects the wisdom that all things are interconnected with one another, and it quite naturally leads toward feeling connected with the rest of the universe.

How Does Compassion Meditation Help?

Developing a sense of compassion can help us connect more deeply and easily with others and ourselves, consider whether our day-to-day actions are all that wise after all, and understand and care for others instead of disliking or judging them. Compassion meditation can help you learn to stay present with the suffering that you face each day without getting overwhelmed.

This sense of compassion can be extended into concrete actions like giving money to disaster relief efforts, donating time and effort at a local food bank or homeless shelter, or lending an ear for listening or a shoulder to cry on to someone who is going through a difficult time. As you can see, there are myriad benefits to developing compassion. This type of meditation can help even the least empathetic person learn how to appreciate how others feel, which will go a long way toward healing the world.

Five Compassion Meditations

The following meditations are listed in order of difficulty, and can be helpful to become familiar with the easier meditations before tackling the more difficult ones. As you develop experience with each meditation, you can then assess whether you feel ready to move on to the next one. The typical advice for other types of meditation applies with compassion meditation, such as finding a quiet and peaceful location and sitting in a comfortable position

Developing compassion takes time for the majority of people, so do not get discouraged if you are not getting it right away. The important thing to focus on is making sure that you are sincere, lest you develop a sense of false compassion instead of true compassion. With that said, if you find it more difficult to develop compassion for yourself or a loved one than it would be to develop compassion for a neutral person, then it may be more beneficial for your to change the order in which you practice these meditations. Many people have great difficulty showing compassion to themselves, so if you are one of them please do not think that you are alone—just change this order to fit your needs.

Compassion for Oneself

  • It can be very difficult for some people to develop compassion for themselves. If you feel that this meditation will be more difficult for you than one of the following meditations, feel free to begin with one of them instead.
  • When you are ready to begin a self-compassion meditation, it can help to start by identifying qualities you possess that you are grateful for, like your warm generosity or your beautiful smile. Another helpful thing to focus on is any act that you have performed recently that fill you with the feeling of love. It can take time to begin to feel any forgiveness or appreciation for yourself—for some people this may take weeks, months, or even years—so be patient with yourself.
  • After you have generated a feeling of loving-kindness for yourself, you can then begin to think of a time that you have suffered, such as a difficult breakup or when you were struggling in a strained relationship. Pay attention to how you feel while you are reflecting. And after a short time, redirect your energy to the wish that your suffering will soon end.
  • You can even recite a positive mantra that helps you to stay focused, such as "May I be free from this suffering," or "May I have joy and happiness." Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.

Compassion for a Loved One

  • Picture someone who is close to you, someone toward whom you have a great deal of love. Pay attention to how that love feels in your heart. You may feel a sensation of warmth, openness, or tenderness. Continue breathing easily and focus on these feelings as you visualize your loved one. You may choose to envision a golden light flowing from your heart to this person with each exhalation, bringing them peace and happiness.
  • Now reflect on a time when this person was suffering, perhaps from an illness or injury. Notice how you feel when thinking of their suffering. You may continue to feel the positive emotions that you previously experienced, however you may begin to feel something negative like aching or sadness. Try to imagine with all your heart that you wish them freedom from suffering.
  • You may recite a wish or prayer to take away their suffering, like "May you be content," or "May you live with ease." Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.

Compassion for a Neutral Person

  • The focus of this meditation can be anyone that you do not feel any strong feelings toward, such as a classmate or grocery store clerk. The person that you choose to focus on should be someone that you see regularly, but not someone who you greatly like or dislike. Even though you do not have a personal connection with them, you can still develop compassion for them.
  • You can begin by thinking about how this person may suffer in their own life. They may be struggling with addiction or suffering from bullying, for example. Imagine a situation that would cause this person to suffer and begin to visualize it in your mind's eye. Sit with the feeling that this causes for a moment, and then put all of your energy into wishing them joy and happiness and an end to their suffering.
  • You may wish to silently offer phrases of compassion to them, saying things like "May you be free of pain and sorrow," or "May you be healthy and happy." You are free to alter the sayings so that they fit your own way of speaking or use any that have any personal significance. Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.

Compassion for an Enemy

  • Now you can progress to developing compassion for someone that you have difficulty with in your life. This could be a parent or child that you have been arguing with lately, a boss who you do not get along with, or a roommate that is not doing their fair share of chores.
  • Even though you have negative feelings toward this person, begin thinking of how this person has suffered in their own life. You may have firsthand knowledge of their suffering—perhaps they lost someone they love or have recently been laid off. Visualize this person experiencing their suffering, and note how it makes you feel to witness it. Sit with that feeling for a moment, and then begin to cultivate compassion toward them. See if you can grow this feeling to be as strong as when you developed compassion for your loved one. If you are struggling to feel compassion toward this person, think of any positive interactions that you have had with them in the past that would help you wish them joy and happiness, such as times when you got along or laughed together.
  • You may wish to send them some positive vibes, thinking things like "May your health improve soon," or "May you have success at school." Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.

Compassion for All Sentient Beings

  • This is the noblest form of compassion meditation; it is also the most difficult. In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, the concept of bodhicitta is extremely important. Bodhicitta is essentially the wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. Mayahana practitioners set the cultivation of bodhicitta as a primary goal for their practice—everything in life is done in order to seek enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
  • Expanding on the above meditations, the compassion meditation for all sentient beings includes the task of developing compassion for every single sentient being in the universe. This will be much easier to do after you have progressed through the previous meditations. Simply hold the concept of suffering in your mind and generate the feeling of goodwill toward all sentient beings. Then, send it outward to as far as you can possibly imagine. Really focus on putting as much positive energy into this act as possible, while remaining relaxed and mindful. And remember: this meditation will be most powerful when it is performed with true sincerity.
  • You can generate good karma by living your life with the honest intention of attaining enlightenment for the purpose of helping others. One way of doing that is finish your meditation by reciting prayers such as, "May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering", or "May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness." Following your meditation, dedicate your session to the benefit of all sentient beings.

Conclusion

It can be helpful to practice compassion meditation intuitively. The practice will likely be difficult at times for most people—even painful for some. This practice is not intended to make the practitioner feel that they are responsible for solving all of the world's problems, but rather to greet each moment with a compassionate heart. Relax as much as possible, be gentle with yourself, and breathe naturally. With each time that you practice compassion meditation, you are healing the world in a small way. Go easy on yourself and others, and good luck.

Namaste.