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Why Meditate?

Why Meditate?

The ancient practice of meditation has made a home in our modern culture for good reason. Learning to sit still and calm the mind can be a powerful antidote to the speed, stress and strain of our modern lives.

In ancient times, meditation was seen as a potent tool for liberation and enlightenment. Today’s practitioners have discovered that meditation also offers more earthly and pragmatic benefits, helping us stay happy and balanced amid the busy-ness of our lives.

Perhaps you have read about the manifold benefits of the practice. Maybe you have friends or family who have taken it up. Or maybe you’ve even tried it yourself, but are scratching your head over how sitting still and paying attention can be such a balm in our busy world.

Though the practice is simple, its benefits can be vast. I’ve been practicing meditation for more than 20 years, and I am still discovering new and rich benefits of this potent practice. But over and over I return to three of meditation’s most profound gifts, which can help us live in happiness, wisdom and peace, even among the craziness of our world.

Meditation is a Powerful Form of Brain Training

Left to its own devices, the mind tends to act like a monkey in the jungle, swinging from thought to thought, hooting and howling, picking up ideas and then spitting them out, tangling with other wild beasts, and generally stirring up trouble. (If you don’t believe me, try this: Set a timer for five minutes, close your eyes, and during that time watch what happens to your thoughts. I’m willing to wager that you will quickly discover that you, too, have a “monkey mind” within.)

Meditation is a potent method of training the mind to behave better. Just as we head to the gym to exercise our muscles, we slip into a meditation chair to train our brains. We teach our minds to focus, we guide ourselves away from unproductive thoughts, and we learn to act more skillfully and wisely. We can train those monkeys within us to behave in ways that support our lives rather than throw us off balance in sneaky and destructive ways.

Over time, with patience and persistence, we sharpen our ability to settle with ease into the present moment, the only place where life can be truly lived.  We train the muscles in our minds to act skillfully and wisely, in ways that support our deepest loves and values, and in ways that help not just ourselves but also the entire world.

Meditation Helps Us See Clearly

Have you ever been to the beach just after a torrential storm? The waves churn, the sand darkens the water, and debris bobs all about. Sometimes it’s impossible to see your toes as you wade along the shore. When the weather clears, though, the ocean quiets, the sand settles and the water once again grows clear enough to see all the marvels that swim amid the vast blue sea.

This settling and clarifying process is just what meditation does inside of us. As our brains quiet, our stirred up thoughts settle. Life comes into cleaner and clearer focus. Delusions slip away. Wisdom bubbles up. We begin to see more clearly what our lives are all about and we are inspired to act in ways that support these fundamental values.

As the lens of our awareness clears, we grow cleaner and more balanced. We learn how to respond with wisdom and care to both the delights and challenges that life throws our way. We develop skills that allow us to live in greater balance and harmony within, even amid the turbulence of the outer world.

Meditation Helps Us Fall in Love with the World

As we grow more adept at stilling the mind and seeing clearly the truth of what is, wonderful epiphanies arise. We fall into a more direct, intimate and keenly felt experience of life as it passes through us. We wake up to the sheer wonder of being here, now, participating in all the glorious joys and sorrows of the world.

Birdsong sounds brighter. Water tastes cleaner. Chocolate tastes sweeter. A single smile warms our spirit all day. And the blue sky fills our hearts with a profound yet simple happiness. We fall wildly and wonderfully in love with all of life.

Over time, our minds and our hearts grow more expansive and more whole. We sense a deeper connection between ourselves and every other creature in the world. We grow kinder and more tender-hearted. We begin acting not just on behalf of our selves but on behalf of all of life. And we understand more deeply that love is what matters most, in the beginning and in the end.

GETTING STARTED
Maybe you, too, would like to give this profound practice a try? Although a simple practice, meditation can be challenging to learn. Befriending those monkeys in the mind can take some time, and finding ways to train them toward wholeness takes patience and skill.

Fortunately, resources abound in the form of teachers, books, videos and courses for those hoping to get started. My advice is to find a teacher who speaks to you, who inspires and comforts you, and then study every book, audio, video or talk that guide offers. (You can find my favorite meditation resources on my website here.)

Practicing with a friend or meditation group that meets regularly can be helpful, too. In the Mansfield area, both Mind Body Align and the Mansfield Art Center offer on-going meditation classes.

Over time you may find, as I have, that meditation will become an ally and a good friend, saving your life every single day. Meditation will help you stay calm and centered. It will keep you in tune with your deepest loves and values. It will help you act wisely and with a tender heart. And it will return you both to your deepest self and to the widest world, in clarity, happiness and peace.

The community of yoga

The community of yoga

Yogahands

A typical morning

It’s 8:55 on Wednesday morning and students are filing into the studio. Coats are hung, shoes are kicked under the bench, and mats are dropped onto the floor. Hellos and hugs are offered, and the lovely chatter of friends begins.

I listen carefully to snippets of conversation, catching up on news of the day from my perch at the front of the classroom. I take in tales of travels, illnesses, community happenings and family delights. I notice who is here and who we’re missing. And all the while I gauge the mood of the group, rejiggering my plan for our morning according to the energy my friends have carried with them into class.

At 9:05 each week the last student predictably breezes in, reminding us to begin. And for the next hour and a half we stretch and move and breathe and relax. We explore the limits and possibilities of our bodies and our minds. We shed our stress, restore our energy, and reclaim our lives.

It’s been like this for 20 years

We’ve come together like this for nearly 20 years. The cast of characters shifts from week to week. The location changes occasionally. But two things never change: First, we practice yoga. And second, we cultivate community. We foster a sense of friendship and camaraderie that reminds us that we are part of something greater than our small bodies and individual breaths.

The word yoga means “to yoke,” and in the beginning the practice teaches us to reconnect the scattered parts of ourselves back into one complete whole. With each ounce of stress we shed, with each tight muscle we relax, we are brought back to a sense of wholeness and ease. We are returned to our truest selves.

With continued practice, though, a deeper understanding of yoga evolves. We begin to see how the practice not only yokes the body, mind and spirit together, but also yokes us to everyone and everything around us. Through yoga, our sense of self expands farther and farther beyond our skin until we take on all of life as our own.

A deeper understanding

It’s our Wednesday morning yoga class that has taught me this deeper understanding of yoga. I didn’t set out to build a community, just to teach a few friends some healing yoga stretches and relaxing ways to breathe. But yoga works its magic – creating community it its wake – whether you ask it to or not. Thanks to my yoga students, I now understand that in some beautiful way, yoga is community. Yoga is seeing clearly and experiencing deeply the strong bond we share, the shared experience we live, the extent to which I am you and you are me.

You get to know someone pretty well once you’ve done enough downward dogs together. You learn how people move and breathe and think. You learn who runs hot and who runs cold, who runs fast and who runs slow. You learn who can be counted on to add a little humor to the morning, who always has the perfect book recommendation, and who is always ready with a hug and a supportive word.

And in the beautiful container of yoga, you also learn to take on everyone around you as family, in the best sense of the word. You begin to love people not just in spite of their curiosities and foibles but because of them. You take an interest, as a matter of course, in the ups and downs of the lives of others. You embrace each soul around you as a vital and important light in the great constellation of life.

I think about this every Wednesday morning, as I watch this mystery unfold in our yoga class. Each of us enters with our own frustrations and fears, wishes and needs. And yet each of us, just by virtue of showing up, is knit into the greater whole of all of us. Breath by breath and moment by moment, we are banded together into a beautiful circle of care and support.

Helping hands

Every week I remind my students about how this works. When we’re feeling energized and balanced, we share that sense of vitality and support with those around us. We reach out to those who are struggling. We offer our support and energy. And when it’s our turn to feel dispirited or empty, we let ourselves be held and carried by that beautiful network of helping hands that surrounds us.

After 90 minutes of stretching and breathing, we settle into a few blissful moments of deep relaxation. I smile as I survey the room, which has settled into a soft and lovely glow. I sigh as my eyes survey my friends resting quietly, restored to some deeper peace and softness. I thank yoga, yet again, for working its magic, for guiding us back to ourselves, and for knitting us all together into one.

I pick up my Tibetan bowl, ready to chime us out of relaxation and off into our days. But then I inevitably pause, reluctant to disturb the collective peace and reverie that has descended upon us. Bowl still in hand, I sweep my gaze across the room, silently wishing each lovely member of our yoga community well. “May you be happy,” I think, looking at one beautiful being. “May you be well,” I offer another, and then another. On and on, until I have wrapped the whole room in a blanket of goodwill.

I offer up my silent thanksgivings to these beautiful souls, to this Wednesday morning tribe that embodies all yoga can offer, a living expression of yoga’s ability to connect us to one another, to create community, to share the joys and sorrows of life with the world around us. And then finally, I chime my bowl and bodies stir. Slowly, happily, each of us gathers our belongings and slips out into the day. And even though we head our separate ways, we remain yoked together by the practice of yoga, and by the invisible strands of love and support that carry us all.