Meditation for People Who Cannot Sit Still
When you think of meditation what comes to your mind’s eye? An image that comes to mine is the Buddha sculptures showing the Buddha sitting cross legged or in lotus position on a lotus flower, his hands laying one on top of another with the thumbs touching on his lap, his eyes half closed gazing downward, his back straight a serene expression on his face. Meditators from many traditions have emulated the sitting Buddha in their meditation practices, but is this for everyone? Is there really one “right way to meditate” that crosses religious and cultural boundaries, and dispositional differences between people. My answer to that is, “I don’t believe so.”
I will even go so far as to question whether sitting absolutely still is a criteria for meditation. I have tried for many years to sit absolutely still while I meditated, but what I noticed was that while my body was not moving, my mind was going one hundred miles an hour, and my emotions were churning. I had achieved the look of a meditator, but what was going on inside of me was anything but meditation.
So I realized that posture alone does not bring inner peace and Self realization, which is generally the goal of meditation. Trying to find that peace I studied meditation techniques from many different religions and tried them out on myself in meditation practice. I will enumerate some of these techniques below:
1) Mantra: Mantra is the chanting of a spiritual phrase, such as a prayer or a fragment of a prayer, or sounds that activate different chakras or energy centers in the body. The mantra helps to center one by turning the focus away from thoughts and continuously refocusing them on the mantra. Many people chant mantras continuously throughout the day, and often at night to keep their minds focused internally and centered on the Self. The mantra is an extremely powerful tool that is used in all spiritual traditions. Here are a few mantras from different religions:
a) Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum. This is a Tibetan mantra. It is not important to know what it means. In fact, it probably helps not to know, as we are trying to by-pass the mind with the mantra.
b) Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad. “Here oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This is from the Jewish tradition and found in Deuteronomy. It is considered to be the most important prayer in Judaism.
c) Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. This is a Catholic prayer.
d) Om bhur bhuvah svaha tat savitur varenyam, bhargo devasya dhimahi, dhiyo yo nah prachodayat. This is the very famous Gayatri Mantra of the Hindu tradition from the Rigveda. The meaning is: “May we attain that excellent glory of Savitar the god: So may he stimulate our prayers.”
To this day I have never abandoned mantra. As I am walking my dog, I chant my mantra, as I am washing the dishes, doing the laundry, falling asleep at night, and when I wake up in the middle of the night it will be on my lips. This is probably one of the most centering practices that there is, and the greatest tool readily available to all of us to help tame the wandering and restless mind. I use mantra always in my meditation practice in conjunction with whatever other meditation tools or yogic exercises that I do.
2) Pranayama: Pranayama are breathing exercises. Even more readily available to us than mantra, our breath is central to our very existence. It happens automatically to keep us breathing even when we are not aware that we are doing so, and it is also something that can be put under our conscious control. In Pranayama we become conscious of our breathing, and learn to simply be aware of it, or how to direct it and work with it as a meditation tool to bring greater self awareness, or awareness of the Self.
I have heard that there are over 1,000 pranayama exercises, and I believe it, because you can only be limited by your own imagination. In Pranayama you are basically doing variations of the following three phases of the breath: the in breath, the holding breath and the out breath. What leads to the variations are the lengths with which you hold the breaths, and the postures that you do while doing the Pranayama exercises. I read an excellent book a few years back on bellows breathing, and I try to incorporate this with my pranayama exercises. Some people do pranayama before meditation, during meditation, or as a continuous practice in their lives. In the latter case focus on the breath is maintained throughout one’s daily activities.
Focusing on the breath is a powerful meditation tool, because it redirects the focus of attention away from our thoughts, and back to the thinker of the thoughts. The thinker is the person actively engaged in being aware of his/her breathing and on the consciousness that is doing the breathing, the Self within.
I use pranayama along with mantra in my meditation practice, in my yoga practice and in my Tai Chi Ch’uan practice as a centering tool.
3) Mudra: I started to work with mudras about three years ago. Mudras are hand gestures, such as those you see in pictures of saints, or that are used in classical Indian dance. The various gestures can carry deep spiritual meaning, such as the prayer mudra with the palms touching and the hands upturned at the heart. I was hanging out with my son in the park when an Oriental woman came into the park set her yoga mat down and began her yoga and meditation practice, during which time she employed mudras which fascinated me. I went home and found a guide to mudras in Baba Hari Dass’ book: “Ashtanga Yoga.” I proceeded to memorize the 24 mudras that he taught for use prior to meditation and the 8 for after meditation. What I did was just incorporate these 32 mudras into my meditation practice and I found something quite remarkable happened to me.
Instead of spending my meditation time trying to keep thoughts at bay, and catching my mind as it started to wander, I found that as I focused all my attention on my hands and the mudras, my mind automatically quieted down and I became more centered than I had ever been able to do without this tool. I then realized that my hands are in constant motion throughout the day: as I am typing, rubbing soap on a dish, holding the handle bars of my bike, holding my child’s or husband’s hands. This is a tool that is always available to me. My hands can bring me home to my Self.
I read several other books on mudra in the next few years, and then I came to a point where I felt I did not need to follow a prescribed course of mudras, but follow my own inner direction and inner energy and let my body and my hands flow into any gesture or posture that it was moved to assume during my meditation. I became aware of my own inner energy and inner direction and permitted that to express itself through me.
4) Yoga and T’ai Chi Ch’uan: I began learning yoga when I was 18 years old. I learned it from a woman named Moya Devi who taught from her little Carnegie Hall Studio in New York City. At that time yoga had a tremendously positive influence in my life. My hitherto stiff body became very flexible and light. I switched from an omnivorous to a vegetarian diet and began a meditation practice for the first time in my life. I became interested in Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Sufism, Christianity and exploring my own Judaism in a deeper way as well at this time. This was really the beginning of my spiritual studies and exploration.
During my yoga classes Moya Devi would say you have to move into the poses like you were doing T’ai Chi Ch’uan, move smoothly and continuously. I never heard of T’ai Chi Ch’uan until Moya Devi mentioned it, so I went to the book store and purchased Sophia Delza’s book: T’ai Chi Ch’uan: An Ancient Chinese Way of Exercise to Achieve Health and Harmony.” After reading the introduction to the book I decided to look in the New York City Yellow Pages under T’ai Chi Ch’uan, as that is where I was living at the time. To my astonishment Sophia Delza was listed there and she taught from a studio in Carnegie Hall, just like Moya Devi. I called her and had to wait several months to join her beginner’s class. I ended up studying with Sophia Delza for the next eleven years, until I moved to California.
After I started learning T’ai Chi Ch’uan I abandoned my yoga practice, because I felt that I did not have the time to do both simultaneously. Maybe this was true for me at that point in my life, but several years ago I realized that I needed yoga back. It wasn’t that I should do one or the other, but that I had to find a way to integrate them both in my life.
Since I have very little personal time these days what I do is multitask. I walk my dog twice a day to the park. During one of those walks I tie her to a tree, or occasionally let her roam around me off leash and I do standing yoga exercises, combined with kung fu and T’ai Chi Ch’uan exercises. I put a very high priority on my exercise, so I try not to rob myself out of this time for myself. While I am doing my exercises, I chant my mantra and do my pranayama exercises at the same time. I used to take my mat outside with me and do lying down yoga exercises in the park, but this year I have been doing standing exercises instead. I often do yoga poses while I am doing sitting meditation. I can move my arms into various yoga positions, and do stretches in a sitting position.
5) Massage and Acupressure: One day it dawned on me to add an element of touch to my meditation practice as a centering tool. What I would do was touch different parts of my body, rub them, press on them, squeeze them, or whatever occurred to me to do while I was meditating. As I was doing this I would focus my attention on the spot I was touching, and I discovered that this was just as wonderful as mantra, mudra or pranayama as a tool to bring me home to the Self. I would go up and down my body pressing on what I imagined to be acupressure points and give myself massage as I was meditating. My entire body was a field upon which I could focus my attention and awareness. By focusing on this field I could calm my mind, return to my center and feel peace and joy. I love this new meditation tool, which I now use frequently.
6) Meditation: This brings me full circle to meditation. I no longer sit motionless like the Buddha sitting on the lotus flower, unless I am moved to do so. Instead I dance in my seat. I move. I sway. My arms move like the Hula dancers of Hawaii, imitating the waves breaking on the shore; my arms flap like birds flying in the sky; my body rocks, my body rolls; my breath moves in and out and all the time my mind is focused on the self. I am living, I am breathing, I am alive and I dance to my own song. The Self can be realized in stillness and in motion. It is up to you to decide what works best for you.
In the beginning of our lives we start out totally innocent and receptive. As time goes on our innocence is replaced with education as we learn from others and society. Evolving further we take what we have learned from others as a stepping stone from which we can launch into a deeper exploration of ourselves. From here we can give birth to something totally new that arises from within ourselves, certainly influenced by whatever has come before, but now we make it our own. I hope that you can learn from the spiritual traditions that have come before you, and pass beyond them to find a personal expression of your own nature that is unique to you and that can bring you inner peace.
In the spirit of friendship,
Deborah Olenev CCH RSHom (NA)