Dec 31 2011
January is certainly a popular month for meditation retreats. Who among us hasn’t resolved to give meditation a try, or to step up our daily practice? I did my first retreat in January five years ago. It’s often a bit of a low month for me: there’s the inevitable Christmas letdown, long dark mornings, and still no sign of spring. A ten day Vipassana retreat is like a clock winding. I emerge calm, confident and full of gratitude. It’s a powerful tool for dealing with life’s challenges.
But you don’t have to do a ten day silent retreat to experience the benefits of meditation. I have a couple of friends who spend their New Year’s day completely off the grid: no phone, computer unplugged, some even leave the lights turned off. Their aim is to spend the day completely silent, and to remain meditative and self aware. This might involve several short meditation sittings, walking meditation, long walks outside, or all of the above. There are wonderful guided meditation talks you can have ready on your Ipod (I know I said “off the grid”, but hey, these are the times we live in) if the idea of just sitting in silence is daunting. If the famous “lotus position” is uncomfortable for you, sit in a chair. It’s still meditation, even if you don’t look like someone who works at Lululemon while you’re doing it.
The important thing is to eliminate opportunities for distraction, and to spend as much time in your body as possible. Simple vegetarian (or light, easy to digest) meals are prepared ahead of time, so that very little time is spent cooking. There is plenty of hot herbal tea ready and stored in a thermos. You might find yourself feeling pretty sleepy, but it’s better to try and stay away from caffeine. My fave Buddhist teachers always say that it’s important to be gentle with yourself and listen to your body, so if you find yourself sleeping for part of the day, it’s probably what your body needed. You wouldn’t expect yourself to run a marathon on your first attempt at running (or second, or third…) so don’t worry if you find yourself flipping on the telly after a few hours. Meditation is challenging. Keep trying!
I chose the photo for this post, because I want to stress that meditation can be done anywhere, and at any time. I like to do something called Metta, or loving kindness meditation when I’m on the Skytrain. Metta is all about radiating kindness and compassion to everyone around you. You can use a little chant if you like (May all beings be happy. May all beings be peaceful. May all beings feel love.) or perhaps a visualization of positive energy building up inside you and shooting out to those around you. Scoff if you want, but I guarantee you’ll feel much happier after a transit ride doing Metta, than a trip spent grumbling about the “guy on his cell”, or the “girl with too much perfume.” Although, okay-too much perfume really is annoying.
Here is a link to some great guided meditation talks. Good luck!
Jun 11 2011
Hi all, I’m Carleigh, and I’m thrilled to be here at Soma Studio. In addition to my reception duties, I’ll be editing Soma’s Blog and monthly newsletter. I’ve already met a few of you at the front desk, and I’m looking forward to getting to know you all in the months to come. One of the things I’ve noticed about Soma is the compassionate, personal feel to the place. So many of our clients have been coming here for years: through pregnancies, recovery from an injury, or simply to nurture their body and spirit. Massage is an integral part of a preventative, holistic approach to wellbeing. So yes, I’m a writer, but I’ve also had a longtime interest in holistic health, so I thought I’d tell you a little about one of my interests: Vipassana meditation.
You don’t have to go to a retreat to meditate, but for those who appreciate the baptism-by-fire approach to spirituality, this is it. The Vipassana course schedule is intense. For ten days, I meditate for eleven out of the sixteen hours I am awake, mostly in 1-2 hour intervals. For the duration of the course, speaking is only allowed if I need to communicate with a course instructor.
I’ve been going for a few years now, but here’s a story from my first time.
Two days after New Year’s Eve, I pack up the bare essentials and head to Chilliwack, to the Po Lam Buddhist centre. I haven’t given this much forethought. It seems like a great way to start the new year, I suppose. Some people go to Thailand to find themselves. I’m going inward.
I arrive at the Po Lam around 4 pm, and tearfully kiss my boyfriend goodbye. I’ve been told not to bring any books or journals, and no cell phone. Nothing to distract me from the practice. All our food—simple vegetarian meals—is provided. There is no charge, though you’re encouraged to donate at the end of your stay if you feel you benefitted from the course. After a meal and a brief introduction, myself and 19 other women are sent to our rooms and told to prepare for our first meditation. This makes some of the new students laugh. How on earth do you prepare for this?
It’s hard to be quiet for 10 days. It’s hard to sit still for an hour at a time. It’s hard to keep my eyes closed for the better part of the day. For three days, we breathe and focus on the feel of breath as it moves in and out of our nostrils. As I slowly quiet my mind and become more aware of my body, I become exponentially more conscious of how uncomfortable I am.
My back is on fire. My legs are numb. There is frustration, and a feeling of being out of control. If I were at home, I could stand up, stretch, scream at the top of my lungs. Anything to relieve the tension. Here, I feel trapped inside my body. Pain from old injuries re-surfaces to taunt me. A torn ligament in my ankle from volleyball. The time I slipped and fractured my tailbone in third grade. I start to feel doubt; what If I can’t do this? It’s only day three! I know I’m not alone, many students have caught colds, and I can hear their sniffles and wheezing all around me. Most Vipassana courses lose a few new students. I want to see this through to the end.
The instruction we’re receiving in between our meditation sittings is all about compassion. Compassion for others, but also, compassion for yourself. Around midday on day four, I realize that maybe I’ve been doing this wrong. I’ve been trying to power through the course. Forcing my back to stay as straight as the nuns, and begrudging my knees their creaky complaints. Mentally punishing myself for not being some kind of meditation superhero from day one. So I try, for the first time ever, being compassionate with my body.
We have a little dialogue. Might as well, since I’m not speaking to anyone else. I tell my back that it must be difficult to support this posture for so many hours a day. I respect the work that it does. I thank it. I tell my legs that I’m truly sorry about their situation. Tell them if they’re willing to work with me on this, I’ll be sure to take extra time to stretch on my lunch break. At first, they’re not speaking to me, and I can’t say I blame them. But I keep at it. By the end of day five, I have a breakthrough. I’m not sure if the pain recedes, or my acceptance of its presence grows, lessening its power over me. I suspect the latter.
There, in that modest meditation hall in Chilliwack, the experience of being kind and generous to myself makes me weep. I cry for the thirty years I’ve never once considered my body an ally. It had seemed more like an enemy: menstrual cramps, chubby thighs I’d abhorred, bad knees that made exercise difficult. So we kiss and make up. I promise to love and nurture it, as I would any dear friend. And through Yoga, massage, healthy eating and regular meditation, I’ve kept that promise. There’s compromise, like coffee. And wine. But compromise is okay. It’s a necessary part of any loving relationship.
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I would love to hear your stories, testimonials and personal experiences with massage, meditation, or anything you would like to share with us here at Soma.