One Breath, One Bead at a Time. July 4, 2016 16:04
The Zombie Apocalypse is real. For 25 years, I taught high school English. For many of those years, I felt trapped in a perpetual cycle of planning lessons, creating tests and essay assignments, grading papers, and attempting to manage and meet the academic needs of students crammed in over-crowded classrooms. I often felt confined by the clock and by the ever-present and perpetually-increasing demands that a data-driven system thrives on—the almighty standardized test scores.
I felt stressed—all the time—and I spent very little time in the present moment. This constant striving, doing, rushing, pushing, and grasping for the future or ruminating and worrying about the past kept me from meeting the needs of my students and taking care of myself. It also kept me out of the present moment, and it prevented me from enjoying my life. My students never really knew who I was—and neither did I.
For a quarter of a century, I was caught up in a trance, and yoga and meditation gradually helped me break the spell and encouraged me to find balance and purpose in my life.
My first experience with yoga and meditation occurred when I was a freshman at Butler. A guest speaker came to our Physical Education/Health class. My fellow classmates and I were crammed into a small classroom/storage room, and many of us giggled our way through the guided meditation followed by a brief asana practice in the gym. This was not an ideal environment to explore the benefits of meditation and yoga, and it certainly didn’t leave a lasting or accurate impression on me.
I revisited meditation when I was pregnant with my daughter in 1994, and in 2000, started regularly attending a yoga class at a local gym. Progress was glacially slow—but gradually, very gradually, I started to find a respite from the 10,000 distractions and thoughts that blocked my path, and I started to connect and reconnect with myself.
Stilling the constant mental chatter in meditation was a big challenge in the beginning—and still can be at times, even now. But with consistent practice, and, ideally, after an hour of asana practice, it’s much easier to climb inside the present moment. Memories, thoughts, and feelings still rise to the surface, but it’s easier now to briefly acknowledge them, allow them to drift away in order to make room for the spaces between thoughts.
Yoga, too, has helped. It has helped me focus on my breathing—and to bring my awareness out of the mind and into the body—even for just a little while. Yoga also allows me to sit more comfortably when I’m meditating—and to sit for longer periods of time.
In recent years, I have added a mantra practice with malas to enhance my meditation and yoga practice. Using a mala gives me a tactile anchor that keeps me rooted and grounded in the here and now. Each bead becomes a fresh focal point, a new beginning, ushering in a new moment. Each inhalation, each exhalation, each repetition of the mantra welcomes now, and now, and now.
Ultimately, my yoga and meditation practice has saved my life—it has helped me find balance and perspective, and it has prevented me from falling off the precipice of perpetual busyness and disappearing into the abyss of the living dead.
I’ve since retired from teaching full-time. I still tutor part-time, and working with students one-on-one allows me to give them my undivided attention—to be fully present. I also teach and practice yoga, and along with running a small business, I still remain very busy, but I am no longer a slave to busyness. I am living my life on my own terms, and I am living my life one moment at a time—one bead at a time.
From Rut to Groove: Diving Deeply into the Heart of a Mantra Practice May 10, 2016 12:27
Repeating a mantra is like chanting the rhythm of your own heart. A mantra practice is a journey that spirals inward to the center of your capital “S” self. According to the Zen master Huang Po, our true nature “shines through the whole universe.” It is our “all-pervading radiant beauty,” and a regular mantra practice can be a vehicle to access and appreciate that shimmering, radiant beauty at the heart of the Self.
I’ve been exploring the adventures of a regular mantra practice for nearly two years. I’ve embarked on various forty-day sadhanas with different mantras—logging patterns, side-effects, and reactions much like an anthropologist or biologist in the field jots down notes and observations. After several months, I’ve finally hit a wall. Granted, my life has picked up momentum—I’ve grown busier with “have to’s” and domestic obligations. I have bills to pay, classes to teach, workshops to take, malas to create, yada, yada, yada.
Last night I found myself hurrying to complete a round of the long version of the Gayatri so I wouldn’t miss the opening scene of Penny Dreadful. That’s pretty bad (on many levels). When my mantra practice becomes another item on my checklist to complete, I know it’s time to make a change.
In the midst of managing the distractions and obstacles that life is hurling my way, I’d grown weary and bored with chanting, and my practice had become stale and mechanical as a result. Fortunately, a mantra practice is not a hindrance; it’s designed to help us navigate life’s challenging, murky waters.
My resistance is an indication that I’m ready to dive more deeply. At the surface, a mantra practice is the parrot-like recitation of spiritual formulas—the memorization of Sanskrit words—the tactile sensations of beads sliding between finger and thumb. However, this is just the surface—there is much more waiting to be discovered at the heart of the practice and within the heart of the Self.
Boredom, anger, and restlessness had settled into my practice —and while it’s easy to blame the busyness of my life, I know that’s not entirely true. It’s time to start listening to my heart—to begin to pay attention—to really pay attention to what I’m feeling—to be patient—to sit with those feelings–to allow them to surface—without judgment—without repressing them—to hold space for my heart to speak—to make time to listen and to honor its messages.
For now, I’ve suspended the forty-day sadhana experiments with supplemental mantras. I’m focusing my attention solely on the long Gayatri—rededicating—recommitting to my practice—but I’m also refining my intention and attention. I’m not simply reciting words and counting beads. I’m listening to my heart, I’m reconnecting to this practice, I’m trusting that it will take me where I am supposed to go, and I’m diving deeper, escaping the rut and plunging into the groove.