Friday, August 23, 2013

Introduction to Mudras

Mudras are often thought of as stylized positioning of hands and fingers for the purpose of affecting the vital energy or enhancing mood but a particular mudra may involve the whole body.
The most well-known mudras are probably the ones used in meditation. Many people sitting in meditation with crossed legs will place the hands on the knees, with the tips of the thumbs and index fingers touching. 

Another common mudra is placing the hands in the lap with the fingers of one hand resting on the palm of the other. The Indian “Namaste” greeting with hands held in front of the chest, palms touching is familiar to most of us. And the Christian practice of interlacing the fingers of both hands in prayer is yet another common mudra. The Christian gesture draws the attention within, while opening the heart.

The Indian gestures puts one into a mood of respect.

There is at least one mudras performed spontaneously by many people. It is called the Hakini mudra, where the tips of all fingers of the right hand touch the fingertips of the left. This mudra helps to focus the attention.

Hakini Mudra
Hakini mudra

Using Mudras
The Indian Namaste and the Buddhist whatever are usually performed for a few seconds when used in greeting or to show respect. Still, in most settings it's recommended that a mudra be held for at least a couple of minutes or longer. 
Hold the finger-positions with both hands, at the same time. This will have a more powerful effect than doing a mudra with just one hand. Using mudras in meditation is a particularly effective way to focus the attention and establish intent. 

Mudras may be quite simple like the set of four used to balance vital energy in the body or they may be more elaborate such as these meditation mudras.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Three Simple Meditation Exercises

Exercise 1: One Minute of Mindfulness

For the next 60 seconds your task is to focus all your attention on nothing. That's right, nothing. For one minute, sit comfortably with your hands placed in your lap or on your thighs. Take a few breaths and release any tension in your body, especially the neck and shoulders. Gaze at a spot on the floor a few feet in front of you with soft focus--you look at it but you aren't really seeing it. Allow the eyelids to close half way. 
Don't focus your attention, just sit there and do nothing. Breathe normally. If you mind wanders, notice that you are having thoughts and then let them dissolve and then allow the mind to empty again.
This exercise is simply for practice. It's not a personal challenge. Don't try to accomplish anything, just allow yourself the freedom to be whatever you are in the moment.
This exercise can be used often to calm the mind and restore clarity. You can gradually extend the duration of the exercise into longer periods.

Exercise 2: Conscious Observation

Pick up an object that you have lying around. Any everyday object that you can easily hold in your hand will do. Allow your attention to become slowly and fully absorbed by the object. Just observe it as it is. Don’t critique it or try to imagine how it was formed our how it came to be in your possession. Just notice it's shape, it's color, it's hardness, it's weight, all it's properties without judgment or analysis.

You may feel a heightened sense of awareness or "being awake" during this exercise. Conscious observation is a subtle but very powerful form of meditation.

Exercise 3: Mindfulness Triggers

In this exercise you pay attention to nothing or to your breath. It doesn't matter if your mind wanders because you will hear a bell at regular intervals that will remind you to drop the thinking and refocus. 
This exercise was designed for one of my classes and I was ringing the bell but you can use this technique during the day by choosing any environment trigger you like. I know one guy who has chosen to use traffic lights to remind him to pay attention to the moment. You might choose to become mindful every time you look in the mirror or wash your hands. I'm practicing becoming mindful every time I hear the words, "You ought to...."
Mindfulness triggers is an excellent technique designed to snap you out of the unconscious “autopilot” state of mind. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Following the Breath

Breath awareness is the foundation technique for mindfulness practice. It is the first technique we learn and, no matter where our path leads, we continue to come back to the breath regularly.

I use different guided imaginings to teach the concept of mindfully paying attention to the breath so I'll provide a sampling here for discussion. These meditation principles may be practiced just as they are to receive the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness but be aware that I leave out several details taught in my classes--only for the sake of brevity.

Sit with posture erect and hands resting comfortable in the lap. Hold the head erect and close the eyes. Breathe normally and pay close attention to what it feels like to breath. You may notice the rush of air past the nostrils or the expanding chest cavity or the movement of the abdomen. Movement in the abdomen is very important since abdominal breathing (noted by the slight expansion of the belly when breathing in) is the most efficient method of breathing. If your breathing causes a lot of movement in the upper chest and very little movement in the abdomen, you should practice breathing into the belly.

That's it. We're done.

Well, not exactly done. Paying attention to breathing is all we're doing with this meditation technique but we find that our minds are constantly busy thinking up very interesting ideas that tend to grab our attention. The thoughts may be pleasurable, although studies show that most often they are not, but no matter what the thought (or emotion) our minds get carried away with the story the thoughts are telling. At some point we realize we are 'thinking' and we intentionally let the thought go and bring our attention back to breathing.

You might think of thoughts as soap bubbles that come floating into view from the dark recesses of the mind. The bubbles shimmer with attractive colors and we begin paying attention to them instead of our breath. When we become aware of the distraction, we allow the bubble to pop and concentrate on our breath once more. The process repeats. Eventually, we find that we have fewer distracting thoughts and longer periods of time between them.

It takes practice. But don't be discouraged. Mindfulness is described as paying close attention, without judgement and without striving. That means we don't criticize ourselves for being distracted and we don't try really, really hard to stop thinking. We can't stop thinking anyway, no more than we can stop breathing.

Here's another piece of visual imagery that is popular with my students. A pebble falls into a still pool of water. Ripples disturb the surface of the water. The pebble falls straight to the bottom of the pool where it nestles snugly into the wet sand. Here the pebble is supported, stable and it abides for a while, for a long while in fact. The ripples on the surface of the water break up the light and patterns of shadow move across the surface of the pebble. Debris from the bottom of the pool is thrown up at impact and swirl around the pebble. Yet, through all this, the pebble is not distracted from the act of being a pebble. The pebble remains a pebble.

When you seat yourself and close your eyes, you become the pebble falling into the water. At first, the mind disperses debris in the form of thoughts into the pool of your mind. The thoughts swirl around but you pay no attention to them and just like that pool of water, the debris will settle down again and all will become still and quiet.

Just be you. Just be the pebble. Don't be the bubble.


  • Don't try to stop your thoughts, simply notice your thoughts and bring attention back to breathing
  • Don't criticize yourself for not "doing it properly"
  • Don't try to stop thinking
  • Determine how long you will meditate and stay seated in practice for that specific time
  • Eventually your mind will get the message and remain relatively quiet until you open your eyes

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Imagine Breathing

Tich Nhat Hanh, one of the best know and most respected meditation masters in the world today, tells us that the breath is a bridge connecting our physical living body to consciousness.

We generally are not conscious of breathing. After all, it's easy to "forget" about something we do every minute of every day of our lives. When you pay attention to the sensation of exhaling and inhaling, you are connecting with a basic and vital part of you. When you focus your attention completely on breathing, you are reminded of something that is truly important in life--the present moment and the fact that you are alive.

When we allow our minds to get carried by thoughts and emotions, we lose touch with the most important aspects in our lives. A recent study conducted worldwide involving tens of thousands of people in about 50 different countries, found that by far most of our thoughts, the ones that get our mental attention, are negative and stressful. By making a conscious effort to pay more attention to our breathing every day reduces the effects of stress and actually prevent a lot of the stress in the first place.

For the next few days, in addition to practicing a basic breathing meditation once or twice a day, make an effort to pay attention to your breath no matter what you are doing:  whether you are eating, showering, commuting to work or buying the groceries. Really feel the sensation of the air rushing in and out of your mouth and nose. Notice the movement of your body with each inhalation or exhalation. Notice too that not only your chest moves but so does your tummy. In fact, if you don't feel movement in the abdomen when you breath, then your internal organs, including your brain, are not benefiting as much as they should. Search for the posting concerning abdominal breathing on this blog site.As you practice paying attention to your breath, you might want to try one of the exercises below:


  • Imagine breathing in white light and breathing out the stagnant or negative energy in your body.
  • Imagine breathing in healing energy through your crown chakra (at the top of your head) and breathing compassion out through your heart for the whole world.
  • Imagine a mantra (a word like peace) every time you breathe in and breathe out.
  • Take a deep breath thinking, I am powerful.
  • Take a second deep breath thinking, Life is truly wonderful.
  • Take a third deep breath thinking, I am enough for anything that comes my way

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Many Are One

Back as far as our written records take us, mindful practices around the world have insisted on the sameness of all things. We are told that we are all alike and that all the diversity in the world is not many but one. To paraphrase Shakespeare's analogy, all the world is one stage and we are all actors playing our part in one great play. Whatever we do on stage directs the course of the play and will affect every actor, not just a few.

Back as far as our written records take us, we human beings have seen ourselves as a small troupe of actors playing our parts on a local stage. Other people in the world are strange actors playing questionable parts in theaters that are in competition with ours and might possibly be a threat to our play. We know that our play--our way of living--is good and worthy and right but we suspect that the other is not as good and may even be bad or unwholesome. Ignore it if you can, dominate it if you must.

Modern neuroscience has tools to actually map the neural dimensions of empathy--the resonance we feel with the experiences of others, even an inner experience like grief, shame, or loneliness. This resonance center lights up when we identify with another's pain or joy. When we harshly judge another person or another culture, that resonance center shuts down. Without the understanding that we are all the same, it is easy to accept that other people are not like us, lacking the full complement of human traits perhaps, not quite as worthy of respect and acceptance.

This lack of understanding and the fear that arises from a perceived threat, even a non-existent threat, may cause us to react impulsively, lose our emotional balance, and fall short of moral reasoning. The culture of violence we hear so much about today is made stronger when we get caught up in base reaction to the alarms raised by the brain's fight or flight center. Perhaps this is why so many spiritual practices around the world teach us to treat others the way we want to be treated. A simple concept but not easy to practice without the proper tools.

Mindfulness is a process through which we learn how our minds work. We learn to pay attention to the emotional stories arising from our fear centers and we are able to remain rational and respond with greater compassion and understanding. Mindfulness is a powerful tool that allows us to treat others as we would be treated because we understand that we and others are the same.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

How Does Mindfulness Work

Mindfulness is a very specific kind of mental exercise for our brains. Each area in the brain has a specific function. Some areas are dedicated to vision, hearing, our sense of touch, our movements, emotion, and so on. Since each little bit has its own unique function, we target specific functional areas and get predictable results from mindfulness exercise.
Our brains, like other organs in our bodies,  are built to adjust to changes in demand. Our muscles are a classic example of a structure in our body changing from demands. When we exercise the muscles of our body, they make tremendous adjustments based on the demands such as lifting more weight--specifically, the muscles get bigger and stronger. When our brains adjust to demands, though, they don't bet bigger, because swelling inside the head is a very bad thing. So instead of swelling, our brains adapt in a unique way -- they restructure their connections.
The number and strength of the connections between our brain cells determine a lot about how we behave and think. (The chemicals present in our brains play a large role in behavior too but we'll have to get into that some other time). Each brain cell (neuron) communicates to the cells it is connected to. And like our social connections, our brain's connections can change, even in adulthood. We call that ability to change connections "neuroplasticity," and its discovery is something relatively new in science. Contrary to previous beliefs, we can learn and change even into old age.
By practicing or rehearsing something, we strengthen connections in our brains and that function becomes more efficient. It makes sense, right? You train to do something over and over, and it becomes faster and easier to do.
The areas that are exercised when we practice mindfulness have to do with what we call ''direct experience.'' When we're experiencing something directly, we're fully enveloped by whatever we're doing. We are not thinking about the past, the future, or even about ourselves. Of course, direct experiences happen in our lives whether or not we practice mindfulness, and you can probably recall a time when you experienced this feeling of being completely enveloped. We sometimes refer to this as "being in the groove."
But studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness, even irregularly, have direct experiences more often. They also tend to have higher levels of happiness. How is that possible? When you intentionally practice thinking good, pleasing, or positive thoughts, the brain builds neural pathways to support that attitude. Consequenlty, you have more positive, pleasing and good thoughts. It works the other way to so be careful what you spend time thinking about.
In my experience with mindfulness, life circumstances don't need to change outwardly to see the improvements in our quality of life. We tend to appreciate, and become more grateful for the way things are. By noticing more of what's happening right now, we disengage from what happened in the past, and what might happen in the future. Our experiences feel enriched and have more meaning.
It makes sense why mindfulness interventions are being tried and investigated for a variety of conditions, like addictions, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A common symptom in these illnesses is that the person experiencing them has difficulty feeling connected to the current moment. Often, their past or worries of the future consume their thoughts, leading to strong negative emotions that influence their behaviors. With this in mind, the advantage of being connected to the current moment makes sense.
Of course, a mindful practice won't just benefit people who are struggling with mental or psychological illnesses. The implications for people who are otherwise well are that they too will be more and more connected to the current moment, letting go of what already happened and what is yet to happen.
Many people new to meditation mistakenly think they are going to change their mood or way of thinking right away. And when they practice and are not feeling an improvement in their moods afterward, or cannot help from noticing distracting thoughts, they assume they are doing it incorrectly, or that it's not working for them. A mindfulness practice isn't about being in a blissful mood all the time, it's about being in touch with reality, and accepting that reality. Accepting isn't the same as liking. Accepting simply means that it is part of your reality and it is healthier to recognize that it is so. 
Before I leave the subject of unrealistic expectations, let me say that no matter how much experience you have practicing mindfulness, there will always be distractions and you will never control your thoughts. Accept it.
As our practices strengthen, we become better at simply noticing our judgements of liking/disliking that can skew our thoughts and actions. Then we are more likely to have patience between our emotions and our reactions. Our behaviors slowly become more rational, beneficial, and compassionate as we understand ourselves and our tendencies. We gain a greater sense of what we can and cannot control, and prevent much of the conflict that comes from confusing these things. As this happens, life flows and things just make sense.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Art of Living Meditation

In the mud and scum of things, always something sings. – Emerson

Human beings need space to foster an inner life that nourishes and sustains. Without it, the spirit declines and weakens. Living Meditation is a practice that enables us to reclaim a healthy spiritual attitude, which in turn enables us to reach our full potential. Living Meditation is a technique for discovering life in the space between the moments of ordinary living. It is about rediscovering that the ordinary life is extraordinary after all.

Many of us work more than we’d like, we run around more than we’d planned, and we’re called on to do much more than we ever thought would be expected. Too often we feel detached from the things we love most--home, family, friends. 

We think of the time we arrange to respond to friends, children, pets, loved ones, as quality time and indeed it is so. The time we take to tune in to our own needs and respond to them is also quality time. Because it is necessary to take care of ourselves in order to effectively take care of others, this time is beyond quality time, it is crucial time.

The comfort we derive from a spiritually rich environment actually deepens the reserves of generosity we have to draw from for friends, strangers, and favored causes. The more fulfilled we feel, the more likely we are to have the energy to give to others.

In the practice of Living meditation, we rediscover that we are good people who deserve a good life and that good life is is there for us if only we will receive it. Most of us have forgotten this truth. We think that we are not quite good enough and that others seem to know something we don’t. We try to copy the lives of others—celebrities, friends, family, anyone who seems to have the life we want. 

The antidote to these thoughts is love, of course. Love is an amazing commodity that spreads to fill the space available. Treating others to the healing power of love, or a little respect if there is someone you haven’t been able to love, is the way to take care of ourselves. Love’s healing activity spreads outward as we care for the place we live and for the plants, animals, and people who inhabit it with us. 

When you operate from awareness that you are a divine creature and that the time allotted to you is a precious gift, then every activity you engage in is spiritual activity and every moment is precious.