Once upon a time, I, Ivorie Jenkins, of sound mind and body, enrolled myself into a 10 day, Vipassana meditation retreat in the south of India. The schedule for those 10 days went something like this:
- 4AM WakeUp Call (via a tiny and very annoying bell)
- 4:30- 6:30 MEDITATE
- 6:30 BREAKFAST
- 7-8 BREAK for sleep, yoga or laundry
- 8-9 MEDITATE
- 9-9:15 BREAK
- 9:30-11 MEDITATE
- 11 LUNCH
- 12-1PM BREAK for sleep or a walk
- 1-2:15 MEDITATE yet again
- 2:15-2:30 BREAK
- 2:30-3:30 MEDITATE some more
- 3:30- 3:45 BREAK
- 3:45-5:00 hmmm….MEDITATE
- 5-6:00 DINNER
- 6-7:00 MEDITATE a little more
- 7-7:15 BREAK
- 7:15- 8:30 Video lecture on Meditation
- 8:30-9:00 you guessed it...MEDITATE
- 9:30PM LIGHTS OUT
If you were not counting, that was 8 meditations a day people! In addition to meditation, we also practiced noble silence to get the maximum benefit of our efforts. Noble silence means you avoid talking, eye contact, smiling, hand gesturing and interactions of any kind unless you feel your life is in danger. We also turned in all books, journals, pens and pencils, iPads and, of course, cell phones. The staff told us that these objects would become tempting as the course progressed. They weren't lying either!
Around day 5, I noticed that there was newspaper lining the shelves in my room. When I saw it, I could feel the dopamine hijacking my prefrontal cortex. Like a fein, I got on my tippy toes and crooked my neck to see if I could get a sentence, a headline, a photo, a word, anything! As you could imagine it was an intense 10 days but also so gratifying and eye opening.
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, “Ivorie, I'm trying to add a sprinkle of meditation into my life, not the whole bottle!” Well, I did it so you don't have to (unless you want to, in which case, I recommend it wholeheartedly) and I'll tell you what I learned. The biggest deterrent to a consistent meditation practice is thinking that you are no good at it because your mind won't be quiet. Let me be the one to break it to you - your mind will never be quiet! Our brains are like a 3 year-old toddler who can't sit still and just got the hang of talking. You're doing it right if your meditations sound like this:
Inhale... Breath is warm... Cooling exhale .. sensation of breath is passing gently over my upper lip.. ..Again... steady breath...Inhale...do I smell incense? Who has time to light incense at 4am... maybe it's perfume... Incense inspired fragrances...hmmm…Is that patented already? If not it should be... My knee is slightly uncomfortable...MOSQUITO! Ivorie! Pull it together.... Exhale...sensation of breath on upper lip....Inhale... Sensation of breath on nose hairs... What time is it? I wonder if any celebrities have done a 10 day Vipassana course... Probably like Matthew McConaughey or Johnny Depp. They are weird enough. Am I weird? Ivorie! Gurl, focus! ... Inhale...I hate when celebrities invade my brain...Ivorie!!! Okay, okay....serious this time...Exhale....inhale...exhale...inhale...exhale...inhale....exhale...How long has it been? Are we almost done?..Inhale... I wish I had a watch...
If your meditations have ever sounded like the above, first, you are in great company with me and second, this is exactly what the practice of becoming a dispassionate observer looks and feels like. The thought appears, you observe but do not judge (even if you did just create a brilliant business plan for incense inspired perfumes). Gently push the thought aside and - here is the biggest lesson - begin again! Begin again over and over until, eventually, the thoughts become less. Instead of being distracted 30 times during a 10 minute sit you are distracted only 20 times. The mind becomes steadier, more concentrated and you are able to witness the surprisingly simplistic patterns of your thoughts. I find mine are mostly the same damn thoughts over and over! Am I really this simple minded? I often ask myself. Here I was thinking I am this complicated woman who needed to go all the way to India and meditate to figure myself out. Once I get there however, I see clearly that I am as simple minded as a hamster running on a wheel. But gold star for me because that was the whole purpose of this Vipassana retreat - to see the nature of both oneself and and the nature of reality as it really is not how our minds convince us it is.
So, what if you can't make it to India or don't have the time for a local 10 day meditation retreat? Are you just out of luck? Will enlightenment and meeting your higher self have to wait for your next lifetime? Of course not! Another misconception about meditation is that you have to travel to an isolated mountain top to do it. Or that you have to wake up before the sun, light candles, and burn sage before you can begin. Meditation means sitting quietly for any amount of time and focusing on your breath. That means you can do it in your car (eyes open if you're driving please), in the back of your Uber (one of my top 5 fav places to meditate), while walking the dog, or even in the moments right before you pick up your fork for a meal. The meditation has to work for you, your schedule, and your lifestyle. If it doesn't, most likely you won't do it.
You may also be wondering which type of meditation to practice. There are many and finding the one that works for you is like finding that perfect pair of yoga pants - when you find them you go back to them again again. Here are a handful of ways to add meditation into your week right away:
Download a meditation app! They are ubiquitous these days and perfect for beginners since you will have a teacher guiding you and making notes of common pitfalls. My favorite paid meditation app is 10 Percent Happier because the founder, Dan Harris, offers a no nonsense, very digestible approach to meditation. If you are a skeptic, well, so is Dan, so this app is for you. My favorite free meditation app is Unplug. Full disclosure, I offer a handful of meditations on this app but that is only half the reason it is my favorite. The other half lies in the fact that Unplug offers a meditation for anything you may be going through. Can't sleep? There's a meditation for that. Nervous before a flight? There's a meditation for that. Want to increase your sex drive? Yes, there is a meditation for that, too.
Mantra Meditation - The word mantra is made up of two Sanskrit words - “man” means mind and “tra” means tool. Mantras are vibratory sounds that are meant to be a tool to transport you into deeper states of meditation. The next time you wake up in the morning - right before you reach for your phone - sit up in bed, take 3 deep breaths and then repeat a mantra to yourself for one minute. How do I pick a mantra you ask? If you would like to go the traditional route, simply repeat the mantra “Om” over and over again. You could also use the mantra “SoHum,” meaning “I am that. That I am.” In Vedic philosophy, this is a way to identify oneself with the universe or ultimate reality. If you would like to go the more new age route, choose a phrase that is self affirming. Think The Little Engine that Could. “I think I can, I think I can.” Or, “I am worthy, I am enough.” “Abundance is all around me.” “I deserve love.” As you feel comfortable, extend the one minute to two minutes and then five minutes. Eventually you will have a brand new habit that you can feel great about!
Gratitude Meditation - Your phone has just given you the notification that it is time to wind down for bed. You put away the ice cream pint and give IG one last good scroll. Just before you turn off the lights, sit upright yet comfortably in bed and list all the moments, people, and things that came across your path and brought goodness, peace, kindness and joy. Thank your God, the Universe and any other powers that be for these blessings and request for more tomorrow.
Metta Meditation - This is one of my favorites! Also known as “loving-kindness” meditation, this approach involves sending positive thoughts to the four types of people in your life: those who are easy to love, those who are more difficult to love, those who you are indifferent about and yourself. The phrases you send to each of these persons are:
“May they be safe.
May they be peaceful.
May they be happy.
May they be free from suffering.”
This meditation is a wonderful way to decrease feelings like jealousy, anger, and resentment. It is best to start off with those to whom you find it easy to send loving-kindness. Save the boss who denied your work-from-home request for a little later. And please, feel free to tweak the phrases anyway you like. My go-to is “may they be happy and healthy and may they know love and peace.” During the savasana portion of my in-person yoga classes, I often choose a handful of students and repeat those phrases to them one at a time. Maybe send some metta to that guy at the coffee shop who makes your latte just the way you like it. And if you really want to experience magic, send loving-kindness to that really difficult person in your life. You know the one. (By the way, I told my late father about metta meditation and he said “honey, all that is is prayer.”)
Bring Meditation into Yoga Asana classes - Could your yoga practice be more meditative? We all, myself included, can get carried away with the physical benefits of the practice. You know, going to class so you get a good workout. Our bodies are a vehicle for the spirit and the mind so the physicality of an asana practice actually sets us up very nicely to sit quietly in a meditative seat. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, asanas or postures, are meant to prepare the body for long periods of sitting so the meditative practice can be done without disturbances from the body. Could you arrive 5 minutes early or stay 5 minutes late to add in a few minutes of meditation to your practice? Let it be an experiment rather than another item to add to your already extensive to-do list.
Walking Meditation - This meditation feels similar to an asana based yoga practice to me. By bringing your complete awareness to every step you take, you begin to unite your mind and body in the same way you do when marrying the movement with the breath in a Vinyasa practice. The walking should be slow and deliberate, putting one foot in front of the other in a slow yet rhythmic fashion. If there are days where my thoughts are swirling too fast in my mind and I am on the brink of overwhelm, I go outside to my backyard and walk meditatively, noticing the sound of leaves under my feet and the feeling of the grass as it cushions my steps. This one may feel weird at first and your neighbors may wonder but the only thing that really matters is if it is effective.
Vipassana Meditation - Since this is the type of meditation I practice the most, I will end this blog post by sharing with you the ins and outs of this technique as I was taught on this 10 day retreat. Also known as Insight Meditation, Vipassana is the predominant Buddhist meditation and is said to be the form of meditation taught by the Buddha himself. This practice begins with mindfullness - observing your thoughts and sensations without judgment. The first 4 of the 10 days, we simply focused on the breath coming in and out of the nose. We were taught to notice the beginning, middle and end of each inhale and each exhale. On day 5, we learned to make notes of sensations that take our attention away from the breath. Those sensations can be physical such as hunger, thirst, itching, pain, or mental such as remembering, planning, or fantasizing. Let all emotions rise and fall without getting attached to them. But if you do get attached then begin again by returning to the breath.
Towards the final days, it was encouraged that you actually try your hardest not to move a muscle during meditation. Of course torturing oneself was not encouraged. If you need to change positions, so be it. The point was to observe why you need to move your legs and before you move your legs, investigate. What exactly am I feeling? Is it pain, an itch, a cooling or burning sensation? If I wait a moment will it subside or intensify? Do I have to react to every sensation that passes through my body? Or can I remain the witness and begin to understand that all sensations, whether pleasant or unpleasant, will undeniably pass away. When this level of investigation occurs you teach yourself how to move from reaction to response. This is a big lesson people! This step, from reaction to response, is like a superpower and when practiced over time will allow you to see clearly what is going on in your head without predictably getting carried away by it. This brings us to one of two of the most valuable lessons of this practice which is to internalize the truth of impermanence. Nothing lasts forever and change is the only constant. Understanding this truth minimizes our suffering in life. It keeps us from getting tossed out to sea every time we experience a hardship or becoming depressed every time the party comes to an end.
Of the 80 meditations I did that week, there were about 3 or 4 times where I took flight. What do I mean? I felt currents of energy pulsing through my whole body. I experienced the feeling of floating with no separation between me, the floor or the air around me. Gravity was no longer a thing. Physically it felt like that time I ate the whole weed brownie except all my mental faculties were as sharp as ever. It was magical and I did not want the feeling to end. In fact, I began searching for it in all subsequent meditations; I tried to recreate the high. But what did we just learn - all sensations, whether pleasant or unpleasant, will undeniably pass away. Now comes the second of the two most valuable lessons of the Vipassana technique - equanimity. Whatever feeling arises, be it pain or pleasure, can you remain equanimous? Dispassionate? Unattached? Neutral? This concept may have seemed simple when dealing with pain but pleasure? But who wants pleasure to leave? And if it does have to go home, what time can it be available tomorrow and where should we meet? Do you remember the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling? “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same…” I don't know if old man Kipling practiced Vipassana but this is the practice of equanimity.
When I left the halls of that meditation center in south India, I first screamed at the top of my lungs, overjoyed to hear my own voice again. More importantly,I took these lessons with me and I took the practice of Vipassana with me too. I use it not only for 20 minute sits on my favorite Manduka meditation cushion but when I am wanting to be more present with my children and my partner; when I want to savor the flavors of a well cooked meal; when I am having a heated discussion with a loved one; anytime I think I am at my limit. Vipassana is the practice that brings me the most peace of mind. What will be yours?
Biggest takeaway - take meditation out of the realm of being a chore - another thing on your to do list. Instead make it a great part of your life that will, over time, improve your work, relationships and your health. It can be as quick and easy as one minute of a morning mantra or as long and deep as 10 days of noble silence. Be sure to let me know how it goes.
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