The Poetry of Retreat

Wake up well before dawn.

Set an alarm, just in case. I don’t want to miss a moment of the five a.m. sadhana.

Under the veil of darkness, stroll along the starlit, lapping lake to the candlelit temple where White Tara beams down upon us all every day and night.

Location: Sumaya, which means “a long awaited dream come true”; a.k.a. paradise found.

Akasha shares his personal practice with us, in such a down-to-earth, accessible and friendly way. Casually imparts the wisdom of years and decades of practice. So humbly, with the authenticity of actions and the nebulous precision of words. The time flies by.

Breathing, chanting, moving, holding, listening. Paying attention.

Sun rises, pastels paint the sky. We invite the morning light. The lake’s daily awakening. All the sounds, the water, the boat motors, voices, birdsong.

And now, a series of seven-minute chants. I read from the sheet and marvel at all the people in the room who has these long strings of Sanskrit syllables memorized.

Mid-morning Ashtanga practice. Powerful. Right effort. Knowing boundaries, challenging limits. Mountain men and women gaining strength, vitality. Soaking up inspiration from our teacher and his teacher’s teachers.

Just one week, and yet we go so deep, transforming energy on all levels. Strangers swiftly become sangha, friendships are forged over meals and spirit animal tarot cards.

Healing circle, full moon, New Year’s Eve evening; glowing hearts, positive energy, splendid synergy. Giving and receiving.

Inner transformation, outward evolution. Deep bow of gratitude, dream come true. The closing of one chapter leads to the opening of the next.

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Thank you. I love you. Please forgive me. I’m sorry. Namaste.

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How to Live Your Yoga: Simplest Meditation Instructions, Ever.

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How to Meditate (a poem)

In the morning
(Or anytime)
Wake up
Stretch!
And then—
Just sit
Or stand
But be still and quiet
Notice the now
Notice how the mind wanders, and where

All the time. All over the place. Everywhere and nowhere. Empty and full at once. A silly monkey. A bumbling puppy. A mirror. The ocean. This is the mind.

To the back then or the what-if

The past and the future. Any time but the present. Memories, plans. Nostalgia, aspirations. Regrets, expectations. Judgment. Sit and notice your mind without getting involved.

Come back to the breath
Keep sitting
Keep breathing
For the duration of a stick of lavender incense? Or a steamy mug of chamomile with honey? Or a song?
For one breath in and one breath out.

And another and another and another
oh how grateful i am for this life for this breath
thank you god for this day and this life

Rise up and go on about your crazy day
Carry the benefits with you
The calm, kind presence
The mindfulness
When anger arises,

When fear arises, when hatred arises, when ego flares up and shouts i am the best (or) i am the worst—when insanity arises—come back to the breath

This goes for formal meditation and daily live experiences alike

Give the merits away
Dedicate your efforts to the benefit of all beings

Press the palms together, look up at the blue sky, feel your connection to the green earth, bow forward and love

This is how we live our yoga
This is how we live our dharma

Namaste

33 Reminders of How to be a More Mindful Person.

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Next week, I’ll celebrate the 33rd anniversary of my birth. It’s true what the old folks say… life just keeps getting better all the time. I find myself getting wiser, more self-aware, calmer, and more balanced as the moments, days and years pile up.

Not to be a Pollyanna, but I do believe, as the Zen saying goes — every day is a good day. Even the frustrating and difficult ones. Accepting the shadowy, negative, not-so-pretty aspects of our selves is what enables us to feel gratitude for the glorious, gorgeous true Buddhas that we all are, already and always.

Giving is better than getting. So, my gift to you are these 33 suggestions to bring more mindfulness to your days.

1. Sit, stand, walk, or lie down and meditate, because

“The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment… It is a practice that at once transcends the dogma of religion and is the essence of religions.” ~Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

2. Ground yourself in gratitude with simple breath awareness.

3. Feel your kundalini rising.

4. Embody peace through mantra meditation.

5. Don’t forget to forgive.

6. Send yourself and others the good wish of metta (lovingkindness).

7. Get out of your own way and cultivate compassion through Tonglen meditation.

8. Make a conscious effort to make more eye contact when speaking with someone.

9. Eat at least one meal slowly and mindfully today.

10. Go for a swim.

11. Take a hike.

12. Let go of damaging habits.

13. Ride your bike.

14. Read anything by the Dalai Lama.

15. Or Thich Nhat Hanh.

16. Or Pema Chodron.

17. Or J. Krishnamurti.

18. Or Ken Wilber.

19. Hand write a letter to a faraway friend and mail it. It will mean so much more than an email or facebook message.

20. Try Judith Lasater’s  latest practice: when someone asks you if you need help with something, simply say “yes”. Even if you don’t. Just receive the help. Give yourself this gift.

21. Listen to classical music.

22. Or MC Yogi.

23. Press your palms together and give thanks for this moment, just as it is.

24. Donate to a microloan provider such as Kiva.org. A little of your pocket money can go a long way for someone in a developing nation.

25. Volunteer.

26. Vent on paper. Write a page of stream of consciousness and get whatever’s on your mind out onto the page.

27. Read your horoscope.

28. Turn off the TV.

29. Listen to the crickets chirping, the cicadas singing, and the rain pattering on the roof.

30. Have a baby. Or hold a baby. Or, at least watch this beautiful baby video.

31. Get offline and go outside, for goodness sake!

32. Marvel at the perfection of a flower and the immense wisdom of a tree.

33. Gaze up at the sky and watch the clouds float by.

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No Self, No Suffering?

I’ve been practicing hatha yoga since I was a young teenager (almost 20 years now!) and teaching yoga and mindfulness for the past decade. I started a Buddhist meditation practice in 2004 and have absorbed more and more of the Buddhist teachings through reading and practicing over the past eight years.

I’d had occasional glimpses of the selfless state, but they were few and far between. I was eager to pierce the illusion, drop delusions and live presently… something I’d been doing with increasing consistency, especially over the past three years of living abroad (in Guatemala) and integrating my spiritual practice into my daily life.

But I needed a push.

At the ideal time, I stumbled across the story of fellow Elephant Journal blogger, Lori Ann Lothian. Her personal chronicle of liberation after an overnight “awakening” peaked my interest in the possibility of illumination to the illusion of self sooner than later. I linked from her blog to a website called Liberation Unleashed and soon read the e-book, Gateless Gatecrashers: 21 Ordinary People, 21 Extraordinary Awakenings by Ilona Ciunate and Elena Nezhinsky.

At Liberation Unleashed, they:

guide the seeker to pass through what is often called the ‘Gateless Gate’ or in classical terms, Stream Entry to Enlightenment or Truth Realization, [using] the Direct Pointing method, which consists of a dialogue between a guide and seeker. The guide poses very specific questions in order to focus the attention on the seeker’s experience of the present moment. This triggers the awakening insight often referred to as ‘seeing no-self’.

I was a bit skeptical but figured I had nothing to lose. (Astonishingly, there is absolutely no cost to subscribe.) Seekers may enter into a one-on-one dialogue with a guide, either via private discussion board or Facebook group. One of the co-authors of the ebook, Elena (EN), replied to me (MF). I share excerpts of our dialogue here, with the hope that it may be of benefit to you!

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EN: Welcome, Michelle Fajkus, great to hear your story! Simple question for you here: what is “I” for you? What is it that you call self? Describe.

MF: “I” is my ego, my identity in society. “I” am a teacher, a yogini, a friend, a daughter, etc. Self is that entity known as Michelle Fajkus who appears to be functioning in society and daily life… waking up, working, breathing, writing. But it’s an illusion covering the truth of interconnectedness.

EN: do you exist?

MF: “I” do not exist. “I” am no more real than my facebook profile… just a collection of colors and concepts that cluster together to create the illusion of Michelle. I get this intellectually but the gut-level understanding comes and goes. It feels like I am pulling away subtle layers of delusion… but I’m still somewhat involved in the storyline of “me.” In looking around with this new perspective, I see how pervasive the concept of “I” is in pop spirituality. It feels liberating to even begin to lift this veil!

EN: “I get this intellectually but the gut-level understanding comes and goes.” Realizing the truth is not a feeling in a gut or in a head, it’s life lived out of the understanding that Life is all there is, no separate I, just an illusion, and in whatever form it may be. So when you say “understanding comes and goes” — that is how life is unfolding itself. So nothing needs to be improved in the understanding. The only what needed is clear seeing of what is. So if you look right now, can you tell me what is missing?

MF: The only thing that is missing for me now is the acceptance of zero control. This quote from poet Wendall Berry came to my inbox this morning: “You can’t know where life will take you, but you can commit to a direction.” The first part is fine (“You can’t know where life will take you”) RIGHT, because there is NO YOU to know. The second part is problematic (“but you can commit to a direction.”) I still feel this to be true, and I am clinging to the desire for it to be true, that my “character” can commit to a direction in “her” life… Even though it cannot be if there is no self to commit to a direction.

EN: so how do you experience the “issue of control”? how does it feel in the body? what are sensations? thoughts?

MF: It feels like clutching to something I’ve been told/learned — that I am an American and I am responsible for taking action and making good decisions that direct and “manifest” my life as desired. Tense neck and shoulders. Thoughts are of anger, irritation, impatience. A few times over the past few days there has been clarity and tears of gladness at the truth of the illusion of self.

EN: When that tense neck, shoulders and anger and impatience come up, look right there into the physical tension and the strong emotion. There are corresponding thoughts there that evoke the body go into contraction. Let’s do this. Invite all the tension and feelings closer, even closer. When you feel like it’s all over you, peek behind the anger, look behind all the tension. I want to hear what is there, honey. If you can’t look behind, call it to come closer; no worries, nothing will happen, but we are used to stopping feeling just at a safe distance, therefore we are like a witness constantly. Let it engulf, let it ripple in the body so you are lost, you are confused, you are one raw gobble of feeling. Then you quietly ask the tension what it is here to protect. Then listen. Breathe steady and be quiet. Listen to what will surface in the mind. Let me know what came up for you.

MF: On Friday morning, I lost my temper with one of my students. The anger came because I felt disrespected. My ego was attacked, and my image as a calm, collected teacher was ruined. It took me a whole day to let go of the irritation and subsequent neck tension, even though when I looked behind the anger and the superficial offense, there was absolutely nothing. As I traveled through various airports later that day, looked at strangers and saw us all as expressions of universal energy. Now I’m in my hometown for the weekend, because a friend died recently. My best girl friend was very close to the deceased, and she is so identified with her “self” and suffering so much as she clings to every memory and possession of her dead friend. I’ve been talking to her about no-self and universal energy. Noticing direct experience and not taking things personally. There is no desire to drink or smoke, which is unusual, especially under the current circumstances (grieving, being around my Catholic mother, being with friends who are using). There is only the flow of moments and the diverse surprises each one brings.

EN: So what is still missing? Be very honest. Describe in detail, if needed.

MF: Apologies for the delay. My life has changed in a more dramatic way than ever, as I found out (on April 29) that I am pregnant. Or, I should say – pregnancy is happening. This morning I finished reading Gateless Gatecrashers. I feel that much of the time I am able to see through the illusion of self… though there are still moments when my ego lashes out. Overall though, this experiencing of each present moment without the addition of a self needing to do anything is super helpful right now, as a flood of overwhelming emotions and sensations overtake this physical body.

EN: Michelle, it’s great news. This is so awesome to conceive a life inside a life! So let’s chat more and see if anywhere you get stuck. We do not want you to be stuck at the gate. We want you through and to serve others. I will give you some questions. You ponder, look and reply as detailed as possible, okay? So here they are:

1. You said: “though there are still moments when my ego lashes out.” What does it really mean? Do you feel not awakened at those moments? Please elaborate on this.
2. Describe in a simple words to somebody who is searching what is awakening is.
‎3. Do you feel liberated? Tell in details.
4. What comes up if I tell you “You do not exist”? Read it, feel it, look at this phrase, look and tell me.

MF: Thank you so much, Elena. Here are my answers.

1. The moments when my ego lashes out, I do not feel awakened. It’s like my mind is clinging to an old storyline and fears letting go completely of my identity. Behind the fear is emptiness but nevertheless it happens (for example, when I am in traffic and get ‘road rage’) but it is seeming to happen less and less frequently.

2. Awakening is plainly and simply seeing through the illusion of having a separate self. It is experiencing the flow of life from moment to moment without attaching to our judgments, stories, fantasies or any of our fleeting thoughts or emotions. Liberation is available to everyone, because it is just a matter of being what we already are.

3. And yet… I do not feel liberated. I think I am stuck at the gate. I accept and am grateful for the truth of no-self, but I am still living 50% of the time from my limited ego view and I don’t know how to get unstuck.

4. When you tell me I do not exist, there is pure relaxation, gratitude, joy and utter trust in the flow of Life. Resistance melts away.

EN: you are talking a lot about ego. At the same time you are talking about flow of Life is all there is and seeing that is an awakening. Is there ego and egoic self outside of the flow of Life?

MF: No.

EN: So when the ego arises, what happening to Life? Life disappears, Life becomes less, Life becomes more? What is happening?

MF: It feels like life constricts… gets narrower… less spacious and not enjoyable.

EN: Life not enjoyable for whom? Is there anybody outside of Life?

MF: Oooh, good question. Life is not enjoyable for ME — the fiction of me — only when I believe that fiction to be fact. There is no one and nothing outside of Life! No self, no suffering.

EN: what is egoic self you mentioned? do you suffer from it?

MF: The egoic self is the separate, individual identity… Which is an illusion. I can’t compose this sentence without the word I, but I think I made it through!

EN: Are you liberated, Michelle? Go ahead and write more.

MF: It’s so subtle, but I think so. Liberation is here. Your last question… “life not enjoyable for whom?” helped push me through. As well as the experience of getting pregnant (which was unplanned and unintended) and now being pregnant… it makes “me” see in a deeper way than ever before that there is nothing to hold on to, that my “self” is a process and not a fixed entity, that I am not in control of anything, and that Life is just Life, always moving and changing and unfolding each moment as it comes. I still have strong emotions, and I have been crying often, but not identifying with the thoughts or emotions anymore. Much love and gratitude to you!!!

EN: I am glad to read that, Michelle. I appreciate that you took the time with me here. Much love to you too, and best wishes! Motherhood is one of hell of an experience! What an amazing journey to motherhood with clear seeing!

Wise Mindfulness: Everything is in Constant Flux.

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“Believing that we have to get to somewhere special in order to be free sets us up for suffering. But we can realize that wherever we are, we can come back to the breath, come back to the moment. It does not matter where we just were, it does not matter how bad it was. We just drop all that and come back to the breath.”

~ Cheri Huber

{part seven of eightfold path series}

Mindfulness. The word, like all words, is just a finger pointing at the moon. And yet, it is what we must do in order to live fully. It is the means and the end. Of what is the mind full? Of whatever is happening in the present moment. Bare attention.

According to Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana,

“Mindfulness alone has the power to reveal the deepest level of reality available to human observation. At this level of inspection, one sees the following: (a) all conditioned things are inherently transitory, (b) every worldly thing is, in the end, unsatisfying; and (c) there are really no entities  that are unchanging or permanent, only processes.”

The Buddha’s teachings on Right (or Wise) Mindfulness outlines four foundations—training in these four frames of reference can be thought of as looking through four different windows into our experience.

1. The physical body

Start with attention to the breath going in and the breath going out. It is best to start with sitting meditation. We can always connect mindfully with the breathing. From there, we expand to paying attention to posture, daily activities, interactions, and ultimately every single thing—all by connecting to direct experience, the physicality of what’s going on in the body and what is being perceived by the five senses.

We start to recognize what is body and what is mind. Look at your hand. You have a concept of “hand.” Then close your eyes and feel your hand from the inside. This is the elemental, pre-conceptual experience of “hand.”

2. The feeling of our experience

Notice how each and every fleeting experience is either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We typically like and want the pleasant, dislike and avoid the unpleasant. This foundation of mindfulness enables us to begin to understand the process of reactivity.

3. The state of mind

The third foundation involves exploring experience through the state of the mind. What color lens are we looking through? Anger? Mindfulness? Sadness? Happiness? Notice whether greed, aversion, desire, delusion, distraction and concentration are present or absent. This practice moves us in the direction of non-reactivity and non-judgment.

4. The dharma

Finally, the fourth foundation views experience through the lens of the Buddha’s teachings. We can be mindful of the hindrances (sense desire, restlessness, sleepiness, hatred, doubt) and constantly notice their presence or absence. What factors lead to the creation—and to the cessation—of these hindrances? Likewise, we observe what supports the arising and sustainability of the factors of enlightenment, which include mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration and equanimity.

The good news is that when the mind understands what causes suffering and what leads to happiness, the mindfulness will naturally move toward happiness by letting go of clinging and craving. This unfolds naturally.

May all beings be happy.

The importance of being intentional.

According to beloved American Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön,

‎”The future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.”

We are writing the future with our present intentions, which develop into speech and actions. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly planting seeds that will flower with time and nurturance, so why not make this process conscious? Authentic, mindful, daily intention-setting infuse our creative lives and yoga practice with meaning and purpose, moment to moment, day by day.

It’s important to set your intent religiously and daily. I’ve integrated intention-setting into my morning sitting meditation practice. On days when I feel down or confused, my intention becomes simple. Take one step at a time. Breathe deeply. Notice and release negative self-talk. Remember, this too shall pass. On brighter days, my intention can whirl and float. Go with the flow. Act spontaneously. Make a new friend. Reach out to an old friend. Draft a poem from scratch. Cook with new ingredients. In her memoir and yoga manifestoFierce Medicine, expert yoga teacher Ana Forrest says, “You must set your intent and choose life. Every day.”

She lists provocative questions to invoke intention, such as: What do I yearn to do in the world? What would be meaningful for me to do today? What is the quality of energy I want in my life today, no matter what I do? Ask yourself these questions. Their answers will help bring more intentionality to your daily life.

Through the practices of yoga and mindfulness, we aspire to think, speak and act intentionally — in ways that unite (or reunite) rather than separate and divide. (After all, “yoga” translates to union in Sanskrit and reunion in the Tibetan language.) Our intention to practice is far more important than the technicalities of the specific postures that do or do not occur during a session.What if… we center ourselves, deepen our breath, and set our intent at the start of the session, by sitting in silence and asking,

“What am I practicing for?”

In our natural state, “at all levels of the neuroaxis, (the brain stem, limbic system, and cerebral cortex) the intentions … operate mainly outside of your awareness,” according to the authors of Buddha’s Brain: the Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom. WIth practice, we can bring our intentions into our field of awareness. We must revisit our intentions in order to bring about their actualization. And, most importantly, we must carry those intentions, off the mat, out of the room, and into our relationships and interactions with our own selves and others.

Yoga and mindfulness practice go hand-in-hand with explicit intention setting.

A recent study on the effects of yoga, meditation and qigong found that: “Students indicated an increased capacity to make meaningful reflections regarding themselves. These mental changes were often discussed in terms of changes in attitude and perception. For others, these changes resulted in a better understanding of themselves and incorporating aspects that made them feel more whole as an individual.” The intentional practice of yoga can enhance self-awareness and self-acceptance. Which is good, because you need a clear sense of what you feel, need, and want at the appointed moment in order to set a meaningful intention. Do you need more energy or more grounding? More positivity or persistence or peace? To let go of judgement or stress or worry?

Yoga serves as a powerful muse for creativity. With intention (and attention on the breath and body during hatha yoga practice), we can harvest the motivation to fuel our ideas and inspire our best selves to shine through our writing, music or art. In his book, The Journey from the Center to the Page,Jeffrey Davis calls intention “a conscious gesture to align your mind, heart, imagination, and body with whatever act you’re about to begin,” that can “center the mind and imagination without restricting it.” He teaches the art of the twofold intention. See if this simple, powerful gesture transforms your practice:

Sit quietly with your hands at your heart and ask yourself, “What am I writing for?”

The answer to this query becomes your seed intention for the day. (For me, a word typically arises, and it’s usually a singular virtue: gratitude, openness, clarity, compassion. But for others I know, the answer might come as a phrase, image, sound or feeling.) Then, bring to mind a second, more specific and detailed intention. This focus intention is related to the creative focus for that particular writing/drawing/painting/creating session. Something like, “sketch shapes from nature,” or “draft a poem about desire.”

We set seed and focus intentions every day in my eighth grade classroom. I prompt my students to set their own private, personal intention and lead them through a brief guided meditation. I then share our group intention for the day, which amounts to our focus intention. For example, “Today our intention is to focus on writing creative beginnings to short stories.”

What is most important, in yoga practice, in creative expression and in day-to-day life, is intention: the willingness to try, the meaning to do something.

Intention setting, by its nature, enhances self-awareness. Try setting dual intentions every day for the next fifteen days. Record your seed and focus intentions in a special journal. See what happens. What have you got to lose? If you “draw a blank” in the moment of intention-setting, that’s okay. Maybe your intention will arise later, or maybe it could be the wonderful default: “I intend to be open to what unfolds.”

The trouble with yoga.

I used to think that the trouble with yoga was its Americanization, its being watered down and modified and marketed in the West. All I wanted to do was escape to India. Find peace and quiet and enlightenment in the Himalayas. Later I went to India and discovered that peace and quiet and enlightenment are just as rare and precious there as they are here.

Then I thought the trouble with yoga was Bikram. Copyright, competition, scripted classes. And the heat, my God, the heat!

Then I declared that the trouble with yoga stemmed from Yoga Journal and Lululemon and $80 yoga pants and the slick marketing of ridiculous, superfluous products such as yoga socks. Yes, clearly the trouble with yoga was its prohibitively expensive fashions and its exclusive exotic retreats catering to the rich and restless.

Now I see that none of that matters.

Back in 2004, John Abbott, CEO of Yoga Journal said, “Yoga has become a cultural phenomenon and an integral part of the wellness trend in this country. All the data indicates a substantial growth in the number of practitioners over the next few years—a growth that I suspect will be sheltered from both a downturn economy and other world events, as people turn to yoga to help them cope with a changing world.”

He was right. Yoga has only become more popular (and more mainstream) in the past decade. We all come to yoga in our own ways. Books, videos, gyms, studios. Home practice. Sangha, kula, community.

It fills me with happiness to see all the karma yoga and seva service programs and projects popping up across the globe. It’s gradual. It can be grueling. It can feel like we’re doing nothing if you look at the big picture. But lots of little shifts are happening at the subtler, individual level. Changes may be invisible sometimes but the truth of impermanence reminds us that life is always in motion.

In reality, all you need to practice yoga are bare feet, an open mind and a desire for self-discipline.

The trouble with yoga is that once you start, you cannot go back. Your muscles will tighten, your mind will cloud, your soul will weep. The more you practice, the more you have to keep practicing.

Continue reading

Guided Meditations for Beginners

IMG_1649Meditation can also be called mindfulness. It is the practice of simply, continually paying attention to our imperfections in order to realize the ultimate perfection of Life. Here are some basic instructions on meditation:

 

There are thousands of different and sometimes conflicting schools of thought on the practice of meditation. How to sit? What technique to use? When? How long? With eyes closed or open?

Though the Dalai Lama has said that sleep is the best meditation, when meditating in any manner, the practitioner is ideally honing awareness. Beware the fallacy of the notion: “Oh, I’ll just meditate here in bed, under the coverzzzz.”

With eyes closed, you can withdraw the senses. Turn your awareness inward. Closing the eyes shuts out visual pollution. It’s helpful, especially for people who are new to meditation.

Meditating with open eyes, as taught by many Tibetan and Zen Buddhist lineages, is a powerful practice that can help us learn to become more mindful in day-to-day activities other than sitting.

Neither method is superior to the other. Just do what you feel.

The key is to sit. Sit even when you think you’ll be bored, even when you think you have sixteen other things you “should” be doing instead, even when your mind is racing.

Warning: living a mindful life causes us to become more challenged, humbler and more compassionate than before.

Meditation is just like running, writing, crossword puzzles, piano playing. The more you do something, the better you get. Enlightenment isn’t golden fireworks and chakra hallucinations. It’s being present. All the time.

In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche writes:

“The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment… It is a practice that at once transcends the dogma of religion and is the essence of religions.”

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