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- The best time to meditate
Most meditators say the best time to meditate is in the morning after waking; body is rested and the mind has not taken up the concerns of the day. Some will shower first, others just wash the face or dry rub it with a towel. Even though you have just been sleeping, lie down briefly and attend to relaxing the body and calming the breath. If you have to do asanas to get into your sitting posture, my bet is your chosen posture is not a good one.
Sitting later in the day should be preceded by a longer, more complete relaxation to reset the body and shed mental distractions. Systematic relaxation or 61 Points are options, and Yoga Nidra is possible if you are skilled with it.
The best time to meditate is in the middle of the night. A yogic saying is that yogis do their work while everyone else is sleeping. The classic brahmamahurta is from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. Mind and body are rested, the world is asleep and there is less sense of having a limited period of time to meditate. If it is going well, you can stay, stay, stay…this is what you have been waiting for.
If you have found yourself not sleeping in the middle of the night, good news! For thousands of years, it has been natural to have “first sleep and second sleep” with a period of waking in the middle. Mind is awake but body is not inclined to move. The usual problem is getting out of bed. Don’t rush it but get yourself up, towel rub or wash the face, lie down briefly, then take your seat. Sit for an hour or more, go to bed for very restful sleep, and sit again if you wish. It’s the easiest way to quality sitting.
- Some effects of meditation
Yuval Harari is a historian, currently having a surprising influence in places like Silicon Valley. He says “When you train the mind to focus on something like the breath, it also gives you the discipline to focus on much bigger things and to really tell the difference between what’s important and everything else.” Also, “the entire exercise of Vipassana meditation is to learn the difference between fiction and reality, what is real and what is just stories that we invent and construct in our own minds. Almost 99 percent you realize is just stories in our minds. This is also true of history.”
Giovanni Dienstmann is a meditation teacher from Australia (liveanddare.com). Among his personal finding are “There seems to be no more automatic reactions. Regardless of what happens in the outside world, if an automatic reactions come up in my body or mind, there is an immediately pause or space right before it. And there is a clear choice of either going with the reaction or just staying quiet.” And “There is this feeling that I can always accept anything that the present moment brings. . .there is the space to think whether I actually need to take any action or not.” Also “Increased self-awareness allows me to stop feeding negative thoughts and emotions before they have a chance to grow and multiply. And to a certain degree there is a power to “switch off” any disturbing thought or emotion that may arise. Sometimes I make use of it, while at other times I prefer to investigate and see what’s behind it.” And, “It often feels to me as if life is a dream… So even though I participate with joy and intensity, there is this underlying feeling that nothing can disturb me, and that I need fear nothing – all is a play.”
- Reviews of The Meditation Process: Raja Yoga and Buddhist Shamatha
“Congratulations on your fine book! I have given it a read and can recommend it highly… Your book looks excellent!” — Charles Taliaferro, Department of Philosophy, (Chair, 2013-2019), St. Olaf College
“A practical debut introduction to meditation for beginning and intermediate students… The book includes extensive guides to posture, breathing, and concentration; in the latter case, the author specifically deals with dhāranā, an oft-misunderstood concept of internal focus… Key concepts, such as dhāranā, mantras, and meditation objects, are introduced early and then revisited, which effectively stresses their importance. The book has short, easily accessible chapters, and robust end matter featuring notes, citations, a glossary, and bibliography, which makes the text easy to revisit. Black-and-white photos of other teachers and practitioners add a visual flavor of India and Nepal to the lessons. A helpful resource for overcoming meditation obstacles.” — Kirkus Reviews
Olson packs plenty of fodder for the intermediate meditator into this detailed, expansive guide to the practical and esoteric aspects of sitting meditation, which draws somewhat haphazardly on both Buddhist Shamatha and Raja yoga traditions… Olson successfully bridges the gap between too-basic suggestions for beginners and less grounded, more opaque advanced guidance. When he offers hands-on advice, he distills complex ideas to concrete steps well, as in his discussions of the benefits of a kneeling posture and the use of mantras, his sample breathing exercises, and his analysis of the metaphor of treating passing thoughts as birds flying into the room…
Takeaway: Experienced meditators struggling with plateaus or looking for a comprehensive, detailed consideration of process will savor this hefty guide to building a meditation practice. —Publisher’s Weekly/BookLife
“The Meditation Process” is a valuable addition to the literature previously available about the practice of meditation. It is not meant to be an introduction for the complete “newbie,” but rather a helpful resource for those already introduced to the practice who may have practical questions or who desire a refresher or validation about things they may (or may not) have previously learned. The author has considerable experience himself, and has been exposed to multiple traditions. He draws primarily from two traditions (Raja Yoga and Buddhist Shamatha) which are compatible with each other and which can also inform the basic principles and methods underlying most of the world’s meditative traditions. Drawing on literature and personal instruction from eminently authoritative sources, the author presents practical advice in a clear and readable form. This is a volume deserves a place on the shelf and in the hands of any serious meditator. —Steve Benson
- Admitting mistakes
The meditation process unravels many mistakes we make in our mind and heart. It is a process of unraveling knots, uncovering denials, facing dissonance and uncomfortable truths, freeing us from subjectivities, conceptions, and mindless reaction patterns . . . a nearly endless list, which prevents having a purified mind. The ego is a product of our construction. When we identify our self as this construction, we devise ways of defending this shaky self. Freud’s most valuable contribution to understanding this mess were the ‘ego defenses’: projection, rationalization, and compensation being our favorites. But they all start with repression; our denial of a truth which leads to lying to ourselves and to others.
Meditation and non-attachment slowly clean up our mental mistakes, but shining a light on our ‘shadow self,’ the denied self, also requires mindfulness during the day. One of the easiest practices is to admit mistakes, to our self and to others. Life is a series of mistakes, and it’s such a minor case of being truthful, so why isn’t it done more? Acknowledging uncomfortable truths about self is basic to the inner-work. Sort it out.
- Some thoughts on having worries
You have loved ones, and so there are always problems and worries. What to do? You could say qua et aeternum; “What is it, in the light of eternity?” Trying to minimize the problems by taking a grand, philosophical view, but it’s cold. There’s not much compassion in that.
Reinhold Niebuhr prayed, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” So you figure out what you can do, and you do it. But serenity seems easier to come by when it’s your own pain. When it is someone else’s pain, there is likely a nagging sense of helplessness over what you can’t do. Unanswered pain.
For those who have a deity, prayer has been the ancient choice. You may not know if it helps others, but at the very least, the prayer is for you. It helps you make contact with feelings that need expression, and reaffirms your commitment to the larger view.
The practice of tonglen has the wonderful potential to give expression to your concern for the pain of others and also reduce your sense of helplessness. Read up on it, Pema Chodron maybe, to get a good start on the practice of “taking and sending,” taking in the feeling of their pain on the inhale, giving out love, and compassion on the exhale.
Ajapa japa with the Maha Mrytunjaya mantra is a major practice that requires thorough preparation (see The Meditation Process). As a healing practice, it can be dedicated to others.
- Sitting posture made easy
The first obstacle almost all meditators run into is pain while sitting. It’s the easiest obstacle to solve. The answer for most is the “kneeling chair” or “ergonomic chair” (I use the WL-SB-210-GG model on Amazon) I go into posture thoroughly in the book but the short story is: stand tall, with ears in line with the shoulders and elbows, and sit down on an angled seat. Sit comfortably, for hours, no movement, no pain, just as Patanjali advised. If you need a portable seat, use a seiza bench (the Omni bench from Dharma Crafts is well made).
What’s the first meditation instruction usually given? “Sit down and cross your legs.” Why cross your legs? “Because that’s what we do.” So you cross the legs and twist the knee joint that isn’t made to be twisted and pain starts in 15 minutes. If you are one of those with “loose joints” and your knees lie comfortably on the floor, cross-legged is ok. If the knees aren’t lower than the pelvis by a half-foot, natural curvature of the back is lost and back pain follows.
So why aren’t anatomically appropriate sitting postures used? Tradition. Buddhists use robes, yogis use shawls, Buddhists sit on zafu cushions, yogis sit on bags of buckwheat hulls. Be practical, use your own head and experiment.
- Controlling mucus
When I started learning yoga, one of the first teachings was the use of a neti pot. After 30 years, I am still learning how valuable it is to the meditator. You want airflow in the nostrils to be as balanced and clear as possible. Any deviation from that will be reflected in your mental functioning and will present an obstacle to meditation.
A blanket of thin mucus, carrying toxins and debris, is being continuously moved to the back of the nasal pharynx by microscopic cilia hairs, and is then swallowed. When debris in the mucus piles up, airflow is uneven and less clear. More importantly, swelling of the turbinates, which control nostril dominance, is exaggerated causing a partial or total blocking of a nostril. Left-brain or right-brain functions become dominant and the nature of your meditation is determined. A regular and maybe even daily use of the neti pot will help to clean and control the amount of mucus in your head. It will also help if you have mucus gathering in the throat that results in swallowing while meditating. Note also that lemon cuts mucus.
A larger picture: according to Ayurveda, the home of mucus is in the stomach. When mucus overflows, leaving the stomach and moving up the torso toward the head, a disease condition has begun. This is especially important for those of us who have a primarily kaphic constitution. (Know your Ayurvedic constitution ratios of kapha, pitta and vata. It will affect most of your practice and lifestyle.) Historically, before asanas became the major component of hatha practice, the practices consisted of the shatkarma; six cleansing acts: dhauti, vasti, neti, nauli, trataka and kapalabhati. Two of the six practices targeted mucus: dhauti (swallowing a cloth) and jala neti (neti pot).
- Stop thinking without falling asleep
One of the quotes used in The Meditation Practice is “He learned how to stop thinking without falling asleep.” It’s from The Legend of Bagger Vance, a movie about golfing. What’s the connection between golfing and establishing one-pointed mind? The movie is loosely based on the Mahabharata.
- Longer sittings
You may notice that all your sittings are lasting for the same amount of time. While you are in the sitting, it might seem like an eternity, or you may not think about time at all, but then the impulse to stop will come. It’s like waking up in the morning without an alarm, but at the same time every day within a few minutes.
Our mind keeps time by habit. So if you want to have longer sittings, the current habit needs to be broken. Habits are formed or changed the same way. Do something once and it’s likely to be repeated. Do something twice and a pattern is formed. Do something three times and a habit is started. So when you are in your sitting and the impulse (habit) arises to stop, tell yourself to stay. You can actually feel the habit pulling you to stop. The impulse to stop will come again, and soon, and you will need to refuse it. The impulse will come a third time, more insistent this time, and you will refuse it and stay. You are now “over the hump” and free to extend your sitting. In concentration meditation, sittings of at least an hour are much more productive.
- A close look at the concentration meditation process for intermediates and beginners
Order the book …
Available in soft cover and ebook editions
About the author
Lyle Olson served as photographer for Yoga International and the Himalayan Institute for 15 years, including 2 years in various ashrams in India as well as a variety of other Yoga and Buddhist meditation settings. He now lives in the Salish Mountains of NW Montana.