I looked up from where I was laying in savasana position on the carpeted floor to see a lotus flower in bloom in stained glass, glowing above me.
I traveled to the Grafton Peace Pagoda this past Sunday with my spiritual teacher Nithya Shanti, who was visiting from India to teach Joyshops in Troy, to spend the afternoon enjoying the beauty and peacefulness there. In the meditation hall in the Cambodian temple on-site, I’d been chanting Nam MyÅhÅ Renge KyÅ, bowing down before the altar.
I was resting afterwards, just breathing in the peace, and as I lay there I thought back to 15 years before, when I’d first been introduced to Buddhism and meditation.
From Ashes to Light
My brother Shanti Om Gaia went on a 5,000 mile Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life throughout a dozen countries beginning in December 1994. The walk started in Auschwitz and ended in Hiroshima eight months later.
Participants walked about 20 miles a day, and slept in churches, homes, halls or tents provided by villagers in each of the towns and countries visited. I’d been involved in editing a book about the journey, called From Ashes to Light. Shanti and I would often head to the Leverett Peace Pagoda to work on the book.
There I had my first experience of being in the presence of someone who immediately calmed me and made me feel more peaceful, just by being around her. Sister Claire was radiant, quiet, peaceful, gentle, young and quite beautiful. She glowed. She seemed so serene.
I was young and anxious and full of nervous energy. Somehow around Sister Claire it all evaporated. I calmed down. I felt peace. I learned to chant Nam MyÅhÅ Renge KyÅ. My brother turned me on to Buddhist books by Thich Nhat Hanh and others.
I was intrigued, and also not ready to follow the path.
I Am Called Back
Fast-forward ten years. I was still a ball of nervous energy, still not meditating or practicing Buddhism, still not peaceful or calm. I had just moved to San Francisco to work for the mayor, after grad school. Somehow the books on Eastern religion in every bookstore I walked into magnetized me.
Something was calling me. I started reading all kinds of Buddhist books again, and decided I needed to find a teacher.
Teacher after teacher presented themselves, and soon I was doing deep breathing and meditation exercises. In the beginning, I couldn’t sit still for one minute without my mind spinning, without feeling restless and agitated or shifting in my seat. Sitting still — doing nothing — seemed so contrary to my ambitious, go-getter nature, to how I had always conceptualized myself — as a Type A overachiever.
If you had told me that 5 years later, I’d be happily meditating for Â½ hour a day, or that I’d go away on week long silent meditation and yoga retreats, and love it, I would have called you crazy.
Peace is Here Now
Now all these years later I am infinitely more peaceful, calm and happy. Nothing much ruffles me anymore. I’m much more of a still pond than a storm. That wasn’t always true. I’m still full of energy, and I’m still ambitious, but now it’s happily, peacefully, not anxiously and restlessly so.
I would love to pour a cupful of this peace over everyone. So, I thought that this week I’d share some basic meditation tips to get you started, if you’re interested in experiencing it for yourself. For me, no single practice has been more transformational.
In the meantime, here are a few tips to get you started on meditation to change your life, if you’re ready to be more happy and present every day. Over the years I have studied many forms of meditation, including shamatha, vipassana, metta, walking meditation, and movement meditation. I’ve included a few thoughts on each, and some tips on each, below:
- Shamatha meditation: Shamatha meditation is single-pointed meditation, or focusing on one single object, such as the breath. Traditionally it’s easier for beginners than vipassana meditation, so I recommend starting with this. Click on the link above (for shamatha meditation) to see instructions on how to sit and follow the breath.
- Vipassana meditation: Vipassana is “insight meditation” which I also think of as open-space meditation. I think this is how most Westerners are culturally taught to think of meditation. As thoughts arise, let them go, like clouds passing through the sky. This is challenging for most beginners (it was for me!) and yet many bravely dive in and do 10-day vipassana retreats around the world.
- Metta practice: Metta practice is loving-kindness meditation, and this is one of my favorites. You send loving-kindness to yourself and others by silently repeating phrases in your mind such as: May I be safe and protected. May I be peaceful and happy. May I be healthy and strong. May I have ease of well-being (and accept all conditions of the world). You can send loving-kindness to yourself, to others, or to all beings.
- Walking meditation: This practice, popularized by the venerable teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, is another wonderful practice for beginners. As you walk, pay attention to each step. You can name each step, thinking of it as “peace” or “happiness.” When your mind wanders, return to experience the sensation of your heel, foot, toes, meeting the ground with each step.
- Movement meditation: For those for whom all of the above seem too difficult, this is another nice alternative. Mahasati is one variety of movement meditation that consists of a simple series of movements that you simply repeat over and over, focusing individually on each movement, and returning to focus on the movement when your thoughts wander.
Get It Started
When I first started meditating, my practice was incredibly simple. I’d breathe in for a count of six, hold for four seconds, breathe out for a count of six, hold for two seconds. Repeat. The exact number of seconds doesn’t matter. The point is to breathe deeply and focus on the breath only.
For anyone just getting started I’d recommend something as simple as that for just a few minutes a day. Put on your phone alarm for five minutes and just try it. Focusing on counting tends to keep the mind occupied so other random thoughts won’t arise. If they do, no worries, just let them go, and return to the breath.
Then, you can test out other techniques, like shamatha and walking meditation, to see what feels good to you.
I recommend carving out five minutes in the beginning of your day to do this because practicing before going out into the world helps me feel calm and present. I wouldn’t want to start my day without meditating anymore. If even that feels too challenging for now, just commit to stopping a few times during the day when you are feeling anxious or uncentered just to take a few deep breaths. Your practice can grow just from that.
As the wise meditation teacher Ayya Khema wrote in her book Being Nobody, Going Nowhere, “It’s simple; it’s clear; you can do it. Yes it takes discipline, yes you have to be serious — there’s no escape from that. But you can do it, and when you do, you will be grateful for it.”
What are you doing right now? Can you stop and take a few deep breaths? Can you give yourself the gift of spending five quiet minutes in the morning meditating or just breathing deeply? It will change your life.