Be Still, Be Here, Be Now: Lighten Our Monkey Mind and Change Our Brain

All images Juli Bailer. Center image of Doug Aitken's mirror sculpture. Right: my 10 year old daughter in Mallorca.

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery,
and today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.
— Master Oogway, Kung Fu Panda

Meditation is one of the core practices of yoga, if not THE most important in many spiritual traditions. And what was relevant a few thousand years ago is proving to be just as relevant today because meditation not only imparts a sense of serenity, but helps us develop our intuition and insight—key tools to help us navigate our lives in a sometimes turbulent world. Every year, we see more positive scientific data on meditation that I hope it inspires people to try it. It’s 2016! A new year! Trying new things! No, I’m not going to bore my smart readers with a resolution post. I gave up new year's resolutions ages ago. I still envision long term goals, but I approach them more intuitively. (I am, however, a firm believer in establishing monthly goals, but more about that later...)

What you seek is seeking you.
— Rumi

My master teacher Swami Sivadasananda shining bright with his booming laugh.

One of the greatest things that has happened to me is being dragged by my beloved late sister to my first yoga class in New York back in the winter of 1996. And I’ve been on the yogic path of self discovery and improvement ever since. While I spent the first twelve years focusing on asanas (the postures) and only experimenting with various meditations, in 2008, my month long yoga teacher intensive at an ashram finally gave me the tools I needed to bring meditation into my daily life. It has since become one of the greatest forces for me. And, I couldn’t have learned this from anyone more luminous than my teacher Swami Sivadasananda—who remains the most knowledgable teacher I’ve ever had. A truly beautiful soul! 

My 5 year old daughter in 2008 copying a meditation pose she learned at our family's ashram.

My 6 year old son in Austria.

As much as I love yoga's topsy turvy twisty exercise, meditation takes precedence above all, so I’m also raising my children with this foundation. (For more on how to introduce kids to a meditative practice, please see my post A Child's Bliss: The Sun is Always in the Sky Visualization for Children.)

I believe meditation is the most powerful tool we have to hone our intuition, master our lives, and open the door to extraordinary energy. Practiced deeply, it can evolve us into Superheroes. (Yes, I know this makes me sounds nuts.) Becoming Wonder Woman aside, at the very least, it can bring us to a more peaceful place—and isn’t that alone worth it?

The 2011 8-week Harvard affiliated mindfulness meditation study proved measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. (I LOVE this stuff: when science backs up some 5,000 years of yogic wisdom!) It proved the brain's plasticity through meditation and how it actively changes the grey matter, providing cognitive and psychological benefits.

The most wonderful thing is that this short study reported significant changes in the brain’s grey matter with just an average of 27 minutes per day. And according to the article: "The analysis of MR images found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection." Read the Eight Weeks To A Better Brain the article here.

Meditation is so important, that generations of yogic masters assert that all of the stretching and bending of asanas (what most people in the West call ‘yoga’) is merely to prime the physical body for being able to quiet the mind. And to sit for hours...have you ever tried sitting on the floor for an hour? It can be back-breaking for the average Western body.

THE MONKEY MIND

Looking into our own minds and observing our thoughts can be difficult and downright daunting. The mind is well known to be so chaotic that yoga masters have coined it the “monkey mind.” I know meditation can be intimidating, but it need not be. In its essence, it is simply stilling the mind. As a tool on the path towards enlightenment, it means ‘quieting the mind so you can hear God speak." Whether you are religious, believe in God, or just want to get to know your mind a bit better, a regular and consistent meditation practice can help you grow areas of your brain, rebalance your emotions, lower stress, and hopefully experience glimpses of inner serenity—that will develop over the course of a lifetime into more and more minutes of peacefulness per day.

It's a pity that social approval and fragile self esteem seem to rule so much of our lives. Doesn’t it seem as if we spend so much energy looking to others to tell us who we are, what we think, what we should do? Yet, all we have to do is turn our gaze inward. A regular meditation practice can help us gain control of our own interior world and discover for ourselves who we are and how we will move through the outer world.

DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO MEDITATION

What we call ‘meditation’ is for most of us, trying to meditate, or Dharana (concentration), rather than the undisturbed flow of thought called Dhyana in Sanskrit. We all have to start somewhere and recent scientific studies are proving that meditation makes changes whether the practitioner thinks she is doing it well or not! Great news, right?!

I approach my practice from the classical Indian tradition of Raja Yoga (meaning the royal path) as I have learned it from direct disciples of Swami Vishnudevananda. In this system, the unbroken lineage of teachers and students is of paramount importance to preserve this wisdom and knowledge from ancient times. (Yes, I take this stuff *very* seriously.)

Having said that, meditation cannot be taught. It can only be practiced, discovered, and experienced. What can be taught, though, are some basic tools to assist us.

I would highly recommend visiting a meditation class for some true golden nuggets of wisdom, but you can also just try it at home.

Most importantly, be gentle and patient with yourself. Putting undue pressure on yourself is contrary to achieving a state of peaceful awareness. Give yourself time to climb that mountain and don’t fret if you neglect to do it at the same time every day or even every day. Set a goal to practice daily—if even just five to ten minutes—but if that doesn’t work out, just find any time during the day or try to get back into your rhythm the next day.

CHANGING THE MONKEY MIND: BEGINNING YOUR PRACTICE...

A quiet beach is one of my favorite places to meditate. Pictured is my Indian meditation shawl and my Japa Mala by Satya Jewelry on a beautiful quiet day on Playa de Palma.

SPACE

  • A quiet natural environment is the most ideal, but setting up a space at home is beneficial to developing a daily practice.
  • Try to allocate a special room or at least a part of a room for your meditation practice. Keep it clean and tidy, adorn it with flowers and candles, or whatever else brings a sense of peace and harmony to your senses.
  • The masters recommend facing north or east for the most favorable energy, but work with your space.

TIME

  • The most desirable time is between four and six in the morning (Brahmamuhurta), when the mind and atmosphere are clear and unruffled by a new day’s activities. This isn't feasible, select another time of the day and try to stick with it as much as possible.
  • Sunset is also an excellent time, as is just before going to bed. For me, this works well on some days since when the children are in bed, my house is quiet, and after a long day, I can finally rest my mind. I usually do a short asana workout to prep my breathing and energy and then I’m able to sit quietly better.
  • If your mornings are not rushed or if you can wake up 30 minutes earlier, you can schedule in your meditation just as you would any other hygiene regimen: wash face, brush teeth, meditate.
  • You may want to save your shower for after you meditate since the more activities you do, the more you will form new impressions, or may delay or cancel your meditation to answer emails, etc.
  • When I wake early, I simply wash my face and brush my teeth and then wrap myself in my beautiful Indian loomed wool mediation shawl and sit on my cushion and meditate.

A slightly different practice is “visualization.” This I practice anytime during the day. I stop what I’m doing and take five minutes to visualize a goal, say a mantra of personal well being, or visualize a solution to a problem I might be having.

PRACTICE

  • Try to be consistent, but again, don't berate yourself or be unrealistic which can result in quitting and giving up entirely. Start with five minutes a day and work up to twenty to thirty―once or twice daily.

SITTING

  • If you are able to sit with your sitting bones on the floor in a crossed ankle/legged position, this is the most ideal position as it allows the energy to freely flow from the base of the spine (Muladhara Chakra) to the crown of the head (Sahasrara Chakra). This posture also provides a firm base for the body and helps one feel rooted and grounded. If sitting on the floor is not possible, sit on a chair with your ankles crossed. Lying down is not recommended because it is simply too comfortable and one can easily drift off to sleep...zzzzzz!
  • Fold your hands loosely on your lap or place them on your thighs (or in a mudra if you have learned one).

BREATHING

  • As you begin to move into your meditation, bring your awareness to your breath rhythmic. Slowly exhale as you press your sitting bones down into the earth and deeply inhale as you lengthen and grow your spine to sit taller―without tensing your back muscles. Allow your breath to steady and even. Establish a good rhythm: inhaling to a count of 3 or 4, then exhaling to a count of 3 or 4. Keep your awareness on your breath.

MIND

  • A calm breath will automatically induce a calmer mind and a sense of expansion. As your body eases into the gentle rhythmic flow of your breath, you will better be able to observe your mind’s activities.
  • For beginners especially, it is important to keep one’s awareness on one’s breath. Count your inhales and exhales if necessary, as this can help prevent the mind from wandering.
  • Our minds are very active (even when we look absolutely still on the exterior), but with practice you will begin to see your mind with more clarity and be able to quickly calm its erratic wanderings.

As you advance your meditation practice, seek a teacher who will properly guide you in the use of mantras (if you should so choose), malas (meditation beads), and chakras. These are not necessary, but can greatly enhance your meditation experience.

I have set a goal to meditate for life—even if imperfectly! This means I don’t fret if I miss my time in the morning. I just try to fit it in before sleep. And if I miss a full day, I just try to do it the next day. I feel particularly good when I am on a roll with a steady and committed practice, but sometimes life is hectic or I’m exhausted. But, knowing how much more clear and how much more my day expands when I devote just a few minutes a day to quieting my mind chatter, I am committed to practicing daily―even if I can only squeeze in ten minutes on some days.

Wishing you health and inner serenity,

Juli

For a deeper inquiry into meditation:

David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace

The Sivananda Companion to Meditation

Sally Kempton

Thich Nhat Hanh

Through regular meditation, the mind becomes clear and the motives pure. The subconscious mind releases hidden knowledge that allows for a better understanding of oneself and our relationship to the world. The limited personality slowly dissolves into an expanded consciousness. Ultimately, the super-conscious or intuitive forces are released, leading to a life of wisdom and peace.
— Swami Vishnudevananda