You know them when you see them: people who radiate joy, don’t sweat the small stuff, naturally attract people to them and who seem to be in a pretty constant state of peace.
What do these people have in common? Well, they’ve all worked hard to tame the beast within and turn their minds into their greatest allies. For the rest of us, life might look a little bit like this: worrying, regretting past actions, stressing out about potential future events, spinning out of control, retreating to worlds of fantasy and distraction … sound familiar?
You don’t want to feel like this. You might be thinking about starting meditation and mindfulness practices, to become more Zen, but don’t know how where to start. As you work up to your Namaste, then, it can be helpful to try a few practical things aimed at familiarizing yourself with the lifelong companion that is your mind, which you definitely want on your team!
1: Recognize that you are not your mind.
Here’s a telltale sign: you can actually observe your thoughts and feelings as they come up, which means you are not inextricably bound with them. This awareness is truly a revolution, and the first step toward empowering yourself to begin the work of calming the mind down and getting it on your side.
“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.” – C.G. Jung
2: Become a witness of your mind.
Your mind is capable of extraordinary things once you learn to take the reins. One of the main purposes of meditation is to connect to the present moment by accessing your inner witness. Rest quietly and become aware of your body and immediate surroundings. Observe thoughts as they arise and slip away; they will do this over and over. As you distance yourself from your thoughts and feelings, you’ll start to wonder you we attach so deeply to ephemera that come and go like clouds in the sky.
“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” – attributed to Buddha
3: Be careful what you put into your mind.
In some ways, the mind is very simple: it builds on what you feed it. If you funnel negativity into it, it will soon be hard not to feel negative, because the mind – which is not your enemy, just doing its job – adjusts and happily works with what it’s given. This is known in neuroscience as “plasticity” : our brains work with new stimuli no matter how old we are. Letting the good stuff in will actually, if slowly, make it easier for you to feel positive over time.
“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” – Mahatma Gandhi
4: Explore your mind like it’s a foreign country
The best kind of travel is all about being curious, having no expectations, and being ready to be dazzled, even enlightened by what we find. Take the time to be in stillness with your mind and contemplate the thoughts and feelings you find there; they have a lot to teach you about your coping patterns and how you have come to view the world over time. In short: discover yourself!
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” – Dalai Lama
5: Distinguish between knowledge and wisdom
Knowledge involves learning facts and developing the intellect. You might come to realize that accumulating knowledge does not make you feel any happier. Wisdom, on the other hand, involves learning from our life’s experiences about what is meaningful so we can live our best possible lives with heart. Learning things is great, but acquiring wisdom is invaluable.
‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.’ – Lord Alfred Tennyson
6: Embrace compassion, the gateway to happiness
As we focus more on wisdom than gathering information, we come to understand whey we are really here: to benefit others and know deep within that we don’t want anyone to suffer, as we ourselves don’t want to suffer. Cultivating empathy compassion through meditation and contemplation is one of the best things we can do by encouraging the mind to serve our purpose of being agents of good in a world that badly needs it.
“More smiling, less worrying. More compassion, less judgment. More blessed, less stressed. More love, less hate.” – Roy T. Bennett
7: Seek truths that thought cannot produce
The rational mind computes, analyzes, discriminates and assesses very well, but left to its own devices, it does not naturally guide you toward greater consciousness. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get there! The mind just need some coaxing. Attempt to remember your dreams. Comb your mind for things people have said to you in the past that struck you as wise. Don’t dismiss insights; write them down. Embrace synchronicities that seem to fall on your lap. Recognize wisdom and deeper truth for what it is and let it support your conscious life.
“To understand the immeasurable, the mind must be extraordinarily quiet, still.” – Jiddu Krishmanurti
8: Listen to your heart and your gut and let them win
Contrary to conventional belief, it’s been shown that reason and emotions are not two passing trains in the night. Our emotions actually guide our rational and cognitive functioning to a large extent, and our “gut” area has come be known as our second brain. Don’t rationalize your gut instincts away: take the time to listen to the messages you receive from your body and inner wisdom.
“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.” – Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being
9: Tend to your mind like a garden
Before we start on the garden, it looks like a mess of jumbled weeds and dried clumps of earth. Who wants to go there? But with effort, you end up with a gorgeous kingdom of your creation, full of beauty, nutrients and wonder. So it is with the mind – with a little pruning, love and care, persistently attended to every day, it can grow into a gorgeous and fruitful splendor.
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” – Plutarch
10: Develop equanimity
Equanimity means regarding the things you experience without judgment. Stop liking things so much that you can’t live without them, and stop focusing energy on despising things, which only strengthens their iron grip on you. Practice observing your reactions to things, and notice how naming and being aware of these reactions helps make them less intense over time.
“It is simply sitting silently, witnessing the thoughts, passing before you. Just witnessing, not interfering not even judging, because the moment you judge you have lost the pure witness. The moment you say “this is good, this is bad,” you have already jumped onto the thought process.” – Osho
11: Allow wonder in
Little kids are so full of awe at everything they encounter – we can be that way again too! The world is really a playground, and we are infinitely lucky to be in it. Life isn’t always going to be easy, but you can access that innocent, childlike wonder anytime by opening eye and heart to the magic all around us. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for it!
“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” – Walt Streightiff
12: Slow down and be silent
We’ve all experienced the overwhelm that comes with trying to be productive all the time. It’s time to stop burning yourself out. Carve time in the day to spend time with loved ones, enjoy the rewards of your labor and reflect on your life. There’s a reason we’re afraid of silence; here we are forced to confront ourselves, and it’s not always pretty. But in coming face to face with our demons, you can overcome them and ease through to peace and harmony.
“Silence is the language of Om. We need silence to be able to reach our Self. Both internal and external silence is very important to feel the presence of that supreme Love.” – Amit Ray
13: Know that you don’t have to be defined by your stories.
Humans have an amazing capacity for storytelling and to create identities based on the stories we tell. It’s key to keep in mind that in choosing which stories you tell and whih memories you latch onto, you are reinforcing certain aspects of your identity, for better or worse. Stories are fluid and can always be rewritten.
“A student, filled with emotion and crying, implored, “Why is there so much suffering?”
Suzuki Roshi replied, “No reason.” – Shunryu Suzuki
14: Replace “what ifs” for “thank you’s”
One of the “best” ways we waste time is to pine over mistakes and wonder, what if we’d done things differently? Well, we didn’t! The life we are living now is a product of the decisions we’ve made, and the best antidote to regret is gratitude. Express thanks for all the million ways in which your life is awesome and worth celebrating, and more of that is bound to come
“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” – Maya Angelou
15: Take a walk in nature, be wild and write a poem about it
You don’t have to literally write a poem, but tapping into your creativity is also tapping into your nature. Nature and creation go hand in hand. Humans are among nature’s most awe-inspiring creations, and so much of the discord we feel comes from how far we’ve strayed from our roots. We are designed to think and feel more clearly when aligned with nature’s rhythms. Doing things like breathing clean forest air, sitting under trees and using our natural-born creativity – whether you think you are “good” or not – will do wonders to restore the mind and get it working in your best interest.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” – John Muir
of the mountains
The one who makes
life from life, engenders
the cycle of birth and death
who looks upon us all with her
great gaze of transcendent wisdom
enfolding all beings in her arms of love
inviting us all to breathe her gentle fragrance
reminding us that there are no boundaries in heart. – TS
This is always your power. Hold onto it with your whole heart, with everything you’ve got. The world depends on it. The world needs you! xo
Over a decade ago, a colleague who’d been purging his closet tossed me a VHS tape and said, “Have you ever tried yoga? You might like it.”
It was 20 minutes of power yoga led by Rodney Yee, who was completely unknown to me at the time. “Twenty minutes? Sounds manageable,” I thought to myself. It wasn’t. I desperately tried to keep up. I fell over with a thud a few times and worried I was harassing the downstairs neighbors with my klutziness. I had no idea yoga would make my heart feel it was falling out of my chest and throw me this much off-kilter. I plopped onto the couch and vowed that yoga and I were done—until the next day, when a combination of stubbornness and determination got the better of me.
I had about a month-long affair with VHS-Rodney Yee before one day off the mat led to another and then another… you know the drill.
While I had no concept of the greater world yoga offered, of what yoga was all about beyond “gets into poses without falling over,” something brought me to yoga and sustained my interest, if even for a while. That was something.
I think it’s immensely important to pay close attention to what leaps out of the void to say hello and tug at the heart.
I’m still not sure I can pinpoint exactly what that something is, to this day. It wasn’t love at first sight for me and yoga. I didn’t go the way of Lululemon or start seeking out classes around town. I had no idea what a mala was or that yoga positions were commonly referred to in Sanskrit. I had never even contemplated breath’s connection to movement.
So it goes without saying, I felt far from a warrior.
Warriors are one of the personas we aim to embody in yoga. Others include kings, mermaids, divine vessels and open-chested channels for love. You can see picture-perfect representations of these all over social media in various shades of ocean and sunset. Of course, I know that people cannot possibly walk around in a perpetual state of bliss, but we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s equally evident to me, through reading awakened works like the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and BKS Iyengar’s writings, that it’s possible to feel much more connected to the universe than I do most of the time.
“You do not need to seek freedom in a different land, for it exists with your own body, heart, mind, and soul.” ~ BKS Iyengar
I long to understand this state of existence, not intellectually, but in my own heart and from direct experience. This is my motivation for embracing a committed yoga practice.
I couldn’t have conceived of this goal when I clumsily tried to follow along to that Rodney Yee VHS tape years ago. At some point after becoming acquainted with yoga, even if our initial target was to get fit or flexible, we come to an “ah-ha” moment, even if for a few seconds, and catch on to a wider world we could not have anticipated. That offers thrilling possibilities.
When this happens, yoga starts to feel less about doing and more about a way of being.
The word “yogi” starts to sound less ethereal and remote and more like something to which we can aspire. To me, this was in some ways a return to the beginning, to that initial attraction to yoga, but with a deeper and more informed awareness of how far it’s possible to go. It has also had the effect of highlighting how distant we can feel from our goal, how imperfect we are in our practice.
We might, as I became, be plagued by doubt; incidentally known in Buddhism as one of the “five hindrances” to a meditation practice, which I think perfectly applies well here. In order to sabotage our practice before it can bloom, we might doubt the authenticity of our teachers, of the practice of yoga itself and our own ability to embody the yogic principles. I’ve also found in my own experience where doubt thrives, guilt is not far behind. I’m sure many can relate to the guilt and feelings of failure I’ve experienced when I’ve allowed my asana or meditation practice to lapse.
Despite the strong feelings of doubt that we really deserve to be considered yogis, I’ve come to realize from years of experience that the seeds which were already within us when we first encountered yoga do not disappear, but grow each time we have the authentic intention to develop our practice. These seeds are not easily destroyed by doubt and guilt; it’s been a complete joy to realize that they are much stronger than that.
I believe that we all have the seeds for awakening within us. The ways in which we discover and nourish them will differ because we are all different. It is up to each of us to find within ourselves the kindness and compassion that most help these seeds to grow, so that we can come to our practice with invigoration and happiness, no matter how long it takes us to get there.
There will be winters when the growth seems to stop altogether, when every last part of our being seems to wilt and atrophy. However, if we are patient and persistent, we will come to spring and summer, and we’ll see that winter is part of the nature of things.
Becoming a yogi, I think, is about surrendering the ego that creates doubt and guilt and immersing into the deep well of wisdom the ancient tradition of yoga offers us. The more open we are to discovery, the more we’ll understand that we are not and have never been alone in our perfectly flawed humanity. Love and support are always within reach and grow every time we consciously breathe into them.
*This article was published on The Tattooed Buddha.
Sometimes, I like to draw without a plan of what I’ll be drawing, without any master plan. For me, it’s a more non-linear form of spontaneous writing, which is all about taking pen to page (yes, pen, not keyboard!) and writing for 10 to 15 minutes straight with no topic in mind, and without pausing to think. It’s amazing to see what can be revealed as we cut through the rational mind and cut to those deeper places.
I did run this drawing through a program to make it fuzzier (and bluer), but this is the essence of what I came up with. I started it just before the new year, and finished it today. Interpretations welcome!