During a guided meditation or visualization, the teacher speaks soothingly, often describing a beautiful, peaceful location or a journey such as a walk in the woods through spoken imagery. In some cases, we may meet a warm and nurturing maternal figure, a spirit animal, or a guide who shares wisdom. We may tell people who are struggling with stress to take three to five minutes to close their eyes and visit a place that represents calm or happiness in their world.
Connecting with the feelings that are conjured up by this “happy place” can help us expand and soften our experience in the moment, which can feel very narrow and constricted. Simply visualizing and connecting with a place that cultivates positive, spacious feelings can enable us to feel calmer, more connected, and in alignment, giving us the strength to navigate the challenge on our plate.
Guided meditation can also work with the chakra system (mentioned in chapter two in the discussion of yoga and asanas), which comprises the seven energetic points from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. The visualization can be intentional, such as drawing a ball of light up through the central channel of the body and ultimately releasing it as streaming light through the top of the head.
With knowledge of the chakras, a practitioner can see or feel where the light dims or is blocked, which indicates an energy block that can be worked through and released with the support and guidance of a teacher.
Yoga Nidra focuses on the sensations of the body, using the physical body to access a sense of embodiment as well as relaxation. While lying on our back, we bring awareness to every corner of our body by contracting and relaxing different parts from head to toe. Some meditation relaxes our mind to relax our body; other times, as with yoga Nidra, we relax our body to relax our mind.
The practice is both a release and a tool to scan and gather information about where we are holding tension in the body. Yoga Nidra is sometimes called “yogic sleep” because a forty-five-minute meditation session is said to equal three hours of deep sleep. In both guided meditation and yoga Nidra, we witness our experience in a non-judgmental, compassionate way to relax body and mind
Dynamic Mindful Meditation
Meditation isn’t limited to sitting on a zafu (meditation cushion) silently or while chanting Om. Dynamic meditation is a variation of mindfulness, but rather than mindfully watching our breath, we walk mindfully, noticing how our feet touch the ground and how the air feels on our face. We can mindfully fold the laundry or wash the dishes, feeling the warmth of the water and the silkiness of the soap on our hands. Mindful eating includes gratitude for our food and tasting the flavors and textures fully. The key to dynamic meditation is maintaining a sensory awareness to the moment and returning to that awareness when our mind wanders.
Gazing meditation is a form that uses an outer focal point, such as a candle, an image, or a beautiful object to gaze on. When choosing an object of attention, we can think of the natural elements—earth, fire, water, and air—and pick something that represents an element we resonate with or feel we need more of in our world. We can even choose an image of an inspirational person who represents compassion, strength, resilience, or patience. We gaze at the object or image for as long as we are able.
When we feel the need to close our eyes, we hold the image in our mind with eyes closed, right between our eyebrows. When we’re ready, we open our eyes and gaze once again. We have taught this technique of gazing meditation to many adults and children with ADHD and found it to be extremely helpful, which is an outcome research supports.17 It is great as part of a tool kit to manage attentional challenges and develop new patterns in the mind in support of better focus.
This heart-centered or loving-kindness meditation cultivates compassion and connection and is an extremely powerful practice. Silently or quietly, we wish compassion and well-being to ourselves, to those we love, to those who are neutral in our life (the dry cleaner, the Uber driver), and to those with whom we struggle.
Through Metta meditation, we plant and cultivate the seed to live compassionately in the world. It’s a deep and fulfilling practice but can be challenging and even conjure up feelings of resistance, anger, or resentment. Most importantly, remembering to not judge ourselves if our Metta feels less than warm and friendly is important.
After all, if we had it all figured out, the practice wouldn’t be necessary, and all sorts of feelings are par for the course. This “shadow side” is part of the experience, and sometimes we need to move through the less lovely feelings and peel off the layers to get to the soft, sweet center.
Meditation is an oral tradition passed down through a lineage of teachers. Nothing can replace the connection and collaboration with another human, particularly when we’re beginning a meditation practice. The teacher creates a tangible and energetic connection to the practice. The teacher also stays with us and guides us when we experience those dark places meditation can uncover.
My meditation journey began at the Zen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Together as a group, we practiced an intense, minimal meditation style with seemingly very little nurturing or support. It made me feel naked and vulnerable, and at that time of my life, I was seeking that kind of challenge and wanted to “bring it on.”
I was on a spiritual path, seeking connection with something more than my day-to-day existence. When I moved back to New York, I studied Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, and worked with a wonderful teacher named David Nichtern, who is a collaborator of mine to this day. For years, I meditated only in group settings, regularly.
I would go to different meditation centers around the city for morning or evening practice and meditated as part of my yoga journey as well. Today, meditation has become mainstream and fills a different need than it did twenty or thirty years ago, or a thousand years ago, for that matter. Many people meditate to improve their mental and physical performance, for brain-health reasons, or to manage anxiety and stress, which is wonderful.
The downside I see is that for many, meditation has become solely a solitary practice that requires a digital device to execute on. A supportive community and teacher-student live relationship are missing from many people’s experience today, especially if we learn to meditate from an app. And while I think apps can be wonderful and very supportive of consistent home practice, I think when they are the only meditation touchpoint in our lives, something is missing.
Meditation is a learning process, a practice that we build, and a relationship in and of itself. It’s not easy to sit and watch our breath with all the distractions and stimulations that surround us, and to have the discipline to do that again and again, day after day. Staying curious when difficult moments come up is why we come back to meditation, even on the days it doesn’t feel so good.
Having a supportive community and teacher helps maintain the curiosity, learning, accountability, and support we need. Like many things, meditation is extremely powerful when it takes the form of a “together action.” Yes, apps are an amazing tool and resource to support a practice, and I use them myself, but they’re limited because they don’t offer the whole experience, which is important to keep in mind.
Compassion and Nonjudgment
While we may think of meditation as a mind-based practice, as we learned with Metta, meditation cultivates awareness in the heart as well, and some practices are specifically designed for this. Meditation is a mirror for our state of mind, body, and heart—and looking in that mirror can be painful and challenging at times. The practice can bring up buried, difficult feelings before we find a state of calm.
We may need to sit with and move through the shadow side before finding the lightness of being we are seeking. If I feel anxious during my meditation morning after morning, that shows me, like a mirror, that I’m out of alignment somewhere in my life. I can then look for clues to what’s triggering me. When I witness persistent patterns, this is food for personal development, and I work hard not to judge myself.
Without meditation practice, we risk living in a continuous state of reaction or feeling like a hamster on a wheel. The practice of meditation shows us where we are fluid and thriving as well as the patterns we’re stuck in—in our relationships, in our jobs, in ourselves. This awareness serves us over a lifetime.
When I meditate in the morning, I am exponentially better able to navigate life’s daily situations and snafus from a centered place because I’m less reactionary. For example, when I’m trying to get my children out the door for the school bus and feel annoyed because they’re moving slowly, I can scream at them to hurry up. Or I can communicate with them by saying, “Listen, I know things are feeling rushed, but we need to be efficient to take the bus.”
I notice a huge difference in my ability to navigate these moments in a way that I feel proud of when I have started the day with conscious practice as opposed to email or scrolling social media. At its foundation, meditation is about waking up to the present moment. Intentionally expressing gratitude each day is a mindful practice. We can be mindful when we eat or listen to music.
As we build a meditation practice, we find that the practice can easily transfer into moments spread throughout our day. The beauty of meditation is that we can call on it almost anytime, anywhere, even for a minute or two. Whether it’s breathing, gratitude, or loving-kindness, we carry our practice with us amidst a changing landscape. We can be mindful of each of the four pillars, bringing the meditative state to movement, nourishment, and connection.
When we take the time to meditate every day, day after day, there is a distinct ripple effect from every moment of meditation we engage in. We slowly develop a non-judgmental relationship with ourselves, which evolves into compassion and less judgment toward others, and eventually an experience of awakened interconnectedness that can change our world and the world around us.
Today, whether we’re on a spiritual path, on a high-performance path, or just trying to manage stress and anxiety, these practices support mental health from sanity to deep fulfillment. Rest, reflection and meditation are foundational to our self-care and enable us to feed our bodies, minds, and hearts for our highest good. This way of feeding ourselves is the third pillar of well-being: nourishment.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. We’re in a constant cycle of giving and receiving with the earth and the universe. Nourishment is integral to this cycle and includes how we feed our bodies, minds, and hearts with the breath, food, art, nature, community, sensory experiences, and more.
Connection to our bodies and minds through movement and stillness can tune us into our needs for nourishment on all levels, including eating a healthy diet. Re cent research on the gut-brain connection tells us that how we nourish our bodies not only impacts our mental and physical health but also can affect how we age and the diseases we develop, including Alzheimer’s disease.
The cyclical nature of things means that when we feel nourished, we are inspired to move more, find stillness, and connect with others through touch and connection. We have more to give as well as the capacity for greater creativity and refined output in our work. Nourishment is key in the interplay between the four pillars and caring for our whole being.
Underlying all nourishment is breath, which is also central to a healthy connection with movement, stillness, and touch. Breath is our first exchange with the universe when we are born; it is the one form of fuel that we literally cannot live without. The giving and receiving of breath are literally and symbolically connected to our ability to fill up and give back to the world around us.
Creativity is a cornerstone of nourishment. Consider, for example, how exercise increases tone and circulation in the physical body. In my work I have found that creativity has a similar impact: it tones the mind and the heart and creates the dexterity to create meaningful connections and express ourselves fully.
When we participate in the community, we nourish our souls. People need people to be safe and happy. Community supports us through challenging times and shares in our celebrations and accomplishments. When we nourish and fill ourselves up in a variety of ways, we create a sense of inner abundance.