Jeff Wright, Jai Ram, and Jim Earles: 2016 Dubuque Yoga Festival Meditation Vigil
Many years ago a yoga teacher explained that all I had to do to meditate was sit still, watch the breath, and let thoughts come and go without getting attached to them. “It’s that easy, and it’s that hard, but the rewards are well worth it.” What specific rewards? Why was it several years before I could form a meditation habit? It’s seems a simple practice but for many of us it feels more complicated. Fortunately, we have four seasoned meditators taking part in the 2017 Dubuque Yoga and Oneness Festival who have some information to share with all of us on the yoga/meditation journey.
Jeff Wright, Jai Ram, Jim Earles, and Molly Menster are area yoga instructors and meditators. Molly will facilitate a free sitting meditation on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 7:30 – 8 am. These meditation sessions are a great way to begin your day with sangha (sacred community) and mindfulness. She will guide you through a practice that will help you focus your attention and intention, activating different regions of the brain.
Jeff, Jai Ram, and Jim will sit in stillness throughout the entire weekend. All festival participants are welcomed and encouraged to join them in their meditation vigil, even if for a few minutes, in the atrium that overlooks the Mississippi River.
This is an opportunity to deepen your experience and understanding of meditation by sitting together. Whether you have a long-standing practice or are a beginner, give yourself this gift of quiet. Take time to sit with others in stillness and oneness. I asked the four to give us some background about themselves, their meditation practice, how it might relate to their yoga practice, and any tips for beginners. Here are their insights…
Thoughts on Meditation
By Jeff Wright
I began my study and practice of meditation over 45 years ago. I began under the instruction of an excellent Indian teacher who brought a great deal of his tradition to this skill. Over the years, practicing 1-2 hours every day, I have come to see meditation as a something much simpler (though no less profound), indeed a very natural activity shared by all creatures with a nervous system; as natural as sleep, though truly about being quite awake .. calm, but very alert. I prefer not to call the activity “meditation” anymore; because that implies something we do with our thinking brains. I now think of what I do as “sitting in stillness.” Just that. Therefore, when I teach the practice I begin by making sure a student can sit actively erect and solidly balanced, comfortably without moving, for at least 20 minutes.
That is the hardest part, and often involves a lot of individualizing (as well as some physical yoga practice). Next come skills in settling the nerves (including the thinking brain) and that is best handled by cultivating smooth, complete breathing. Again, some of the instruction involves yoga techniques of releasing the diaphragm and various other tension patterns in the body. Finally, there is just practice. Just sitting, sitting, sitting … and sitting. Establishing a daily routine is important and also sitting often with others. That is why I have established three different weekly “stillness group” opportunities in the Tri-state area. They are free to attend and you can find out more about them at my website: www.wayofstillness.com.
I also encourage participants at the Dubuque Yoga Festival to sit with us for a bit. The big question for many will doubtless be, “Why in the world would I ever want to just sit like that? Totally boring, a waste of time, and mildly embarrassing!” My main answer is, no verbal explanation will suffice. Do the practice and it will be obvious. That said, I have personally found the following pay-offs: First, dignity. Strength, courage, unassailable resolve. Second, sanity. Being able to see things clearly and to act accordingly. And finally, most of all and most inexplicably, compassion. Appreciation, gratitude, and then the persistent impulse to help. Noble thoughts, for sure, but I know I have not had much success in thinking my way into those virtues. Just sit still, no other efforts of feeling or thinking (or not thinking) required, doggedly, and after a few weeks, you might be quite pleased by how you have changed.
An Evolving Perspective
By Jim Earles
16 years ago, I became a teacher of Kundalini Yoga, as set forth by Yogi Bhajan. This form of Yoga incorporates many practices that are useful for meditation--breathing techniques, mantra repetition (both out-loud and mentally), strategic focus of the eyes, body positioning (including mudra configurations for the hands) and visualization exercises. Of course, strengthening and developing the body through asanas (the yogic postural exercises) is also an important means to the end of facilitating meditation. In a chicken-and-the-egg sort of scenario, many Kundalini meditations strongly resemble asana work, as they require movement or physical exertion in tandem with other practices.
Kundalini Yoga is perhaps unusual in that it has very specific goals for meditation. Yogi Bhajan dictated entire manuals full of individual meditations, for purposes as diverse as: awakening and balancing the chakras, releasing harmful emotions, breaking addictions, improving the functionality of the internal organs, strengthening the nervous system and many other goals. Underlying all of these particular goals is the ultimate goal of contacting with and merging into the deep, abiding, pervasive stillness of the true Self. The yogis call this Sat-Chit-Ananda (Sanskrit words denoting pure Existence itself, pure Consciousness itself, and pure Bliss itself). To frame this in Christian terms (at the risk of confusing the two issues), this is the Gospel, the Good News, of Yoga! Our true Self is Sat-Chit-Ananda, and it is accessible through devoted practice of meditation.
In recent years, my own personal practice of meditation has remained grounded in the wide tradition of Yoga, but deviated significantly from what was set forth by Yogi Bhajan. Another yogi and friend of mine has convinced me that "meditation" isn't even a useful term! It might be better described as "mental concentration," as the entire process requires directing and focusing the mind, and each passing year sees the creation of new and diverse practices called "meditation." I encourage people to experiment with what works for them personally, but I don't put much stock in the emerging field of meditation technologies--meditation machines, mindfulness apps for your phone, brainwaves and binaural beats, etc. Meditation itself is perhaps the original "technology" of the human being, and it remains as the best technology, without any attempts at an upgrade.
by Jai Ram
Generally, my yoga practice consists of meditation with a personal mantra every day. I say my mantra both with mala beads and without every day. I also do a short puja (act of worship) practice to my Guru Neem Karoli Baba daily.
My weekday schedule is very busy so I do my Hatha practice on weekends. When I have a break from school, i also practice during the week. My Hatha Yoga practice consists of mantras, intentions, prayers, asanas, pranayama and mantra meditation; it takes about 90 minutes. I also practice Jnana Yoga daily by reading yoga scriptures. My Hatha Yoga practice is from one of the following styles or a mixture from all three: Dharma Mittra Yoga, Integral Yoga, or Vinyasa Krama Yoga. I am certified in each style; generally, I prefer Dharma Mittra Yoga to practice.
For beginners, I would say that an important practice is to Jnana Yoga, i.e.. yoga philosophy. Here we learn about meditation and that yoga is really about the mind. The most important practice, however, is to learn how to control the mind - especially when you are in difficult times. Hence, meditation or Dhyana Yoga is the most important practice for the beginner. Later after you have a good meditation practice, for the advanced yogi, Bhakti Yoga will be the most important yoga. You are not the mind or the body; find a place of refuge that is safe. This place, as my teacher Baba Ram Dass says, is the Spiritual Heart; identify with it and you are safe! But this, of course, requires another practice - the practice of Loving Awareness. Hence, reading philosophy is not enough.
Finally, most important, as the Bhagavad Gita tell us, is to learn how to die; we have to do it at some point, so we should learn to do it well. Let’s make this our best yoga practice. Om Shanti.
"Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day."
Karen Kramer is a yoga instructor and festival blogger.