The Art of Meditation
“Know the world in yourself. Never look for yourself in the world.”
–Ancient Egyptian proverb
From the moment you wake up to the second you fall asleep, I’m willing to bet that you are completely consumed by the outside world. There’s work, relationships, finances, making dinner, getting the kids to do their homework. Your mind is filled with chatter about your kid’s report card, your friend who filed for divorce, your rent, those ten pounds you need to lose . . . it’s never-ending.
Reality can be the ultimate taskmaster. It will never give you a break unless you take one and create a new habit of freeing yourself from the cycle of doing. Most of us are so caught up in just keeping pace that we neglect our inner worlds. But there is a reason why we are called human beings and not human doings.
Your inner world has nothing to do with your thoughts, your emotions, your unpaid bills, or your worries about whether your partner really loves you. In order to move past these worldly concerns that can consume you, I like to imagine being in a plane. As you ascend, the city below looks otherworldly, with small patches of green and minute toy houses. You feel a sense of detachment, elevation, and perspective. The noise of the world quiets.
This is one of the reasons why I love to fly: I can think clearly, find solutions to challenging situations, and feel gratitude for the mystery of being alive. I always promise myself that when I land safely, I’ll never worry again. Then I land and pick up my worries at the baggage claim. That’s why I meditate. To bring back that feeling of a higher perspective.
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Meditation involves going deeper into who you are. D. H. Lawrence wrote, “Let us lose sight of ourselves, and break the mirrors. For the fierce curve of our lives is moving again to the depths out of sight, in the deep living heart.” There is this yearning in all of us to go deeper, to get to your heart, to your being. To know yourself beyond your identity. Any form of meditation in which you disconnect from the outside world can be one of the most supportive and effective things you can do to shift daily stresses and find your way to your own being. And little by little you’ll learn to undo the tension that has accumulated in your body so you can begin to relax and let go.
People often tell me that they’ve tried meditation but given up because they couldn’t escape looping thoughts and worries. They tell me meditating makes them more anxious than they were already. I understand. In fact, I’ve been there! Finding the sweet spot of peace and balance so you’re simply present, beyond all the chatter, takes practice. Don’t be discouraged, just keep going. I love this quote from Steve Jobs, a lifelong practitioner of meditation: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear subtler things–that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”
The practice of meditation is ancient. It’s been a part of daily life in Eastern civilizations for centuries. In the West, stress and burnout has led us to look toward the East and learn from that tradition. Meditation, along with yoga, has gone mainstream–a great addition to our culture. The most essential ingredient for these practices is heartfelt devotion. If you are meditating without devotion, the results won’t be as rich as they could be. It can’t just be another thing to check off your to‑do list.
There’s a beautiful prayer by a Benedictine nun: “Dear God, show me the truth about myself no matter how beautiful it is.” If you are struggling with meditation, I suggest starting your daily practice with a heartfelt prayer, which can take the form of a poem that moves you or a lovely picture of a sunset, a garden, a mountaintop, the ocean–whatever moves you, calms you, and connects you with the wonders of life. Picture someone you love in your heart, and bring your whole self and your senses into it.
In that moment of true connection, you’ll find there are no distractions. You are present in your heart. Do it in the way that’s wonderfully particular to you, just make sure you put your heart in it. Don’t ever worry about emptying your mind, because that’s not going to happen. What you’re doing is refocusing your mind to whatever lifts you.
So often, people share with me that when they sit quietly with nothing to do, focusing on their breath or a word, they start to see their faults and inadequacies. They find it’s dark inside. Recognize that this “nothingness” is really no-thing–that it’s the absence of thoughts, personality, and the material world. Sit with it. You’ll find that behind the emptiness is something bigger–the richness of your spirit.
Here are my meditation tips. If you start to feel upset about something, don’t fight it, don’t judge it, just observe it, relax, and breathe into it. There’s a good chance the disturbance will diminish or evaporate if you don’t keep feeding it.
Meditating is similar to strengthening muscles at the gym. Like exercising, it takes practice, persistence, and commitment. You never know when it will click. At some point, you’ll be sitting down, chanting and observing your breath, and wow, something opens up and you are aware that you have entered a lovely, quiet, still place inside yourself.
I find that meditation is all about connecting to a loving, accepting, and centered part of myself, which I call my “calm.” You don’t have to be sitting under a mango tree to get the experience. It can happen anywhere. Don’t limit yourself, you can meditate in the car, in the bathtub, in your office, at a restaurant, on the train to work, definitely on a plane. It’s great if you have a sacred place in your home where you can build this energy, but sometimes people will stop meditating because they think it has to be at a particular time and place. No! You can take a few minutes anywhere you are. For my mother, washing dishes or cooking for friends and family was her prayer, her meditation, her ritual of reverence. “All of us eating together is my human communion,” she’d say. She meditated in her own distinctive way–feeding seagulls at the beach, dancing outside on a rainy day.
If we don’t involve our heartfelt spirit in everything we do–including meditation–we deny ourselves a rich life. Imagine if you lived every moment connected with your inner self, your invisible soul. If you knew for sure that meditating could connect you to your soul, wouldn’t you want to start practicing and keep going no matter what? Meditation, yoga, or any spiritual practice can become a joyful journey to your soul.
It’s wondrous how much creativity and insight can open for us as we become receptive and listen to our spirit, which can always guide us through our inner and outer life. Often after meditating, solutions appear; inspiration shows up. I write poetry, run into someone I’ve been wanting to connect with–there’s plenty of time to do everything I want, things miraculously fall into place.
Meditation is an incredibly powerful tool. A regular practice can result in a more fulfilling life. You’ll start to drop your agenda of what your life should be like and open up to your higher purpose. By meditating with devotion, it’s possible to become so in tune with yourself that you’ll never have to read another book about being happy. You’ll be living your own testament of happiness. It’s possible to live joyfully, feeling connected to your own source. Life is a combination lock and you have the code to open it. With practice and devotion, you will unlock the door to reveal a more magnificent and resilient you.
Close your eyes and get into a comfortable position. Take a deep breath and as you exhale, breathe out any tension, anxiety, and worry. And as you inhale, start to breathe in a sense of peace, beauty, relaxation, and sweetness. Focus on your heart and with every breath allow your heart to expand, to fill you with a heartfelt energy. Imagine that your whole body is enveloped in this heartfelt energy, then lift yourself higher into the top of your head. Imagine that you are much larger than your body. Start imagining a beautiful light all around you until you experience being fully enveloped by that light. Focus your intention behind your eyes as if you are sitting in a comfortable space behind your eyes. As you go beyond your personality, emotions, and thoughts, reflect for a moment on these questions: Who am I? Am I my body? Am I my thoughts? Am I my feelings or circumstances? Am I my name, my friends, my ambition, my bank account? Am I my feelings of less or more, or am I part of something so much larger, connected to the source? And then, start to see something bigger, more beautiful than you have ever imagined.
Lift the curtain and the veil so you can begin to see you beyond your image of what you look like in this world, into the essence of your radiance. Allow yourself to be quiet, to be still, knowing you can trust your life force, your soul, your spirit to show you more of who you are. And just observe to see what is revealed to you. Listen to guidance for inspiration and for grace. Breathe it in, allow it in the depths of your heart and receive it. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, just calm. Stay there for a few minutes. As long as you want. Build this calmness until it becomes your foundation. Return to that place throughout the day, as many times as you can. Now, whenever you’re ready, fill your lungs and whole body with oxygen, gently exhale, open your eyes, shake your shoulders, wriggle your fingers and toes, and when you stand up, open your arms and exhale with a long sigh, “Ahh.” One more time, “Ahh.” Give yourself a big hug.
Are You a People Fixer?
Everybody talks about wanting to change things and help and fix, but ultimately all you can do is fix yourself. And that’s a lot. Because if you can fix yourself, it has a ripple effect. –Rob Reiner
I often struggle with wanting people to be happy and feel a sense of responsibility if they are not. Especially the people I love and care for. When I see them disturbed, upset, or struggling, my whole heart tries to help them find a state of happiness. It’s such a twisted feeling, hoping to fix someone whose patterns, emotions, and feelings happen independent of you. This desire to help is rooted in me from childhood, when I tried to lift my father’s heavy heart and make him happy.
It wasn’t just about my dad. This desire transferred to my relationships with men and to my friendships. I attracted people who would come to me with their problems, and I’d become consumed with trying to help them. For years, my identity was wrapped up in making other people happy. I had no boundaries. If I entered a room and sensed someone was unhappy, I assigned myself the role of getting them out of their unhappiness and lifting them up, which can be exhausting and not a lot of fun.
My personal power, confidence, and self-esteem were in direct proportion to how much I helped others. You might be the same way. Operating this way in life can actually suck out a lot of your own personal energy and make you feel depleted, as if you have a leaky faucet that your energy is escaping from. Becoming aware that the faucet is leaking is the beginning of action. Then, recognize you have to back off and allow people their own experience and process. Your responsibility is to bring your own energy back to you.
If you love helping others, you might want to consider becoming a counselor. But if that’s not what you want, ask yourself some fundamental questions about what drives you to feel worthy of your own happiness. Do you believe that you are only allowed to be happy if other people are happy? That type of altruism has its roots in feeling unworthy. The belief is “I don’t have a right to my own joy and happiness unless other people around me are happy.” I’ve often thought about the origin of that belief; it could very well be a way to avoid looking at your own life, your own pain, your own desires, and your own dreams.
When I was younger, I had a lot of things I wanted to achieve, but I didn’t know how. I felt very insecure, and my confidence was shaken when my career as an actress wasn’t happening. Taking care of people became a source of solace, it gave me a sense of purpose and satisfaction. It’s very important to be ruthless with yourself and say, “Is this pattern serving or sabotaging me?”
Each one of us has been dealt a set of cards. None of us is given a complete deck. But we are all given a trump card, the truth that something bigger than ourselves is working through us. This applies to everyone. My saving grace is that when I see people who are going through a tough time, I remember that something bigger in me is also in them. I ask myself to forgo any sense of responsibility and not to presume to know what’s going on with them. I’m not their savior. You can have distance as well as compassion, and you can know that there is a solution for them and they will get through to the other side. That they will grow and evolve and learn what they’ve come here to learn. You can support other people without trying to fix them. You can share wisdom, point the way, offer another perspective, be a sounding board or a safe haven. Offer practical solutions and help them see options. These are very powerful ways that I have allowed other people to be there for me and that I’ve been there for other people. That’s the gift we all have to comfort, to lift, and to inspire others.
So, if you are a people fixer, I challenge you to question why you are doing that: What is the benefit and what is the reward? What is the tape running in your head stating that you don’t have a right to your happiness unless other people are happy? You can erase the old beliefs and realize that there is tremendous grace in allowing people their own experiences and processes.
Excerpted from Wake Up to the Joy of You by Agapi Stassinopoulos. Copyright © 2016 by Agapi Stassinopoulos. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.