Meditation Moment: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

As the Wheel of the Year turns to winter, it is natural for us to turn inward as well, using the increasing darkness to help us concentrate on internal matters and to work with trance states and meditative journeys. Progressive muscle relaxation is a simple but useful technique for quieting the body so that the spirit can engage in these experiences without being distracted by external influences. It can also be used as part of a larger meditative practice to help us recognize where we tend to experience stress physically and learn to release that tension.

Describing stress as a feeling of pressure or tension isn’t just a figure of speech; most of us have particular muscles that we tend to tense up unconsciously when we’re worried about something. Some people “store” stress like this in their neck or back; others in the legs or abdomen. After too long, a muscle kept tense will feel achy and stiff. That feeling is annoying in and of itself, and can be tremendously distracting while you’re trying to engage in inner work.

It would be easy to say that if we just removed stress from our lives, we wouldn’t get tense, stiff, and sore muscles as a result! Since totally eliminating the cares and concerns of a normal life isn’t likely to happen anytime soon for most of us, progressive muscle relaxation is a way to work backwards from the effects to the cause. By relaxing, calming, and stilling the body, we make it possible to do the same in the mind and spirit.

Being able to relax the body to a comfortable, neutral state is also essential for doing trance work or guided meditations that involve a lot of detailed visualization or action. In these experiences, you want to be able to “leave your body behind,” and it’s much more difficult to do that when achy muscles are clamoring for your attention and intruding on your awareness.

To do progressive muscle relaxation, you first tense and then relax each group of muscles in your body. You’re using pairs or groups of muscles because you want to keep your body mostly still while you’re doing this. Where there’s a pair of muscles that have opposite functions, like your biceps and triceps in your upper arm, or your quads and hamstrings in your thigh, you tense both of them at the same time so that your limb doesn’t actually move at all. For areas like your feet and hands, you’ll be using whole groups of muscles.

Starting at your feet, first try to point your toes or to curl them inward, and while you take a slow breath in tense all the muscles there at once, then relax as you exhale. Now imagine that you’re pressing hard on a pedal with the ball of your foot, and tense and relax in sync with your breath. As you relax, that part of your body may feel heavy or warm; go with that feeling and let yourself sink into it, bit by bit.

It can actually be hard for us to identify tension or to know what really loosening up particular muscles feels like. By tensing the muscles first, we kick-start the relaxation process: if it can’t get any tenser, there’s nowhere else to go. Once that starts, we can go with the flow and let it keep going to relax out the initial tension we were storing there. As you become more familiar with what it feels like to be truly relaxed in certain parts of your body, you’ll be better able to identify tension and start the process of relaxing.

Do not hold your breath while tensing your muscles! That will raise your blood pressure and actually create more stress in your body; let the timing of your breathing determine how long you are tight, and then feel the strain and tension flowing out as you exhale.

As you progress from your feet up your legs and through your core, you will know when you get to the muscles where you tend to store stress because there will be less difference between the starting feeling of the muscle and the really tensed state – it will feel already tight when you get to it. As you let it relax, the looser state will feel even better than where you started out.

Keep going up through your core, to your arms and hands. Tense your hands in two different ways, like you did your feet – once in a fist, and once with your fingers spread out as wide as you can move them, pressing your palm down. Then work through your shoulders, neck, and face. Yes, even your facial muscles can feel tense and benefit from some relaxation!

When you finish, go back to your feet and slowly check on each group of muscles. If any of them have tensed up again, squeeze and relax them, slowly, until your whole body feels open and calm. If you want to do a trance exercise, do this while laying or sitting down, and as your muscles feel warm and heavy, imagine that they are sinking down into closer contact with the floor or chair. When you’re ready, you can let your attention drift up and away, gently moving out of your body to begiin your trance.

Calm the body and the mind will follow; still the body so the mind can roam.

Meditation Moment – Staying in the Feeling

As October rolls around, many Pagans begin preparing for Samhain, the Celtic festival of summer’s end, when the veil between the worlds of living and dead is especially thin. For Pagans today, this is often a time for acknowledging those who have died in the previous year and telling myths about death and rebirth. For all who may be grieving or remembering grief at Samhain, I would like to offer some suggestions about how meditative techniques can help you experience and move through those feelings.

Concentrating on these emotions, especially the ones we usually seek to avoid, may seem like the very opposite of the calm peace and even detachment cultivated through meditation. I have often written that when other thoughts or concerns arise during meditation, you should acknowledge them and then return your attention to whatever you’ve chosen to focus on. It’s true that this is the best course to take when your distractions are relatively simple, everyday sorts of matters. But deep emotions, like grief, cannot be dismissed as easily, and forcing ourselves to do so can become an unhealthy form of repressing our feelings.

If deep emotional issues are a concern for you as this Samhain draws near, instead of treating the emotional experience as a failure in your mediative practice, you might try embracing the emotion and allowing yourself to feel it fully as a necessary part of letting it go. This is tricky; you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the feelings or reinforce their presence in your life. As a result, the rest of the suggestions I give in this article will be fairly general ones that you have to adapt to your own situation. I strongly suggest trying these kinds of techniques as part of a steady meditative practice, and taking other actions to work through your grief at the same time, especially talking with people you can trust. Above all, be compassionate with yourself.

Grieving is a long and complex experience, and every situation is different. In the process of coming to terms with a death, many different emotions can play a part, including fear, anger, remorse, and resentment. Allow yourself to acknowledge any and all of these in turn, even if they seem paradoxical or difficult to explain to others. What you are feeling does not make you a bad person – it’s how you handle the feeling that matters. You may want to read about the stages of grieving; these are not a simple linear sequence, but they may help you understand that you are not alone in going through a lot of different, difficult feelings while grieving.

Facing these feelings, acknowledging them, is the first step to beginning to move through them towards acceptance of what has happened. Accepting the current sitation does not mean that you have to like it, but it enables you to turn your attention to the future again.

As you go into your feelings and begin to acknowledge them, the same meditative techniques of self-monitoring that you use to direct your attention can help you stay in the feeling, rather than turning away to some more desirable topic. You might use these while doing an activity you’ve chosen to help you express the emotion, such as a creating a piece of art. Meditatively centering yourself on the emotion can keep you engaged with the purpose so that you fully explore the emotion and can release it into the activity as much as possible.

On the other hand, if you feel like you’re drowning in the emotional current, you can use that same approach of self-awareness to help you identify when you’re getting in over your head, so you can take steps to turn your attention elsewhere. Again, these two approaches complement each other: you don’t want to repress your feelings during the grieving process, but you don’t want to stay stuck in them forever, either. Use your best judgment and ask those around you or a trained counselor for help in striking the right balance as you move through the process of grieving.

I have found that the best time to engage with, experience, and begin to release an emotion is when I can move my attention back and forth between the emotion and the calm, compassionate self-awareness that I usually occupy during meditation. This usually happens only after some time has passed since the event that caused the emotion. As needed, I switch my focus in a way similar to the technique I suggested for meditating using opposites.

If this is too difficult for you, another approach is to visualize an interaction between different aspects of your self. Let one part of yourself give voice to the emotions and struggle you’re experiencing while another part of you listens as attentively and compassionately as you would for your closest friend. If you are familiar with the way Starhawk talks about different parts of the self, you might consider these to be your Younger Self and Talking Self, respectively. Or they might be the person you were before and the person you are coming to be in the present. Regardless, the goal is not to increase the separation between parts of yourself but to make healing and wholeness more possible by allowing yourself to go through the emotions to be able to return to your center.

Ultimately, as the immediacy of a feeling diminishes, you will be better able to apply these techniques and to come to terms with your emotions. Remember, above all, that these emotions are not a failure of your meditative practice or an impenetrable barrier. They are not separate from you; they are part of you. Using meditation to help yourself cope with and reconcile them can be a valuable part of returning, again, as always, to your center.

Meditation Moment: A practical and magical skill

I’ve spent the last few months discussing different ways to meditate; this month I’d like to focus on why meditation is such an important skill for both practical and magical purposes. Research is revealing more and more health benefits to a regular meditation practice, but the ability to direct your own attention and shift your focus as you wish is incredibly valuable in everyday life, not just while actively meditating, and also an essential part of working magic.

As a practical skill, meditation can help us deal with difficult times in our lives. Many people who have depression experience being stuck in negative thoughts, going around and around the same issue or problem over and over again. This “spin cycle” can produce feelings of helplessness and despair. Meditative practice at redirecting your attention can help you break free of these traps.

This “thought stopping” is a difficult skill to develop. It requires a kind of self-awareness that allows you to monitor your own internal monologue so you can recognize when you’re getting stuck in repetitive thoughts and feelings. It’s very difficult to develop this ability while you’re in the midst of a stressful or painful time. Meditation practice gives you a chance to cultivate that skill so you will be able to use it when you need it most. Exercise helps you develop and maintain the physical skills and strength you need for other activities; meditation is mental and emotional exercise.

It is a bit misleading to talk about “thought stopping,” though, because it’s not so much stopping as redirection. Just as in meditation, you don’t so much stop thinking about one thing as choose to direct your attention elsewhere. And like in meditation, you have to be gentle with yourself when you do this. It’s counterproductive to blame yourself for thinking or feeling the way you do; what matters is moving your focus to something else of your choosing. If you’re spending time and energy blaming yourself, worrying, or suppressing those thoughts or feelings, you’re still focusing on them. You can acknowledge them, then refuse to let them occupy center stage in your mind. Gently let them go and redirect.

The same advice applies when you’re trying to change a mental habit. If you identify a negative idea about yourself that you’re trying to change, maybe by replacing it with an affirmation, you need to redirect your attention away from the negative idea, not suppress it. Many admonitions to just “Think positive!” make people feel like it’s their fault if they think negatively, which makes them feel worse, which gives them even more negative thoughts and feelings to try to ignore. I call this the backlash of positive thinking, because the harder you push down those negatives, the more energy you give them to throw back at you, often subconsciously or from an unexpected direction.

To avoid that backlash, don’t treat an affirmation as a magical incantation that will banish your hurts, fears, and doubts all by itself. Acknowledge those feelings or your negative beliefs about yourself and gently redirect yourself away from them towards the new mental habit you want to cultivate instead.

Where this becomes a magical skill is when you use the same techniques to improve your visualization and focus on your intent for a spell. We do magic because we want something to change, but in visualization, we need to concentrate on our desired outcome rather than the current state of affairs.

This is the “Don’t think of a pink elephant!” problem. If you’re trying to help heal a friend, for example, it is easy to be distracted with concerns about how she was sniffling and coughing this morning. That’s the reason you’re doing the spell, after all! But you’re not raising and sending energy towards the idea of her staying sick; you want to concentrate that energy on her being well, so you have to catch those thoughts and change your focus to your visualization or affirmation of her as healthy and happy.

Working with different types of meditation can help you identify your strengths for magical practice and improve your abilities in areas where you’re weaker. If you like meditating with a physical object to focus on, then you can use the same techniques to direct your intent towards a spell component like a candle, stone, or herb. If chanting or prayer works well, make the most of that by designing spells with verbal elements. On the other hand, if you are good at concentrating when you have your eyes closed, you can work on meditating while gazing at a physical object to make it easier for you to concentrate on an object for magical purposes.

These are just a few examples of how awareness of your own thoughts and feelings and the ability to redirect your attention are both practical and magical skills. As your practice deepens, you’ll find even more ways to apply the benefits of meditation in everyday life.

Meditation Moment: Washed Away

If meditating in motion wasn’t really your thing, here’s another approach to meditation that also takes advantage of summer’s more temperate weather!

Most of what I wrote about in terms of beginning meditation was about how to reduce your distractions: quiet time, calm space, and one simple thing to focus on. The approach I’m suggesting this time seems like it’s just the opposite: it’s all about your senses. It’s about letting your senses be your focus, but not any one particular sense or object, the whole flow of things it’s possible to be aware of, all around you.

There’s a constant stream of sense-data that we are capable of getting. Most of the time we aren’t even aware of it. In order to pay attention anything at all, we have to block out the vast majority of all the potential impressions coming at us. One way to meditate, especially in connection with nature, is to turn those potential distractions into our means of meditating. We can let our usual thoughts and concerns be washed away in the constant stream of physical awareness by opening ourselves to more of it than we usually perceive. This is another way of applying the skill of forgetting in order to be truly present in the single moment and single space you occupy right now.

To try this, find a place where nature is present in all your senses. It doesn’t need to be isolated or totally insulated from obvious examples of human activity, like road noise, it just needs to be a place where there’s at least as much nature for you to see, hear, touch, and smell as there is constructed stuff for you to sense. It should also be a place where the sense impressions you get are ones you can at least mostly enjoy. And finally, it should be a safe spot for you to sit and close your eyes for a few minutes: not in poison ivy, not on top of an anthill, not where you’re going to get sunburned if you sit longer than you thought or fall in the river if you go to sleep.

When you find a spot, settle yourself there however is comfortable for you. It will probably help at first to close your eyes, since vision is a very focused sense. Try to start with your breathing and relax, and gradually open yourself to your senses.

Start with touch: what do you feel? Let yourself be absorbed in your sense of touch, all over your skin. It’s not just whatever you’re sitting or standing on, but the flow of the air around you, the warmth of the sun or the cool of the shade. As you grow more aware of what you’re sensing, don’t just focus on each individual thing in turn. Let all the impressions flow through your awareness; let each impression go as soon as it forms, so that you continue to be receptive to what you’re feeling. Open your awareness to as much as you can all at once. Any time you start to focus on one sensation, let go of it and relax, opening yourself to all the other sensations.

Add in other senses and forms of awareness gradually. Start noticing how humid or dry the air is, how it feels and how it tastes, and what scents it carries. Listen to the world around you; don’t try to block out any sounds, even the annoying ones. Just let your awareness of them go, as you do with all the awarenesses. An annoying one may come back time and again, but don’t give it any more attention than you do the pleasant ones. Treat them all alike, as things simply to be observed in turn, but not concentrated on, even by trying to ignore them. Let that awareness go so that more impressions, each fleeting in their turn, can form.

Concentrating on any one thing, like looking at something in particular, is an active behavior. It’s something we do, with purpose, with intent, even subconsciously. For this meditation, try to let go of that intent, that purpose, and be a passive observer. This is why it’s very hard to do this with your eyes open, especially at first. We automatically focus, literally, our vision on things around us.

If you want to try it, you might let your eyes drift slightly out of focus, or try to look into an indistinct place in the middle distance, so that you’re not looking at any one thing in particular, simply gazing and being aware of as much in your field of vision as is possible. If that’s too difficult or gives you a headache, do this meditation with your eyes closed instead. You might be amazed at how much information is available to you through your other senses, even while you’re sitting still. We depend so much on our vision that it often blocks out our conscious awareness of senses like touch and smell.

Even without vision, the amount of information flowing through our senses is tremendous. By letting go of every impression as soon as it is formed, we let that flow proceed smoothly, like sand through an hourglass or water through a calm river. Opening ourselves to more of that flow means that we can use it to help dislodge persistent thoughts or worries, just as water can move obstacles out of its way. Just for a little while, let yourself be overwhelmed, in a good way, by your senses, so that you can reconnect with the world around you. Let yourself be washed away.

Meditation Moment: Mindfulness in Motion

Now that summer is in full swing, I’d like to suggest a very different approach to meditation: physical activity. This is a great time of year for people to get outside, even for a few minutes, and combining meditation with moving around can be fun and easy. Please be cautious and adapt any of these ideas to your personal health and circumstances.

The kind of activity that I have in mind doesn’t have to be a big sweaty ordeal; in fact, it doesn’t have to feel like a lot of exertion at all. If you have to constantly push yourself, and as a result you’re feeling uncomfortable and unhappy all the time, you can’t possibly experience it as a form of meditation. It’s true that experienced athletes can work through heavy-duty exercise, but that kind of single-mindedness is not something that most of us are prepared for, and it can be a very inward focus that is pretty isolating.

On the other hand, some people prefer to totally “zone out” during exercise, listening to music and losing their concentration entirely, so that even a half-hour workout seems to go by in just a couple of songs. Although it can be very calming, that lack of awareness isn’t what I have in mind either. Instead, I want to suggest that you try being present in your body and aware of its surroundings while you are in motion. To achieve this, choose something that you can enjoy and that you can do comfortably for ten or fifteen minutes without getting too tired or distracted, like a walk, a gentle swim, or an easy bike ride.

Since you want to pay attention to your environment, choose a place where you can enjoy pleasant surroundings. A loud, smelly highway is not something you want to direct your attention towards, and it may be equally distracting or worrying to be on a densely wooded path where you’re constantly worrying about being eaten alive by mosquitos and running into a rut in the path that will pitch you off your bike to land head-first into a patch of poison ivy.

What you want to try to do is to stay aware of your body – your whole body – and to keep your body and mind relaxed and open to the sensations of your experience. Try checking in with different parts of your body randomly. What are you feeling in your hands? Your knees? Your shoulders? Where are you storing tension? As you get into the rhythm of activity, does that tension change, stiffen, or move to another part of your body?

Focus on the contrasts, the yin and yang of your environment and yourself. Contrast the motion and stillness around you with your own, and stay aware of how your perspective on your surroundings shifts as you move through your activity. As with any other kind of meditation, when your awareness fixates on one thing, relax and return your attention to your breath, or to a focal point such as the rhythm of your movement or the stillness of your center of gravity. Your mind will wander; when it does, bring it back, without recrimination or increased tension, just returning it to your chosen focus.

Stay open to the sensations of your surroundings, but don’t let those sensations overwhelm you. Just as you do with thoughts and feelings that arise during a session of seated meditation, acknowledge each sensation and let it go, so that you continue to be aware of the whole experience. If you enjoy a more moderate level of exertion, don’t let that escalate to the point of distraction; stay present in your body rather than taking your mind away just so you can go a little bit faster or push a little bit harder. The goal here is mindfulness, not mindlessness.

Some kinds of exercise are often taught with a meditative focus, such as qi gong and yoga. If you engage in one of these, whether you’re experienced or a novice, use the same approach of being open to the sensations in your body and your presence in your surroundings. If you have an established practice already, perhaps you could try doing part of your routine in an outdoors setting where you don’t usually get to go; see how the different context affects your practice and your awareness.

In exercises that consciously incorporate the breath, make sure that you’re not ignoring the rest of your body. As you breathe in and stretch a little bit further, notice how your breath and movement interact. Are you starting and stopping movements in time with the breath? Is your movement causing you to breathe, or vice versa? Is your breath steady and smooth, or ragged and irregular? How about your movement?

Even an activity like light weightlifting can be an opportunity for mindfulness. Rather than experiencing each repetition as a chore, or a contest, direct your attention away from concerns or pressure you put on yourself and into your awareness of your muscles and movement. Try using your breath to support your movement, much as you do when breathing into a tight part of the body while stretching, rather than holding your breath. How does the sensation in the muscle change with each repetition? When do you know that it’s enough; when your body tells you so, or when you’ve reached a predetermined number?

Meditation can be a way to be in better touch with your body, as well as your mind and heart. The awareness cultivated in meditation ought to be an awareness of ourselves and our surroundings as we interact with them, not just an isolated inner awareness. Finding mindfulness in motion can be a way to cultivate an interactive awareness of both mind and body.

Meditation Moment: The Skill of Forgetting

We often think of forgetting as a problem, something that only happens by accident, something that we want to fight against. Our memories are vital to who we are and how we live; loss of memory is one of the most feared aspects of aging for some people. But memory isn’t always a good thing. The traumatic, intrusive memories of PTSD are just one example of memory run amok. Think about what your mind would feel like if you could never forget anything, even the most trivial details, like the thousands of license plates you see on the road in the course of your life. Having to sort through all of those to try to remember your own would be a nightmare. We would drown in the details, which is why forgetting can be a skill.

In investigating the effects of cannabis, science writer and nature lover Michael Pollan discovered that the plant makes compounds with structures similar to neurotransmitters involved in the extremely complex process of regulating remembering and forgetting. In his book The Botany of Desire, Pollan went on to speculate that part of the experience of being high might come from cannabis temporarily altering this system by impairing our memories, letting us experience the world as fresh and new rather than through the filter of our memories and expectation.

As he put it, “It is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours. And the wonder of that experience, perhaps more than any other, seems to be at the very heart of the human desire to change consciousness, whether by means of drugs or any other technique.” (162, emphasis original) This amazing mindfulness and presence in the present is one of the things that meditation makes available to us without the use of mind-altering substances.

I have suggested using a focus for meditation, such as a candle, object from nature, or a favorite image. But it’s easy for us to substitute our abstract conception of a thing for the thing itself. We can think of our internal imagination and memory of what a candle is or looks like rather than what is actually in front of us; we meditate on our idea of what a rose is or ought to be rather than on this particular, unique rose in the here and now. It’s almost as if we like to substitute some idealized Platonic representative of a whole class of objects for the immediate reality.

One way to get around that tendency is to treat an encounter with a focus object almost as a game to test your observation skills: what is this particular stone like? Can you visualize it clearly when you close your eyes? Could you pick it out of a group of similar rocks? What makes it unique or distinctive?

This seems like it would be an exercise of memory, but where forgetting is needed to help us lay aside our expectations and experiences so that we can perceive the particular object we’re focusing on more clearly. The gift of memory isn’t just the freshness and wonder of being absorbed in the world but also the ability to take in our experiences more accurately. Memory, especially in the form of expectations and assumptions, can give us blind spots where we simply can’t absorb information that is contrary to what we already know or think.

To practice the skill of forgetting, try using an object from the natural world that will change over time as your meditation focus. A leaf, a cut flower, a plant with a bud about to open, or anything that will show changes over a few days to a week will work. Try approaching it each day as an entirely new experience. Let go of how you saw this thing yesterday; don’t let that memory override your actual perception of the object today. Look at it as a whole, not just noticing the changes. When your mind brings up comparisons and changes over time, acknowledge the thought and then bring your attention back to the present moment and the current reality of your focus.

A similar challenge is to try to describe something in nature without using its name; an herb might be a plant, an annual, a member of a certain family, have flowers that butterflies or bees enjoy, home to a spider’s web, something that needs water and sun (but not too much of either), a producer of oxygen and consumer of carbon dioxide, a seasoning in your favorite dish, home to pests or resistant to them, and on and on. Describing the herb this way makes us more aware of the way it exists in a complex web of ecological interrelationships, instead of concentrating only on the way the herb exists in relationship to us. It’s almost a way to see the plant on its own terms rather than on ours.

This fresh perception and the wonder that it brings with it are the gifts of forgetting. Even for a little while, this kind of forgetting can be soothing and healing. Forgetting, used wisely, can be a valuable skill. Make meditation a time to practice it.

Meditation Moment: Bringing the Outdoors In

Last month I wrote about how being deeply present in a single moment helps us relate to all moments; this month, I want to extend that approach to thinking about space as well as time. As Pagans, we tend to cultivate our connections to the world around us, especially the natural world. Meditation can help us deepen that connection.

Many of us practice in urban areas, but still want to connect to the rhythm of the seasons and natural cycles. It can be ideal to find a location outdoors in which to meditate, but few of us have the luxury of doing that every day. So we need to find ways of bringing the outdoors in for us to connect with during meditation.

The goal here is to be present in a particular place, just as last month we talked about being present in the particular moment. We want to be present with this individual stone, or shell, or flower, or twig; not with all stones, or all flowers, but this one, in particular, in all of its uniqueness. It is an example of the place it came from, a connection to that one spot. But just as being present in each unique moment helps us connect to all moments, narrowing our focus to a deeper contemplation of this one location can paradoxically help us appreciate the totality of the world we live in.

Meditation’s connection between the minuscule and the majestic – now and all time, here and everywhere, myself and all living things – makes this contemplation of nature much more than a decoration, more than a superficial acknowledgement, and into a deep act of awareness. When we want to have a more meaningful relationship with the web of life and the natural cycles that support it, we can start small. Recognizing the uniqueness of one thing and the richness in one small corner of reality helps us appreciate that each corner is similarly rich and full.

If you can make meditating outdoors in a particular spot an occasional addition to your regular practice, that can help you establish a relationship with a specific place. Then taking a small reminder – a stone, a leaf – back to your usual meditation space is part of an ongoing process of connection anchored in that location, not just a scattershot series of one-off connections with a multitude of places. Even if there’s no special place where you can go and meditate, maintaining a connection with a particular spot is a better way to anchor yourself in the rhythms of nature; connect to one tree or one group of living things in your area, and use reminders of them as your focus for meditation.

If you really want to connect to the seasons in that place, make sure to change your focus on a regular basis. Take your reminder back to the place you got it, and return it to nature with your thanks, then find something else, something new, to focus on, to help you experience the constant change and wonderful variety found in your particular location. Especially at this time of year, when flowers are blooming and trees are unfurling their leaves as fast as possible, don’t let your focus get fixed on a single object to the extent that you ignore the changes taking place in your little corner of the world.

Get physical about your experience of place, too! The physical world engages our senses in ways that an abstraction like time can’t. Feel the texture of trees’ bark with your fingers, taste the tart sweetness of blackberries later on, listen to the birds and the wind in the leaves and the patter of the rain. And yes, stop and smell the roses – and the honeysuckle and lilacs and everything else, too.

I mentioned that a connection to place can serve as a kind of anchor. Just as the ability to draw one’s attention to the present moment can be a part of grounding and centering, the deep awareness of a particular place can also be a form of grounding – the literal meaning behind the metaphor. That familiarity with a location can be a touchstone, a reminder of the relationship that we hearken back to every time we pause over a meal or give thanks for coming home safely after a trip.

And since you know that by connecting to your one place, you are also connecting to all places, even when you are in unfamiliar surroundings you know you have the ability to ground yourself there as well, to tap into the connection to the same deeper reality, and if you need to, to become familiar with this new place as well.

The beginning of this month is the celebration of Beltane; it’s time to fall in love again. One of love’s amazing qualities is that it takes us outside of ourselves. By engaging with someone else, we gain a whole new perspective on the world, and on ourselves, and we gain the opportunity to change and grow in ways we could hardly have imagined alone. This Beltane, consider falling in love with the land. When we do, when we bring the outdoors in, if we fully engage with it and start to develop a relationship, it too, like all good loves, will take us outside of ourselves.

Meditation Moment: Connection and Context

Last month, I talked about letting go of time to be wholly in the present moment. Worrying about a few pieces of the past or future disconnects us from the present moment, and also leads us to ignore the rest of the past and future as well.

Being wholly in the present moment is an experience of mystery and delight; each present moment, taken by itself, connects to all the moments, past and future. The immediacy of the present moment and the eternity of all moments have more in common with each other than they do with our usual ways of understanding and experiencing time.

Meditation can be a way of connecting opposites, both practically and mystically, and can help us see objects, experiences, and even ourselves in a wider context, with a more holistic vision.

Here’s a practical example: beginning drivers often feel overwhelmed with the amount of information coming at them. They feel like they need to be looking in all directions at once, watching every other car, looking for traffic signals and signs, and monitoring the dashboard. Trying to pay attention to everything makes it difficult for them to pay attention to any single thing.

As they learn to drive, they learn to limit their attention to only a few things at a time. They learn where to look to anticipate what’s going to happen, and they learn what parts of their visual field they can ignore. They learn when to check the dashboard and when to keep their eyes up on the road; they know when the rearview mirror is important and when it’s only a distraction.

We all learn ways to filter our attention: we can pay attention to everything, which means we end up not noticing anything, or we can pay attention to some things and ignore others.

Meditation lets us learn to use those filters in different ways. When we narrow our attention to the present moment, we can perceive that moment’s uniqueness. Such perception paradoxically widens our attention; we become more receptive not to the everyday noise that surrounds us but to the broader mystical context of each moment in time.

One meditation technique that I enjoy uses a juxtaposition of opposites and invites contemplation of similarities and differences to both harness the straying nature of the mind and emphasize connections such as this. The first time I did it, I was focusing on an arrangement of stones that consisted of mostly jagged, dark pieces of shale with a few round, clear marbles scattered throughout. Any similar contrast of yin/yang, dark/light, hard/soft, or similar will work.

Start out contemplating one end of the polarity, and when your attention wanders, bring it back to the other end of the polarity. Consider the dark, flat pieces of shale, and then shift to the round, translucent marbles. How do they express polarity? How are they similar? Is there a unity between the differences? As you keep doing this, shifting between the two becomes easier, and eventually the union of the contrasts becomes the main point of contemplation.

This contemplation on contrasts is a way of deliberately shifting what is in the foreground of our vision, what it is we’re paying attention to. When we contemplate one piece of a contrast, the counterpart is in the background; reversing the situation shows us that our attention determines what we perceive as foreground and background.

A beginning drawing exercise is to draw not an object but the shape of the space around it. This is another example of switching one’s focus to the background rather than the foreground. Exploring the contrasts between them, where they meet and interact, lets us understand both better. It leads to a more holistic vision that embraces both.

Starhawk described the difference between this holistic vision and normal awareness as the difference between seeing with a flashlight and seeing by starlight. The starlight vision sees patterns and shapes; it brings out the relationships between things rather than separating the world into foreground (which is attended to) and background (which is ignored).

Cultivating this alternative mode of awareness can give us a different perspective on ourselves as well as on our perception of time. Normally, I have myself in the foreground of my awareness: what am I doing, thinking, feeling? What do I do next?

As Pagans, many of us are familiar with a technique known as “grounding and centering,” and although there are many different ways to do this, most of the ones I’ve encountered are essentially adaptations of this meditation technique to reconnect our selves with our contexts.

Some people prefer to ground and center by getting in touch with the Earth first, usually through visualization, and then to draw on that connection to feel calm, collected, and refreshed within themselves. Others go about it in the opposite order, by sinking into their own consciousness first, and when they’ve touched their own core, then they connect to their surroundings. Either way is valid.

When we ground and center, we recognize how we exist in concert with our surroundings, and being more firmly aware of ourselves helps us connect to our whole world, just as being present in the moment helps us connect to all moments. The extremes, self and all, connect in the same paradoxical way as now and forever. If we widen our attention to our broader context first, we also end up with a better awareness of ourselves as part of that context by shifting our focus of attention away from ourselves.

We are often prompted to “ground and center” when beginning a group working. This instruction is more than a reminder to participants individually; it’s a necessary preface to asking individuals to open up to others. What connects us, after all, is our shared context, and locating ourselves as individuals within that larger situation prepares us to recognize and connect with others in a deeper way than we could if we approached them from only our isolated point of view. Recognizing the shared context lets us see what we already have in common with others, rather than seeing them as totally separate, isolated individuals.

We filter our attention in many ways in everyday life; learning to use those filters for our own purposes gives us valuable tools. Meditation and the specific practice of grounding and centering are ways we can cultivate the holistic vision, the starlight vision, that lets us connect with our context.

Meditation Moment: Marking Time

Last month, I discussed setting aside time and space – any time and space you can use regularly – for a meditation practice. Once you’ve started integrating meditation, or even just a few minutes of quiet time, into your habits, you can start shaping that time and space to further your meditation practice. I can’t emphasize enough that the most important thing about meditation is doing it. If you try one of these suggestions, and it pushes you further away from making your practice a regular part of your life, scratch that approach and go back to what you were doing before, or try something else.

For beginners coming to meditation, the time part can be the hardest. Not just finding or making time in the schedule, but the time during meditation. Letting go of the constant stream of time – has it been a minute yet? how will I know when I’m done? I wonder what’s happening on my Twitter feed? – is a big challenge. On the practical side of things, one way to deal with this is to decide how long you’re going to meditate and create something else to keep track of that for you. A clock isn’t the best solution: I won’t know if my five minutes of meditation are up if I don’t keep looking, and if I keep looking at the clock, then I’m not meditating.

Now I’m sure that some reader is asking himself, “Did she just write ‘five minutes?’ That must be a typo. Five minutes is entirely too short a time to meditate!” No, that’s not a typo. As I said last month, start with an achievable goal. For most of us, wrapped up in concerns about time as we are, with the feeling that the world is constantly accelerating around us, five or ten minutes is a good goal to start with. Avoid the initial anxiety over what you’ll do for all that time by setting a smaller goal at first, and once you’ve kept it for a week and are comfortable, work up to fifteen to twenty minutes. Don’t try to jump from five minutes to twenty, either: I’d suggest adding no more than five minutes. Stick with it for at least a week, or as long as you need to feel comfortable, before adding another increment.

Back to keeping track – or letting something else keep track – of that time. An alarm on a watch, clock, or kitchen timer is certainly an option, but most people find an alarm so startling that it undoes most of the relaxation effects of meditation. For a gentler approach, there are many, many free programs for computers and other devices available online that use a gentle bell or chime sound to signal the end of the session. (Try searching for “meditation timer” or something similar.) A gentle sound can help you transition back to your everyday experience much more smoothly. Try it out ahead of time by setting the timer while you’re doing something else, like reading, to make sure the sound isn’t too jarring but still gets your attention. Adjust the volume as needed.

Another option is to use an object that marks time for you, like a candle, stick of incense, or a tiny hourglass-type egg timer. For starting out, even a three-minute egg timer can be useful. If you’re working on meditating for around fifteen minutes, try a birthday candle. If it takes too long to burn, make a mark halfway down and use that as your indicator. A small stick of incense – just two or three inches – can also give you a reasonable amount of time.

These methods aren’t as precise a way of measuring time: one candle will burn a little faster than another, and a draft can make it gutter itself out more quickly too. But for meditation, a little imprecision can be a benefit. Meditation isn’t about whether you spend thirty seconds more or less on any given day. Using a more natural, less precise method of timing can help you get out of the idea that you always have to live up to the artificial standards of the clock. A little variation also prevents you from getting into the habit of counting off the time inside your head so that you can anticipate the chime. Even if you do that with your eyes closed, it’s still not meditating.

The downside of candles or incense is that if you like to close your eyes while you meditate, these methods don’t give you a sound to tell you to open your eyes, so it’s easy to get interrupted by peeking every so often to check if you’re done yet. The benefit is that if you don’t want to close your eyes, a candle, stick of incense, or tiny egg timer can do double duty as a visual focal point as well as being your timer. Let your eyes rest on the focal point and just observe it; when your attention wanders, which it will, gently draw your gaze and your attention back to the focus.

Another benefit of doing something specific to mark the time of your meditation practice is that it helps set aside your meditation practice as something other than your usual experience. The way that you set up your timekeeper, and then acknowledge that it is over, can become bookends supporting your practice. In fact, it’s worthwhile to make it a small ritual. It doesn’t have to be religious, or hugely ceremonial, just an act done with intention. You might clap your hands, make a gesture, or recite a statement; then mirror that action when you conclude your practice. Do it with the intent of settling into the present moment, of letting go, for a while, of the past, and the future, and anything else.

Setting aside the time for meditation, and then not worrying about the flow of time during meditation, are important acts for more than practical reasons. Meditation is about being in the present moment. Next month, I’ll discuss how to begin working on that presence by directing attention.

This is the second article in a series which is also being published by Pagan Pages as the monthly Meditation Moment. The first article can be found here.

Meditation Moment: Establishing a Meditation Practice

Happy New Year! To start the year off right, here’s the first in a series of monthly articles on meditation.

Meditation is something a lot of people want to try. Whether it’s a spur-of-the-moment New Year’s resolution or something you’ve been meaning to work on for a while, meditation can be a valuable practice for your mental, emotional, and spiritual stability and growth. Here are some tips on starting to meditate regularly, with the goal of making it a habit.

Do it every day. A regular meditation practice has to be just that: regular. It usually takes about three weeks to establish a new habit. Try making it your goal to keep practicing for a month: when you achieve that, you’ll have a solid basis you can build on. After meditation is an established habit, you can expand it or vary it, but at first, just work on doing something regularly. Keep that in mind as you go through the rest of these tips. Shoot for an achievable goal. Remember, just establishing the habit over the course of the month is genuine progress.

First of all, decide what you want your meditation to be. Maybe it’s a time for you to practice grounding and centering, or to contemplate a specific subject. Maybe it’s “me time” when you can’t be interrupted over your morning tea, or time for you to focus on gratitude. Maybe it’s a specific type of practice such metta meditation or zazen. Maybe it’s a time for deep breathing and clearing the mind. If you’re just getting started, concentrate on the essentials: presence and focus. The first step to meditation is not doing something else at the same time. For that, you need to set aside time and space.

Pick a time to meditate that you can have every day. For me, meditation has to happen early in the day; if I don’t get to it right before or after breakfast, it gets swept aside, and by the time I’m getting ready for bed, I can’t focus in the same way any more. Other people use meditation right before bed as a way to wind down. Maybe you’ll find the perfect time in a short walk just before lunch. It’s often easiest to incorporate a new habit into an existing one: if you always, always, always get your coffee right after you get up, then taking time for five deep breaths and a quick prayer before your drink your coffee might be the best cue to help you make meditation a regular practice. Whatever works for you, make that time specific and regular. If you need to, let others know that this time is set aside.

Pick a place. In front of the coffee machine? At your desk? Your favorite chair? In bed? Again, what’s important when starting out is consistency. Your meditation spot doesn’t have to be a retreat, as long as you can accomplish what you want there. In fact, if your meditation spot is too far away from your usual haunts, you might not bother to go there and use it. As long as you can accomplish your goal – grounding and centering, breathing, quiet time – the space is okay for it. It matters more that you’re present and practicing than whether your spine is perfectly aligned or your eyes are open or shut.

As far as space and time go, it’s easy to set an impossible goal. If a beginner promises herself twenty minutes of uninterrupted quiet time in her perfectly-appointed meditation spot with her snazzy new cushion and carefully-chosen candle, then the first time she misses that appointment, or has to cut it short after just ten minutes, she might feel like she’s let herself down. Then when she skips a day, the place and time start to become reminders of those failures instead of her goals, and eventually she hates the very sight of her meditation cushion.

Freeing yourself from that cycle of self-enforced guilt is the biggest step you can make towards a regular meditation practice. You will miss days sometimes. Accept that now, at the start, and realize that it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Progress is not linear. Count the successes – every day you do something towards your meditation practice is a positive step – and stay focused on increasing those.

Set a reasonable goal. Decide what you want your initial practice to be, then pick a time and a place where you can do that. Try to do it every day. If at the end of the month you’re still trying, and you’ve managed to be there in your time and space more days than not, congratulate yourself. You’ve made tremendous progress.

This series is also being published at Pagan Pages. Due to a mix-up, some additional material (my notes to myself about topics for the next few months) was published there at first. This is the correct text of the article.