William’s reply to my first blog with this title inspired me to say a little more about my approach to Yoga and Meditation. This is a very personal point of view and probably diverges from strict Yoga teachings. Meditation too, for me, has to be almost tailor made to the individual, as Sister Ishpriya says, you have to find a technique that suits you personally: see:http://international-satsang.org/ishpriya for more information about Sr. Ishpriya: she came to Galway, Ireland, a long time ago and I was very influenced by her teaching.
I started to take Yoga classes way back when I had a client who was dying (I was an “employee assistance counsellor” at the time). He told me he wanted to do some Yoga, so I sourced him a local teacher who turned out to be exceptional and with her husband ran a Residential Yoga Centre out of town. My work was quite stressful and after some thought I decided I needed some Yoga too. I went to the beginners class in town. Then I did a weekend at the centre, then a week and then a two week residential class. I progressed to “strong intermediate” as the class was called and then I also wanted to fit in a lunch time class one day a week (a further anti stress measure). The only available class was a “beginners gentle class” mostly for pregnant women: I joined it! Going back to basics was revelatory! I learned so much in that class about breath and the importance of basic form …. about being gentle with oneself and, I might add strangely, about the child within, actual or psychological.
I already meditated; I had joined a Christian Group many years before when I lived in London that followed the teaching of John Main, O.S.B. See “John Main: Essential Writings” (2002) and my partner was a TM trained meditator who practiced regularly. At that time I used a “mantra” and to a lesser extent still do. Over time though things have changed. I became very aware of the “Animate Earth” (see Stephan Harding’s book of the same name (2009), and of our/my alienation from the living planet out of which I had come; and at about that time I also did a Masters degree in Transpersonal Psychology in Liverpool, UK., doing a thesis about people who swim with dolphins: it is on here under “writings”.
I moved away a little from the deep introspection of a sitting meditation that was largely mantra based to a more physical, body based one that was largely Yoga with some Christian traditions mixed in. An American (born in UK !) philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), says:
“societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows” Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, (1927).
Not wanting to atrophy, I tried to combine a reverence for my Western Christian tradition with Yoga, the Earth, my breathing and a meditational technique based on an awareness of the physical body, the breathing and a deep listening. I begin by chanting “Deus, in adjutorium meum intende” either in latin or English it doesn’t matter: O God, come to my aid”. The monks use this chant at the start of their daily liturgies. I then move into the Diamond Pose (Vajrasana) and sit quietly listening to whatever sounds there are (we live in a very quiet place) usually bird song, the wind or the water tank: then I repeat my mantra; it helps to settle me down, it is prayerful and it links me with my former practice. I then do the “cat stretch” (marjariasana) before settling into the “corpse” or “dead still” (shavasana). My yoga then follows a fairly typical set of asanas each one religiously followed by either “dead still” or ” the “diamond pose”. Both of these two asanas becomes meditative, they are a post asana experience of the body, in which I usually regulate the breath in the “square” sometimes called “box breathing”, I think the yogis call it “Sama Vritti Pranayama”. Sr Ishpriya taught me this especially. I have added my own spin to make it more Earth bound:
In Shavasana I become aware of my entire body, as in a Yoga Nidra, part by part no part excluded, then I breathe in for a count of 4, sometimes 6, as I do, I raise my arms over my head in a full stretch with back arched. My eyes are open and I am becoming united with the Earth as I breathe in its loving and wholesome energy: then I hold the breath inside me gently for the same count, again experiencing my entire body, perhaps repeating my mantra if I dont need to count. As I breathe out and return my arms to my side palm uppermost, I imagine this energy flowing through my entire being, while keeping the same count. I then gently hold the breath out for the same count, again experiencing my entire physical being. I repeat this for the pleasure it gives, the calmness, and gradually, as Ishpriya says, I let the counting go; there is no need to count anymore. It is a little like letting a mantra go. This meditation follows nearly every asana. If I replace it with Vajrasana then the breath is gentle, feeling the diaphragm move, and listening intently.
The “listening” meditation we often did on Yoga retreats out in the garden of the Yoga Centre. I have a poem about it on this blog called “Meditation at Athenry” which almost explains it in a more spiritual way.
The listening is of course a type of mantra (I hate the term mindfulness, the mind has nothing to do with it) but I find it more spiritual than that kind of technique, it is less regular, you can’t control the sound in the same way as a mantra, and listening implies there is something you need to hear or a presence you need to become aware of. (That is perhaps too spiritual for some people perhaps and I understand that.)
The listening is special for me particularly because it reminds me of a story in The First Book of Samuel or Kings 1 depending on your version of the Old Testament. Chapter 3, tells of how Samuel is trying to sleep and keeps thinking that Eli, his master, is calling him; so he gets up and goes to Eli and asks what he wants. Eli tells him he did not call and tells him to go back to sleep. This happens again twice more. Finally, Eli knows what is happening and tells Samuel that if it happens again he is to say, “Speak Lord for thy servant heareth.” I guess some would call this religious not spiritual but it depends on the extent and manner in which you believe it, for me it is a great story, I have no idea if it happened to Samuel or not, but it is a spiritual lesson about listening.
I like to become very much absorbed not only into a bodily awareness but to become part of the Earth that surrounds me, of which, of course, I am actually a living part, dependant on it, cared for by it. I think of my body weight as a response to the hug of gravity. The weight is actualy the gravity. An energy, a mysterious force, hugging me to the planet and without this embrace I would drift off into space and perish. I think of the cottage and the garden as being part of an ancient tropical sea, now dry and stony.
I think, as I say above, that my thoughts about this are expressed in a poem called “Meditation at Athenry”: to save you the trouble of looking it up I will paste it here:
Meditation at Athenry
Athenry, sitting on chairs in a circle,
The grass is wet.
Listening to the distant sounds,
Traffic, a digger, some rooks.
And then moving in closer,
Though my ear is motionless,
To hear the trees move,
The sun touching us makes
The small fountain rise and splash,
A passing bee is cosmic.
Consciousness grows wide
Rests in the low, level fields
Too green perhaps,
Certainly not spectacular
But then our eyes are closed,
As coming down to rest
On carboniferous rock,
Its name denoting time not content,
We cannot conceive it.
The unimaginable time past
When all this vast space was
Further than swallows fly south
It lay warm and redolent
Before sex was, our cells experimented
Shoulder to shoulder merging forms,
Emerging to becoming one or two
Or three or four better even than we can.
And died there, layer on chalky layer.
Until we sit now on their limestone
And later when we dig manure
Into the shallow earth that covers it
The fossil bound smell of ancient sea
Reminds me of my origin.