4 Tools of Meditation for Daily Life

Jan 11 2018 by Allison English

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4 Tools of Meditation for Daily Life

I have passed through many different types of meditation styles over my 20+ years as a meditation practitioner. From simple breath meditation to mantra based lineages like Transcendental Meditation and a Vedic Lineage to Zen Buddhism and so many others. They all had one thing in common for me: not a single one stuck with me no matter how hard I tried.

Breath meditation was useful to help with my anxiety but I never kept up with it and it just seemed to put a lid on the simmering pot of my emotions. Transcendental Meditation made me feel like something was missing about me that I needed to reclaim in order to meditate well. My Zen Buddhist teacher used to prod us with a long wooden pole if we didn’t sit up board straight which always felt strange. Why couldn’t I be physically comfortable and meditating? There was something useful and interesting about each of these many methodologies I passed through – no doubt – but for some reason I just could not connect with them as a regular ongoing practice for very long.

Then in 2008-ish when I suffered a pretty massive blow to my head and ensuing brain injury, I was re-introduced to the practice of yoga nidra – a supine form of guided visualization and meditation. I had first learned yoga nidra from a couple of Rod Stryker courses I had taken over the years as a yoga teacher. I had enjoyed them, but like every other meditation style they somehow fell to the wayside as a second thought. I was having difficulty focusing with my head injury and difficulty sitting/standing/moving, so I decided to give the yoga nidra recordings another chance.

Something amazing happened: my symptoms from the head injury started getting better – rapidly and, as my neurologist said, “for no apparent reason.” After all, what I had added was simply a short 30 minute nap to my day where I fell asleep to some lovely words.

I was so curious that I began to research this methodology called broadly “yoga nidra.” I came across a wealth of studies, information and recordings from a man named Richard Miller – the founder of the Integrative Restoration Institute. As I began to use his recordings of iRest Yoga Nidra (as he calls it) my healing accelerated. Even more interesting to me was that I wanted to practice with his recordings every day. I felt a sense of wholeness in my own Self that not even a decades long yoga habit had brought forth.

I decided to go and take some classes at a Yoga Journal conference with Richard and to pick his brain about my experience. His sessions were nothing short of remarkable and I learned more in a couple days with him that I had in years of meditation. He spoke to my science side and my spirit side equally. He was able to describe to me quite clearly and scientifically what was happening at the level of my brain during iRest Yoga Nidra and how it helped people like me (and many others) to heal. Yet he could also talk to me about philosophical underpinnings and histories of yoga and meditation just as easily.

Flash forward to 2014 and I had become fully immersed in my daily iRest Yoga Nidra practice and further study. I pursued Level 1 and Level 2 trainings with Richard Miller, and intensive mentoring and study under the iRest Yoga Nidra Teacher Training Certification Program (which I hope to finish in March!). There are many things I will share with you about this transforming methodology over time, but just one today. That one thing: you don’t need to add or subtract anything from yourself to meditate. There is nothing to change. Rather there are 4 simple steps you already have that you can use anywhere, anytime to thread meditation into the fabric of your everyday life and Being.

What are these 4 steps? As I said, you already use them regularly with your attention in other situations – perhaps not all at once. They are simply to meet, greet, welcome and be aware of any and all messengers that arrive to you. A messenger can be a thought, a feeling, a sensation, a movement, a stillness, an action, a belief, a story, a memory…I could go on forever – messengers are the fabric of every fluctuating circumstance of Being alive.

For the sake of this blog, I’ll use one of my favorite examples to showcase these steps – coming across a dog – to help you learn how to use these tools yourself in your own life situations.

1. Meet

Imagine you are walking down a street. You see before you that a dog is coming. As you recognize and sense “that is a dog” you have met the dog. Meeting is a step all about noting the presence of something in your open senses – in this example your eyes are the senses that meet the dog. Meeting is a step of recognition that a messenger has arrived.

2. Greet

To greet the dog you must walk towards it. The step of greeting means moving in the direction of whatever messenger has arrived. If you were to cross the street after seeing the dog, or walk around the animal, or ignore it after seeing, you would be skipping the greet step. You would be avoiding, denying or changing what is. When you greet a messenger you give it a powerful signal – it’s ok to be here. This normalizes the presence – the existence – of a messenger and helps to desensitize you to it in a useful way – a way that promotes inquiry. I’m getting ahead of myself!

3. Welcome

To welcome the dog you reach out towards it – maybe let it sniff your hand or allow you to scratch its ears. Perhaps you converse with the owner and inquire or learn more about the dog while still paying attention to the animal. Perhaps the dog starts to act up and jump around or play with your pant leg. When you use the step of welcoming you remain in a witnessing presence with the changing movements of your messenger rather than slamming the door of attention shut as soon as something unexpected happens. You might ask why the dog is so excited about your pant leg. Welcoming brings you resilient responsiveness to whatever is before you and stokes your curiosity and inquiry into why messengers are arriving. Why this dog, here, today?

4. Be Aware

Awareness is a vast, timeless, formless presence out of which everything changing is arriving, existing and moving back into. Being Aware is recognizing not only the subtler details of your messenger – what kind of dog did you meet/greet/welcome – but then also recognizing that this is one dog in an infinite number of possible dogs you could have met. Why did a Labrador arrive instead of a Greyhound? And as you meet, greet and welcome the dog you realize that all of your changing experience with this animal is unfolding against a backdrop of unchanging Awareness. In Being Awareness, there is nothing to do. There is simply the presence of experience unfolding before you related to this dog – this messenger – and perhaps a sense of timelessness while experiencing everything related to this creature.

I have found that nowadays my meditation practice is with me everywhere and all the time. I recognize myself meeting, greeting, welcoming and Being Aware of my daily thoughts, actions, emotions and body sensations. The result: I feel more connected with my own life and more peaceful. These 4 simple ways of directing my attention help me to respond differently to messengers that come my way. An emotion that I used to bottle up now becomes grounds for exploration. A sensation I used to dread now becomes fuel for understanding myself more clearly. Thoughts I believed I had to “quiet” in order to meditate successfully have become treasured friends who are essential to my wholeness and movements out of a great everything. Every messenger arrives for a reason and these 4 steps open you to the possibility of learning why a messenger is coming you way – what they have to reveal to you and how that threads into your life and into a vastness of everything.

I hope that these 4 steps can help you to also find new ways to feel everything that arrives in your attention as important and as a part of you – even (maybe especially) the challenging parts. Whenever we say internally or externally, “only this, not that,” we end up in a state of separation and suffering. Why not get curious instead about your whole Self? Meditation can be a part of your everyday life – nothing special needed. Happy meeting, greeting, welcoming and Being Aware!

5 Simple Ways to Bring Silence Home

Aug 01 2017 by Allison English

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5 Simple Ways to Bring Silence Home

I am just getting back into my life here in Chicago – my home life and my teaching life – after a really intense but really enjoyable 10 day advanced silent meditation retreat with Richard Miller and Stephanie Lopez at Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, California. There are so many gems of wisdom and experience that I want to share about this retreat with you. To do so all at once would be overwhelming – for both of us!!

To give you an idea of what this retreat was like, I think you should know about our general schedule. Our daily sessions began with an hour of chanting, pranayama and meditation in the early morning. Then we had a mid-morning 4 hour practice of seated meditation, bodysensing and a full length yoga nidra meditation. There was an afternoon break to digest our lunch and then a later afternoon 3 hour session of more seated meditation, co-meditation (meditation with a partner), walking and nature meditations, and some lecture periods. Surprise surprise I am sure – our evening sessions were 2 hours of seated meditation and sometimes more chanting, lecture, sky gazing meditations or Q&A periods. It was a lot of information and personal inquiry. We covered so many different types of meditation exercises that layered on the lessons of the day before.

Our silence was with the following agreements: no talking to one another at any time (this meant no whispering or gesturing or note writing – all creative ways to “talk” without actually speaking), no talking on cell phones (no cell phones period), no email or computer use, no numbing out with watching videos or reading fiction (we were allowed to read some of the texts that address the types of meditation we were doing), and in general we were to proceed about the retreat center with a quietness to our movements that belied our conscious awareness at all we were passing through in each moment. We were allowed at designated times to ask questions of our two teachers. We could also leave questions and notes in folders for our teachers and set up times to talk with them one on one when particularly serious things arose – and they did and I needed to!

I found myself feeling extremely creative, awake and clear during this retreat. I did not sleep very much and yet I never felt tired. My appetite and cravings completely changed and I ate a fraction of what I normally do at home. I wrote multiple blogs, almost an entire journal worth of notes and reflections, a bunch of poems and a quarter of a book I am working on – in 10 days time. I dug up some repressed emotional experiences and worked with them in the meditation setting head on. I welcomed, met and greeted all the thoughts I had not been thinking, all the emotions I had not been feeling and all the energy I had not been moving in my daily life back home. It was a tremendously therapeutic experience – so much so that I am sure to be unpacking the insights for many months to come…until I go back next year for more!

There was so much insightful learning sandwiched into every single meditation, yoga nidra and lecture session that I was almost a bit overcome with how to describe it to anyone or even take its wisdom with me into life. Being back at home I took my first weekend in Chicago to distill 5 simple practices that were really important tools from these 10 days. I wrote them down for myself and now I want to share them with you. I think these are 5 ways that ANYONE can bring the benefits of silence, meditation and quiet awareness into everyday life.

1. Take at least one meal per day where you don’t talk, email, multi-task, watch anything or communicate in any way. Uplevel by doing this in the presence of other humans. Eating in silence at first feels quite strange because the action of eating food is typically such a communal and social affair. Once you take those aspects out of eating you are left with two things: yourself and food. When it’s only you and your food you start to realize whether you eat fast or slow, do you taste your food, what do different foods feel like when you chew and swallow, how does your belly really feel after you eat certain things (especially interesting for “healthy foods” that are eating habits you might have inherited that don’t actually work for you), and do you feel distracted or agitated without the commotion of talking and sharing space with other humans socially. I’d love to hear what you learn from this one!

2. At least once per day significantly slow down the way you walk and take in all of your surroundings in detail. Without even realizing it many of us “walk” through our days at a rapid pace. We never feel the ground beneath us in its many forms. What does concrete versus grass versus asphalt versus sand versus gravel feel like? We may not pay attention to how different a bus, car and airplane feel to our bodies and minds. It is so easy in the fast pace of our modern daily life to not even see the surroundings. By the end of the 10 days at Santa Sabina I could tell you in detail where all the different trees, bushes and flower varieties were – and the gardens are extensive. We really took the time to absorb ourselves in our surroundings. I also knew the patterns of the sky and the changing levels of light as each day passed. When you slow down one of your walking or moving routes each day, you’ll start to not only see amazing things but feel a different state of mind or mood in relationship to those things.

3. Give longer periods of “free time” for contemplative practices and Being. In a culture that praises productivity and busyness it is rare to find people who just “hang out.” Without this crucial free time, humans are completely stressed out and fried mentally, physically and emotionally. We actually lose our creativity in direct proportion to our busyness. Making time for “doing nothing” and being everything is one of the most important takeaways I got from my silent retreat. Maybe you sit in silent meditation or feel some yoga poses pass through without a goal or sequence in mind. Perhaps you write free-form following the stream of your consciousness or lie down and take a nap. I dare you to pick an inanimate object and just stare at it for 30 minutes. Try any of these and let me know what happens. I think you might be surprised what opens up when you start to tune in to yourself rather than your “doing.”

Someone walked around our retreat center everyday and lit candles, turned pages and replaced gorgeous flower arrangements. The daily pages were inspiring! Here’s one from my other favorite meditation teacher Jack Kornfield.

4. Turn the technology off. Our technological advances are amazing and incredibly useful, but in so many ways they have overtaken our lives. How would you feel if you left your cell phone in a locked drawer for 10 days? How about 1 day? What if you didn’t check any of your social media for a week? Can you go a day without tv or miss an entire season of Game of Thrones? How long could you refrain from checking the news? I couldn’t believe how much energy and time was freed up to me through the simple actions that were required of me in this capacity at the retreat – no cell phones, no email, no television, no news and no internet. I lost nothing and gained an incredible amount. I also felt better about myself not looking at social media at all. I can decide what news sources I look at and how frequently, and still be highly educated about what is going on in the world. Can we check out entirely? No. Can we limit our time on these devices and set regular office hours for screen time and news time? Yes! And to great personal satisfaction and eventually with deep relaxation.

5. Be flexible with what practices you choose to do each day to sustain yourself in a state of Being and Awareness. I loved the moment when Richard Miller said something along the line of “if you are meditating every day and sitting really long, that’s not it.” What he meant was that we fixate and latch onto external practices to “give” us something when really the entire purpose of meditation is simply to remember our natural state of Being out of the essential nature of everything. This fixation on external practices turns into a vicious cycle that can make us quite rigid. Instead he offered up the insight of feeling each day what actually helps us to stay connected to a state of Being, Oneness and Awareness. Sometimes that is walking the dog, sometimes that is sitting on your meditation cushion for an hour and sometimes that is eating ice-cream watching a sunset.

One night – really late – when I couldn’t sleep – I wandered in to the chapel and saw this wonderful quote from Thomas Merton and the contemplative life. So true!

It can be incredibly uncomfortable to be silent and more aware. It means you will come face to face with whatever may be lurking underneath your physical, mental, emotional and energetic surfaces. It often feels like a case of the “Princess and the Pea” – we didn’t realize things were bothering us so much until we started paying attention and then suddenly every little thing becomes a bit of a bother for a while until there is a natural quieting down. Isn’t it so much more rewarding to welcome all these stirrings and let them come up instead of supressing them or numbing out? I think so! I know so! I hope you will take some time each day to try out these 5 simple ways you can experience some of the insights I found in my time in silence. Let me know how it goes. I’ll share more insights and practices from this retreat experience in the weeks to come to keep you exploring.

Be Here Now

Jun 05 2017 by Allison English

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Be Here Now

I am an Auntie Allison to one beautiful little being in the world: my niece. She is the most incredible little human I’ve ever met. She plays, is creative, signs words, talks and has imagination. She laughs with her whole body (and sounds just like her Dad, my brother). She sees the world around her with curiosity and engagement. She pays attention – for better or worse – to absolutely everything that is happening around her. When I’m with her, I feel more present than at any other time. Perhaps this is how parents feel on the best of days.

Spending time with my niece last Fall when she was just learning how to walk was a stark reminder of how to be here now – in the present. She would pull herself up and wobble around on her little zebra walking cart or along a wall. She couldn’t yet let go of her support. But you saw in every single moment of her trying to pull herself up, in her simple steps – the fact that she was completely present just with that moment and nothing else. And if I was with her feeling that moment, I was so fully present as well. And time flew by. I had just a few days with her and it seemed like they were gone in the blink of an eye and suddenly I was back on the plane coming home.

This little hand holds my big hand in the moment.

This little hand holds my big hand in the moment.

This weekend I got to see her again for two long stretches of play time. She now runs around, talks, eats with silverware and closely watches everyone around her and imitates them. Hours become minutes when you are playing with her. This time around she was holding a teddy bear and pretend crying – then she would rock the bear and comfort him. She hears music wherever it is playing and dances to the beat. She tries to play every musical instrument she can find – or improvises one out of a table 🙂 It is amazing to be present to her learning emotions and more advanced movements, and expressing them through play. She saw her other cousins running and she went right after them. She saw how someone played with a wind-up race car and within moments she had mastered it herself. Through play she was completely present focused, albeit in different ways this time around. I was with her in each of those moments of play!

When we are in the moment of now it feels easier to delight and play. Time becomes timelessness and we merge with being awareness rather than doing something. I slept less in those few days last Fall than my regular schedule (my brother would drop my niece on my sleeping chest each morning when she woke up so I would wake up too), and yet I felt more rested than ever. This weekend I ran around a bit crazy driving here and there to make it to all the family functions, and yet I did not feel exhausted. There is something about being aware in the present moment that charges our human-being-ness like nothing else. I also felt a tremendous drive of creativity and insight upon coming back to my regular life.

In our current world that moves faster than ever before, it feels like we have very little time to “be here now.” Everyone I know is thinking about tomorrow, their 10 year plan, their life list and goals. I know that making plans and having dreams is such a great thing – I’ve written about it on this blog and I just taught a full weekend at Kripalu about moving from past through present into future Self with Forrest Yoga self-care practices. But I think sometimes we get so caught in our development and evolution that we forget to be here now and enjoy the simple moments – like walking our niece with her little shopping cart toy.

There’s nothing radical about this blog post. You’ve probably heard it a million times that being present is a gift. Heck if you were in class last week and over the weekend with me, we had the intention of being clear and present about eight different ways (and as one of your pointed out, with a lot of variations of splits thrown in). Perhaps you have felt the same present focus around a child or activity in your life that does bring you more fully into the moment. Take this as just a gentle reminder to get to those children, activities or triggers that bring you into your present moments more often. Use each one as a fuel for your soulfulness and your Being. As our news and world events these days keep reminding us, our time here is precious and unpredictable. May you delight in every moment. I’m not ready to share my niece, but maybe a yoga class playing around could be a good compromise 🙂

Silenzio, SHHH!!!

May 20 2017 by Allison English

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Silenzio, SHHH!!!

In the summer of 2015 I unexpectedly found myself in one of the most magical and spiritual places I have ever visited: Assisi, Italy. I had no preconceived notion that I would feel this way about this place. Eric and I decided to visit this city because we had never been to Umbria and we were hosting a yoga retreat nearby the week before. We try and visit a new part of the country we travel to each year. Recently I was reminded of just how magical this trip was when scanning through the television channels and coming upon a Rick Steves episode all about Assisi.

As soon as we arrived in Assisi and checked into our quaint and quiet little apartment, we felt different. Settled. It was a searingly hot summer with temperatures in the high 90s up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there. There was no air conditioning and absolutely no breeze, just the pink stones covering the winding walkways of this mystical old city and hours of blistering sunlight. We wandered from church to church, each one a dark and cool respite from the heat. Many of the churches did not allow any photography or talking. This too felt soothing to the mental and emotional heat I had to adjust to after coming down off leading an intense retreat experience.

Assisi is the city where Saint Francis was born and founded the Franciscan religious order in the early 1200s. This order was (and is) dedicated to helping the poor, to seeing the joyous nature of life on Earth, to social justice and to living simply. All throughout our walks we would see friars, visiting priests and nuns walking amongst the tourists and residents – many of them emanating a kind and peaceful presence of Being. With such a historical significance, Assisi is equal parts Catholic churches and silent monasteries (and tourist shops!). We went in every one to explore this energy we felt all through the town.

The pink stoned walls of Assisi at sunset.

We hiked up to the hermitage rooms and caves in Eremo delle Carceri used by many a monk to commune with Self and God. We hiked down into the catacombs of many churches and visited the resting places of Santa Clara and other historical figures. We even visited Portiuncula – a tiny, ancient and powerful feeling church with a huge Basilica built around it on the outskirts of Assisi. We spent hours in the two main churches of Assisi – collectively called the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi – scouring the intricate artwork and appreciating the dark and light shapes of the lower and upper churches.

Walking the silent pathways up to a hermitage through the cool forest cover in the hills outside the city.

In each of these holy places, Eric and I (who are not necessarily “religious” people) could feel a pull of something deep and silent. Thousands upon thousands of people had prayed, convened, made pilgrimages to and worked from these spaces for many years. They left an imprint. The tiny little hermitage rooms with their one small bench felt soothing even though there was nothing about their physical shape to soothe us. The cool quiet tombs had a certain whisper of wisdom in their old air even though physically they only contained bones. The churches covered in beautiful paintings and tile work inspired our hearts even if we didn’t know who the artists were. One church even had this incredible tile mural of Saint Francis preaching to a sea of fishes – all handpainted – that we will never forget! (Saint Francis is sometimes called a patron saint of animals.)

Perhaps what struck both of us so much was that most of these churches and tombs had signs in nearly a dozen languages with two simple directives: No Photos and Silence. (Hence the no pictures of any of these sites in this blog.) Seems easy enough, and yet in every site we went and felt such a pull of silence, everyone else ignored these two simple rules and proceeded to talk loudly, point at and remark about things they saw, touch painted surfaces, photograph every little detail and disregard what felt natural to us in these places – to simply be quiet, observe, absorb and be with the experience of the space. Periodically over the loudspeaker as the din of people talking grew louder, a kind but exasperated deep voice would say, “Silenzio SHH!” or “Silence SHH!” and for a few moments a hush would come over the crowds. (Eric said it sounded like Sister Mary Elephant from Cheech and Chong – the reference is lost on me.) Not long after, the talking and photographing would start up again and the frustrated friars would look on with dismay. This repeated all day every day.

At times I wish I could be the voice over the loudspeaker saying a simple “Silenzio, SHH” reminder in many a circumstance of modern life. To the person talking to their neighbor during savasana. To the people having loud conversations in public spaces on speaker phone. To the person blasting music loud enough for all to hear through their headphones as they run around the beautiful corner of Chicago’s lakefront path. To the people taking a million selfies on the beach but missing the beautiful waves just before them. It is so easy for us to be distracted and to give in to the urge to busily log everything in picture form on our phones to share on social media instead of actually experiencing the place we are in, to speak about everything out loud instead of listening to another person or the energy of a space fully, to wrap ourselves in music/television/internet instead of sitting with the world around us.

Every place in the world from your home city to a remote island in the Pacific has its own energy and special feeling. Assisi is not alone in this! It just happened to be a powerful place where I could really find a connection to this principle of being absorbed in the unique energy of a location through quietude. Could you take the time to put your phone away, to sit or stand quietly, and to listen with all your Being to what is around you? You might be surprised at the Beauty that wells up from the silence.

Loving-kindness

Jan 09 2017 by Allison English

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Loving-kindness

At the beginning of 2016, I felt the need to look and feel dramatically at my life. I was unhappy and confused. I felt “off” nearly everyday. I had nothing specific bothering me: I love my job, my health was good, I was (and am) in a great relationship, I had a huge year of incredible work ahead of me, a roof over my head, food in my belly, a loving family…Why then did I wake up at the beginning of each day in the start of 2016 and just feel blah? I didn’t know the answer. My Spirit had gone silent. I knew I had to find out why.

I embarked on a year long journey of self-discovery guided by my Shaman, Bridget Boland. This incredible woman helped me pick a focus for every month of 2016. She helped me first to see and then to change a huge backlog of beliefs that were holding me back. Better yet, she gave me the tools to rewrite my life in the most beautiful way. We systematically, week by week, through meditations, journaling exercises, conversations and ceremonies, figured out what was at the root of my Spirit’s silence and learned how to bring my voice back. Ironically sending me into periods of deep silence was the only way to help my Spirit speak again.

Part of my yearlong 2016 homework from Bridget was to pick 12 individuals in my entire life with whom I’d had “difficult” interactions or relationships and to bring about an end to what corded or connected me to them so that I could move on from their influence on the arc of my path. A big part of the way I cut the cord with each of these individuals was to say the loving-kindness prayer to them every day for at least 15 minutes for a month. These were people who had wronged me, who I had wronged, who I hated, who sucked so much of my energy because I worried about what they thought of me. These were individuals I’d worked with, been abused by, been friends with, managed and been managed by, taught or learned from. It was a diverse and eclectic list from many eras of my life. Each month I moved from one person to the next and did a month of loving-kindness meditation for each one.

Loving-kindness, or metta meditation, was one of the first meditation practices to which I was introduced. It is the systematic direction of kindness and wellbeing towards oneself or another. Long ago when I started learning about meditation around the age of 13 or 14, I went to a Buddhist meditation center (unbeknownst to my parents – I rode my bike there!). In the little shop at this center was a book called “A Path with Heart” by Jack Kornfield. I bought it – it had a pretty pink cover and something about the “heart” word in the title drew me in. I’ve kept it with me ever since and have read it more times than I can count. The very first chapter is called “Did I Love Well?” At the time I felt very little love for much of anything in my life and I felt a calling from that chapter. Inside I learned about self-love as a ground for spiritual development and the meditation exercise at the end of the chapter is Jack Kornfield’s script for the loving-kindness meditation:

“May I be filled with loving-kindness.

May I be well.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

May I be happy.”

My well-loved and well-worn copy of Jack's book.

My well-loved and well-worn copy of Jack’s book.

For a while back then I did this simple meditation for myself, to build up a reservoir of much needed self-love – of kindness directed at my own Being. That in and of itself was a very powerful stepping stone on my pathway. Somewhere along the way another meditation technique and then another took over as I moved from tradition to tradition. When Bridget gave me this homework, it felt familiar and powerful all at the same time.

The first name on my list was a tough one. The first few days – probably the first week – the words of the prayer felt like ash on my tongue. I physically felt like I was choking on the words to get them out in my mind’s eye. None of this meditation was done out loud – all internally. Still, I had a serious choking sensation as I began this process. It was challenging internally to wish this person well. They hurt me – terribly. I realized I clung to the hurt righteously even though it didn’t serve me in the least to feel any better. Each day it got a little easier to repeat the words over and over again. Slowly, day by day, the 15 minutes no longer felt like an eternity. Even more interesting was the sensation of lightness related to all the experiences of my life tied to this person. I palpably sensed the release of emotions, energy, thoughts, memories and stories related to this person.

A new month would begin and the process would start all over again. The feelings of dry mouth; the gagging on the words of loving-kindness. And each month, no matter the person on the list, the gagging would fade and the lightness would take over. Even for the REALLY rough people on the list – the ones I never thought I would ever wish well – a lightness always prevailed through the simple action of repeating the words of the prayer.

I thought this homework was assigned to me so that I might learn how be kind to those who had hurt me, or I might magically meet each one again and get to hash out our problems and solve everything. That was not the reason Bridget gave me this homework at all. I will likely never see any individual on my 2016 list again. It’s highly unlikely even if I did see these people that we would ever come to some happy resolution or have an epic fight or showdown that would make me feel any better. The purpose of the prayer as I see it now was to help me release all the energy I had unknowingly tied up in hatred, regret, worry, fear, and anxiety towards these people and towards myself in relationship with each one of them. In sending them loving-kindness, I was finally able to forgive myself for the role I played in the relationships I had with each one. At the same time I really wished each one of them well-being and peace and hope that they were able to feel it in some way.

Perhaps you have people you have wronged or feel wronged by in your history. I hope you can use this simple meditation to bring about some lightness to all the ways those wrongs may have tied you up in mind, body and Spirit along the way. There is no reason to stay bound up in misery to someone else – we all want to live happy, prosperous, loved lives. What a waste of our precious life force to remain stuck in old agony – our own or someone else’s.

Does my year of meditation mean these people didn’t wrong me? No, it does not. Some of them committed serious crimes against me. Others stabbed my Spirit with their actions hoping to kill her off. None of the reality of those wrongs goes away with this process, but almost miraculously I no longer feel any tie to the wrongness or my responses to it. I know its truth but I am not tied down by it any longer.

Write your list. Start tonight. Four simple lines. 15 minutes. Are you ready to let them go yet?

In Loving Silence

Oct 25 2016 by Allison English

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In Loving Silence

I am just returning home from a silent meditation retreat – the third one I have done in a few years. I have been meaning to write about my experiences being silent for two years – but it had been difficult before this last retreat to put into words what really happened to me when I went silent. Here is the beginning of a multi-part blog series I want to share with you about why silence is so powerful…and why I think everyone should go into silence at some point in their life.

Two years ago in November of 2014 I went on my first silent meditation retreat – four days with an iRest teacher named Anne Douglas who I didn’t know very well. She was leading a weekend retreat from a Friday evening to a Monday midday in Dayton, Ohio. It was close, a cheap flight, I liked her the one time I met her at an iRest Teacher Training and the retreat was part of the requirements for my five year foray into becoming a Certified iRest Yoga Nidra Teacher. I signed up figuring four days was an easy start, and committed to silence. Inside I felt really nervous about the whole thing.

You see, I’m a talker – a chatter. I come from a long line of mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, cousins, nieces and grandmothers who have the gift for gab. One of my favorite verbs that I learned while studying abroad in Italy is chiacchierare (to chat). The thought of being silent for four days – not even four full days – really sent me into a spin of internal discomfort. And there is one thing I’ve learned about discomfort over the years: facing it head on has always brought me to amazing places I never knew existed.

When I arrived at Bergamo Center in Dayton, Ohio for the weekend, we signed in and got our room keys. Everyone around me either knew one another or was getting to know one another. They were all talking loudly in a little lounge area near the front door. As I signed in the woman behind the registration table got me my room key, my map of the building, a schedule, my name tag and noted that I had registered to be silent. She gave me a second tag that said, “In Loving Silence” and told me to wear it so everyone knew I was being silent for the weekend.

The tag that started it all "In Loving Silence."

The tag that started it all “In Loving Silence.”

It was in that moment I realized that not everyone had chosen to do this weekend silent…in fact only two of us had registered to be silent. I felt a ball in my throat start to form. Being quiet when everyone else was also being quiet was bad enough but absolutely do-able. Being quiet when everyone else was talking incessantly?? Not possible.

I made my way to my room and unpacked. I had a bit of time before dinner and the opening session. I made an agreement with myself to stick with my intention of being quiet even if everyone else was talking. I made my way to the loud dining hall and got some food. I sat alone because it felt weird to sit with everyone else who was talking. I’m typically very social so it felt difficult to sit alone with my food. I raced through my meal to avoid the discomfort. It was evident before the retreat sessions even began that being silent set me apart, made other people uncomfortable and was not really understood.

When we settled in to the first evening session and Anne oriented us to the weekend, she talked about why silence is such a beautiful thing – it gives us a break, it brings us up against our internal dialogue, it is a sacred space we rarely get in our everyday life. I think she had noticed during dinner that the two of us with our “In Loving Silence” badges felt a bit out of it. As a result, she decided to make periods of the entire retreat silent. She chose different meal times, different session times and a couple of evenings when EVERYONE was supposed to be silent. This was to help everyone understand the gift of silence.

I found this shift in the retreat really supportive to my endeavor to be quiet. I found it deepened my meditation and made my silence easier. I also found that the rest of the group had a terrible time with being quiet. Every silent meal people would ask for things like, “Can you pass the salt?” Or comment on the food, “Doesn’t this taste amazing?” Invariably they would then say, “Oh shoot, sorry we aren’t supposed to be talking.” As soon as everyone was out of Anne’s watchful eye, they all started talking and complaining about being quiet.

Our daily schedule included pranayama, silent meditation, guided meditation, intuitive movement/body sensing yoga practices and iRest Yoga Nidra practices. There were breaks for meals and naps. It was a steady and nourishing schedule – one that felt so far from the fast paced hectic life I led back home. It was very interesting to be a silent observer of the dynamic of other participants’ responses to the schedule, silent periods, meals and meditations. And because I was quiet, I really got to take in what was going on around me in much deeper ways than when I was normally distracted by the social chitter chatter of daily life.

At one point another participant held the door as I walked into our meditation room with her and when I didn’t say anything she said, “Well you could at least say thank you!” With a huge harrumph she stormed off. At another point in the weekend I was sitting in my room journaling and a group of other students was outside my door lamenting how me and the other woman who was in silence were being so weird and strange. I felt really judged and really unwelcome, but I held my silence and I learned so much from all of the experiences that weekend. During the meditations I noticed how many of the other participants could not sit still in the quiet – they constantly had to be sighing, mumbling, moving props around, slurping water or tea, or apologizing out loud for making noise. My own silence made every other sound around me amplified. It was fascinating!

Here are the TOP 5 of many things I learned on this retreat while being silent.

  1. My silence made others uncomfortable because they had to confront their own loudness. It can be really a challenge to meet and greet our less desirable characteristics so we often use things like talking to gloss over going inside ourselves for self-discovery.
  2. My discomfort at making others uncomfortable was a challenge. I realized I really like to people please and fix things.
  3. When you are silent for extended periods you can really examine your motivations for talking – you feel the urge to speak come up and because you don’t act on it you can study it instead. I found that I always wanted to chime in because I wanted to be viewed as smart, worthy and/or likable. Because I couldn’t chime in all weekend, I had to meet and greet those feelings and stories inside me about being stupid, unworthy and unloveable. A few days of silence gave me more than years of talk therapy in those arenas!
  4. Being alone and silent was also a particular gift of this retreat. Because I wasn’t making social connections, I was often in my room by myself. And without email or internet or social media, I truly felt “cut off” and alone in the best sense of the word. I am almost never alone in my regular life – there is always someone around me or some technology calling me to check in. Spending time silent and alone without technology brought up huge insights into my desires to write again, a longing to ice skate and a feeling of wanting to go back to a spiritual setting each week (like church!!). These were strange longings. I dreamed in poems. I frantically scribbled out nearly a dozen book ideas in those four days. And without having the quiet silence alone, I don’t think I would have gotten back into writing or taken myself ice skating more often or picked up my spiritual practices again.
  5. Being silent makes you a great listener and observer. There is so much more to the minutiae of daily life that gets lost in the hustle and bustle of our noise.

I left my time with Anne feeling inspired and quite rested. I didn’t want to talk. On the plane ride home and for several days after the retreat, I really spoke very little. Silence left me feeling introspective, raw and vulnerable. I loved it and knew that it needed to be a bigger part of my life, but I wasn’t sure how it fit as a piece into my daily schedule and yearly calendar. I let everyone know when I got back just how refreshing silence was, and how much easier it was than I thought it would be. This first foray into silence began a journey that has continued and influenced so much of my life in wider rippling circles. I’m excited for this series of blogs to share that journey with you and hopefully to inspire you to get quiet and experience your Self and the world around you in a profoundly different way.

Start small: 10 minutes of silence (verbally and technologically) starting now. Report back on how it goes!

 

The Stories We Tell

Jun 06 2016 by Allison English

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The Stories We Tell

This weekend I taught a Forrest Yoga class themed around internal dialogue. Our internal dialogue is the running speech going on inside our heads all the time – and often it’s quite a harsh monologue! This intention for class struck a cord with the students and many realized that behind the scenes a litany of devastating stories were passing by at any given moment. If left unconscious, the stories we tell our selves can be detrimental to our well-being. Once brought to light, there is often an uncomfortable period of acknowledging the havoc these stories have wreaked on our life choices and path. So what are we to do about the stories we tell ourselves internally?

I’m no stranger to storytelling! One of the first things that brought me into the practice of Forrest Yoga was Ana Forrest asking me the simple questions, “Do you believe your injury can heal?” “What can you do in this moment?” and “Who is the person you most want to become?” My answers when I met her were something along the lines of: my injury cannot heal this is just how it will be for me forever, I can’t do anything in this moment or any other moment because I am totally and completely incompetent, and I don’t want to be anyone because there is nothing noteworthy about me that matters. WHOA! Holy harsh internal dialogue! Ana could sense this tendency in me from the get-go. None of these stories were true and she had seemingly magical methods to get me to the truth: healing is always a possibility, there is always a choice we can make in each moment to move towards our own path of healing, and Spirit can help us to uncover the person we most want to become through an exciting and fascinating journey into our Self.

Perhaps you too are currently plagued by a nasty internal dialogue of stories like mine. Here are the tools I’ve learned through Forrest Yoga and through my other teacher, Bridget Boland, to rewrite the stories running inside so that they are supportive of the person I most want to become.

Identify where you hold the story physically. Every story in your internal dialogue lives in your body. When you come across a story you’ve been running with, FEEL where it lives. Take the first area that shows up in your awareness when you repeat this story. You must feel where it lives in your body – you can’t think about this one! Once you find the home of your story in your physical body, do things that reach that area and shift its perspective. Take deep breaths that stir the energy of this spot. Do poses that affect the spaciousness this area holds. Flip yourself upside down and sense what happens to this house of your story. Changing the physical home of your troubling story changes how you are able to see, feel, understand and rewrite an inner tale you’ve been telling yourself.

Align with your wisdom centers. Our head is only one of many wisdom centers in our toolbox – and it’s the one that gets too much stage time! Practicing physical postures where you align your head with your heart and gut can help you glean insight from the wise cave of your heart and the intuition of your gut. Experimenting with simple breathing exercises and traditional pranayama can help you draw on the wisdom of your breath. Meditating on the areas of the 7 major chakras – pelvic floor, pelvic bowl, middle abdomen, heart center, throat, middle brain and top of head – can help you pull in understanding from your sources of emotion, creation, digestion, relationship and so much more! As you get more information, the old story begins to feel small and you realize it doesn’t actually fit you anymore.

Ask someone you trust outside of your mind. Sometimes a trusted ally or friend can be the light that pierces through a damaging story. I trust my shaman, Bridget, a lot. I’ve known her since I was 21 and she assisted Ana in my Forrest Yoga Foundation Teacher Training course. When I get stuck on a story that I think is true, but feel is limiting me – she is an ally who can reflect to me how kooky some of my internal dialogues are. It’s important to have these mirrors outside of yourself to remind you of what is helping you forward and what is holding you back. A trusted outside source can help you to become conscious of the stories you tell yourself that are not, in fact, true. The same sources can then inspire you to see the actual. We have a practice in Forrest Yoga that is similar whereby two teachers sit together and tell each other “what’s great about you.” There’s never a dry eye! Again and again our stories have limited our ability to see our own Beauty – we just need to be reminded of it now and then!

See all the possibilities. Oftentimes when we get stuck in our lives it is because a limiting story has taken up roots inside us. Our limiting stories may relate to our physical abilities, our career paths, financial situation, relationships and so much more. We get accustomed to seeing only what we think we know and excluding all the other possibilities. Ana was able to model to me through her injury journey the possibility of recovery from my own injury. When I would ask her questions about her injuries and how she worked to promote healing in her own body, her answers would inspire a curiosity in me to seek out how I might also experience healing. Seeing another possibility and being curious about it reminds our mind that there is not only one way things can go. This reminder sets us up for re-crafting the visions we have about our Self.

Write them and read them out loud. This is perhaps the most difficult tool I’ve used to help rewrite my internal stories: I physically wrote them out on a piece of paper and read them out loud to myself. Feeling the downtrodden, sad, depressed or angry feelings that arose in me when I read my internal dialogue out loud helped me to understand how damaging these stories were to my physical, mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual well-being. I started writing out what I wanted to believe about myself, what I wanted to foster in myself and the way I intended things to happen. Reading these statements, while also very uncomfortable in a different way, brought on feelings of hope, happiness and excitement. Now I know that when a thought comes up that heavily weighs me down, I have to return to the drawing board to find a new one that helps to lift me up.

Take the time to explore what your internal dialogue is talking about inside you all the time. Feel, do you like the conversation that is being spoken? If not, take the time to bring in these tools so that you can build up your own inner champion and experience your life from a place of truthful affirmations. I know that some of you may worry that without your negative internal critic, you’ll never get anywhere in life. The truth is that you will evolve beyond your wildest imagination as you let go of that critic and tell yourself some more truthful and compelling stories.

Distractions

May 19 2016 by Allison English

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Distractions

We live in a world full of distractions. Texting, social media, new television shows, new movies, the next “big” life drama…the list goes on and on. As a yoga teacher for the past 14 years and a practitioner for the past 18, I have seen the state of the distracted mind get seemingly worse and worse. It was challenging for students to hold their attention through five rounds of pranayama back in 2004, now it is nearly impossible to get my newest students through even three rounds without someone checking their phone (no phones are allowed in class), looking at the clock several times or staring down everyone around them.

Just this week several students spent an entire 90 minute class texting, checking their Facebook pages and talking to one another during class – even when asked to refrain from doing these activities. They just couldn’t stop themselves from pushing the button on their phone and seeing who had texted them even though their phones were off. And this morning’s commute was snarled by a four car fender bender that happened because two of the drivers were texting and on the internet while driving in traffic. In some ways these situations bring up in me the thought that it is not entirely their fault – our culture and society have created a world of distractions and encouraged us to use them!

This state of being in the modern world has taught me to be more patient with my students as they learn how to re-train their attention to be present with one thing at a time. I continuously focus my classes on guiding students into the present moment through feeling the movement of their breath and the sensations in their body. But it has also left me curious about the nature of distractions and how we can work to improve our attention.

Every year for the past 5 or so years I have taught a class on January 1 to kick off the year. I’ve set a yearly intent to guide us through our practices as a community along the course of 12 months. We revisit the intent of the year in a few practices every month to stay connected and track how it is changing our perceptions and actions across a whole year. Several years ago I came across the Sanskrit word avikaritvam as I was reading an article about the Bhagavata Purana (a classical Indian text about Krishna). Translated as either “clarity” or “freedom from all distraction,” this word really stuck with me. It felt at the time, as it does now, like something my community needed more connection to. I set it as our yearly intent when I came across it…and it fell flat on its face. Every mention of it made my students fidgety, uncomfortable and, well, more distracted! I felt at the time like it failed to inspire anyone.

Enter today. I have returned to teaching about this concept more and more – perhaps this time around more skillfully myself. I started with my own life to inspire the teaching. Instead of just using a concept I was interested in and a word that felt wise, I looked at the distractions in my own life as a place to study this in action so that I could teach about it better. What I found alarmed me.

My social media habits were a major distraction. I love Facebook. I used to check that thing all the time. And I got into a nasty habit of comparing myself to every other yoga teacher in my feed, feeling most days like a total failure. Instagram? Love it. Who doesn’t love a cute puppy photo? Twitter…I have no idea why it is important, but I was addicted to scanning through those little snippets. I used to justify my time spent on social media as “a place I went to for inspiration” or “the way I kept in contact with friends from afar.” The truth: it was a major distraction. Nowadays I’ve broken that distraction cycle by only looking at social media sites once per day and for a time allowance. I unfriended or stopped following people that genuinely made me unhappy. I wrote down and redefined my own rules of what I post on social media, when I post it and why. I revisit those rules every few months to see if they need updating. And when I am working on something that needs my attention, I close off everything else that could distract me. I leave my phone away from me so I am not tempted to look at it.

My work habits were a major distraction. I used to book myself solid. 14 hours a day for 7 days a week? No problem! Running from client to client through traffic in rush hour at opposite ends of the city? No problem! … Wait! HUGE problem. In keeping myself so booked with work engagements, I left myself zero time (or energy) to engage with the really important things in my life. I essentially distracted myself from my own growth and delight in life by being unnecessarily busy. Today I’ve hired a “coach” and re-evaluated my schedule really honestly. I’ve let go of clients and classes in the last year – many of them. I no longer take a client when I can’t actually teach them well. I have opened up my schedule to have stretches of time for writing, being with my partner, walking my dog and hanging out with friends – activities I used to “distract” myself away from.

My mind’s creation of dramatic stories about my life was a major distraction. Unless you know me really well, you might not know that beneath the surface inside my mind used to be an incessant string of dramatic critical stories about myself and others. I could waste hours of sleep time, yoga practice time and even loved-one time by re-hashing gossip, failures, mistakes and stories I had created about who I was that I didn’t like. Talk about exhausting! And also a huge distraction away from the things that are going well in my life, that are near and dear to me, that I want to grow into and that are the actual reality of the world around me. This one was a bit harder to get around. The mind is a slippery place and gets so settled in its ways. I started by letting go of the people in my life who gossip and who want me to engage in gossip. This was easier than expected! They didn’t actually like me – they just wanted someone to collude with. Then I started recognizing when I was talking in stories that were not actually true – mostly about myself but sometimes about others. Every time I caught myself in this action, I stopped, rewarded myself for catching the behavior and moved on to something in the new habit I wanted to cultivate. Finally, the best way out of this distraction was to get back into a daily meditation practice every single morning. It’s amazing how we can rewrite our stories, untangle them and quiet our critic with just a small meditation time each day.

I’m sure there are many more ways I encounter distractions in my everyday life. These stuck out for me! When you look to your life: where do you sink into distractions? Sit with the fact that as they exist now, they are sapping your power, energy and focus. Channeling your focus through small changes in your social media habits, putting your phone completely away when you drive, re-evaluating how you keep yourself so busy, cutting out the gossip from your conversations, adding in some daily meditation and cultivating healthier habits for your mind can make all the difference. It’s so worth it! Every day feels more fresh, clear and spacious without my distractions.

Unfinished Business

May 05 2015 by Allison English

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Unfinished Business

There was a rendition of the Addams Family made into a movie in the early 90s featuring Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston. I remember having it at home on VHS and watching it with glee. I loved the old TV show and I loved this movie – for some reason I found it so funny. I even dressed as Morticia Addams one year for Halloween. A particular scene has been popping into my head regularly: the scene about unfinished business. Early in the movie Raul Julia’s character, Gomez Addams, is meeting with his accountant. His accountant proposes a new idea masked in philanthropy to get more money from the Addams family…and Gomez responds by flipping through his calendar ridiculously fast and saying, “this sounds like new business and we do not discuss new business….until next quarter.”

Why would I be thinking about this scene and writing about this obscure older movie, you say? Well, because I have a lot of unfinished business that can’t wait until next quarter. I’ve been reflecting on the fact that every week I write out a to-do list, and every week the darn thing gets longer and longer. And as it grows in length, and my teaching, administrative and personal tasks grow by leaps and bounds, so does my anxiety with the continual accumulation of unfinished business each week. At times it feels as if I am drowning in things left undone.

At a recent appointment with my acupuncturist, Grainne McKeown (she is incredibly talented, check her out if you are looking for an amazing Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner), she asked me if I was feeling anxious while she was listening to my pulses. And suddenly it just came rushing out in a messy flood of things to do, thoughts on my mind, and tears. I was feeling completely and totally anxious and overwhelmed that “nothing” was getting done. Perhaps you can relate?

We spent a few minutes talking about things left undone. It leaves me with a tremendous feeling of anxiety when things are left undone. The reality of the situation is that there is ALWAYS more to be done. There is no possible way to complete everything on my weekly list in the hours of one week…I should call it a reminder list rather than a to-do list. And then Grainne brought up a great point: she said, “Well really, life is completely undone and all we have are the moment to moment experiences we are present with. Life isn’t done until we are dead.” Boom.

My mind also drifted during our conversation and my resting time during our session to the fact that we sometimes want things to come undone: a tight hamstring, a knotted upper back, a toxic relationship. How could I come to appreciate the balanced Beauty of what I wanted to be undone and what was presently unfinished? How could I understand the contradictions of being, doing, done and undone?

A perfect sidewalk reminder about contradictions from San Francisco's Chinatown district.

A perfect sidewalk reminder about contradictions from San Francisco’s Chinatown district.

As homework from her, I’ve been shifting my meditation practice the past few weeks to work with these reflections. How to sit with what I wanted undone and what was unfinished presently and fully. The amazing result: the anxiety goes away if I am fully present with the fact that everything is undone and it’s beautiful that it is unfinished. My whole life is actually undone and each moment simply weaves another thread into the tapestry of my existence, but never really finishes the tapestry until I’m gone. At times I pull threads out of my tapestry of life that no longer go with the pattern I’m weaving. Sitting with the unfinished business presently and consciously acknowledging my ability to undo things I want to, I can actually see and perceive all the threads of moments before that have been added and taken away. There is something calming to recognize what I have done, to appreciate the threads that are unfinished but coming up, and to know that a part of being with the unfinished business is removing threads that no longer work. This practice also remarkably helped me to feel much more Being and much less Doer.

Forrest Yoga has a similar meditation practice that I used to practice a lot when I first started working with Ana, but had forgotten was in my tool box. During meditation one Advanced Teacher Training, Ana reminded us that a great way to process incoming thoughts, emotions and disturbances was to keep a pad of paper at our side and to write down everything as it came up and then to go back to meditating. This simple act of recording the unfinished thoughts, the processing emotions, the creative ideas and more that arose during meditation, gave a brilliant lightness to the undone rather than an anxious heaviness.

Perhaps you too have a lot of unfinished business or an anxiety-producing to-do list. Maybe you have things you are actively trying to undo in your life. Try these simple tools on your own and feel if they help you to connect to greater ease, clarity and peace.

1. Sit down or lie down. Close your eyes. Ask yourself, “Self, what is undone?” Feel what arises in your mind or body. Notice colors, shapes, sounds, smells or people that come up for you. Sit with the feeling of what is undone as each piece of unfinished business arises. Notice the threads of things you have completed that are tied to some of these still to be woven threads. Feel emotions that arise when you are with your unfinished business. Then ask yourself, “Self, what would you like to undo?” and repeat the mindful process of feeling what arises. Start with 5 minutes of sitting and as it gets easier, add in 1 minute at a time.

2. Sit down with a pen and piece of paper next to you. Begin to breath slowly and smoothly with clear attention to the feeling of your breath. Any time your mind wanders from the breath, pick up the pen and write down where your mind wandered to. Keep going no matter how many times you have to stop and write something down. It may take several times of doing this type of meditation before you have any long stretches of simply holding attention to breath. That’s great! You can review and reflect on what you wrote at the end, or simply throw that list away if it feels better to do that.

I hope that these two simple meditation exercises can help you to fascinate on the Beauty of what is undone and unfinished in your life. Dissolution and coming undone are essential building blocks for new things to come. Unfinished tasks offer up opportunities for creativity and excitement. So when anxiety arises over how much left there is to do in your life, pause for even a moment to remember that those incomplete pieces are vital to what is coming next. And you get to be the weaver of what comes next!