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!

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 🙂

Planned Spontaneity

May 02 2016 by Allison English

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Planned Spontaneity

I am an avid planner. I love to-do lists and schedule books. I spend some time every day planning the next day. When I travel, I make a file of pertinent documents and contact numbers so that I have them in case I need them. I plan my yoga classes and my workshops, I plan when to sleep and when to eat. As a result of my love of planning, I am a bit stingy with this thing called “spontaneity.” It was recently suggested by one of my mentor teachers that I “put down the to-do list.” 🙂

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My 24-hour per day planners…maybe time for an inspiring upgrade from this!

I joke, but it is actually a real problem. I want so much to plan and control everything in my day and schedule that it leaves no wiggle room for when a friend calls up and wants to have dinner last minute, or when my partner wants to run and grab a movie spur of the moment. My planning actually cuts out some really fun stuff from my life!

I decided that this is another habit (one of those branches off my “overworking” habit tree) that needs some pruning. I’m not one for huge change (shocking I’m sure given my love of planning and may I say ahem “control.”) I decided to take this one on slowly: once per week I would not plan any of my classes for a full day. I could think about them all I wanted, but not write out anything. The result: some really amazing classes and I’m told no one could tell the difference.

When I write my classes out it does absolutely prepare me and help me hone in on some sequencing skills – it also gives me a record of what I taught. When I let go of writing things out, I didn’t lose any of the sequencing skills and I recorded what I taught after the fact. What I gained was an ability to jump into setting themes and intents, working pose sequences in the moment to different students’ needs and a lightness in my energy. I found my inspiration going in all new directions and my Spirit picking poses out of my internal yoga lexicon that I don’t gravitate towards when I’m actively planning.

The irony is not lost on me that I’m still actually “planning” my “spontaneity.” I had to start somewhere! This little shift has helped open me up to accepting the random invitation to an evening gala even though I would “normally” teach. It has made me aware of some of the many blind spots that have developed in my teaching career because of my planning obsessions. This little once per week change has made a big difference in my willingness to break out of my control box – I feel the changes seeping outside of yoga teaching.

What if one small change to a pose that you have resisted could make all the difference in how it feels or how it effects you? What if one different step in your daily routine could really help you out of a controlling habit? Would you do it? Pick something that has been challenging you habit-wise this season: a thought, action, recurring emotion, food choice, pathway you take to get to work, etc. Decide one small thing you could do ONE TIME this week that would take you off this habit hamster wheel. For example: you always take the Red Line downtown to work because it’s closer to home. So one day this week you give yourself some extra time, walk the extra blocks to the nearest Brown Line Station, ride around the Loop and get off at a different station – feeling what’s different about your routine and how you respond. Then run the experiment again another day next week and take the bus!

If we learn how to make change fun we can become our own inspiration for evolution. Identifying our own habits and then playfully working with them teaches us how to be our own best life guide. It gives us independence in our process of development. These types of exercises for the Spirit also help remind us how important PLAY is to our ability to create meaningful shifts in our life. When we are in a state of playfulness we are not attached to the outcome – this allows us to consider, choose and work with so many different options – stoking our creativity and insights. Pick your experiment and let me know how it goes and what you learn!

Blessing in Disguise

Nov 23 2015 by Allison English

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Blessing in Disguise

This weekend I was supposed to be in Sioux Falls, South Dakota teaching at the new studio of my colleague, Gretchen Borgum. I was so excited to be bringing a full load of Forrest Yoga and iRest Yoga Nidra workshops to her space, Soul Movement Studio. I was thrilled to get her invite (and we will rebook this weekend!), delighted to meet the community in a new city and geeking out on what I could bring with me to teach them. I’ve been prepping for months – delicately researching and planning each workshop. In the last week alone I likely spent 15 hours on my lesson plans and making sure everything would work smoothly as a weekend experience. I prepped my life here at home to make sure I was all set for the weekend – snacks packed, laundry cleaned, emails answered.

I knew that a snowstorm was heading for Chicago on Saturday and that Sioux Falls would get some of that snow on Friday when I was due to leave. I figured I would beat the worst of the snowstorm by taking the first flight out of O’Hare to Sioux Falls…Mother Nature had other plans. Mid-way through our initial descent into Sioux Falls we had to turn around and go back to Chicago because conditions had gotten so bad due to the snow. Back in Chicago I was told the Sioux Falls airport was closed until further notice, the remaining flights of the day were either fully booked or cancelled.

The snow in Sioux Falls by morning - already very deep and still going strong! Photo courtesy of my host Gretchen Borgum!

The snow in Sioux Falls by morning – already very deep and still going strong! Photo courtesy of my host Gretchen Borgum!

I found myself feeling growly – barking a bit at the United customer service rep who couldn’t re-book my flight or find me a seat. He was trying to help and I was just irritated by the whole situation. He told me the outlook was not good for any flight to get out of O’Hare to my destination until Sunday – which wouldn’t do me any good. I decided to cancel my weekend of workshops – something I hate to have to do. The whole cab ride home I was wracked with a feeling of “what more could I have done? Should I have driven there? Maybe I could have forced my way onto a later flight?” etc.

In this swirl of thoughts I realized how absolutely tired I was. I taught two winter retreats and numerous workshops. I worked all summer teaching conferences, workshops and retreats. I worked through an injury during my “off” month of August when I didn’t have any big events booked. September I worked more hours in 28 days than I would in in 10 weeks of a my typical schedule. I ran right into October and working in England on some continuing education through Forrest Yoga. Then I taught a Forrest Yoga Intensive workshop here in Chicago before running to Sioux Falls. All these extras occurred alongside what would already be a busy “normal” teaching schedule of classes and clients in Chicago. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVED every moment, but it was a hectic year.

When the weekend was cancelled, a profound and deep exhaustion settled upon me. I looked back a year, two years, five years, ten years, twenty years…I’ve been working since I was around 11. I used to recycle aluminum cans and foil, babysit, run a mini neighborhood day care for the kids on my block, teach figure skating, caddie at a suburban golf club – all while also being a high performing student and athlete. I can’t remember a time when I actually had a stretch of free time before me to sink into. Even on “vacation” I’m typically preparing for my next event or combining fun travel with work. I had done all the leg work before this weekend was cancelled and before me were two precious days of really absolutely nothing.

In this realm of nothing I finally started writing again. I dreamed. Pages poured out into the journal. I caught up on awfully wonderful tv shows I’m way behind on. I read. I had time to be with my partner and my dog. I slept in – until like after 9am! I’m not sure that has ever happened. I made pancakes for breakfast. I ate leisurely. I danced in the kitchen for no reason. I felt no rush to do anything and it was wonderful. I wrote a handful of poems in less than 30 minutes. I feel at ease.

So this cancellation was really a blessing in disguise. It revealed to me more clearly than anything else a tremendously challenging pattern I have inside me to DO DO DO. I love my job. I love working on workshops and planning classes. I adore my clients and the beautiful yoga work we do together. I get jazzed to work 14 hour days with my teacher Ana Forrest because it’s fun and I learn so much. I’m open to working on retreat planning and teacher training day in and day out. But there is so much more to me and I feel my Spirit has been quietly trying to tell me for a while now that I need to slow down and take time for some of my many other interests outside of my current work. I started to get really curious: what is living behind all the DOING?

The blessing is being able to see behind the disguise of really great work to a really nasty habit: overworking. The lesson here is a good one. The next time things don’t go the way you planned, can you see behind the change in plans to what is really being revealed to you? What great thing is disguising one of your challenging habits? Feeling and recognizing our own self-sabotaging habits is one of the most important areas for growth. It is hard to acknowledge that things we do could actually be awful for us. I hope that your yoga practice or connection with me helps give you the tools to look at your own habits that need a little bit of help so you can grow in new directions. Will you look behind some of your disguises with me? Let’s do these big changes together!

I’m sure this is not my only habit that needs some polishing 🙂 but it is the one at the forefront with many roots into other habits that I’m going after first. How? I’ve started with a re-evaluation of my schedule, of the people and projects I really want to keep working on. I’ve asked for my partner’s help to remind me to take time off. I’m looking for ways to take a second day off every week. I’m reviewing my 2016 schedule and making it simpler even if it means I don’t teach as much. I’m willing to change things to sustain my love of my work but to add in my love of my life and to make time for both. I am risking looking behind the disguise of my doing to get back in touch with the blessing of my being.

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!