Insight Meditation Timer


I have never considered myself an activist. I wouldn’t know where to start. I know that we are in a time in which action is necessary and important, if only to show that we are awake – or wish to be – and that caring humans are not so last century. I think that showing support – or lack thereof – by how and where we spend our money is a method to induce change. I think that in addition to taking care of each other and making decisions aligned with the good, a daily spiritual practice is of the utmost importance.

Spiritual practice can be a lonely business. It’s not that you need company or that it’s something anyone can do with you, though we can practice together. There’s the cushion at the zendo where we sat around a big square while a sweet nun made the bell to sing, signalling the start of silent practice. We closed our eyes and though it was a room full of people, the work we did was solitary.

After a period of sitting in this square the bell would sing again and we would turn one hundred and eighty degrees to face the white wall behind us. The bell sings and we sit for about half an hour. Still together, still alone.

Satsang is “a sacred gathering” if you ask Google. It’s the folks with whom you study and practice. You ask, “My hip felt pins and needles when we did that pigeon, how was yours?”

“Pins and needles, yeah. Mine too.” Might be a response from a member of your satsang.

“It’s been hard getting to the cushion lately.” Someone might say and there is someone with an answer or, in the least, words of encouragement like, “I experience that too.” So at least you know you’re not alone.

I recently misplaced the kitchen timer I use in my meditation station. I remembered back before iphones were a thing there were the ipod shuffles. The studio owner where I studied in the single digits of the twenty-first century used one of these things for a meditation timer. She would poke at the sleek glassy screen and cue up a bell that would chime us into and out of the timed meditation practice at the end of yoga class.

I remember that five minutes felt interminable, if we went for ten I was crawling out of my skin. Not too many yoga classes that I have been to conclude with a seated practice. If I am honest, I will admit that I don’t include it in classes I teach because of how tense folks can get in that five minutes. It is daunting, dear Reader, to see the abject dismay on a dozen faces who are not in the mood to sit quietly. I can hear their noisy minds, “I didn’t sign up for this! I came for a yoga practice! Why in the hell are we meditating?”

One night while I was looking at my meditation space and feeling quite sick and tired of myself and my nightly fits of resistance, not unlike those early years of sitting at the end of a yoga class, I remembered that meditation timer from those years ago. I pull out the ‘ole sliver of glass that passes for a telephone and find the app without much difficulty; Insight Meditation Timer.

I’m usually late to discovering the things that have been cool for a decade, so I will not be insulted if you think I’m ridiculous for starting to use this thing last week. I sat down and set the timer. I resolve to one of the first practices I brought home from a weekend immersion with Swami; sit for eleven minutes practicing ujjaii pranayama and look for the spaces between thoughts.

A digital bell sings. I close my eyes, rest my hands lightly on my knees and focus on that sacred movement of breath. The stillness rises and falls like waves. There is a moment when I can see a gap in thinking coming closer to me, it washes across my brow then lets in thoughts of what color I should have colored that dragonfly’s wing in the coloring book I got for Christmas. This is how it goes.

The bell chimes neatly and I hold the space another moment longer. I find that this practice fortifies discipline; not to jump right up when the meditation is over but remain for another five breaths. Creak the eyes open and ride the practice out into the space of daily existence. My Teacher calls this the wake of meditation.

When I regard the phone’s reflective surface the Insight Meditation Timer adds an element to my practice I hadn’t really noticed I was missing; companions. The screen shows that 2,365 people just meditated with me, or 3,477 people meditated with me from around the world. Over 5,000 sat in meditation with me last night.

Germany, Australia, Ohio, New York, New Zealand and Florida where I sit in a dimly lit room. I find the number of people meditating in the middle of the night absolutely staggering and inspiring (though it might not be the middle of the night where they are).

Since I began using this meditation timer the daily news has not gotten any better. The upheavals and divisive rhetoric have not diminished  over the last couple of weeks. I will admit, dear Reader, I have been afraid and at the same time deeply discouraged. The challenges grow and I fall into despairing for our wretched and wonderful world. I temporarily forgot, because I was not able to see, the daily efforts on behalf of the good happening all around me.

I believe there are more people than not pursuing the spiritual path and practices, but these people are not on television, they are not sensational or very public. But this is a pervasive practice wherein one little lamp can quietly touch its flame to a wick nearby. I think of this when practice is at the bottom of the to-do list at the end of a mighty long day. When it isn’t simply practice, but an effort on behalf of the good, motivation changes and inspiration arises! Though we might practice in our small corner of the world there are a million plus lamps lighting the darkness one breath at a time.

That thought kinda makes you want to go meditate right now, doesn’t it?

Dharma Talks

A Dharma Talk is used to open a yoga class. It’s used to set the theme of the class, share insights, teachings or philosophy. It is typically comprised of themes, subjects or issues the instructor is currently navigating or studying. Depending on how long the class is, the talking portion can last three and a half to five minutes. I have been in class with a very experienced, senior teacher and she spoke for about fifteen minutes. She had stuff to say. Anyone with sense in their head chose to listen.

Last weekend I went to a yoga event in Alabama. It was a celebration of a yoga teacher training graduation. Four gradates taught an hour and half yoga class to open the day’s events.

There were three women and one man. The man opens the class from behind a harmonium, a squeeze box type of instrument not unusual to yoga studios. He is sitting cross-legged behind the instrument. When he begins speaking on the theme of the day I really recognize he has something to say. He is practiced and prepared with the material.

The subject of the Dharma Talk is the Heart, the light of our being, the ability to be present and compassionate in the world without losing our bearings. He quotes his teacher, he uses poetry, personal stories and humor in his monologue. He talks for about twenty minutes, which are not part of the hour and a half class. There is a brief intermission when he is finished speaking.

The first five minutes the group of a hundred or more people are attentive and sitting with up-right posture. But then it happens; shoulders slump when it seems obvious this guy is talking for more than the unofficially acceptable three and a half minutes at the beginning of yoga class. I see heads lolling around, phones coming out, legs stretched out, bathroom breaks become contagious.

Most of the students present remain attentive, but I know that the majority of those who are twitching like Samantha’s nose are not reacting to the speaker or the topic. For the first ten or so years of practice it’s a struggle just to keep your ass still while you try to do the more quiet, reflective practices. I get it, any instructor whose been at it long enough understands it is hard to sit still. There is a whole practice devoted to just that!

What is interesting is that Dharma Talks as a topic have been on my mind lately. It intrigues me that I end up at a large scale gathering of practitioners and see the dynamics between speaker, topic and students magnified by such a large number and massive space (we were in a church gymnasium).

I could design a whole Dharma Talk around its very topic, which in a way is what blogs are anyway. So if you have a hard time sitting still or refraining from looking at your phone when you’re not wholly engaged with your body in headstand or crow pose, I have been thinking of you. This post is for you.

I know that sometimes when you arrive to a yoga class you may have just left an office where you sat at a desk for seven plus hours. I know your back might ache or your hips are tight or your mood is sour.

I know that sometimes, you have been standing behind a chair all day, curling, straightening, coloring and perming hair and smoothing wrinkles from crumpled personalities and sprinkling fabulous where you can. Perhaps you spent the day folding laundry or zooming around in your car in a lifestyle that is the complete opposite of #workfromhome. I know you need to stretch and move your muscles so you can remember what it feels like to move like an animal again, to breathe like the wind again, to flow like the river again.

I know this, these sometimes, because I have experienced feeling an urgency to get on with it, to begin movement, for the instructor to shut the hell up already! Because, as a student, I have felt itchy at the beginning of class, have been agitated and restless on my mat, I do not take it personally when I am leading a class and see you fidgeting, eyes rolling all over the room in desperation, your hand roving around for your phone.

I understand. Really, I do.

As a student, I have been in a class when the instructor was really on to something. They said something really pertinent to what was happening in my life even though they might not have known it. More than once an instructor has started class with an innocent reading or idea or by simply sharing something they heard on NPR and I suddenly felt less alone in whatever storm I was experiencing in my life.

When I am the one opening or leading a class I don’t know what is going on with everyone in the room. Rarely do I have the slightest indication of what is churning beneath the surface in the folks who come to my classes. I know they are there for a yoga practice and I just try to do a really good job. Part of that job is relating teachings to the best of my ability and sharing stories I think might be helpful. Part of my job is to say what arises and what comes from my heart, whether it’s funny, important or relatable remains to be seen. It is not my job to know if it lands anywhere.

You never know who that person is who needs to hear the thing, whatever it is that day. It might be you, but only later, after rolling your eyes back into your head like a wild horse crossing a craggy mountain in a lightening storm at the end of the world, do you realize that something you heard opened a dark space inside you and let a little light in.

It’s my job to share what I study. It is your job to pay attention.

Previously in this post I said how I know this and that about your day. The truth is I don’t know anything at all except that these practices work. I also know that they are not one dimensional, exclusively physical or easy. I know they are worth it. I urge you not to give up, especially on the stillness. It is there, it really is.

If you find yourself struggling with being able to settle into the beginning of your yoga class, here are a few things to consider.

If you feel frazzled or jangled when you arrive, consider taking a class later in the afternoon so you don’t feel frenzied leaving work or harried by afternoon traffic. Conversely, if the afternoon is a struggle, consider taking earlier classes like a lunch hour practice. Try different times and see if that effects your ability to show up mentally and emotionally as well as physically.

Be on time, or five minutes early. Settle down on your mat, make yourself a cup of tea, lie in Savasana. It’ll help ground you. Try arriving twenty minutes early and taking a nice walk around the block at a slow pace to center and ground the different facets of your being.

Eat light a couple of hours before practice. A heavy meal before practice can make you feel sluggish or drowsy. If you don’t eat enough it can make you feel un-grounded and focus can be a challenge. Experiment with what is right for your constitution. Try a smoothie or protein shake and see how that improves your practice.

Set an intention to bring all of yourself to practice. Ask the Universe to help unite your body, mind and spirit and see how this request changes your experience. Ask to learn something, ask to hear just the right inspiration that you need. And show up, bring all of you to the mat and shine.

Same Scaries

Habits are a powerful force in human behavior. Eastern literature and scripture talk about them at length and even give them their own name; samskara. This is a word for the things we do habitually. Think about the way you drive to work. If there’s construction and you have to take an alternative route it feels weird.

Samskaras can be so deeply ingrained that we’re not even aware of them. Most often, in fact, we’re not. Samskaras are likened to grooves dug by the repeated track of a wooden wheel. The longer the wheel drives the same course, the harder it is to leave the marked path and take a new way.

As an example, lets say I decide on Sunday night that I’m going to start my day with a large helping of warm water on Monday. I know, I know, this sounds way too exciting for most of you out there, but stay with me. I’m a devoted coffee drinker, and I’m not even talking about replacing the coffee, simple drinking some regular ‘ole water before I drink the coffee – you know, just to get a jump on hydration.

I am very brave the night before anything. If I’m gonna do something tomorrow, I’ll eat lightening and crap thunder! The day of the event is a little bit different, things change and the shift feels weird.

Staying with our example of yours truly drinking a large cup of warm water while the coffee brews, let me tell you how that really goes.

The alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of noon thirty, or somewhere around there. I am torn between two worlds when this happens. Oh, the cool sweet space of my sheets and stuffed animals, the wonderment of the turning fan and the crinkling sound of pages from the open paperback rustling from the breeze. The softly turning long bodies of cats draped over me, the sleep mask that blocks the light from my Scooby-Doo light night. Ah, to sleep, perchance to dream!

The alarm going off is just out of reach. Drat. I pull myself from sanctuary and pile hair on my head, secured with a black clip. The cats and I stumble over each other; them to get to the food bowl, me to get to the coffee pot.

I flip the switch and hear the gurgle of the first spurt of water get sucked into whatever mechanism is in there that both heats the water and turns it into something palatable, like coffee. I just stand there, cracked and burning waiting for the coffee to brew. Sure, there’s that cup I set out the night before near the electric kettle so I can drink my serving of water. This would be the perfect time to throw back that start to a well hydrated day – but no. I wait, and though I feel the nag of my best intentions, I simply wait, and growl.

So there we have it. I fall right back into the same groove I’ve been grooving since I was two. I don’t give it a second thought.

Something I give a second and third thought to is language. Lately I have noticed the way I speak and the samskara of habitual usage. Verbal ticks change from generation to generation. The fill in the silence catch phrases are vastly different today from what they were in the eighties.

Need examples?

Um (“um….A Scooby-Doo night light?”)

Like (“like….I don’t know”)

Yay (don’t know what to say? say “yay!” it works)

Amazing (you ate at the Taste of India buffet and then took a hot yoga class? Amazing.)

Most of the examples that come to mind for me are words that are used when a reply is expected and I don’t know what to say. That’s not to say the use of amazing, literally and like aren’t also valid. Something can literally be like the most amazing thing you have ever seen. I have seen it. So this isn’t a treatise against use of these words.

I have noticed my proclivity to use these words in place of paying attention. Ah! The grooves and habits of personal interaction. I’m guilty of listening to someone and watching my mind disengage. Attention will slip to the right and out the side door. I’ll see myself thinking of that time my mom and I drove to south Florida for Thanksgiving and how much fun we had, even though it was way too warm and felt strange to be away from my sisters for a major holiday. Not that I’m always prone to wandering attention, but when I do it’s amazing.

I’ll suddenly lock eyes with the person I’m supposed to be listening to and pray my eyes have not betrayed me. They are looking at me for a response. Oh hell! They’re done saying what they were gonna say and now I’m supposed to say something back.

My thought process is outrageous. I smile slyly and reply, “Amazing.” They are pleased. It seems whatever they were talking about was the culmination of amazing, and I hit the nail on the head.

Amazing is my go to.

I don’t know when I discovered this. Maybe when working on a story and I saw it appear too much in the dialogue. Right there in black and white. Amazing.

I wonder what other grooves there are in my communication skills, but decide to start small. I recall a passage from The Eleven Karmic Spaces, a book by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, Guru, Teacher and Guide in Kali Natha Yoga – when she talks about changing one thing.

I love this teaching and appreciate it so much because it takes the pressure off to change everything all at once. That’s how I go about things, you know. I’ll identify one small thing (like the need to drink more water) and decide in one grand sweeping gesture I am going to change everything all at the same time (I will drink more water, write a best seller and buy a summer home in Atlanta – tomorrow).

Luckily, application of Yoga’s teachings are infinitely more simple than that. Just change one thing. Changing just the one thing is refreshing, simple and attainable. From this shift, awareness will grow, supporting more growth.

What have I decided to do with my revelations?

I’m going to replace amazing with something even more amazing – er, with a synonym.

Synonyms for amazing include astonishing, astounding, surprising, stunning (I like this one) staggering, stupefying (also a good one) incredible (reminds me of the circus) extraordinary, sensational and stupendous. I like unbelievable, too, but it wouldn’t always fit. In an effort to simply override a verbal tick I want to keep it simple.

I go with stupendous.

I figure when I’m about to say amazing, awareness will kick in and I’ll pause as my mind re-calibrates. Amazing will get kicked out, stupendous will go in its place and in the space between these two words awareness will grow. The cart can change directions, after all, proving we aren’t at the mercy of patterns. This, my friend, is Stupendous.