Q: How did you start meditating?
E: I was fortunate to have a mother who meditated. I grew up in a household where it was very common for us to sit and be quiet. My mother used to take me to [meditation] classes with her as far back as I can remember.
One of my favorite places to hang out is bookstores. I was in a bookstore one day in the late Seventies. I came across this title by this guy, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name. I had never heard of him before, but it really called to me. I took it off the shelf and looked at it, and on the back cover it said that Martin Luther King had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. I’ve studied the work of Martin Luther King for decades, he’s one of my heroes, so I thought, “If Martin Luther King nominated him, I need to know who this guy is, even though I can’t pronounce his name.” That was The Miracle of Mindfulness
[by Thich Nhat Hanh.] I was so taken with the work that I sought him out and started going on retreat with small numbers of people.
Q: Tell us about Touching Earth.
Elesa: It’s a partnership between Ceily Levy and myself. Ceily Levy is a gifted asana teacher and meditation teacher, and I’ve known her for several years. We started having conversations a few years ago about a different kind of place for people to study in. Back in the day, the way a teacher was most
“What we need in the West is to have a practice that doesn’t just exist on a cute meditation cushion or a slick little yoga mat; but rather, has a kind of flexibility and strength and durability to roll with whatever shows up in life.”
helpful to you as a student was in their relationship with you. You came to live with the teacher, in fact. Over time, the teacher came to know the good, the bad, all of it, about you; and so did you, about the teacher, rather than having some sort of pedestal relationship or something like that, you had something much more fibrously real.
What we need in the West is to have a practice that doesn’t just exist on a cute meditation cushion or a slick little yoga mat; but rather, has a kind of flexibility and strength and durability to roll with whatever shows up in life. That’s why this place is called Touching Earth, [taking] inspiration from my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who says so beautifully and clearly, “Thankfully we’re not asked to walk on water.” What we’re asked to do is walk on the earth. Can we walk on the earth and with what qualities can we walk on the earth? Can we walk mindfully, lovingly, with forgiveness and kindness and compassion and generosity and sweetness and stewardship, on the earth?
So we wanted to be in a house, because you live somewhere. We do mindful eating classes, and mindful speaking mindful, listening, yoga, in a house, so you can see how this can be more easily integrated into your own house. And it’s not a fancy house; it’s a very modest house. You don’t need anything, really, but yourself, which you have wherever you go. You need your breath; your breath is with you wherever you go. We don’t need all this elaborate stuff; you don’t have to buy anything. That peace and joy, it’s in you. You were born with it, it’s in you all the time, it’s always available to you: it’s us. We must learn how to make ourselves available to it.
Q: Why is having a meditation practice so useful in our world? Why do we need to meditate?
E: I think what’s happening is we’re diluting our humanity. We’re accepting poor, cheap substitutes for our humanity. If we get too used to those, then we can lose contact with those things which by their very nature define us as human beings: the ability to be compassionate, to truly see another person and to hear them, and to hold sacred space for them. No computer, no iPhone, no PDA, no matter how smart and sophisticated it is, can do that; that must happen person-to-person. We’re becoming so comfortable interacting with each other through things. We’re energetic beings that carry a vibration, and that gets pretty impeded when that has to travel through electronics.
“You get a little bit of a pause and it might only
be a nanosecond, a couple of nanoseconds,
but oh, boy, for the body and for the nervous
system, that’s serene.”
Part of what happens when you meditate is you have the ability to enter into a different relationship with time. Normally, we’re very linearly oriented—we have a watch we have a clock, we know what time it is, we have a certain amount of time to do this or that: when you enter into a true place of meditation, where there is a stilling of the body, a quieting of the mind, you begin to experience the concept of time in a totally different way.
Q: What are some of the physiological benefits of meditation?
E: Your heart rate slows down, your blood pressure drops, the body temperature drops a little bit. The chemistry in the body changes, in large part because every single thought we have creates a chemical reaction in the body. Usually our thoughts are coming really quickly. But when you start to meditate, often there’s a slowing down. Rarely ever a stoppage—the mind thinks, it’s a thinking tool, it’s going to feed you thoughts—but it can slow down to a pace where you start to feel a pace between the thoughts. You get a little bit of a pause and it might only be a nanosecond, a couple of nanoseconds, but oh, boy, for the body and for the nervous system, that’s serene.
Q: If you were going to give five tips to someone who wants to build a meditation practice, what would you suggest?
E: Pick a place where you’re going to do this, and ideally, it’s the same place. If it’s the same place, we can build up the vibration in that place. When we walk into a mosque or synagogue, we get a certain type of feeling. When we walk into a funeral home, we get a certain type of feeling. When we walk into our home, we get a certain type of feeling: all that’s vibration. You have the ability to build up a vibration in a place where you meditate if you do it regularly. That will help you entrain as soon as you step into that space. Once you spend time there, meditating over and over again, then when you pass that place, when you enter that place, it will automatically begin to lift you up, and help you access that neuronal pathway of peace that you’ve been cultivating in your brain. So same time, same place: a clean and quiet place where you won’t be disturbed for some time.
I encourage people who are just starting—the science, this is from Dr. Ritchie Davidson, one of the leading neuroscientists in the whole country—eight minutes for a minimum. Eight minutes, if you really do that for eight minutes, you’ve done some good for your brain and your mind and your body. Set a timer in the beginning, set it for eight minutes, sit down, be with yourself, and what are you doing? That’s really important. A lot of people say, “I’m meditating,” and I say, “what happens?”, and it turns out it was some of the best thinking they did, or problem solving or strategizing, or cussing somebody out—that’s not what I’m talking about when I say meditating.
“A lot of people say, ‘I’m meditating,’ and I say, ‘what happens?’, and it turns out it was some of the best thinking they did, or problem solving or strategizing, or cussing somebody out—that’s not what I’m talking about when I say meditating.”
Sit in a way that supports the natural curvature of the spine. We’re sending energy up the spine which is connected to the brainstem, which is connected to the brain. So we do pay attention to how we sit when we meditate.
What you’re doing is you’re welcoming whatever shows up on the screen of your mind with acceptance. You’ve made a decision for the next eight minutes; I’m not going to run away. Thoughts are going to come to your mind, that’s what the mind does. What’s important, and what we’re training in, it’s just like when we get the new puppy, and we train the puppy to sit and to stay, we have to train the mind to stay as well. An average thought or feeling or emotion lasts between two and three seconds; we don’t have to get swept away by that. All we have to do is hold our seat and welcome whatever’s there, but not get involved in it. By doing that we’re cultivating a sense of authentic friendship with ourselves.
We’re not judging it, everything is fair game; we’re just realizing that the mind, your mind, is just like the sky. It can hold storm clouds, it can hold sun, the moon, stars, rain, snow, sleet, hail, and still, the sky. It’s still vast and blue—it doesn’t change colors forever. It may get dark or light, but it always comes back to blue—so it is with your mind. We can only know that through experience, but once we get to know that through experience, we can step into our lives and be with our lives as they evolve and show up so much beyond our control, without being a continuous chain of reaction.
A few other meditation tips from Elesa to remember:
· Take care that your clothes aren’t too binding or restricting around your chest and ribcage. You want your breath to come and go freely, so dress for comfort and warmth.
· If you need to sit in a chair in order to have a balanced spine, do so. There are no awards or brownie points for busting out your full lotus here. If you choose to sit on the floor, consider taking a bolster or pillow under your hips to lift them up. So few of us have hips open enough to make sitting cross-legged accessible for more than a few moments. Lifting your hips makes this more available.
· Relax your jaw, your fingers and hands. Your nervous system won’t fully relax when your jaw is clenched or when your hands are gripping. Loose jaw, hands facing up or down loose, in your lap.
· Finally, be gentle with yourself. Remember, the point isn’t to stop thinking; it’s to witness the movement of your mind with neutral observation, not with judgment. Let that inner voice be sweet as it guides you to come back to your breath and to release your thoughts.
Ready to put Elesa’s tips to work? Settle in and listen up to a guided meditation practice she recorded exclusively for The Urbaness.
Special thanks to Eric Hazen for his work on today's audio piece.