Last updated on March 28th, 2023 at 02:12 pm
My brother Shanti Om Gaia went on a 5,000-mile Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life throughout a dozen countries beginning in December 1994. The walk started in Auschwitz and ended in Hiroshima eight months later.
Participants walked about 20 miles a day and slept in churches, homes, halls, or tents provided by villagers in each of the towns and countries visited.
I’d been involved in editing a book about the journey called From Ashes to Light. Shanti and I often headed to the Leverett Peace Pagoda to work on the book.
There I had my first experience of being in the presence of someone who immediately calmed me and made me feel more peaceful just by being around her. Sister Claire was radiant, quiet, peaceful, gentle, young, and quite beautiful. She glowed. She seemed so serene.
I was young and anxious, and full of nervous energy. Somehow around Sister Claire, it all evaporated. I calmed down. I felt at peace. I learned to chant. My brother turned me on to Buddhist books by Thich Nhat Hanh and others. I was intrigued and also not ready to follow the path.
I Am Called Back
Fast-forward ten years. I was still nervous, not meditating or practicing Buddhism, and still not peaceful or calm. I had just moved to San Francisco after grad school to work for the mayor. Somehow the books on Eastern religion in every bookstore I walked into magnetized me.
Something was calling me. I started rereading all kinds of Buddhist books and decided I needed to find a teacher.
Teacher after teacher presented themselves, and soon I did deep breathing and meditation exercises. Initially, I couldn’t sit still for one minute without my mind spinning, feeling restless and agitated or shifting in my seat. Sitting still — doing nothing — seemed so contrary to my ambitious, go-getter nature, to how I had always conceptualized myself — as a Type A overachiever. If you had told me that 5 years later, I’d be happily meditating for an hour a day or that I’d go away on week-long silent meditation and yoga retreats and love it, I would have called you crazy.
Peace is Here Now
Now all these years later, I am infinitely more peaceful, calm, and happy. Nothing much ruffles me anymore. I’m much more of a still pond than a storm. That wasn’t always true. I’m still full of energy and ambition, but now it’s happily, peacefully, not anxiously, and restlessly so.
I would love to pour a cup of this peace over everyone. So, I thought I’d share some basic meditation tips to get you started if you’re interested in experiencing it for yourself. For me, no single practice has been more transformational.
Meditation Tips for those who can’t sit still
Here are a few tips to get you started on meditation to achieve your big dreams if you’re ready. Over the years, I have studied many forms of meditation, including shamata, vipassana, Metta, walking, and movement. I’ve included a few thoughts and tips on each below:
- Shamatha meditation: Shamatha meditation is single-pointed meditation, focusing on one object, such as the breath. Traditionally it’s easier for beginners than vipassana meditation, so I recommend starting with this.
- Vipassana meditation: Vipassana is “insight meditation,” which I also think of as open-space meditation. I think this is how most Westerners are culturally taught to think of meditation. As thoughts arise, let them go like clouds passing through the sky. This is challenging for most beginners, and yet many bravely dive in and do 10-day vipassana retreats around the world.
- Metta practice: Metta practice is loving-kindness meditation, and this is one of my favorites. You send loving-kindness to yourself and others by silently repeating phrases in your mind, such as:
- May I be safe and protected.
- May I be peaceful and happy.
- May I be healthy and strong.
- May I have ease of well-being (and accept all conditions of the world).
- You can send loving-kindness to yourself, to others, or all beings.
- Walking meditation: This practice, popularized by the venerable teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, is another wonderful practice for beginners. As you walk, pay attention to each step. You can name each step, thinking of it as “peace” or “happiness.” When your mind wanders, return to experience the sensation of your heel, foot, and toes meeting the ground with each step.
- Movement meditation: This is another nice alternative for those for whom all of the above seems too difficult. Mahasati is a variety of movement meditation consisting of a simple series of movements that you repeat repeatedly, focusing individually on each movement and returning to focus on the movement when your thoughts wander.
Get It Started
When I first started meditating, my practice was straightforward. I’d breathe in for a count of six, hold for four seconds, breathe out for a count of six, and hold for two seconds. Repeat. The exact number of seconds doesn’t matter. The point is to breathe deeply and focus on the breath only.
I’d recommend something as simple as that for just a few minutes a day for anyone just getting started. Please put on your phone alarm for five minutes and try it. Focusing on counting tends to keep the mind occupied so other random thoughts won’t arise. If they do, no worries, just let them go and return to the breath.
Then, you can test out other techniques, like shamatha and walking meditation, to see what feels good to you.
I recommend carving out five minutes at the beginning of your day to do this because practicing before entering the world helps me feel calm and present. I wouldn’t want to start my day without meditating anymore. If even that feels too challenging for now, commit to stopping a few times during the day when you feel anxious or uncentered to take a few deep breaths. Your practice can grow just from that.
As the wise meditation teacher Ayya Khema wrote in her book Being Nobody, Going Nowhere,
“It’s simple; it’s clear; you can do it. Yes, it takes discipline, and you must be serious — there’s no escape from that. But you can do it; when you do, you will be grateful for it.”
Lisa P. Graham is an inspirational writer, life coach, TED motivational speaker, and globe-trotter whose passion is to help others to find happiness and meaning in their daily lives. A political activist at heart, Lisa would like to empower more women to run for political office as a way to create positive change in the world. You can find her on her website or watch her TEDx speech on YouTube.
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