Picture this: A villager who has lived all his life in the countryside, finds himself on a city crossroad. He does not know what to do. He is unable to find the way. He is unable to communicate with anyone. He feels daunted. He wants to go back. He never wants to come here again.
Scene 2: A teenager used to the city comforts is trying to live in the countryside. There is no constant supply of running water and electricity. Toilets are not well-equipped. Not enough choice of food available. No one seems to understand what his needs are. He wants to take the next bus back to the city.
Adapting to an environment that is exceptionally different from what we are used to, is challenging. One needs to learn new ways and get accustomed to new patterns. For instance, a young seeker, in absence of appropriate guidance, might find himself puzzled and lonely. If she wants a slow and steady transition from a regular lifestyle to the space of meditation, tools can come handy.
Meditation tools offer support, just like a friend, or a guide, to help make the passage comfortable. They help create an environment that is meditation-friendly. Once the meditative-state is achieved, the methods and tools are to be dropped. The journey of inquiry begins and it’s there for you to enjoy.
Through the centuries, masters have developed various methods, props, prayers, ceremonies, guidance in the form of texts, dress codes and diets as pre-requisites for meditation. We are free to choose the tools that resonates with us. Though, none of the tools promise enlightenment, their use can help unfold our hidden spiritual aspects.
Every spiritual practice has given reverence and respect to its tools. But any particular expectation with its practice usually hinders its true purpose. Let us learn more about a few tools that we can befriend to deepen our meditation practice.
Meditation pillows—for ‘seated’ meditation
‘Zazen’ is a specific method of sitting meditation devised by Zen masters over many years. Sitting still for long periods often causes discomfort and backache.
In zazen, meditation pillows can help in achieving the ‘correct sitting’ posture. These specially designed pillows come filled with buckwheat hulls or kapok. They support the tail-bone in a way that the spine remains straight and balanced. The knees drop down to the floor stretching the pelvic area wide apart. This allows blood to circulate freely in the feet and the breath to reach the lower back.
The most commonly used meditation pillows are ‘zafu’, ‘crescent zafu’ and ‘smiley pillow’. They are usually used with a small mattress called ‘zabuton’. Those who cannot sit with legs folded can use the ‘meditation bench’ or the ‘seiza bench’ where one sits with a posture similar to vajrasan. Though the use of these pillows originated through Zen meditation, you can use them for any other meditation too.
On a hard busy day, what would you do to instantly feel lighter and calmer? Make yourself a cup of coffee and distract yourself with the television. But that would only leave you with more jangled nerves. Instead light up an aromatic candle or incense; add essential oils to your hot water bath or heat them in a diffuser to spread the fragrance.
The aroma when inhaled, activates the body’s olfactory system that gives signals to the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions, behaviour patterns, motivation and long-term memory. This therapy can be used for relaxation, which is a pre-requisite for meditation. You could also use these essential oils directly on the skin by applying them on your wrist, temples or behind the ears. Put a few drops on your pillow just before you sleep and you’ve guaranteed yourself a refreshing night’s sleep.
Eye pillows with aromatic herbs/flowers can be useful as one practices yoganidra, a guided meditation or silent relaxation. These pillows can be warmed in the microwave or cooled in the refrigerator. It is also a great tool for relaxing the eyes and relieving headaches.
Vettiver mats [khus root mats] when sprinkled with a few drops of water, spread an aroma and cool the space. During summers, these mats can be used to sit on and meditate.
Beeswax candles and salt lamps—for air balancing
Ever wondered why is it easier to slip into meditation out in the nature and not inside your living room in a city?
Air contains electrically charged particles called ‘ions’, which act upon our capacity to absorb and utilise oxygen. They directly affect our moods, energy levels and health. Too many cations [+ve ions] make us feel low as they are loaded with pollution and allergens that are drawn to them and suspended in the air. Anions [-ve ions] remove pollution and allergens from positive ions, allowing them to drop on the ground. Fresh air with negative ions makes it easier to relax and meditate.
Our indoor finishes like paint and polishes release cations that can be corrected by using beeswax candles, salt lamps, indoor plants or water fountains.
Beeswax candle fuel produces anions. Salt lamps when heated with a candle or a bulb, evaporates and produces anions. Indoor plants or flowing water also produce them, balancing the energy inside the room.
Japa mala—beads for chanting
Chanting is a tradition that has been practised all over the world. Those who prefer to meditate on a positive thought or a ‘mantra’ by repetition can use the Rosary or the Japa-mala to focus the wandering mind.
The mala is a collection of 108 beads that represent the 108 main nadis [veins] that are connected to the heart and the 108 marmas [vital points] of the body. The 109th bead which is called the meru, indicates that a cycle of purification is complete and from that bead, the direction of rotation changes. There are also malas with less number of beads for particular mantras.
The mala can consist of seeds, tulsi beads, rudraksha, sandalwood beads, silver or gold beads or stones like amethyst and emeralds.
Choose your mantra and chant with your hand close to your heart.
Tibetan bells and bowls—sound energy
When we hear the sound of a bell or a gong ringing far away in a distant temple or a monastery; something within us suddenly becomes still. Our mind becomes aware of the body’s senses and we experience a moment of ‘presence.’
All sound is a vibration; just like the human body, which consists of millions of molecules vibrating fast, making it appear to be solid. When a sound resonates and the pattern of the vibration is strong, it interacts with the vibrations in the cells of our body. We experience this as a semi-physical sensation.
When we are deeply relaxed, but alert and mindful, we’re more likely to become aware of the resonating vibrations. With every ring, it feels as if something inside us is ‘shaken loose.’ This allows us to drop more deeply into silence and stillness after the bell is rung.
The meditation bells or singing bowls are usually made from 5—12 different alloys and are available in various sizes. The wooden mallet is used to produce and prolong its sound by gently rubbing it on the periphery.
Meditation with music
The sound of birds chirping, the bee humming around the flower; the waterfall gushing down at a distance and waves of the sea hitting the shore—these sounds seem to connect us with our true nature. It is believed that our brain produces waves with different frequencies. We usually live in the beta-stage [awake and focussed] where the frequency is 12 – 30 Hz. The alpha-stage [relaxed and alert] has a frequency of 7 – 12 Hz.
Music with the frequency of alpha-stage changes the rhythm of brain waves in a natural way, making one feel relaxed and harmonious, and not drowsy or sleepy. Alpha-music usually consists of sounds of nature, bamboo chimes, T’ai chi music or chants. This is a great tool for relaxing and getting into meditation.
Stories have always been a part of growing up. As the story teller narrates, the information slips into the minds of children. The story is then forgotten, but the lesson is always remembered. Guided meditation is a narrative by a guide who takes us through a journey within ourselves. Live or recorded, it takes us through a meditative experience, step-by-step. The voice of the guide starts flowing into our being and we feel that we are talking to ourselves.
Guided meditations can have various approaches and purposes. Some may be for quieting the mind and relaxation; some for a search within, while still others may be body-focussed. Yoganidra, which literally means ‘sleeping with consciousness’, is also a type of guided meditation that is performed in shavasana.
Choose the guide and approach that connects with you.
This was first published in the January 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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