Sunday, May 7, 2017

My Morning Practice

(Spoiler alert: it’s not just meditation.)

Each morning, I sit in front of my altar and go through a sequence of practices, each of them important to helping my mind and body prepare for the day. I got into the habit of morning practice while on retreat at the Nyingma Institute for Tibetan Buddhism, and I’ve been doing my own morning practice in the four months since graduating. I’m able to keep up the practice only because I can so clearly see the difference on days that I don’t manage to do it.

I am sharing my morning practice because I want to encourage others to experiment with their own morning practice, to consider what practices can help you feel the most balanced and open as you enter the day.

The Setup: My Altar

I’m happy that I went through the effort to create an altar area in my bedroom, as the visual reminder helps me establish and continue my practice. My altar is filled with imagery that inspires me: a Buddha statue in the center of a sand-filled star, lit up by a glowing candle, surrounded by sea shells from local beaches. My altar also has photos and statues gifted from friends, and handmade engravings of the Buddhist compassion prayer.

If you have the time and space to create an altar, let it be one that inspires you — whether that’s shiny stones, spiritual figures, photos of friends, or doodads collected over your lifetime. That important part is that it gives you a sense of beauty and balance.

At the foot of my altar, I always have a meditation cushion, a blanket, a lighter, and a tissue box.

The Prerequisite: Waking Up Early

I find it far easier to do my morning practice in the early morning before my roommates have awakened. I tried many times to do it during the hustle-bustle of the morning rush, and I just can’t relax enough when I have the niggling worry that they might need me for something.
Setting my Intention

I start off with reciting my personal intention statement, three times. I recite the same intention each day, and it reminds me of what I strive for in my interactions with others:
“I intend to be warm, friendly, open and loving, while honoring my interests and respecting my boundaries.”

Sitting Meditation

I sit in the Tibetan style, my eyes partially open with a soft gaze towards my altar. I count my breath each time I exhale, counting 10 exhales before I start back at 1. For each cycle of 10 breaths, I shift my gaze to a different sea shell on my altar. On my 7th cycle, my gaze will rest on the center seashell with the candle light gleaming through it, and that is how I know I am done.

Often, the goal of meditation is to focus on a single object, just the breath or just a particular object. In my meditation, I focus on multiple objects at once, because it is the way that I can pay the most attention to what is happening in my mind without it wandering completely away. It works well for my purposes.

“Cleansing Breath”

This is a highly beneficial practice from Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga that helps me acknowledge my aversions, attractions, and ignorance.

With tissue in hand, I first think of something I’m averse to or afraid of (like an awkward conversation or a tricky task), place one finger on my right nostril, inhale, and then blow out through my left nostril. Then I do that for 2 more things I’m averse to, 3 times on the other nostril for things I’m desiring, and 3 times from both nostrils for things I’m uncertain about.

It may sound weird, but hey, this one weird trick — it works! When I fully acknowledge the things that are gripping me — whether it’s a grip of desire or disgust — I am less under their control. I can detach myself from them. When I acknowledge the things I’m unsure of, I find I don’t put so much energy into defending myself, both internally and to others. I can just say “Actually, I don’t know!” and be okay with it.

If you’re interested in practicing Cleansing Breath, I recommend reading the full description in Tarthang Thulku’s Kum Nye book. You could also try journaling the 9 attractions, aversions, and ignorances.

Neck Stretches

This is where my practice gets physical, and is inspired by both Kum Nye and Mask Theater class warm-up. I basically stretch my throat and neck in a mindful manner. In Kum Nye, it’s considered important in opening the channel from the head to the heart chakras. In Mask, it’s important to enable our characters to express themselves fully.

First I rotate the neck in 4 axis: top to bottom, left-ear-to-shoulder to right-ear-to-shoulder, and left to right. Each time I rotate, I notice a new thing that my eyes have rested on, to increase my mindfulness.

Then I do a slow neck roll, 3 times in one direction, then 3 times in the other direction. If any part feels particularly “juicy” or “crunchy”, I spend a little more time there. This is similar to the Kum Nye practice “Lightning thoughts”, where your neck roll is as slow as possible and you observe the thoughts popping up.

“Bending in the Four Directions”

Now I’m well prepared to get up on my feet and bend my entire body! This next practice is also from Kum Nye Tibetan Yoga and a great example of its power. When you do Kum Nye poses, you go through them very slowly and often hold them for many minutes. That way you can take the time to truly experience the sensations happening, and even try to develop a friendly relationship with sensations you may label as uncomfortable or painful. Kum Nye gives you the time to develop mindfulness around your bodily sensations, and can prepare you for more mindfulness in the “real world”.

In this practice, I slowly raise my arms up to the ceiling and bend to the left. I count for 21 breaths, and return to the center.

Then I bend to the right for 21 breaths. If I feel myself getting distracted, I challenge myself to bend further. I return to the center and stretch upwards.

Now my favorite/most dreaded part. I bend forward from the waist until my arms are parallel with the floor. I reach my arms forward while jutting my hips back, and count for 21 breaths. The concentration needed to hold the pose is often strong enough to clear my mind of distraction.

From the bent forward position, I bend my knees and swing my arms up to center. I stretch backwards slightly, staring at the corner where the ceiling meets the wall, counting for 21 breaths.

I return my hands to center and slowly lower them, noticing the sensations going through my hands, arms, and body.

The Compassion Prayer

This prayer comes from the Four Immeasurables in Buddhism, and there are many variants of it. I recite this version three times:
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings be free from fear and anger
May all beings find peace and joy
May all beings have a mind at ease

Closing Gesture

We always close sessions at the Nyingma Institute with either a closing gesture or closing chant, where we dedicate the merit of our practice to all the beings that may benefit from it. While I go through the gesture, I think of my roommates, colleagues, neighbors, locals, and then imagine extending it to everyone in the state, country, and world.