Sanctuary and Ritual in Meditation

Readingnook-0493c98f

 

Two appealing aspects of meditation are its portability and affordability. Not only can you do it anywhere, anytime, but also it’s free! There are few things in life for which you can say the same, no? That said, it’s beneficial to set up an area of your home or a room devoted to your practice.

For my own practice, I have a comfortable chair and soft, warm blanket in a quiet, clutter-free corner of my bedroom. A small table is situated next to it and contains a few items, such as books, journals, pens, a candle, meditation bell, a shell from the beach and a few other pretty little decorative pieces that spark joy. When I go to this space, my body and mind automatically relax, in preparation for meditation. This is no accident. It turns out, creating a space and ritual for meditation elicits a meditative state.

From the act of walking into your dedicated space and being seated on a meditation cushion or blanket, the same chair or place on the sofa to something as simple as lighting a candle or ringing a meditation bell, you’ve taught yourself a form of environmental conditioning. I recently read about this phenomenon in my meditation teacher training materials and am surprised I never before thought of the connection. Think of it as a pavlovian response of sorts, but rather than being hungry because of the dinner bell, you are instantly relaxed due to the meditation bell (or cushion or candle, etc.). The beauty of this is again, the portability. Even when traveling or seated at your desk at work, you can evoke the sense of relaxation by simply lighting a candle or ringing that bell.

This of course doesn’t replace your meditation practice, rather it enhances it and allows you to enter the meditative state more quickly, thereby deepening your practice. The fact that you then can trigger the relaxation elsewhere with your candle, music, bell or what have you is a bonus.

Do you have a meditation space or ritual? Please share it in the comments.

 

Advertisements

Planting the Seeds: Body Scan Meditation 

img_0168

 

The first time I meditated, I was in seventh grade. My mom taught me a body scan meditation, because I was having trouble getting to sleep and she thought it would help me relax. She learned it at a one-off meditation class. While Mom never became a meditator, she did often employ this technique as a way to fall asleep. Little did she know she was planting the seed for what is now going on a 20-something year pursuit for me, culminating in meditation teacher training and a passion for meditation. Thanks, Mom!

The body scan meditation is perfect for beginners and longtime practitioners. It is simple and feels like reclining on the beach listening to gentle waves rolling and lapping at the shore. Aaaahhhh.

Whether you opt for three, five, 10 or 40 minutes, you are sure to see the benefits. It’s also a great way to begin a meditation session, as it get’s you mentally and physically prepared.

Click here for three free body scan meditations by Elisha Goldstein published on the Mindful.Org site.

Connecting with your body in this way is not only relaxing, but helps identify areas that might need a little TLC, such as gentle stretching or even a doctor’s visit. At the very least, you’ll come away feeling relaxed and refreshed. Enjoy this little mini-vacation.

Meditation and Addiction

Meditation beads

 

One of the many reasons I wanted to learn how to teach meditation is that in recent years, studies have shown how beneficial it is for addiction recovery. For example, from the Headspace Meditation for Addiction website, “Neuroscientists found that after just five 20 minute sessions of a mindfulness meditation technique, people had increased blood flow to an area of the brain vital to self-control, the anterior cingulate cortex. After 11 hours of practice, they found actual physical changes in the brain around this area.” As the child of an addict and someone who, like many, has friends and loved ones who are addicts or recovering addicts, this connection between meditation and addiction is a personal one.

This point was driven home when this morning, a person with whom I’m very close and love very much called to admit to me that he is an addict. It took so much courage for him to share this burden. While I already knew about his problem, I’m grateful and humbled that he trusted me with something so personal. In that moment, I let him know how much I love him; that I do not judge him; and that I will support him on and off the wagon. Love the addict; hate the addiction, as they say.

This person and I watched helplessly for years as my mother fell deeper and deeper into addiction, until ultimately she died from an accidental overdose. She was 53. He promised me he wasn’t going to let that happen to him. Thankfully, now his addiction is out in the open and he can get the love and support he needs to fight it. My hope is that in addition to whatever therapy and recovery program he choses, he will incorporate meditation. While I’m not yet in the position to teach him, I offered to send him some resources. One of which is the link to the above referenced Meditation for Addiction website from Headspace. It’s of course up to him now whether or not to use meditation and any other form of treatment. This is the part where I continue to offer love and support. The important thing is that he gets clean. Period.

If you are reading this and you are an addict, please get help. Consider trying meditation — it’s free and it works. But no matter what, just get help.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m in the middle of Sharon Salzberg‘s Real Happiness Meditation Challenge. Today’s meditation was “sensation meditation.” As is often the case, it ended up being apropos to the conversation I had earlier in the morning, because much of the session dealt with not only pleasant and neutral physical sensations, but also awareness of pain sensations and my loved one also has chronic pain, which is what lead him to an addiction to prescription pain pills. (Note: Meditation also helps with chronic pain.) A quote provided below the meditation audio said, “Mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what’s happening and the stories we tell ourselves.” I hope he begins to see that the story he has been telling himself — that he’s undeserving of happiness, love, peace and sobriety — is not what’s really happening. He’s deserving of all of it and so much more. We all are. I dedicated my meditation today to him and all addicts. May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.

 

Metta Gras: When Meditation Meets Mardi Gras

Metta Gras is a celebration of embracing the decadence of meditation.

Metta Gras is a celebration of embracing the decadence of meditation.

Welcome to the latest incarnation of my blog. Over the years, it has morphed from an etiquette blog, to a lifestyle blog and now into a blog devoted to mindfulness and meditation. I decided to call it Metta Gras, after a post I did on the Sharon Salzberg website during her Real Happiness Meditation Challenge. As you will learn in the post, published below, the challenge has been a rewarding experience, the result of which (so far) has been allowing myself to sign up for a meditation teacher training course. To me, using the phrase Metta Gras as the title speaks to the idea that meditation, far from being a form of denial, is really an indulgence. Much like Mardi Gras being a time to overindulgence in eating, drinking and general merriment, meditation a time to binge on awareness, peace and food for your mind, body and soul. Also, I live in New Orleans, so it seemed like a fun way to give a shoutout to my beloved city. My hope is that by sharing my love of mindfulness and mediation, and the adventure of training to become a meditation teacher, I’ll inspire a few of you to start your own practice. Happy Metta Gras. Enjoy the decadence!

—————————————

THIS POST ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON SHARON SALZBERG’S WEBSITE ON FEB. 6, 2016

It’s Carnival season in New Orleans and I live on the parade route. Well, 30 yards from it right off of St. Charles Avenue. It’s safe to say Mardi Gras probably isn’t conducive to meditation. In fact, that thought crossed my mind when I signed up for the Real Happiness Challenge — that it coincided with Carnival, which contrary to what some people may have been lead to believe isn’t just one crazy weekend. It actually lasts about a month. The other day, some friends in Mobile, Alabama — the birthplace of Carnival in the United States — reminded me of this dichotomy, commenting on my Facebook post of the day about the meditation challenge. One friend wrote, “How you will be able to meditate this weekend, I don’t know! Get your party boots on instead.” To which I replied, “The beautiful thing is, I can do both!” To which he replied,”All earthy things are to be abandoned and decadence will reign.” Will his prophesy come true? I have enough humility to admit, that it might and to know my response about doing both was more of a hopeful remark than a definitive statement, because the weekend before Fat Tuesday is the loudest, rowdiest and most parade-filled with the parades beginning at 8 a.m. on some mornings and lasting well into the night. Which means in the coming days, I will likely be meditating with the sound of brass bands and cheering crowds in the background no matter what time I sit. The “hearing” meditation will be a helpful one on those days, no? In a way, rather than being the worst time to grow my meditation practice, I think it’s the perfect time. Instead of fighting between meditation and Mardi Gras, I’m going to embrace the two and look for balance. I’m calling it, Metta Gras. (Pop over to my Instagram page to see photos of the more Mardi Gras fun.)

This morning as I sat, I heard the sound of revealers arriving to set up camp on the parade route; sirens from the police cars clearing the streets; and the ubiquitous honk, honk of the vendors as they rolled their carts up the street stacked to the gills with plush toys, boas and other Mardi Gras goodies. Rather than resist and attempt to push those noises out of my mind, I allowed them in and let go as Sharon Salzberg’s voice encouraged me to find balance in the breath. Yes, the Day 6 meditation was on Balance. How fitting, that it should arrive on the same day as the start of the early parades.

Six days into the challenge — and in the final week of Mardi Gras — I find myself feeling more balanced, joyful and serene than ever. Each morning, I look forward to the day’s email from Salzberg and with excitement as I open it to discover the new meditation. In addition to respite from the Mardi Gras madness, this week brought about the courage and conviction register for a 160-hour meditation teacher immersion program through the non-profit, The Mindfulness Center in Bethesda, Maryland, co-sponsored by the National Association of Social Workers.   

I’ve secretly wanted to do this for years and am excited to deepen my practice, experience and knowledge and to learn how to share meditation with others. With a first week like that, it’s exciting to think what’s in store for the coming weeks as I continue to sit. I’m looking forward to coming down from Carnival with this challenge, though I envision it being more of a gentle plop, rather than a crash landing, since I’ve been able to stay grounded through the parties, parades, balls and booze.
While the sense of tranquility and balance brought about via continuous meditation during one of the wildest, city-wide parties in the world doesn’t surprise me, the enjoyment of the sense of community I’m experiencing with the challenge isn’t something I expected. Checking in each day with my fellow meditators — clocking in at more than 13,000 at this point — via social media and here on Salzberg’s blog, is also something I look forward to each day. It’s fun having compatriots, especially after so many years of practicing and studying meditation alone in my own little world. Thanks everyone and Salzberg for opening me up to this wonderful group of diverse, but like-minded individuals.  As I step back into the world today — most likely wearing a brightly colored wig, because New Orleans — to dance in the streets, catch beads and imbibe, I do so with balance and that sense of awareness gained through meditation, which allows me to live completely in the moment. It’s not depravation to meditate during Mardi Gras; it’s decadent. My friend’s prophesy did come true. Happy Metta Gras! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a parade to catch. Laissez le bon temps rouler!

 

Bon Vivanting at MyNewOrleans.Com

Visit the Bon Vivant blog or the Let Them Eat Cake blog at MyNewOrleans.Com.

Visit the Bon Vivant blog or the Let Them Eat Cake blog at MyNewOrleans.Com.

These days, the style bloggery is happening at MyNewOrleans.Com. In addition to my weekly Bon Vivant blog, which focuses on living well and finding ways to make life more artful, I also contribute to and edit the official daily wedding blog of New Orleans Bride Magazine, Let Them Eat Cake.

Be sure to check the News and Events page on this site for the latest public talks, media appearances and segments and any other relevant scoop.

Also, don’t forget to visit the Photography page for new images in my various fine art photography series and visit the Bon Vivant NOLA store online to buy photos and more.

Thanks for stopping by!

 

 

Fatherly wisdom, Thomas Merton, tea and cats: It’s a Friday round up!

This photo doesn't do justice to the beautiful blue skies happening as I write this post.

This photo doesn’t do justice to the beautiful blue skies happening as I write this post.

It is 68 degrees and sunny in Houston on this fantastic Friday. My friends and family in Kentucky didn’t appreciate my celebration of this fact on social media today, where I was reminded that it’s all of 12 degrees there as I write this post.

I miss my loved ones and my home state, but not that sort of weather!

Speaking of family, as I mentioned in yesterday’s Budget Elegance post, I learned the art of living simply and cheaply from my dad and stepmom, among other family members. As you’ll see as you continue to read this missive, I make sure to let them know how grateful I am for the countless lessons they taught me about frugality, thrift, conservation and finding enjoyment in the smalles, simplest things.

For example, on Sunday I was watching cooking shows on PBS. Suddenly, I had a

"Fancy" snackage, just add sardines and mustard.

“Fancy” snackage, just add sardines and mustard.

memory of watching “Nova” on PBS with my dad and older brother, while chowing down on saltines with sardines canned in mustard. It was about the time of day when I usually want a snack, so I went the nostalgic route and opened a can of King Oscar sardines in olive oil.

Instead of the build as you eat method of fishing it out with a fork, slapping it on the cracker, eating it, then rinse and repeat, I created a little hors d’oeuvre tray with about six or seven sesame wheat crackers gingerly topped with a bit of sardine and a dollop of mustard. My “fancy” version of this childhood snack was of course inexpensive, but it looked so lovely on the colorful Fiestaware plate I used that it didn’t feel like I was being frugal at all. In fact, it felt like a guilty pleasure and it also reminded me of wonderful moments spent with my family.

I took a quick snap and messaged it to my dad, along with the memory. Here’s part of our little exchange:

Thanks for the tips on frugal living, pops!

Thanks for the tips on frugal living, pops!

Perhaps to some people it’s silly to make such a big production out of crafting a snack of sardines and crackers; and to get so much joy out eating it; and then to thank the person who introduced it to you.  After all, it’s just cheap fish in a can! But, I feel incredibly fortunate to know the value of money and to appreciate and artfully celebrate the most seemingly mundane tasks and treats.

Since leaving my senior reporter position at the Houston Chronicle to become a full-time freelancer, I’ve of course had many occasions to practice this artful celebration. A huge part of saving money, for me, involves enjoying spending more time at home, rather than out on the town. Thankfully, I love to read.

The past couple of weeks, for several reasons, I find myself revisiting a lot of my books about mindfulness and meditation. Last week, I finished “The Not So Big Life,” by Susana Susanka and this week I started “Zen Keys: A Guide to Zen Practice,” by Thich Nhat Hanh. Next I may grab “The Seven Storey Mountain,” the celebrated autobiography by trappist monk, mystic, author and poet Thomas Merton . I read it a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. You don’t have to be Catholic or even spiritual to appreciate the beautiful prose and the captivating — and sometime scandalous, gasp! — story of Merton’s life.

Reading these books about mindfulness reminds  me of some of the reasons I wanted the career change to freelance, which were to live more simply, have more time with loved ones and pursue more art and travel. Also, I just wanted more freedom which is at the heart of the teachings of the books I’ve been reading. What I keep being reminded of in the books is that it’s essential to spend my time “being” instead of “doing” and when I am doing — whether it’s reading, watching TV, eating, cleaning the bathroom, visiting with a friend, shopping for necessities or making fancy sardine snacks — that I must pay attention. It’s such as simple concept, yet we forget and we just move through life in a fog, without even realizing it.

Lazy Cleo.

Lazy Cleo.

In fact, were I not paying attention, I wouldn’t have taken this lovely little portrait of Cleo off to the left. What you don’t know from looking at that serene little face, is that Cleo was in such a deep slumber, that two seconds after after I snapped this pic, she began to roll backwards, nearly falling off the arm of the sofa.

Lucky for her, I saw it coming and blocked the fall. It was a funny moment and one that is oft repeated in various areas of the house, when she’ll fall off the back of a chair or out of the kitchen window onto the floor and start loudly meowing in a state of total confusion.

I’m sort of rambling I suppose, but the point is that since I slowed down, simplified and started paying more attention, I’m enjoying everything a lot more. As you might imagine, I keep my budget for going out very low, because I want to promote more time spent at home cooking, reading, writing, making art and checking out art exhibits or local parks, instead of always reverting to the fun, but spendy habit of happy hour or dinner out. Then when I do go out for drinks or some such thing with friends, I really appreciate it.

In fact, I went for tea with a friend this week. We both wanted to try Path of Tea, a

Loose tea at Path of Tea on

Loose tea at Path of Tea on

place I discovered after he asked me for recommendations where to buy tea as a gift. Mistakenly, I thought it was a store, but to our happy surprise, it was also a tea house. So we slowed our roll and shared a pot of tea, which comes with the most delicious little almond coated cookies with a dollop of preserves in the middle.

He regaled me with stories of his youth spent in China, where despite being one of a handful of Americans, he enjoyed a sense of community and the friendliness born of having to live side-by-side with so very many people. The tea was exactly as he had remembered it, which was especially profound, because he had been disappointed by much of the tea he’d had until finding this establishment.

Later in the week, I was inspired to brake out a tea pot I got as a gift when I graduated from college. I settled on a pot of Earl Grey (with cookies, of course). This little break reminded of tea with my friend, as well the person who gifted me with the tea pot. She has sense departed, so I love that every time I use it, I think of her. While sipping and crunching away on my cookies, I made a mental note to incorporate tea time a few times per week at home.

This was a week steeped (yep, I just made that pun) in simplicity. It challenged me to stay grounded in the mission I set out on when I made that scary, but essential for me leap to freelance. In that spirit, I’ll leave you with a quote I read the other day that resonated with me. It’s by the buddhist monk, teacher and author Jack Kornfield:

“The capacity to be open to the new in each moment without seeking a false sense of security is the true source of strength and freedom in life.”

What are your simple pleasures?

 

Budget Elegance: Cooking is a dead sexy money saver

20130131-113035.jpg

When I decided to become a full-time freelancer, I knew lean times were a comin’. Thankfully, I grew up in a household that, even in prosperous times, valued saving over spending and relished simple pleasures. It didn’t hurt that Dad preferred Miller Genuine Draft over pricier craft brews and that my stepmom Vicki was a budget ninja (both of these things hold true today –those two are some savin’ fools!).

Recently, my friend Paige said she needed to get better at “being poor.” Now, Paige has a great job, travels, tries new restaurants and is a homeowner, so she isn’t really “poor,” she just wants to save more cash to achieve a few specific goals for the future. Having been there, as well as actually poor when I was in college and a several years after as a young reporter and now being on a tight budget to realize my long-held dream of being footloose and fancy freelance, she clearly had turned to the right place.

Also, she was fed up with advice from a budgeting book that suggested, for example, to shop at Banana Republic, rather than Nordstrom. Frankly, neither is very wallet friendly, depending on your income and one man’s Banana is of course another man’s Nordstrom is another man’s Wal-Mart is another man’s thrift store and on and on. So, I set out to offer up some of my best lean, but luxe living tips that include a variety of budget levels.

So, each Thursday, I plan to share with you some of the tips I’ve been sharing with Paige.

Today’s tip is perhaps one of the most impactful things you can do to save money and also to enrich your life: Cook your own food.

If you can’t cook, learn. Ask a friend or relative to teach you. Watch cooking shows. Borrow cookbooks. Experiment. But for the love of God, learn how to cook. Cooking is cheaper, and it is dead sexy (Google Giada or watch this Robert Rodriguez cooking video if you need proof).

I love going out to restaurants, but it’s expensive, so when your budget dictates that going out to eat isn’t an option, make even the most simple, cheapest meals more elegant by “styling” the food and adding a flourish or two to your meal.

Most mornings, I eat a bioled egg, toast, maybe some fresh fruit and coffee for breakfast. It couldn’t be a cheaper or easier meal. It’s the original fast food! This is what my breakfast looks like when I sit down to eat:

20130131-104643.jpg

Lunch might be a tuna salad sandwich. Booooring, right? Not when you take a minute to make it artful:

20130131-105322.jpg

(Are you starting to realize that I like tomatoes?)

Learn to make pizza. It’s cheap and seriously fun to do with friends, family or a date. I was afraid to make my own crust, but it’s pretty easy and the results are rustic, beautiful and delicious:

20130131-111452.jpg

Also, cooking gives you something to do when you can’t afford or don’t want to spend the money to go out. Bored and want a snack? Make homemade potato chips and dip. Peel, style and eat an orange:

20130131-112146.jpg

Basically, play with your food. Cooking is a fun and tasty way to pass time and save money. And don’t forget, it is also sexy:

20130131-112558.jpg

How do you save money?

Tuesday Taste: Cream of mushroom soup

Homemade cream of mushroom soup.

Homemade cream of mushroom soup.

Last week, I decided to get crafty and make homemade cream of mushroom soup. I found a recipe at SimplyRecipes.com, but it called for several items that I didn’t have on hand. No problem, because I’m not afraid to improvise.

Here’s what I came up with and it is delicious!

 

 

 

 

Ingredients:

1 pound sliced white mushrooms
1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp olive oil

Four sliced carrots

Half of a white or red onion. 
1 tbsp fresh thyme (chopped) or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

3 tbsp flour

Instructions:

Place sliced carrots in boiling water and cook until tender. While the carrots are cooking, sauté onions, mushrooms and thyme in butter with olive oil. When mushrooms and onions are tender, add carrots, stock and salt and pepper. Allow the mixture to cook for about 20 minutes. Pour milk into a saucepan and slowly add flour stirring constantly with a whisk, to eliminate lumps. Add milk and flour mixture to stock and vegetables and cook until desired thickness. Serves four. Tastes great with crusty French baguette and butter.

Eat and enjoy!

 

SPOILER ALERT: Downton Abbey sobfest

Costume dramas are by far my favorite genre of TV and film. This likely stems from my love of 18th and 19th Century Literature. I simply cannot get enough of it!

Obviously I’m a fiend for Masterpiece Theatre’s “Downton Abbey” and practically plan my entire Sunday around the one-hour show.

Like all other DA devotees, today I am in mourning over the loss of, as my fellow reporter and friend Andrew Dansby put it, “one of the most beautiful people in the history of TV.”

Lady Sybil’s death scene was the most heart- and gut-wrenching I’ve ever seen. I was sobbing so loud and for such a long time, I’m certain my neighbors think I lost a member of my own family. It wouldn’t surprise me to find a casserole on my doorstep after work tonight.

To the Downton writers and actors: Y’all. Brought. It. The reactions of astonishment, despair, helplessness and anger by the players amazed me. Dear God, I’m welling up again just writing about it! Jane Austen wouldn’t have so ruthlessly toyed with our emotions. Oh, the humanity of Julian Fellowes!

Perhaps it’s rather silly to be so affected by characters in a TV show, but holy wow, if you don’t feel something when you watch that episode, you are dead inside. Dead!

A nation of fans grieves today and for who knows how long. Rest in peace sweet, kind Lady Sybil.

(Chokes back sobs)

20130128-122052.jpg