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Advice from a Buddhist monk on how to start a successful meditation practice

Thinking, techniques and tips from 'The Urban Monk', Dr. Bhante Saranapala

Nicole Mahabir · CBC Life

"Meditation is a healing technique, it is inner work, it is not just sitting and breathing. There is more to be done and this is what most people do not know about meditation. This is beyond mindfulness. We meditate often because we want inner-peace but our inner problems do not disappear immediately. You have to do the inner work. Meditation is all about looking within."

Dr. Bhante Saranapala, fondly known as The Urban Monk, is a teacher of meditation to classes of the Peel police in Greater Toronto, a global public speaker, and founder of Canada: A Mindful and Kind Nation which hosts an annual symposium aimed at "promoting mental health through mindfulness meditation and kindfulness practice." Dr. Saranapala has been featured in the media for his compassionate work and is the recipient of numerous awards including the Spirit Award from the Government of Ontario.

Dr. Saranapala describes meditation as internal medicine for peace and well-being. "When you are not feeling well, you go to the doctor. The doctor gives you a prescription to recover from sickness and then you have to take the medicine twice a day. In the same way, meditation must be taken. If you don't take the prescription as ordered, then the solution to a balanced healthy lifestyle is ignored."

I sat with Dr. Saranapala to discuss how a novice might establish a successful meditation practice, and overcome the obstacles that we may face with meditation both at the outset and along the way.

Here, Dr. Saranapala provides us with practical and meaningful tips about mindfulness meditation, and developing healthy mental habits that improve our quality of life and happiness.

"When people sit down to meditate, they have the optimistic feeling of hope and peace, but they expect meditation to happen immediately...this is the first obstacle to meditation."

Begin by building your mental fitness

Dr. Saranapala likens meditation to a physical workout. "When you go to the gym, it may be difficult at first and if you only visit the gym once in a while, you may not achieve your goal. At the beginning stages of meditation, it's similar, you must commit to the practice."

Begin by sitting for just fifteen minutes a day, then increase your sit to half an hour and then an hour a day, if you have time. "You need to be consistent and persistent. Practicing for just fifteen minutes a day will build your mental fitness."

Face your pain

Sitting down to meditate is not easy — it takes time for the body to feel relaxed and without pain for a sustained period. Dr. Saranpala explains that pain is one of the most difficult obstacles to meditation.

"When we feel pain, the mind can start racing, and [the practice becomes] difficult. The obstacle becomes not just feeling the physical pain but the difficulty of facing the fear related to the pain. Facing the reality or truth about where our pain originates, is a major obstacle. When you sit with yourself in meditation, eventually you will have to address your pain and your fear or emotions. How long can you turn away? There is no escape. We may have accomplished many of the material successes in life, but for our peace of mind and our piece of happiness, we must first face what is inside."

This, he says requires the cultivation and practice of strong mindfulness. In the beginning, instead of reacting, observe that there is pain or emotion but do not be afraid of it. The pain is notable because you have suppressed or ignored it. When you relax and calm down, the suppressed emotions come up.

"In order to become free from emotional pain and struggles, you must first let them surface. When they come out onto the surface... then it is easier to clean."

Shine the light on your negative thoughts

Experiencing negative thoughts during meditation can be daunting and may turn us away from our practice. Whenever there are negative thoughts, stories, or images that come up, they must be acknowledged and then observed, too.

Dr. Saranapala invites us to pay attention to our negative thoughts and to let them know that our mind is not their home. Observe the thoughts but be the mindful bouncer. Turn the light on when the thieves that steal your happiness enter your mind, see them, watch them but do not feed or nourish them. Slowly as you watch them, they will begin to dwindle and go away.

Develop mindfulness

We can develop mindfulness in four ways; prevention, elimination, cultivation, and maintenance.

Prevention is mindfulness itself, it is the light of awareness. As described above, once a negative thought or experience is seen with awareness, then there is no point for it to be there any longer. It will go away. This is how mindfulness itself, the light of awareness, can prevent further suffering. If you have had an experience of suffering and have learned from that experience, you can generally prevent it from happening again. However, if you are still carrying the mental image of that circumstance, then you may still be experiencing the suffering.

To show an example of the need to eliminate the cause of pain, Dr. Saranapala asked me to hold out my hand. He placed a pen in my upward facing palm. Then I waited; the pen became heavier, my shoulder felt tension and although it was just a tiny pen, over a short time I could feel the weight of it. I put the pen down, noticing the feeling of the release and the residual tension leaving my shoulder. "What would happen if you held the pen for the whole day or your whole life? There would be more pain and more suffering," he said. "By knowing what you are holding on to you can become more aware of the cause of the pain."

Since unhealthy thoughts and emotions can create those great burdens and pains in our life, with meditation we make an effort to remove the negative thoughts and cultivate healthy, positive thought habits with self-kindness and compassion.

Cultivation is about shifting our thinking. If you are angry, you can intentionally recognize that whatever happened is in the past and think "I know that person is responsible for their actions and I do not need to wish harm to that person, instead I have to learn how to deal with my own anger. May I be free from anger, may I have compassion and may I be kind to myself and be full love."

To have a beautiful garden, you must remove the weeds from the garden on a regular basis. Once we have cultivated our mental garden, we must 'water' or maintain it continuously. We do this nurturing through the practice of meditation.

The end of suffering

"Let's imagine that we want something, but that something is not happening. Then we get hurt, excited, panicked, stressed and if we ignore these feelings and do not take steps to overcome our negative experiences, they will grow deeper."

Meditation helps to cultivate 'kindfulness', and there is a way to do it. "During difficult times you first have to really learn to care for yourself. If you do not, who will care for you?" Do not abandon yourself or your emotions. You must turn toward yourself and give yourself the love and kindness that is needed for your healing.

This is more than just self-care. You need to be kind to yourself as a part of compassion. The whole purpose of compassion is to feel your pain and to embrace yourself. You need to be very kind to yourself: make some free time; instead of staying in your room, to walk, be outside, see the beautiful day, the trees and the lake. Notice the sky, feel the sunlight and you will also see the clouds, just notice them. Read a positive book that feeds your heart and mind. Practice yoga, exercise, prepare nutritious food for yourself have healthy conversations with someone. This is your self-kindness. Continue to do this act of kind mindfulness or "kindfulness" as a part of healing.

Then you feel better. You feel okay. Then it feels good to also share this kindness with others. You can speak good words, do random acts of kindness, give hope, offer moral and emotional support, see how you can help the person, or show your kindness through generosity. Perhaps give your time to say something positive. Take the time to foster relationships with support and be present for another when they require support. And, you can listen to someone. Deep listening with a kind and compassionate heart can be profoundly healing for someone.

A meditation technique

Start in a relaxed seated position, drawing attention to the breath.

Slowly begin to notice any subtle sensations that may be arising.

Begin to slowly scan the body starting with the eyebrows, eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

Then progressively move down to the neck, shoulders, right arm, right hand, left arm, left hand.

Then the back, chest, abdomen, right leg, left leg, right foot and left foot.

Then again, face, eyebrows, nose, neck, shoulders, right hand, left hand, back, chest, abdomen, right leg, left leg, right foot, left foot.

Then take a deep breath and relax.

Bring full attention to the breath. See if you can breathe in and out through the nose with full attention.

Breath in and out reciting may I be well may I be happy may I be peaceful.

Breath in, and recite aloud: "May I be"

Breath out, and recite aloud: "happy"

Breath in, and recite aloud "May I be"

Breath out, and recite aloud "peaceful'

This is mindful breathing, and loving-kindness meditation.

Practice this everyday for at least 15 minutes.

"Whichever gentle command you give, the brain is listening and the body will respond accordingly," says Dr. Saranpala.


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