On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that Americans were “free and independent,” and “endowed by their Creator with [the] unalienable rights [of] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But merely declaring the belief that we were free in 1776 did not assure that we would live free of pain, misery and bondage today. In fact, freedom is not something that can be given to us by anyone but ourself. Real freedom is a very personal matter and can only be experienced when each of us sincerely invests our time and energy in developing and employing practical tools that can manifest the health, happiness and security we desire. The work of forging these tools is known as meditation.
Unless we can develop these tools, our definition of freedom remains rather superficial. Usually it refers to my ability to come and go as I please, and to choose what I like and discard what I don’t like. Unfortunately, when we habitually over-indulge our personal likes and dislikes, all our relationships suffer because happiness becomes dependent on getting everything my way.
When we thoroughly examine the concept of freedom in the light of our own personal experiences, we begin to understand that in every situation real freedom means having the liberty to take actions that will benefit the whole while providing us lasting health, happiness and security. How can we experience this? It requires that we use our inner wisdom to choose from among all the powerful influences of family, race, religion, gender, age, work and culture. If we can faithfully do this work, we and everyone else will benefit.
When we meditate at the same time and in the same place every day, we develop the tools that enable us to do what’s to be done and to not do what’s not to be done. And, as a sure sign we are headed in the right direction, we notice we’re feeling better physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Here are “Ten Tools for Freedom, Health and Happiness” your daily meditation practice and its allied disciplines can provide.
In any new endeavor we need a guide to help direct our energies toward the attainment of our chosen goal or desire. In our meditation practice, the mantra is our leader. It is the number one tool in our tool bag to bring us freedom, health and happiness. While the words of some mantras have no literal meaning, all mantras are compact prayers––a word or series of words, usually including the name of the Divine Reality.
We already know from grade school science class that every action results in a consequence. When we continually give our attention to the mantra, we experience love, fearlessness and strength. We may not be aware of the mantra’s effect immediately, but its subtle power is continuously stored in the potential state––available to us when it is most needed. The mantra enhances our capacity to forge all the other tools that will enable us to fulfill the noble purpose of life.
An understanding of the word mantra can be found in its etymology. The word mantra joins the Sanskrit words man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” When used regularly, the mantra can help us cross over the turbulence and debilitating influence of our old mental habits to experience contentment and creativity. On a practical level, mantra repetition introduces a powerful vibration of purifying energy. Over time, the expansive vibration and consciousness of the mantra supersedes competitive and contractive vibrations presently stored in the unconscious mind. With continued dedication to our meditation practice, the healing wave of the mantra will still and heal the mind of all contending, negative vibrations.
2. Budgeting Time
Most of us are caught in the whirlpool of desires and expectations that keep us endlessly busy. Once we acknowledge the need to use time as a means for experiencing health and happiness, we will start budgeting our hours as conscientiously as we budget our finances. If the truth be known, most of us waste a lot of time each day. Because a daily meditation practice can change the old habits that do not serve us well, meditation becomes a dire necessity and acquires the highest priority in our lives. When we begin and end every day with meditation (even if for only one minute), our practice will
supply us the additional tools necessary to balance and reprioritize all our duties and responsibilities including work, food shopping, meal preparation, eating, sex, sleep, household chores, child care and recreation.
3. Diaphragmatic Breathing
Respiration is the body’s primary mechanism for maintaining the strategic flow of energy. Proper inhalation and exhalation are like twin sentries guarding the city of life. The rate, rhythm and depth of breath directly impact the amount of energy available to the body and affect all the metabolic processes. The character of the breath determines whether energy is delivered in irregular, short bursts or in longer, more sustained waves. With every breath we are redefining the patterns of energy that affect both the body and the mind––for better or worse.
Breathing air deeply into the lungs is a critical factor in maintaining good health. Diaphragmatic breathing calms the nervous system while massaging and stimulating the heart and all organs of digestion and elimination. In addition, it efficiently oxygenates the blood. Oxygen is inhaled into the lungs where it is transferred into the bloodstream for distribution to all the cells of the body. Because the human torso is carried in an upright position, gravity generally acts to keep greater quantities of blood in the lower portion of the lungs than the upper. With deep, diaphragmatic breathing, the lungs fill to their capacity, providing oxygen to the lower lungs where it can most readily be absorbed. Those who breathe shallowly, moving only the upper chest, often feel fatigued. Their improper breathing habits inhibit the process of oxygenation and deny vitality to the cells of the body.
4. One-Pointed Attention
Our modern culture demands multi-pointed attention––even though such demands are really quite impossible to fulfill. Simply put, the brain cannot observe two objects at the same time. To provide us the illusion that we are multitasking, adrenaline surges through the body stimulating the brain to move attention rapidly back and forth from one object to another. The elevated hormone levels created by habitual multitasking can depress both the immune system and the mind.
Single-pointed attention actually slows the mind in order to concentrate and focus our creative energy. As a result, we can gain access to the superconscious portion of the mind from which all wisdom flows. One-pointed attention enables us to accomplish more in less time, with fewer mistakes and greater satisfaction.
The greatest artistic, creative and productive achievements in history have been facilitated through minds exercising one-pointed attention. Similarly, at the pinnacle of any Olympic competition, the gold medal is won by the athlete whose mind has been made one-pointed. The winner possesses the skill to remain focused regardless of competing thoughts, desires or emotions that could dissipate both mental and physical reserves. To thoroughly know anything, to discover or create anything, you must give your heart to it––which means our ATTENTION. The greater the focus of attention, the more profound the blessing.
In service to the freedom we deeply desire, our meditation practice also furnishes us the powerful tool of detachment or non-attachment. In contrast to its common usage, the word detachment does not mean being callous, aloof, indifferent or uninvolved. Detachment actually means love in action, because it enables us to set aside our own mental limitations, as well as the handicaps of others.
When we are faced with a choice of what to think, say or do, the tool of detachment helps us train the ego, whose tyranny always tries to convince us that our happiness depends on people and events serving our personal likes and dislikes. In practical terms, detachment creates a space between our first habitual reaction and our ultimate response. This space between stimulus and response provides us the freedom to hear and serve the discriminating wisdom of our conscience (buddhi) to determine the most beneficial course of action. St. Francis of Assisi reminds us “it is in giving that we receive.” In order to become the beneficiary of something worthwhile (like health or happiness), we must be willing to give up our attachment to the likes and dislikes our habits treasure.
The word conscience comes from the Latin, and it means “with wisdom or knowledge.” As our meditation practice deepens, our conscience (buddhi) is increasingly purified and can reliably access wisdom from the superconscious mind. When this inner wisdom enters the conscious mind, we need no verification of its truthfulness. We automatically know from our own experience that what the conscience says is true. The only question that remains is, do we have the will power to base our thoughts, words and deeds on its unerring judgment?
The conscience allows us to transcend old, unreliable habits in order to experience health, happiness and security. Using the tool of discrimination prepares us to deal with everything life offers. But if we accept the bold promises from the culture or from our own senses, habits or ego––without consulting our own inner wisdom––we won’t always get what was promised. The only way to know for certain if a particular thought will lead us for our highest and greatest good is to use the reliable tool of conscience.
7. Will Power
The major crisis in our lives is not one of IQ––intelligence quotient; it is one of WQ––will quotient. Most of us possess the intellectual capacity to make sound decisions, but because we habitually disregard the promptings of our own conscience (buddhi), our reserves of will power have become diminished or bankrupt. Without sufficient will power to exercise detachment and discrimination, we suffer tension, stress, anxiety and pain.
Meditation changes that debilitating situation by transforming our stress into strength. Because our inner intuitive wisdom advises us that meditation will be beneficial, we pledge to ourselves before each meditation practice that our complete, one-pointed focus of attention will remain on the mantra. Then, as we meditate, whenever the mind becomes restless and competing thoughts, images or sounds come into our awareness, we willingly honor, witness and surrender the distraction and return our attention back to the mantra. This process is similar to lifting weights. When we regularly lift weights, we strengthen the body’s muscles. In meditation, as we mindfully observe and let go of the distractions, we strengthen the mental muscles of our will power.
8. Easy-Gentle Yoga
In easy-gentle yoga the body and its subtle energy become the focus of our one-pointed attention, in the same way we use the mantra in seated meditation. When the body assumes a specific posture, we find that competing thoughts and attachments arise in our conscious mind. Each is welcomed, witnessed and honored (just as with distractions in meditation) and then surrendered so that we can redirect our attention back to the body and its energy.
At a later time we can revisit those relevant thoughts, desires and emotions that had come forward during our yoga practice. This process reveals great insights into how our vital energy can be better used. As our yoga practice deepens and we focus increasingly on what appears in the moment, rather than on our preconceptions, we realize that our body’s stiffness is actually physical evidence of mental conditioning. Armed with that insight, we become more free, flexible and willing to release our attachments, and to experience the reward of total, skillful engagement in every kind of relationship.
9. Good Company
We all remember when Mom and Dad warned us against associating with certain acquaintances. “Don’t hang around with those kids,” they warned. “They’re not a good influence.” The science of meditation offers the same loving parental advice: “The company you keep is stronger than your will.” It’s a version of the law of physics that states a liquid assumes the shape of the container in which it is held. And it’s not dissimilar to what occurs when we play tennis or golf. When we’re matched against someone a little better than us, we tend to play up to their level. When we play with someone a little worse than us, we tend to play down to their level.
Children, as we know, are sometimes inclined to reject the advice of their parents. In childhood, a certain amount of experimentation is necessary. Sometimes a child may have to touch a stove to find out if the burners are hot, but as an adult we do not have to touch every burner on every stove. In determining what company to keep in our lives and in our minds, meditators utilize the conscience to discriminate, rather than relying on personal preferences alone. With practice, meditators become increasingly decisive, skillful and fearless.
The practice of contemplation is similar to the military technique referred to as the “After Action Review.” The process makes us aware of how we can better expend our vital energy. Once we recognize which of our past actions have conflicted with our inner wisdom, we can be prepared the next time we face similar attachments on the battlefield of life. The knowledge gathered through contemplation leads us to make inspired decisions that transform every challenge into an opportunity.
For our contemplation practice, it’s best to choose a time and place not encumbered by the demands of our everyday responsibilities. Sitting in a clean, quiet, comfortable environment and systematically reviewing our thoughts, words and actions of the past twenty-four hours helps us take stock of where we are now––in relation to where we need and want to be.
As an intuitive Yoga scientist, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The philosopher is Nature’s pilot. And there you have our difference: To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” But to steer a safe and rewarding course requires appropriate tools. “If you have the proper tool,” my auto mechanic Kenny Tremont once told me, “every job is easier and doable.” I know today that the “Ten Tools for Freedom, Health and Happiness” are the proper tools because they have never let me down––not even once over the past 36 years. Because these tools have worked so well for me, I believe they can transform your life as they have my own.
photo credit: “1776,” by Jenness Cortez Perlmutter, Homage to: John Trumbull (1756-1843), ©2012