As modern life becomes increasingly more stressful, it seems there is never enough time for all we need to do. So the idea of carving out more time for a commitment to sit–and meditate–may seem absurd.
Take just a moment or two to consider some of the real benefits of meditation and you may be surprised at how much easier it can be to manage life’s challenges.
1. Costs nothing
Meditation costs nothing and you can practise anywhere–while walking to work, while in the office, or on a noisy bus. One way to do this is to focus all attention on your breathing. Concen-trate on feeling and listening as you inhale and exhale through your
nostrils. Breathe deeply and slowly.
2. Reduces stress
Meditation reduces stress levels and alleviates anxiety. If we train ourselves to become more mindful, we can learn to observe our moods and thoughts before they spiral downward. We can, in other words, be more relaxed inside.
3. Improves concentration and mental focus
Meditation provides a way to train our mind to settle into a state of calmness and clarity. We will be less easily led into old mental habits such as irritability. When we learn to separate from our old habits of mind, we pave the way for clearer thoughts, improved memory, insightfulness, creativity, and the ability to learn and adapt to new things.
4. Facilitates mindfulness
Meditation is a state of being acutely aware of whatever thought, emotion, or sensation is present without reacting to it. In the process, we gain an understanding of how our mind functions. We discover that we do not have to follow every thought or emotion that arises.
5. Improves circulatory and cardiovascular systems
Scientists have discovered that meditation can affect the body in remarkable ways, including reductions in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, blood flow
to skeletal muscles, perspiration, and muscle tension.
6. Increases appreciation for life
Meditation expands our awareness and opens us to a larger view of the life that is all around us.
7. Supports immune system
Scientific studies indicate that meditation increases defence against tumours, viruses, colds, flu, and other infectious diseases.
8. Reduces and manages pain
Studies show that meditation relieves symptoms in patients with anxiety and chronic pain; further, those who meditate heal almost four times more rapidly than those who do not meditate.
9. Cultivates inner peace and equanimity
Meditation cultivates insight and understanding through a capacity of moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness. In this way, we become healthier, more peaceful, and more balanced.
10. Improves knowledge of self
Meditation facilitates self-discovery. We realize that we can understand and improve ourselves as human beings, not through a theory, not through a concept, but through direct experience.
Quick Guide to Meditation
You can adapt this introductory meditation technique to fit the time you have available.
- Ideally, find a place that is quiet and comfortable where you will be undisturbed.
- Find a posture that works for you–either on a chair or cross-legged on the floor. It is important that the spine is upright and that your body is relaxed. Rest your hands comfortably on your lap or thighs.
- To minimize outward distractions, close your eyes, but do not allow yourself to fall asleep. Become aware of your breathing by focusing on the movement of air in and out of your body.
- Be aware of the thoughts that come into your mind. Do not try to ignore or suppress them; just observe them while remaining calm and anchored to your breath. Do not let your frequent wanderings discourage you.
- Simply observe what is taking place in yourself as though you were an interesting stranger. If you become distracted, refocus on your breathing.
- After 15 minutes, slowly open your eyes. Take a few minutes to allow yourself to come back to where you are. When you are ready, gently lift yourself up to a standing position.
Alive Magazine, April 2008
In an antique train overcrowded with weary passengers we arrive at Mughal Sarai Railway Station in Varanasi. The world outside the barred window of the train throbs with passengers and porters with suitcases piled on their heads. Women in flowing saris follow casually along the platform as vendors race towards the train to sell warm snacks and sickly sweet cardamom-spiced tea in earthenware cups.
As soon as we step onto the train platform a gigantic mass of humanity simply swallows us up in its wake and takes us up the stairs, through the station, and into a noisy crowd of rickshaw-pullers, hotel touts and postcard selling children. The morning air is scented with a rich bouquet of incense and spices mingled with sandalwood and marigold flowers.
If you had to choose one city to represent everything that is truly Indian, you would probably choose Varanasi. However, Varanasi is not a tourist haven in terms of specific sights. It is more of an experience that shakes your whole entity, your state of mind, and all of your senses. It seems that on the banks of this sacred river anything is possible. The sacred and everyday life merges easily in Varanasi. Devout Hindus consider Varanasi to be a unique meeting place between heaven and earth where gods and goddesses can descend to this world and mortals can be transferred directly to the after-life.
We walk along the banks of the river Ganges as the sun rises like a halo above the city, illuminating the countless temples that form the west bank’s skyline. The arrival of the golden dawn brings thousands of worshippers through the shroud of mist and down the long flights of stone steps called ghats, which reach like roots into the river.
A very active boat culture exists all along the ghats and embarking on a trip at dawn is a wonderfully atmospheric way to see Varanasi. We find a skinny man in a loin cloth who offers to take us across the Ganges for a small sum. As the sky grows lighter and the mist begins to dispel, our boatman takes up his oars and we pull away from the shore, across the surface of the dark and mysterious waters. The chant of early morning prayers, punctuated by ringing bells and the loud snap and bang of morning laundry being thwacked on rocks echoes across the river. Thousands of people stand in the water, facing east across the river, praying and pouring water out of urns held up to the sunrise, heralding the gift of a new day.
As our boat approaches the somber Marnikarnika burning ghat, we put away our cameras since photography is prohibited. Contradictory to the West, life and death coexist harmoniously in Varanasi. Living and dying are both celebrated. The boat drifts by a cluster of foreigners who stare transfixed in morbid fascination as thick grey smoke billows up from several sandalwood pyres while bodies of relatives are brought in on stretchers, entirely wrapped in red and gold fabrics and covered in marigolds. First the relatives wash the body in the Ganges to purify it and then the body is placed on top of an orderly pile of logs by men in white loincloths called doms who are from a special untouchable caste. Next the doms neatly stack more logs on top of the body before lighting the pyre. It doesn’t take long for the fire to catch, and at any one time you can see two or three bodies burning steadily in the river breeze. Later, the ashes will be scattered onto the waters of the Ganges.
A typical body takes three to four hours to burn and often there is usually a large bone left over like the hips or lower back. The unburned bones are simply thrown into the river as well as the ashes after they are sifted by a man called the Watchman for gold and silver, which he keeps. The boatman also informs us that “not everyone is able to die in Varanasi because the sandalwood needed to burn the bodies is very expensive.”
After the joyous, yet solemn process of salvation for the dead, a fascinating place to visit is the old city of Varanasi which is located just behind the main ghats. Winding your way through the deep narrow and ancient alleys that are seething with life is a deeply exhilarating experience. Most of the streets are no wider than eight feet and although they cannot accommodate cars or rickshaws large numbers of aimlessly wandering holy cows are free to roam the streets. There are a hundreds of unique and colourful shops to explore in this bustling marketplace. Down one lane you can find naan bread that has been freshly baked over a fire and rich Indian sweetmeats for sale while in another twisting lane, vendors are selling silver bracelets and earrings, sitars or other Indian musical instruments and brightly painted puppets or wooden toys. There is a magical quality present in these ancient alley ways that is strangely seductive and as old as faith itself.
In the evening the Ganges is ritually put to sleep at dusk. This involves various ceremonies that take place along the ghats. As the river rippled past, we released our offerings to Mother Ganges; a floating candle made from one dry leaf with a few marigold petals on it along with a wick in a dab of butter-oil. The candles are placed in the river where they are taken across the shimmering surface of the Ganges by its gentle current.
Looking out across the Ganges, there are thousands of these floating candles, flickering like constellations on the water. It occurs to me how easy it is to feel connected to the divine in this spiritual atmosphere that has sustained India and her people through the centuries.
Current Magazine, June 28-July 11, 2009. V.9, Issue 6. Photos: Luke Storms
Nassau Street is home to the laid back and wonderfully disorganized Ideal Coffee Café, a casual locale with a low key décor of vinyl booths and mismatched coffee mugs. A large coffee roaster sits in the middle of the cafe surrounded by giant burlap bags of fairly traded coffee beans.
“You know what I love about Kensington Market,” my friend says casually sipping his coffee, “It doesn’t give me any corporate logos unless it’s printed on the side of my long necked glass bottle of Coca Cola imported from Mexico.”
This area west of Spadina, called Kensington Market is a unique community of narrow streets and alleys, some of which are lined with colourfully painted Victorian houses. The bustling lanes of the market consist of a variety of food stores selling an eclectic mix of meats, fish and produce. The area is also home to funky dimly lit boutiques selling a wide variety of cheap and used clothing, as well as a number of discount and surplus stores.
On busy days, the market is every bit as chaotic as street markets around the world: with a cacophony of sounds and smells and a culturally diverse crowd. People are attracted not only to the good prices but also to the rich multicultural mix that exists in the market, obvious in the shops packed with goods imported from Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, South America and Asia.
Kensington Market has a rich history. The first settlers to the area came from the British Isles. Their legacy remains today with the English names they chose for the tightly packed streets that make up the market. In the early 1900’s the British relocated to affluent areas of Toronto, and the market began to attract more diverse immigrants to its community.
By the 1920’s, 80 percent of Toronto’s Jewish community had settled in and around Kensington Market, worshipping at over 30 local synagogues. Merchants sold a variety of goods from hand-pushed carts bolted down in front of their homes. The economy began to prosper and their business began to spill out onto the lawns, onto their porches, and even into the main floor of many of their houses. The “Jewish Market” was born.
By the 1930s the carts were gone and the goods moved into the front room of the family home and became the first store fronts of the market. Soon the area became a thriving marketplace with kosher meat processing plants and chicken slaughterhouses added to the mix.
After World War II, the original Jewish population began moving to wealthier suburban areas in Toronto and Ukrainians, Hungarians, Italians, and Portuguese began to move into the neighbourhood to make a new life for themselves.
By the 1960s the Portuguese were the market’s largest immigrant community. They added their own colour to the eclectic mix of cultures in the market by influencing the types of goods sold and expanding commerce onto Augusta Street.
In the 1970’s, Toronto Mayor David Crombie, who was strongly opposed to the massive urban restructuring plans that were popular at the time, crushed plans to tear down the densely packed small houses and replace them with large apartment style housing projects.
Today the neighbourhood is a noted tourist attraction as well as a centre for Toronto’s cultural life as many artists and writers live in the area. Land prices in the area have rose drastically, but despite its increased appeal to professionals, Kensington Market still remains a predominantly working class, immigrant community.
The fact that the market is pedestrian friendly also adds to its charm. The narrow streets and the density of pedestrians and cyclists discourage drive-thru traffic. On weekends and peak shopping hours, it is actually much faster to cycle or even walk through the market than to drive. In 2004, residents and businesses organized a series of Pedestrian Sundays where parts of Augusta St., Baldwin St. and Kensington Ave. are closed to motorized traffic and the market is transformed into a street festival. There is free live music, dancing, street theatre and games all along the closed streets.
The market continues to evolve by attracting people from all around the globe. Every wave of immigrants has changed the city in its own way,” says Toronto Mayor David Miller. “Toronto’s success is neighbourhood-based. The face of the streets is the face of the world.
Nowhere is that more prevalent than in Toronto’s unique Kensington Market.
(Photo: Jewish market day, Kensington Avenue, Toronto, Canada form Wikipedia)