Tuesday, October 11, 2016

When meditation brings up what hurts

The media abound with stories of how meditation will cure everything from high crime and low grades in challenged school districts to the common fear and anxiety we all struggle with. It's proven to improve your ability to concentrate and even aid in the healing of physical ailments. You have likely seen cute pictures of inner city elementary school kids in lotus pose in lieu of time-outs and images of beautiful people with blissful yoga expressions might well lead you to believe that if only you could meditate, you too would experience instant bliss and higher awareness.
It's easy to understand why it is thoroughly disappointing and downright disconcerting when all you experience when sitting in meditation is a nervous shortness of breath and a significant rise in anxiety. 
If that's happening to you when you practice meditation, you are not alone. As a trainer of aspiring yoga teachers, I am a stickler about having them implement a meditation practice throughout the training and the reports I am getting back from a number of students, are not as rosy and excited as you might think. In some cases, my students experienced such severe increase in anxiety that they have to temporarily quit their practice and they struggle to understand how a 20 minutes practice can be so challenging.
Indeed, the single most difficult yoga teacher training program requirement for my students to implement is not the acrobatic poses like forearm stand or handstand -- no, it is sitting down to do their daily meditation. It takes much less time than the average asana practice and with the right support it's not all that physically challenging (they are even told they can use a chair if necessary) -- so why does the touted yogic meditation bliss elude a fair amount of students when they first embark on a meditation path?
My best answer is that meditation is in part the art of becoming quiet and attuned to what is truly happening in the inner environment and in a culture where being extroverted and busy in the world is celebrated from an early age, chances are there has not been a lot of quiet introspection happening along the way. So, whatever feelings and experiences have been stuffed into the back of the closet so to speak, often for years, and years, and years, will suddenly become visible. Or in my teacher, William Prottengeier's words, when the water of the mind becomes still, you will suddenly see the old gunky tires and all the other junk that you have stored at the bottom of the lake. 
When the surface of the mind becomes still and the inner landscape becomes visible, it might well cause some sadness or even fear, 'what is wrong with me that I am not experiencing deep happiness from meditation?' -- and then it's understandable that you might hurry up and try to ruffle the surface of the mind with a distraction of some kind. In my teacher training program, we call it your 'netflix'ing' -- which can indeed be Netflix and ice-cream but might also be anything from drugs and alcohol, to shopping and social media to something as innocent as engaging in outer chatter and busyness with other people instead of sitting in stillness with yourself. Netflix'ing works, then you no longer have to deal with the awareness of what shadowy objects, experiences, habits and emotions lay at the bottom of your mind lake -- and all is seemingly well again. 
Of course, the yogic path is to stay the course. Dive in. Inspect the old tire and address it instead of ignoring that it's there because ignoring the presence of pain that is crying out for healing is ultimately a lot of work and presents its own set of problems. Any kind of 'netflixing' designed to distract yourself from the presence of inner pain and discomfort will ultimately have its own detrimental effects on body and mind.
What you can do when meditation is anything but blissful:
  1. SEEK HELP. If the anxiety that arises is overwhelming you, the wisest course of action is to seek professional help. I don't think I know a single serious meditator that hasn't gone through a significant amount of counseling. One student experienced such serious anxiety and nightmares after a sincere attempt at developing a meditation practice that she nearly dropped out of the program. At that point, we have to realize that whatever 'old tires' have become visible, they are just too big and scary for one little person to deal with. So get help but stay the course of clearing out the lake of your mind. Because once you know what's down there, it will become all the harder and take all the more netflixing to keep it covered up. 
  2. SHARE YOUR FEELINGS. If the anxiety is mild but definitely there, know that it's normal. Speak up. Share your pain. You are not alone. All serious yogis have to go through this declutter work. It's not comfortable but once you have taken the first steps, it's a lot more work to stay stagnant than to move forward. 
  3. MEDITATE IN GROUPS. Many meditation centers offer meditation sessions paired with sharing and discussions and other community building activities. Here you might find more experienced meditators that will be happy to mentor your through the initial phases of finding your meditation groove. 
  4. PRAY. This is a loaded word so let me just suggest that you try it out for size; find inner trust that Spirit, The Divine, God is with you and that Divine Grace will help you through the rough patches. Surrender to The Divine process of becoming free from the inner obstacles that are operating beyond your conscious awareness. Ishvara Pranidhana is sanskrit for complete surrender to the Divine Will. When Meditation becomes painful for me, I shift my intention from sitting with what is, to praying to transform what hurts. I pray for help. Just like that, Help me! Please help me! I feel small and inadequate and what I am feeling is overwhelming and sad. Please help me....
  5. NETFLIX. Whatever that means for you. Step away from the meditation cushion. Soothe yourself. It's OK. You are hurting and it's too much. Go to bed with Netflix or go out to a party. You have the choice not to feel this anymore today. But come back to it again when you feel a bit stronger. 
In my early days with Tibetan Buddhist meditation in the late 80's, I remember hearing something to this effect: 'Before enlightenment, meditate to find out who you are.  After enlightenment, meditate because you know what you are.' If I had known 26 years ago that at age 45 I would still be in the process of finding out who I am, I might have given up. But here I am, still at it. Some days, meditation is a truly blissful experience of oneness, every cell in my body sings with joy and aliveness and beauty radiates back at me  everywhere I look. I rest in the sea of pure awareness and my body seems completely porous and the world around me is inside of me. Other days, I tremble and suffer. My gut is fraught with anxiety. My loneliness is profound and emotional pain nearly chokes me. I want to scream and run away. Sometimes I do. I do my version of netflixing; I eat sweets and I immerse myself in other people's problems so I don't have to feel my own;  then I see a somatic experience practitioner who makes me feel my pain even more deeply so I can release it and then I meditate again.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sinking into the silence of the pause...

September 13, 2016
Today, I will courageously stay a little longer in the pauses. I will just linger and be. I will let my gaze be held and held some more by the tree that catches my eye, and I will stop and really pay attention to the way the Light is playing with the shadows on the path before me. I will slow way down even if it's just another Twin Cities Tuesday, and I will drink in the moment through all my senses.
What sounds surround me, what smells, how does the autumn air feel on my skin, how does my breath move in my body, what is really going on inside right now? Where in my body are all my feelings felt, could I name these feelings, can I hear what I really need? Can I ask for it? Who do I ask for it?  Why is my tongue so tight against the roof of my mouth and what makes me pull my left shoulder forward just a touch? 
I was born and raised in Copenhagen, a city that is highly residential, with an abundance of majestic apartment buildings from the 18th and 19th century, mostly with out elevators but with beautiful landings between the floors. Landings with intricately carved little benches and stools, and stain glass windows that project juicy colors on the walls and open just a crack to let fresh air in to the stairwell -- and often well cared for plants in heavy pots.
I remember walking up these endless steep stairs as a small child, right foot first on every step, and often finding a little old lady with a scarf around her head, just sitting there on one of these landings. Taking a tangible pause from the climb up to the 5th floor, grocery bags on the floor beside her.
There was a peacefulness and gentle sense of her full being just being right there in that moment, on that landing, between the third and fourth floor. Breathing, sometimes sighing audibly, and patiently taking the time that it takes for the energy to arise within -- the energy to keep moving and doing and going up. 
As I move through my own story, trying to understand and trust this intricate tapestry of what? Self-created projections, destiny, unexpected twists and turns, my responsibility, my lessons, my repeated lessons, and my once more repeated lessons and then what to do about it all...I have found again and again that it is in the deliberately drawn out pauses that I understand just a little bit more...and only to the extent that I stop and really feel and acknowledge the feelings that are moving within -- especially the ones that are heavy and murky and that make me weep and sigh audibly...
Life in my childhood Europe was slower it seems, at least in hindsight, the cafes on the streets were crowded not with people isolated on laptops but with people being deeply engaged in each other, leaning in, touching arms, throwing back heads in laughter and sinking their heads into their hands, frowning foreheads and nodding in agreement...and then the silence, the not talking, the silence that you can only be comfortable with when you really trust each other and know that just being together in stillness is also something, lingering into the pause between words and actions....
So, today I will not do so much outer work -- I will be quiet and pensive and be really slow about it all. I will be with all of me. The sad longing. The losses and regrets. The bewildered not-understanding and the optimism that inevitably bubbles up around the grief. And then the beauty that surrounds it all, penetrates even the most head hanging moments. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015


25 years ago I embarked on my spiritual journey by taking refuge in the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu lineage. I was 19 years old. If I had known then that I would still be going through such tremendous struggle to illuminate my baloney a quarter century later, I probably would have refused to believe it. Partly because I had yet to become even remotely acquainted with the extent to which my baloney would drive me in certain situations and partly because I believed so strongly that if only I would meditate and pray enough, all life long, then it would all turn out ok. It's cleverly designed, really, just how one's baloney is only revealed to the conscious mind in little, or sometimes not so little, drops. It's counter intuitive actually, the longer I have been at this inner-work-business, the more baloney I encounter within. Probably because it would be totally overwhelming, early on, to come face to face with the total picture of how unevolved we, well I, can be when the right person comes along and pushes the tender buttons that activate the hidden baloney.
What do I mean by baloney? Well, it's actually a word I just learned. I am not American and English is not my first language so I had to look it up when this word was used by someone very special to me to describe my way of handling myself, "your high consciousness is total baloney" -- and after looking up the word, 'baloney', and then sitting with that heavy message for a several painful hours of self-reflection, I had to surrender and just own the painful truth: My high consciousness is total baloney -- because my higher consciousness has so not penetrated all areas of my being. There are some really dark and bratty rooms left in my inner castle and, as promised 25 years ago, these really dark areas would be revealed (and healed, oh, please be healed)  one by one -- and it might well take many, many life times to do the work of transforming the darkness and the fear. And as long as there are still baloney rooms left, I will continue to attract just the people and situations who will lovingly, or shamingly, hold up a mirror so that I can see the error of my ways. Basically, there is no where to run and no where to hide. The inner work must be done and it is humiliating, scary and just really, really painful. 
We have a saying in Danish: "Aben flytter med" - it means, the monkey moves with you -- as in you can change all your outer circumstances, leave your lover, move to the other side of the world, fire all your friends and your entire family if you must but whatever your baloney is, it will show up again and again until you own it as just that: your baloney. And you will be magically drawn to the people and circumstances that will trigger it so you can become acquainted with it and then what? Heal it? Integrate it? Not be so quick to react outwardly? Realize in some deep way that these visceral reactions are pointing to where the work is? That the churning, anxious discomfort in the gut is the work? That numbing this almost intolerable discomfort short circuits the process of bringing Light into the darkness, Light into the pain, Light into the fear. 
It so easy to despise the baloney that arises, what's not to despise? In my case it shows up as extreme bodily and emotional discomfort  seemingly caused by someone else's actions and then there is the real baloney, that is, the almost irresistible urge to correct the baloney activator so that he or she won't cause discomfort in my inner being any longer. That's when the reaction comes and the drama begins because now I am no longer alone with my inner baloney. I have officially rung the bell and now we have stepped into the baloney boxing ring and the internal struggle has now become a full-on physical experience played out like a scripted play where everyone is sure to suffer because no one is able to identify whose baloney is whose but everyone is certain it's not theirs. 
Then comes the shame. The heavy, debilitating shame that deflates my energy from the inside out. And all that is left is an empty boxing ring and anxious certainty that until all this baloney has been cleared out, lasting love isn't really possible. That's when the question and the hope arise. Can we love ourselves and even each other while we move through the slow and arduous process of downloading more Light into more darkness? Can we love our own and each other's high minded selves while also loving and even honoring our own and each other's total baloney? Is baloney little more than a fear ridden and immature child who needs holding more than shaming, who needs attention more than rejection? Truthfully, I have no clue. What I do know is that blessed be the friends who love me in spite of my baloney. Here is to them on this Labor Day of 2015. 

Monday, September 7, 2015


If I thought that ten days of Vipassana (silent Buddhist meditation retreat) would alleviate the craziness that arises within when my lower self meets my higher self then at least I am a tiny bit wiser, because I now know that it didn't and doesn't. At least not for me or any of my beloved, dharma sisters and brothers to whom I cling because they understand how hard it is to be present to the awfulness that is uncovered in the process of becoming fully alive and present.
What it did do,  I would say, is make it glaringly obvious when my lower self is operating and my higher self is effectively being drowned out -- which is all the more painful. At least, before, I could comfortably, and with great inner conviction, accuse the person who triggered my lower self into action, of 'making me' anxious, angry, sad  -- or whatever the nasty, uncomfortable emotion might be. Then all I had to do was get the hell away from said person and then do something, anything, to alleviate the unwelcome inner state. 
Being that I don't use intoxicants, I really considered myself a person who is willing to 'be with what arises' - I am using quotation marks because this is such yoga lingo. But not really so. I don't want to feel what arises when it feels like shit; I squirm like a bottom feeder in the net when these emotional states arise within -- and run. Somewhere. Anywhere. To a friend mostly. Because as soon as we are talking about how terrible I feel, then it's not so terrible anymore because the terribleness has been moved from that awful, visceral feeling in the gut or elsewhere in the body -- to the intellect where he and I, or she and I, get to process it using all of our yogic wisdom and pretty soon, it's all so clear. Until it's not. And until next time the same uncontrollable feelings are triggered.
Today I am starting a new job at yet another treatment center for drug and alcohol -- it's the third center I work at. In getting ready for that, the guy who hired me asked me to read a book about yoga for trauma and it didn't take a whole lot of reading to realize that that we are all on that spectrum. Of carrying trauma, wounds, experiences that were too painful to process properly so they are lodged like little landmines inside, ready to go off when an unsuspecting individual (or a very suspecting trickster sent from the Divine) trespasses and steps on them. Then a sophisticated process of biochemical reactions are unleashed and real life panic sets in. And who is that? Reacting and feeling so self-righteous about the reaction? It's also me. The unevolved me. The me that we are not greeting in yoga when we say namaste (may the Light in me see the Light in you) -- the me, that needs transformation. The me full of samskaras -- which is the Buddhist term for negative impressions or imprints that we carry and from which these undesirable reactive emotions arise. 
What we learn in vipasanna is to stay. Feel it all. Every last, nasty bit of the awful anxious, angry, sad state and try, as best we can, not to have it out with the messenger who came into our lives with the explicit purpose of shining a harsh light on these samskaras. That the drama we create when we battle with the messenger from God, the trickster, is effectively diffusing the process of allowing Higher Consciousness to penetrate the knots in our Being that tie us to our ego and abort that process of giving birth to more of the Higher Self into our earthly vessel. 
What we learn is to stay and watch, like an eagle from above, how we run way. And we all have our ways of running away from feeling awful. We can't stop the running until we recognize the sneaky ways in which we do it. And then we just stay and feel it and feel it and feel it and accept that it may be a hundred years before we can even make sense of it and we just feel it and stay with it and we build a tolerance for feeling it all. Being with it all. And then, maybe, we can become so good at being with it all that we also don't run away from each other anymore. That we stay when the other is in that place of pain and has nothing to give, when their Higher Self channel seems all but shut down and all that's visible is an unattractive ego display or downright tantrum. 
Maybe we no longer just greet the Highest Light in ourselves and one another. Maybe we also greet the bullshit, the suffering ego, the impossible child, the shadow who kicks and runs and squirms. Maybe we can make friends with this process that we are all in and use our Highest Light to forgive and even hold and embrace the patients we are, as we subject ourselves to the painful surgery of surrendering the ego and peeling away the layers that cloud our vision from understanding our True Nature. Here's to hoping. Off I go to my new job. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014


I can't get through the day with out a nap -- or caffeine. It's not normal! I told my Chinese doctor in desperation a few months back. Well, she said, actually it is. What if I told you that most of the world naps, every day. That the doctors in the large, busy hospital in Beijing where I worked before coming here, they napped, every afternoon. 15-20 minutes. Some just laid there heads right down on a table and slept. 

Ah, so maybe the cure for my 'chronic afternoon fatigue' is not yet another expensive supplement or exotic powder from the co-op for 'maxed out adrenals' but simply, to sleep, sweet sleep. 
So, I did. I have let myself take time out to simply rest. For a while now, I have just given into this overwhelming urge to rest in the afternoon. Mama's doing yoga nidra for the next 30 minutes - the kids know to be quiet - the cats don't get to come in. My thick, no-light-can-get-through drapes from Ikea are drawn, eye pillow - and then, yoga nidra. Yogic Sleep. Because that makes me nap almost instantly. It's a guided meditation, rotating my consciousness around my body and the funny thing is, it's very much like the guided meditation my grandmother would use to make my sister and me sleep when we were kids and would sleep over in her awesome feather beds. Relax your big toe, she would say, then your second toe, your third toe, your...your...zzzzzzz - and somewhere on the journey through our bodies, we'd be out. I don't know where she got this idea but it worked like a charm every time.
It's become even more important that I take the time to nap after I have added several evening classes to my teaching schedule, it gives me that second wind and when I avoid the caffeine/chocolate temptation then I still fall asleep like a baby by 10 or 10:30PM. 
I realize that my particular schedule allows for napping, many of my students are working in office settings where taking a snooze at 3:30PM is a definite non-option, so instead they resort to caffeine or just spacing out - checking out mentally and not getting much done anyway while managing to look reasonably productive. I know, I have been there. 
Maybe I won't always need to incorporate naps, maybe my adrenals really are depleted or my heart and body just strung out from post-divorce-making-it-on-my-own-in-a-foreign-country-stress. But for now, I nap, as often as I need to and just count on my body to tell me when it isn't tired anymore, at 3:30PM - speaking of which, it's now 3:45PM and sure enough, I am just wanting to conclude this little blog entry so I can go snooze and be ready and rested for a little evening thing at 7PM. 
If you are like me, and need a bit of help dozing off in the afternoon, then this Yoga Nidra CD is guaranteed to help you. Just don't have caffeine right before you 'nidra'. 

Friday, June 27, 2014


"Can I buy your apple. I will give you a Dollar for it. I haven't had anything to eat. I am really hungry." The man who wanted my apple appeared out of nowhere and spoke very fast to me.

I was walking in my own little world, between classes today, munching on this apple before teaching another class in the dodgy end of South Minneapolis.  I had already made my way almost half way through this apple. The man looked disheveled. "Are you serious," I said, "you want to eat my half-eaten apple?" He assured me that he really did. I gave it to him, wishing so bad that I'd had another, a fresh un-bitten apple in my purse, but I didn't.

I walked away, leaving the man with my apple. He was already busy eating what was left of it.
Personally, I'd say that I might eat a half-eaten apple left by one of my children. But that's it. I wouldn't even eat my mom's half eaten apple let alone the half-eaten apple of a random stranger. Or maybe I would. If I were hungry enough. Downtrodden enough. Believing enough that begging for a half-eaten apple is what it takes to get an apple.

After class I got in my car to drive home, sweet home, in my safe neighborhood where my kids were waiting for me to cook them burgers but as I sat in a bit of traffic by the Franklin entrance to E94, I noticed an older man next to a shopping cart that held a couple of dirty, ragged blankets. He was wearing a prominent cross around his neck and looked completely resigned. No card board sign asking for money, stating the obvious: homeless, poor, forgotten by society. Just sitting there alone by his shopping cart.

I rolled down my window and I reached into my purse and told my fingers to pick the right bill. I knew I had 1's, 5's, 10's and 20's in there. My fingers picked a $10 - I was a bit relieved it wasn't a $20 because $20 felt like a lot - he hobbled over and I gave him the bill. He just stood there and looked and held my gaze in a way that made me want to cry my heart out for the state of the United States where people live like this, right under our noses, where we are debating whether minimum wage should be a living wage or not or whether people like this man should receive food stamps or not.

Then he sat back down by his cart and pulled out a pill bottle, opened it up and took out a slim roll of bills, 1's from what I could see, and he added the $10 bill to the roll. I wanted to change my mind and do it over. I wanted to give him a $20 or more, or make him some food, or find him a place to live. But then the car behind me honked and I rolled onto the freeway and I drove back to my home where I cooked burgers for my kids.

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Saturday, December 14, 2013


I am learning, and teaching to the best of my abilities, the shift from survival to surrender. I guess I would say I am always moving actively from survival to surrender. The doorway to surrender is presence; presence to the magnitude and wonder of the expansive Spirit that breathes life into my limited perception of myself.

To be that present I must cultivate, over and over and over again, a mindset of meditation, of inner quiet, of identifying with the steady breath that moves in and out of my physical body. In truth, I am not sure I would have been able to perceive of such an act as surrender, had I not found meditation when I was 19 years old at a Tibetan Buddhist Center in my hometown, Copenhagen -- and had I not kept coming back to meditation - and prayer - again and again and again. 

The benefits of meditation and prayer reach far and wide for both my body and my mind. It is taking an important step in assisting my Divine Spirit in weaving itself more deeply and intelligently into my physical vessel.

As my Spirit is allowed ever more presence in my physical life, I notice a deeper sense of inner guidance and wisdom that begins to shine more consistently into my life through my thoughts, emotions, actions and words.

And yes, gradually my body and mind move out of survival mode and into surrender mode. I relax and my Spirit moves more deeply into my physical tissue bringing with it healing and peace.

I see a greater sense of connection to all things, to nature to my fellow human beings. My natural, inborn capacity for empathy and compassion seem to grow ever stronger and clearer.

A fluid state of gratitude infuses me wherever I go. I don't just  believe that I am deeply blessed; I know it with every fiber of my being. My intuitive capacities grow stronger with meditation and I listen more to my inner wise and loving voice.

As my Spirit Light shines more brightly in my heart and unto other people, I grow in my capacity to heal and console other people.

I feel less cut off from friends and family who have passed on to the other side. I just know and feel deep in my heart that while I miss those who have died, their Spirits are as alive as ever and we can connect in deep love and appreciation.

With all my love I wish you a wonderful journey into a Spirit guided life. If you need a daily nudge, get my new Breath of Life Morning and Evening meditation CD. Right here www.mariatoso.com