How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010
HTM: How were you first introduced to meditation?
Michelle: I first became interested in meditation in 1991. At that time, I felt the calling to become a shamanic healer, working out-of-body. Without a shamanic drumming circle to assist, I needed another transcendental method, and that turned out to be meditation. It wasn't until a few years after that, when I started to meet people online, that I received some guidance in the types of meditation to practice to enable me to fulfill this calling.
Specifically, I started out using focused meditation which enabled me to realize the trance state I needed for journeying and healing. After a while, I progressed to the level where an object of focus was no longer needed, I could just sit and empty myself, with attention only on breathing, and attain that expanded state of consciousness.
HTM: Your response is full of various experiences and has brought up many questions for me. I wonder if you might share a few details as far as these experiences go. Can we begin with the calling in 1991? How did this manifest?
Michelle: It was almost 20 years ago, so the details are a little fuzzy, but as I recall, this Calling would not leave me alone. I wasn't terribly interested in consciousness or metaphysics at that time, nor healing nor shamanism. In fact, I was working at becoming an author in the science fiction genre. The whole idea of healing just began popping up in my life. It started with different people sending articles or information on the topic, or getting into conversations about shamanism and healing.
I actually ignored it for a number of years, but the instances of this subject's appearances intensified until it seemed like once or twice a week I was receiving something about shamanic healing! The deciding moment was the day I received in the mail a big, beautiful book about healing that included info on shamanism from one of my cousins that just seemed to come out of the blue- we hadn't ever talked about it, it just arrived with a note that said she just knew I would love this book! So, I thought, "OK, there's a message here. Maybe I better look into this."
I contacted a friend of mine who had practiced shamanism in the past, and asked him to advise me. At that time, I wasn't positive myself if it was a true Calling. He suggested that I meditate on it and ask why I was Called. So, I did that. One sunny afternoon I went outside and sat in the sun and went into a very deep meditation. Although some time had passed, it seemed that all of a sudden I was alert again, and sitting in the rain of a summer shower, tears streaming down my face, mingling with the warm, sweet drops of rain falling from the sky.
I experienced an expansive feeling of love and compassion as though my heart had opened to embrace the universe. When I reported this to my mentor, he talked about Guan Shi Yin and the Tears of Compassion. Guan Shi Yin (aka Kuan Yin), whose name literally translates to Observer of the Worlds Sounds is the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion. As a Bodhisattva, she attained enlightenment but chose to remain on earth to rescue people who call upon her in their hour of need.
My mentor felt this was a true Calling, and that event became my first step upon the journey into shamanic healing. This opened the doors into the study of (which became devotion to) Guan Shi Yin Bodhisattva- whom I had never heard of before this time. It also launched me into the study of Chinese philosophy, Daoism, the Yijing, and qigong which is the Chinese self-healing practice of using the power of the mind with intention to heal the body. Qigong is also a form of meditation, and qigong forms include both movement and stillness practices. The standing meditation I do is a qigong form called Zhan Zhuang which means Standing Pole or Standing Tree.
HTM: What a beautiful story. Again, I have many questions, so I will try to navigate my way through them. When you went outside to meditate that summer day, were you already familiar with meditation? What made you approach it the way you did? What happened as you were sitting for the first time? What was going on for you?
Michelle: When I went outside that day, yes, I was already familiar with meditation as a consciousness-expanding practice. I had not been meditating with the goal of the empty mind, rather with the idea of expanded awareness and clairvoyance. Empty Mind and Oneness practices came a bit later. I would have to say that intuition made me approach it the way I did. I had already learned that you can't seek an answer, just open yourself and allow it to come to you.
Seeking is too much of a distraction, and frequently gets in the way of attaining the goal which is an answer to your question or problem. Seeking an answer through meditation requires the expectation of an answer and at the same time surrender to the outcome. In other words, seeking guidance through meditation isn't a way to find out what you think you what you want to know, it's there to tell you what you Need to know. There is that requirement that you just let go and drift down the stream.
Empty mind practices are similar in that if you are thinking of an empty mind, you are still thinking! I wish I could say that my very early experiences, say the first few months, with meditation were expansive, ground breaking, and left me wildly excited and breathless. The fact is, they were quite uneventful, and sometimes frustrating. The least little sound would distract me and break my concentration. Thoughts would intrude in a seemingly never-ending stream. Sometimes, sheer doggedness kept me at it.
My desire for expanded consciousness was that strong, but working alone without a guide or teacher was a challenge, and it probably took longer to get to a level of proper meditation, expanded consciousness or empty mind. Meditation is something that you can learn on your own, you have everything you need to do it, but here in the West, people have a lot of cultural education and conditioning to overcome; we are taught from an early age to be going and doing all the time, making goals and working on plans, getting ahead and accomplishing things, and it's a real challenge for many of us to find that quiet space within. I think that is where a teacher or guide is extremely beneficial. Once I had someone helping and guiding me, I made great progress.
HTM: I really enjoyed your response. In particular, the bit about non-seeking and non-doing as a means to surrendering to what is next in terms of inspiration. It resonates with both "art of allowing" and "waiting meditation" as well. I too persevered early on, bent on some higher consciousness or greater awareness. You spoke briefly about the value of teachers. Do you believe a teacher is essential? I want to get on with a deeper discussion of your current preferred meditation practice, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to ask the question regarding teachers.
Michelle: Thank you. There are indeed wonderful feelings of connection when we finally experience that level of Consciousness. Congratulations on your dedication! My thoughts on teachers........ A teacher is only essential if the student believes he/she needs one. A lot of people use the phrase, "The teacher will come when the student is ready," which leads some people to believe they aren't "ready" since no teacher has come into their lives. I think that idea makes a lot of people put their progress on hold when they should just be going ahead with what feels good and feels right.
I don't think that everyone requires a teacher. Many people are able to follow their intuition and build a practice without additional guidance; all they need to know really does reside within. The need for a teacher arises when a person has a block in belief, they think they don't already have the knowledge or capability they need (which is sometimes lack of self-confidence), or an inner conflict keeps the student from reaching deeply within to access that inner knowing. I think teachers have a great responsibility to not imbue their own beliefs on students, but rather to help students build confidence and unveil their inner knowing, or resolve the conflict that stagnates their progress.
In my opinion, a good teacher says, "here is what I do, and here is how I do it. Follow my instructions and you will succeed." The basics may be very well taught, but there is a string attached to the success and the success is measured by how well the student follows instructions and attains the goal or level the teacher expects. A great teacher says "here is what I do, and here is how I do it. Now, use what works for you, forget the rest, and make it yours. You will succeed." No strings, no expectations, just allowing, just success.
HTM: I SO love your take on teachers. I absolutely hear you. Especially the bit about feeling less-than because your teacher hasn't rung your doorbell. I appreciate your recognition that all we need resides within. I like to think of this as a biological or chemical shape that naturally attracts the next shape just like building blocks or puzzles. Nature knows what it is doing. I have to say I just cracked myself up, as I saw the difference between intuition and tuition as "in" further proof that it is always right there in front of us.
In addition, your comment on the difference between good and great teachers is well made. Thank you for all of that. It is a question that comes up often in these interviews. Some feel that a teacher is absolutely essential. Others do not. There are also those who believe that discussing these things at all is harmful- that any words put towards describing greater awareness, awakening, enlightenment, etc. can only be distracting to one's growth as it paints a picture of what one can expect. Yes, the Tao cannot be named, but some of the greatest teachers have spoken non-stop their entire lives. What is your take on this?
Michelle: LOL- that's a good one, intuition and tuition! I'll have to remember that one! I really love the puzzle imagery, too; I enjoy putting together those 3-D puzzles of buildings. Everything in the universe does fit together perfectly. We just need to allow it to do so without judgment which leads to interference. I don't believe that discussing any subject is harmful, but it is true that a person must remain as open-minded as possible and Allow instead of Expect. Above all, that is most important.
Discussion is good. It leads to thoughts which lead to ideas which lead to experimentation which leads to experience. It's good when someone clues you in on the possibilities. How else would you know what to look for or how to get there? I believe that is why some of the greatest teachers talk non-stop about that which cannot be named, the Tao. The Tao is the most delicious paradox. It is both the Void in which we experience Oneness with Universal Consciousness, and to be "In The Dao" is the experience of being in complete harmony with the cycles of changes that make up the physical world.
Like Unconditional Love, Tao is a state of being. There is nothing in the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) that tells you what to expect. It does instruct you in how to attain harmony, how to "do without doing," follow the laws of Nature and let Nature take its course, to be in harmony with all that is, and that is what leads to being in the State Of Being that is Tao.
Take, for example, Steve Mitchell's translation of verse 48 of the Daodejing: "In pursuit of knowledge, every day something is added. In the practice of the Tao, every day something is dropped. Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone. "True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. It can't be gained by interfering."
It's very simple, really. It's so simple most people can't believe it because it's so simple. It's "too easy." Today, most people believe that everything of value is complicated. Nothing could be further from the truth, and that is why teachers talk non-stop about the Tao, to open our eyes to the truth and virtue of simplicity, harmony, and compassion.
There is another verse of the Daodejing I like that is beautifully simple yet powerfully instructive, verse 70, again Steve Mitchell's translation: "My teachings are easy to understand and easy to put into practice. Yet your intellect will never grasp them, and if you try to practice them, you'll fail. "My teachings are older than the world. How can you grasp their meaning? "If you want to know me, look inside your heart."
Your intellect can't grasp the Tao, it's not a thought process, but your heart (the seat of the Spirit (Shen in Chinese)) knows what it is to be in Conscious connection. Like Unconditional Love, being In The Tao is a natural state we have lost. Teachers of Tao help us rediscover it. What can be more simple, more powerful, more profound than allowing ourselves to return to our natural state of being?
HTM: I really appreciate all of that- great information and great quotes. I would like to hear now about your current meditation practices. In particular, I believe, standing meditation. Can you share something of this? I have no experience with this at all.
Michelle: The standing meditation practice that I do is called Standing Tree or Standing Pole, Zhan Zhuang in Chinese. Like the concept of "Doing Without Doing," it's a bit of a paradox in that you are standing still in one of several postures, tensing and relaxing at the same time. You use your mind to intentionally relax the body while at the same time, you are mindfully building qi (energy, consciousness) and directing it to circulate through the body and accumulate in the dan tien, the abdominal energy center. Standing meditation works as a wellness practice in several different ways.
First, it is a great way to release tension. Stress is at the root of many chronic illnesses, and stress if your perception about a topic or event. Stress is very individual, and what may cause stress in one person does not cause it in another. About the only way to truly release stress and relax is to identify it and intentionally release it.
As you practice standing meditation, you initially scan your body for tension and engage the mind to release and relax that area and/or muscle group. It can take a while to learn to do it, people should not be discouraged if it takes a few months, but is well worth the dedication. In that way, it also fosters dedication and determination, too.
Second, standing meditation is an excellent mindfulness practice. When you mind in engaged in reducing tension and stress, it is calm. Just by virtue of having a calm mind, your parasympathetic system is kicked into gear and healing takes over. Your immune system function gets stronger, your digestive system works better allowing you to absorb nutrients better and get better nutrition-and your natural healing and rejuvenating abilities work better.
Third, one of the principles of Chinese Medicine is that one cause of illness is blocked or stagnant energy. As you intentionally circulate energy through the body, you will move the stagnant energy and unblock the blockages, initiating wellness. Fourth, if you do it long enough with an attitude of excitement and expectation (but also with detachment to the outcome), it can become a transcendental practice that connects you to Universal Consciousness, Oneness, Dao.
My personal experience started with standing for just five minutes a day for three weeks. Every three weeks I extended the time by five minutes until I was standing for 45 minutes a day. So, it was a six-month process, which also incorporated all the five basic postures of standing; these include different arm and hand positions. As I continued to practice standing meditation, I become incredibly aware of the vibrancy and luminescence of my own energy and consciousness (two definitions of the word "qi") and gained the ability to use the power of mindful intention to circulate my energy, as well as build energy and maximize the use of it. Ultimately, I honed senses I didn't even know I had!
One of my experiences while doing standing meditation in a dim room was that I noticed the Lao Gong points on the palms of my hands glowing with a faint, pale blue light. This was well before the news about the scientific discovery and announcement that the cells in the human body emit light. Of course, anyone who is able to see auras could have attested to that, and have over many centuries, but the point is that standing meditation will hone many seemingly miraculous abilities, two of the most profound in my opinion being the ability to use your hands and energy for healing others, and connecting with Universal Consciousness. These abilities bring a profound sense of humbleness.
HTM: I am going to have to try these standing meditation techniques. They sound incredible. You mentioned at the beginning of this interview that you were called to do meditation in a form of projecting or sending healing energy. Is this the healing you speak about during standing meditation? Also, would you call standing meditation your central meditation practice now, and what other forms of meditation (if any) do you regularly engage in?
Michelle: Sending the healing energy is something I do during seated meditations, but not necessarily every day. I do it upon request, or when inspired. Perhaps there are more healers at work these days sending a lot of energy where it's needed; I don't seem to be inspired to do it as a daily practice at this time. Once a week I attend a kirtan gathering. Kirtan is a form of yogic meditation that can be very transcendental; it's Hindu devotional singing, usually in Sanskrit, in a call and response format. This practice is the highlight of my week!
I currently engage in two daily practices, both qigong. In the morning I do Eight Healing Sounds, Eight Pieces of Brocade (baduanjin qigong), or a little of both. I like the practices in which one makes sounds; I believe they are beneficial in that they help to break up stagnant energy or move sluggish energy. In the evening, I do Standing Tree (zhan zhuang qigong).
I enjoy a transcendental sort of practice just before bed. I think it encourages dreams from which we can sometimes glean the answer to a problem or see the next step upon our chosen path. However, throughout the day, I will often take short breaks from whatever I'm doing and just do a breathing meditation for between five and fifteen minutes. I encourage everyone to take short, breathing breaks like that. It's incredibly valuable and powerful as a wellness practice, both mentally and physically.
HTM: I enjoyed hearing about your many meditation practices. I can absolutely relate to making sounds as a way to move and release energy. Something about releasing emotions on tone really allows for an opening up. We are programmed to keep our expressions of feelings appropriate and respectful, etc. and this often leads to suppression which is so unhealthy.
The only way to work against this social block is to give oneself permission to let it all hang out somewhere in some way. I am a firm believer in finding a place to scream, shout, groan, moan, and anything else one can manage. Listen to other creatures and all of the strange sounds they make. Do you also teach any of these meditation practices in a formal way, outside of "by example"?
Michelle: I like your mention of other creatures and strange sounds. I think that we humans, also, make sounds intuitively, spontaneously, according to the vibration needed by the body. Yes, I do teach formally. After beating the drum about what a great wellness practice meditation can be, and invariably hearing the response, "But, I can't sit still and do nothing for 30 minutes!", I approached COCC, the local community college, with a proposal for an introductory class to meditation techniques. This is a six-week course that meets weekly, and participants get to practice and experience several different methods of meditation. (Offered each of the last four semesters, the class has been at full enrollment all but once.)
Usually, the participants find that one or two methods really help them reduce stress levels and facilitate wellness. We start with the most physically active meditation method, walking, and progress to the most passive method, seated meditation while following the breath. Of course, people are frequently amazed at how much "goes on" as far as attaining a state of peace and relaxation while quietly following the breath!
I also teach workshops and classes in qigong through the college, again for wellness. Participants learn some of the basics of Chinese Medicine as well as breathing techniques and qigong visualizations and movements. Not related to my college classes, I teach one open, walk-in qigong class at a local shop on Saturday mornings where we do breathing techniques and qigong movements.
In private practice, I teach both meditation and qigong in private sessions. These are usually with people who suffer from chronic health conditions, frequently people who feel they receive little or no benefit from Western medicine, people who have been told by their doctor, "Sorry, I can't do any more for you." As you can imagine, these sessions are very wellness intensive, and I tailor each program to the individual so that he or she receives the greatest benefit from the practice. One of my greatest joys is seeing the amazement these people show when these alternative methods work for them, and the hope they gain as they take responsibility for their wellness; they often attain a level of wellness they haven't had in a long time. It's so heartwarming, and I am honored that I am able to be of service in this way.
HTM: I really appreciate how the wellness approach permeates all of your responses. The idea of doing nothing for thirty minutes as an approach to healing and health is counter-intuitive for so many due to social programming. For me, the definition of health is "quality of life" and meditation is an obvious and immediate answer as it asks us to start dropping all of what is working against simple natural energy patterns. After all, even "transcendence" and the spiritual aspect that meditation is so often associated with is just more "quality of life" in the form of mindfulness and joy. It IS really all about wellness, from relaxation to living more fully in the present moment.
I get that from all of what you have been saying here. We have only touched on qigong in this interview- due to my excitement about the wide range of meditation-related experiences and insights you have to share. I know you have a blog as well, and perhaps you can share a bit about what is going on there. Do your posts there offer details on qigong meditation practice? I wonder too if qigong is something I could just start doing by myself, or is formal instruction necessary?
Michelle: I agree that "quality of life" is extremely important because it is an indicator of enjoyment. If a person takes little or no joy in life, no matter the physical condition, the quality suffers tremendously. My qigong blog, Be Well with Qigong at https://bewellqigong.blogspot.com has a little of everything. There are posts with specific information on the three styles that I teach; the Eight Pieces of Brocade, the Eight Healing Sounds, and the Five Animals Frolic. This includes articles, some videos from YouTube, research reports, anything I think that people will find interesting and useful.
I typically do not write "how to" articles since there are so many books on qigong available, but I do sometimes write about the different positions in relation to Chinese medicine, and how and why the different postures are especially beneficial for certain pairs of organs. (In Chinese medicine, organs are regarded in yin/yang pairs; the heart is paired with the small intestine, the lungs with the large intestine, the liver with the gallbladder, the kidneys with the bladder, the stomach with the spleen. Any movement designed to help one will help both.)
There is also more general information on qi, breathing and meditation practice- the benefits of qigong for children, research reports on the general use of qigong in wellness treatment, and so on. One really useful article describes how to do the "Healing Smile" or "Inner Smile" qigong where you simply sit and breathe, and smile at each organ pair, using your imagination and intention to effect healing. This is one of those practices that can seem too simple or easy to work, but it really can make a big difference!
When it comes to learning qigong, there are certain forms that you can learn only from an instructor. These are the specialized forms that have a lineage, that have been handed down from teacher to student through the decades and centuries, and are best taught by a qualified instructor. However, there are many beneficial forms that are lineage-free, that frequently have several variations on the practice possibly because they developed in several different geographic locations over time.
Typically, these are the forms you will find in book and video format making qigong a practice that you can very easily start doing yourself. Two that I frequently see are the Eight Pieces of Brocade and the Five Animals Frolic. Sometimes there is no form at all- no prescribed series of movements, just a collection of different postures, and those are fine, too. I believe that when you seek a practice like qigong, the forms or postures, the books or videos you need will "speak" to you- you will be intuitively drawn to the ones that will be most beneficial for you at that time.
If you have a particular health challenge or wellness issue, I believe it would be beneficial to work with an instructor. You will get enhanced benefits from your practice if you practice mindfully which includes some knowledge of the Chinese medicine energy channels and pairs of organs, and how these support each other, and using the mind to direct the energies along with doing your postures. (Qigong is, after all, a Mind-Body practice. If you are not using your Mind, you are not doing qigong!) Some qigong books include this information, some do not.
Books also tend to include the most general information on using qigong effectively to reduce disease, and may not tell you things about the energy signatures of the organs and how to use them. (For example, if you have a stomach issue, doing qigong postures that benefit the heart help because the energy signature of the heart creates or supports the energy signature of the stomach.) If you have a health issue that is not mentioned in the books, it would be valuable to consult an instructor to see if he or she can advise you on which movements relate to your condition and how best to effect your healing.
HTM: What a wealth of information. It is exciting to hear of your understanding of how Qigong postures and movements are linked to Chinese medicine practices. This interview has been illuminating for me in so many ways. Thank you so much for mindfully sharing so much. I feel that this discussion has touched on many things and is coming to an end. I would, however, like to offer you the opportunity to add anything else you would like to offer to readers before we draw it to a close.
Michelle: We all are a wealth of information, and have a great capacity to share our wisdom with others. Thank you for this opportunity to share what I know with interested people. I have enjoyed the things you have shared during this interview, too. The only thing I would like to add is that I believe there is great spiritual, emotional, and physical value in taking the time to cultivate the spirit-mind-body connection with dedication and self-discipline the old-fashioned way- that is by taking the time to do it regularly. There are many fine products on the market that promise "instant" ability or "meditation secrets" that will promote deep levels of meditation. However meditation is not about how fast or how deep you can do it. Like most of life- dare I say the best things in life- it's a process of achievement and appreciation for the journey that took you there.