Category Archives: Meditation

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It’s okay to change

IMAGE: Water Lily in Summer Light, Pisa, Italy (Prints available)

For Mother’s Day this year, I took my mother to our second sound bath meditation session, this time at the Rubin Museum of Art, one of my favorite sanctuaries in the city. (I also must strongly encourage you to check out the stunning Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit India In Full Frame on view through September 4 if you are even remotely interested in photography, India, or humanity in general.)

During the introduction one of the hosts, David Ellenbogen of the Acoustic Mandala Project, explained that over the course of the session while lying still on a yoga mat with your eyes covered, you may start to feel a little stiff or uncomfortable. “It’s okay to move,” he said reassuringly, “to change position if you need to, to make yourself more comfortable.”

He continued, as if musing out loud, “I think that probably applies to all of life. When things aren’t working or you feel uncomfortable, just remember it’s okay to change.”

Of all the things I experienced and places my mind went during that meditation session, the simple profundity of his gentle remark has probably stuck with me the most.

As I think about the most common sources of frustration or sadness in my life, they are almost all rooted in the sense of being unable to control or change the way things are. When I stop resisting change, I’ve always grown and found something better on the other side through transformation. And yet every time I am on the precipice of some daunting and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, I forget my own capacity to change. I feel like a tiny stream trying to move a massive boulder until I remember: the stream doesn’t need to move the boulder if it can move itself.

Most of the people I speak with lately feel trapped and powerless to effect change. I think we need to refresh our perspectives and regroup. I have another big set of personal changes coming up (we’ll talk about that another time) and I keep fretting about every little detail; despite my whole life so far teaching me that change is both necessary and good, I still instinctively fear and mistrust it.

So I am challenging myself to embrace uncertainty and flux for once, and to even enjoy it.

It’s okay to change.

Tiny-Bouquet

The Habit of Kindness

IMAGE: Tiny Bouquet, a miniature bouquet of wildflowers a dear friend gave me in Italy. (Prints available)

One of the initial challenges for starting a practice of meditation and mindfulness is, paradoxically, it seems too easy. At first pass, sitting still and not thinking about anything while focusing on breathing sounds like something anyone can do: simply exist quietly for a while. I quickly learned that it is actually the opposite of zoning out or contemplation. Being able to sit with both a full and clear mind is the culmination of everything else done in life to get to that place, and it is a lifelong challenge that changes you as a person.

In his revelatory “An Essay on Landscape Painting,” the 11th century Northern Song Dynasty painter and scholar Kuo Hsi described his father readying himself to paint:

On a day when he was to paint, he would seat himself by a bright window, put his desk in order, burn incense to his right and left, and place good brushes and excellent ink beside him; then he would wash his hands and raise his ink-well, as if to receive an important guest, thereby calming his spirit and composing his thoughts. Not until then did he begin to paint. Does this not illustrate what he meant by not daring to face one’s work thoughtlessly?

Approaching life with balance and mindfulness is the essential preparatory work to sit with a clear conscience, to find joy and peace in meaningful meditation rather than feeling trapped with anxiety, daily frustrations or confusions, regrets, or the mental and spiritual equivalents of a cluttered desk or dirty hands. Instead of receiving an important guest, we are meeting ourselves, in a wordless conversation about existence between the world and our spirits. To be in a moment, to fully inhabit it, we have to be a full self. That starts with being honest, being aware, and being kind.



New Forest – Lichen and moss provide the foundation for new plant growth on a fallen tree, continuing the cycle of renewal and regrowth in a forest. (Prints available)

Cultivating an instinct of kindness every day makes a habit of compassion. It is too easy to ignore or compromise the internal voice that suggests, “This is wrong,” or, “I should help,” instead telling ourselves we can’t be late, we need the money, other people treated me the same way, or the most discouraging, “I can’t do anything to change that.” I have always believed it takes extraordinary courage and intelligence to be truly kind as an adult, but it’s an instinct every person has once the conscience develops. It is crucial to keep society from suppressing it and to cling to hope and the belief that our conscience is telling the truth, to know that old Jiminy Cricket feeling of uneasiness should be heeded.

Perhaps the most powerful tool in kindness is empathy, or feeling with another’s heart. It is not enough to ponder how we might feel if something we see happening to someone else were to happen to us – we need to understand how that person feels in the actual situation we see. It starts with observation without judgment, objectively listening and gathering information before we start trying to solve other people’s problems or tell them why their feelings are wrong. It seems common to tackle large issues like racism or poverty with a sketchy and vague sense of the issues, but I don’t often see people stop to ask, “How does that feel?” I think we can be too quick to dismiss the validity of political, spiritual, or personal beliefs because they don’t make sense with how we approach the world. We brush them off instead of trying to wrap our heads around them, which is ultimately an unkind thing to do. Expanding our sense of willingness to inhabit another person’s experience is an act of profound kindness, and if we make it a habit, we gain different lenses with which to understand our own experiences.



Seaside Goldenrod – (Solidago sempervirens) is uniquely saltwater tolerant, a cheerful display of bright yellow flowers at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Jersey. (Prints available)

A second key to kindness is integrity. We should not offer kindness because it makes us look good to other people or gains an advantage of indebtedness. Like anything worth doing, being kind is its own reward. It is important to be consistently kind if it is to become a habit, and to be kind to everyone, not just those people we think are currently most “deserving.” I regularly examine my thoughts for often-unconscious stabs of unkindness: wishing for someone to fail, enjoying hearing about the misfortune of someone I don’t like, feeling relief that I am in a better situation than another person, or dismissing people I don’t understand with disdain or pettiness. It can be hard to break the habit of cruelty that we learn from a young age because it is rooted in competitiveness and the American notion of “winning” or success. Redefining success away from money, material possessions, titles, accolades, appearance, or esteem goes against everything we’re socialized into believing, but it opens the door to far greater rewards.

My goal in life is to be kind to every person I meet, to make life easier or more pleasant for others when I can, to open people’s eyes to thoughts or moments of beauty they may not have seen, and to leave everyone a little more loved than I found them. I know that the only way I can do that is with an uncompromised habit of kindness and compassion, but I’m only human. It is a lifelong project.



Weathered Hydrangea, slightly faded by summer rains, perhaps all the lovelier for it. (Prints available)

That brings me to the third critical tool of kindness: forgiveness. We cannot grow or help others if we cannot forgive. I include forgiving oneself, having a sense of compassion as deep for one’s own missteps as those of others when forgiveness is earned. When I want to comfort people, I usually say some variation of, “It’s okay,” or, “Hey, that happens to us all.” I don’t typically hold grudges when a friend says something unkind in a bad mood, so I am trying to forgive myself the same way, rather than cringing every time I relive a moment when I blurted out something rude instead of a compliment or when I wished someone ill because my feelings were hurt.

People sometimes do unkind things, but most aren’t fundamentally unkind. Often they are not paying attention, they are preoccupied with worry, they are afraid, or they are proud. I am learning that understanding what people are going through makes it much easier to forgive these shortcomings, and instead see them as opportunities to help. My own lapses and times of unhappiness are helping me grow, but only if I let myself. That starts by forgiving mistakes and acknowledging that everyone always needs to grow. None of us were born perfect, and none of us stays kind without effort.



Spray of Pink, flowers in front of a peach-colored wall in the Cinque Terre, Italy. (Prints available)

As I continue on this path of mindfulness and nurturing compassion, I am keeping notes on experiences and moments that bring me clarity or deeper understanding. It is kind to be generous with what we learn. The most important tool in kindness that I’ve found so far is awareness: of the self, of the world, and of others. We cannot grow or change, nor help others, if we don’t start by making ourselves aware of where there is hurt or suffering, or where we have a chance to do better. It can be truly painful to be aware, especially in recognizing how we impact others, but it’s imperative.

Once our eyes are open, we see these challenges everywhere. It can be overwhelming, but it’s okay. It happens to us all, and we have each other to help.

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Healing Vibes: My First Sound Bath

Many of the coolest things I’ve done in my life have been spontaneous, last-minute “that sounds interesting” kinds of decisions. The night before the Women’s March, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post about a sound bath hosted by the Acoustic Mandala Project, whom I knew about through Brooklyn Raga Massive. As I happen to be working on a series of art pieces based on sacred geometry and mandalas, their name jumped out at me, and I asked my mother if she’d like to go directly after the march. We agreed it would be a stark contrast and hoped we wouldn’t be too tired to fully experience it, but we were both so intrigued we couldn’t resist. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be one of the better decisions we’ve ever made.

A sound bath is a meditative experience using specific frequencies of sound (kind of like notes or tones) that – forgive the pun – strike a chord in people. The mathematical relationship among the frequencies touches something visceral and fundamental in the body and mind, and people generally experience incredible healing and a profound meditative experience. These guys carefully explained the concepts, how they derived the tones and discovered the ways different sounds resonate with one another to form chord-like harmonies. They blended electronically purified tones with raga-inflected rhythms, instrumentation, chimes, flutes, and singing bowls struck in person to make an unbelievably rich tapestry of sound and vibrations. I don’t mean vibration in the sort of airy-fairy sense, but actual physical vibrations that coursed through the body head-to-toe for several minutes at a time. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

After the introduction, everyone in the group laid down on yoga mats in a wobbly semi-circle, covered with woven blankets and wearing eye masks. After our day of marching and feeling so connected with women and humanity on a universal level, it was a vertiginous dive into the mind and the self. The first few minutes felt like a psychedelic clearing-out of everything my mind had been processing, just loads of colors and shapes, invented cartoon characters, and as close as what I imagine LSD hallucinations might look like. I typically experience mild synesthesia in response to sound (which is part of why I am so obsessed with music), so any time I close my eyes and listen, it’s a bit like watching abstract paintings swim around. The purity of these tones evoked something much more intense and emotional than usual, which I felt to be the core of myself. The sound bath lasted a bit more than an hour, I think, with various instruments and tones being introduced, moved around the room, and bringing our bodies and minds on an extraordinary journey with them.



I have spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around the idea of resonance, as it was the basis for the NMR research we did at Pratt and generally a very cool concept (I highly suggest reading more about acoustic resonance and then helping me explain it better). If you imagine two frequencies of energy like waves in the ocean that run into one another, they first go higher (amplification) then move together thereafter (sympathetic vibrations) at a sweet spot that causes more waves around them. It’s a bit more complex, but certain frequencies resonate in relationships that form chords that just feel right, like the brightness of the I-III-V relationship of major triads in music.

They had a pair of singing bowls that not only resonated with one another, but did so in a I-V relationship (I think – it might have been I-IV), so that when one was struck by the feet and the other by the head, the body joined in the brightness of that sound, and you could literally feel every molecule of yourself vibrating like an open chord. Maybe it is helpful to picture a bunch of particles spinning in random directions. When the tones were struck, imagine every one aligning like a crystalline grid and briefly spinning in the same direction, in a way that made the mind experience pure joy and luminous energy. There is more neuroscience and physics to it, but the sensation was like having goosebumps all over, shivering with pleasure, and feeling every part of oneself melt into another state.



Prayer wheels at Sarnath, the site of the bodhi tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
(Prints available)

I thought that might be the height of the experience, but it continued through a whole bunch of other similar body and mind sensations, choreographed in waves and beautiful complexity. It felt like my soul was dancing, simultaneously a particle and a wave in some quantum state of existence and non-existence. I felt utterly, completely free, like metaphysical flying, but also intensely grounded and connected with the raw physicality of being human.

The “finale” of the sound bath is one of those sensations I will keep with me the rest of my life. They went around to each person and struck tuning forks to a pitch that once again resonated perfectly with the softer tones washing over the room, then placed the forks on everyone’s foreheads. I am struggling to think of any way to describe it except as a soul-level orgasm. The frequencies are known to be healing, for reasons not yet fully understood, unlocking blocked emotions and energies within the body and kind of making them sing. Having this pure vibration reverberate from the head through the entire body for several minutes of exquisite being-in-this-moment presence is like nothing I’ve ever known before. I’ve never felt more awake, yet at peace, aware of everything in my mind, yet open. It was like stretching, seeing stars, and slipping through a crack into some surreality of pleasure and beauty.

I was afraid of the come-down from such a great high, that as the vibrations ceased all the muddy and dark stuff in my brain would gunk it up again. I was astonished to find that never happened. I wasn’t able to pinpoint when the vibrations ceased – I just kind of rode the wave back into myself. I preserved the clarity and purity of that moment for the rest of the session – and since then – as if all the little subatomic particles in my mind and body got right and just stayed that way.



When we took our eye masks off, I saw everyone else’s eyes were wide and shining like mine, as they described things they felt and “saw” and experienced throughout. It was the spiritual equivalent of the sun coming out from behind clouds after rain and lighting up the mind like the sky. My mother described dramatic visuals in shades of purple, which are supposed to be associated with the crown chakra in meditation. I joked with her that purple is the color I’ve always associated with her, so of course her soul would be purple too.

I am still mesmerized by what an extraordinary experience it was, and I doubt I can ever adequately convey to someone what it felt like in that moment. When I think back, it reminds me of the time I jumped off a cliff into a glacial river in Iceland – saying the words and telling the story kept horrifying me every time I repeated it, like I still couldn’t believe I’d actually done that. This sound bath was a similar sort of jumping-off-a-cliff into something exhilaratingly beautiful and unknown, and yet at the same time, diving within, to the parts of my mind and existence I know best because they’ve been with me all along. I will cherish it forever.