(Photo courtesy of Asheville Community Yoga)
“I know meditation can be vague, no matter how much you read about it or hear about it — it still can be vague for people,” says Jerome Smith, spiritual director at Asheville Meditation Center and ordained Pandit in the Himalayan tradition. “But one thing I would really like to let people know, is that meditation is a simply a state of mind.” Smith says that while the process of starting a meditation practice can be intimidating, the meditative state of mind is accessible to everyone.
Xpress had the opportunity to talk to Smith about the challenges and benefits that go along with starting a meditation practice, and Smith shares his advice for beginners.
Mountain Xpress: What are some of the challenges people face when first starting a meditation practice?
Jerome Smith: I think one of the main things is finding the time to do it and making the commitment to being still. In our culture, we’re geared towards activities, performing actions and getting results. Meditation is not an activity — it’s being still, which is something that we’re not as comfortable with in our culture. People don’t get the immediate gratification. If you go and take a yoga class, you feel it — you feel the workout, you feel the stretch, you feel good. But when you meditate, the first several times you may feel uncomfortable, or you may not feel anything at all. It takes a certain level of commitment to get beyond that and push past that beginning part where it’s a little awkward and uncomfortable. So I think that’s the main thing when someone is just getting started — just getting going with it and having the discipline to be OK without any stimulus.
I think that sometimes people have this image of a meditator being a wise monk or sage-like figure. What are some of the benefits that regular people can look forward to — even early on in that “awkward” stage? It’s interesting you ask that question, because today a gentlemen came to a meditation group, and he had actually come when I was teaching at Greenlife about five years ago, and I hadn’t seen him since then. … He said he worked at a restaurant and he said, ‘The people at the restaurant, they say I’m the calm one. I don’t react to stress like the rest of them do, and I think it’s because of the breathing — because I’ve learned to breath diaphragmatically — and I’ve learned to regulate my breathing.”
So I think that’s one benefit that is really important and practical for everyday life — just to be less stress-prone … knowing you have some control over the stress response. Another benefit is having a little bit of peace of mind. … The mind needs downtime separate from sleep. Even when we sleep, [rest] is not a guarantee because of the dream state. So just allowing the mind to have rest is very, very beneficial for people.
As you get a little deeper into meditation, you get more of the spiritual experiences. You start to feel more connectedness. Normally, we feel like individuals. Even though we may say “we are all one” or “we are all connected,” our day-to-day experience is being separate and being an individual. I think through meditation, especially through the deeper and more advanced states, you start to feel a little more connectedness to whatever you want to call it — higher consciousness, the divine, God, the universe and the world around us.
What are some of the tips or advice you give to your students who are starting to develop their own meditation practices? I encourage people to start seeing meditation practice as bigger than just a time that you sit. Start to get used to having quiet in your day, maybe going for a quiet hike in the woods, or just do things that bring you to that state of quiet. So that’s one tip.
Another one has to do with your attitude about it. We tend to feel that we have to do things right, and if we don’t get it right we’re doing it wrong. So I always recommend taking the judgment out of it. … Take the right or wrong out of it. Take the “how long” out of it — a lot of people worry about how long they are able to sit. I say take all that out of it and just show up every day and commit to being still. Just say every day, if I have a chance, I’m going to sit quietly and that’s it. … If you try to make it the same time every day, eventually, when that time comes around, your mind will naturally get into that meditative state. So that regularity is important too.
And then obviously, I tell people pay attention to their body, Some people come to a meditation class and they have never done hatha yoga before, so their hips are tight and it’s hard to sit. If they’re sitting and they’re uncomfortable, they aren’t going to be able to get to that place of quiet. … I recommend taking a yoga class and doing their own yoga practice to make sure that the body is flexible and comfortable so when they sit that doesn’t become a distraction.
Smith teaches a meditation class every Thursday morning at Asheville Community Yoga, 9:15-10 a.m. Beginners are welcome. He will also teach a five-week meditation series for beginning meditation practitioners at Asheville Community Yoga Jan. 31-Feb. 28. The group meets on Fridays from 2-3 p.m. Financial assistance is available. Click here for more info.
To learn more about Asheville Meditation Center, visit mipsm.org.