By Chris McCall
Very often when the subject of meditation comes up, people cock their heads, sigh, and wince with an air of self-judgment. They might say something along the lines of, “I know I NEED to start meditating,” or “I’m not good at meditating.” While there have been many studies on the benefits of meditation, many of us still find it challenging to develop a daily practice. We know it’s good for us and can make us more relaxed, kinder, and happier. So what gives?
I was interested in meditation even as a child. I was raised Catholic, but I used to sit cross-legged and pretend to meditate. Fast forward to my college years, I walked in the early morning hours with a few friends and we meditated inside of a wood framed pyramid in my friend’s living room. Cool, right? Those mornings were affirming because of the spiritual relationships that we were developing with each other. Thus began a lifelong commitment to spiritual practice. I then spent a couple of decades practicing a form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. I learned from these practices, but I was not having deep experiences on the cushion.
At the beginning of each session, I would generate love. That was the richest part of the practice for me. Love is palpable. On a daily basis, I would notice the energy of love. I would sometimes think, “Is this real? You can’t really feel love in your body, like a pulse or a heart beat.” Sure enough, I would feel it again the next day, a current of energy that opened my heart and allowed me to set my worries down, for about 30 seconds. It lasted 30 seconds because I then shifted to the next phase of the meditation, engaging my thinking mind in an array of outlined visualizations, which I believed, if I gained expertise in and understood the essence of and practiced diligently, would help me develop a high level of concentration. This would lead to a feeling of bliss. This feeling of bliss would enable me to concentrate for longer periods of time, leading me to deeper levels of wisdom and enlightenment. I know there are people for whom this practice works. I love them, but this experience didn’t happen for me.
We read and hear a lot about this bliss that comes from meditating. My teacher, Ghelek Rimpoche said the feeling of bliss was necessary to develop concentration. This prompted my friend Kathleen and I to joke, “Wheeeeeeeeres the BLISS?” revealing to all that we were not, ourselves, experiencing bliss, even for having practiced for so many years.
I tried, oh yes, I tried many strategies. I set timers to force myself to meditate on emptiness. I made New Year’s resolutions to do the long versions of practices for a full year. This meant that I had to add a minimum of 37 minutes to my daily practice, I know because I timed it! I tried to absorb discipline, wisdom, and brilliance from advanced practitioners who I admired. All for naught! When the timer went off, I couldn’t jump up from the cushion fast enough. The most positive experience I gained from these strategies was the feeling of completing a dreaded project, once again.
I now understand, that I could feel love in my body at the beginning of the practice, because I placed my awareness in my heart to generate that feeling. With practice, I became acquainted with natural expression of love, uncontrived, right there in my chest. All I had to do was let my awareness rest in my chest. During the rest of my waking life, my awareness was about a foot and a half in front of my body, or in my head. My awareness was engaged in an effort to be perfect, to be acceptable, to avoid making mistakes and avoid pain of any kind. My thinking mind was convinced that I had to use my brain to fix the “problem” that is my humanity, and eventually, if I worked harder and harder, I would become enlightened - an imagined state of being I call, Super Chris. Super Chris is extremely compassionate and psychic, so psychic she never screws anything up. What a relief it would be!
I felt love in my chest and this was the tip of the iceberg of bliss. The degree to which you are inhabiting your body is the degree to which you will have the beautiful and blissful experiences of meditation. I was not inhabiting my body. Most of us are not truly living fully within our bodies, within our wholeness, as Judith Blackstone (Realization Process) says. Thanks to a long and life changing illness, I finally gave myself permission to explore meditation, using my own experience and learning from it, without judgment or rejection (trying to do anything without judgment/rejection was/is, an important practice for me, but that’s a topic for another day). This led me to the practice of toning – using the vibration created by your own voice as an object of focus and as a tool to deepen the experience of embodiment and love. I didn’t know what I was doing was called toning. I thought I was the inventor of this practice, but not in a Super Chris kind of way. It was more a, click your heels three times, you had the power with you all along, kind of way.
I found when I toned, I could reach a stable point of focus. This is in part, because the vibration of your voice is easy to focus on, and because toning draws you deeper into the body, awakening a delight of energies and a peace in which you can rest your weary head. This process of embodiment, does not end at the soles of our feet, or at our bones. It’s like training the Hubbell telescope on your internal physical sensation and finding, the deeper you look, that you are vast and endless, as is your capacity for experience. As you drop in to deeper levels of embodiment, you also gain deeper experiences of joy. This is an expression of joy that not only has physical, mental, and emotional components, but these three aspects compliment each other and the joyful experience increases with loving attention. It’s real. It’s not magic. We are made for this—it’s who we are.
Many of my students have commented that they have never been able to stay focused when meditating. Meditation becomes an exercise in frustration, but they find toning conducts them to a deeper state of consciousness. Toning combined with the intention of love and acceptance can be a beautiful and healing lifelong practice. You can also use toning to enhance the quality of other practices like Vipassana (Insight Meditation), healing visualizations, attuning to chakras and channels of energy, or prayer.
I’ve found that voice students, often discover that they carry unconscious resistance to using their voices. Toning can be used to facilitate an exchange between these unconscious patterns and beliefs, and the conscious mind—longing to sing, speak, and express itself in freedom.
These are just a few ways that you can use this practice. I hope some of you will find it helpful, as it has been a gift to me in my own life. I hope your path is beautiful and if you are trying to meditate, I hope you don’t give up. Take it from the world’s worst meditator—you have your own pair of ruby slippers and they’re fabulous!
Chris McCall teaches Voice and Meditation in her downtown studio – Sing Ann Arbor. She offers private vocal instruction, weekly lunch time meditations and group workshops in meditation, stage presence, and releasing performance anxiety. Contact Chris at 313-820-8364 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org, to schedule private consultations or reserve a seat at a meditation or workshop.
Join Chris and Kathleen Ivanoff MA, MLS for an experiential workshop exploring new pathways to a joyful practice. Meditation: How to Love Your Practice, July 13, 2019 10 AM - 1 PM. 225 South Ashley, Suite 202, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. Call to register.