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How Do /You/ Meditate?

Clay Hamilton interviews Lisa West, a yoga and meditation teacher and physical therapist with a particular interest in the relationship between the mind, body and pain. "How Do /You/ Meditate?" is Clay Hamilton's ongoing series of interviews with meditation teachers.

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Lisa West is a yoga and meditation teacher and physical therapist with a particular interest in the relationship between the mind, body and pain. In her role as a physical therapist she focuses particularly on orthopedic injuries, the spine, and chronic pain, and how yoga and meditation can be used to address these issues. Clay Hamilton interviewed Lisa in summer 2019.  

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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.

I have a background in physical therapy and treatment of chronic pain, so centering mindfulness in the body is my usual focus. I also teach people that they can release tension even through discomfort.

How did you first learn to meditate and why/how did you become a meditation teacher?

I’ve done and taught yoga for over twenty years, and I started meditating with yoga. I was given a mantra and did TM for a short time, and had Jack Kornfield’s audio tapes which encouraged people to be present with their pain. Back then, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical, and my physical therapist (“PT”) mind still thought that I could “fix” people. I began teaching yoga to a group of our clients with chronic pain and taught for a while at the hospital’s cancer care center. This was in the early 90’s, so I am grateful that my employers were so enthusiastic about complimentary therapies. Once I moved to California, Erich Schiffman became my main teacher. His guidance into spaciousness and reminders that as you sink in beneath the layers of mind stuff that this “unknown” Self that you will encounter is beautiful. This was important for me because my personal journey had me convinced that the strong emotions I felt were “no-fly” zones and I had a lot of fear that I might be not such a good person once I started to discover myself. Erich reminded me that under all that stuff, we are love. Or as he puts it, “Your D-N-A is G-O-D”.

I started teaching meditation as part of my yoga classes and found that I had a knack for walking people through being present in their bodies, especially during yin poses, where you spend usually five minutes or longer in a pose. Though we often don’t get to complete stillness during the poses, I find that these smaller mini-meditations set people up for better success when they do sit to meditate. They are great opportunities to practice listening to your body and tuning in to feeling more subtle layers. After these longer stretches, even beginner students can feel a different quality in the area we just stretched—they get a taste of what prana (or chi) feels like. Also, the (hopefully) mild discomfort felt in the poses provides a good focal point for the mind and the breath.

These all help make the concept of meditation more concrete and accessible.

Is there anything from your experience in a hospital environment or about treatment generally that could be widely applicable? Or about how to integrate meditation or yoga that in health care delivery?

It’s easy to teach people how to take deep breaths and feel their bodies. Those are some simple things that could help anyone in the hospital. Most hospitals implement meditation and complimentary techniques in their cancer centers, but it would be great if more of them also integrate breath education into the general population—for example patients could use deep or focused breathing before procedures or tests, or when they are in recovery.

What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation? 

There are so many! Being less crazy is probably the most obvious to my friends and family. But I really like how it opens up my creativity. There’s a joke amongst some of my fellow yoga teachers that once you start teaching it becomes harder to practice. The meaning is that you start getting inspiration when you get on the mat or when you sit and meditate. I keep a pen and paper nearby so I can jot those ideas or inspirations down, so often my practice has little interruptions in it. I don’t mind this, because sharing this knowledge is so much fun! Sometimes I’ll try to sit through the inspired thought instead of writing it down, and sometimes it works. Occasionally I’ll lose a few details, but usually the main part sticks. It’s important when you’re a teacher to make sure you actually spend time fully in the practice too.

What is your favourite meditation technique or form of practice?

My favorite these days is a variation on the classic loving-kindness meditation. After about fifteen years of a pretty solid yoga and meditation practice, I asked myself if I was becoming kinder. Navel gazing definitely shows you parts of yourself that you can’t hide from, so it does tend to make you more humble and hopefully more responsible for how you communicate and act in the world. But it has its limitations and can sometimes keep you stuck in the small sense of self. Tonglen (a Tibetan meditation practice translated as “giving and taking”) is an immediate reminder of the real point of this connection (yoga)—to be more loving and see the loving parts of others. To find compassion.

What important aspect of meditation do you find yourself teaching over and over again? Is there a phrase or message or quote you repeat to students again and again?

Try to let go of judgement and simply allow it to be. Usually people get frustrated with themselves if they keep drifting back to thinking. They expect that they can keep focused and are hard on themselves when they lose it. I try to encourage them to be gentle and kind with themselves. If a baby is learning to walk, you don’t yell at the baby every time it falls down. You don’t expect it to walk before it learns. And once they do learn, you don’t admonish them when they fall down again. Most of us have been rewarded for performance and have forgotten that learning any new skill means taking repeated falls. And I also make sure students know that our minds are built to think and to solve problems and to plan and sort information, and that it’s used to getting most of our attention—so don’t be so hard on it.

How many times and how much time per day do you recommend students to meditate?

I’m going to defer to my teacher again: He advises to do a mini “bed-med” (when you first wake up, sit yourself up in bed, all slumped over and sort of “go back to sleep” without sleeping. When you go to bed, right before you sink into bed, sit again and start to “fall asleep”). Then do one or two formal meditations during the day. And finally, any time it occurs to you, PAUSE. These little pauses help incorporate your present moment awareness into your day.

Describe your ideal meditation session (location, length, outcome, etc)

When you start to meditate, setting yourself up for success is really important: Find a quiet room, no pets (much to my cats’ dismay) and REALLY take the time to get comfortable. Boost your hips up higher than your knees, support your body so that you’re really connected to the ground, and lengthen your spine. Sit in a chair if it helps support your spine. It’s very hard to get still when you’re mantra is “Ouch, this hurts”. That said, life isn’t always ideal, so exposing yourself to conditions that are noisy or distracting or less comfortable gets you better at quieting the mind in circumstances closer to real-life. It’s a lot harder to do this, so it’s not how I suggest starting out.

What misconceptions about meditation do you hear in the media or popular culture?

These days I think a lot of the misconceptions are starting to get torn down, but the one I still hear from clients is “my mind is too busy to meditate.” Or “I tried meditation and it doesn’t work for me.”

A topic I haven’t heard a lot about is what is happening to our attention spans with the tech-based world we live in. We are hearing a lot about the benefits of meditation, but we probably need to get real about how our brains are getting more scattered with our smartphone and internet addictions. I personally have had more difficulty finding stillness if I spend more time on the phone or computer. We probably need to educate people about the potential negative effects of having access to immediate answers, quick bites of information and constant scrolling.

What meditation books have you read and admired, re-read, or do you recommend to others (they can be directly or indirectly related to meditation)?

My favorite books are “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson, “A Lamp in the Darkness” by Jack Kornfield, and “Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras” as translated by Dr. Ravi Ravindra.

What books/courses/resources do you have available? What makes them special and how can they benefit a reader?

I wrote a book called “Follow the Feeling: A Roadmap to Emotional Freedom”. It’s a book meant to expose people to many forms of meditation and help them befriend their emotions. Most of us were discouraged from feeling and expressing our emotions or hold trauma in our body. This book helps you reset your nervous system and your emotional dashboard so you can begin to trust your emotions to lead you to a happier life.

How can readers get in contact with you or find out more?

My website is lisawestwellness.com

My book, “Follow the Feeling: A Roadmap to Emotional Freedom”, is sold on Amazon

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[This interview is an extract. You can read Lisa’s full interview, plus 29 more interviews, in the book How Do You Meditate? Interviews with 30 Meditation Teachers. Available from Amazon.]

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