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How Do /You/ Meditate?

Clay Hamilton interviews Giovanni Dienstmann, a meditation teacher, author, and founder of the popular meditation website LiveAndDare.com. "How Do /You/ Meditate?" is Clay Hamilton's ongoing series of interviews with meditation teachers.

Giovanni Dienstmann is a meditation teacher and founder of the popular meditation website liveanddare.com. He lives in Sydney and teaches meditation though an online program and community called Limitless Life. He is also the author of Practical Meditation, which is available in six different languages. The focus of his work is helping people overcome anxiety, stress and fear, and live a life that is more calm, centered and focused. Giovanni has practiced over 70 different types of meditation techniques, for nearly 10,000 hours, and studied under a number of masters and yogis, and in his own teaching he tries to find the right technique to suit each person individually. Clay Hamilton interviewed Giovanni in the summer of 2019. 

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Briefly describe yourself as a meditation teacher.

My name is Giovanni Dientsmann. I am a meditation teacher, author and coach who is focused on teaching meditation so people can live a life with less anxiety, less stress and less fear – that is the focus of my work. The main part of my work happens online through my website LiveAndDare.com and my online meditation programmes. The name of the programme is “Limitless Life” and it includes many meditation courses, guided meditation audios, and forums where the community can share and talk and learn from each other. And also I do one-on-one coaching for individuals who want to go deeper in this journey. The type of meditation that I personally practice is made up of two meditation techniques, the gazing meditation, also known as Trataka, and mantra meditation. I have tried over 70 different meditation practices, which is one of the things that makes my work different from most teachers (who have only practiced two or three types and only teach those two or three types). I help people find the meditation practice which is uniquely ideal for them and that depends on their goals and their personality. It is not the same for everyone. 

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

I learned how to meditate when I was 14 years old. I was interested in metaphysical subjects and I was reading Paulo Coelho. One of these books that I was reading was about meditation and I thought it was very interesting. I went to a workshop which is where initially I learned how to meditate. Through a 10 minute guided meditation I arrived at a point where I was very calm and everything was well in the present moment. There was nothing for me to run after, nothing for me to run away from, just happy and still, here and now. That was a unique experience for me, it was very pleasant. That night I decided that I was going to continue to meditate every day for the rest of my life. And so, that is what I have done.

That’s how my journey to meditation started, and in the following years I explored many different types of meditations, I read over 200 books on the topic, I have been with masters, yogis, teachers from different traditions. That’s how I have progressed. At the age of 20 I began teaching at the Zen centre where I was practicing. They saw that I was very serious about meditation, studying a lot and practicing seriously. Eventually I became the right-hand of the Zen Master there, and he asked me to take a more active teaching role to the people who were coming to the centre. I also led some retreats and gave talks about meditation at schools, hospitals and non-profits. Fast forwarding several years, from 2014 I began to concentrate more on teaching meditation—that’s when I created LiveAndDare. In December 2016 I quit my job to teach meditation full time.   

What is the greatest benefit you personally get from meditation?  

That is a very tough question because since I started when I was very young, meditation and all of the benefits that come from it really became a part of my life as I grew up and as my personality developed. I can say that meditation allows me to be calm, centered and focused. It gives me an experience of being in a place where nothing can really go wrong and things are fine as they are. I am fine as I am, and I can just relax in the present moment and be well. It allows me to be in my life in a way that I am less affected by anything that happens outside of me and even inside of me, so there is that calm centre that is really not affected by anything.

Therefore I don’t need to react to things so much, there is space, there is a pause between stimuli and how I am going to respond, which means I have the freedom to choose how I want to respond to the adversities that happen in my life and how I want to respond to negative thoughts if they arise. Equanimity, non-reactivity, calmness, a sense of being happy for no reason… I am just peaceful and happy for no reason, and that’s the best reason to be happy because if you have a particular reason to be happy, when that reason changes your happiness will change too or disappear. But if you are happy for no reason, happy just being inside your own skin, that is the best kind of happiness.

Indeed, meditation changed my life in many ways.

What is your favourite meditation technique or form of practice? 

Mantra and Gazing (Trataka).

Even though there are hundreds of different types of meditation, you can usually classify them into two bigger families of practice: the awareness practices like mindfulness, Vipassana, some forms of Zazen, Taoist Zuowang, Inner Silence from the yogic tradition, etc.; and then the concentration practices where you are focusing your attention in moment after moment on the same object, and that object could be the breath, mantra, a visual element, a part of your body, etc. I love these two families of practices, but I end up practicing more the concentration form and especially in the form of gazing and mantra.  

Is it more useful for people to know many meditation techniques, or to learn one/few and focus efforts on practising that one?

None of the above. The ideal is to learn many techniques and then focus only on one or two that work best for you.

It is not about only practicing different techniques every week… you are not going to go very far with that. It’s good for some time, but after a while you need to figure out what works best for you and then choose those practices to go deeper. It is also not about practicing the first meditation technique that you learn without experimenting to see if there is something better for you.

So it is a middle way. It is a little bit like sport – you may want to try different sports, but if you want to be good at it then you need to pick one or two maximum and then really focus on that one. That’s the way you can really go deep and go into a state of flow with that particular technique.

What do most students struggle with or get wrong?

Many things. The first common challenge for most people is building a daily meditation habit. I wrote an article called the Three Pillars of Meditation where I explained that unless you have these three pillars to your meditation practice, the benefits you get from your meditation will be limited.

The first of these pillars is the habit. Meditation is the type of thing that you have to do every day if you really want to benefit from it. It is a little bit like taking a shower, eating, sleeping or brushing your teeth—it is just in that category of things that you need to practice daily. I would say the thing most people struggle with is building that daily practice. One of the focuses of all of my online courses is to really help people create that daily practice.

Another thing they struggle with is the idea of forcing the mind. In meditation you are not supposed to force the mind. But at the same time it is not effortless either so there is a type of effort that is needed to meditate but it is an effort that is light, it is not heavy handed. Trying to force the mind to have no thoughts is a sure way to get demotivated and quit your practice, and that is a mistake that some people make. Having a mind that is calm and empty, a mind that is focused and without distractions—that is the effect of meditation practice, not a requirement for it.

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?

Yes there are many things that are recurring themes in the teaching.

I emphasise a lot the need for a daily practice. Especially for people who struggle with anxiety I say that “anxiety is the fat of the mind, and meditation is the gym”. This is a reminder that you can learn how to exercise the mind and that is very important for your health. Just like physical exercise is important for your physical health, mental exercise, which meditation is a great part of, is important for your mental health.

Another element that I reinforce is the idea that you are not your thoughts and you are not your emotions – you are the witness, the observer of thoughts and emotions. For most students this takes a while to realise, but once they realise that it is so, there is a great sense of freedom that comes from it.

If you don’t need to be identified with your thoughts and emotions then you have freedom, the freedom to choose which thoughts and emotions you believe in, which ones you want to feed by paying attention to them and dialoguing with them, and which ones you are just going to let go and let pass. When you have that choice, that freedom, that power, then you have the power to choose who you want to be and how your life will be.

Another thing that summarizes more of my teaching is my slogan: “Master Your Mind, Master Your Life”. This represents all of these ideas in a short, memorable way.

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

If the person is just starting, I recommend to start with 5 minutes per day and increase 1 minute per week. That makes it very easy to start and very easy to grow slowly but organically in a way that you don’t feel demotivated so it is never too hard. Then keep increasing 1 minute per week until you arrive at 20 minutes. That would be an ideal and  reasonable practice to have in your life.

For students who want to go deeper in meditation—to make it a bigger part of their life—then, well, they can contact me and I will suggest what more to do. But for the majority of people, 20 minutes of meditation per day will get the benefits that most people are seeking. 

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

Meditation is a big part of my life, so I meditate 2 hours per day every morning. Most people don’t need to do anything near that—that’s just me, I’m a meditation teacher.

An ideal meditation for me would be in my meditation room where I usually meditate for 2 hours or more, and if I could I would meditate for 3 hours every day but I often have other things to focus on as well. And the outcome for an ideal session would be that my mind and the mantra become one. They will be united so there is no separation, and that means there are no thoughts, no distractions or anything else—it is just me and the mantra being one. The mantra is resonating by itself. That is how an ideal practice would look like for me right now.

What advice do you give people who struggle to maintain a consistent practice? 

The first thing is to really have clarity on why you want to meditate and what it can do for you. That is the foundation of motivation – why do you want meditation to be in your life.

I have written an article called “The 76 Benefits of Meditation”, and maybe you will find that this is a good place to start. Really think about what is important for you in your life. Who do you want to be? How do you want your life to be? And then think about all the ways that meditation can help you achieve what you want, and help you to become who you want to be. Once you spend a few minutes in that soul-searching exercise you realise how valuable meditation can be for you, and then you have a foundation of motivation to do the practice. From that point onwards it’s all about setting the systems, the habits, the triggers that will help you to keep a daily practice. 

This is the topic of one of my online courses—the whole of it actually. So there is much more to it than I can cover in this short interview. But what I can say here is that after setting your motivation you would then make sure that you start small. Like I said before, start with five minutes per day and then increase one minute per week.

Make it easy for yourself, so that you never have a reason to skip. And then practice what I call the “Never Zero” principle which means that you make a commitment to meditate every day, no matter what. Even if you are busy, even if you are tired, even if you have been meditating 30 minutes per day every day for the last 30 days and today you don’t feel like it, you will meditate even if for five minutes. And that commitment, together with the other two tips we just covered, will help you build a daily practice.

Then, make sure you continue to be engaged in the practice – read blogs, read books about it, take courses, talk to people who meditate, make that part of your life alive and interesting. That will help you keep growing the practice.    

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)?

That’s an interesting question. The books that I have enjoyed the most are not the ones that I recommend to most people because I am usually recommending books that are more basic.

So let me answer the question about what I think most people could benefit from. There is a book called “Sure Ways to Self-Realisation” by Swami Satyananda Saraswati which is a good general introduction to meditation. “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Henepola Gunaratana is popular and widely recommended. “Meditation and its Practice” by Swami Rama is also good. And of course I recommend my own book, “Practical Meditation”, for the beginner in general.

For people who are more advanced in meditation, it depends what tradition they are interested in, and I have a long list of recommendations for spiritual books.   

What books/courses do you have available? Who/how can they benefit a reader?

My book is called “Practical Meditation”, it is available in six languages and you can think of it as the ultimate textbook for meditation – it is accessible, easy to read, fully illustrated and practical.

And the main program I run is called Limitless Life. It includes all of my resources, courses, videos, audios and meditation. It is a month-by-month programme and is focused on people who struggle with anxiety and stress, but really it is helpful for anyone who wants to start or deepen a meditation practice.  

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

The best way is to come to https://liveanddare.com/ or to send me an email – I read every email I get. And if you want to continue learning, make sure to join my free newsletter.

Is there anything we forgot to ask? Anything else you want to explain about your practice or meditation in general, or advice to give? 

Just a reminder that your life is as your mind is.

It is your mind that decides if you are having a good day or a bad day. Depending on the state of your mind you will be happy or miserable. Depending on your mind you will be able to achieve your goals or not.

Therefore managing your mind, managing the state of your mind, is one of the most important tasks that we humans need to do. I urge you to consider meditation as a permanent part of your life so that you can be more calm, centered and focused, and so that you can live with more purpose and more joy.

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[This interview is an extract. CM Hamilton is currently compiling interviews with many meditations teachers for publication in a book in late 2019, which will include Giovanni’s full interview. More information at http://bit.ly/QAmeditation].

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