Most people don’t have the introduction to meditation that Sumati Govinda Steinberg had. Sumati’s incredible meditation journey started with her first meditation experience at 2-years-old learning from her father. Sumati answered our questions about how to make meditation adaptable, how to set goals for our practice, and how to use the senses to take us deeper in our meditation.
Yogaville: Is meditation really for everyone? For instance, what would a meditation practice look like for someone who is extremely busy, ill, or has some other obstacle in their life? Is meditation always adaptable to an individual?
Sumati: Most people have a preconceived notion of what meditation is. But from my experience and education, I’ve distilled it into two main types: there’s the focused attention type of meditation and then there’s the non-judgmental or open-awareness type of meditation. With those broad strokes of what meditation is in mind, you can adapt those definitions into multiple activities in your daily life. Meditation isn’t only sitting on a pillow for half an hour, three times a day; although that is a type of meditation, it’s only one type. If you start to think of meditation in terms of an infinite number of ways you can focus your attention, then you can meditate while you’re doing the dishes, you can meditate while you’re vacuuming the house, you can meditate while you’re driving to and from work. The goal of meditation is not just to sit on a pillow for several hours a day, the goal of meditation is to learn to control your thoughts and emotions in a gentle way so that you can stay in a meditative state throughout the day, with a more peaceful mind. Regardless of your lifestyle’s unique pattern, and regardless of your personality type—whether you’re more active or more devotional, more intellectual, or very strong-willed—there is a type of meditation that is a good match for you. It just may not be what you think meditation is.
Yogaville: Meditation is an ancient practice. How does it benefit people today who are living in the modern world?
Sumati: They’re doing a lot of research in the field of neuroscience with regard to mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness is a subset of meditation, and meditation is the bigger field. What they’ve discovered is that even with one minute of meditation twice a day, you can start to change some of your neural patterning and you can start to change the repetitive pathways that your thoughts and emotions travel on in your brain itself. You can rewire your brain toward different types of thoughts and feelings and then, the more you think that and feel that, you can hardwire some of those more positive things. And it doesn’t take a lot of time. They’re seeing a lot of benefit between 10 to 20 minutes a day in the research, but they’ve discovered that even with just one minute twice a day, you can get some benefit. It doesn’t take as much time and effort as people think.
If you’re a person who wants to be more peaceful, less reactive, more responsive, more resilient, and generally happier in your daily life, then the smaller amounts of meditation are great. If your ultimate goal is realizing your True Self, then that requires a little more diligence. You need to practice more regularly and you need to be mindful between your sitting practices. So you really want to apply that same one-pointed focus and attention, or that same non-judgmental open observation, throughout your whole day. The idea is to have these little pockets of effortless peace and happiness, and then extend them throughout your whole day through conscious attention.
Yogaville: For those who are looking to start a practice, would you recommend creating a meditation space in the home, and why? What are some tips for creating a meditation space?
Sumati: I do recommend creating a meditation space in your home, and I recommend it for several reasons. One, our mind likes habits, and our mind is triggered through our senses, so we respond habitually to things through sensory input and through language. If you have created a sacred space that is only for meditation, as soon as you sit down and light your incense, or spray your aromatherapy, or put on your meditation shawl, or sit on your meditation cushion—all these things, decorating your altar, etc, will trigger your mind to have an effect of knowing that it’s time to sit down and meditate. It will know that it’s time to go into training. It’s like you walk into the door of the school room and you know it’s time to learn. It’s the same thing; your mind will be prepared for that.
Usually I encourage people to address all five of their senses. So, do something that is visually pleasing and uplifting to you. Then, use some kind of fragrance becauseyour sense of smell is very closely connected to the part of the brain that is associated with memory, so by having a smell, it will trigger the memory: “Oh, it’s time to meditate.” Also, having a comfortable outfit, sitting arrangement, pillow, shawl, all those things—will help you with your sense of touch. And then either beginning your meditation with a song, or a chant, or a prayer out loud, or even just saying OM, will bring you into that meditative space. You use your senses in a positive way to help bring you into the present moment so that you’re ready to start practicing meditation. When you first stumble upon the meditation that’s designed for you, you’ll love it. You’ll feel like, “I love this! This couldn’t possibly be meditation. It’s so wonderful! It’s so delicious and fun!” But then after you’ve been meditating for a while, depending on you and the amount of time, then it starts to become hard and boring and your mind starts to present all the obstacles. You want to have a really firmly-grounded habit so that when those come up, you don’t skip your meditation, miss your meditation, talk yourself out of it, or doubt the efficacy of what you’re doing.
You can start really small. Usually I start people with one minute twice a day, when they wake up and when they go to bed. That’s when the mind is most primed for meditation: early in the morning and late at night. Your brain waves are actually slightly slower. You’re not so much in beta, you’re a little bit more in alpha or theta, so you’re primed. Start small because any time you set a goal for yourself and actually do it, for instance I say, “I’m going to pick up this cup and drink a sip of parsley tea,” and you do it, you get a tiny, tiny hit of dopamine, which is the addiction molecule, or the pleasure molecule; it’s the one that has us going back to that chocolate cake and that ice cream. We can use that to our advantage by setting really small goals—really small, but achievable. That’s why they’re always saying ‘Set your goal and cut it in half.’ I say cut it in half again, because you’re trying to develop your personality. You’re trying to mold your brain like clay. You have to be repetitive in that activity. It’s like the Grand Canyon; you need that repetitive flow of thoughts and feelings in the same ways to make the deep grooves. So if you start with one minute a day and you do that for a while until it’s very comfortable and you’re never missing, and you add another minute until you’re comfortable and never missing, and you add another minute, and so on; eventually you will get to your goal, and you will never miss it. Your mind will start to believe that you’re serious about this, that you’re the boss, that you’re going to control the mind and emotions in a gentle way, not in a harsh way.
Yogaville: So my next question was about the issue of commitment and discipline in our practice and how we can stay consistent, but you just answered that!
Sumati: Well, I didn’t fully answer it. You never want to miss your meditation. When you make a vow to meditate twice a day for a week, or twice a day for a month, you do not miss your meditation. When you’re raising children, you’re taught to be consistent in your discipline because children will push the boundaries. Your mind is just like a child. It’s a little child that’s used to getting its way. It’s used to thinking whatever it wants to think, feeling whatever it wants to feel at any given moment. Because you’re trying to teach your mind that you’re the boss, it’s going to have to follow your commands now. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be controlling it all the time. Sometimes you’re gonna step back and let the mind do what it’s doing. You’re just gonna say, “Ok, mind. Google whatever you want. Think about whatever you want. It’s fine.” But when it’s time to control it, you just say, “Not now. Later” or, “Not at all.” So that takes repetition and consistency. It doesn’t believe you if you miss. It’s not about the length of time, it’s about the consistency.
And really, the quality of your meditation is less important than the consistency. Just like learning to play the piano, you can have days where you’re playing the piano and it sucks and you’re terrible, but the next day you see a big leap in your improvement. It’s the same thing with meditation. Even days where you think you didn’t meditate, that it was the worst meditation, your mind was all over the place thinking about all kinds of things, that’s still a good meditation. You’ll still benefit from it.
Yogaville: So you spoke about practicing meditation in daily life, such as when we’re washing the dishes. Could you elaborate on that? How can we carry that meditative quality with us into our daily actions?
Sumati: In the beginning, you can use your 5 senses to ground you into the present moment. By paying attention to some sensory input, that will bring you back into the Now. The idea is that you want to be present and fully attentive of what you’re doing in this moment. You’re trying to not allow the mind to be anxious about all the future outcomes that may or may not occur. You’re trying to not allow the mind to ruminate over the past mistakes or glories. You’re just keeping the mind present and the senses are helping you to do that. So, if you’re washing the dishes, you’re feeling the water on your hands. Maybe you think of the dishes as you would something or someone you love. You smell the fragrance of the soap. An action doesn’t have to be still and slow for you to be present. You don’t have to be gliding like some ethereal fairy to be in the present moment. You can be moving really fast and still be in the present moment. Examples of this are some of the basketball players and football players. The professional athletes know how to do this—they know how to bring themselves into the Now so that they can be in the flow, in the zone. When you’re fully present like that, you can connect to a presence that’s bigger than yourself.
Yogaville: Could you share a little about your own meditation?
Sumati: Well when I first started meditating regularly, at 11, I repeated my mantra that my Guru gave to me. Then when I was in my late teens, the length of the mantra disappeared and I could just repeat OM. I couldn’t get—I couldn’t even force— the rest of the mantra to be repeated. OM just kept repeating. So I called Gurudev and I said, “Am I doing it wrong? Have I lost control of my mind?” because I thought that I had pretty good control over my thoughts and emotions. He said, “No, that’s what’s supposed to happen.” Then the OM, over a couple years, disappeared completely and there was nothing. I would just sit down to meditate and it would be time to get up, and it would be three hours later. So at that point, shortly after I shared that with Gurudev— that my mantra and the OM had disappeared into emptiness and nothingness—that’s when Gurudev told me I didn’t need to meditate anymore.
It’s an evolution into that great void of the unknown. But you can’t start there—at least most people can’t start there. So you use the technique as a tool or a lifejacket, but once you’re at the shore, it lets go of you. You don’t have to force that non-attachment.