Tag Archives: meditation

Where Hawaii Meets Meditation



Honolulu’s Meditation Gems

When you first move to a new city, it’s always an adventure finding new circles to network in, adventures to experience, spaces to explore. Foodies might hit up Yelp to check out the local kine grinds; or if you’re big into drinking, you’re probably good just cruising out to the ‘hood with the most bars per square mile, and having a little stroll.

If you happen to be a yogi/meditator/Buddhism-phile who just moved to Honolulu, choices of meditation communities are pretty easy to locate through a Googly search:

Kailua Shambhala Meditation Center: Shambhala lineage Tibetan Buddhist mindfulness meditation and workshops.

Kagyu Thegchen Ling: Tibetan Buddhist meditation center offering daily pujas and weekly meditations.

Siddha Yoga Meditation Center: weekly satsang and hatha yoga classes.

Diamond Sangha: meditation classes offered to the community three times per week, as well as workshops and residential programs.

Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin: a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple offering weekly sits, as well as judo, ikebana, and other activities.

Aloha Sangha: a group of meditators meet on Thursday evenings for yoga, meditation, and dharma talk, led by a former Buddhist monk.

There are also more private meditation sanghas one generally needs a personal introduction to in order to join; I know of just a few, from friends who’ve been on the island longer.

As for open public sits, after just a few months of seeking, I’ve visited with the sanghas at Bodhi Tree and Native Meditation – and loved them both.

Bodhi Tree is located in a gorgeous three-story house in Nuuanu Valley, graced with a view of Diamond Head and twinkling Honolulu city lights. Weekly Vipassana sits are 40 minutes long and followed by a dharma talk with a larger community of about 15 people or so. Loving Kindness meditations are also offered on the full moon, and the center hosts an array of workshops on Buddhist practices.

I had two lovely sits here, followed by invigorating chats with the teacher and a fellow sangha member in the circle who’d been living at the center for a few months. It’s definitely a sweet spot for meditation and meeting experienced community members.

My first experience with a community sit in Hawaii was actually with Kit Kanohoaloha, a teacher in the Shambhala lineage. His space was recently about to be made a sister center to the Kailua Shambhala Center, but the paperwork and whatnot got in the way and Kit is now running his sit as Native Meditation. Intimate, welcoming, and very beginner-friendly, Kit starts out with 20-30 minutes of introduction to the practice and lineage for new students. The next hour or so is sitting meditation (eyes open), and walking meditation; he alternates between the two for a few rounds and then everyone shares their experience.

Meeting my fellow meditators in the circle was super inspiring. Everyone had such interesting backgrounds – an Italian first-timer, a hula-dancing seeker, and a new transplant to Honolulu from China – and we all convened here, in Kit’s warm abode, to sit quietly and contemplate life together. I left the house feeling connected and jazzed to continue my practice at home.

It’s really been so fulfilling to come into contact with these groups, bringing peace to themselves and the community, on a regular intentional basis. When I grew up here, I was never really aware of all these possibilities for growth. My former Hawaii life was all plate lunches and movie theaters. Now, it seems I can have my meditation … and plate lunch, too!

Meditation, Keaiwa Heiau

IMAG0539There’s no diggidy, no doubt about the proven benefits of meditation these days:

1. Strengthens the immune system (Davidson et al. 2003; Tang et al. 2007)

2. Decreases stress-related cortisol (Tang et al. 2007)

3. Increases grey matter in the

  • Insula
  • Hippocampus (a/b: Hozel et al. 2005, 2008)
  • Prefrontal cortex (Lazar et al. 2009)

4. Reduces cortical thinning due to aging in prefrontal regions strengthened by meditation (Lazar et al. 2008)

5. Improves psychological functions associated with these regions, including

  • attention (Cater et al. 2005; Tang et al. 2007)
  • compassion (Lutz-Brefczynski-Lewis et al. 2008)
  • empathy (Lazar et al. 2005)

6. Lifts mood by increasing activation of the left frontal regions (Davidson 2004)

7. Increases the power and reach of fast, gamma-range brainwaves in experienced Tibetan practitioners (Lutz et al. 2004)

8. Helps a variety of medical conditions, including

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Asthma
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • PMS
  • Chronic pain (a-e: Walsh and Shapiro 2006)

9. Helps numerous psychological conditions, including

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Eating disorders (a-d: Walsh and Shapiro 2006)

10. Improves focus.

Studies show that even if you’re a novice meditator, meditating just three times a week for twenty minutes a pop will yield you (and those around you) many of these potent results.  Empirical evidence like this helps comfort me when I let my personal practice slip, when I succumb to the ebb and flow of life, and find myself in beginner’s shoes now and again.

IMAG0541On my way to drop off my rental car at the airport today I noticed a park on the map I had never been to before – Keaiwa Heiau Park.  I stopped off at Down to Earth to pick up a few snacks and zig zagged up Aiea Heights to the piney top of the mountain ridges.  The citrus pine aroma tickled my senses when I opened the car door.  My eyes felt brighter, my mindscape clearer already.

IMAG0536Walking over to the heiau, I felt surprisingly shy, like I wanted this experience to be more private than I knew it would be.  A family sat picnicking at a bench not far from the entrance to this ancient burial site, their kids playing tag, this earth no different from a playground.  A group of 20-somethings looked to be discussing the heiau in a workshop-esque gathering on the opposite side.  I wanted to be alone, so I could hear the ancestor’s whispered stories, so I could smell the offerings of the past.  I wanted only the trees to watch over our exchange.

But death is just another stage in life, and reverence is always subjective.  So I continued on.

After visiting each of the sacred circles and altars, I found some shade under a tea leaf bush and meditated.  Just a simple session focused on breath, HA in Hawaiian, the conduit of mana (known as prana in yogic philosophy).  It was only a short sit, and rather than experience the grounding heaviness I expected from a site of this nature, I felt incredibly light when I opened my eyes.  And so grateful for the opportunity to practice in such a sacred circle, on a mountain formed from a fire beneath the sea, in a place I still call home.


Metta Meditation

Sharing a metta (loving-kindness/friendship) meditation with my Hiking Yoga students today, under the sweet sun rays, just at the shore of the lake in Prospect Park, was a true gift.

They were led through a visualization involving someone they love, who they feel comfortable with, who they feel they can be themselves around no matter what. We sat with them in this visualization and imagined our love for them as a white ball of light. We offered the light to this person as a symbol of gratitude, and observed how that felt in our own bodies. We then contemplated how the recipient of that love might react. It was a short 8 minute session, full of gratitude, lightness of heart, and warmth.

One of my oldest friends joined us, and it was her first meditation session ever!

Metta meditation can be helpful for depression and chronic pain and I invited participants to use this meditation on people they feel anger for as well.  It’s a powerful way to assuage negative emotions, even if it feels counter-intuitive at first.

There are hundreds of metta meditations out there; here is a beautiful session from Sharon Salzberg.

The definition of metta, according to Wikipedia:

Mettā (Pali: मेत्ता in Devanagari) or maitrī (Sanskrit: मैत्री) is loving-kindness,[1][2]friendliness,[3][4][5] benevolence,[2][4] amity,[3] friendship,[4] good will,[4] kindness,[3][6]close mental union (on same mental wavelength),[4] and active interest in others.[3] It is one of the ten pāramīs of the Theravāda school of Buddhism, and the first of the four sublime states (Brahmavihāras). This is love without clinging (upādāna).

The cultivation of loving-kindness (mettā bhāvanā) is a popular form of meditation in Buddhism. In the Theravadin Buddhist tradition, this practice begins with the meditator cultivating loving-kindness towards themselves,[7] then one’s loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all sentient beings. In the Tibetan Buddhisttradition, this practice is associated with tonglen (cf.), whereby one breathes out (“sends”) happiness and breathes in (“receives”) suffering.[8] Tibetan Buddhists also practice contemplation of the Brahmavihāras, also called the four immeasurables, which is sometimes called ‘compassion meditation’[9]

“Compassion meditation” is a contemporary scientific field that demonstrates the efficacy of metta and related meditative practices.

Vipassanaaaaaahhh (revisited)

About a year and a half ago, I attended my first Vipassana session – 10 days of silent meditation at an ashram in Igatpuri, India.  A week later, I was able to interview S.N. Goenka at the Vipassana center in Mumbai.  It sounds surreal just seeing it typed out!

I was reminded of how long ago that was when a classmate gave a presentation on this lineage in my psych class last week.  “Gratitude” can hardly cover the way I feel about my experience there, a milestone in healing, transformation and perspective.  Whew, what an amazing 10 days!

Here is a link to my “review” of the experience, and below you’ll find a full length film featuring the use of Vipasana in jails in India (they are also being used in jails in America, as well as in schools).  Worth a watch to see just how evolutionary meditation can be!

Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Mass General

Today I’m grateful for the folks over at Mass Gen who are bringing to light more of the proven benefits of meditation (among other things, of course).  Their findings show we actually have the ability to change our gene expression and activity through simple 10-20 minute sessions of meditation, countering the effects of stress – this is one of the most empowering empirical discoveries about meditation I could imagine.

In the spiritual contexts of Buddhism and Yoga, the ultimate “goal” of meditation would be enlightenment, nirvana, bliss, samadhi.  But these kinds of studies open the door for people to experience benefits of meditation without the (sometimes overwhelming) metaphysical connotations.

So thanks, Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Mass General (what a mouthful).  Your service just may convert a few skeptics out there 😉

Study: How Yoga Alters Genes

PROBLEM: The flight or fight response — the natural response to stress — essentially puts the nervous system in overdrive. So it’s no surprise that its opposite state, known as the relaxation response to stress, is associated with feeling good, in a general sense. People are able to evoke the relaxation response by repeating a yoga pose, prayer, or mantra while disregarding other thoughts, and it’s been shown to protect against psychological disorders like anxiety and depression as well as physical conditions like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and types of cancer that are exacerbated by stress.

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Subjects trained 26 adults with no prior experience in this type of meditation for eight weeks. They practiced deep breathing, repeated mantras, and learned to ignore intrusive thoughts. Initially, they were given blood tests immediately before and 15 minutes after listening to a 20-minute health education CD. This was repeated after their training, only with a CD that guided them in their meditation. Twenty-five other participants, who had long-term experience in evoking the relaxation response, were tested as well.

RESULTS: All of the subjects’ blood samples revealed changes in gene expression following meditation. The changes were the exact opposite of what occurs during flight or fight: genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, and telomere maintenance were turned on, while those involved in inflammation were turned off. These effects were more pronounced and consistent for long-term practitioners.

IMPLICATIONS: People who practice simple meditation aren’t “just relaxing,” explained the study’s senior author, Dr. Herbert Benson (he of the aforementioned institute). Instead, they’re experiencing “a specific genomic response that counteracts the harmful genomic effects of stress.” While this study only looked at one way of reaching this state, people have been figuring this out for themselves for thousands of years, through yoga, prayer, and other forms of meditation. Yet this is the first time researchers have been able to use basic science to show that these practices actually have an observable, biological effect.

It’s only gene expression that is altered, not the genes themselves. But these results also showed that the effects of the relaxation response become stronger with practice, typically twice a day for 10 to 20 minutes. Fortunately it’s not hard to learn — in what was perhaps the most pleasant turn an interview has ever taken, Benson guided me through a meditation session. “Do it for years,” said Benson, “and then these effects are quite powerful in how they change your gene activity.”

Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways” is published in PLOS ONE.