I had the chance to interview life-long family friend and meditation teacher, Ellen Rosen-Kaplan. She is beyond amazing, loving, and smart. We sat down and had a lengthy chat about her experience with meditation, how she teaches it, and how she thinks it connects to happiness. I truly think that I was experiencing ‘flow’ during out interview because what was actually a 45 minute talk felt like 10 to me. Ellen had meditated prior to our interview, so I really think that some of her energy transferred to me. It was super special to talk to her and learn from her. I hope you enjoy!
You can also listen to the interview here: https://soundcloud.com/lilydube/interview-with-ellen-rosen-kaplan
Lily Dube: Why don’t you start out by telling me about your own meditation experience?
Ellen Rosen-Kaplan: Okay, so I began meditating when I was sixteen, and went with my Uncle who was nine years older than me to an ashram and I would sit with the yogis there and we would meditate and it was a little strange at first for me, but there was something about it I really liked and then I continued doing it on and off until I got to the University of Michigan and then when I was there I learned transcendental meditation, which is a form of meditation where you get a mantra, or they give you your own private mantra, which is like a two syllable word that you focus on, that is the point of focus that you kind of keep coming back to, and the goal is if you keep coming back to this word, that would sort of calm your body and mind and integrate kind of your emotional and spiritual and physical self and center you and bring your brain to a different sort of state of consciousness. That’s what I did for many many years. And then I branched out and began to learn more like relaxation techniques, which is another form of meditation. It was a way of training the body through establishing what’s called an endocrine equilibrium. Basically what happens, physiologically, is through these different methods, there’s a beta endorphin that’s released from the brain and it stimulates the thyroid, the parathyroid, the adrenal, all the endocrine organs, and everything sort of calms, and the body, the muscles, then tension in the muscles, everything kind of relaxes, and these endorphins are released, these opiates in the body are released, and there’s a real chemical change in the blood pressure, physiological changes. So I started to do that, and I worked with lots of people that had AIDS, and terminal illnesses to do this, who were in chronic pain, to be able to calm themselves in this way. So that was sort of a different type of, more like a relaxation technique than meditation. And then over the years I began through my work to integrate these different methodologies and kind of merge them and use them with people where it could be helpful. Now my own practice…
LD: Are you a therapist?
ERK: I’m a therapist. I’m a licensed clinical social worker, and I’ve been in practice for thirty-ish years, doing psychotherapy. So my own practice has changed I would say in the last few years because I’ve gotten into mindfulness meditation, which is a very ancient form of meditation that’s been around forever. Actually I forgot to tell you, before mindfulness I did some work with a rabbi in the area, whose name is Douglas Goldhammer, and he’s a rabbi who is the head of the Hebrew Seminary for the Deaf. His whole rabinit is about mystical healing and meditations that were kind of practiced back in the 1600s/1700s and were kind of buried, in the Jewish religion we never really learned a lot of these things growing up, but they were sort of resurrected from hidden places and he began to bring them back to life and he’s involved in healing. So I learned a lot of meditations from a Jewish mystical perspective from him, for a number of years. Okay, so fast forward to now I’m in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and there’s a teacher training called ‘Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training’ where I’m learning to not only practice mindfulness meditation, I’m learning to become a teacher. So what’s different about mindfulness meditation is that rather than focus on a word or a concept or an image, you sit and you experience what it means to be here right now, watching whatever arises and falls, without judgement, looking at what happens with the five senses, what happens in your body, what happens in your mind, the focus might be on the breath, you can create a different intention but it’s more about becoming aware of what’s here right now on lots of levels.
LD: How do you go about teaching meditation? How do you teach people how to meditate?
ERK: So there are different levels, the very basic level which I still practice myself everyday…
LD: You meditate everyday?
ERK: I meditate everyday.
LD: How long for?
ERK: So the ideal for me is a minimum of 30 minutes, sometimes I do 45, sometimes I only get to do 20. Occasionally, it’s even a little bit shorter than that, but the goal is a minimum 30 minutes. I do it in the morning and then I try throughout the day I carry the principles so it becomes sort of generalized. Because the purpose of meditating, and sitting on the cushion, and doing the practice, is to be able to utilize it in our lives in such a way that allows us to live the way we’re meant to live which is with joy and happiness. That is our true nature, so you know most of us aren’t walking around like that, so the whole idea is, we’re all suffering it’s part of the human condition, and this is a methodology for a choice we can make. But we can’t make the choice unless we’re aware, if we think we have no control over what’s going on, then we are kind of slaves to circumstance, but mindfulness meditation allows us to live with awareness so we have more choice over how to respond.
So, how do I teach it?
First, I teach the very basic which is, what is with us all the time? And that is our breath. That the breath is the source of our life. So if we were to position ourselves in a very comfortable position, with our feet flat on the ground, and our spines at rest, not pulling up so much that there’s tension, but enough so there’s a little bit of tension and a little bit of letting down in the hips. And tuning into the breath, we notice through the inhalation the sensation through the nostrils of what it feels like, the temperature, the air, the feeling, and then we notice the rising of the chest and the abdomen with the breath, we notice the exhalation, the chest and the abdomen falls, we notice if the breath is sort of higher up or chest-oriented or if it’s deeper, more diaphragmatic, all these things will tell us something initially, but the first step is to just simply notice the breath. And what’s beautiful about that, is it brings us right to the present moment. Because most of us are…I might be sitting here with you, having a conversation, but my mind is somewhere else. And that means that I’m not fully present, in this moment if my mind is somewhere else. And why do I want to be fully present in this moment? Because I don’t wanna miss, this moment, it’s here and it’s gone, and I wanna be there for it. When I’m fully there for it, I’m much more in a place of joy then when I’m off somewhere else. So, the more I’ve practiced and the more I’ve had tastes of what it’s like to be fully here right now, the more I want that. And I think that’s what starts to happen, so that’s what I teach first, is to just focus in on the breath, focus on whether the breath is shallow or whether it’s deep. What starts to happen when you focus in on the breath is if you just watch it without judging, it does start to deepen usually, and then you notice that. So I want to bring awareness to the quality of the breath. And what we’re doing by doing that is we are training the mind to come back, returning to whatever the intention is. In this case it’s the breath. The next step I have people work on, is while you’re witnessing this happening with the breath, to witness what’s happening in the body, so you might notice, areas of tension, all kinds of things that imply what we might call a constriction. And all that stuff causes stress. So when we bring awareness to what’s happening in the body, it allows again for some choice. But you can’t do anything until you’re aware.
LD: What do you notice with peoples’ mood before they meditate and after they meditate? How do they shift?
ERK: Well, that’s a hard question because it depends on sometimes when you’re doing mindfulness meditation, you might become aware of something that has been percolating and that you have been successfully avoiding/suppressing. Something may come up that is disturbing to you, so after you meditate you might not feel super good, but you have more awareness of something so you have, again, the choice, whereas if you were suppressing something you didn’t even know you were suppressing, you might not know why you’ve been walking around with a headache or feeling just agitated or snappy or not happy. So, right after, you might be crying or you might be more sad, or even a bit more agitated, but something is becoming into awareness. Again, it depends on what you use it for. There are people who have used meditation as a way to relax and sort of feel better, and it can be used that way and under those conditions I’ve seen people go from being super tense and agitated to much more relaxed afterwards. So that I’ve seen. It can be done and you can do that. However, sometimes people have used meditation as a way to avoid certain emotional and psychological material, that needs to be dealt with. Our tendency is to generally, when something comes up that we don’t like, especially in our society, our tendency is to find someway to “get rid of it.” The paradox in mindfulness meditation is, we embrace whatever is there and learn to tolerate it. With great compassion. In mindfulness meditation, something will come up, and you want to do something to hold it so that it’s contained with loving kindness. A thought comes in, you don’t try to make it go away, you notice it, you might even bring it in a little bit to see how it manifests, but you’re not holding on. It’s like a cloud, it comes in, and goes.
LD: What is your definition of happiness?
ERK: I think I would say that happiness is the state one is in when one is truly aligned with his or her true nature, there’s a joy and free flowing capacity of the channels and one is truly living within one’s true nature able to be in connection with something greater than themselves, providing something that brings joy to others and then it gets mirrored back.
LD: How would you say meditation relates to happiness, connects to happiness, affects happiness?
ERK: I do think it has huge ramifications for happiness. When I sit down to meditate and if I notice that my breathing is higher up in my chest and my thoughts are a lot thinking and I’m distracted and it’s very hard to bring my attention to my breath, at some point more often now than not, there comes a point where that shifts. And I start to notice that my breath is deeper, and I start to feel myself letting down the shoulders and I can feel a kind of spaciousness opening inside. It’s as though there’s now more room. It is the larger more expansive spacious mind that allows for the sensation of happiness. We walk around with our brows furrowed and this fast pace and we’re holding our shoulders a certain way and we don’t know it. So when we meditate, we let down, and then a smile comes on the face. And one thing I noticed when I meditate, sometimes I put a smile on my face, what I notice is, just putting the smile on my face, it’s like we are supposed to be more in joy, so sometimes acting as if, physiologically it changes and therefore we then, we can change from the outside and then the inside follows. There’s many ways to get to the same destination. So that’s why I think, yes, it has a huge implication, it shows us where we are constricted and we get to work on that, so we can free ourselves because we all want to be free.