Serious business

“Spiritual quests are serious business.”

That, my friends, is just another thought. If we can’t laugh at our meditation efforts, then we are, in effect, taking the position that a genuine look at life requires us to cut ourselves off from life, at least the parts that contain laughter and ridicule.

Can this possibly be true? Life is laughter. Life is serious. And life is sublimely ridiculous.

Get Fuzzy, Nov 26, 2013

See the full panel at Get Fuzzy (Nov 26, 2013) on GoComics.

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Simply be

Robin sent this comment, “Over the weekend I rediscovered a relaxation/meditation app on my phone and did a 10-minute session guided by the voice (with choice of nature sounds in the background!). It was pretty basic, but one turn of phrase that caught me was ‘Let go of any trying, simply be.'”


(FYI Robin tells me that the app is called ‘Simply Being’ and is available on iTunes)

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A sound practice

Tricycle magazine sends me a daily email. Today’s message contained this wonderful suggestion,

“One specific method for practicing mindfulness of body sensations is to focus your attention on sounds. Sounds, like everything else, arise and pass away. Just by listening, you can experience the insight of impermanence…”

The author of these words was Sylvia Boorstein, a longtime meditation teacher/author in the Bay area. Her instructions for being attentive to sounds, which first appeared in Tricycle, Fall 1999, go like this,

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Training a puppy

“A Path with Heart” by well-known meditation teacher and author, Jack Kornfield, was one of my first meditation guides. Here is an excerpt on patience and gentleness (from Ch. 5, “Training the Puppy”):

Meditation is very much like training a puppy. Put the puppy down and say, “Stay.” Does the puppy listen? It gets up and it runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. “Stay.” And the puppy runs away over and over again. Sometimes the puppy jumps up, runs over, and pees in the corner or makes some other mess. Our minds are much the same as the puppy, only they create even bigger messes. In training the mind, or the puppy, we have to start over and over again.

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Rain, the Snow, and Moon

When I sit down to meditate I usually can’t help thinking “now I will do this, now I will try that.” These thoughts are usually followed by, “wow, this is working so well” or more often by, “will I ever get the hang of this?”

The busy mind that guides me through my day, the “do this, cross that off, and don’t forget to…” mind that helped me become a chemistry teacher is the same mind that sits with me during meditation. It is geared to accomplishments, reaching goals, solving problems, and perfecting the world’s flaws.

What I like about meditation, though, is the chance to do nothing and just observe. To see what my mind produces without actually trying to fix anything. To that busy, curious mind I say, “Thanks for the advice. And the warnings. What a good friend you are.” I smile. I sit.

Here’s a poem in this spirit from Ikkyū (1394-1481), a Japanese Zen priest and notorious rascal. ‘Law’ and ‘sutras’ refers to Buddhist rules of conduct, stories, and teachings.

Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain,
the snow and moon.

– in Tricycle magazine, Fall 2013

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There is space around every thought

I came across a lovely meditation instruction from Ajahn Sumedho (“Noticing Space” Tricycle Fall 95). Enjoy.

In the mind, we can see that there are thoughts and emotions—the mental conditions that arise and cease. Usually, we are dazzled, repelled, or bound by these thoughts and emotions. We go from one thing to another, reacting, controlling, manipulating, or trying to get rid of them. So we never have any perspective in our lives. We become obsessed with either repressing or indulging in these mental conditions; we are caught in these two extremes.

With meditation, we have the opportunity to contemplate the mind. The silence of the mind is like the space in a room. Take the simple sentence “I am” and begin to notice, contemplate, and reflect on the space around those two words. Rather than looking for something else, sustain attention on the space around the words. Look at thinking itself, really examine and investigate it.

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Meditation is useless! But it has its benefits …

Zen teachers have always maintained an uncompromising view on the uselessness of sitting meditation (zazen). Here are two of them, Normal Fischer (1946- ) and Hui-neng (638-713), separated by 1200 years of practice and yet still arriving at pretty much the same conclusion:

“Zazen [sitting meditation] is fundamentally a useless and pointless activity. … You just do it because you do it.” from A Coin Lost in the River is Found in the River, N. Fischer

“To concentrate the mind on quietness is a disease of the mind, and not Zen at all. What an idea, restricting the body to sitting all the time! That is useless. …” quoted from Zen and Zen Classics, Volume 2, Chapter 3, R.H. Blyth at Understand Zen blog

But there’s a flip side to everything. Early last month, Robin sent me a link to the Work Smart | Fast Company web site. A nice article there, “From OM to OMG: Science, Your Brain, and the Productive Powers of Meditation” by B. Cooper, described several scientifically-established benefits of regular meditation: better focus, less anxiety, more creativity, more compassion, better memory, less stress, and more gray matter. The article also gave several tips on how to establish a regular meditation practice.

So … who’s right about meditation? Useless? Beneficial?

Why not drop by our silent meditation period at Eliot chapel some Wednesday and tell me what you think?

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The ‘dark side’ of meditation?

There’s been a long-running debate over the nature of meditation. Is it a religious practice? Is it a therapeutic practice? Is it a way to withdraw from the world? Is it a way to engage with the world? I’ll write more about these questions in the future, but the issue has popped up again in the national media in the wake of the tragic shootings at the Naval Yard in Washington, DC, last Monday. The suspected gunman, Aaron Alexis, was said to have been a regular practitioner of meditation (“Aaron Alexis and the Dark Side of Meditation”, Time magazine, Sept 17, 2013) . If that was so, then it shows the danger in believing that meditation is a simple self-help cure-all. Perhaps the end of the article says it best, “While it’s impossible to know what role, if any, meditation played in Alexis’ mental states, it’s clear that most therapies and practices that are powerful enough to have positive effects are also capable of doing harm when used in the wrong way and in the wrong people.”

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Rest, sleep, play? Bah, I’m a Reedie!

We’re two weeks into the term and I’ve been overwhelmed more than once by how much there is on my to-do list. Other faculty, staff, students are telling me the same is true for them. And then there’s the stress…

Meditation isn’t ‘one more thing to do’. It’s about stopping for a moment and see what is already happening.

Rest, sleep, play don’t appear on our to-do lists either, but they are just as essential. Here’s what NY Times health columnist, Jane Brody, wrote back on June 17, 2013 in “Cheating Ourselves of Sleep”:

Think you do just fine on five or six hours of shut-eye? Chances are, you are among the many millions who unwittingly shortchange themselves on sleep.

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The Busy Girl’s Guide to Meditation

Meditation takes many forms. Robin sent along this Refinery29 post describing a variety of techniques that a busy girl (or guy) might try:

“The first rule of meditation club is that there are no rules in meditation club. You can practice these steps anywhere that is comfortable for you — your bed, your cubicle, the subway. Meditation is all about accepting yourself, be proud that you are taking the steps necessary to become a healthier person and cut yourself some slack, jack. Engaging your senses in a positive way will help you to relax, so light a candle or incense that you connect with and play some calming music. Don’t burn down your office while blasting Enya and tell your boss it was my idea. Save the scents for home and keep earphones handy. Kerry introduced me to Krishna Das (the Bruce Springsteen of chanting), and I listen to him when I meditate on the subway.”

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