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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A Quiet Place, An Open Place

Back in the 1960’s, a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton wrote,

… The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. …

He went on,

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. …

‘Confessions of a Guilty Bystander’ by Thomas Merton

I have spent most of my 58 years being ‘carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns.’ If the internet and email and work haven’t been enough, there has also been my natural desire to be valued by my peers and my unshakeable belief that my ‘value’ is rooted in what I have (and might) accomplish.

Believing that, I get carried away.

Meditation provides an opportunity step away from being ‘carried away’ and from the ‘violence’ that follows it. Through meditation we can experience our lives, experience the ‘multitude of conflicting concerns’ that our minds are always speaking, and reflect on life without acting. A Quiet Place is the blog of a weekly silent meditation group that I started on the Reed College campus in Fall 2012. You can read about meditation here. You can also join us in the Eliot Hall chapel for meditation (our meditation periods are open to all members of the Reed community and their guests – drop-ins are welcome).

Or, you can simply pause wherever you may be … and reflect on the fact that whatever your economic status, nationality, religion, politics, color, gender, or academic interests and attainments, you exist in this moment because there is love in the Universe.

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