Where do we sit when we meditate? By this I don’t mean, do we sit on a cushion or on a chair? I don’t even mean, do we sit in our bedroom or under a tree?
What I am asking is simply this: where do our minds sit? Are the thoughts that ‘run round our heads’ the thoughts of our work, of our relationships, our dreams, our concerns? Noticing this, and seeing that these are just thoughts, just one aspect of experience that comes and goes, is the heart of sitting.
Here’s an A.A. Milne poem that talks about this (illustration by Ernest H. Shepard):
Halfway down the stairs
Is a stair
Where I sit.
There isn’t any
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
So this is the stair
Halfway up the stairs
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head;
“It isn’t really
It’s somewhere else
image from http://www.thelovelys.com/poetry-milne-800.htm
I admit it, when a sentence begins with “studies show …” I get hooked every time. I read right to the end. What did the study show? Do I believe the results? Hey, who am I to judge? Why do I even care? Hmmm.
Here are links to two recent studies on the effects of meditation, one that addresses the extremely serious problem of depression, and the other, well, you make up your own mind how serious this is.
Study Suggests Meditation May Lead To Relief From Depression, Pain (posted January 7, 2014). “A new study from Johns Hopkins University suggests that mindfulness meditation can improve anxiety and depression along with reducing pain. The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, included 47 different trials involving 3,515 different people. Results showed that the meditation had small but positive effects on pain, anxiety and depression.” read more
You Are Not Your Chocolate Cravings (posted March 22, 2014). “A new study by Canadian researchers says that mindfulness can reduce chocolate cravings. Lead study author Julien Lacaille, a psychologist at McGill University in Quebec, told Reuters that practicing mindfulness meditation, which emphasizes identifying and distancing oneself from certain thoughts — without judging them — weakened chocolate cravings among people with a self-declared sweet tooth.” read more
I will be away from campus next Wednesday (March 19) so I cannot join you in the chapel. I will return on March 26. -Alan
Two views of meditation run through my mind: a practice for getting somewhere and a practice that treasures where I already am. Maybe these aren’t so different? Pearls Before Swine (Mar 13, 2014) has a very practical take on this dilemma.
You do not need to leave your room.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
Do not even listen.
Do not even wait.
Be quiet, still and solitary.
The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked.
It has no choice.
It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
– Franz Kafka
The world is already here. Can you open your heart to it?
“I have a problem with my sitting. When I sit, I get relaxed, but when I get relaxed, I fall asleep.” “Then sleep!”
This exchange took place between me and my zen teacher a few years ago. Sleepiness and naps continue to be frequent companions during my sitting meditation. Sometimes this annoys me, but mostly I’ve accepted that sleepiness is not a problem. It’s a welcome part of life, especially as the semester escalates.
Robin and I have been discussing sleep, why it seems to come when we don’t expect or want it, e.g., during the noon meditation, and why it dodges us when we most desire it, say, at 4 AM. She also came across this lovely blog post on using meditation techniques to fall asleep.
The thought, “I must stay awake, I must not fall asleep,” is just a thought. Something to notice, but not something we have to believe in or punish ourselves for. And sleeping, like breathing or sitting, is just another part of life, and not something to punish ourselves for either.
Don’t worry about falling asleep during our weekly sessions. No one has slept through the ringing of our meditation bells yet.
What is the source of happiness? What role can meditation play? How should a meditator practice in order to increase attentiveness, understanding, and happiness?
According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, abbot of the (Theravadan) Metta Forest Monastery, outside of San Diego, California, we need to learn that in many ways, “less is more.” For example, when practicing meditation, he writes:
…start with something immediately present and really obvious—like the breath. Just be with the breath as it comes in; be with the breath as it goes out. Part of the mind will complain that there’s not much happening, but the more space you give to the breath, the more you see what’s there. In other words, you don’t want to clutter up your mind with other thoughts. You have to realize in this case that less is more. The fewer things you’re thinking about, the more you’ll see right here, right now.
Read Thanissaro Bikkhu’s full essay, “Less is more,” over at the Tricycle blog (Feb. 15).
There is an interesting aspect of meditating on sound that everyone should look into deeply: we cannot control sounds when we meditate. All we can do is attend to them as they come and go.
Gordon Hempton has been paying close attention to sounds for the past 30 years. He calls himself an ‘auditory ecologist’ (try to figure that one out if you can) and the Sound Tracker. He is the founder of The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation and has circled the globe three times in an effort to record natural sounds that have not become contaminated by ‘noise.’
Here is what he said about the importance of quiet places and listening in an interview for On Being:
Animals must listen to survive. But here in our modern world, we’ve kind of forgotten that. But if we were to go to a quiet place, sit down in the Hoh Rain Forest, for example, and simply be alone in the silence of nature, that deep ability to listen occurs.
This interview contains a number of nature sounds recordings, but you can also read the transcript here.
The following comes from an interview with Vietnamese Zen monk, peace worker, and author Thich Nhat Hanh. You can listen to the full interview at On Being (or read a transcript).
Mindfulness is a part of living. When you are mindful, you are fully alive, you are fully present. You can get in touch with the wonders of life that can nourish you and heal you. And you are stronger, you are more solid in order to handle the suffering inside of you and around you. When you are mindful, you can recognize, embrace and handle the pain, the sorrow in you and around you to bring you relief. And if you continue with concentration and insight, you’ll be able to transform the suffering inside and help transform the suffering around you.
The following appeared two days ago in the Bits section of the NY Times (“Disruptions: For a Restful Night, Make Your Smartphone Sleep on the Couch”):
We’ve all been there. You wake up in the middle of the night and grab your smartphone to check the time — it’s 3 a.m. — and see an alert. Before you know it, you fall down a rabbit hole of email and Twitter. Sleep? Forget it.
The problem? Distraction. The exact opposite of awareness.
There must be a gazillion neural circuits in our brains waiting to spin out thoughts, issue orders, competing with each other for our attention. It doesn’t matter if you are piloting a supersonic jet interceptor or just checking what time it is, the thoughts come out: boom, boom, boom. Your first thought may have been, “what time is it?” but who can say what the next thought will be or the one after that? You’re distracted.
I was talking about distraction recently with a student and I mentioned that it was possible to train yourself to notice when you were losing focus, when you were engaged in a secondary behavior. He said, “What! How?” I replied, “Meditation.”
Try it. I can’t tell you how long it will take to bring results, but I can practically guarantee that it will change the way you think.