“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.
Robin recently pointed me to Lloyd Reynold’s Perennial Pedagogy. It’s a great list to have in front of you whether you are trying your hand at calligraphy, meditating, or just surfing the web.
You can see the full list courtesy of Switchboard, but here are some of my favorites of the moment: #9 Let IT do it. #10 Work for the work’s sake. #2 Concentrate. #5 Take it easy.
The practice of meditation, just like every other activity, can lend itself to dualistic thinking. After practicing for some time we may start to imagine that our life is divided between the ‘spiritual time’ that we spend sitting still in meditation and the ‘mundane time’ during which we accomplish the daily business of living.
This kind of thinking is misguided. Not only does it encourage us to value some moments over others, this kind of thinking suggests that a ‘spiritual’ quality like attentiveness is only available during meditation. This is incorrect. Attentiveness and other ‘spiritual’ qualities can permeate our lives.
Yesterday about 20 students and I gathered in the chapel for a Paideia class: Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners. It was so wonderful to see so many and to spend time together! I had expected maybe five people to show up, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the room had been empty, so seeing 20 faces and listening to their questions and comments was a real treat.
Meditation, it must be said, is not a complicated skill, and it doesn’t require expert knowledge, so there wasn’t much for me to teach. But, like everything else one does, we start doing it, and then our minds get involved, and before we know it, we question whether we are doing it right or not. So, for anyone who missed our class, or who would like a quick review, here are some of the key points that were touched on:
‘Metta’ is a word in the Pali language that has been translated variously as boundless friendliness, general benevolence or goodwill, and even loving kindness (the last one is probably the most common phrase on the web, but I have seen scholars grind their teeth over this rendering).
Metta, however you translate it, is associated with a type of meditation practice in which one silently recites a set of phrases that are designed to open the heart and cultivate a friendly attitude towards oneself and towards others. The phrases can be very simple and can be recited anywhere (for example, when waiting for the bus).
The Metta Institute offers this simple list of phrases along with a basic set of written instructions:
- May I be happy
- May I be well
- May I be safe
- May I be peaceful and at ease
The phrases can also be reworked according to one’s muse. Here is a portion of “Maylie’s Metta Prayer” (quoted by Robert Meikyo Rosenbaum in “Walking the Way”):
- May I be at ease in my body, feeling the ground beneath my seat and feet …
- May I be attentive and gentle toward my own discomfort and suffering …
- May I be attentive and grateful for my own joy and well-being …
- May I move towards others freely and with openness …
- May I receive others with sympathy and understanding …
Remembering the phrases and the instructions can be taxing at first so I found it helpful to start out by listening to audio instructions while I meditated in this way. Here’s a 27-minute audio session with well-known Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg.
The nice people at Kannon Do Zen Meditation Center (Facebook) in Mountain View, California have made a short video about ‘zazen’ (literally, ‘seated meditation’) and placed it on YouTube. You can enjoy these 9 minutes of peaceful tranquility here.
Note: facing a blank wall during zazen is a very common practice, but some zen groups sit in other patterns.