A preference for the still and quiet

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, across many cultures, and in every locale. It is only natural then that the principles that have defined meditation have varied with the time and place. Even with a narrowly defined tradition like Japanese zen meditation, large variations in practice have arisen ranging from “just sitting” to focused attention on mental themes (“koans”).

We don’t stipulate a particular meditation practice at Reed. Rather, we simply “sit as quietly as we can,” a description that encompasses stillness in the body and a quiet presence. The main idea here is that a room that is still and quiet is easier for all to share.

And yet we shouldn’t overlook the fact that simply trying to “sit as quietly as we can” creates opportunities for deep exploration. By establishing a preference for the still and quiet, we guarantee that we will come face-to-face with our desire to move, to be busy, to talk and reach out. These are deep-seated desires and we usually respond to them without thinking. However, by sitting as quietly as we can, we can start to examine these desires without having to act on them. By noticing them each time they arise, we can ask, “are these desires real, enduring, or just another mental projection that, given enough time, burns itself out?”

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Leading and Following

“Bring your awareness to your breath. Do not control your breath. Let it happen by itself. If you drift off into thought, bring your awareness back to your breath.”

Instructions like these are routinely offered to beginning meditators and they certainly seem innocent enough. But, oh, the unintended consequences …

Sit. Remember instruction, “place my awareness on my breath.” Breathe in. Ah, there it is! Breathe out. Found it again!

Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out.

Wait, I am ‘controlling’ my breath. I am making it happen. I’ve got to stop that. Oh no! I’m thinking. I’ve lost my breath. What a screwup I am. I’ve got to do better…

And so it goes for 10 or 30 minutes. A simple thing like breathing, something that can’t be done right or wrong (ask any baby), becomes the target of one judgment after another.

Is there any way to relax the judging mind when it comes to breath awareness? Must judging be a part of meditation? Is it possible to re-imagine the instructions so that judging plays a less intrusive role?

One way to reduce the number of judgments we make might be to say we don’t care how we breathe. How we breathe is something that doesn’t need to be judged. The original instructions said, “do not control the breath,” but we can take a different point of view and say that breathing can’t be done incorrectly. Sometimes it may feel like a little intent precedes the breath. Or it may feel like the breath happened by itself. Both are okay.

But what about my inevitable thoughts about the breath? Won’t I be thinking, “that’s intentional” or “that’s natural“? Probably I will. So let’s also try to find more neutral words than controlling, intentional, and natural. (Such words might also be useful for other types of experience where we begin to notice, and then judge, our efforts.)

If I find myself thinking about my breath and it feels like “I” somehow started the breath, I might say, “leading.” On the other hand, if my thoughts seem to arise after the physical experience, I might say “following.” Of course, I may not always think about the breath so I don’t have to seek these words out. They are just there for those times when I find myself connecting thoughts and experiences.

Leading. Following. Simple reminders that thoughts can be part of experience and not judgments of thoughts.

So, a revised set of instructions:

“Become aware of your breath. When you find yourself thinking about your breath, notice if your awareness is leading or following your breath. When your awareness leaves your breath, look for the breath again.”

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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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