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Reed Meditation is ONLINE

This post describes how Tuesday meditation at Reed will carry on through the coronavirus season. We will not meet on campus, but we will stick to our traditional Tuesday schedule and hold weekly meditation sessions ONLINE. You are welcome to join us. Learn more about how to stay connected below. Until then, please take care of yourselves and your households. A small amount of kindness and patience (even towards ourselves) goes a long way. Even a virus can’t keep up.

May 1, 2020 update – If our weekly meeting doesn’t fit your schedule, check out Tricycle magazine’s online meditation calendar with many online sessions to choose from.

Jan 21, 2021 update – Reed meditation has been running online since Spring 2020 and we plan to continue that way for the time being. Here are instructions for joining our online sessions…

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Just Listen

Listening meditation offers another way to be aware and to work with attention. Beyond finding a relatively quiet place to sit or walk, I have almost no control over the sounds that I hear. They arrive. Sometimes from the outside, a bird, a car on the street, a phone ringing. Sometimes from the inside, the whirrrrring in my ears that I might otherwise ignore, a rumble in my gut, or a crack in my joints.

When you listen to sound with awareness, you are just practicing being aware. There’s no need for anything extra. Limiting myself to awareness, along with attention drift, is the hardest part for me. A science podcast once informed me that the brain (mind) processes sounds much more rapidly than it does visual information. Sound is one of our most fundamental and efficient “alarm” systems for protecting ourselves. And once I direct my awareness to my sound environment, I often find myself naming, and sometimes, even looking around for the source of, the sounds that I hear.

There’s no need to do any of that in listening meditation. Just be aware. If you find yourself naming a sound, smiling at a bird’s song, or flinching at a text message alarm, give yourself a pass. Reacting is not what you intended, but it isn’t a mistake either. A silent “thank you” might be just the right soft, kind touch that will let you notice your reaction, which is part of living, and center yourself back in simple awareness.

Here’s a partial set of the instructions for listening meditation that long-time meditation teacher and author, Martine Bachelor offers in her Fall 2010 Tricycle magazine article, “Instructions for listening meditation”. I’ve included only the lines that emphasize awareness, but you can find the missing bits, the “…”, by going to the original article. And if you would like to read more of my posts relating to listening and sounds, click on “sound” in the tag cloud located in the right side bar.

Try to sit stable like a mountain and vast like the ocean.
Listen to the sounds as they occur … just listen with wide-open awareness.

Let the sounds come to you and touch your eardrums.
Go inside the sounds and notice their fluid nature.
If there are no sounds, listen, and rest in this moment of silence.

Just be aware of sounds as they arise and pass away. Open yourself to the music of the world in this moment, in this place.

See if you can learn to move freely between being in silence and with sounds.

– Martine Bachelor, “Instructions for Listening Meditation”, Tricycle, Fall 2010 (abridged)

Self-Care Starts with Self-Compassion

We hear a lot about “self-care” these days. We can see family and friends drift into pandemic-inspired patterns of behavior that make them unhealthy, unhappy. And they see us drifting in the same direction. When I was young, my mother used to repeat to me, “Money can’t buy you health, Alan. You have to take care of yourself.” And now everyone, from the top officials at the college all the way to chemistry students in zoom breakout rooms are talking about “self-care”.

My question here is, what drives us to think “self-care” is needed? Is it the pain in my wrist or neck or eyes from too many hours spent at the computer? (I was already suffering from these things before the pandemic). Or, could it be an emotional pain that I feel, but one that I cannot easily name or describe? Whatever the source of the problem, at a very simple level, “care” begins with noticing suffering and feeling compassion. We see the pain, whatever it’s nature, and this arouses a desire to act.

But if only it were that easy. We are much less likely to notice, admit, or name, the emotional side of our day-to-day experience. This is especially true when the emotions are “negative” feelings of loneliness, disappointment, sadness, anxiety, fear, arrogance, jealousy, or anger. I will quickly start to rub a sore wrist or neck. But am I equally willing to face my fear over what the future will bring, or my regret over some past failure?

Because we are more likely to notice negative feelings in others than in ourselves, a natural way to begin our inquiry is to ask, “How do I respond when I encounter these emotions in others? Do I pull away from them or do I approach them?” If the person who is experiencing trouble is someone that I feel close to, I’m more likely to stay by their side. I care for them. My compassion is naturally aroused. I tell them, “I’m here for you. Tell me about it.”

While there is a natural tendency to treat ourselves different, to reject/deny/avoid painful feelings, the example of how we treat our friends recommends another approach. My feelings are not a failing. They are a call to my best friend (myself) to feel compassion for me. In this case, self-compassion. Please, dear friend (that’s me), come closer to my suffering. Dear friend, I know you won’t try to judge me or fix me. I can count on you to stay by my side and join me in my inquiry, to let me know that I am being seen and heard. Let us share this awareness of each moment together, whether it is suffering, or just our breath, or the world around us. Whatever comes, please stay with me.

The Buddhist teacher and author, Bodhipaksa, writes about the importance of self-compassion and the process of self-inquiry in “Loving Pain”, Tricycle magazine, 5 March 2020. Here is very brief excerpt:

Something that can help us to practice acceptance of our pain is to recognize that our feelings are only ever pleasant or unpleasant, and never right or wrong. … Feelings are non-volitional and ethically neutral; they are not choices we make and so they don’t have any moral significance. … You need not be ashamed of any feeling you experience. You feel what you feel. Simply accepting this is in itself a profound act of self-compassion.

We may need to offer ourselves reassurance as we turn toward painful feelings. We can say things like, “It’s alright to feel pain. It’s OK to feel this. Let me feel this.” This encouragement helps us build up our confidence, and it also takes up some of the mental bandwidth that might otherwise be occupied by reactive thinking. Turning toward our pain gets easier with practice. Gradually, we become less afraid of our discomfort.

excerpted from “This Difficult Thing of Being Human: The Art of Self-Compassion” by Bodhipaksa, Parallax Press, 2019.

FYI, Bodhipaksa also has a wonderfully informative and detailed website, Wildmind. Check it out. And take good care of yourself. As my wise, dear mother once taught me, “Money can’t buy you health.” Make sure your labors are keeping you healthy.

March is Meditation Month (2021 version)

Tomorrow is March 1, the start of Tricycle magazine’s annual “March is Meditation Month” campaign. This year’s teacher is Guo Gu, a leading Chan Buddhist teacher and author. The focus of this year’s campaign, in addition to helping you start/strengthen/deepen your practice of meditation is “silent illumination”. (For a quick peek, check out One Minute Chan at Guo Gu’s webpage.)

For those who missed my posts on Meditation Month 2019, the last campaign that I had covered, the month is the time when Tricycle offers a load of free resources to participants. These include:

  • weekly guided meditation videos led by Guo Gu + 2 live Q&A calls with the teacher
  • plenty of free readings from the magazine to encourage you
  • and a two online groups you can connect to, one on Facebook, and another connected to a free meditation app, Insight Timer

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I’m too busy” and/or “It doesn’t work for me. I guess I can’t do it”, then this is where you will find a smiling nod of recognition, a gentle pat on the shoulder, and a helping hand, because … … … we have all been there. (And from time to time, I confess, the ‘no time, no success, not me’ mantra runs into my head and stands in front of me accusingly with its hands on its hips.)

We still can’t sit in the Chapel like we used to, but we can still sit. Have a good month. Let me know if I can help in some way. -Alan

Practical Advice

In times like these, well-intended advice seems to be everywhere. Really, it can be too much. So what I’m about to share is very narrow. A few practical tips on meditation recently fell into my inbox and they are so appealing, I just had to pass them on.

The tips appeared in a short 2008 Tricycle magazine article, and they come from Sayadaw U Tejaniya, Buddhist monk, teacher, and author of Don’t Look Down on the Defilements. Tejaniya has written several books and many of them are available for free download in multiple languages and also in audio. I just downloaded one to see what it is like and I encourage you to look at his book list and see if there’s something that might appeal to you.

Here’s the advice he offered in the Tricycle article, slightly condensed by me for a busy College audience. When meditating…

  1. Settle your body, and your mind, into a comfortable position.
  2. Patiently watch your experience unfold.
  3. There is nothing to control, nothing to achieve. Experience what is happening.
  4. If you choose an “object of attention” (breath, sound, touch, etc.) to focus on, the choice is not so important. Choose something, if you like. Then give it your attention.
  5. Accept that some experiences may be good and others not so much. This can’t be avoided.
  6. Thinking is part of experience. Recognize and acknowledge the thinking that occurs.
  7. Attend to the present moment. Thoughts about the past and future will arise. When you observe these, notice them as thoughts that are occurring now and return your attention to the present moment.

Reed College bonus tip: Meditators do not get graded. There are no report cards. So, if you are just starting out on this journey, let go of your concerns and expectations as best you can and set your bar LOW. You might fantasize about monks sitting in caves devoting almost every waking hour to silent meditation in order to pierce the mysteries of existence, but that is mostly a Hollywood fantasy. “Attending to the present moment” is something that you can do almost anywhere, any time, and even a little quiet time snatched from an otherwise busy life will produce benefits that you can appreciate.

Online Meditation Goes Global

Reed meditation went online just over a month ago. We were far from alone. Tricycle magazine has compiled a list of online meditation sessions that span the continent and even the globe. So whatever time zone you are in, there’s a chance to join together with others in silent and/or guided meditation, paying attention to what is, what connects, noticing the thoughts that sometimes seem to say we are separate, and coming back what is.

The Tricycle online meditation list is super-easy to use. It’s basically a rolling calendar with times, time zones (pay attention, y’all), sponsors, and web links. I just read through the upcoming sessions for today (Sunday, May 3) and tomorrow and I found dozens of opportunities. Here’s a very small sample…

Prefer to meditate with other Oregonians? Check out the Zen Community of Oregon and the Portland Insight Meditation Community. Want to share your attention to the present moment with practitioners at well-known western centers of Buddhist practice? Check out the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Bodhi College, and Nyingma Institute. How about centers of higher education? Mindfulness Center at Brown. Or, skip the Buddhism altogether and lower your stress level with the founder of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), Jon Kabat-Zinn. See all this and more at the Tricycle online meditation list (I’ve also added a link to this list on our Sit Now page).

So why are you doing something? Just sit! We are in this together.

Finding ‘One Square Inch of Silence’

If you’re sharing an apartment, a house, or even a neighborhood with other stay-at-homes, finding a quiet, private spot for meditation can be a challenge. Author and sound recording specialist Gordon Hempton has identified a spot in the Hoh Rainforest of the Olympic National Park as the “quietest place in the United States.” None of us will be visiting this spot any time soon, but you can hear what 15 minutes of nature, completely free of human-generated audio interference, sounds like by visiting https://onesquareinch.org/ and clicking on the audio bar at the bottom of the page.

I took a listen this morning and thought, “what a perfect background for a meditation session.” How would that work? First, there’s nothing to do. You just play the audio as you sit. If you like, you can “anchor” on your breath, or on the sounds, or whatever. If labels and thoughts appear, notice that and return to your anchor, just paying attention. After a few sessions, you’ll probably stop labeling the sounds and just notice that sound is occurring. Practice tip: If you need some help tuning out the noises from your immediate surroundings, try wearing headphones as you meditate.

For even more info on Gordon Hempton and the One Square Inch of Silence project, also check out this Wikipedia entry or Hempton’s book. I have added a link to the One Square Inch audio to our Sit Now page.

Early March 2020 practice – Still early days

The news is filled with stories about The Virus. It is truly no laughing matter, and the most appropriate response will vary from one day to the next, and even from one person to the next (fyi – I’m a male over 60 and which places me in a higher risk group).

For now, however, the risk of infection for nearly all Oregonians is still estimated to be quite low. But now’s the time to prepare. Practice your hygiene. Wash your hands. Familiarize yourself with the experts’ recommendations and learn where to go for more information.

As it happens, the opportunity for close contact with anyone during our meditation period is extremely low. The Reed Chapel is extremely large and we are very few in number (space yourselves as you think best). Until the College tells me otherwise, we will continue to host our weekly meditation periods.

But why meditate at a time like this? Because maybe there is no better time than this. Meditation provides an opportunity to spot our knee-jerk reactions, whatever they might be, and see them for what they are. A habitual grasping after, or a turning away from, the things that we hope will keep life the way we want it.

So I encourage you to make some time to sit. Sit, notice, pause, and then see. Aha! That is what is going on! A thought. A mind bubble that might pop as fast as it forms. Once we see our knee-jerk reaction, we have already expanded our horizon, already loosened the hold (at least a little) of whatever had grabbed us. We can, if we choose to, anchor our awareness once again in whatever we had originally intended: the breath, a touch, the sound of the world, ….

This is something we must repeat over and over again. Recognizing habitual reactions before we get swept away by them is a practice, a cultivation. The act of recognition can make itself felt immediately, but that recognition and the freedom it provides, can vanish just as quickly with the next thought, the next jerk of the knee.

This season’s emergency is a virus. What emergency will the next season bring? We are always vulnerable to the emergency of the moment. (Notice that “emergency” contains the word “emerge”?) New things are always emerging to grab our attention. The importance of mindfulness practice never disappears. Nor does the beauty of those practice moments when we find ourselves sitting in peace, undisturbed, and realize that there is a choice in the paths our lives can take.

All thoughts are thoughts, but all thoughts are not equal.

Wishing all of you happiness and good health, and especially, peace. – Alan, 8 Mar 2020

Mindfulness in the Schoolyard

Life can be touch on kids, and kids can be tough on each other. A recent NPR Morning Edition story (20 Feb, 2020) brought this point home as it described how mindfulness practices are being used to help schoolchildren attending a high-needs elementary school in Nashville, TN. (Mindfulness Transforms Culture at High-Needs Elementary School)

The stage for the story is set when a 4th grader appears at the mindfulness room in the elementary school that has been set up by the school’s designated mindfulness teacher. The boy has come to the room because he is feeling worked up by a physical confrontation he had just had with another student who had bullied him in art class. Together, the student and the teacher go over the events. The teacher provides emotional support and assurance for the boy, and also leads him through some breathing exercises that loosen the “fight or flight” feelings that had gripped the boy. Ultimately, the boy is able return to class feeling calmer and with greater confidence in his personal safety.

Situations that generate some degree of “fight or flight” are not unique to elementary schools. “Stage fright” is not just a problem for those in the theater. Speaking out in conference, working with an unfamiliar apparatus in lab, knocking on a professor’s door to initiate a conversation, these are all known stressors for college students, and some type of mindfulness practice might be used to reduce these stresses.

Two other features of the NPR story also deserve mention. Mindfulness can be beneficial, but it shouldn’t be treated as a band-aid. When the sources of stress are systemic in nature – poverty, implicit bias, and so on – we should also be looking at how to change the system so that the sources of stress are reduced. In addition, mindfulness practice, like other healthy habits, needs to be normalized. It isn’t something that someone else does when they are struggling. It is something we, teachers as well as students, can all practice so that the tools are available to us whenever they are needed.

Stressors: Perfection & Other Impossible Expectations

As colleges and universities across the country report an explosion of mental health problems, a new book argues that college life may be more stressful than ever. Dr. Anthony Rostain, co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives, notes that today’s college students are experiencing an “inordinate amount of anxiety” — much of it centered on “surviving college and doing well.”

introduction to NPR’s Fresh Air interview with the book’s authors, 28 May 2019

College has always been stressful. I can recall my own first days of college, and I have also spent the past four decades observing what incoming (and returning) students go through year after year. And, to best of my recollection, much of that stress has derived from our wish to not only survive the experience, but to also handle every academic and social challenge perfectly.

Life can be very fine in so many ways, but it is never, never perfect. The image we try to measure ourselves against is ill-conceived (define an all-encompassing ‘perfect life’ for me).

Understanding the impossible nature of perfection is not an excuse for turning our backs on effort, on goals, and on life. But to see the images of perfection as they arise in our minds and to set them aside, and to likewise see the self-judgments arise that we are somehow defective or lacking and to set them aside as well, this is the opportunity that a meditation practice can offer.

The interview is worth listening to. The sources of stress that college students routinely deal with go far beyond what I have mentioned here, and from my observations, they seem endemic in society as a whole. We must help each other heal.