Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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 31 update – The spring semester is officially over, but meditation will continue right through the summer and you are welcome to join us on any Tuesday. Instructions for joining us online follow…

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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.

A Quiet Place, An Open Place (reposted)

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

Douglas Steere remarks very perceptively that there is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. 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.

from ‘Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander’ by Thomas Merton*

I have spent most of my 60+ 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 my accomplishments, real and imagined.

Believing that, I get carried away.

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Zen Meditation Instructions for Your Wall

Here’s a bit of meditation artwork that you might appreciate (my friend, Bill, pointed this out to me on the Facebook page of the Upaya Institute & Zen Center, Santa Fe, NM). I can picture this poster hanging on a wall in that special room that we go to for quiet and stillness.

The instructions may look like a lot to remember, but I think its okay to start simply. Just notice 3 stages:

  • entering – settle body, recall our intent
  • attention to experience
  • release

In my experience, the transitions are the easiest part to overlook. It has not been unusual for me to ring the bell in the chapel and watch two minutes of thinking about my work day flash past before the thought lands, “what am I doing here?” It’s at that point that my practice actually feels like it begins. I have also found that watching the transition from stilled attention back into life’s activities provides an important close to each practice period.

Wishing you a peaceful life and practice.

Hello, soap! Hello, water!

Last week I found myself doing what I have done nearly every morning for the past six decades: taking a shower. The routine of the shower, what to do, where to stand, which way to turn, are all so familiar to me. I shower on autopilot, almost without any thought at all.

But then, as I almost always do, I began thinking. The voice inside my head powered up. The shower quickly vanished. I found myself getting keyed up for the day ahead, my inner voice rehearsing a conversation that has never, will never, go the way I want, trying to score the points that only I can imagine will bring me comfort and satisfaction.

And then something strange happened. Partway through my inner speech, I caught myself. As I began the next round of scrubbing, I picked up the soap and silently greeted it. “Hello, soap!” My eloquent, impassioned diatribe against the injustices in my life was gone.

I felt the water raining down on me and greeted it too. “Hello, water!” I felt transformed. Back in the shower. With everything I needed in that moment. And a feeling of gratitude for the simple joys of a too-often taken-for-granted morning shower.

Earth Day 2019

Today is Earth Day, a day in which we might reflect on our relationship, past, present, and likely into the future, with all that surrounds us. Have we treated the Earth well? What, if anything, must we do to guarantee that the essential systems of air, water, minerals, plants, animals, microorganisms, sunlight, tidal flows, and so on, will be intact for our children and our children’s children so that they can lead the lives we wish for them?

These are big questions, and like any big question, they really wrap many questions together. We are living beings whose evolution has been shaped by forces both microscopic and cosmic, and questions arise on every scale…

  • Every cell in our bodies contains molecules – sugars, fats, proteins, nuclei acids – constructed from carbon atoms. These atoms were produced by the explosion of a long dead star. How do we guarantee the chemical integrity of our bodies, and minimize the risk of exposure to chemical pollutants and toxins?
  • Our cells, our bodies, are filled with fresh water. The food we eat also requires fresh water, but this water is an increasingly scarce commodity. In a warming world of melting ice, how do we guarantee that adequate fresh water will exist to support the world’s population?
  • For every cell in our body, there are roughly 10 bacteria. While bacteria were once scorned as predatory invaders, we now recognize that many of them provide essential services – food digestion, protection from invasion by pathogens, and so on – that sustain our lives. How do we understand coexistence with the life forms around us? Do we see a “them” that competes with us, or do we see a world of connection and interdependence?

And so on, and so on. We are makers of our environment, but we are also crucially dependent on many natural systems in our environment for food, water, shelter, light, warmth, and more. We re-make these systems only at our own peril.

Meditation can bring us into a deeper appreciation of nature, a direct sense, if you will, of what nature looks, sounds, smells, and feels like. Mark Coleman, mindfulness teacher, wilderness guide, and author of A Breath of Fresh Air (Tricycle, 2005), describes 7 different meditative experiences one can practice, whether in the woods of Forest Park or in front of a window plant at home. Additional guided meditations can be found at his web site.

For more on nature and meditation, click the word nature in this web site’s word cloud.

Instructions for a DIY Mini-Home Retreat

My friends in the Portland meditation community always seem to be talking about meditation retreats. It seems like every few months one of them is headed off to the mountains, to the San Juans, to the beach, a spot in the country, spending the better part of 24 hours to 7 days with others in silence.

I haven’t done this myself, but it always raises questions for me. How would I fit something like this into my schedule? What special things does a long period of stillness offer? Should this be part of my path?

If you are asking yourself these questions, check out How to Create a Mini-Retreat at Home (Trike Daily, 19 Mar 2019) by Chris McKenna. This article was originally published under the title, Getting Real About Exhaustion (Inquiring Mind, Fall 2013), and the emphasis on mini-retreat-as-restoration-of-body-&-spirit comes across very strongly.

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