When you are mindful, you are fully alive

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.

Distractions 101 – The Smartphone Alarm Clock

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.

Reynolds: Let IT do it

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 Continuous Practice of Right Speech

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.

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Paideia 2014 – Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners

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:

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A Metta Prayer

‘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.

Changing your life with meditation

Most of us come to meditation hoping that it will change our lives. In some cases, we’ve heard about some great contemplative and thought to ourselves, “I’d like to be like that: wise and compassionate.” Others, driven by unhappiness, hope that meditation will relieve them of stress, anxiety, anger, or what you will.

In fact, anyone who has stuck with meditation will say that it has changed their life, but they will usually admit that the changes didn’t appear on any predictable schedule, nor did they arrive in any predictable pattern. Here’s a recent story on the benefits of meditation reported in the Bloomberg Businessweek (“Harvard Yoga Scientists Find Proof of Meditation Benefit”, Nov 23, 2013).

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?”

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.”