Tag Archives: awareness

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.

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

When Things Disappear

Nearly all meditation practices involve a point of focus: the breath, sounds, body sensations, mantras. For me this often means finding that focal point and watching and watching until … I notice that I’m no longer watching. One, perhaps unfortunate, by-product of this approach is it reinforces my sense of “I”. I’m watching. I’m watching. Whoops. I’m not watching any more. I should be watching!

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Why Breathing?

As a rule, mindfulness meditation practice involves 3 steps:

  1. choosing something to be aware of (breath, sounds, touch, feelings)
  2. paying attention to this phenomenon
  3. returning one’s attention to it once we detect that our attention has wandered

The first step, choosing, often strikes people as a bit odd because nearly every set of instructions says, “pay attention to the sensations of breathing.” But why? My breath isn’t that interesting: I do it all the time without thinking about it. Worse, it seems to change whenever I pay close attention to it, and it just doesn’t seem that interesting compared to all of the other things I might focus on. So why pay attention to breathing?

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Meaningful Awareness

My mind during a part of last week’s meditation session:

  • in breath
  • a thought: “one”
  • out breath
  • in breath
  • a thought: “two”
  • a thought: “Hey, I’m doing ok, two breaths! I’m really focused today. Nice.”
  • a thought: “thinking”
  • a thought: “gone”
  • (in breath)
  • a thought: “one”
  • (out breath)

My mind was wandering, just like always, and, each time awareness of this wandering eventually dawned on me, I observed the wandering mind (“thinking”), released it (“…”), and noticed its absence (“gone”). That was the story of my meditation session, but the rest of my day was another story entirely …

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Attentional Reset: The Path Back to Here & Now

There are many types of meditation techniques, but nearly all of them have one instruction in common: when you discover your mind has been wandering, gently pause, observe that you have wandered, and then return to the instructions.

This act of changing direction functions as an attentional reset. It takes only a few moments, but it allows you to reset your focus, your attention, and (at least temporarily) free your mind from one task so that it can take up another.

A 15-minute meditation session might provide over a hundred opportunities for attentional resets, but you don’t need to take a 15-minute break to reset your attention. A few well-timed breaths, a short walk around your building, listening to some music, or almost any focused activity that you can give your undivided attention to, may provide a much needed reset.

I’m discovering that there is fairly large research literature on attentional resets (I’ll just call them “resets”) and I’ll try to share some of that with you. For starters, here is an article, “Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain” (D.J. Levitin, Sunday Review, NY Times, 9 Aug 2014) and two posts from this blog:

2017 Resolutions – Patience & Equanimity

Last night I sat at the dining room table making a list of things that I needed to do today. As I wrote a few items down, new things, some that had been nagging me for days, even weeks, started to crowd around, demanding to be added to my list. So many things to do.

The ultimate To-Do’s, of course, are my New Year’s resolutions. Like everyone else, I tend to treat my life as a Personal Improvement Project. Just a little thinking about the ways I might improve myself in 2017 has unleashed a flood of ideas: eat better, get more exercise, get more sleep, go to bed earlier, pick up the flute I used to play, pay and file bills more regularly, get my finances in order, clean the house regularly, … and I was just getting started.

So, before your New Year resolve flies out the window, here’s a much shorter list of resolutions inspired by a David Nichtern‘s 2011 New Year’s Resolution published in the Huffington Post:

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STOP-ping Power

I’m looking out the window at the busy street that runs in front of my house. It has been covered by snow for the past 48 hours, but now it’s melting and traffic has picked up. A smart driver knows, however, that a small ice patch could be lurking anywhere so it’s important not to follow the driver in front too closely. Your car may lose its “stopping power” if it skids on that patch of ice.

Following an upsetting conversation, or an email thread, or a news feed, too closely presents some of the same problems. Instead of leaving some space around these provocative stimuli, I attend to them closely, vigilant, ready to take offense, already constructing the words that will win a debate or cut an opponent down to size. And then I have my say and craashh! What happened to my “stopping power”?

Meditation is a practice of learning to make space and give ourselves more stopping power. In fact, the word STOP also serves as a handy acronym for a basic meditation practice. Read what Dr. Elisha Goldstein has to say about it here (Mindful.org), and listen to this online lesson. Increasing our stopping power can save us all kinds of heartache.

Silent Illumination – The Method of No-Method

‘Silent illumination’ is a meditation practice from the Zen school of meditation.* The practice is described in ways that often sound impossible and contradictory to the Western ear: just sit, the method of no-method, and so on. So how does one attempt to do something that is ‘not doing’?

Lion’s Roar has published an eminently practical description of silent illumination from Master Sheng-yen [1930-2009], the founder of Dharma Drum Retreat Center (“There is No ‘I’ Who is Sitting,” 1 Sept. 2003). Some bits and pieces from his teaching:

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