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’ 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:
The Shambhala Mountain Center is convening top researchers and meditation teachers this week (Oct. 19-23) for a free, online summit on The Science of Meditation. Follow the link to learn more and register. Remember, it’s online and free!
Update: I just registered (takes 2 sec) and learned that some (maybe all?) of the materials will be available after the ‘live’ sessions so you don’t have to worry about being in the right time zone, or work-summit conflicts.
I think it was a spring day in San Francisco. My wife was attending a chemistry workshop downtown and I was out for a stroll. I dropped down into the basement of City Lights Books (why had I waited so long?), and a small book, one that wouldn’t weigh me down, called out, “Take me home. I have something to tell you.” The book was The Miracle of Mindfulness by author, Zen master, peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. The book was small, but the heart that wrote it was as big as the universe. This is where my practice began.
Thich Nhat Hanh turns 90 this month and Lion’s Roar has republished three of his essays. Enjoy them. May they help you in your life.
The conversations we have around meditation and related topics are always rewarding. Robin sent a short (very short) article my way: How to Be Mindful With a Cup of Coffee (Well | Mind, NY Times, 14 Sept 2016). In our go-grab-and-go culture can we slow down long enough to sip once with awareness? Maybe two sips? (No one is keeping score.) Part of the pleasure of a favorite drink surely is noticing what we’re drinking.
We all know the phrase, “lost in thought.” Expressed this way “thought” sounds like a place we visit, and a place we might leave whenever we choose. But how do we do that? What bus or train can take us away from our thoughts?
One answer might seem counterintuitive: pay attention to your thoughts. According to Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (“The Aim of Attention,” Tricycle, Summer 2009), when you pay attention, that is, you become aware of your thoughts as thoughts, space naturally opens up around them and you are no longer “lost” inside them.
Awareness comes naturally to you. It is always available. By practicing attention meditation, sitting still and doing nothing more than just paying attention to the rising and falling of thoughts, emotions, body sensations, you learn to access awareness more easily and bring stability to your awareness. As you do this, the space around your thoughts will increase and stabilize as well.
“Silence, Please” is one of the most popular themes used by VisitFinland.com to attract tourists. It seems some people crave silence. But what is silence? Is it just the absence of sound? Or is it something tangible in its own right? It turns out teams of scientists have been trying to address this question in the ways that scientists often do: they have looked at patterns of brain activity to determine how brains differentiate silence from louder alternatives. “This is Your Brain on Silence” by Daniel Gross (Nautilus, 7 July 2016) reports on some of this research. Be prepared for surprises.
The earth is slowly waking. Crocuses are stretching towards the sky. The first daffodils have appeared. The scent of winter daphne hovers in the air between Eliot and the lawn. It’s time to get outside again. No more hibernating in my Office Cave.
But what is this urge to go outside, to get back into nature? Is it just a habit or is there something more at work?
It’s a fact: not everyone is willing to sit down, much less sit still. But there are other ways to cultivate mindfulness. Attending to how you walk, listen, watch, wash the dishes, even brush your teeth, may provide you with all the opportunities. Here are some interesting links on this topic that Robin recently sent my way: