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:
“Breathe. Exhale. Repeat.” is the title of a popular article (NY Times, 9 Nov 2016) on the how-to, and benefits of, controlled breathing. As the article puts it, “Controlled breathing … has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost your immune system. … It’s meditation for people who can’t meditate.”
The election polls closed less than 24 hours ago, and as elections often do, they unleashed a tsunami of emotions: fear, anger, vindication, triumph. I wish I could have escaped, but I was swept away just like everyone else. The current still feels pretty strong, but I’ve also done myself a favor by taking some time to sit still and ask myself, “what is all this really?”
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.
You probably know that I’m a big fan of walking meditation. Walking was the ‘gate’ that I had to pass through before I could manage to sit. I bought a CD of walking meditation instructions (“gently lift your left foot…”) and I practiced only silent walking for weeks.
I still practice walking meditation regularly. The steady movement, the changing visual background, the sounds of the outdoors (I practice on sidewalks and in parks), help me bring awareness to all facets of my life. So I was pretty excited today when Tricycle magazine sent me an article (“Walking: Meditation on the move“, Summer 1996) that gathers short instructions for walking meditation from several teachers, ranging from Thich Nhat Hanh to Henry David Thoreau.
Below is an excerpt of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s instructions taken from his book “Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.”
The cultivation of metta, sometimes translated as boundless friendliness or loving kindness, has proven to be a beneficial meditation practice over the centuries, but it can present a challenge for modern Westerners. The standard version of metta practice asks one to begin by expressing positive wishes for one’s own benefit, e.g., ‘may I be happy, may I be healthy, etc.’, before extending these wishes to others. The difficulty for many of us appears right at the start. Should I really be wishing myself happiness, good health, and so on? Well-known meditation teacher and author, Jack Kornfield, has a solution. He says, “We open our heart in the most natural way, then direct our loving-kindness little by little to the areas where it’s more difficult.” Sending good wishes to ourselves may not feel completely natural so we don’t have to start there. You can find all of his instructions at How to Do Metta (Lion’s Roar, 11 August 2015).
In honor of Father’s Day I am reposting a portion of Norman Fischer‘s excellent advice piece “Life is Tough: Six Ways to Deal With It” (Lion’s Roar, 15 June 2016)
Turn All Mishaps Into the Path
‘Turn all mishaps into the path,’ sounds at first blush completely impossible. How would you do that? …
We do that by practicing patience, my all-time favorite spiritual quality. Patience is the capacity to welcome difficulty when it comes, with a spirit of strength, endurance, forbearance, and dignity rather than fear, anxiety, and avoidance. None of us likes to be oppressed or defeated, yet if we can endure oppression and defeat with strength, without whining, we are ennobled by it. Patience makes this possible.
Douglas Penick writes, “the path of enlightenment is not the path to enlightenment” (“What Are You Meditating For?” Tricycle, Fall 2013). There are many ways one might critique a meditation period (“I was hot, noisy, distracted, sleepy, …”), but “it brought me closer to being enlightened” isn’t one of them.