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…
- Settle your body, and your mind, into a comfortable position.
- Patiently watch your experience unfold.
- There is nothing to control, nothing to achieve. Experience what is happening.
- 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.
- Accept that some experiences may be good and others not so much. This can’t be avoided.
- Thinking is part of experience. Recognize and acknowledge the thinking that occurs.
- 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.
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.
The Psychology Department has informed me of an upcoming seminar that should interest anyone who pays attention to the inner workings of their mind, and, naturally, all meditators. The lecture is called “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature” and will be offered by Christof Koch, Ph.D on Wed, Nov. 14, 7 pm, Psych 105.
Full details about this event as provided by the Psychology Department follow:
“I can’t meditate, it doesn’t work for me,” is a phrase I’ve heard so many times in the past 10 years. Not wishing to be impolite, I don’t push back on this, but I do wonder, “What part of meditation is broken?”
One possibility is sitting still. That can be hard for some of us (me!) to accept, at least, at first. But there is an easy solution: notice when you get antsy and stop. Who said 90 seconds of meditation ‘doesn’t count’? (I don’t think we give prizes to the person who sits the longest.) Anyway, once you can sit quietly for 90 seconds without feeling that you’re being punished, add another 90. Sit for 3 minutes.
Then there’s the Mind Game. Continue reading
It seems one cannot meditate without confronting one’s mind, thoughts, and experience. This may be sad news for some. Once, after asking visitors to my beginning meditation class to share what they hoped to get out meditation, one young woman looked away from all of us, and said in a low, urgent voice, “I want to stop thinking!”
I suspect that few of us would want to enter a thought-free state for all time, but the notion that meditation might offer a temporary refuge from thought, or at least, certain types of thought, is certainly appealing. So, naturally, we tell ourselves stories about how meditation will accomplish this for us: how sitting still, being quiet, and following the breath, will create a zone of mental peace and quiet.
“The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down” by Haemin Sunim has been a best-selling book in South Korea since it appeared in 2012 (41 weeks atop the best-sellers list, 3 million copies sold in 3 years). It has now appeared in an English translation by Chi-Young Kim (Penguin, 2017).
Here’s some advice from the book, Chapter 2 – Mindfulness (When You Are Feeling Low):
If you wish to clear away the clouds of your thoughts,
simply keep your mind in the present.
The clouds of thought linger only in the
past or the future.
Bring your mind to the present,
and your thoughts will rest.
Rather than repeating,
“It is awful! It is awful!”
stare straight into the awful feeling.
Examine the feeling.
Can you see its impermanent nature?
Let the feeling leave when it says it wants to go.
I’m “coming out” today. Here’s what I want you to know about me,
- I meditate regularly. Often alone. Often with others.
- I think a lot about meditation, especially while I’m meditating.
- I nap during meditation sometimes. I haven’t found an answer to this “problem” except to stop treating it as a problem.
- Meditation feels special, but I try not to fool myself into thinking that it makes me special.
- I tend not to talk about my meditation practice (#1) or what it’s like (#2-4), even though its an extremely interesting topic to me and I think I’d be happy to share.
I had a lot of questions about meditation when I first started. Some have been answered. Others persist. If unanswered questions are keeping you from trying, or being satisfied with, meditation, send them my way. Start out, “Hi Alan,” and then follow wherever your fingers take you. firstname.lastname@example.org
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.