My Avoiding Sitting Meditation Journal

IMG_0018Tuesday: I’m too tired. I really am. Yes, I got plenty of sleep. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps a bug, perhaps allergies, low blood sugar or something more serious. Need protein. Need to conserve my energy. Meditation means sitting up, unkind at this point.

Friday PM: New Yorker Magazine. Spent 1½ hours learning about the drug trade. Addiction is so terrible, a destructive thing pretending to be good for us. I have compassion for those people, I really do. New restaurant in mid-town. Read too late, no time to sit.

Saturday Morning: Sensitive to signs from the world, read the signs today. The signs said “not a meditation day today.”  New sign at Anthony’s Diner, Ham and Eggs–$5.99.

Sunday: Sitting Meditation is something I should do, like eat less carbs. Where is the time? Maybe I should look at my schedule. Everyone should be as open about the things they should do.

Later on Sunday: Some people need meditation. I say let them meditate. They’re better for it, so who’s to argue? Keeps them off the street. Will call B. after his retreat. Treat him to lunch.

Thursday: Had a thought today: I’m not the same person when I’m hungry. This really stuck with me. Feels good to have a thought that really sticks around. I mean this is a realization. Finally. Doubt my practice can handle this new focus.

Saturday: first the garbage. Then called the plumber (toilet stopped up, embarrassing).  Ordered a new cookbook from Amazon (sorry Samadhi Store). Should really do some dishes. Noon already! Starved. Huevos Rancheros.

Saturday Afternoon: Pissed off. No one offers what is needed. No one knows how to nurture. Everyone withholds. Too upsetting. It’s all I can do not to throw this old cookbook out the window. Sitting? You’d have to tie me down.

Sunday: Moody again. Way too moody. Low blood sugar or something my wife said. Or something she didn’t say, I can’t remember. Where is the support? Lost my appetite. Can’t sit on an empty stomach.

Monday: Must prioritize. Work comes first. Money is a necessity, meditation a luxury. Need to put food on the table. Into simplicity. Not into sitting around on cushions, a luxury.

Tuesday: Up early. Got too simple, no milk for tea. A bad sign. Painful. Can’t sit when I’m like this.

Saturday: Ducked out the door as  my teacher passed through the hallway at Karmê Chöling today. What a relief! Not ready to account for my sitting practice. Not really looking my best either. Missed the tea snack.

Sunday Paper. World going to hell in a hand basket.  “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.” (B. Dylan) Not going to live a lie—pretending to be someone I’m not: a western knock off of an eastern tradition—a taco sushi. No appetite for practice.

Sunday Morning: Need to blog. Need to think of others. Been too focused on me lately. Have I grown in my practice? Speaking of growth, checked myself on the scale: news not good.

Sunday PM: Meditation is like following a recipe. Without the right ingredients, it just won’t work. For instance, you have to like yourself. How can you like yourself if you don’t? Today I don’t like myself.

Monday: Up Early Again. Beautiful morning. Humidity gone. Sunshine. Good mood. Just said “No” to meditation. Felt good. Liberating. I’m OK. Is there something I lack? Maybe. Ham and Eggs anyone?

Editor’s Note: Thoughts are like food. Meditation is the discipline of diet, where you can learn to let go of the habit to have and to hold (and to chew and swallow.) Your meditation cushion should be comfortable, but sitting meditation won’t always be eggs over easy. It takes guts, but not the kind that Michael’s apparently working on. Maybe he should check out our selection of  vegetarian cookbooks.

Ten Ways to Support Your Meditation Practice

1. Lighten Up. Meditation is making roomlighten-up to be kind to yourself (and by extension to others).  Sure, in this economy it’s good to have extra work, but being hard on yourself is a job you can afford to quit.  Just “let it be” a little.  It’s simple: breathe, look, listen.  It’s a long story.  Let it go.

2. Tell the Truth.  In sitting meditation you face facts (other things too).  Scheming doesn’t help; you’re only fooling yourself.  Choose your words, but say how you feel.  Don’t defend your point of view, just express it.

3. Sweat the Details.  Meditation is paying attention.  Life is only moment by moment.  Breath by breath. If you are sensitive to the details of life, they become sensitive to you.  Tidy up.  Dress nicely.  Speak well.  Keep your dignity. When you are here, you find what you need.

4. Give (Intelligently). If there’s a knock at the door, open it. Given enough? More could be needed.  Offer what you have, not what you don’t.  When you give, life gets easier.  Life is giving. Meditation moves with the flow of life.  Sooner or later, this body of yours will be somebody’s breakfast.  Don’t expect anything.

5. Prioritize.  You do already, just do it consciously.  Look back.  Look ahead.  How have you spent the last five years, the last five minutes?  How do you want to spend the next five (if you have them)? Time is ticking, acknowledge it.  Understand time.  Hint: meditation happens now.

6. Simplify.  Say “no” to the next bright idea, the next invitation.  In sitting meditation, we let thoughts come, then we let them go.  If you’re not the President, why do you need his schedule?  Make time for rest, for work and relationships, but learn to say “no thank you.”  An open morning or weekend isn’t a failure, it’s an accomplishment.

7. Find Company.  Meditation is making friends with yourself.  It matters who you hang with.  A date with Tony Soprano could be interesting, but it might not end well.  Choose the examples in your life.  Emulate who you admire.  Study the words of wise people.  We all have grudges, but they make poor friends.  Don’t let them drive the bus.

8. Suffer (a bit). Life hurts and is a mess.  You can change it, but you can’t fix it.  Don’t be afraid to feel your own heart.  Don’t be afraid to lose.  Recognize pride.  Don’t be a stranger to yourself.  You will be hurt; it’s not a punishment.  It means you’re human.  Meditation doesn’t fix suffering, it explores it.

9. Get Physical.  You need a body to practice meditation.  Have a physical discipline that gets you outdoors.  Breathe, see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.  Garden, run, do Tai Chi.  Sweat.  Relax and enjoy your world.  Don’t push your body like a mule.  Eat well, enjoy your bath and your bed.

10. Make Room.  Create a time and a place for meditation.  Leave your meditation cushion (or bench or chair) where you can see them.  Let them talk to you.  Your home is your castle: arrange your kingdom.  Be your own monarch.

Editor’s Note: And then do it. As Michael’s list suggests, meditation isn’t the “icing on the cake”.  Meditation is the cake. It’s at the center of a culture that supports a meaningful life.  Since we all have a mind, meditation is also what we do anyway. (If you wonder where your mind is, it’s where you last left it.)

If you need meditation instruction, get it. If you need a meditation cushion, find it.  Don’t wait for everything to be “right” before you sit down to practice, it never will be.

The Cool Kids

Being Cool
Being Cool

Recently the New York Times published an op-ed piece on a conference for Social and Affective Neuroscientists (or “Neuros”) which took place in New York this past week. According to David Brooks, the writer, “the leading figures at this conference were in their 30’s, and most of the work was done by people in their 20’s.” And all of them, he pointed out, were “young, hip and attractive.”

Mr. Brooks went on to write, “many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds.” At the same time, another study “showed that if you give people a strategy, such as reminding them to be racially fair,” for example, “it is possible to counteract those perceptions.” As the article points out, to live with a view or idea is not an option, it’s what’s happening. And it’s happening very fast.

The In-Group

As a newly-minted teenager, I ran with the cool kids. I knew who “we” were and who wasn’t “us.”  I knew who was “in” and who was “out.”  I assumed great things from “our” crowd and nothing from the “uncool” whom I ignored (or worse).  In its rigid application of exclusion, and its focus on territory (school was assumed to be “ours”), being cool was a kind of warfare.  Cool was to be joined; uncool, suppressed. To maintain my outlook and compelling view of the world, I had plenty of evidence – subjective and objective. One year later, a move and a new school would prove me (at least the cool me) irrelevant.

School Spirit?

For the first year of high school, my parents’ divorce meant my brother and I moved from Massachusetts to Texas.  Uptight by southern standards of sociability, insecure in the face of so much change (how did high school football, of all things, get so important?), in high school I found myself instantly on the outside of whatever was cool.  I couldn’t even tell who the cool kids were supposed to be.  “You really don’t have school spirit, do you?” a pretty brunette pronounced after understanding that I wouldn’t be attending the pep rally before the football game (not to speak of the game).  I had to admit that whatever school spirit was, I didn’t have it.

Who’s Cool Now?

A few years later, in the middle of my senior year, I visited my old school back east. The band of cool kids was gone.  One kicked out, one transferred, the others relaxed into non-distinction.  Two of the most uncool kids from middle school days were on their way to Harvard. Their futures were promising, those of the former cool gang, unclear.

In the language of meditation, my “view” was changing.  According to the tradition of meditation practice, your view (basically what you think and how you understand life) will determine where meditation practice takes you. From one angle, meditation practice is simply about embodying an understanding of life – deepening our ability to be the person our meditative insight has revealed to us to be.

Who’s That in the Mirror?

Because sitting meditation slows us down and allows mind’s natural intelligence to develop, meditation is often called a mirror.  One of the first things we notice when we take up meditation is our view – the thoughts and underlying emotions that create and color our world.  Learning simply how to be, in a genuine way, reveals the glossed fiction of our self-image.  Gradually it dawns on us that whoever we really are, we are definitely not who we thought we were.  At the same time, our convenient and habitual approach to others is exposed.  In the space of meditative awareness, we notice tiny little flickering thoughts, continually evaluating others.

Though the process is more sophisticated than in high school, we are continually sizing people up.  Are they worthy of us, or do they somehow occupy another status, one we cannot reach?  To our astonishment (and some horror), we begin to recognize the birth of instinctive and instant likes and dislikes – based on the thinnest of fleeting perceptions.  Looking closely, we wonder, are these prejudices borne fresh from the encounter with others or do they govern encounters from the beginning (or before)?

Not Exactly…

Faced with this raging specter of snap judgments and hidden discursiveness, we begin to question our view.  For one thing, it becomes clear that the way we think migrates into how we are in the world, what we do.  If world we inhabit is different than the one we tell ourselves we are living, what are we living? To paraphrase the great 19th Century Tibetan Scholar-Practitioner Mipham, we realize that “Whatever we think it is – it’s not exactly like that.”

Meditative traditions emphasize training in the view – that is, studying how reality is – because that is what we do anyway, at least our own version of it.  In this case, study as support for meditation is not so much learning a new dogma or answer for the meaning of life, but shining a light on the views we do hold  (cherish even) without knowing we have them.

The School of Life

The culture of meditation is based on the notion that we can continue to grow up.  That the mind and the way it thinks and feels can develop.  Most of us have moved on from the views we developed in high school.  For me, these views were dispersed by another emerging reality.  I didn’t need to be talked out of a view of myself among the cool ones; when its irrelevance was exposed, this idea vanished like fog in sunlight.

As I get older, I find it harder to expose habitual thinking for what it is. Truths somehow get more penetrating, but I’ve gotten better at hiding from them.  It takes work to expose the self-limiting thoughts that put me and others “in” or “out.” As per the Neuros, it takes a “strategy”.  To grow these days, I often have to admit adolescence all over again. This includes the challenge of being willing to question, in a fresh way, who and how I am in the world.

How Cool is Peace?

In my experience, the discipline of regular meditation practice  (and attending meditation retreats)  is a strategy that works.  With the intention and courage to face ourselves, we give flickering thoughts room.  When these thoughts gang up on us, we neither join them nor suppress them.  Done properly, meditation is the experience of sharing the same boat with everyone.   In the space of meditation, thoughts of who’s in or out no longer make sense.  To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, when you sit on your Zafu, everyone sits with you.  To practice mindfulness is to practice community, inclusion.  Because our practice moves us beyond limiting ideas about ourselves and others, it is the practice of peace.  How cool is that?

Editor’s Note: Karme Choling, just down the road from Samadhi Cushions, offers a week-long Simplicity retreat for those interested in exploring group meditation. Gaylon Ferguson‘s Natural Wakefulness brilliantly hosts explorations of view.  Sakyong Mipham‘s Turning the Mind into an Ally is a primer for learning the basics and subtleties of mindfulness practice.

Meditation: Your Cup of Tea?

img_00191Sometimes, the formal practice of sitting meditation feels like a stretch.  What does sitting quietly, upright on our meditation cushion, have to do with, well, anything, we ask ourselves? Life is moving fast. It seems to require speed and efficiency. Meditation practice is about slowing down. Aren’t these two heading in opposite directions? We feel trapped in a choice of our own making — life and living it — and our discipline of meditation, which doesn’t relate.

There is the vague sense that the regular practice of meditation had been important to us, but the benefits of practice, if there ever were any, have become distant memories. Now, with fatigue in the face of our daily schedule, or excitement in the face of opportunities arising — meditation doesn’t look practical.

Even if we wanted to sit still for a while in our meditation room or spot, we wonder if we could. Sitting still seems either too exertive — it makes more sense to use the little time we have to just lie down and rest — or we are just too hassled by the pressures of our schedule, which while partially self-imposed, seems to have taken on a life and momentum of its own.

There is a hint of pride. We feel inspired or at least obligated to meet the challenges of our life and hopeful that we could rise to the occasion. Sitting down on our meditation cushion on the other hand, could be messy. We’re pretty sure that whatever the practice of meditation is supposed to be, we wouldn’t be doing it well. Who wants to do something that’s meant to be helpful and uplifting and be bad at it? Why impose that humiliation on ourselves?

Out of guilt or nostalgia, we might dust off a book on how to meditate by one of our favorite teachers. But the words don’t make sense in the way they once did. If we are honest with ourselves, we admit that beyond losing interest, there is the sense that our heads are full enough. Adding new ideas, however sublime, to the mix isn’t going to help. There just isn’t room.

We begin to think that the practice of meditation, perhaps even spirituality altogether, is for those who see things that aren’t really there — a matter of talking oneself into something other than life as it is — a kind of wishful thinking. We’ve heard about meditation as a path or “Way,” but if there is a way forward, we don’t see it.

This is a place all meditators have been. And let’s not mince words, maybe it really is time for you and your meditation practice — at least the one you think you had — to part company.  The discipline of meditation is a relationship. It takes work. Like any relationship, much depends on what you think you want out of it, and how you plan to go about getting it.

In his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham describes meditation practice in terms of concentric circles – the innermost circle being the practice of peaceful abiding, or the mind at ease in its own stability and strength.  Each circle in the concentric circles approaching the center is a step to uncovering this inherent quality of mind.

At the outermost circle, Sakyong Mipham makes an interesting observation. He points out that while formal meditation practice is focusing the mind on an object or sensation (like the sensation of breathing, for example), we are always holding the mind to something — a thought, a wish, an intention or irritation.

Of course, without the influence of a meditative discipline, we generally experience this holding on in a scattered or fixated way. But the point is taken. We are always meditating. It is just a matter of how. Sakyong Mipham has a word for the outermost circle of meditation: he calls it Life.

It turns out that formal meditation isn’t doing something different from what we do anyway.  Because it involves slowing down, however, it is a way to see what we do when we engage the world. Sometimes of course, we don’t want to see. We sense that if we saw the truth of our relationship with life, we couldn’t handle it. Or, even if we could handle it, now is somehow not the time.

We cannot escape meditation. Or to put it another way, we cannot escape our own intelligence, our own awareness. Looking away, avoiding, is seeing. As Pema Chödrön once put it, there is wisdom in going beyond any effort to escape the sharp edges of life.

Because stability and clarity are inherent qualities of mind, meditation practice is simply a way of slowing down and allowing these natural qualities to manifest. Sakyong Mipham’s point is that, in this effort,  “Life” and the way we live it, plays a role.

When the formal practice of meditation seems ambitious or impractical, he suggests, sit down at the kitchen table. Look out the window. Go for a walk.  In short, be friendly to yourself. If your schedule doesn’t permit extending hospitality to yourself, who is it for? Who’s in charge? Who sets the tone?

If you take the time and give some room for mind’s natural balance and intelligence to reassert itself, you can be there fully for a proper cup of tea. Enjoying a cup of tea with yourself, you may be inspired to explore and deepen the relationship. Formal practice no longer looks meaningless or threatening, it is simply a logical next step.

Memo to Self: Please Find the Time to Meditate

Why, Self, am I writing to you? Well, for one thing, you’ve been a busy lately. I’ve had trouble getting your attention. Sometimes you can get someone’s attention with a memo, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Anyhow, why do I suggest that you find the time to meditate?

For one thing, the last time you invested some of your precious time in mindfulness meditation, the results were good. You slowed down a bit, you were actually able to listen to people when they spoke to you, and you were happier and less impatient. You’re better able to realize that rushing things doesn’t help. Everything has its time. You were able to begin appreciate your life, moment by moment.

The Past and the Future

When you sat in meditation, you spent less energy worrying about the future and fretting about the past. There is something funny about the past and future, I don’t know how to break this to you, but they don’t exist. They were and will be, but they’re not.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan for the future and also mull over your decisions in the past. It’s just that it would be good to be able to distinguish the past and future from what is happening now. When you get really speedy — and you can, especially when you haven’t sat on your zafu and zabuton in a while – you tend to lose this distinction. Mostly I see you leaning in to the future, as if by rushing into it you could manage it better.

Why Worry?

Do you have to worry so much? Just sitting, paying attention to your body and the sensation of breathing, can help you let go of worry. Why don’t you sit on your cushion more? Just a little bit pays such big dividends. It’s kind of crazy not to do it.

And why are you rushing — by the way? Do you have a train to catch? Are you on the run from the law? Is there something you’re not telling me? You keep saying there is “no time.” There is something funny about this idea of “no time”. You always say that you’re working now to have time later, but when this time arrives later, half the time you have no idea what to do with it, and you wind up lost in meaningless distractions. Is that what you worked so hard for? Maybe you are so used to rushing that you forget how to relax when you actually can. Sometimes I think you worry too much about what other people think, and that makes you anxious. What have you got to prove?

Your Mantra

The other funny thing is that that your mantra of “no time” (at least you have a mantra!) has an underlying assumption – that there will be time later. Rushing through each moment is a good way to ensure that when this promise of future time comes – if it ever does (see future above) you’ll be so unfamiliar with the present moment, you won’t even recognize it. That’s the real meaning of “no time.”

One Thing at a Time

The other thing Meditation helps you relax is your nasty habit of trying to do two things at once. There is something funny about the present moment. There is only one of them. Of course these moments follow each other in quick succession, but – as we covered before – there is no way to stack them up or “maximize” your time. When you meditate, you realize better that there is only one moment and only one thing do to in that moment. That helps you keep some balance in your life.

Part of life is movement, and doing things. But there is a part that doesn’t move – ever. It can be scary to see this, but meditation gives you a safe place from which to witness and accept the subtleties of life. (If you need a hint, there is a connection between the fact that nothing happens and everything happens, more on that another time.)

Consumed by Time

Sometimes I think you have this idea that time is another thing for you to consume, like your supply of 100% cranberry juice that you’ve socked away in the pantry (how can you drink that stuff?!) and don’t like to share with anyone (not that anyone would want it). Anyhow, there is something silly about your approach to time. If someone puts you on hold for more than a minute, you’ll hold a grudge for life. Then you spend two hours in front of a Batman movie without enjoying it! I just don’t get this.

It’s All about You

That’s another thing meditation helps you relax — your obsession with yourself. Who died and made you center of the universe anyhow? I mean really. But seriously, you do get this oversized view of yourself sometimes. Where does that come from? I think that is part of the logic of rushing – if the boss wants something right away, I mean everyone has to jump, right? There is something funny about having an oversized view of yourself. For one thing, who is so special? You or the voice in your head who voted you #1. I know you can be down on yourself, too. But the same logic applies. Life would be a lot easier for you if you lightened up on your self, by the way.

Meditation helps you see

Meditation helps you see that the last thought you had about yourself and your requirements was just that – the last thought you had about yourself and your requirements. There are obvious reasons not to jump every time you have a thought. For one thing, you have a lot of thoughts, so it’s just not practical. For another thing, your thoughts are always changing. Chasing after thoughts is like putting the kids in charge, the result is chaos. Thoughts do grow up sometimes; those thoughts can be helpful. You’ll know when you meet a grown-up thought and not because they’re so serious!

A Little Sad

Sitting on your meditation pillow, slowing down in mindfulness brings the insight that everyone is going through exactly the same thing you are. You are really very much alike. Everyone is rushing from something, to something, trying to find something that the future will bring or outrun something that the past has delivered. Most of the time they look a little worried – definitely preoccupied. This makes me a little sad.

Listen Self, I don’t mean to overwhelm you — and thank you very much for your attention – but LIFE (in the form of a moment) is right in front of you waiting to be celebrated and appreciated (it’s the holidays after all!) What’s stopping you?

Don’t tell me you don’t have the time.

–Trinley Senge