Retreat Journal: Unemployed

IMG_0020According to the philosopher John Locke, we think we know what we need to know and we all think we’re right (credits to my 14-year-old granddaughter and her Humanities teachers). As a young person I knew that I was special and superior to others. According to the way I was raised, superiority was then to motivate altruistic behavior. Noblesse Oblige as it were. Good works expressed  ambition. Being good (or better), meant working to “do good” better. To do right was to be right.

A group meditation and study retreat is something good to do. But like rock climbing, you soon understand that in the face of a daily schedule that fully engages your body and mind, you have one option: to relax. Personal interactions also quickly reveal that the person on the meditation cushion next to you has a lot to offer. If you are proud like I am, you are surprised by the contribution your colleague makes to the collective wisdom of the group.

For those of us who thrive on being special and better, it is a humbling experience. Not only is our habit of overlooking others exposed; our whole orientation—the one that puts us at the center of universe, seeing others as so different from ourselves—is revealed as patently mistaken.

We are not so much smarter, we are not so much more sensitive and we are not so much more confused than everyone else. In my case, this everyone else has been 20 other people here in a retreat at Karmê Chöling. All of us are sitting quietly together, hearing Dharma teachings, discussing the subtleties of the teachings on insight and the vagaries of our own journey of meditation.

In practicing together, it is easy to see that we are very much alike. We all long for some peace of mind and an experience of freedom. Short of that, we wouldn’t mind suffering a bit less than we do—the sooner, the better.

This is confusing. How should we orient ourselves if others are, in some essential way, as “special” as we are? The first thing to do, of course, is to relax. Understanding ourselves, we understand others. Knowing ourselves, we know others. How we relate and communicate need not be confusing or mysterious. We have a place in this society of practitioners. It is neither higher nor lower than our colleagues. In a group retreat, we breathe the same air, share the same afternoon sun, meet the same evening sky. In short, we share the same planet, the one under our bottoms and our meditation cushions all day long, this planet Earth.

The feeling of a shared place and experience creates a new sense of responsibility. Our connection to the group depends upon relationship rather than status (whether we imagined it as high or low). This relationship in turn depends upon our insight into what if anything is needed by others. In a natural way, our insight into the needs of our society of meditators is connected to what we have to offer.

In the spirit of group meditation practice, we find ourselves moved to support others in any way we can. This may be a fleeting thought, but it comes naturally. It is as if we were all stripped down to our hearts and veins. All of a sudden there is a room full of exposed hearts. Instantly, there is the instinct to care.

Slowing down the spinning web of thinking that keeps us convinced of something that isn’t there, meditation reveals gaps in the illusion of our separateness and our superiority (or on a bad day our inferiority). Confronting the simple fact of our aching body and restless mind,  we are left exposed and tender. Our attachment to being “right,” to being different, is revealed as a defense mechanism, something frozen over something alive. This unraveling is a relief of course, since maintaining our sense of difference takes so much work. For many of us it is the work of a lifetime.

Not being separate is also a bit of a letdown. Losing faith in our view of separateness, we are newly unemployed. Not only are we not right, we are also out of a job, the familiar job of being ourselves—at least in the way we imagined it.

Editor’s Note: Michael is, let’s just say—more relaxed, after he’s been on a meditation retreat. We miss him (a little) when he’s away, but the change is noticeable, so it’s worth it. Of course if he’s really feeling under employed, there is some restocking to do in Samadhi Store. A shipment of incense just arrived :-).

Salt Minding

IMG_14311-225x300A Study

The other day, I had a chat with my friend Amos, a doctor. He told me about a study looking at salt in the diet. Excess sodium in our food has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease among other debilitations.

Habitually reaching for the saltshaker, or for potato chips instead of carrots, we make a potentially life changing, if not life-threatening decision.

In the practice of mindfulness meditation we settle our mind by bringing our awareness to the cycle of breathing. Being with ourselves, we arrive face to face with the habits that drive us. Some we acknowledge as our own, some routines seem borrowed from elsewhere, from parents or perhaps colleagues.

The first stage of sitting meditation practice is an almost scientific inquiry. What have we been doing? What have we been thinking, feeling? How are our feelings habitually experienced, expressed? Like the salt in a saltshaker, how do our thoughts get out, onto and then into our life?

Flavor’s Provenance

One day the chill in the air heralding the fall season suggests new beginnings, the next day the thought of summer ending leaves us cold. Does life have a taste of its own, before our reaction to it? What is that taste? How does life taste—now?

Habitually, we might feel the temperature, think about it, reach for a sweater, think again, comment on the chill, move, feel something else and think again. All of this happens seamlessly, almost unconsciously. There is a sense that we need to manage our experience, like a smoky campfire threatening to go out.

Settled on our meditation cushion, we notice this mental busyness, this speed and momentum. The pace of life has shaken up our thoughts and feelings. But what about the impact our thoughts and feelings have on the world as we experience it? Which came first—the world or our feeling about it?

What’s On the Menu?

Like habitually following thoughts, meditation is something we do. It is proactive; it is engaged. When the mind wanders from the sensation of breathing, we gently bring it back. When a thought happens (“peanut butter—salted”) and the body starts to move (toward the fridge), we let go of the thought, gently coming back to the sensation of our body breathing. A familiar thought might trigger a familiar emotion and a pattern is revealed.

In the process of slowing down in meditation, natural clarity dawns. Initially in sitting practice, we might be startled by the sheer volume, intensity and speed of our thoughts. Up until now, we had associated intensity with our experience of life’s ongoing challenges. Quietly alone on our meditation cushion, a question emerges: how much of life’s flavor comes from our thoughts and feelings about it? The idea of ourselves as a free and distant agent, managing and sampling life’s menu, is exposed as a myth. We also begin to notice a kind of continuity to our experience—whether salty or sweet.

Chef’s Surprise

In the openness allowed by sitting meditation, we discover a white-knuckle grip on the handlebars of life. There is tension, tightness, as we move from moment to moment. Every experience is judged as helpful, challenging or irrelevant. Saddled with the imposition of our commentary “this is good” or “needs work,” we are left with a sense of struggle and anxiety–as if the job each moment was to consume our experience, correcting the seasoning as we go.

Unaware of the intensity of this struggle, our own energy returns to confront us as a challenge. Preoccupied with our agenda, we miss life’s messages–subtle shifts in flavor are overlooked. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, life serves up a surprise.

All of sudden, an acquaintance is seductive; the presumed answer we were waiting for never arrives, shocking us; others’ mistakes besiege us or life works only to undermine a sense of ease. We may find ourselves inexplicably alone and underappreciated.

Clearly, things happen in life that can’t be anticipated. In the dramas initiated by our habitual patterns however, we quickly find our own feelings and reactions at center stage. Having ignored our friend, why our how he or she became so beguiling remains a mystery. Our reaction to the sudden attractiveness is what stuns us, leaving us dazed and confused. We feel helpless in the face of our own feelings and impulses which we witness as private, overwhelming, inevitable and out of our control. There is a sense of familiarity, we have been through this all before, we’re just not sure where or when.

Looking for the Shaker

In sitting meditation we make time to slow down and examine the recurring habits that color our relationship with ourselves and our world. Seeing our thoughts clearly for the first time, we also see the subtle actions that follow from our thoughts and how they flavor and vivify life. The security of the status quo is challenged; nothing is “just who we are.” Everything we do is a decision, every thought we follow an action, a shake of the shaker.

If thoughts are a reaction to an external reality, how do we understand upheavals experienced when we are alone with nothing but our own thoughts reacting to themselves? If we can conjure reality and suffer or enjoy it by ourselves, when does our conjuring end and “real reality” begin?

Meditation is radical. It sets in motion an inquiry that has no immediate answer. Where does our experience come from? What part is from “us” —what part from “them”? Experience recognizes the poles of  “me” and “my world.” Our attention is always moving. Sometimes we are concerned with the “me” part, sometimes with the “my world” part. But who exactly makes that journey between these two?

Life has a taste, only we can say if it’s sweet or salty. How did it get that way? Who holds the saltshaker that seasons our life? Who selects the quality of the seasoning? What tastes are we after and why?

Seeing the Hole

It is common for practitioners of meditation to report on how helpful the practice is to their life and work. With mindfulness, what challenged us before now comes easily. Our workday flows. Efficiency and effectiveness are increased. We feel less stressed. We are present for others, including of course, those we care about.

This is logical, empirical. Once upon a time a reaction made sense, it was in response to the reality of the situation at hand. But how could that response be accurate today, the 100th time we enact it? Once perhaps our body craved salt and we added it to an otherwise bland dish. But today we forget to taste our food before we salt it. We prefer the security of a false understanding—that we already know what our experience has served up and what is needed to make it right. In contrast, living moment by moment, we admit what we don’t know. Life presents itself as something larger that the world dictated by our appetites.

Oh, and the outcome of the study? According to my friend Amos, the key factor influencing the amount of salt in our diet wasn’t found to be knowledge of the risks, geographic region, or demographics. They all came in second. The number one factor: the size of the holes in our saltshaker.

Editor’s Note: Has anyone else noticed that Michael’s blogs often revolve around food? He should probably check out this book on Mindful Eating.  Anyhow, the next thing you know they’ll be saying you can cut calories by eating on smaller dishes (actually it may help.) Each day we enact rituals. What we actually do and how we do it turns out to make a difference. Meditation invites a look at our home and the ordinary articles of life. You’ll sit when you get home. How will you do it? A meditation cushion (or a meditation bench) invites you to sit with dignity. Have you hugged your Zafu today?


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.

Maybe You’d Better Sit Down

What goes around...
What goes around...

Scientists in Germany reported Thursday that the often-described sense of lost-hiker déjà vu, of having inadvertently backtracked while wandering in the woods — is real. “People really do walk in circles,” said Jan L. Souman of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen.  – The New York Times, August 2009

The path of meditation shines a light on habitual patterns that keep us lost, both to ourselves and the world we inhabit. For meditation to move forward, however, orientation is essential. As the article from the Times on lost hikers aptly demonstrates, orientation isn’t optional. We always have one. The question is: where is it taking us? Summarized notes and quotes from the Times’ article in italics:

As long as the sun or moon was out, volunteers were able to walk (more or less) in a straight line. But on cloudy days or dark nights, they would loop back on themselves, often several times.

Find a meditation teacher. Read a book that speaks to you. Find friends who are interested in meditation. Teachers and companions on the path are the sun and moon that meditators use to orient themselves.  They can help you find and adjust your direction. Like any discipline, meditation practice needs view or vision. Teachers and companions on the path of meditation can provide essential guidance.

Information sources in the brain are relative  — “they don’t tell you when you are moving in the same direction as an hour ago.” When it comes to being lost — “you cannot trust your own senses at all.” What sets experienced hikers apart? They are “more aware” of what has happened.

The desire to be somewhere else makes it very hard to see where you are and where you’ve been. Looking back on difficult periods in our life, we find that in many ways, our sense of being lost was partly self-imposed and self-perpetuating.

Of course, inasmuch as none of us really know where we are going, being lost is part of the creative process of living. Meditation supports an honest assessment of our situation as human beings. It is practicing acceptance — a first step toward understanding where we are now. Understanding where we are — and have been — is key to changing direction.

“One way to walk straight is to set your sights on a nearby tree, walk to it, find another tree in the same direction, and move to that”. In other words, proceed in steps or stages.

Don’t look for great and immediate staggering results from sitting on your meditation cushion. Set reasonable and thoughtful goals for yourself – and meet them. Authentic meditative traditions have a culture that embody this skillful means. As per Tibet’s greatest yogi/saint Milarepa — “Hasten slowly, and you will soon arrive.”

Without orientation, “little errors will compound themselves” and “when the errors start to build in one direction, the hiker often ends up going around in circles.”

We get frustrated or hurt by life, and then we get upset about being upset. Compounding habits seem to address our pain, but they only perpetuate it. At some point we have to relax and give ourselves a break. Be firm with yourself when you have to be, but there is never a good reason to be harsh or dogmatic. Be your own friend.

There is one sure way to avoid going around in circles:

“Your job as the lost person is to sit down.”

There are unexpected twists and turns to life, and long paths that seem to stretch out in front of us forever. Even so, it is a beautiful journey. When we meet it fully, we discover what it means to be human. Losing our way is an expression of losing a connection with our own heart. Often, even if it doesn’t feel right, we find reasons why we have to keep moving.

Sitting down, paying attention to the sensation of breathing, we can appreciate ourselves, relaxing the habitual patterns that cover our heart and obscure our vision.  Looking back on our restlessness, we realize there was a level of frustration, fear or even anger, behind our agitation. When you don’t really know why you’re moving or where you’re heading, find a meditation seat (and space for meditation) where you can be comfortable and sit down!

Editor’s Note: In Tibetan, the word for life as we know it is korwa – which means wheel. A traditional analogy for a live lived without understanding: a bee buzzing around in a jar. At the same time, movement is natural and necessary. And after all, it is possible to hide in stillness as well as activity. In either case, as Michael points out, the question is where are we trying go? For students of meditation, studying a meditation primer for even a few minutes a day can be enormously helpful on the journey.

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.

Coffee to Compost

The eye altering, alters all. -- William Blake
The eye altering, alters all. -- William Blake

Last Saturday morning was busy with a long list of errands. First stop was the Farmer’s Market to visit a booth selling compost supplies. We needed a new filter for the compost bucket that sits on the kitchen counter.

As I drove to St. Johnsbury along the empty interstate, I remembered something my friend Mary Anne had mentioned to me recently.  “It seems like the farmer’s market has really grown,” she was saying, “there are more booths, new sights and smells, fresh coffee, food cooking…”

The simplicity of Mary Anne’s comment must have stayed with me. Pulling into the parking lot, I had to reflect that with my list of “to do’s” and the focus on my errand, there was a good chance that once I made it to the market, I wouldn’t notice any of the new booths or smell the coffee brewing.

To be honest, a visit to the farmer’s market makes me anxious. Samadhi Cushions is in a neighborhood of small towns. The likelihood of seeing someone you know at the market is high. In these situations, unless it is a good friend, I’m generally at a loss for words. How will I gracefully initiate, develop and wind-up one of these encounters, I always wonder? On top of that, my errand lists never includes unscheduled conversation with acquaintances, adding time pressure to the anxiety of chance encounters.

The Point of Practice
“Isn’t this is what your meditation practice is supposed to help you with – smelling the coffee at the farmer’s market?” Had my (on again off again, it must be said) sitting meditation practice somehow disconnected itself from the day to day? Having embarked on the journey of meditation, had I concluded that meditation was somehow more meaningful than the mundane details of life? It’s ironic of course. The point of mindfulness meditation is to be mindful of what’s happening. As a general rule, the senses (smell and the other four) are what’s happening, along with our mental commentary and subconscious gossip, of course. Getting out of the car, I resolved to smell the coffee Mary Anne had talked about.

If from time to time, your meditation practice encourages a retreat from the world of the senses, then you may, like me, find yourself rushing through the slices of life that occur between meditation sessions. The pretext — maybe these details are insignificant to the grand scheme of things. Of course, half of life is only the sum total of many sensory details. Ignoring them is a likely indication that we are alienated from our own ordinary experience. Since the philosophy of meditation teaches us about the primacy of mind, we find ourselves wary of the senses and their messages for us.

Culture Sense
In traditional Buddhist literature, sense experience is referred to as a “realm.” In effect, fully explored, each sense (seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, touching, feeling) is understood as its own world. In today’s speed driven culture, we seem to have lost much of our connection with the depth and magic of our basic sense experience.

Traditionally, it was the role of culture to teach how to engage and appreciate sense experience. In France, my wife’s country of origin, teenagers are encouraged to have opinions about the quality of wine and character of cheese. In a simple stroll through our nearby forests, old-time Vermonters can tell you so much about its history, flora and fauna. These are refinements to the senses taught to us by our parents and grandparents.  The sense experience is refined by paying attention to the details of what we experience.

A Matter of Relationship
To pay attention, you need to hear from someone that sense experience is trust-worthy, meaningful and merits appreciation. This doesn’t seem to be a big spiritual question; it is simply a matter of connecting with one’s experience of life. Wisdom comes later. It is insight or penetration into the depth of that experience. Without the experience, however, the question of wisdom is moot.

I appreciated Mary Anne’s remark because it reminded me that there is merit in meeting one’s experience directly. Our basic experience is good –smells can be appreciated, we can marvel at sights and sounds. When you really experience senses directly, it is always new and surprising. This is a subtle point. The experience of the senses can’t be explained mechanistically. How we relate (with appreciation or distrust, for example) changes our experience of the senses. Also, there is no viable argument that puts sense objects as somehow there for us. The smell of coffee may be enjoyed, that of compost less so.  It seems more accurate to say that our sense experiences and us are there for each other. It is a matter of relationship. Also, how we “see” things, experience them, seems to be largely a matter of habit.

The Ground of Meditation
As for meditation practice, it is paying attention to the details of experience, before judgment. For another thing, you have to do it. Talking alone doesn’t help. Since we are in the habit of overlooking the details, consistent meditation is needed to develop the strength of habit to pay attention.

Beyond that, when you sit down on your Zafu (or Meditation Bench) and Zabuton Mat, the first step is just to relax.  Feel the weight of your body on the meditation cushion. Acknowledge your meditation room by noticing it. Is it cluttered? Clean? What are the colors and textures? Hear the sounds, both near and distant. Feel the sensation of the body as it breaths. The ground of taming the mind in meditation is a willingness, courage really, to be with our experience as it is  — now. This experience includes the five senses. Initially, it is by making friends with the basic constituents of experience that the practice of meditation begins to develop and deepen.

Market Shifts
In slowing down, the meditator begins to appreciate that everything — senses, thoughts, feelings, are continually shifting. They are all fluid and fleeting. In a way, there really is no such thing as a “farmer’s market” – just a wave of smells, sounds, sensations, at a time and place. All of which we label with the thought “market” – which is associated with other thoughts, like the memories of chance encounters. Captured by these thoughts, we find ourselves anticipating life – instead of living it. Unable to relax with ourselves, we are unclear about the details, unsure about life and its messages.

At the same time, from the perspective of meditation, it is because things don’t really hold together that they can appear to our senses in infinite detail, color and variety. Meditation does bring some distance from the “idea” of a farmer’s market, but this distance is based on appreciation of the details of the market, rather than anxious or happy preoccupations that result from our momentary capture by thoughts.

Not Sure
Once I got there, as Mary Anne predicted, the market was buzzing. The morning sun was out after many days of rain. There was warm breeze. There did seem to be a few more stalls than before. I ran in to a couple of acquaintances. It wasn’t so hard really. Some smiles, handshakes and shared appreciation for the day. We all seemed perfectly happy to see each other.

Driving home (without a filter for the compost bucket – “try online”), I felt grateful to Mary Anne and her simple observation.  Then I remembered. Had I smelled coffee? I wasn’t sure.

Editor’s Note:  Mr. Greenleaf has mentioned a Zafu and Zabuton as well as a bench for meditation. Our most popular meditation bench is the kneeling bench. Of course, you can also practice meditation in a chair (see the article on meditation posture). Burning incense and sounding gongs bring basic sense experience into the practice of meditation, leaving us ready to wake up and smell the coffee.