OK, so perhaps this isn’t the finest moment in my career as a booster of meditation. I just happen to have a soft spot for limericks. And as anyone who knows something about limericks will attest, one limerick deserves, nay demands, another.
Dear Reader, the snow is about to fall in Vermont. Potentially stressful holidays loom. The economy is poised on the brink of something, but it’s hard to tell what. In these moments the mind turns to meditation. Ah well, yes very important. This time however, the mind turned to limericks.
My request is simple: compose a (traditionally) five-line limerick using the word “zafu.” The word “zafu” can appear at the end of a rhyming line or in the body of the limerick. Comment on this blog post with your limerick and anything else you would like to share. If your limerick is “family friendly”, we will print it here. Traditionally limericks are opportunities to uncork profanity in unexpected ways. We respect this tradition but can only follow it up to a point. Apologies in advance; if you send us a really dirty limerick, the chances of publication are well…severely diminished.
In case you have stumbled upon this challenge based upon your love of limericks rather than your pursuit of the noble path of meditation, we might explain. “Zafu” is a Japanese word for a round pleated cushion used originally in the Zen tradition for the practice of Zazen or meditation. The practitioner sits on the cushion, traditionally with legs crossed in the lotus position on a Zabuton Mat.
Some of you might have endeavored the lotus posture in an earlier, more limber, era. Unless you are an adept, I suggest you refrain from trying it now (unless under supervision.) Speaking of limber, part of the challenge with using “Zafu” at the end of the limerick line is that limericks typically rely on anapestic phrasing. That is, a set of words or a word comprised of three syllables with the accent on the last syllable – like seventeen or well, yes, Nantucket. Attempting to use the two equally accented syllables of “Za-Fu” at the end of a line raises challenges to this convention.
Out of Time
This is a blog about meditation. If would be great if your limerick somehow addressed the subject, but we won’t insist. While nonsense has its place, limericks reach their apogee when word play and word meaning support each other. According to Dictionary.com, the term limerick comes from a party game played (in Ireland or England) at the end of the 19th century. Participants would extemporize verse and their efforts would be followed by the chorus “Won’t you come up to Limerick” — a town in the west of Ireland.
To extemporize means to recite spontaneously. How does one do this? The word’s roots here give a clue. Literally “ex-tempore” — is latin for outside of time. This time beyond time is the moment in which insights are born and also traditionally when true meditation is achieved. It may also be the only time when things happen. Speaking of out of time, when, you may ask, is there the time to compose this limerick? Commuting time, waiting in line, and while seeming to listen to someone complain are all great opportunities to turn your mind to the 5-lined monster.
A couple of limericks:
The Sound of One Cheek Sneaking
In Zazen, stuffed firm and sewn round,
A Zafu keeps your cheeks off the ground,
Not to be crass,
But if more than time you must pass,
Dense stuffing means no sound will be found.
(And a more solemn effort:)
The View of Meditation
From his black cotton buckwheat Zafu,
The Zen Master taught on the View,
He said, “Not as real as it seems,
Life’s like a Dream.
Zazen is no-thing to do.”
Editor’s Note: We have as yet no examples of the poetic tradition Mr. Greenleaf favors in our book inventory. However, for other examples of poetic expressions of the spontaneous nature of insight see First Thought Best Thought by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Haiku Mind by Patricia Donegan, The Spring of My Life by Issa, or Narrow Road to the Interior by Basho. Patricia Donegan’s instructional book Haiku is aimed at young writers but is eminently useful to all who wish to try their hand at that form.
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.
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.
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)?
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?
Editors Note: A key aspect of a successful meditation practice is a view or orientation. To this end, some study of meditation is important. At Samadhi Cushions, we recommend books and media from fellow practitioners of meditation as an essential companion to the actual practice of sitting on your meditation cushion or kneeling bench.
Chapter 14 in Sakyong Mipham’s book Ruling Your World is called The Confidence of Delight in Helping Others. It is a thoughtful contemplation on the personal transition toward serving others. In any event, without consistently refreshing one’s understanding, meditation can go astray, as Michael seems to demonstrate in his post.
It’s Not About Me
As you’ll see, this is not really about me. It’s about you. I have something to share with you. But we have to start with me. It will be clear why. Why me? Well, for one thing, I’ve been thinking about me — I mean a lot. And I think this thinking has paid off. Finally! It’s good to think about yourself. I mean it takes courage. It takes letting go. I don’t know if you know, but it’s a tricky subject – oneself.
I mean, if you look in the mirror, is that you in the mirror? Well, obviously not. It’s just a reflection. But what if you don’t like what you see? Now you’re on to something. That’s where my meditation comes in. I get to work on what I don’t like about myself. Anyhow, to do this, what I’ve discovered is that I need encouragement – a lot of it really. I wanted to share that with you. I thought it would be important for you to know about me.
The Art of Listening
Excuse me, I haven’t finished. So, where was I? Oh yes, I have a lot to offer, a lot going for me, which is obvious, but I wanted to say it. It’s important to love oneself. This is something that meditation teaches you. I have so much I could give. I see people, successful people, and they seem happy. Why? I say to myself. Because they are giving. They have found a way to give and it makes them happy.
And then I think, what is keeping me from giving, keeping me from realizing my potential? What I realized is that I wasn’t thinking of myself. An example? Well, you, I mean I guess, us, for example. When I looked at it, I realized that I was always listening to you. Why? Well, I think it was because you were always talking, but I’m not sure. In any case, that’s the wrong place to start, don’t you think? I should start by listening to me. You, of all people, should be able to understand that.
People talk because they want something. Have you noticed? They want to be heard. Are you listening? People take energy, and that was another thing I realized, I need to watch my energy. I can’t be giving, giving, giving all the time. It’s not good for me.
The irony is that people think it’s about them. Which of course it’s not. But how can you tell them? Because of that internal focus, there is so much that people don’t see. Like what? Like the work I’m doing on myself, for example. It’s hard work and no one notices. As a result, they miss what I have to offer. Which is a lot. You know, you might be one of those people.
What I’ve learned through my work is that to give and be happy you need to be in the right space – a helpful space. My meditation is a big part of that. I work hard at it, like I said. Mind you, I still have thoughts and some feelings that keep coming back. Which drives me crazy. Why? Because they hurt. They are painful. It’s not the “me” I want to be. But with effort you can control those feelings. Gradually, I think, I’m becoming calmer and much clearer. I see what I need for myself, for example. I could never see that before.
What does meditation do? My meditation gives me space. When I sit on my meditation cushion I feel good. But, to be honest, and that’s something meditation is helping me with – being honest – anyhow to be honest, I need support. How? Well, when I see you after my meditation, you don’t look happy. And this bothers me. Why can’t you be happy? Just once! When you’re not happy it ruins it for me. It really does.
The Secret of Happiness
But there, we got off the topic. But not really, that was the other thing I wanted to say.
What I mean to say is, I love you, and I care for you. I do. But I’m worried. I’m worried about you, about how you relate. For one thing, I don’t know how to say this any other way – and don’t take it personally – but you are a bit self-involved. Being like that is going to lead to unhappiness. That’s what meditation teaches you.
There, I said it. Like I said, my meditation practice has given me the courage to tell the truth, to actually say what I think and feel. I can’t tell you, this is so liberating for me. I don’t actually feel like the same person. I’m a new person, in a way. And I’ve realized that it’s not really about me. It’s about you.
And I would like to help you. I really feel I can. I want to help you change. It will be hard, it will take work, but I think if we do it together, we can accomplish it. Yes, I told you, I do love you. But I know you could be better, you could be more you. How? Well for one thing, you could be more helpful. Think of others. Like me.
Editor’s Note: To look at the breadth of what we might have read to support our meditation practice, we asked staff members to talk about books that inspired them at the beginning of their sitting meditation career, as well as books that freshly inspire them today. These selections reflect our Buddhist heritage, but can be enjoyed by anyone exploring the practice of meditation. We asked Mrs. Greenleaf, who is in France at the moment visiting her family, to share something of her life in France when she was younger.
The time was the 1970’s. I was in New York City working for the welfare department. I ran across The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Govinda. I had begun to wonder about reincarnation. Lama Govinda covered reincarnation in a direct, plain-spoken way that, for the first time, made the idea real to me.
Since a child, mountain people and things Asian had fascinated me. The lives of the Native Americans also captivated me. “Peau Rouge” — literally “red skin” — could be seen on American movies about the Wild West, which played in the one theater of my little French Village. My father, who worked as a stable hand since he was a boy, would be less interested in the plot of the movie than the beautiful horses and horsemanship he saw on the screen.
If I think about my village, I can’t help but remember my grandmother. She lived alone (her husband died early) like a hermit in a little stone house in the woods. When I was seven or eight years old, my favorite thing to do with her was mushroom hunting, which we would do very early in the morning in the town forest. I had to have trusted my grandmother a lot, since the forest was home to wild boar which loomed in my consciousness as something that could put a quick end to little girl’s life.
“MéMé” (pronounced MAY-MAY) was renowned for her ability to find and identify mushrooms. Individuals and chefs would come from many towns away to get her opinion on the edibility of a mushroom. All in all, life as a child in a small, rural French village was very earthy. Maybe for this reason, Lama Govinda’s descriptions of Tibetan nomadic life were not so foreign. They awakened in me the inquisitiveness and curiosity for life that I had experienced as a child.
Anyhow, at the time of White Clouds, I was doing hatha yoga pretty consistently. This included a little meditation and chanting (Om Shanti/Shanti Om, if you must know). Since these sessions were short, I didn’t think about a meditation cushion. Later, I learned mindfulness meditation from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. To sit up straight a bit longer, I grabbed a cushion off of the couch. At a group sitting, I saw a cushion called a Zafu. A friend had one of these (they were hard to find back then). I borrowed it, figured out how it was made and made my own. Now I help make them for a lot of people. In the beginning we didn’t sit on Zabuton mats, so our legs just rested on the floor. As sitting periods got longer and we started to do retreats, this was uncomfortable, and I started to make Zabutons as well.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s amazing book is realistic about the challenge of practicing meditation in this age, and at the same time poetic and inspiring. The book is also empowering: first pointing out how we let the circumstances of our world “rule” us, and then clearly laying out the path of meditation, which leads to reclaiming our inherent nobility. The descriptions are vivid and seemingly simple. In “Shambhala Fashion”, no aspect of life is exempt from the requirement to wake up and transcend the “me plan”. Even after many years of meditation practice, this book was a fresh reminder to me that every aspect of life requires intention and mindfulness.
The book includes “Six Ways of Ruling” which I understand as a teaching on how to “rule” your own mind first, before attempting to work with others. Because it is so accessible and applicable, this is a great book for beginning students of meditation who would like to lead a full and joyful life. I have been fortunate to be able to work with and serve Sakyong Mipham a lot over the years. He is an earthy person like me, who really embodies the principles that he teaches about.
These days I don’t sit on a Zafu cushion. I practice meditation on the Low Cloud Bench with a 2” Gomden. All on a Zabuton mat. A few years ago, I broke my left leg pretty badly. By giving me some extra height, the Low Cloud Bench allows me still to keep a cross-legged posture. I also like that there’s room to bring one of my heels in under me, which supports an upright posture and makes it easier on my back.