Beginning Meditation? Start Here

How to meditate? Different traditions answer that question differently. In Buddhist mindfulness, you start by focusing your attention on the breath. The Buddha himself gave instruction on this breath meditation in the Anapanasatti Sutra.

According to this Sutra, or discourse by the Buddha, there are steps along the path of mindfulness. The way to begin, however, is to be aware of the breath−or more precisely−the sensation of the body breathing.  Meditation Practice could start in many ways, but we are already in the habit of relating to our body (and happily, we are breathing). So the breath is a natural and familiar focus for gathering the mind.

In the sutra, even before the Buddha gives instructions on how to meditate, he gives advice on preparing to practice. In other words, even in beginning meditation, there is a way to begin.

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A Waste of Time

tinisThe $600/hour litigator is wearing a custom suit. A smart dresser, and if it helps to paint a picture, yes, he’s from Brooklyn. Nothing much gets by this savvy fellow. He’s talking to me. But right now, he’s not making a lot of sense.

“So Michael, how’s the meditation retreat up there in Vermont? You know, I could use a little R&R. Why don’t you and I head up to one of those retreats of yours and kick back? I think we’ve earned it, don’t you?”

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The True Refuge

According to my meditation teacher, to practice meditation is to be vulnerable, requiring the discipline of simplifying and slowing down. This journey takes intelligence and a willingness to acknowledge our connection to others. Sitting on our meditation cushion, we are exposed. Our willingness to be exposed is an expression of strength.

Of course security is important and meditation requires relaxation. But if we are left alone for a minute, and we give our discursiveness a rest, inevitably we begin to feel. To feel what we are feeling is to be human. To be human is to be vulnerable.

But now what? What next? Where do we go? Where is our refuge? Upon what can we rely?

It’s ironic, but some of us, even those of us practicing meditation, have forgotten that vulnerability is our natural state. Often unconsciously, we work to solve the dilemma of our thin skin by aspiring not to feel.

Co-opted by fear, our meditative discipline becomes a drug designed to enhance only the good and reduce or eliminate the trauma of living. As social scientists have come to recognize, in suppressing what is difficult in being human, we also lose what is sublime. Pursuing what is comfortable and protected, we find ourselves more dead than alive.

Unable to be simple, we need a story. We find protection in the righteousness of our discipline, or in a superior view, or maybe we embrace a spiritual path that sanctifies our togetherness. Aspiring to a higher and less vulnerable self, we confront the world with a knowing smile. With pride we offer to tidy up a mess of our own invention. As Bono sang, we are ready “to play Jesus, to the lepers in our head.”

Even if we don’t bother with elevating our self-esteem at the expense of others, our imagined insulation from the world permits a subtle nihilism. We allow ourselves the hypocrisy of pretending that our actions haven’t hurt others and that the hurts we have suffered are somehow behind us. The only way to maintain this self-deception is by moving along to the next thing. When it comes to what is real, and what is now, we demure. That is for another time, we tell ourselves, embracing small talk or the news of the day.

Absorbed in the drama of our security, we forget that what’s above us isn’t a roof. It’s the sky. Space that goes up effectively forever. We acknowledge the living earth only when it comforts or glorifies our existence. For the most part, we treat the planet as a corridor leading to our next destination. But this ‘corridor’ is spinning and careening through space. We, the inhabitants are also in transition, with no idea when our number is up. Being vulnerable makes sense. It is the way things are.

Instinctively, we know all this and our refuges are almost a reflex. Because the shelters we seek are reflections of our own insecurity, sooner or later they let us down. When our contract with the ‘other’ eventually falls through, we are left tilting at windmills, placing blame, and critiquing the demise of a world we ourselves had invented. A world built around imaginary contracts written to ensure that we would never be exposed.

Since we are involved in a pattern that betrays us, no matter how glorious or gloomy our circumstance, subtly we hold on to a sense of injury. Each day we  wake up with the feeling that we have been wronged and that life going forward needs to make it up to us, or at the very least, leave us alone. Our patterns reflect this complaint. They are circular, and having played one out without satisfaction, we are compelled in the moment to start again. Vulnerability is this fresh start. But now what? Where do we go? What is the true refuge, the one that won’t disappoint, the direction that doesn’t lead us in a circle? For a refuge to be real, it has to be true to who we are.

Meditation brings focus, centering and a measure of relaxation. But once this natural health has been experienced, our practice is a chance to feel. In spite of our humanity, we don’t always have the nerve or motivation to take this chance. Why should we? Because by slowing down, feeling and being, we can know and understand our hearts. Connecting to ourselves, our connection to others is revealed. Naturally, we discover that we care. When we discover caring, the one true refuge is available.

This true refuge is native and easy and it is a decision made after careful consideration of the alternatives. It is personal, manifesting differently because we are all different. Whatever the expression, it is the one way to connect with the world that brings peace. Because it has to start somewhere, it could begin with admitting that there is nothing wrong with who we are. It might mean extending ourselves or practicing forgiveness . Because it is both natural and imposed, sometimes it means “YES!” and sometimes “NO!” It is the path that will never disappoint or mislead. It is the only way forward, the only way to grow.

The one true refuge? Kindness–to oneself and all beings.

Editor’s Note: An interviewer once asked the Dalai Lama how he got over the desecration of his country by the Chinese. He look puzzled: “I didn’t,” he replied. When Mr. Greenleaf was asked about this post, he shared that it was written “at a difficult time, after my favorite refuge had let me down—in what I imagined to be a big way.”  For more on the power of vulnerability, see the Ted Talk by Brene Brown.

 

The Contentment Test

This year, the Christian tradition of Lent falls during the weeks before and after the first day of spring. Lent is a time associated with purification and renunciation. While Buddhism is no stranger to these practices, one of the words for renunciation in Tibetan can also be translated as “contentment”. (The word is chok-she, which literally means “to know enough, to know what is enough”.) Rather than self-sacrifice or a lowering of expectation, contentment refers to waking up from the confusion of continuous want; appreciating the richness of experience in each moment.

To say what might be obvious, this moment, in this life, is the only one we have. Nevertheless, many of us find ourselves planning in vain for another moment, another now. Not only an expression of our wish to grow and learn, sitting on our meditation cushion is also taking the time to find, or more accurately express, contentment in our own experience as it is now. (Notably: the word contentment includes “content”, which when the accent is on the first syllable, refers to the ability to hold).

Contentment is curious. Take The Contentment Test below to discover more.

1. When you have screwed up again, you should:

A: Buck up and try harder.

B: Confront the jerks who let you down.

C: Take a long hard look at your own failings.

D: Smile.

2. When others have failed, it makes sense to:

A: Show how they set their sights too high.

B: Explore the details of the screwed-up.

C: Look for ways to help them move forward.

D: Remind them they’ve done this before.

3. Someone who questions the virtue of continuous entertainment:

A: Hasn’t seen ‘Dancing with the Stars’

B: Sees life as a chain of small but meaningful decisions.

C: Is afraid of the rituals that make us a society.

D: Has questionable social skills.

4. When you’ve realized who you are, you should:

A: Try to find yourself.

B. Share colorful stories highlighting your outstanding qualities.

C. Be patient until others reach your level.

D: Share your insights with those who need them most.

5. The best way to get things done is to:

A: Slow down.

B: Waste less time (with questions like these).

C: Champion productivity.

D: Fake it ’till you make it.

6. Complete the refrain: “Somewhere, over the rainbow…”

A: Sh*t Happens.

B: Is a wonderful view.

C: Lunch is ready.

D: Credit cards have lower rates.

7. Complete the following: “Life has meaning when…”

A: I’m doing what I want.

B: I’m not stuck with someone else’s job.

C: Stupid questions are avoided.

D: I know what I’m doing and why.

8. Finish the statement: “Success is…”

A: Having more (not less).

B: Being willing to win.

C: Nothing to worry about.

D: One million hits on YouTube.

9. It’s important to tell the truth because:

A: There’s nothing to hide.

B. It might just work.

B: Unable to recall at this time.

C: No one’s really listening.

10. When you meet another person, best to:

A: Judge them fairly.

B: Keep a safe distance.

C: Baffle (if you can’t dazzle).

D: Smile.

This test was inspired by the teachings on the Dignity of the Tiger, from the books Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior and Ruling Your World. I answered my test like this: D, C, B, A, A, B, D, C, A, D—a result I was satisfied with. Since I wrote the test, it wasn’t so hard. How did you do? How would you compose your own test? This spring, wishing you contentment in the ever-changing nature of the moment.

The Science (and not) of Meditation

There are many good reasons to meditate, some empirical, some personal.

Science
Scientific studies confirm: Meditation Helps. These studies track the impact of meditation on physical health and psychological distress. Because they use the scientific method and focus on empirical findings, they’re something (just about) everyone can agree on. This is one of the wonderful things about science.

The scientific benefits of meditation are increasingly well-documented. Here are a few of the headlines—the most striking benefits, from the most credible sources:

Not science: the subjective benefits of meditation
Many of the benefits of meditation reside in the world of individual, subjective experience, which is harder to measure and categorize than the largely physical health outcomes listed above. The slow psychological changes that meditation can bring—”I don’t fly off the handle so easily,” “I’m quicker to notice and empathize with others’ pain,” “I feel ‘wiser’ and better attuned to reality,” ”I’m not so hard on myself”—are what makes meditation so special, and much more than another tool in the health-care arsenal.

Sort of science: tracking the subjective benefits of meditation
Whether or not they are verified by science, subjective experiences can be credible and intelligible to us, the people having them. Recording, tracking, and reviewing your own experiences is “sort of science.” As you practice meditation, look carefully at your psychological state and see how it changes over time. Try to understand how the whole thing works. Just like a scientist, except that your experience is measured personally, rather than empirically.

As you take and retake your own “meditation portrait,” a picture will develop of the ebbs and flows in your life, and meditation’s influence on them. If you collect enough convincing data this way, you might even tell some scientists—but in the meantime, you will notice the gradual but profound changes meditation can bring.

 

For Men Only: A Valentine

Dear hombre, how can you be in relationship if you don’t know, well–how to be?  Whether you are strutting in your Cole Haans  or clumping around in Carhartts, stress leaves you hard to find and blinds you to beauty in the moment.

Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce stress—in other words, meditation supports relationship success. Here are five ways:

1)    Take-Home Pay In tuning you up, we can’t ignore the green. Your ability to provide is a turn on. But if you take work home in the form of worry, that’s unpaid overtime. By allowing you to trust yourself as you are now, mindfulness meditation gives worry a rest. When work stays at work, your pay rate jumps. A would-be partner wants to know that you value your time. How else can you value theirs?

2)    Yes Captain! Meditation lowers bad testosterone, you know, the kind that has you doing 60 in a School Zone and fondling the remote when a partner wants to share. OK, maybe studies are still looking for the bad testosterone, but how many times have you blown by signals a mate was trying to send? In meditation, the now is enjoyed. Rushing to be somewhere you’re not loses its appeal. Slowing down, you are longer driven; you are the driver. That makes you the pilot of your own ship. Pilots are sexy.

3)    Cleaning Up It doesn’t take a neuro-scientist to understand that meditation makes a better brain. Regular mindfulness practice reveals a bigger and brighter world. Your brain notices—and comes along for the ride. Every man-cave looks bigger and better without the clutter. Mindfulness meditation is mental hygiene. Promising partners will require hygiene before neurons are allowed to transmit.

4)    New Tricks No offense, but the boredom of old dogs is contagious. Ignoring the fluidity of life, habits bring tension rather than the safety they promise. Sure it’s a guy thing, but why double down on a lack of imagination? By training you to say “yes” to what is new, meditation opens the door to adventure in the moment. Appreciating your friend in a fresh way, you can start over. Starting over is new romance.

5)    Being There Are you married to your PDA? Who wants a three way with a digital device? Learning to “be” in meditation reveals a space that longs to be shared. You don’t just need a network to plug in, you are the network. You would demand it from an Adroid, what about your connectivity? A heads up (if you can manage it), your iPhone will never cook you eggs at midnight or smile at your dimples.

It’s best to learn meditation from someone trained in teaching a basic technique. Search on “mindfulness meditation” to find qualified instruction where you live. The next step: to support your practice, make a space for meditation in the man cave. Your meditation cushion (or bench) is a conversation piece that suggests there is more (or less!) to you than meets the eye.

Of course, to put your feet up with the one you love requires something your partner won’t be able to resist: Real Estate. You might not have the coolest crib, but in mindfulness you will discover something essential for meeting and hosting your Valentine: Space.

Editor’s Note: Cole Haans? I don’t think you could find a pair within 100 miles of northern Vermont where we at Samadhi Cushions live and make the Zafus and Zabutons we are famous for. Not sure how to explain the vibe here in Acharya Greenleaf’s post. Was that a copy of Men’s Health Magazine I saw peeking out of his bag of Dharma Books?

Meditation–It’s Science!

We report here on several groundbreaking new scientific studies with impressive results for those practicing mindfulness meditation.

First, scientists have discovered that regular meditation sessions can help couples get along. In one experiment, self-avowed “difficult” spouses were asked to practice once a day on their meditation cushion. After three months, over 60% of their suffering partners found the new meditator “more bearable.”

“Sure he’s less moody” confided a relieved wife, “but when my husband is meditating, the TV is off, he’s not making a mess and he’s not bothering me. This is really working for both of us.” An unexpected outcome: having had “some time to think about it,” 40% of the troubled spouses concluded that “the difficult one” in the relationship was actually the non-meditating member.

In another study, teens practicing mindfulness showed a dramatic change in speech patterns. 75% of subjects studied were able to finish sentences they themselves had started in a way understandable by a member of the older generation. “The declarative sentence is back!” one researcher gushed.

“I’m cold.”  “It’s pretty outside.”   “You look nice.”  These were just a few of the sentences completed by teens in the study.  “For some of these kids, it is the first time they have committed to a sentence—seeing it through to the end,” boasted the researcher. “There is a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” he added. The teens engaged in mindfulness were also 50% more likely to be “where you last saw them,” compared with teens in the control group. Teen video gamers, however, still outpaced meditators in this last statistic.

In another revelation, it turns out that awareness activates the “brainstem, thalamus, and posteromedial cortices.” [The brain–Ed.] A study in Florida looked at retirees over 80 practicing daily breath awareness. Seniors sitting in meditation posture once a day showed a “startled clarity” as well as a “heightened sense of irony.” “Meditation gives these seniors the space to consider the alternatives. Just being where you are can lead to changed assessments,” remarked the lead researcher. “Some of the subjects were genuinely surprised to discover they were still breathing,” he added.

In a Great Britain study of career-minded twenty-somethings, 50% of the very busy respondents were less likely to lose their iPhone in a pub’s toilet if they had a daily meditation practice. Subjects (some for the first time ever) were able to leave their iPhones behind while visiting the loo, accounting for the drop in, well, drop-ins.

“These people are chronic multitaskers.  For many it was the first time they had ever focused on just doing one thing and doing it well,” commented the lead researcher. Respondents also reported a new sense of “inner peace” as well as the end of embarrassing images emailed accidentally from the WC.

Lastly, a groundbreaking investigation looked at creating a “meditative space” for toddlers. In a simple room, 3-5 year-olds were invited to play quietly without additional stimulation from adults, electronic media or educational toys. To the amazement of researchers, one 3-year-old named Lucy played with a piece of crumpled graph paper for over 45 minutes, before turning her attention to a strand in the carpet.

“It was as if she was seeing things in her world that we can only imagine,” recalled the researcher, who labeled the experiment “cutting edge.” The mother of another child, a 4-year-old, reported that after a 20 minute brush with simplicity in “the quiet room” her toddler no longer insisted on trying to hold both his “juicy-juicy” and his “crookie” [juice and cookie–Ed.] in just one hand. (An iPhone belonging to his Mom could be found in the other, the researcher noted.)

“We haven’t quite worked out the iPhone and visits to the potty,” reported the Mom, “but at least he seems to have a firm grip on the thing.”

Editor’s Note: Dear reader, here soon we will post a blog with links to some additional (and possibly more authoritative) studies. The art for the blog is by Acharya Greenleaf’s dad, Newcomb Greenleaf, who is exploring Japanese Temple Geometry.

 

 

 

 

Cliff Dwellers

I promise, this blog is not about the fiscal cliff, slope or whatever it was. Not really. But I have to wonder, how it is we are all going to find reason in our relations with each other. By all accounts, the President made offers that should have enticed Republicans long before the deadline. “Why,” some wondered, couldn’t the holdouts in the House of Representatives just “listen to reason.”

In a book reviewed by the Times last spring, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers an answer. In “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt asserts that human beings (politicians presumably among them) don’t make decisions based on reason. Our decisions come from how we feel. As humans we are intuitive and emotional. Logic and reasons come later as a way to support the value-based decisions we have already made. [Note to the blog: I only read the Times review, I didn’t actually read the book. I will leave that to the scholars, those in the profession, and the rest of you who have no trouble understanding why a thesis that takes 300 pages can’t be said in 10. If some of you find irony in this, you are my kind of reader!]

At any rate, the psychologist writes that Republicans (as a rule) feel deeply about faith, patriotism, valor, chastity and law and order. Democrats, on the other hand, are mainly moved by the challenge of defending those who can’t defend themselves. In both cases, the parties have very human aspirations for society. Haidt calls these moral values. The word moral has the weight of judgment, but the root is related to the simple idea of manners, or the appropriate behavior for citizens of a society.

Aside from the question of how we should behave with each other, how do we behave? If it depends upon how we feel, then in the realm of I and other, “the other” is an emotionally charged phenomenon. To paraphrase the Buddhist Teacher Chögyam Trungpa, when there is a knock on the door, we have either a bottle of cabernet or a semi-automatic ready and waiting. This insight is supported by neuroscience.  Before the ears have heard and the eyes have moved, rather than reacting, the brain has anticipated the next sense encounter.

If we don’t notice that our feelings are pre-programmed and that the decisions we’ve made have been “spun”, when does real communication happen? Without feeling a shared a humanity, we find ourselves alienated, hostage to principle. Entrenched in our own views, we and the politicians who represent us are freed from the burden of exchange that characterizes society (the root of the word means partner or comrade).

Of course to have a partner is to be two, not one. Who is a partner? Someone who  listens. Listening changes minds, if only a little. (According to Haidt, 2 minutes of contemplation around a considered argument is all it takes.) According the psychologist, it is in this exchange that true reason is born. Expounding well-rehearsed opinions may be satisfying, but a reasonable (you could say sane) society is built on something as simple as a conversation.

Of course conversations are everywhere. No one needs a psychologist to tell them that listening changes things. Experience tells us that merely acknowledging our partner’s or family member’s contrary opinion results in a changed atmosphere, if not a consensus. Only highlighting differences, however, “we” becomes “us and them.” Estrangement and separation follow.

Awareness, the kind cultivated on your meditation bench through mindfulness and contemplation, is helpful here. In the discipline of undistracted time alone, our humanity is harder to avoid. Confronted with feeling, the endless chatter of “reasons” is revealed as an overlay, a justification. We begin to sense subtleties. To paraphrase Trungpa again, in exposing our internal drama, good things appear as bad, and bad things appear as good. Making room for own tensions, is itself making room for others. In the politics of successful relationship, we are all statesmen and stateswomen.

Today, emphasizing how we don’t agree is politics. Listening to another’s opinion (without haranguing them) is to surrender identity and the safety of principled alienation. Whether seduced by the prospect of political gain or the drama of the angry hero, some of our leaders embrace “opting out” of the society they would lead. The myth of opting out is sacred to a culture built on individualism and choice. Sooner or later evidence of connection (say a bill from the IRS or an unplanned romance) will end this dream.

Society is a living thing, constantly evolving and changing. It is natural for schisms to arise and resolve themselves. Maintaining a split, however, requires separation. It’s been noted that most of our Representatives and their families don’t live in Washington DC anymore. Perhaps they don’t want to make the sacrifices made by their predecessors. Perhaps their constituents see a move out as a move up–and are ready to reject their leaders for any sign of “elitism.” In any event, if our politicians and their families don’t meet outside of formal functions, they don’t have to learn how to be together, not to speak of listening to each other. Tellingly, the Senate deal that pulled us back from the edge was between Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden, politicians on either side of the aisle who happen to be friends.

Continually enacting separateness is the ritual of those whose attention is one place and whose home is another. This may be the norm, but is it politics? The word comes from the Greek for citizen—of a polis—a city. Opinions that would lead us beyond city limits are a deception. Maybe it sounds naive, but could we, as well as our leaders, be better listeners? Able to hear the human feelings behind the arguments (our own and others) that continue to vex us? Perhaps then reason can arise, moving us past differences to a place we can share with friends in society, a place somewhere far from a cliff.

Editor’s Note: The teacher Sakyong Mipham has asked his students this question: how we can ask our leaders to do what we ourselves wouldn’t consider? When we opt out of the community meeting at our Meeting House or Meditation Center, aren’t we reenacting the politics of Washington? If sitting in meditation is opening to a conversation with ourselves, shouldn’t it lead to conversations with others who hold values different than our own?

 

What to Do?

Lately, I’ve scrapped a few blog posts. There was one I wrote for the holidays on forgiveness–but it’s just not the right time. In another attempt I tried to follow the threads of grief and loss to some universal wisdom addressing the tragic shootings in Newtown. I couldn’t figure out how to end the post. For what it’s worth, if you are looking for leadership in this sad time, I thought our President’s remarks at the memorial service for the victims were on the dot.

“What can we Do?” is the question the day. This is the “Do” with a capital “D”—not the small “d” that dominates our day-to-day life. Some of you (I think of activists and inspired Bodhisattvas) may be familiar the sense of urgency that this kind of tragedy inspires. Not liking drama, being wary of pretension, and generally weak-kneed, I shy away from the big “D.”

The answers to the question vary. Seeking a sense of security, many will purchase their own gun. Why, they reason, should I be left defenseless—like the victims in the shooting? Some will be inspired to limit the spread of automatic weapons, weapons that transform a shooter into an army. That wasn’t, they argue, the intent of the Second Amendment. The President’s initiative will also look at the treatment of mental illness as part of an action assessment. The shooter was deranged. Was society aware?

The local high school here in Vermont will send cards and other expressions of care to the school in Newtown. In an eloquent letter, the headmaster wrote the parents (and grandparents) quoting scripture. To paraphrase: when we are afflicted, God shares his love with us so that we may share it with others when they too face trial.  (2 Corinthians 1:4).

I once heard Bernie Glassman Roshi give a talk at the New York Shambhala Center. Someone asked him where he got the inspiration for the socially engaged Buddhism that he practices. “It’s simple,” he said. “At some point you can’t take it anymore. You have to do something.”  My big “D”? For me, it isn’t “Doing”. It’s  “Distraction.” By not paying attention, you wake up to a world of your own enabling and wonder how you got there. This too is a question with many answers. For me, I get there by ignoring, losing myself in a world of doing with a small “d’.

Meditation is unusual. It is an act of “being” that combines the vast and the precise, the visionary and the mundane, the mind and the body, the big “D” and the little one. It introduces us to a deeper nature, one within and without. Because it joins the little ‘d’ of action with the bid ‘D’ of human awareness, it helps to overcome the mindlessness that lies at the heart of our incomprehension and our acting out. With the exception of getting a gun (the weak knees could be a problem), I support the efforts and initiatives of others. What I “can’t take anymore” is my own distraction. Distraction, the realm of busyness and forgetting, invites me to ignore my own wounded heart and the hearts of others. To overcome this, I will have to wake up. To wake up, I practice meditation. That’s what I can (D)do.

Editor’s Note: One of Acharya Greenleaf’s scrapped blogs had the title Dark Currents. Because it was too beautiful to pass up, the photo for that post is used here. The photographer, Steve Mancinelli, is our capable patent attorney (yes, Samadhi Cushions does own the name Gomden. It is the trademark for the meditation cushion that is ideal for simple cross-legged sitting). For more amazing images visit Steve’s website: penumbralight.com.