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.