I’ve seen a hundred social media posts asking me what I want to let go of in 2017. and part of me thinks these memes are goofy, but at the same time, I do think about these things.
We all have problems that have been problems for years. I certainly do. If you know me, you could probably share a list of them with me, and you would know exactly what I need to know about them. We’re good like that. Spotting other people’s problems. (also, don’t send that list)
But our meditation practice is about Svadyaya, Self study, not the study of others. Self study is where the wisdom comes
It reminds me of the old saying, ‘insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results.’
I get the same certain results.
I keep doing the same certain things.
I keep thinking the same certain thoughts.
I keep looking at life the same certain way.
What I’m trying to say, is that I’m very certain. We all have these places where we’re very certain, resist introspection, and lash out at feedback.
WE GOTTA STOP DOING THIS
I know it’s hard to root out the beliefs and the perceptions. They can be subtle and evasive, be design. I like to work backwards. What’s the situation? What’s the open sore of an unwanted manifestation?
Like we mentioned above, often it seems like other people or external situations are at the root of our unhappiness. If only such and such were different.
It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s no kind of place to finish. We’ve got to refocus on ourselves. We’ve got to be less certain that we’re right, that we’re justified, that we’ve got it all figured out.
What can we be less certain about? What thoughts are we holding onto so tightly they cause our jaw to clench and our forehead to furrow?
I don’t know what to do…
I don’t know if my ideas about this are actually in line with my highest truth…
I want to do better, I don’t know how…
This is a great place to start, admitting that what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, and that we don’t necessarily know any other way. It’s a mysterious place to be and full of possibilities.
This is our work.
And this is all for this email, for now. I’ll have more in a day or two. In the mean time, I hope your new year is full of questions, and mysteries, and possibility.
Most of you probably know the story of the Buddha, when he left the castle and his princely upbringing for the first time, and was confronted with the harsh reality of the real world.
First he saw an old man, then a sick man, and then a corpse.
He asked his charioteer, “Who are these people, why did this happen to them, what did they do to deserve this fate?”
Each time, his driver shook his head and looked at him like he was new, “Dude, this happens to everybody.”
The story glosses over another event. He saw two people, talking to each other, nervous and twitching, their eyes darting around.
The Buddha asked, “What is going on over there?”
“Oh, that’s an awkward social interaction?”
“Who does that happen to?”
“Everyone, brother. There is no promise in this world that you’re going to avoid things getting awkward from time to time. Awkward is going to happen.”
So, there you go. old age, sickness, death, ubiquitous awkward social interactions. Now you know. Take it easy on yourself, folks.
Buddha image by Mark Henson
When I decided that I wanted to put a little more energy into writing about meditation, the first thing I discovered is that the writing started to take over the meditation. I sat down, took a few breaths, and start to practice whatever technique I was practicing, and then the ideas for the article started to pour in. With the ideas for the article, came the justifications. These are good ideas, the mind said, these are thoughts about meditation. thoughts about meditation are important, it said. Thoughts about meditation are as good, if not better, than meditation itself.
This can be tricky.
As you may know, I’m not a big proponent of using time on the cushion as exclusively time to aggressively restrain the thoughts. It been my experience that sometimes letting the mind wander in an easy restful manner, casually checking things off the to do list, compassionately reviewing the previous day is a good use of our innate intelligence. Putting ourselves in a restful state can engage a creative part of ourselves that we maybe don’t always have access too. We often come up with new solutions, ones that include humility, forgiveness, and even ease.
However, we’ve probably seen firsthand that thoughts don’t always go that way. Depending the trials of the day, we can spiral, stuck in a mental rut or confusion, blame, gasping. And regardless of the flavor, it’s accompanied with that aforementioned justification. That voice telling us that these thoughts are important enough to take up all this space in our mind.
It’s even trickier when the spiral seems positive. We’re finally going to start that non-profit, we’re going to do all those nice things for all those people. We’re going to cure cancer. I don’t know about you, but if I had a dollar for all of the yoga meditation vegan homeless shelters in costa rica that I decided to build while meditating, I’d have enough money to build one.
So, what to do? One of the things I like to do, is to practice narrowing and widening my focus. This gives my mind a chance to be free and relaxed, and also trains me in some perspective and discipline. I’ll give you an example, but you’ll have to experiment with this on your own. It isn’t meant to be explicit instructions.
Perhaps I’ll start by just sitting down and settling in, watching my breath start to deepen. I’ll let my eyes wander over the altar, I’ll smile about the coziness of the Pendleton I’m wrapped in. I’ll say a few mantras, and scan my body a little to let it relax. I’ll check in to see if anything comes up that i’ve been ignoring in the business of my life, and I’ll give it some time. If there is something I don’t want to forget, I might even lean over to make a note on the phone. And this goes on for a bit, settling down, settling in, getting quiet, softening. This is a wider kind of focus, it’s natural, easy, soothing, creative.
Then, I’ll move into a shamatha practice. This is strict, disciplined. I’ll guide my attention to the tip of my nose and watch my breath go in and out. Exclusively. Thoughts still come up constantly, but are paid no mind. Attention goes back to the breath, again and again. Sometimes it seems as if the thoughts stop for a while, almost threatening that they might never come back. They are going to take their ball of good ideas and go home. It never lasts long, though, and once again I’m guiding the attention back to the breath.
To be clear, I don’t want the thoughts to go away forever, I just want a little more executive control over them. I’m not sure exactly what you want, dear reader, but it’s my guess that if you’re reading this, you want something similar. I just want a little bit of self control in the face of temptation. I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
I often don’t end my meditation with the narrow focus. Popping up quickly after Shamatha and running back into my day can be a little shocking, for me personally. I like to widen the focus again, and let the mind wander some more. If the stuff it was talking about before is still that important, it can talk about it again. It’s almost like a treat. Ice cream after the doctor. I feel like it lets the mind know that it is still seen as a valuable life partner, that it is still loved. A bit of integration, aftercare.
There are many ways to structure a practice. This is just a brief example of how one might work with the mind. Depending on your desires, your practice might be totally different. It might even differ from day to day. It’s personal, and deserves experimentation and curiosity. I just want you to know that you’ve got options, you don’t have to take what one guy said one time as gospel. You’ve got the opportunity to have a meditation practice that serves you, and makes you really, really, happy.
Side Note/Plug: The image of the dancers is by James Jean. Brilliant artist. I have some notebooks with his art on the cover, one of them has been to India with me. Check Him out. http://www.jamesjean.com/
“The purpose of meditation is to clear the mind of all thoughts, right?” – All the students
I’ve been teaching meditation in my little corner of the world for quite some time now, and I’ve got some pretty sharp students. At this point, they have some pretty healthy ideas about meditation. So it definitely surprises me that this old idea keeps popping up. People still, to this day, complain that they can’t make their thoughts stop.
Like you’d really even want to. If it happened to you for real, it would be like one of those old bad Jim Carrey movies where his wish came true, and it turned out to be a curse. How would you function?
Shamatha practice, sometimes called calm abiding meditation, is a popular meditation technique, easy to learn, and yet sometimes easy to misunderstand. It’s simple. The practitioner focuses on a single object, most often the breath. They watch the breath go in and out, and when a thought pops up, it’s noticed, labeled (often ‘thinking’) and let go of. The attention then goes back to the breath. Sometimes, when this is practiced over a long period of time, there are extended spaces without thought, but sometimes there are not. But just because the practice is the noticing and discarding of thoughts, doesn’t mean that the purpose is the final destruction of all thoughts, or even the ability to be without thoughts at will.
The purpose is clarity. The purpose is focus, attention, and perspective. Just because you train a puppy to sit – sit….siiit…sit…sitsitsit….good boy….sit – doesn’t mean you want a dog that only sits. You want a dog that listens, is faithful and well behaved. We want a mind that knows not to chase squirrels through traffic, and doesn’t roll in the muck. When bring the attention back to the breath, we are telling ourselves that being peaceful is more important than following a resentful story, ruminating on our misspent youth, or worrying about a future that might never come.
We practice with watching and training our minds on the cushion, so that this understanding and value system will begin to permeate the rest of our life, as well. We have the clarity and perspective to make better decisions. We are less likely to getting sucked into an unhealthy situation. We are less likely to miss out on an opportunity because of fear. We have an increasingly better chance of responding from our center, and being the person that we want to be, the person we know we are. As near as I can tell, this is the purpose of meditation, not to be a mindless zombie, but to be who we are.
side note – if you’re unfamiliar with this practice, and you want to learn it, please find a qualified teacher. Of course, I’m also available.
We know that there are no shortage of stories and articles about ethical issues arising in yoga studios, and various other spiritual communities. Conflicts between teachers and students, issues with studio administration, conspiracies of silence. Even though everyone seems to have a vague idea that ethical guidelines are a good idea, they aren’t often agreed upon, and rarely are they explicit.
As a result, there seems to be a lack of oversight and accountability for those in positions of power. We’ve seen power exchanges go goofy all too often, and when they do, people don’t know what to do about it, and as a result, unpleasant situations get ignored or denied, and blame gets thrown around all over the place, seemingly indiscriminately. Sincere people, who want to be able to practice safely, deserve powerful ethical guidelines that are actually valued and adhered to.
I’ve read, as I’m sure you have, articles about people complaining about being treated unfairly at a yoga studio, or even being molested on some level. And, I must admit, some evoke more sympathy in me that others. Sometimes someone was obviously wronged, and its horrible, and heartbreaking. Sometimes, folks with bad judgement and poor boundaries get themselves in messes, then feel like it’s convenient to point fingers. Either way, we run into this issue of hindsight being 20/20, and/or trying to solve a systemic problem with anger and vengeance. I don’t see a lot of people being proactive about it, trying to create solutions. And I don’t see people showing up, making it known that they feel like it’s important to them that their community have guidelines in place to sort out messy situations.
This morning, I was really very pleasantly surprised. I was looking at Noah Levine’s Against The Stream Meditation Website. I recently moved to The Mission, and his center is within walking distance. I like Noah, he taught at my yoga studio, many years ago. All the punk rockers and I all went out for Govinda’s and Gelato afterwards.
Anyhow, on the website, there is a page called ‘Grievance and Reconciliation Procedure’. It acknowledges that emotional distress and/or conflict can arise within ones self, and between practitioners, and between practitioners and teachers. Practice, by it’s nature, brings up issues, for the express purpose of finding freedom. The website states that “The health of our community is not measured by the presence or absence of conflict, rather by our willingness to find effective, responsible, and compassionate resolution of interpersonal tensions when they arise.”
I won’t quote Against The Stream’s entire page, but I encourage you to read it. It’s here. I’ll wait. It goes on to detail a clear procedure for bringing up concerns, and how those concerns will be dealt with. It makes it very clear that this community takes its code of ethics seriously, and is willing to create time and space to deal with any perceived violations of this code in a thoughtful, grounded manner.
Consider how this shapes the culture of this community. How would you feel as a student, knowing that this kind of accountability is in place? If you were a teacher, how would it affect how you show up for your students? How would it change the standards you hold yourself to? Or if you are a studio owner, or community leader, do you have something this explicit in place? If not, why not? What would it require of you to implement this? What would it mean for your community?
Change happens when consciousness changes. And consciousness changes on an individual level. It happens when we do self work. Yoga Alliance isn’t going to save us from ground level ethical dilemmas, and neither are countless articles detailing who did what to who. As near as I can tell, the way is to work within ourselves and our communities to create environments that, as ATS puts it, values “dialogue over silence, reconciliation over estrangement, forgiveness over resentment, confession over accusation, and atonement over punishment”
I don’t want you to think that I’m not willing to help, either. If you want to have a conversation about how to work on this for your space, you are certainly welcome to reach out, and we can workshop this together.