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.
Muddy Water is best Cleared By Leaving It Alone – Alan Watts (from The Way of Zen)
It is time to move away from the metaphor of ‘mud as concept’ and move into the understanding of ‘mud as process’.
We tend to think of our minds as a container, filled to the brim with the complicated details of our lives. We have so much to do, and so little time. So much is asked of us, and resources appear scarce. If we can just get a little quiet time, without pressing demands, only then we can relax.
This may provide some relief, but it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. As long as we think of the mud as being something outside of ourselves, we are a victim, powerless to forces outside ourselves. And this is no way to live.
The mud of life is just going to happen, there is nothing to be done about that. Unless we are in some kind of untenable or abusive situation, we need to deal with reality as it comes.
Closer to the truth, is seeing the mud as being inside of us. But the mud is not some kind of ‘impurity’ or bad energy . Nothing so maudlin as that. We want to step away from ideas that induce shame, or perpetuate self hate. We don’t need to cleanse. We don’t need to buy indulgences.
It’s much simpler than that. Our minds have a tendency to make things more complicated than they need to be. Hungry for meaning and spiritual satisfaction, the mind gnaws on the events of our life. It elevates the smallest details and the most irrelevant, irrational fears into high drama. Perhaps the mind is just trying to be helpful, but it often just really isn’t. It takes us out of joy and peace, all the while telling us it has our best interests in mind.
You can’t throw rocks at a ripple. There’s the rub. Hatred never ceases by hatred. (thats from The Dhammapada )
The best thing we can do, is leave it alone. If it wants to wrestle, let it wrestle itself. This is why we have our yin yoga and meditation practice. We put ourselves into poses, we breathe, and we let the mind do what it wants. Somehow, some-miraculous-how, it starts to settle all on its own. Something we couldn’t do, something we only made worse with our effort, just happens naturally, when we leave it alone.
I find the Duncan Trussel Family Hour Forum to be really interesting. I was on there the other day, and was reading a thread about western magic, and their rituals. There was a practice called ‘The Gnostic Pentagram Ritual’. It struck me that it was very similar to a practice that I do, only with traditional tantric visualization, meditation and mantra. So, I decided to type my practice out, in both the interest of serving people who might find this practice useful, and also as a curiosity for those who simply like to compare spiritual practices cross culturally. I hope you enjoy. (more…)
Your life might be an aquired taste. Do you remember the first time you had a glass of wine, how awful it was? Do you remember the dawning of awareness, as you realized the depth, the complexity, the beauty? Have you ever listened, as a vintner discussed what goes into every bottle, the effects of the soil and the atmosphere and the wood of the casks? Or as a connesiour encourages you to absorb every last bit of flavor? Have you seen their faces light up as they describe what they love about wine? This is your life. Your life is an acquired taste! You have created your life. You have done the best you could, given your particular environment, genetics, and karma. You have crafted something, that just might be wonderful. Sit back, light a candle, and taste it. Savor it’s complexity. Consider the possibility that nothing in your life needs to change except the way you taste it. Extract every nuance. Give yourself a chance to sift through what you may have initially written off as unpleasant. Allow the flavors to open and reveal themselves to you. Let the bitterness, the grit, the swarm of seemingly conflicting impressions melt into a harmonious blend of experience. Marvel at the richness and the beauty. In my favorite Bukowski poem, ‘The Laughing Heart’, he agrees,
‘Your life is your life, know it while you have it. You are marvelous, the gods wait to delight in you.’
Join them, all the gods, masters and holy ones. Join the winos, and the beats. Delight in your life.