Saturday, June 21, 2008
changing course a bit ... and notes on meditation
I've been lately trying to set some new ways for myself that are more beneficial to my health. This includes daily meditation, which I plan to start immediately (hence the link below, which describes a basic practice that i thought might interest some of you) to reduce the stress brought on by a chemical imbalance in my brain that gives me anxiety and the occasional panic attack. In addition to meditation, i plan:
more regular yoga
less dairy in my diet (i am already a vegetarian, but cutting back on cheese consumption, eggs and half and half in my morning coffee are big steps for me to take)
regular bedtime (i am a lifelong night owl, and this entire school year i have kept my erratic bedtime ways, often at the expense of massive energy loss and increased anxiety. i had two panic attacks at school this year. the sleep, which i don't think i've had regular 8-9 hours/night since i was little, will surely help all of my internal fluids and levels of such and such to drop/balance/chill out/whatever)
more frequent exercise, i.e. walking or biking for at least 30 minutes five to six times a week. I went on an hourlong evening walk tonight after eating a big meal and felt great afterward. I've also been biking in an effort to tone up my inner thighs and just in general to have a healthier heart)
continuing learning how to enjoy slower activities like knitting, cooking, reading ... taking pleasure in each "ordinary" thing as it's happening and not worrying about not scurrying about like a mad chicken. too many of us are stuck on autopilot (this is easiest to see by observing tailgaters and speeders on the highway...gargh.)
It all sounds like a lot, but as I have less than 2 years left in my twenties i want to optimize my health NOW. so that these things are easy habits throughout my thirties. most of the rest of my lifestyle is healthier, presumably (from what i see people doing in the grocery store, for example, or how crazy i see them going about the latest whats-it from Best Buy) than 90 or so percent of most Americans, so I have that to be proud of and thankful for.
one last word, it was a piece of excellent advice given to me last night, when i was expressing to a good friend about how i feel that my recently-increased anxiety has to do with not correctly channeling my rage at how rapidly for the worse the world is changing. I admitted to needing to not become raged in the first place at things I simply cannot change, and that i needed to do more to realize my own small corner of difference and to be happy making that small difference without carrying the world's burden on my shoulders: she said that instead of flipping the Hummer driver off, and cursing his blah blah blah, I should wish him awakening. enlightenment. now THAT is going to be hard to do ... but it is excellent advice. I will start by wishing all the people filling their grocery carts with pre-packaged CRAP the ability to discover their skills at making the stuff from scratch!
anyway ... i guess that's all for now. meditation link follows.
peace and relaxation and happiness to all of you ...
How do I get started? Do I need a teacher?
In what follows, I will describe the fundamental aspects of insight meditation practice, the discipline first taught by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. Ideally, one should learn the practice in a setting where one has access to a flesh-and-blood teacher. But not all of us have such opportunities, and so trying meditation on your own with the help of the written word is a good substitute. Of course, your practice will be enhanced if your ever attend a retreat or speak to an experienced teacher. But there is no need to wait until such an opportunity arises for you to begin this path toward greater awareness.
First, find a suitable place and time. The place should be quiet and calming, free from distractions and interruptions. The time should be what works best for you. Perhaps it is the early morning, just after you rise; perhaps it is when you return home from work. Choose a time during which you are not likely to be called away from your practice or lulled to sleep by drowsiness. Initially, try to set aside ten or fifteen minutes for your practice. As you develop your discipline, you may wish to increase your practice time to forty-five minutes to an hour.
Is there a particular posture?
Usually, one engages in meditation while sitting. In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is commonly referred to as "sitting practice" or simply "sitting." But meditation can be practiced standing up, walking, or lying down. To learn the basics of the discipline, it is best to start with sitting. Since it is necessary to still the body in order to still the mind, one must assume a stable, stationary position. And since one will try to avoid movement, it is necessary to find a comfortable posture. Sitting works well on both counts.
You can sit on the floor or in a chair. For most persons, sitting on the floor requires a cushion to be comfortable. A traditional meditation cushion, such as a Japanese zafu or a Tibetan gomden, works well, but so does a pillow or sofa cushion if it allows sufficient height while sitting. A chair is especially good for those who finding floor sitting to be difficult or painful. In both modes-cushion or chair-it is important to sit up straight without external support for the back. Do not rest against a wall if you are seated on the cushion or against the back of chair if you choose that approach. Maintaining a straight back without external support allows one to keep the sitting posture longer without fatigue. To keep the back in proper alignment, it may help to imagine a string attached to the crown of the skull gently pulling the head upwards toward the ceiling, allowing the back to elongate.
The legs and hands may be placed in a variety of positions. If you use a chair, both feet should rest flat on the floor. If you use a cushion to sit on the floor, the legs may be crossed several ways. Many teachers prefer the traditional "full lotus" position, with the feet placed on the top of the opposite thighs, but it is hard posture to hold, especially for beginners. The "half lotus," in which one foot is placed on the top of the opposite thigh and the other foot tucked beneath the opposite thigh, is easier, but it too may prove uncomfortable for beginners. The "Burmese" position may be best for western practitioners. It consists of crossing the legs and tucking the feet under the opposite thighs. Shifting the pelvis slightly forward on the cushion, creating a gentle curve in the small of the back, helps to make this posture more stable and comfortable.
The hands may be placed on the knees or kept on the lap, one hand on top of the other. Choose the position you find most comfortable.
The mouth should be closed and the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth. The eyes, too, should be shut, at least as one begins to learn the practice. This reduces visual stimulation and helps to facilitate concentration. As one gains experience, it is possible to meditate with eyes partially open, and focused on a place on the floor about six feet away.
What am I supposed to do with my mind?
There are many different styles of meditation; practitioners of each of them may answer this question differently. Some practices entail visualizing certain images, some encourage silently repeating a syllable or phrase (mantra), some involve gazing at a candle or some other object. All of these activities essentially serve to focus and affix one's attention for the purpose of cultivating concentration.
Perhaps the best anchor of attention for beginning practitioners is the breath. The breath is a simple focus, requires no additional accoutrements, and is omnipresent. Rarely, however, do we ever attend to it. Yet, the breath has much to teach us about ourselves and the nature of reality.
As you settle into a meditative posture, begin to relax and pay attention to your breathing as the breath moves in and out of the body. There are two convenient locations on which one can place the awareness: the nostrils and the diaphragm. Choose the place at which the sensation of breathing seems most prominent. If you focus on the diaphragm, try to be conscious of the way the breath rises and falls as the belly expands and contracts. If you select the nostrils, attend to the sensation of the air as it moves in and out of your nose. Focusing awareness on the rhythms of the breath almost automatically aids in relaxation. Keep your attention on the breath as best you can. You need only be aware of one inhalation or exhalation at a time.
You will discover, if you are paying attention to the workings of your own mind, that you will not be able to stay mindful of the breath for very long. Try as we might, unbidden thoughts, feelings, and sensations begin to intrude. That is fine and to be expected. The goal of meditation is not to eliminate these intrusions but to be aware of them. When you become aware of a thought or sensation, take note of it. You might simply say silently to yourself "thinking" or "tingling" or "hearing" or whatever term seems appropriate to your experience. Keep it simple, though; don't become overly analytical. The point is simply to take note of experience as it is happening. When you have become conscious of a thought or sensation, let it go. Gently return attention back to the breath and be present to your breathing again. When another thought or sensation arises, note it and return to the breath.
If you allow yourself to get absorbed into your thoughts, it may take a long time before your realize you are thinking. One moment you are focused on your breath, then suddenly you waken from your reverie twenty minutes later to discover you been fantasizing about your vacation in Cincinnati. That's the way the mind works. Don't become judgmental about that process; that only stimulates further thinking. No matter how long it takes for you become aware of your thoughts, simply recognize that you've been thinking and return attention to the breath.
This is the basic technique for strengthening concentration. It is a simple practice, but it is not an easy practice. Initially, one will find it hard to stay focused on the breath. Don't be discouraged. The mind has been conditioned your entire life to resist discipline. It has to be gently but firmly trained to stay attentive. Don't expect instant and dramatic results. The benefits of meditation are cumulative and gradual. Over time, you will recognize that your mind responds to training. Increasingly, your concentrative powers are sharpened and you find it easier to remain focused on the object of your attention.
But the value of meditation practice is even more than just enhanced capacities for concentration and awareness. The practice gradually inculcates a different and wiser perspective on our experience. By learning to become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and sensations and them letting them go, we learn the invaluable discipline of non-attachment. One of the central insights of the Buddhism is the intrinsic connection between suffering and attachment. Unskillfully clinging to the items of our experiences-whether other persons, ambitions, goals, ideals, feelings, or beliefs-causes us greatly to increase our suffering and the suffering of others. Reality is simply not structured to sustain our attachments. Nothing is immune to the flux of change, and attempting to relate to anything as if it were permanent or absolute is bound to cause us sorrow. Our greatest attachment, perhaps, is to our very notion of self, our illusion that there is something substantial and permanent about who we are. Even this belief-indeed, especially this belief-must be released. By learning that it is not necessary to identify with any thought, feeling, or sensation, we increase our ability not to cling to or grasp at the elements of our life's experience.
Buddhists liken the mind in its natural state and function to a clear blue sky. The thoughts and sensations we experience they compare to clouds. As long as those images, thoughts, and feelings are allowed to drift through the mind like clouds on a blue day, we maintain clarity and wisdom. But when we begin to cling, to hold on to that which is fundamentally elusive, our minds become cloudy, unable to see the world and our lives in it as they truly are. Our minds become so filled with opinions and beliefs, our entire experience is filtered through them, distorting our understanding of what really is.