Monday, December 16, 2013

The Voice That Doesn't Use Words

For better or worse, people have always remarked upon my quiet, calm demeanor. Some people complain that they can't hear me because I speak so quietly, or because I communicate with a poker face that betrays little emotion. Some people are unnerved by my — or anyone else's — propensity towards silence, and they ask me, with visible discomfort, "Why are you so quiet?" They seem to need to have every moment filled up with speech of some kind, even if it's the noise of a television set in the background or the earbuds pumping a constant stream of music into their ears. Still others are thrown off by what they describe as the intensity of my gaze, which appears to be communicating a great deal without uttering a single word. It's the rare person who finds comfort or solace in my quietude.

What few people (except my closest friends, who know me well) seem to realize — for I've become very good at hiding it — is that beneath my quiet, calm demeanor lies the same incessantly chattering "monkey mind" from which every other human being suffers. When I sit down to meditate, the mind that I encounter is usually not a calm, still lake; it's a roiling sea of thoughts, hopes, fears, judgments, fantasies, memories, plans and dreams. It is what Bhante Henepola Gunaratana called a "screeching, gibbering madhouse on wheels, barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless."

But then, there are moments, fleeting glimpses, of what lies behind or beneath all that. The simple ground of awareness, uncontrived and unburdened from the baggage of concepts and language and commentary and ideas. And a glimpse — whether it's five seconds or five minutes — is all it takes to remind me that there is an eye of calmness within the center of my storm, a calmness that is accessible to me anytime I choose to drop down through the layers of clouds and the blowing winds and rain and make contact with the empty space and the stillness and silence that lies at the heart of it all.

"Zen practice is always about returning to that place where there are no words. Early on, I realized that to use words, you have to live life beyond words, before words, without words. Only then do you have the right to speak." - Seido Ray Ronci

Lately in my meditations I've been trying to observe the difference between still mind and moving mind — which is another way of saying between quiet mind and chattering mind. What happens when you release the mind's habitual tendency towards saying something — anything — about anything at all? What is left over when you stop conversing with yourself, remembering, fantasizing, planning, or even commenting upon what's happening in the present moment? What happens when you stop worrying about whether you're meditating correctly and just experience what is actually happening without talking to yourself about it? Who are you when you finally shut up and — for ten seconds of your life — stop talking about yourself and your experience, and just experience it?

What does the voice of your naked awareness sound like when you're not trying to make it say what you want it to say?

"There is a voice that doesn't use words," said Rumi. "Listen."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Meditation 101

As people begin preparing their resolutions for the New Year, many will have "learning to meditate" near the top of their lists. In my observation, the best way to learn to meditate is through face-to-face instruction from someone experienced in the practice, who can answer questions and help you work with obstacles that may arise. If you can do it that way, I recommend it. But that's not always possible; and, in any case, it's also helpful to read written instructions.

The following basic instructions in meditation practice were first published on this blog five years ago. I'm reposting them now because — whether we are brand new to meditation or have been practicing for years — we can never hear them too many times. And each time we hear them, we may hear something new.

The first time I heard meditation instruction, it was presented in terms of three simple building blocks — a mnemonic device that I’ve always found it helpful to recall. The three basic building blocks of sitting meditation are: Body, Breath, and Mind.

Even within Buddhism, there are many types of meditation that utilize different techniques designed to accomplish different things (not to speak of all the meditations found in other spiritual traditions). The type of meditation described here is called shamatha, translated as Tranquility or Calm Abiding or Peaceful Abiding. As those labels suggest, its main purpose is to calm the mind, and to help us train in the ability to “abide” or stay present with what is happening right here, right now.

Training in this kind of Tranquility meditation is the first step in really getting to know our own minds, and creates a foundation for everything we do on the spiritual path.

"The method that the Buddha discovered is meditation. He discovered that struggling to find answers did not work. It was only when there were gaps in his struggle that insights came to him. He began to realize that there was a sane, awake quality within him that manifested itself only in the absence of struggle. So the practice of meditation involves letting be."

-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

A: Body

The first part of the practice involves how we work with our body during meditation. Taking the right posture is essential, because the state of the body reflects and affects the state of the mind: the mind-body continuum. A slouching posture leads to a slouching, dull state of mind — and vice versa. A proper, upright posture embodies the qualities of strength, dignity, and bravery, and sets the stage for engaging with your mind in the practice of meditation.

  • Sit up straight, allowing the spine to lengthen naturally — as if an invisible string attached to the crown of your head were lightly pulling you upward. If you're in a chair, you might try sitting forward rather than leaning against the back of the chair; your feet should be flat on the floor. If you're on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you.
  • Let your arms drop to your sides, then gently lift only your forearms — keeping your upper arms parallel to the torso — and bring your palms to rest lightly on your knees or your thighs. The placement of the hands should not be so far forward that it causes your shoulders to slouch, and not so far back that it pinches the shoulder blades. Find the right spot to allow your back and shoulders and neck to rest upright, without straining.
  • Keeping the eyes open, direct your gaze down at a point three to six feet in front of you, not looking at anything in particular but allowing the gaze to rest in one spot rather than roaming or following distractions. Allow your eyelids to relax, and soften the gaze so that you're "looking without staring." If you've practiced other meditation techniques that involved closing the eyes, it may seem awkward at first to practice with eyes open, but give it a try and see what happens. Keeping the eyes open is a step towards integrating the practice of mindfulness into everyday life, rather than making mindfulness something separate from your life that can only be practiced under restricted conditions.
  • Relax the stomach muscles, the torso, the throat, the jaw. Bring the tip of the tongue to rest lightly on the spot where your upper teeth meet the roof of your mouth, allowing the lips to part slightly if it feels comfortable.

B: Breath

The second part of the practice involves where we place our minds during meditation. We could choose almost any object — an image, a sound, a particular word or series of words — but most people find that the simplest and most convenient object to use in shamatha meditation is the breath. It's free, you carry it with you everywhere you go, and it's already happening — it requires no particular effort. In one sense, sitting and resting our attention on the breath is the simplest thing we could possibly do; yet the cumulative effects and implications of this practice are profound. Breathing is an expression of the present moment; each breath is slightly different from every other breath, and it is only happening right now. Tuning in to the breath is tuning in to the present moment.

  • Breathe naturally, however you find yourself breathing in this moment: fast, slow, shallow, deep, whatever. Don't make any particular effort to breathe in a certain way, or to control the process. Just be with whatever kind of breath you have right now. If you can, breathe through the nose.
  • Bring your attention to rest lightly on the full cycle of breathing, both in and out. Allow yourself to identify with the soothing quality of the breath.
  • Notice where you feel the physical sensations of breathing most acutely. Maybe it's in the rising and falling of the abdomen, or in the slight warm and cool tickling sensation at the ends of your nostrils as the breath goes out and comes in. Wherever it is for you, rest your attention on that physical sensation.
  • If you can, place a slight emphasis of attention on the out-breath. Feel yourself going out with your breath and dissolving into space, letting go of conceptual mind. Allow the in-breath to happen naturally, and again go out with the out-breath and dissolve.
  • Notice the quality of the moment after one breath has gone out, before the next breath has started to come in. What is your mind like in that moment?

C: Mind

The third part of the practice involves how we work with our minds. Having attempted to sit and rest our attention on the breath for a few moments, we have probably discovered — perhaps to our dismay — that our mind is restless and prone to wander away. We find ourselves thinking about lunch, reliving an argument with our ex-boyfriend, reveling in a sexual fantasy, fretting over our job, stewing in old feelings of shame or resentment, worrying about our loved ones, or desperately seeking entertainment by looking for shapes and patterns in the carpet in front of us: the possibilities are literally endless. Our minds seem to hop from one distraction to another with total disregard for our noble intention to stay with the breath. Welcome to your "monkey-mind." Through regular shamatha practice, we can begin to train the monkey to stay in one place for longer periods of time, and we can even learn to regard its antics with humor and compassion.

Usually, when we have a thought or a feeling, we run with it: our minds seem to control us, rather than us controlling our minds. By practicing shamatha, we train in the ability to recognize our thoughts without being driven by them. But the goal of shamatha is not to "get rid of" thoughts — this is a common misconception. The goal is to see ourselves clearly, and with compassion, by touching in with whatever we're experiencing, and then coming back to the present moment and the object of meditation. Precision and gentleness are the keys.

  • When you become aware that your mind has wandered off into a thought, feeling, or fantasy, gently touch on it and return your attention to the breath. Whatever kind of thought or feeling it was, try to see it without judgment or criticism: in the practice of shamatha, there are no good thoughts or bad thoughts. No thought is to be condemned or praised — that's just more thinking.
  • You may find it helpful to mark the moment of transition between thinking and returning to the breath by "labeling" your thoughts. When you recognize you've been thinking, say to yourself mentally: "Thinking." Apply this labeling technique with a light touch -- like touching your thoughts with a feather. Don't try to shoot down your thoughts or squash them, but simply recognize them, let them go, and come back to the breath.
  • Above all, be gentle with yourself, and relax.