Friday, February 28, 2014

Tao Te Ching Weekend at One Human Journey

It's "Tao Te Ching Weekend" on the One Human Journey Facebook page. A series of nine short contemplations will be posted over the course of the weekend, starting tonight. These posts will inspire you and offer deep insight and spiritual advice. Come follow the page and get all nine contemplations this weekend.

The Tao Te Ching is a classic text written (according to scholars) around the 4th century B.C. or (according to tradition) around the 6th century B.C. by Chinese spiritual master Lao Tzu. As the fundamental text of the Taoist philosophical and religious schools, it is one of the most widely translated works in world literature and strongly influenced both Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism, among other traditions.

Come to the Facebook page and share your own thoughts on these nine short excerpts from the Tao Te Ching in the comments section.

Translation by Brian Walker. Images and layout of the text drawn from translator Brian Walker's Tao Te Ching app for iPhone and iPad. Download the app today!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

7 Tips to Establish Your Meditation Practice

Okay, so you've received some basic meditation instruction and you want to establish a regular practice. That's great! Here are seven tips to help you get your practice going — and keep it going.

1. Just Do It
Meditation can seem difficult or even impossible at times. When we sit down to be still and quiet and look at our minds, we are suddenly, shockingly aware of how busy and distracted our minds really are. For many beginners, this can be disheartening. A lot of people give up before they even begin, thinking, "Other people may be able to meditate, but not me. I just can't do this." This is sort of like someone who takes piano lessons and gives up after the first few lessons because they cannot play a Beethoven piano concerto. It's called practice for a reason. Be patient with yourself and relax. Meditation is a process of taming and training the wild mind to stay present, and that training takes time.

2. Be Consistent
Consistency and regularity of practice are the keys to unlocking the benefits of meditation in your life. This has proven true in the experience of millions of meditators in every spiritual tradition for the past several thousand years. Think of it like brushing your teeth: it's better to do it every day, for short periods of time, rather than once a week for two hours. Practice whether you feel like it or not.
 If you only meditate when you feel like it, then your ego is subtly controlling your meditation practice — and that’s missing the point. If possible, try to practice at a consistent time each day. Many people find that meditating in the morning before going to work helps them establish a better frame of mind for their day. Others prefer to practice in the evening. Some like to "bookend" their days by doing both. Experiment and find what works best for you, and then stick with it for a while.

3. Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Practice in manageable, bite-size chunks. A typical recommendation for beginners is to start with 10 minutes a day, and then over time you can gradually increase it if you feel so inclined. If you are training for a marathon, you don't suddenly run 26 miles; you do a lot of shorter runs, and you gradually build up stamina and endurance. But don't leave it all to chance. Decide in advance how long you’re going to practice, and then stick to that amount of time. Don’t change your mind and bail out in the middle of the session just because it doesn't feel good. By the same token, get up when the session is over, even if it's feeling great.

"Learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment." — Sogyal Rinpoche

4. Use a Timer
However long you practice, use a timer (stop watch, alarm clock, or kitchen timer) to time your sessions. The last thing you want to be doing while you're meditating — although it's tempting! — is peeking at the clock, wondering how much time is left in your session. There are also a number of free mobile apps you can download to time your sessions, or you can use your phone's built-in timer. I recommend the free Insight Meditation Timer app, which also includes access to many guided meditations.

5. Be Brave
Don’t be discouraged when meditation seems difficult, and don't get carried away with elation when it seems pleasant or easy. Experiences come and go like the weather in meditation, and it is our conceptual minds that label them "good" and "bad." Don’t cling to pleasant experiences, and don’t reject unpleasant experiences. Just keep practicing.

6. Find Your Space
Find a conducive space in which to meditate. It should be safe, quiet, and free from phones ringing and other preventable disturbances. But total silence is not necessary. Don’t meditate in total darkness or with light that’s too bright. If possible, you may find it helpful to create a space in your home devoted exclusively to your meditation practice. It could be just a corner of your room with a chair or a meditation cushion, and maybe some items that remind you of your spiritual goals. If circumstances make your home completely and totally unworkable as a meditation space, then you could go to practice in a church or a meditation center. If you have access to a meditation center in your area, you may find it inspirational and supportive to practice together with other people in group settings.

7. Find Your Support
As you continue to work with a meditation practice, questions and obstacles are bound to arise. If you can, it's helpful to talk about these issues with a meditation instructor or someone more experienced in the practice. It helps to have the guidance of someone who has encountered the same questions and obstacles in meditation and has worked through them. If you don't have access to support in person or by phone, there are many books and online resources that can help you identify obstacles in meditation and apply antidotes and solutions. If you're struggling with something in your meditation practice, rest assured that you're not the only one, and someone out there can help you work with it.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Joining Heaven and Earth

Yesterday I went skiing for the first time in 30 years. That other time was so long ago, and so little memory remains of it, that it would probably be more telling to say that yesterday I went skiing for the first time in my life.

After taking about an hour of basic lessons with groups of children and feeling frustrated with the bunny slopes, we hit the lifts. One of the people in our group is an avid skier and a good coach, and he led us through progressively more challenging (and frankly, at times, downright terrifying) slopes.

By mid-afternoon, we found ourselves on a blue trail—an intermediate course peppered with steeper hills, narrow passages, and moguls (violent little bumps in the snow that some people use to become momentarily airborne).

A Trial by Fire (and Snow) 
The situation was choiceless; we were going down that mountain one way or another, and the best way down was to follow our friend's coaching and learn to carve sharp turns back and forth from one side of the slope to the other, slowing our descent as much as possible. Along the way, there were many falls, but we picked ourselves up, shook the powdered snow out of our pants, laughed off our embarrassment, and continued. All around us, other skiers and snowboarders zipped by, narrowly avoiding crashing into us. At one point, a snowboarder came flying out of the woods through the air and wiped out directly in front of me; I leaned into a sharp turn and navigated around him by an inch or two. Later, an inexperienced skier actually did crash directly into my partner; no one was hurt, thankfully. Gradually, we learned to hold our balance and position our bodies, keep our skis apart, navigate the turns—and the most important skill of all—how to stop (even if, now and then, our stopping sometimes looked more like wiping out).

For those of you who practice yoga but don't ski, imagine doing Utkatasana (chair pose) for six straight hours, in a walk-in freezer, during a violent earthquake, all the while having to jump from one spot in the room to another (without breaking the pose, and with long, slippery, greased sticks attached to your feet) to avoid crazy people who are wildly running through the room trying to knock you over and throwing handfuls of snow in your face.

"You're walking. And you don't always realize it,
but you're always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you're falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time."

- Laurie Anderson

After the harrowing ordeal of the blue trail, we returned to one of the easier green trails that we had been on earlier. But something was different this time. The blue trail had almost made me soil my pants; but I had survived it. Now, suddenly, the green beginner's trail—which had previously seemed incredibly difficult, too—was, literally, a breeze. I went down it once, and gained the confidence to let myself pick up more speed and carve wide turns back and forth. This time, I didn't fall. We went up again and came down a second time, and I picked up even more speed. I had no speedometer to measure—but I think I must have hit 40 mph. I was zipping past slower people and carving half-moons around them. Although there were moments when the speed and the bumps made me fear that I might lose control, I didn't. I stayed relaxed and in the flow. And it was exhilarating. I couldn't wait to get back on the lift and do it a third time.

By now, my regular readers may be wondering what possible relevance all of this has to my usual subjects: meditation, Buddhism, yoga and spirituality. Well, let me tell you.

Joining Heaven and Earth
Skiing is a metaphor for life. Life is not always smooth going. It can be chaotic and messy and terrifying and dangerous. It can—it does—push us out of our comfort zones and takes us to places we think we shouldn't be. Sometimes we lose control; we wipe out and get snow in our pants, or we crash head-on into another person when conflict arises. The situations that challenge us push us to learn to adapt faster. The people who irritate or threaten us challenge us to develop skillful ways of responding: less reactivity and aggression, more patience, compassion, and forgiveness.

"The bad news is: you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is: there’s no ground." 
- Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Certain Buddhist traditions speak of the principle of "joining heaven and earth." This is a lyrical and symbolic way of talking about synchronizing mind (heaven) and body (earth) in flowing, present-moment awareness. Through meditation, yoga—and yes, skiing—we can experience the freedom, contentment and relaxation that comes when mind and body are synchronized and we are fully awake to our experience as it unfolds. We stay right here, on the dot of the present moment, even—or especially—as we speed down the mountain and navigate more or less skillfully through whatever bumpy and chaotic situations life throws at us.

May we all become more skillful navigators and experience fewer crashes. When other, perhaps less skilled people crash into us, may we learn to forgive rather than escalate conflict. When the slopes become terrifying and seem impossible for us to ride, may we develop the confidence to stay present—and keep going. And when we fall—for we will fall, and spectacularly—may we always maintain our sense of humor about it.

With Adrian Molina

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Stop Making a Big Deal

As humans we are hardwired to seek pleasure and comfort and to avoid discomfort and pain. Probably all living beings are wired this way, but we humans have developed a greater variety of ways to carry out this prime directive. We are exceptionally good at it, and extremely habituated.

As practitioners of mindfulness this is something we witness happening 'in real time' during our meditations. We experience pains arising in the body, and our immediate impulse is to fidget and shift in our seat to make the pain go away. We experience unpleasant emotional states or thoughts that we label as bad or unwanted, and we try to bludgeon them into submission with concentration. Or we are lucky enough to have a very pleasant, peaceful feeling, and we immediately glom onto it and try to sustain it.

If we practice enough, though, we begin to experience something else: we witness the constant, moment-to-moment, instant-to-instant arising and passing away of thoughts, feelings and sensations. After witnessing this enough, we simply stop investing them with so much importance. Like the weather, our experiences come and they go -- sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. We can gripe and complain about the weather of the moment, or sing its praises, but the weather doesn't change for us. It changes all by itself, in its own time.

Our normal pattern -- so deeply ingrained that 99% of the time we do it on autopilot, without even noticing we are doing it -- is to make a big deal out of whatever experience is happening to us at any given moment. Good or bad, happy or sad, pleasant or painful, we exaggerate both its significance and its duration in our imaginations. And we react -- or over-react -- accordingly. An itch arises, and we scratch it without thinking. But what happens when we simply notice what is happening in our experience, and don't react?

One of the great qualities that mindfulness training begins to awaken in us is the capacity to stop making a big deal out of every thought or feeling that arises. The itch still comes, but we pause long enough to simply pay attention to the sensation without reacting. Maybe we scratch it, maybe we don't. But we realize that we are not, in fact, going to die of discomfort if we don't scratch it. Our back hurts, and we either move or don't move to alleviate the pain -- but if we move, we do it consciously, with awareness. A feeling of sadness or joy comes over us, and we can simply be there with it -- nothing in particular has to be done with it. Like everything else, it is momentary, and it changes. We don't make it a bigger deal than it really is.

"I am like a tree in a forest. Birds come to the tree, they sit on its branches and eat its fruits. To the birds, the fruit may be sweet or sour or whatever. The birds say sweet or they say sour, but from the tree's point of view, this is just the chattering of birds." - Ajahn Chah
"I am like a tree in a forest. Birds come to the tree, they sit on its branches and eat its fruits. To the birds, the fruit may be sweet or sour or whatever. The birds say sweet or they say sour, but from the tree's point of view, this is just the chattering of birds."

Practicing this way during meditation is, of course, only a form of training. The real point is to apply the training in everyday life, when situations arise that either give us great pleasure or cause us pain or stress. With practice, we can catch ourselves in the very moment of glomming onto our experience and starting to make a big deal out of it. We can observe the patterns of attachment and aversion that arise within us, and we can decide how much energy we really want to invest in them. And, in that pause, we can choose to react in ways that serve the greater good, rather than flying on autopilot.