Category Archives: meditation practice

You can focus like Siddhartha under the ficus

ficus-buddhasTwenty-six hundred years ago, under a tree, a seeker named Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation, determined not to stop meditating until he awakened.

In his meditation he was taunted, terrorized and tempted by all manner of thoughts and emotions that came in such convincing guises that it was a challenge to not believe they were solid and true.

Instead  of engaging, chasing after or battling them, he recognized them for the passing illusions they were, and each time he greeted them in a friendly way with the words ‘I know you.’ Because of the deity-rich culture and times he lived in, he saw the hand of Maara (aka Mara, Maya), the tempter. Maara manifested thoughts of self-doubt, of the hopelessness of awakening and even of his right to try to do so. Maara also tried to activate desires and cravings, and to scare him into giving up his seat under that tree.

Again and again Siddhartha reset his intention, stayed grounded, and, thanks to six years of practice, he was able to stay fully present and see through these manifestations to their fleeting and illusory nature.  His awareness of the nature of impermanence and interconnectedness grew so strong within him that Maara couldn’t gain a foothold. And Siddhartha awakened. He became a buddha, which simply means awakened one. On occasion, throughout his long life, Maara tried again to seduce him to give up struggles, even for life itself when he was in a physically weakened state. Maara advised him to keep the wisdom he had learned to himself rather than sharing it. And, of course, Maara seized any opportunity to bring doubt into the Buddha’s mind that he was truly awakened.

The Buddha was a human being, with all of the struggles and suffering we all have at times. We honor the Buddha not as a god — he was the first to refute such an honorific — but as an inspiration to us to practice meditation as he did under that tree, with gratitude for his ability to see through Maara’s taunts, and share his teachings over many decades, so we benefit from them all these centuries later.

In class, I passed around little Buddha statues (gifts from students over the years) for class members to hold or to put in front of them while we did a few minutes of meditation with the image of Siddhartha sitting under that tree, his intention so strong, his concentration so clear. Perhaps you have such a statue that could at times be incorporated into your home practice. One student said it was easier to stay focused with the statue in front of her, reminding her of her purpose.

‘Now I understand why people have altars,’ she said. I teach what I call a ‘portable practice’ that can be done anywhere without drawing attention to oneself. But that practice doesn’t preclude having an altar at home for daily practice. It just means not becoming reliant on it, so that when it’s not there you can’t practice. Even traveling, one can bring to mind that young man so long ago with all the temptations we ourselves face, sitting under that tree with such skillful effort.

When he completed his marathon meditation and awakened, one of the first things he said was that all beings are endowed with the nature of awakening. This is important for us to remember, because our thoughts and emotions will likely try to convince us otherwise, that somehow we are uniquely incapable of awakening.

If Siddhartha can wake up, you can too. 

Dharma, dharma everywhere — even in my just published short story!

birdlandjournalbirdsYay! My short story The Homecoming  is in the Fall 2018 issue of the Birdland Journal, an online publication that celebrates the voices of Northern California.

Why do I mention this in a blog about meditation and Buddhist teachings? Because, while a work of fiction is very different from a dharma talk or post, we can always discover the dharma if we’re looking.

In this story, a minor fact about the main character is that she has a regular meditation practice, but while out of town on business, she has not had the chance to do so. Non-meditators might not even notice that mention. But meditators will recognize and probably relate. When we travel our schedules change and often our time is not our own. How do we deal with that challenge? Hopefully better than this character. Not that she becomes a serial killer or anything. She’s just a woman leading a busy life, but it’s interesting to consider how if she had kept up her practice, she might have been in a better frame of mind to cope with all that arises in her experience when she arrives home. Just sayin’.

Even under challenges circumstances, most of us can find at least a few minutes here and there to meditate. When we think our practice has to be ‘just so’ and a specific length, we can lose out on opportunities to at least bring our attention to physical sensation, relax and release tension, and center ourselves. While this doesn’t replace regular practice, it certainly helps! The kind of meditation I teach I consider a ‘portable practice’ that can be done anywhere, even in public places like the waiting area of an airport, without props, special poses or anything that would draw attention. Just sitting.

Dharma or no dharma, I hope you will take a few minutes to read this short story! I had fun writing it and I hope you’ll have fun reading it. I’d love to read your comments.

Your Meditation Practice

q-and-a.jpgIn the last post we looked at the Buddha’s insights into three core marks or characteristics of existence. The most important thing to know about them is that they can’t really be taught; they have to be arrived at experientially through the practice of meditation and the opening to our own inner wisdom. When insights arise, no matter how mundane they may seem (Oh, leaves fall off trees! Aha! Everything changes!) we can see how they fit into one of the three core insights: Impermanence, No Separate Self and/or the nature of Suffering. But we don’t force insights or have expectations about them. We simply cultivate the conditions for their natural arising through the practice of meditation and through having the deep intention to be present and compassionate in our lives.

So in this post, we are looking more closely at the practice itself. If you have a meditation practice, hooray! If you don’t, perhaps you will be inspired to start one. But wherever you are with the practice, you may have questions. Here are some questions students had about the practice. If you have others, please ask them by clicking on ‘Leave a reply’ above this post.

Q: Can I meditate in bed? I’d like to meditate first thing in the morning, but I’m so cozy under the covers, I don’t want to get up.
A: Yes, you can meditate in bed. But unless you are practicing in order to fall asleep, find an upright seated position on the bed. For this you will probably need extra pillows and a firm mattress. See for yourself if the position feels supportive enough. All the ‘rules’ about posture were formulated to allow the body to be comfortable for an extended time. If you can sit in a way that you are balanced on the sitz bones, the spine is naturally upright, and all the muscles can relax because the bones support the body, then feel free to meditate wherever you choose.
If for whatever reason you are not able to sit up, remember that lying down is one of the four positions of meditation described by the Buddha (sitting, standing, walking and lying down.)

Q: I’m having a hard time setting a regular time for myself to meditate. I’d like to meditate first thing in the morning, because if I don’t I might forget about it and miss meditating all day and at night I’m too tired. But I want to spend time with my husband before he leaves for work at 8:20. I don’t leave for work until quite a bit later.
A: The best time is always the time that fits most naturally into your schedule. In this case I would suggest meditating right after saying goodbye to your husband. With the place to yourself, it’s quite natural to think of doing this solitary practice. I would highly recommend not checking email or news beforehand as all the thoughts they bring up will make the meditation more challenging. And if coffee causes restlessness, just drink decaf, herbal tea or water instead.

Q: How long should I meditate?
A: Even five minutes a day will make a difference. And that’s an excellent way to get yourself started if you are new to the practice. You can add more time at each sitting or each week.
Most people find that between 20 – 40 minutes works well. Some people meditate twice a day, twenty minutes each time. I do 30 minutes, and more on days when I am leading  meditation. See for yourself what works best for you. I recommend using the Insight Timer app for convenience and to formalize the practice.

Q: Can I practice on my own or should I join a group?
A: Yes, practice on your own. And yes, join a group! They are two different complementary experiences: One you do every day; one you do probably once a week (and then there are extended retreats as well.) Together they provide what are called the Three Refuges: The buddha, the dharma and the sangha. The buddha is your own buddha nature, your practice and your accessing that inner wisdom. The dharma is the teachings you receive from a teacher. You can read books, but in class you have the opportunity to ask questions and get clarification which can make all the difference. The sangha is your community of practitioners. The support of others who are practicing meditation makes a big difference in your ability to stay with your own daily practice and to see the benefits of the practice in the lives of others as well as your own.

Q: How can I deal with external sounds?
A: Stay present with all your senses, including the sense of hearing. Whatever is causing the sound is ‘external’, but hearing is one of the senses we focus on as we meditate. Listening is an important part of the practice, not a distraction or an interruption. We set the intention to be silent, but that is not a demand that the world be quiet to let us meditate.
When you hear a sound, your thoughts and emotions naturally incline to entangle you in identification, judgments, etc. — perceiving the sound as an outside disturbance. Our practice is to train the mind to allow sound to simply be sound. Think of each sound as one small part of what I call ‘the symphony of now’, a never to be repeated concert of perhaps birdsong, doors, motors, voices, rain, wind, coughing, rustling, jackhammer, etc. When the mind gets entangled in thoughts about the sound — preferences, judgments, identifying, memories the sound reminds you of — come back to simply cultivating the spacious field of sensory awareness, allowing the sound to be purely a sound, and notice other sensations arising and falling away in that field as well.

What questions do you have about your practice? If you have a question, probably many other readers do as well, so it’s a kindness to ask.

MORE INFORMATION ON MEDITATION

How does happiness happen?

smiling buddhaMy granddaughters are seven and five years old. Their definition of happiness is getting what they want when they want it. If things go their way then it’s the ‘best day ever’ and if they are denied anything, then it’s the ‘worst day ever’.

There are plenty of adults who concur with this definition of happiness. They see it as some externally regulated occurrence over which they have little or no control. Their emotional lives wobble about like a yo yo being yanked on a string. This is not happiness! It’s helplessness. No amount of ice cream, stuffed animals, compliments or cute shoes can create true happiness. Which is not to say we can’t enjoy these things, but we delude ourselves if we think they will make us happy.

As part of the maturation process, most people recognize that if they want food, shelter, clothes, transportation, etc. — the basic necessities of modern life — then they will have to work for them. Maybe that motive of achieving happiness through attaining these things is helpful in its way. These things can provide some sense of security, contentment and maybe achievement. But sustainable happiness? Not so much. It still may feel random and elusive. So they may begin to blame themselves. They feel that there is something inherently wrong with them if they can’t appreciate all they have, especially if on that list, besides stuff, they also have close relationships they value, most of the time. They may feel guilty for not feeling sufficiently grateful for all they have, making them feel even more discontented.

Watching my granddaughters go through their emotional gyrations reminds me of myself as a little girl. I too knew the soaring heights of, say, Christmas morning seeing a pile of presents under the tree. Then within a matter of minutes I knew the lows of sitting amidst the litter of ribbons and torn wrapping paper, realizing it was all over.

‘Is that all?’ I would ask. Go ahead and call me a spoiled brat, but I had a hunger no amount of presents could fill. And we all do.

‘Is that all? Is this what life is? Seeking happiness through the acquisition of stuff?’ If you were a person who was made permanently happy by stuff, you would not be reading this. So let’s be honest and acknowledge together that it is not for lack of stuff that we suffer.

You may be familiar with the Buddhist word dukkha. Dukkha is suffering that is caused by greed, aversion and delusion. Dukkha is such a great word because when it comes to us English speakers, it already contains the quality of, excuse me, shittyness in its syllables: doo-doo, cah-cah. We just double-down on the word dukkha. There is an instant understanding of how dukkha feels. We’ve all had times we could easily describe as shitty. And there’s a relief in being able to acknowledge that.

Let’s look a little closer at greed, aversion and delusion:

  • Greed is a hunger that can never be sated, not just for stuff but for experiences, for novelty, for approval, for accolades and so much more. It is a bottomless wish list.
  • Aversion is an endless hit list, all the things that annoy and threaten us in one way or another, activating fear, anger and hatred.
  • Delusion is a listlessness, living in a fog, being tossed about on ocean waves, not knowing how to surf, always gulping for air.

You can see how much suffering, how much dukkha, is caused by these ways of relating to the life. But there is another word, sukha, that is the happiness that grows from our own cultivation of mindfulness rather than waiting for someone else to hand us happiness on a platter. It offers a sense of freedom from constantly craving more.

So how do we cultivate true happiness, sukha?
Wherever we are right now we pause, release whatever tension is present, come into all the senses, cultivate spaciousness to hold all the thoughts and emotions that may be entangled in tight knots. And we give ourselves some infinite lovingkindness: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be happy. Then (and only then) we extend our well-wishing out into the community of all beings: May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be happy.

Sure, we still may feel some extra energetic zing when our ducks are all lined up in a row or we receive a nice surprise or we feel relief that some bullet has been dodged, and we might have a little happy dance or celebrate any way we choose. But at a deeper level we recognize that there is a kind of happiness that exists without the need for perfectly aligned ducks and that every moment is a cause for celebration. It is unconditional happiness or joy that is expansive enough to hold even our disgruntlement, disappointment, grief, anger and every other emotion, because it rises out of the wisdom to see every emotion as a fleeting condition, like a cloud passing through an otherwise infinitely blue sky. Even when conditions are such that there’s no blue sky to be seen at all, just gray storms and even thunder everywhere we look, we know that there is a blue sky that holds it all, even the most difficult emotions. Our happiness is not dependent on every day being sunny, every flower being in perfect bloom or our bodies being pain free and flawless. Things can be going to hell in a handbasket, as the saying goes, and yet somehow we find joy in the moment.

It isn’t like living in a bubble of immunity to pain. Pain happens. Loss happens. Bad news can still make the heart feel like it is breaking. Tears still fall. Fear in all its guises still arises at times. But it is visible. We see it just as it is. It is not an enemy to confront or hide from. It is not the boss of our experience. It is not who we are. It is just what is passing through our experience in this moment.

Think of a parent caring for a crying baby. The parent holds the baby, cuddles the baby, soothes the baby with soft words, coos and sings until the baby settles down. The parent is supportive witness to the experience, acknowledging that it is okay. We can be in relationship with our own emotions in the same way. We hold them with compassion and kindness. We are not making light of the experience. We are simply holding the space for the experience within the greater understanding of the nature of impermanence. This too shall pass.

As with all I teach, this exploration is for myself as well. If you have been following along on this blog, you may remember that my brother is dealing with a life-threatening illness. He is certainly being challenged, and all of us who love him are also challenged, to adjust to the new normal, and find a way to accept the unacceptable. And we all will, one way or another. Whether we do it by railing against the nature of impermanence, against illness and old age and death, or whether we find a more open and friendly way to be with it, whatever the ‘it’ of the moment is, that’s a journey for each of us to make in our own way. We can each only do what we can do. The more difficult the journey, the more grateful I am for my meditation practice. It doesn’t help me to escape anything. It helps me to stay fully present, to recognize the preciousness of each moment, to let go of everything but that awareness and gently hold the moment like the precious jewel it is — even seeing someone I love in a hospital bed hooked up to drips and machines. Touching his arm, hearing his voice even as he complains, I can hold the moment like a jewel, for this moment — each and every moment — is rarer than the most valuable stone ever mined. It cannot be duplicated or relived. There is only this moment. Just as it is. And living at that level of aliveness, being that present, is sukha, happiness.

What a gift to be alive, fully alive! Even as things fall apart, understanding that it is the nature of things to fall apart, and to come together, again and again and again.

We don’t need to put our lives on hold for happiness. And we don’t need to put happiness on hold while we live our lives. Seeing that true happiness is fully possible in every moment, we wake up to notice greed, aversion and delusion as they arise and pass through our experience. We don’t make enemies of them. Just by seeing them for what they are and holding them with compassion, we attain increasing clarity, until each moment is illuminated like the radiant precious jewel it truly is. With wise intention and wise effort, we cultivate happiness within ourselves and let it ripple out to all beings.

Meditating with Insight Timer

2017-03-05-09-48-24If you don’t have a regular meditation practice and would like to establish one, I highly recommend using Insight Timer. It is an app that you install on your phone, computer or tablet to help you stay on track with your regular meditation practice. (There are other apps of this nature, but I have only had experience with Insight Timer.)

Why use Insight Timer?

  • It will time your meditation so you don’t have to keep looking at the clock.
  • It provides a beginning and ending bell that is very satisfying.
  • It reminds you that you are not alone in this endeavor, that at this very moment thousands of people around the world are also meditating. There’s a map of where they all are as well as profile photos. A global sangha!
  • It provides guided meditations (including my own) for all different kinds of meditative experiences: To relax, to develop awareness or to get to sleep, for example.
  • It provides talks by teachers, although if you are seeking dharma talks, I would recommend dharmaseed.org.
  • You can find community in the many different online groups that focus on various traditions or aspects. For example, I belong to ‘Women Who Meditate’ and ‘American Buddhists’.
  • It’s free! While there are advanced features that cost some minimal amount, this is a free service offered by people in the tradition of generosity.
  • It keeps track of how much you are meditating and gives you congrats and stars for consistent practice. While this may feel like being in grade school, it is not surprising that most of us still respond to stars, especially when aligned with our core intention.
  • You can set it up to remind you to meditate at whatever time you want. Especially useful for a beginner who hasn’t established the habit of meditating at a certain time of day.

How to use Insight Timer

First download the app. https://insighttimer.com

If you are installing it on your phone, it’s wise to put your shortcut to it on your main screen so it is up front to remind you to meditate. Apps for mind traps like social media and games can be put on subsequent screens. You’ll find them! Besides Insight Timer’s Buddhist bell logo is a powerful emblem of your deepest intention to stay present and compassionate.

In the app, you will set up your profile. There are many privacy options so explore and see what works for you. As you feel more at ease with the program, you may want to revisit your profile and adjust. You may just want to start by sharing your first name and a peaceful nature photo. 

In settings (the little gear image), make ‘Timer’ your opening screen. This will help you stay on track and not get lost in checking out groups, etc. when your intention was to meditate. It’s so easy to get distracted in social media, so make it easier to start your meditation than to get caught up in the comments in the ‘groups’ section. Even though it is a supportive community, if it is keeping you from meditating, it’s just another distraction!

On the timer page you will put in how many minutes you want to meditate and what sounds you want at the beginning and end. The free bells are really nice. but perhaps you prefer something different.

Now you are all set to meditate!

If you are a beginner, I suggest setting the timer for ten or fifteen minutes at the most to start. You can always continue to meditate after the end bell rings if you feel like it. And, if you want ‘credit’ for the full time you meditated, just check the little box above ‘DONE’ that asks if you want to log your extra minutes.

Each day you can then add more time in five minute increments, until you are meditating anywhere between twenty and forty minutes a day. Find what works best for you. There is no rule. Just developing a regular daily practice of any length is something to celebrate.

After meditation, the phone is right there, so handy, but try not to get involved right away exploring the groups, checking email or browsing social media. Instead stay present with the quality you have cultivated in your meditation. Do some mindful self-care, make yourself a cup of something to drink with mindfulness, practice mindfulness as you do meal prep, household chores, dog-walking, etc., keeping that quality of spacious ease active. If your mind is busy with some challenge you are facing, this period of deeper awareness after meditation is a good time to do some inner inquiry, journaling, walking in nature, and being open to the wisdom that is more likely to come when you have cultivated quiet receptivity.

If at a different time you want to more fully explore Insight Timer, you might look into the communities. There are many! If you want to join in, it’s easy to request to be a member. If you like the conversations, you can visit often and get involved by ‘liking’ and/or commenting. Once you comment, you will get notifications whenever anyone else comments, so it may get more involving than you want. But it also might be just the sangha you are seeking. If you want to post in these communities, bring your Wise Speech to bear before posting: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it timely? What is my intention here? If you share an experience, try to give the gist of it rather than the details, especially if it involves other people. The groups on Insight Timer are meant to be about inspiring each other to practice, so if your sharing is not helpful in that way, reconsider sharing it. This is not a gossip mill or a therapist’s office.

Using Insight Timer, or another similar app, can be very skillful. But meditating with your phone by your side can be challenging. Set your phone to ‘Do Not Disturb’ if you are likely to get tantalizing sound notifications that you have a message, email or phone call. If this is too difficult, forget about Insight Timer! Meditate the old fashioned way with your phone in another room.

Whatever you do, may it support your ongoing meditative practice.

Befriending the Breath

In the vipassana meditation tradition we are taught to focus on the breath. Why? Aren’t there more interesting things to focus on? Certainly there can be. Take listening, for example.

Yesterday in class we sat outside in the cool morning air and did a listening meditation, as if it were a symphony. There were many distinct sounds: sawing, hammering, traffic noises, bird calls and more. Each was like musical instrument playing its part. It was a magnificent symphony.

A listening meditation is lovely when there is rain. It’s also good for in a public space, like at the gate waiting for a flight at the airport. I remember in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq war, sitting with other meditators organized by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as all the peace marchers assembled at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. What a listening meditation that was! The sound of voices over a microphone rallying the troops, the conversations of nearby marchers getting together, the rustling and footsteps that passed by around us. When the march began we rose to take our part, feeling focused and united in purpose. We were the peace we wanted to see in the world.

Even sitting inside in a quiet room there will be sounds to listen to: the heater, the refrigerator, someone clearing their throat or coughing, some rustling perhaps, a cell phone going off (oops!), and allowing the sounds to be a symphony rather than an annoyance is skillful.

In my poetry classroom at College of Marin, we have a wall of glass facing a busy street near a fire station. Last week during the four-day annual poetry intensive, I found myself coming into relationship with that sound and here’s a poem I wrote.

Siren Song

What if the siren
echoing down the street
doppleganging by
the classroom window
is the red blur of God,
the tender wail of wanting
all beings to be well?

So listening can be a very powerful meditation when sound is the most dominant sensation you notice. And that’s the key word, ‘dominant’. We pay attention to all the senses as we begin our practice, and we might ask ‘What is the dominant sensation in this moment?’

Sometimes the most dominant sensation might be a pain in the body. If we spend time with that sensation we can notice a ‘symphony’ of more subtle sensations. We see that what we have been labeling ‘pain’ is not one solid experience but an ever-changing arising and falling away of a whole series of sensations, each one tolerable and even kind of interesting. This is not to make light of pain. I deal with chronic pain a lot in my life and at times it can feel overwhelming. But it has helped to recognize that much of the agony has to do with how I get lost in thoughts about the pain rather than really paying attention to the micro-sensations that compose it, how they arise and fall away, get stronger and softer, appear and disappear.

But generally, for most of us most of the time, as things settle down at the beginning of our practice, aches and pains are not dominant. If they are present, we sense that there are also other sensations going on in the field of our experience that are pleasant or neutral. We don’t replace one with the other, but we just notice the full range of sensation within our field of experience.

And then, if things are relatively quiet and other sensations are reasonably mild, as we pay attention, we begin to notice, even if we haven’t been directed to, that the breath is the most dominant experience. And, not only is it dominant, it is ever present. It is the most reliable sensation we have. As long as we are alive, we have breath to focus on. The rhythm, pace and depth may change but the breath carries on. Dependable. And potentially very interesting. A perfect focus. Vipassana: Awareness of the breath.

breathMany people come to vipassana practice from other traditions, and I encourage them to experiment with focusing on the breath, but to also feel free to use whatever skillful means they have in their meditation ‘toolbox’ to bring themselves fully into the present moment.

I came to vipassana meditation over twenty years ago after many years of other forms. I found focusing on the breath a challenge in part because my mother died of emphysema and her last years were a painful struggle for breath, so focusing on my breath brought up my grief. It took me nine years to have the aha! moment when I realized that MY lungs were healthy. MY breath was fine. 

But even though it became easier, it still didn’t always feel compelling, and sometimes it felt dull, even boring. But I stayed with it because I know that ‘boring’ is just a label I was putting on it, that in fact it was a rich experience when I really paid attention. And now, all these many years later, I am having a new relationship with the breath, one that recognizes that as long as I am alive my breath is my constant companion, my most intimate, reliable and supportive friend.

And so I have been writing odes and love poems to my breath! Here are some examples.

My Heretofore Unnamed Friend

All these years
it never crossed my mind,
until now, to befriend my
greatest supporter.

Oh, what oversight!

So now, with gratitude
and deep appreciation,
I name this breath
my dearest friend.

 

Lifesaver

The breath is like a lifesaver
floating on the swells
of thought and emotion.
I rest there, gently rising and falling.
When I find myself swallowed up
and sucked down into the depths,
surfacing into that circle of breath
is both relief and rejoicing.

 

No Name Breath

Breath, aware
attending
each unnamed note
of earth’s symphony…
bird song, car door, heart beat.

Breath, aware
opening
infusion of light
bursting boundaries
dissolving cherished reference points
that heretofore defined me.

Breath, aware
this, this and only this
the unlimited
the unnameable
the ever present.

 

Rescue at the Well

In a moment of dread
the unwelcome upheaval:
churning chest,
catch in the throat
woozy wobble

I make my way to the middle
and stand by the well
where steady pumps
the influx the outflow

I attend the constant motion
of my most reliable friend
and in this abiding
monstrous mutiny melts.

All poems by Stephanie Noble copyright 2016

So I encourage you to investigate your own practice with whatever is the most dominant sensation at the time. And  befriend the breath! If you are religious, recognize all the spiritual words (even the word ‘spiritual’) assocatiated with breath. If you are more scientifically inclined, then the focus on the physical process that keeps your body alive and connected to all life is a wonderful place to ground your practice. Explore and enjoy!

Three Aspects of Mindfulness Meditation Practice

Last Thursday we spent more time than usual in class practicing, exploring and clarifying three aspects of meditation practice. (Blog readers should know that these dharma talks — over 160 now — are only one part of the class. The core of the class is experiential, the practice of meditation itself. I encourage anyone who has been finding value in reading the blog but hasn’t either developed a personal practice or joined a meditation group, to take that step now. I work with individuals and small groups to develop or refine a practice. Reading about it is not enough!!! )

The first aspect we discussed is our concentration practice, training our minds to stay focused on a specific experience, like the breath, for example. Even as beginning meditators we can follow our experience of this wise effort. We can notice when we have lost our focus and compassionately bring our attention back to the focus. If accessing a concentration point in the senses is difficult, I suggest focusing on the tongue or a foot and doing subtle movement — running the tongue around the teeth, wiggling the toes, etc. — to create a stronger sensation to focus on. Then reduce the movement and see if you can stay focused on the more subtle sensation. Then cease the movement and see if you can still notice sensation. In this way we build our ability to focus. Because the breath is for most of us a neutral, dominant and reliable sensation, it is the concentration focus most in this tradition choose for the main body of their meditation. But it is not the only one possible, and any sensation can be a focus for concentration practice.

The second aspect of the practice is a more generalized awareness of spacious infinite energy. Certain kinds of meditation practices can take us right to this ‘bliss state,’ as can various substances and activities. Vipassana meditation practice is not about attaining a state of bliss, as if it were a tropical vacation to escape from the world. Perhaps after such a ‘vacation’ the regular world feels more tolerable for a time, but then we need to escape again. Vipassana or mindfulness meditation is not about escape. It is actually the opposite. It is very useful for people whose minds are always escaping into daydreams, etc. because it is about being truly present here and now so that we find the joy in every moment of our lives. This is the wisdom of no escape. There is nothing to escape from when we discover how to be fully present with our experience, whatever it is.

So many people spend so much time finding a means to escape out of fear of being present with their experience. Younger meditation students complain that it is hard to find young people who are not drunk or stoned most of the time, meaning it is hard for them to find young people who are not afraid to face their lives sober. Those who take this route can blame the stresses of modern life, but at some point we need to remember that we are no longer children who have no control over our lives, who need to be able to escape in our minds. In fact we are very powerful. We can, through being fully present, shift the energy in the room, in an online thread, in our community and ultimately, because of the ripples even the smallest pebble makes, we can shift the energy of the world, simply by being present.

Think of how a minister, Martin Luther King Jr., shifted the energy of the civil rights movement and helped to begin a healing of a nation. Think how the man who inspired him, Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer from South Africa, led India into a peaceful state of independence, just by his willingness to be present and compassionate. This kind of mindfulness is contagious, and we are in an amazing period of history able to see it in action as the peaceful assembly of the Occupy and 99% movement let their concerns be known with patience and consensus decision-making. We might say, well I’m no Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. Well, neither were they, in that famous powerful figure aspect, before someone helped them to shift their energy and discover the power of non-violent action. Perhaps we will never be famous, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t each of us incredibly powerful in our own way. We have the power to sour the energy, to incite anger, cat fights, nastiness, jealousy, violence. And we have the power, through anchoring into our senses and being fully present to bring peaceful collaborative exuberance, joie de vivre, a love of life, holding life not in a stranglehold of fear but in an open embrace.

Of course, if we get caught up in the goal of changing the world, then we are not living in the moment and that powerful energy is gone.

Just so, the naturally arising bliss state that may come through meditation or other means is not a goal nor an achievement. It is just another experience we hold with an open loving embrace. Whether the bliss state ever comes or whether it stays, that is not really our concern as meditators.

The bliss state does give valuable information, but even a hint or a brief experience of that timeless state can inform a lifetime. The valuable information is that all is one. There is no separate self. We are all expressions of life loving itself. We are like drops of water briefly experiencing soaring in a state of feeling separate, but in fact we are still the ocean.

For students who have never experienced this state and who feel the lack, I recommend watching science programs or reading about the current scientific understanding of reality with special attention to how much space there is, how structure, including ourselves, is mostly space. Think about skin, how we believe it to be the edge of who we are. But that is not true, is it? The more we know about biology and other sciences, the more we begin to understand the infinite nature of being. Now this kind of learning is not the same as experiencing the state of ‘knowing’ this to be true, feeling that interconnection. I wish English had two different verbs for ‘to know’ the way Spanish does, making a differentiation between something we have learned and something we have experienced.

But if we give the logical mind the opportunity to learn through watching or reading scientific information, it will help to unlock the door to the possibility of experiencing it. Then it’s just a matter of creating opportunity through meditation, chanting, retreats, being slow and silent in nature, dancing, creating or listening to inspirational music, etc. to experience abandoning the dead shell, to slough off the molting skin of these old limiting beliefs.

For the religious this experience grows the understanding and appreciation of the nature of God. You can see how God is all and everything, no part excluded from that infinite beingness, and how this consciousness can be so present in all things, able to experience all that is in each moment.

In our meditation practice we can go back and forth between a focused concentration practice and a spacious awareness state.

The third foundation makes all else possible. This is metta or loving-kindness practice. We end every class with the blessing “May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at ease. May all beings know peace.” But within each personal practice of meditation we set our intention to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover our mind has wandered. Without this kindness and compassion, we are doomed to get tangled in self-recrimination and blame. So this kindness, this compassion, is a fundamental part of our practice as well.

We always begin our practice of metta with ourselves. First, we often find ourselves to be the most difficult person to be kind to. And ultimately, because we are all one, sending true infinite loving kindness of this nature to ourselves is the same as sending it out into the world. Feeling that kindness, we express kindness in the world. We embody kindness, ease, generosity and peace. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the peace we seek.

So those are the three aspects of our practice in our class, in our personal daily practice of meditation and in each moment in our lives as we experience it, holding it in an open and loving embrace with full awareness and the resulting deep gratitude.