Category Archives: meditation practice

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.

Day Long Retreat

Last Thursday, instead of a 90-minute class, I led a day-long silent retreat at the guest house and gardens of one of my students. In the development of a meditation practice, a retreat of any length is so helpful. Coming into a seated meditation six or more times in the course of a day really instills a sensory recognition of that ‘just right position’ — a posture that relies on the spine and the sitz bones to support us, rather than on the muscles.

My poetry teacher recently began class by having us ‘sit and do nothing.’ She said this wasn’t meditation, that we didn’t have to breathe or sit in a special way or anything. Afterwards she asked what we noticed and mentioned that she noticed her sensations much more. Those few minutes of ‘doing nothing’ were very helpful to the students.

She may have thought that those few minutes were not meditation, but in fact they were. Meditation at its most basic is sitting and knowing you are sitting. Meditation is not about altering the breath. Noticing the breath — resting our attention with the natural breath — can be a useful way to anchor into a neutral, dependable sensation, but actively changing the breath is not necessary, and not desirable for the main body of the meditation.

For a few-minutes meditation it doesn’t matter too much how you sit, though even for short periods I find it useful to adjust to a balanced, unrestricted seated posture. The postural recommendations for sitting arise out of compassion for meditators so that they don’t end up with back aches, cramps and strained muscles after sitting for long periods of time. It is not a strict aspect of the practice, but a kind one! I think the poetry teacher was trying to overcome any resistance some of the students might have had to the idea of doing meditation, but she gave them misinformation that only reinforced their misconceptions. Still, offering a little meditation period before creative effort was very wise of her and I hope she does it again as we all felt much freer to simply write.

If those few minutes made such an impact, imagine how deeply felt an extended retreat is! We have first and foremost the opportunity to really remember to again and again set our paired intentions to be present and compassionate with ourselves. With each cycle of practice on a retreat, it becomes easier and more inviting to do. The awareness becomes both stronger and more subtle.

The alternating of sitting and walking meditation throughout the day allows our bodies to balance, but it also gives most of us more walking meditation than we would otherwise do. We develop a pattern of really being present as we walk. Out in nature, we attune to its rhythms and slow down our minds. We have lots of sensation as our body moves through space. And quite possibly when we return to our regular daily walks, we are able to become more present as well.

Greater opportunity for inquiry makes the retreat more than just a practice or a time out. The repeated sits have the effect of stilling the pond of our being, so that the patterns of thought stand out in contrast. In the silence we can hear all that thinking more clearly, and hopefully see it more dispassionately, with loving curiosity. We can ask “Is this true? How do I know this is true?” for any repeating statement or belief that arises. The insights that arise out of this process can stay with us and guide us in our lives in a meaningful way.

The tension that arises in the body — shoulders working their way up towards our ears, jaws clenching, hands tightening into fists, etc. — are our body’s way of holding on to the past or the future. When we notice a thought, we can pause and notice the related tension that has risen up to hold it. It is easier and potentially more productive to focus on releasing the tension than to talk ourselves out of thinking. When the tension goes, so goes the thought. It may creep back in five minutes later, but as long as we are able to be present with our experience, we can compassionately release it again and again. Eventually the pattern will soften and release to a greater degree.

The biggest gift of a retreat is silence. Letting go of the spoken word and eye contact is like a perfect bubble of release from the responsibility of perfecting our personality and all the decisions about how to skillfully interact with others. Entering this sacred silence is a delicious time out. The most important responsibility we have on a retreat is to honor each other’s space and silence. Imagine there is a buffer around each person at the retreat and we don’t invade the buffer zone. We may sit right next to each other in meditation or at a dining table, etc., but the buffer is there. On a longer retreat, the buffer is palpable like a force field of awareness. I have talked about this in sharing my experience of longer retreats, how we take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. We simply divest of that interacting aspect of our daily lives and go inward, sensing our connection in a much deeper way. We experience the compassionate support of the sangha, the retreat community, in the shared experience of the practice.

On retreat most meditators sink right into the silence with gratitude, sometimes surprising themselves. It is often the most talkative among us who find such relief in silence. Other retreatants may struggle with remembering their vow. Giving up spoken words is not something we are usually asked to do, or perhaps we were asked to do it as children and being asked as adults brings on a certain rebelliousness. But silence is a great gift to ourselves and a sign of respect and caring to those in our sangha on the retreat.

Because the weather predictions for last Thursday included rain, I developed an alternative indoor activity for some of the walking periods. As it turned out we had sunny weather, but all but one of the meditators chose to participate in the alternative activity as well.

Since we have been discussing balance for over eight weeks, and most recently have been focusing on the Buddha’s River analogy, I brought collage materials for the meditators to create their own versions of the river and the shores. Of course, they were free to collage anything they wanted, not just the analogy, but most  of them actually did the river in one way or another.

My role was to provide supplies and to remind everyone to stay in the process and not think about the product. There was a fireplace in the meditation room and I told them to imagine that we would be burning our finished products at the end of the retreat. This was an attempt to free them from getting caught up in the fear-based ambition to make them ‘good.’ Of course, everyone took their pieces home at the end of the retreat. All the works were stunning, heartfelt and will most likely serve as valuable reminders of the insights that came forth in their making. Here is one student’s collage she generously agreed to share. You can see the river running diagonally and the two shores.


The students were instructed to pack themselves lunches and snacks that would be taste treat offerings. Since we all ate in different locations on the grounds, I don’t know what anyone else brought, but everyone said at the end of the retreat that they had thoroughly tasted and enjoyed their food in mindfulness that surprised them. One student said she was reminded of a Zen retreat she attended 30 years ago where she was told to masticate thoroughly. We talked about how valuable it is to notice these messages we come upon in our thoughts, a much more valuable skill than actually being able to chew 32 times before swallowing!

The day ended with an opportunity for each student to come out of silence and briefly share highlights and challenges they experienced during the day, if they wanted to. The sharing was rich and, because all the collagers were willing to show their work, quite beautiful.

I feel so fortunate to be able to share the gifts of meditation with my students, and with those who read this blog. May all beings be able to take time for themselves to unplug and dwell in sacred silence.

If you are not part of my class but would like to experience a retreat, there are many opportunities to do so nowadays, depending on where you live and how able you are to travel. I highly recommend Spirit Rock Meditation Center here in Marin County, CA, USA for any length of retreat. 


If you would like to put together a group of meditators or people who would like to learn to meditate, and if you have a place conducive for a day long retreat, feel free to contact me either to be a retreat leader or to offer guidance. (I work as always on a dana (donation) basis. If it includes travel it would be dana plus expenses.)

On this blog there are seven labels for ‘retreat.’ To find out more about the retreat experience check them out. To create your own retreat at home, consider following Sylvia Boostein’s book Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There.

If you have sat a day long, then it is quite reasonable to believe that you can sit a weekend or week long retreat. Don’t doubt your ability to practice. It is the naturally-arising activity of our nature!

Things Fall Apart

We develop a practice of meditation, finding the ways that work best for us: The perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect intention and the perfect way to bring ourselves into a state of spaciousness and ease.

And then causes and conditions change. The ‘seas’ that we talked about last week as a metaphor for the causes and conditions of life become rough. As sailors we learn quickly how to make course corrections, alter speed, trim the sails, or take out the bucket and start bailing. As meditators we need to develop that kind of readiness and flexibility as well.

Occasionally during meditation instruction I have talked about the importance of having a variety of meditation tools in our toolbox. But as life goes along smoothly, we can easily get complacent, relying on the one tool, the one meditation technique that seems to be most effective for us. Where else in life has that ever been a good idea? We eat a varied diet to assure not just balanced nourishment but the ability to draw nourishment from multiple sources. When we plant just one variety of potatoes and that variety succombs to a disease, we starve! When we must go on thinning ice, say to rescue someone, we lie down to spread the weight so we don’t rely too heavily on any one point. We prepare for emergencies by having multiple options, depending on circumstances. We develop a network of friends and family relationships in part so that we can all support each other when times get difficult. We see what happens when someone we know has relied too heavily on only one person for their needs. We are communal creatures and developing community is a basic skill of our survival in a world of impermanence. We acknowledge this when we create sangha, our community of meditation practitioners.

When we experience things falling apart, our meditation practice may feel like it is falling apart, too. “Just when we need it most!” we say, feeling bereft. But at these times if we pause, we can recognize that we are prepared for this, that we have multiple tools in our toolbox. And we also have the support of the sangha to remind us if we forget.

When things fall apart in a riveting way, as when we are suddenly launched into a heightened state of emotion due to startling circumstances, if we have been doing a regular practice of meditation, we may find that we are very much present with all that is going on, that this is in fact what we have been practicing for.

So the practice has not abandoned us at all. It is serving us in this moment, keeping us present, allowing us to notice our emotions and bring a full measure of compassion to ourselves and others. We might notice that things have fallen apart, but in fact we haven’t fallen apart, or at least not to the degree we might have done without the practice.

During this intense period we might not be able to practice meditation in the usual sense, but just as soon as things get a little more stable, we need to resume the practice, because without the natural inner replenishment of the practice we are running the risk of depletion. And then we do feel as if we are falling apart.

But the practice we have relied on most, the one that has been such a nurturing source, might suddenly seem difficult or uncomfortable. Why? Because we know it and we expect it to be as it was, so we get stuck in comparing mind. We may feel we have lost our ability to practice in addition to whatever other loses we may be experiencing, and this sense of loss underscores and amplifies the grief we may already be feeling. Perhaps there’s also a sense of betrayal, because we thought this practice was supposed to be our support, but it’s not there to support us when we most need it. This can set off a chain of memory-laden emotions that echo that sense of betrayal and things seem to unravel more and more. Maybe we become depressed and give up the practice all together.

But the practice is still there! The ability to practice is still within us. We simply need to correct our course, trim our sails or start bailing! What does this mean in meditation terms?

First we need to look at what happens when we try to meditate. Are we not able to release tension and relax? Are we not able to focus? Are we caught up in thoughts and can’t find inner silence?

Compassion is our best companion at these times. Instead of making demands that we meditate in a certain way, we can sense the support of the web of life holding us. Perhaps we experience that support as God, feeling ourselves cradled in his arms or resting in his heart.

Of course experiencing this loving-kindness and compassion is challenging if we are railing at God for creating the causes and conditions that are making us so miserable. This is the exact moment that people of faith are severely tested. By seeing God as separate instead of the whole of which we are a part, we can get into a blame game that exacerbates our misery and sense of isolation.

Feeling ourselves to be integral to the fabric of life both releases our sense of separation and empowers us to be the compassion we wish to receive. We do not have to sit around and wait for it, beg for it or look for it from any other source. We are by our very nature a conduit of universal compassion. We take a deep breath, sense in, let go of all the accumulated tension and release into our natural state of being. We are both held in a compassionate open embrace and we hold the world in a compassionate open embrace. We shift our awareness back and forth between those two focuses and we begin to really understand our role in the nature of things.

When I was a very small child I had a little mantra I would do when I was by myself. I don’t know how I came up with it, who might have taught it to me, but it felt very much my own discovery. I would say, “I am in God and God is in me, and I am in God and God is in me” over and over until that oxymoron made sense to me, at which point I would dissolve into delicious giggles and roll on the ground. As an adult, the word and concept of God are too culturally laden with all the personification and implied separateness that gets in my way of deep understanding. And now that we can see, through the use of lenses and through the research and insights of science, how we are embedded in the fabric of life, all of us made of the same stuff, the illusion of separateness is easier and easier for me to see through.

But for those of us who have a more straightforward relationship with God, who can experience union with God, who weren’t raised by what I affectionately call a ‘raving atheist’ and a ‘closet worshiper of Mother Nature,’ then Hallelujah! Rejoice in that sense of being supported and aspire to be the fullest expression of God’s love.

If the problem with trying to meditate when things are falling apart is a lack of focus, we can do more embodiment work such as mindful inner-directed yoga, slow walking meditation or active breath work. These are all forms of meditation, all valid for keeping us connected to our experience of the present moment. The senses are our anchor to the present moment, so whatever we can do to draw our awareness to sensation is useful. In any given moment we can simply rub our fingers together, or rub our hands on a piece of fabric, noting the texture. This brings us into the present moment.

If sensing in is alien for us, we might give ourselves more opportunities to be fully in the body. For example, we can have a massage but request silence instead of chatting with the massage therapist so that we can really experience the fullness of sensation.

If when we meditate we cannot seem to get free of words, we might visualize them growing, letting the words themselves get very large, so large they lose all meaning, until we can swim between the spaces in our large lettered universe. This is a creative way of being with what is arising in the moment.

If we have a whirlwind of things going on in our life, we can imagine that tornado whirling even faster, so fast all the individual aspects, all the worries and concerns, are a singular blur, as we sit in the calm center, the eye of the storm, at peace.

If we are fraught with worry for another person, we send them loving kindness. As with all metta meditations, we begin with sending metta to ourselves for we need to receive loving-kindness before we can share it, sense in to its infinite nature to be a conduit for its transmission.

Maybe we find we just don’t have the heart for meditation right now, as if it’s a selfish thing to simply sit when there are so many practical things that have to be done. We just don’t have the time!

Let’s remember that Gandhi is quoted as saying, “Today is going to be a particularly busy day, so I will meditate two hours instead of one.” Wait a minute! How can that make any sense? Taking two hours out of an already busy day is no way to get things done. Gandhi was clearly no efficiency expert. But since he accomplished more with his life than almost any other human in recent history by gaining Indian independence from the British Empire without loss of life, and further inspired other non-violent movements including the Civil Rights movement in the United States fifty years ago, and since he continues to be an inspiration to us today, perhaps we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he knew what he was talking about!

But how could giving more time to meditation make us more efficient? First we have to make sure we are doing mindfulness meditation, practicing being fully present, not escaping into a dream state. When we are practiced at being fully present, we are more efficient because we are seeing more clearly, we are more in touch with the flow and we are noticing when we are getting in our own way. We can prioritize, we can come to agreement with others, and we can let go of things that will resolve themselves without our involvement. We can recognize that very few things in our life are truly urgent, yet we habitually act as if they are and drive ourselves and perhaps others accordingly. We can see when those around us are caught up in circular thinking and we can choose not to waste our energy trying to guide a tornado onto a different course.

This is the kind of clarity that streamlines our ability to accomplish what needs accomplishing without wasting time on what doesn’t. Without meditation practice we can be undiscerning, become easily distracted and waste time focusing on things that won’t resolve the problem at hand. Our emotional aspects may run amok, setting a questionable agenda because we haven’t taken the time to access our inner wisdom, our Buddha nature. Without being fully present, we rely more heavily on our habitual nature, so that we keep doing the same thing in the same way, hoping for a different outcome.

Our habitual nature can also infect our meditation practice. When things fall apart we want the tried and true to pull us through. But when the tried and true falls through we are called upon to find another way. If we cannot find 30 to 40 minutes in our suddenly fallen apart day, we might experiment with a series of much shorter meditations throughout our day.

What? Didn’t I just say that Gandhi said two hours of meditation is better than one? Yes, and one minute of quality meditation is good as well if it means we will meditate rather than not meditate at all. In this as in so many areas of life we are not dealing with either/or but both/and. There are many ways to deal with a challenge. Discovering that we can actually change our experience, energy level, and our physical and emotional sense of well being quite dramatically by one minute of truly being present in meditation reminds us to do it, not to put it off. It makes us see that our statement that we don’t have time is clearly a lie. One minute? We all have one minute at many times during the day. One minute while we are put on hold, while we are waiting for a computer download, while we are on the toilet, while we are waiting for water to boil to cook pasta or make tea. One minute? This is never too much to ask! How liberating! But how can this be?

Well, let’s try it. Let’s set a timer for exactly one minute and then see how it affects us to meditate for that minute. We sense into our bodies, release tension, notice the breath rising and falling, and expand into spaciousness, finding a still point of center. We rest here or we continually cycle through this process, whatever works for us at this time.

Now how do you feel? Has there been a shift of energy? What do you notice? Is there perhaps a sense of replenishment? One minute well spent in meditation is a gift we can give ourselves at various times throughout our day. It helps us understand that meditation is not some separate experience, but a natural part of life, like the brief pause at the bottom of a released breath.

Why does the one minute meditation work? I think it is like the last couple of minutes in meditation when I say “In these last moments, really savor what is arising in this moment.” Knowing it will end so soon, we are suddenly able to really pay attention. It’s our deadline mentality! It’s based on the same principle as Stephen Levine’s teaching of A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last. With the thought that the end is so near, we stop squandering our time, we start noticing the beauty and the preciousness of life. When we think we have a lot of time, we feel free to waste it! Whether it’s a lifetime or forty minutes of just sitting, we perceive it as a lot of time, so we may go about it in a circuitous ramble instead of being clear in our intention to be present and compassionate.

The question for me is not how I feel after a minute of focused inner awareness, but how long do I feel that way? How often would I have to have these minutes in order to feel the sense of connection, aliveness and joy I experience as a result of a regular daily practice?

But when things are difficult and a regular practice feels out of reach, accessing these meditation minutes can help to keep our meditation practice alive.

So we can see that we have many means in our toolbox, a great variety of techniques at our service, to deal with whatever comes up. Yes, it is wonderful to have a good steady practice, but it is important to remember that we have much more than that. We can be flexible, creative, alive and resourceful, ready and fully equipped to sail upon the sea of causes and conditions, whatever they may bring.