We are not currently meeting 'in-person'

We are not currently meeting 'in-person.'
I have made the difficult decision to stop holding our in-person Sunday night meetings - you can read more about this in my post here. I will be continuing to post weekly content here and in our newsletter. Do remember to sign up for the 'Metta Letter' newsletter below as I will be sending out weekly meditations there.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Working With the Breath

Using a Focus.
As we start to meditate, we quickly learn how capricious our mind is. It wants to take us here and there, and despite our best efforts we unknowingly get dragged into a thought conversation with our self about tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s work or yesterday’s troubles at home. We start to meditate, and suddenly ‘wake up’ to the fact that we have spent several minutes wandering down a thought path of one kind or another.

One way that we can help keep our mind on our practice is to choose a focal point – some people meditate watching a candle; some visualize a colorful shape; and some repeat a meaningful phrase (a 'mantram'). By far the most common focus, used in almost all of the major traditions, is the breath.

Following the Breath.
The great thing about our breath is that as long as we are alive we can use it as a focal point. Whether we are sitting on the cushion meditating, performing household chores or in a busy shop, we always have our breath we can follow.

We say ‘follow’ in this kind of meditation, because the goal is to breathe as normally as possible. We are not trying to breathe differently, we are just trying to be totally aware of how we are breathing (note: this is different to other practices, such as Qigong or Pranayama in Yoga, where the goal is to breathe in a special way).

When we use the breath as a focus in meditation we start by becoming as aware as possible of all aspects of our breathing: how our whole body participates; how in-breaths differ from out-breaths; how the air coming in and out of our body causes a sensation on our lips or nostrils. We then allow our mind to ‘dwell’ on a specific aspect of our breathing, and allow it to remain there.

Be Here Now.
We should not strain to have an unnatural focus on our breath. Instead, the key word is to ‘dwell’ – to dwell in a place where we have complete awareness of our breath. As other thoughts arise (and they will), we just return to our breath. As we do this we will gain a sense of ‘presence’, being totally ‘here’ in the moment, not allowing our mind to drag us off into memories of things past or hopes, plans and fears for the future. As the title of Ram Dass’s book exhorts us, we need to ‘Be Here Now’. Our breath is a tool (and only a tool) that we can use to get us ‘into this moment’ at any time in our lives.

"We walk around like there are some holy moments, and there are all the other moments that are unholy.”– from ‘Waking Life’, Richard Linklater

Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing.
This meditation can become the core of your practice, in that you will do this at the start of other more involved practices in order to ‘center’ and focus. Once you have practiced this for a while you will find that you can use this ‘centering’ technique anywhere and at any time.

Sit as comfortably as you can, on a cushion or on a chair. Don’t slouch, but sit upright, with your back, neck and head straight and in alignment so that gravity supports your head. Keep you shoulder-blades back, and rest your hands gently on your lap or legs. Relax, keep breathing normally, and gently close your eyes. Now, turn your attention to the fact that you are breathing. Wait a little to feel the rhythm of your breath, without forcing or straining it. Gently visit each part of your body with your mind and see how your whole body appears to participate. Notice how your breathing isn’t a simple in and out, but there are pauses between the in and our breaths. Notice how breathing in feels different to breathing out. Now bring your mind to the place where the air is entering and leaving your body – your nostrils or lips. Become aware of the tiniest sensation as the air goes in or out. Now, very gently, allow you mind to dwell there, focused but not straining, on the ingress and egress of your breath. When a thought arises, acknowledge it and let it go. Be aware of your presence in this very moment.


Just Sitting

Why Meditate?
There are many reasons why you might want to meditate – to calm down, to help cope with stress, increase focus or performance, curiosity, to help on a spiritual path, to experience bliss or to gain enlightenment. All of these are good and valid reasons, and meditation has helped individuals develop in these ways for many thousands of years.

Above all, though, meditation is personal. It is about you learning more about You. It is about learning how your mind works, and how you can work with it. While we cannot predict exactly how a good meditation practice will change you, we can promise that you will be the better for it.

Expect Nothing.
That said, the best way to approach meditation is to expect nothing. That may seem strange, but one of the largest hindrances to growth in meditation is trying to grasp at some result. This is a difficult thing for all of us, but probably the first thing we have to learn is to let go of our goals and just experience meditation. No attachment to results, just a commitment to and a curiosity for the practice.

How Do I Know If I’m Doing It Right?
Despite the fact that there have been thousands of books written on meditation, there is no one ‘right’ way to meditate. The basic rule is, if you’re doing it, you’re doing it right. Now, we can definitely learn from the great teachers of the past, and we will refer to many of them, but that doesn’t mean that there is a simple formula for you. One of the reasons we like to join together to meditate is to discuss and share experiences, so that we can experiment and learn from each other.

Sometimes you will find meditation difficult. You won’t be able to concentrate, or you will find a practice difficult, or you will grow despondent that it ‘really isn’t worth it’. Often times of difficulty are the times when most progress is being made, which is why a commitment to the practice (rather than to specific results) is so important.

Treat this as a journey where you have a lot of freedom to explore. Enter into meditation as an exciting thing to do for its own sake. We will cover several different approaches to meditation – find out which one suits you. Don’t beat yourself up when things don’t work out – just treat it as another learning experience.

In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few" - Shunryu Suzuki

Practice: Just Sitting.
There is a lot of ‘theory’ behind meditation, but in reality the only important part is the practice. We will start with ‘Just Sitting’. Aim to practice this for about 15-20 minutes at first, building up to about 30 minutes.

Sit as comfortably as you can, on a cushion or on a chair. Don’t slouch, but sit upright, with your back, neck and head straight and in alignment so that gravity supports your head. Keep you shoulder-blades back, and rest your hands gently on your lap or legs. Relax, keep breathing normally, and gently close your eyes (many traditions meditate with eyes open, but it is often easier to close them when beginning). Now, expecting nothing, just become very aware of all of the feelings in your body – discomforts, aches, warmth, cool, textures, tingling. Just be aware, observe. Now become aware of all of the sounds going on around you – the furnace, traffic, people breathing. Now become aware of the thoughts going on in your head. When a thought arises, acknowledge it and let it go. Start to notice the frequency of thoughts, and how they begin to slow down, and the gaps between the thoughts. Begin to experience the centered stillness as your thoughts no longer crowd you. Remain in that stillness – when another thought arises, just let it go.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Waking Up Slowly...

Know all things to be like this: A mirage, a cloud castle, a dream, an apparition, without essence, but with qualities that can be seen. Know all things to be like this: As the moon in a bright sky in some clear lake reflected, though to that lake the moon has never moved. Know all things to be like this: As an echo that derives from music, sounds, and weeping, Yet in that echo is no melody. Know all things to be like this: As a magician makes illusions of horses, oxen, carts and other things, nothing is as it appears. -- Samadhi Raja Sutra

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. -- Albert Einstein

For thousands of years the great teachers and mystics have repeatedly pointed out the dream-like nature of reality. As someone who has followed the Buddhist path over the last 13 or so years I have often come across teachings that allude directly or indirectly to the fact that there is something wrong with the way we understand this world. Buddhists call it 'delusion' -- the mis-understanding of the true nature of the world around us. I have to admit that while for many years I had an intellectual understanding of the concept, it is only over the last couple of years that I have begun to see exactly what this might mean.

It's only a glimpse. I don't pretend that I have any deep insight, but I do know that I am beginning to experience and understand a little of this true reality. I know that many of you are moving down this path of understanding, and I encourage you to join in and share your experiences on this blog.

Nobody can tell you how to wake up, or even tell you what it means to be awake. It's something we all must experience for ourselves. Hopefully, however, some of the ideas and stories here will help you on your own personal journey.