Monday, September 28, 2009

Meditation Practice

In the earliest teachings of the Buddha, the teachings about the Eightfold path, the Buddha spent more time discussing the 8th precept about "right concentration" or "right meditation". The first two precepts, right understanding and right commitment, are the foundation. The next three, right speech, right behavior, and right livelihood are the ethical precepts. They help prevent us from creating any more unwholesome karma. The last three, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation are the karma burning precepts and lead to the experience of nirvana which is the extinguishing the three poisons of the mind: (1) addictive craving, (2) negativity, and (3) delusion. When these three poisons have ceased in the mind, then a person feels "the unborn, the unchanging, and the undying".

I wanted to invite people to meditate in a kind of nonsectarian style and perhaps move step by step into gaining a taste of nirvana. I think it is more possible and easier than perhaps many people think. I wanted to emphasize here that the word nirvana refers to a particular kind of experience and is not a dogma to be believed. If point to a tree and I say, "Look at the tree," the point of the exercise is to have the experience of "seeing a tree". The word label, "tree," has then done its job and has led to the actual experience of a tree. To debate about whether or not the word "tree" is the right label or the best definition of what is seen is secondary to the actual experience. This is particularly important in Buddhist meditation, since we are going beyond thought entirely and into a direct experience of our true nature.

Contrary to some texts, I recommend that people meditate with eyes closed and lying down. The spine is still meant to be loose and relatively straight. You then give yourself to the gravity and let your body be held by gravity. If you are lying down in a bed, then you let your body sink down into the bed. You notice where you are holding tightness, consciously tighten the tightness, inhale, and then exhale and let go of the tightness. You scan your body for tensions and gently release all the tension that your body is holding in this way. If some tension does not release through this exercise, then you just let the tension be and let it unwind of its own accord and in its own time. What is usually found is that the tension is related to an emotion that we are not wanting to feel and within the emotion is a series of thoughts and usually a sensation about being hurt.

Attention is focused on the breathing. Noticing the inhalation and the noticing the exhalation. Not trying to control the breathing in any particular manner. Just noticing how the belly expands on the inhale and how the belly relaxes on the exhale. Keeping the breathing free from straining. Keeping the belly soft on the exhale. Not pushing the air out forcefully on the exhale. Letting the breath gently fill the belly and lungs on the inhale without inhaling so much that you are straining to fill your lungs.

You will notice that your mind will wander into thoughts. When you notice this, then you return to breathing and you let go of dwelling on whatever you are thinking. You stay with the direct experience of inhaling and exhaling. Chances are you will need to notice and return back to breathing very often. You will notice how much time is spent on thinking, thinking, and thinking. You want to take a vacation from thinking if you can. You might not be able to. If you are worried about something, then you may find a compulsive need to dwell on something and worry about something. Notice the emotion of worry, anxiety, and fear. See if you can notice how attached it is to physical survival, comfort, and security. Humans live in this kind of fear. It is behind our addictive cravings and attachment to things. It is behind our resistance to anything that threatens our security and our attachments. It is behind a kind of dull sensation which is being satisfied with what we are attached to.

You want to see if you can let this level of thought and emotion float in your awareness. Not resisting this flow of thought and emotion and not clinging to this flow of thought and emotion. If you do notice you are caught up in this flow and reacting to what is, then gently return your focus back to your breathing. Allow your mind to settle of its own accord. If possible, surrender to whatever fate your life seems to be flowing toward. Whatever you fear may or may not come to pass, but once you have determined that you have done everything that you can, then let it go and accept whatever wants to happen. If you cannot let go, then see how "clinging to self" or "clinging to life" is behind the sorrow you are experiencing. Notice the resistance you are feeling to what wants to happen. This clinging to self is behind our fears and if released we can experience some freedom from fear and its pain.

When you have "set up" meditation, you are using this space to explore your mind open endedly. You do not know what is possible and what is not. Whether the teachings of any religion are true or not, you do not know. You want to find out what is possible in your own experience. You want to let yourself experience your sorrow and see if it can end. The teachings of the Buddha are meant to help this investigation. One of the stated missions of the Buddha was to "end all speculative views". You drop into the direct experience of your own mind, see what is there, and see what is possible. In the beginning, you do not try to do anything except gently watch and notice. You may find that your mind calms down of its own accord and even releases the clinging behind each sorrow very naturally.

For people who have busy lives and busy minds, who do not seem able to make time to meditate, it is possible to set up this meditation before going to sleep. It will deepen the quality of the sleep and allow the body to regenerate more deeply. It will make the time you sleep count more and you will wake up more alive and refreshed. If you fall asleep during meditation, that is okay. You do not want to add any strain to your meditation process. You do not want to "try to stay awake". You simply want to focus attention on the breathing and release any self generated tension that you notice. Eventually you will be able to stay peacefully awake more often and for longer duration.

Another time to meditate is during a morning when you do not have to hurry and do things. Before getting up, to just notice the breathing, and let go of any anxious thinking. Even if you can devote just five minutes before hurrying about your day, you will notice a positive shift, a little more calm, and find that the day unfolds a little more peacefully and easily. There might be stressors and challenges that may frazzle you. If this happens, accept this, and see if you can focus on breathing and relaxing as you move through the challenge. Even if you are still stressed, it will be a little better if you are present in your breathing as you go through the event. You can, paradoxically, be relaxed about having tension and let yourself explore what is happening. The Buddhists sometimes talk about "being attached to nonattachment" or craving to have no cravings. There is a kind of forcefulness involved in this. We can let go of this forcefulness if we notice it and just be with our experience, even if it is tense and painful. When we are able to do this, then we do not add tension on top of tension.

Once a certain amount of time is devoted to meditation, then we can do short meditations when we are waiting in grocery lines, at a stop light waiting for it to change to green, waiting at the Post Office, waiting at the dentist office, walking in the park, and even later on we can watch our breathing when we are doing simple tasks like washing dishes, washing our car, mopping a floor, straightening out the bed, washing clothes, cleaning up a room, mailing a letter, or playing a game. Through this meditation can be woven into our lives. Eventually, gaps in thought will be wide enough to feel what is beyond them, to feel the serene crystal clear open emptiness of our true nature, which is pure awareness, which is in the background of all our transitory experiences and allowing us to feel everything that is happening. We can learn to rest in this awareness and be this awareness, and not get caught up in the transitory flow of experiences.

There are clusters of reactive thoughts, emotions, sensations, and actions that form a self personality. The Buddha taught that this self is an illusion, caused by attachment to the word "I" and all the mental opinions wrapped around this word. It is the "me put together by thought". Since thought is transitory and can even stop completely, then this self also disappears when thought ceases to arise. We identify with these temporary formations that are really "not self". We can give these formations a kind of relative reality by giving them our faith that this is what we are and getting caught up in them. This sense of self is an illusion, patterns of ever changing thoughts, emotions, and sensations with nothing enduring in them, with many gaps where it ceases to exist entirely. If we can notice how we are chanting the word "I" over and over in our minds and let this thought go, then we can sink more deeply into who and what we really are, and learn to calmly abide in our true nature. This deeper identity cannot be captured by the mind or thinking apparatus, which always objectifies something and sees it as separate from itself, and tries to grasp it. We can feel into this deeper identity by awareness noticing awareness and relaxing into itself, calmly abiding in what it is, and not even straining to see.

There is more that can be shared about this process, but I have covered a lot of ground. I do not know who is going to try to follow these leads and see where they go. I assume that there might be questions about this process. I would like, if possible, for anyone who has questions to try at least a few rounds of meditating so that the discussion can be grounded in some actual experience.

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