Tuesday, February 28, 2012

There’s a lot going on when we’re doing nothing

I have a bumper sticker that says "Nothing Happens." It's a sort of in-joke among meditators.

If you were to look into the small studio at Samadhi on Wednesday evenings, you might think that nothing is happening. The people there are sitting, mostly still, although they sometimes shift position quietly.

But to say that nothing is happening is like saying that nothing is going on in a pond based on the observation that the surface is still. Underneath that stillness, fish are swimming, currents are moving, plants are growing, leaves are rotting. Water arrives and evaporates. When you look at it, there's a lot there.

Similarly, while we appear to be sitting still in meditation, and we are trying to keep our attention on our breath, there's a lot happening. My nose itches or my foot falls asleep. Thoughts rise up as relentlessly as the bubbles in soda or champagne. People talk outside. Cars speed by.

My mind wanders -- and when I notice that, I bring my attention back, gently. Over and over. What do I have to do before bed? Well, I should call” ... oh, thinking. And come back to the breath.

Having thoughts isn't a problem. Meditation practice is about training to notice when we're distracted and then bringing our attention back to the space where we’re not. It develops stability and calmness.

By doing that in formal meditation, we become more able to do it in life. Instead of reacting without thinking, we may notice a thought forming and choose how to react. Or question it -- is it really true that I'm not good at this? Instead of being pulled around by our thoughts, we find some space around them and can follow them -- or not.

This doesn't happen the first time you sit and meditate -- or maybe, for you, it does. You may not think anything's happening. And then one day, when you're outside gardening and you're starting to complain to yourself, you catch the thought, decide to let it go, and find yourself outside on a beautiful day, just breathing.

The meditation groups meets at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays. No meditation experience is required. We ease into practice, which can include concentration, contemplation, or guided instruction, and we practice for 20-30 minutes. And then we discuss our experience or a teaching.

For more visit friendyourmind.blogspot.com or come on Wendesday.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hot and cold

Last week I was in northern Vermont on retreat. Next week I will be in Florida on a business-related trip.
In Vermont, I slept with three fleece blankets to stay warm. I don't expect that will be a problem in Florida.
Will it be better?
I heard a talk recently by Shinzen Young, who trained as a Zen monk. He recounts going to his teacher and asking, what is the difference between hot and cold? (The answer he wanted, he says, was about non-duality, and hot and cold were merely an example.) When pressed, the teacher replied: When you are hot, you boil and you die. When you are cold, you freeze and you die.
I interpret this to mean, (a) extremes of anything are not healthy; the middle way is best; and (b) either way, you're going to die so stop fussing about the temperature.
So ... cold has its beauty -- sharpness, clarity, a drawing in. I like the weight of many blankets.
And warmth has its loveliness, its ease, its lightness.
Whatever circumstances we are in, we can find something to appreciate about it.
When we have "fundamental appreciation and respect for what we do, every act is a sacred act," Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says. "With that inspiration, we regard every experience in our life as sacred as well."

Who am I? Who am I now? And now? Seeing the self as fluid

I write. That is what I do. That is what I have wanted to do since I was 10. I have a degree in journalism, and, except for a brief, immediately-post-graduation stint in public relations, I have spent my career as a writer and editor.
So when I started writing for blogs, that didn't challenge my self concept. It was still writing -- more personal, less research, but writing.
Recently a talk I gave at the Interdependence Project was put up on the website. And that is not writing. That is talking.
I do not talk. I mean, I talk in the sense of holding conversations. But I don't talk in front of people. Except that I do -- at the meditation group I lead Wednesday evenings, occasionally at other places, like IDP. And I don't feel anxiety about it.
So I guess the image I have of myself as someone who is not a public speaker is ... not always true.
Which just proves the truth of annata, or non-self.
Non-self doesn't mean that you do not exist as a collection of personal traits and quirks. It means that the self is fluid, not frozen, that the self you are in this minute may be different from the self you are later in the day. Just as our thoughts change -- "I'm having a great day" morphing into "My life sucks" as we relate to the events of the day -- our self changes. The self who doesn't talk, the self who doesn't dance or sing in public may fall by the wayside under the right circumstances.
Unless we are clinging so tightly to our view of ourselves that we can't even be open to behaving in a way that is inconsistent with how we see ourselves.
Who are you? What do you do? What don't you do? Ever? What would happen if you did?
A person who writes can be a person who talks. Who sings (in a group). Who reads poetry. Who dances.
Don't limit your chances to enjoy your self.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Better than morphine

A report from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center states that meditation can be more effective than morphine. Link

"This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation," said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. "We found a big effect – about a 40 per cent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 per cent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 per cent."

In the study, 15 volunteers, who had never previously meditated, were taught mindfulness meditation techniques over four 20-minute sessions. Mindfulness meditation teaches the individual to focus attention on an object, such as the breath.

During the study, participants had their brain activity measured, with an arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI), both before and after meditation, while they were subjected to a pain-inducing heating device - heated to 120 farenheit or almost 50 degrees celsius - over five-minute periods.

The scans found that after meditation, participants' pain was reduced by as much as 93 per cent. They also showed that activity in the somatosensory cortex - the region of the brain associated with pain response - which was rapid prior to meditation, was significantly diminished afterwards. Movement in the anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex however, was increased after meditation.

"These areas all shape how the brain builds an experience of pain from nerve signals that are coming in from the body," says Robert C Coghill, PhD, senior author of the study and associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist. "Consistent with this function, the more that these areas were activated by meditation the more that pain was reduced. One of the reasons that meditation may have been so effective in blocking pain was that it did not work at just one place in the brain, but instead reduced pain at multiple levels of processing."

As a result of the study, Wake Forest recommended meditation be used as standard clinical practice to deal with pain.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Coming soon to a society near you

Six women from around the globe. Three intimidatingly unstable sets of bunk beds. One room. More ominously, one heating vent. Two weeks of living together, sharing a bathroom with another dozen women.

Don't watch for it on TLC or Bravo. It was too boring even for The History Channel to be interested.

The thing is, the people in question were advanced meditation practitioners who'd come together, with many others, to contemplate what it takes to have an enlightened society. So at the very least, there was a heart commitment to kindness, to living mindfully, to realizing that the sleeping conditions that make you comfy will have an impact on five other sentient beings. (Or more. One of the men in the male dorm pointed out that if we messed with the thermostat we would also affect the men's dorm.)

We never messed with the thermostat. We did, however, have daily discussions about the door between the sleeping room and the locker room. The woman whose bed was under the heating vent preferred that the door be open to let the heat out. The people at the other end of the room preferred that it be closed to keep the light out. Once I collected enough blankets to last a sherpa a lifetime (I ultimately had one fleece blanket under me, two over me -- each folded in half to double it, and a heavy cotton blanket over me, on top of long underwear and fleece pajamas), I was willing to go in any direction.

We tried different things each night. Meanwhile, the woman in the bunk below me moved her mattress into the middle of the floor because the structure swayed so much each time I moved. The woman in the bunk over the world-class snorer wore earplugs, so I tapped her on the shoulder each morning to wake her up.

Through it all, there was no eye-rolling, no whining, no one asserting their needs should take precedence. No whispering behind other people's backs or building and tearing down allegiances. There was a situation. We were sharing a room at night. Could we find a level of happiness where everyone was content and no one was miserable?

Yes, we could. Without cat fights or hair pulling. I don't know what went on inside anyone's head, but in the real world kindness prevailed.

It would make a boring TV show, but it made a pretty good world.

After I got home from the retreat, I tried this at the Stop & Shop -- assuming that everyone there had essentially good intentions even if their behavior didn't convey it. I let the woman who walked past me to the front of the line at the drug store do it. It's harder not to whisper under my breath or mentally call people names, but it's a practice to work on.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Not awkward -- socially different

Today I'm leaving for a two-week- long retreat. I'm not worried about the length of time -- although there are a remarkable number of things happening during that that timeframe that I'll miss (Bjork in New York!, the Superbowl, a child's 21st birthday). I'm anxious about the talking.

I've done a two-week silent retreat, and I loved it. Not being able to talk -- to make excuses or apologies or explain your actions -- tells you so much about the how you see you yourself. Not talking is not a problem.

This retreat, though, includes meditation and study -- and talking about what you study. It doesn't require silent, choreographed oriyoki meals; we eat in the dining room. At tables. Where talking is allowed. Where wondering which table to sit at is de rigeur. Where every other table seems to be having livelier or deeper conversation. Where I wish there was a silent dining room, as at the yoga retreat center I often go to, where it's OK to opt out, to concentrate on the food.

Fortuitously, there has been an explosion of conversation this week about introverts due to a new book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. On Friday, it was seventh on Amazon's book list, and Cain's been interviewed by seemingly every media outlet. (The book came out last week.)

Cain's point is that introversion is a personality style, not a problem. She tells NPR:

"Introversion is really about having a preference for lower stimulation environments. So it's just a preference for quiet, for less noise, for less action. Whereas extroverts really crave more stimulation in order to feel at their best. ...

"Many people believe that introversion is about being antisocial, and that's really a misperception. Because actually it's just that introverts are differently social. So they would prefer to have a glass of wine with a close friend as opposed to going to a loud party full of strangers.

"Now, shyness, on the other hand, is about a fear of negative social judgment. So you can be introverted without having that particular fear at all, and you can be shy but also be an extrovert."

Not that is useful information.

Meditation has made me less shy. I've developed more confidence in and acceptance of myself, a sense of self value that was lacking before. I don't fear social judgments. But just because I'm not worried about what you might think about me when I head off for lunch by myself rather than joining the group doesn't mean that I don't wonder about why I don't want to join the group.

Now I know. I'm differently social. Nice.

And I don't dislike talking. But I like talking when there is something to talk about. I suppose Buddhism provides a lot I like to talk about (as my history with this blog proves.)


Thursday, February 2, 2012

The signals we give ... should be clear

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Death comes without warning

My Uncle John died last week. He was the husband of my mother's sister, who died several years back. He and my my mother were the elder generation at family parties in our hometown; now it's just her watching over my cousins, their children, and their grandchildren on holidays.

I called my mom the evening of John's funeral, assuming that she would be upset. I would have liked to accompany her, but I couldn't make it to the funeral.

But she wasn't down at all. She told me that she had told Uncle John to "put in a reservation for me."

"Did you give him a day and time?" I asked.

No, she said. When it was her time. Some other people might have to go first.

If you listen to enough dharma talks, you'll hear that fear of death is the root fear, that everything else boils down to the fact that we are afraid to die. But I don't feel that. (At this point I either get pouty or want to slink out of the room because everyone is deathly afraid of death.)

My mom knows where she's going. She's got a seat at the table. If she's right, I'm sure she'll make space for me and my family.

I don't know what happens after death. It doesn't much interest me. If I have any control over that, it's about what happens in this life/in this day/in this moment. My only control over the future, on earth and in the hereafter, is how I act now. If I live with kindness and compassion -- as much as possible -- then it pays off in how I feel now and what the results of my actions will be.

Every morning I recite:
My death is certain; the exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?

To me, the answer is clear. What do you say?

Godspeed, Uncle John. Say hi to my dad.