Meditation 101

As I was researching for this week’s discussion, I found an old Chinese proverb I thought beautifully sums up last’s week’s post on stress and feelings of control. It says, “Eight out of nine things that happen to us do not match our expectations.” How true, and the response we often have is to feel stressed about those eight things. I wonder, did the author of that truism mean eight or nine times in a day, a week, a year, or a lifetime? In my world, it would be eight in a day, and that would be a light day. I think this saying begs the question, then what do we do about it? Ahhh, the perfect segue into this week’s topic: the benefits of finding quiet contemplation time, or time for meditation.

A train car full of research confirms the immediate, and long term benefits of sitting quietly in silence and letting go of conscious thinking—the planning, reasoning, problem-solving type thinking--and instead bringing your mind and thoughts to focus on a single thought: “I am at peace,” “Let it all go,” “I am fine,” “I am safe,” “I have enough,” “I am well,” or any special phrase you find comforting. You can also think of nothing in particular, and let whatever thoughts that come to you flow by as if you are sitting on the banks of a river watching it babble along. You simply observe your thoughts as they float by. There is no right or wrong way to practice being quiet, it’s whatever works for you. The key here is to stay unattached to the thoughts, letting them go instead of grabbing on to them and going down some rabbit hole of thinking the next thought about the first thought, then a second one about the first one, then a third, and on and on, until you are right back in your busy mind.

From a recent article, I would like to offer the words of one of the world’s most respected experts and teachers, and one of my favorites, Pema Chödrön. I appreciate her writings especially because she was reared on a New Jersey farm, attended Sarah Lawrence College, married, had two children, lived and worked as a wife and mother in the real world decades before she became a fully ordained Buddhist nun and teacher. She has walked the walk we are all walking.

“One of the most effective means for working with that [stressful] moment when we see the gathering storm of our habitual mind is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap.

If you take some time to formally practice meditation, perhaps in the early morning, there is a lot of silence and space. Meditation practice itself is a way to create gaps. Every time you realize you are thinking and you let your thoughts go, you are creating a gap. Every time the breath goes out, you are creating a gap. You may not always experience it that way, but the basic meditation instruction is designed to be full of gaps. If you don’t fill up your practice time with your discursive mind, with your worrying and obsessing and all that kind of thing… caught up in the work you have to do that day, the projects you haven’t finished from the day before… caught up in busy mind, caught up in hesitation or fear, depression or discouragement. In other words, you’ve gone into your cocoon.

If you don’t fill up your practice [with busy mind] you have time to experience the blessing of your surroundings. You can just sit there quietly. Then maybe silence will dawn on you. Or maybe not. Maybe you are already….If you connect with… the stillness… maybe that feeling can stay with you and you can go into your day with it. Whatever it is you are doing… the expansiveness, the stillness, stays with you. When you are in touch with that larger environment, it can cut through your cocoon mentality.

On the other hand, I know from personal experience how strong the habitual mind is. The discursive mind, the busy, worried, caught-up, spaced-out mind, is powerful. That’s all the more reason to do the most important thing — to realize what a strong opportunity every day is, (the emphasis is mine) and how easy it is to waste it. If you don’t allow your mind to open and to connect with where you are, with the immediacy of your experience, you could easily become completely submerged. You could be completely caught up and distracted by the details of your life, from the moment you get up in the morning until you fall asleep at night.

You get so caught up in the content of your life, the minutiae that make up a day, so self-absorbed in the big project you have to do, that… the stillness, and the vastness escape you. You never emerge from your cocoon, except for when there’s a noise that’s so loud you can’t help but notice it, or something shocks you, or captures your eye, and you say, ‘Wow’.”

I quoted Pema because she hits the mark so beautifully. I don’t think most of us want to live this second half of our lives in a cocoon, but so often we find our feet stuck in the minutiae, our minds in the jet stream. Instead, please try this: In the coming week, take fifteen minutes in the early morning or late afternoon, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and sit comfortably. Close or lower your eyes below center and focus on a single, comforting thought. Notice how you feel.  We will continue this discussion next week.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!