"Mindfulness Practice isn't just about escaping to some magical inner realm devoid of life's challenges. The Practice is about calming your mind and opening your heart enough to engage Life directly, to be more fully Present in a kind, clear, and helpful way."

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The Musings of a Long-time Student of Meditation

Saturday, January 2, 2021

In It for the Long Haul

  “Be still.  Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity.
When there is silence one finds the anchor of the universe within oneself.”
― Lao Tzu

"As the mind becomes a little more quiet the sacredness of everything 
within and without becomes clear to us.”
-- Zen Teacher Norman Fischer
 


Well,  the 12th Day of Christmas has come and gone.  I'm pleased to finally bid farewell to the holiday season.  
 
Even with the traditional travels and family gatherings reduced to telephone calls, texts, Facebook, and fleeting moments on Zoom, it's been a busy, and oftentimes unsettling, holiday season.

In the midst of the scurry of the past couple of weeks, I was especially aware of how precious each morning's meditation was to me.  
 
Although this year I was able to avoid the energy of the "over the top" Christmas morning paper ripping rampages that characterize our cultures distorted and materialistic celebration, I'm still a parent and grandparent.  I hopped on-line -- and went a bit crazy.  
 
There, in the realm of clicking mice and cyber-versions of real goods, a series of on-line buying misadventures added hours and hours of sometimes stressful re-do's to my world.  It took a long time before everything was finally signed, sealed and delivered.  Thankfully, I was able to fall back on the tradition of the Christmastide and give myself a bit of elbowroom.
 
Sitting here now, mindful of my breath and body, relaxing into the space that surrounds these sensations, I come to rest in this moment's open awareness.  In my mind's eye,  I can see light at the end of the tunnel.  Continuing to relax and open, the tunnel and the light dissolve into the clear, luminous brilliance that is beyond endings and beginnings.  Sitting still, my heart glows in gratitude for Practice.  
 
Touching Stillness, even for a few brief moments, is like feeling the warm glow of a fireplace, snuggling at home on a snowy evening peering through the window at the moon.  Paradoxically, it's also like sipping clear, crisp spring water on a steamy summer day.  In Stillness, the Presence emerges.  In a silent whisper, it sings of the Ineffable, that infinite space where the fundamentally mysterious and completely ordinary meet to form the fabric of Life itself.  

Just Sitting Still
 
Although I use a variety of meditation techniques, the foundation of my personal practice for decades has been shikantaza: Just Sitting Still.  Seated erect, my attention is allowed to rest in the moment to moment experience of breath, body, and the expansive spaciousness of an open heart and mind.  I simply Sit with what Zen teacher Norman Fischer calls "the basic feeling of being alive."  This is often easier said than done.  It takes Practice.

Conditioned as we are, our attention is usually drawn into the thoughts and images and memories and daydreams cascading through our mind.  Rather than sitting still, observing the present moment with a relaxed open gaze, we find ourselves scurrying along the sidewalks of New York City, or rewriting a scene from yesterday's argument to put us in a better light, or working out the budget for the month...
 
This happens, again and again and again.  

Yet, the moment we simply notice this, a moment of Practice emerges.  If that noticing is clear, open, calm, and non-judgmental, we have engaged Mindfulness, a qualitatively different mode of consciousness.  Mindfulness becomes the Gateless Gate to Pure Awareness.  As Practice deepens, there are times that Reality Asserts Itself.  In a flash, we are Present in a qualitatively different way -- and we know it.  Ultimately, we come home to our True Nature.  We realize that that we are inseparable from the Universe.  
 
At times, it is just that simple.  Yet, simple doesn't necessarily mean easy.

Throughout our lives, we have developed complexes of thoughts and emotions that have a great deal of power over us.  They arise, unbidden, to dominate our attention.  Without Practice, we are unconsciously propelled into each moment by our past, again and again. 
 
Much of who we are at any one moment, the way we "see" and react to our experience, is just a bad habit.  We are, literally, creatures of habit.  Most of the time, we don't choose to think what we are thinking or to feel what we are feeling.  It just bubbles up from our subconscious.  Without Practice, without a conscious commitment to put in the time and effort to discover who we really are, we are held in bondage by our past.  Without Practice, moment to moment, we are likely to continue to create a future that contains the same old, same old, suffering that characterizes much of the human condition.   
 
Thankfully, there is Practice.
The Journey of a Thousand Miles
 
Due to the power of our life-long conditioning, sometimes we need to prime the pump a bit before we can Just Sit Still. We have to rely on "skillful means," techniques that help us develop the concentration and energy needed to sustain us on the journey of discovery that is Practice.   
 
Among the various schools of Buddhism, and in other spiritual traditions as well, a common first step in the Practice is to use our own breath as the object of meditation.  Focusing on the actual sensations of breathing is a powerful means of developing concentration.  It also releases the energy that is wrapped up in our habitual, stimulus-response, emotional reactions and ruminations.  Although other meditation objects can be useful as the means of developing this concentration, conscious awareness of breathing has several important benefits:
 
First, this focus enhances the mind-body connection.  All too often, we're "in our heads." Most of our attention is consumed by the thoughts and fantasies going through our mind.  We literally loose touch with the dance of sensations, emotions, and energies that are the basis of our lives.  Bringing our mind to our breath as it is experienced in our body grounds us.  There, we engage a calmer, yet more energized, state of being.  Just Sitting Still, the breath, body, and mind naturally relax. 

Secondly, a focus on the actual experience of our breathing process connects us to the present moment.  This is huge.  Left to our own devices, the habitual flow of thoughts and feelings are prone to carry us off into the future, which oftentimes breeds fearful  fantasies.  Alternatively, the flow of our conditioning can take us into the past where sorrow, remorse, guilt, and shame are likely to capture our attention.  As Buddha, and many contemporary teachers from all spiritual traditions have pointed out, our connection to the present moment connects us to a vast, sacred, reality that is, literally, beyond belief.  It is the Real Deal.

In addition, a focus on the breath has another, very practical, benefit.  Unlike a lot of other healing resources, the connection to our breath is freely available and always accessible (at least until we croak.)  We can place some of our attention on our breath and engage our Practice not only on the meditation cushion but throughout the gamut of our waking hours.  In fact, in lucid dreaming and Tibetan Dream Yoga, it is possible to experience our breathing in various stages of dreaming -- and beyond.  
 
(Sometimes it is helpful to use specific techniques to develop ability to concentrate our attention even more fully on the breath before we can Just Sit Still.  Here are Two Helpful Tools. )


As Practice Deepens
 
At a certain point, the techniques used to concentrate your attention can be released.  You are able to relax and stay Present, to include all that is in the soft, loving, gaze of your Practice.  You can simply Just Sit Still to rest in an open heart and a clear mind.  There, you can feel the open, expansive, beneficence of the Universe.  You see that the infinite, spacious, Presence of the One Love always has your back. 
 
Of course, this may not happen immediately.  Our conditioning is deep and pervasive.  There are layers and layers of this conditioning locked into our bodies and minds.  At times, our own skeletons may emerge from the subconscious closets as memories, powerful emotions, even flashbacks.  Yet, with Practice, it becomes easier and easier to return your attention to the spaciousness of the present moment, to what you see right in front of you, what you hear in the space that surrounds you, to the sensations of your breath and body. 
 
At other times, you will may feel able to focus directly on what has emerged.  Letting go of the habitual narratives that are likely to dominate your attention, you can explore the actual bodily sensations and energies present.   It is there, beneath and beyond the level of conscious thought, that the deepest patterns reside.  These patterns determine the way you perceive and react to the events in your life.  

The aim at this point isn't to get rid of "negative" feelings.  Instead we choose to experience them directly and allow them to diffuse into the spaciousness of an open heart and mind.  Unlike western therapies that seek to find an intellectual explanation of those feelings (oh, that comes from the time i was three years old, etc....), the Practice allows us just to experience the feelings, the pre-conceptual energies of fear, sadness, anger, confusion, etc. -- and relax into the open and clear space around them.  There, the Heart/Mind heals itself.

At a certain point, the universality of these feelings becomes self-evident.  Rather than locking down and identifying with "my" pain, we see clearly that it is transpersonal.  It is the pain of the human condition.  Opening our heart and mind to this aspect of reality is crucial.  No longer resisting it, opening to accept it as it is, we are released from its bondage. 
 
Here, the ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice, Tonglen, can be especially helpful.  (See Tonglen Practice: Taking It to Heart) Rather than turn away from difficult emotional energies, we draw them into our hearts on the in-breath with the aspiration that all who feel such feelings be free of such suffering and the roots of such suffering.  Then, on the out-breath we release the feelings, and breath out relief with the aspiration that all be at peace.  Tonglen Practice has been extremely important to me for the past couple of weeks as friends and family continue to navigate their way through this time of pandemics and political turmoil. 

The Long Haul

As we devote more time and effort and heart to the Practice, as Mindfulness broadens and deepens, I've found that things really do smooth out.  When you're in it for the long haul, Just Sitting Still gets easier.  The Practice ends up doing you more than you are doing it.

Over time, beyond the difficulties and challenges of engaging with Life As It Is, a simple and mysterious Knowing, without words or beliefs, emerges.  Life's Sacredness becomes self-evident.

As in childhood, the simple wordless wonder of Just Being Alive emerges --both on and off the meditation cushion.

It just takes Practice. 
 
 
 

 

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