Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Meditation Series: Posture

One of the most important facets of meditation is posture. It is said the way one positions themselves during meditation greatly effects the balance between body and mind. Typically, when someone thinks of meditation they envision this pose (as I did):
meditation posture
This picture is courtesy of an online article, Bhuta Shuddhi an Esoteric Tantric Practice.
If you've seen a statue of the Buddha (which we all have at our favorite Chinese buffet), then this pose is easily recognizable. It is called the Vairochana Buddha or Lotus meditation posture and for all intensive purposes, as far as I'm concerned, should not be used by someone who is just beginning to meditate.

I remember the very first time I meditated. I dimmed the lights, lit a few candles; I even burned some incense to "set the mood" before sitting on my mat (which was nothing more than a comforter) and imitating the Buddha pose. Before attempting to meditate, I had taken no great lengths at all to research other meditation postures and techniques. I made up my mind, fairly early on, that I was going to do that specific pose, because that was the pose I saw all those beautiful statues doing, in all those movies, and in all those dreams where I envisioned myself in full Lotus, meditating at the peak of a mountain. I had it all so dreadfully wrong....and I found out, fairly early on, that I forgot an important fact.


Siddhartha Buddha, the "Silent Sage of the Sakyas," was a master at his craft and devoted his life to his ascetic practices. What's more, given all the postures he probably did in his lifetime, the vairochana is the one that's been most engraved in culture. Obviously, I had chosen one of the hardest poses to do as a beginner. My legs ached, my feet ached, my hands ached, my arms ached, my butt ached, and my mind "ached" from the continuous processing of how much the rest of me ached. Instead of supporting the weight of the world, which was my goal through meditating, I felt the weight of the world was crushing me and I had neither the mental conditioning or focus to ignore it. I was in agony. 

So, I went on to plan B:
meditation chair posture
This image is courtesy of an amazing ebook, Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kaat-Zin.
Now granted, meditating in a chair is perfectly ok (especially if you're older). But, as is illustrated above, the key is to remain in an alert and aware position. If you relax too much (like I did), you will fall asleep (just like I did) and sleeping is not meditation.
  1. Whatever posture you choose, there must be a balance between relaxation and awareness. Don't choose a pose too hard (like I did at first) and be too aware of you're body's aches. But, also don't choose a pose too relaxed (like I did in the second example) and end up making your meditation session nap time. Eventually as time goes on, the balance will shift and harder poses will become easier as your mind becomes stronger.
For now, my suggestion (and it is only that) is the kneeling pose:
Courtesy Full Catastrophe Living
In the kneeling position, you sit with you knees folded over either a meditation bench, cushion or, as in my case, a pillow. The hands and arms are resting which isn't as much a strain as the Lotus where they aren't. This greatly helped me, because I have absolutely no arm strength and found it hard to focus when my arms weren't in a passive position. 

Once again, the above is just a suggestion. There are many different meditation postures just like there are numerous meditation styles. But, how do we distinguish a true meditation posture from just another position that is comfortable, yet entirely worthless? 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Music as Therapy...

Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. – Berthold Auerbach
I believe listening to music (or singing if you can) is one of the most beautiful forms of meditation. Music seems to capture that which our words can hardly express. Short, but sweet, I'd like to present some of the songs I have come across that are both soothing and lively imaginative. Whilst listening to these songs my mind travels and I find myself thinking of everything yet nothing all at once.

Today: "Fukaki Umi No Kanata" (Japanese) or "Beyond the Deep Sea" (English)
by the Yoshida Brothers

Mindfulness and its arch-nemesis: Judgmental thoughts

When I last posted on mindfulness, I used this equation:
Positive Outlook
Even though mindfulness isn't the same as outlook, I found it useful to think of it when trying to understand the importance of obtaining a mindful state in my life (i.e. 'If I'm more mindful my reward will be a better outlook which will, in turn, enrich my life.') I also used the story of my stolen car radio (if you missed that post, glance at it here).

To summarize, I realized that the 'past experience' portion of the equation was beyond my control unless I had a time machine to go back and undo what was already done. Following this train of thought, I realized the only logical way for me to change my present outlook was to manipulate or "put a handle" on my present thoughts.

This is....easier said than done. I remember the first time I tried to meditate. I got on my bed and simulated the meditation posture (I even did the cosmic mudra for added effect). I sat there and waited....and waited....and waited...and waited! To tell you the truth, I don't know what I expected. I have an overactive imagination, so I suppose I expected to close my eyes and be transported to this fantastical world where  ancient secrets would be mine or, maybe, a realm where the "enlightenment fairies" would shower me with infinite wisdom. But, this didn't come. Nothing came, and so, my mind rebelled. All of a sudden I was thinking of my day, the things I had to do, things I didn't do but should've, my opinion on things, how my body ached, how hungry I was, how I disliked some things and liked others and the list can go on.

This is how I meditated for a while and still, today, I find myself doing it on particularly hard days. I have found the hardest thing for me to do is empty my mind. At the most basic level, it goes against my biological nature. From the moment I was born into the world, my mind was ever-growing. It took in shapes. It took in speech. It took in faces. It took in experiences. It took in the world...

It is impossible for a person of normal mental function to go through their day and not notice anything. Add to that the fact that, in this digital age, images, ideas, and opinions are continuously pouring out of everything from our tvs to our smartphones and its easy to see how our minds become cesspools of information. But, what's wrong with this? What's wrong with being informed? What's wrong with having opinions? What's wrong with having thoughts? Nothing....but not all thoughts are the same.
  • Judgmental Thought: condemnatory, critical, or self-righteous mode of thinking
    • "I'm not good enough..."
    • "Things will never change..."
    • "I'm the only sensible person here."
    • "I hate that."
These are a few examples and moving forward I realized the mind, with its incessant desire to always be in the process of processing something, inevitably takes this too far. I found I couldn't focus without my mind wandering. In class my mind wandered. Reading a book my mind wandered. Eating food in the cafe, I thought about how I was never going to get all my work done. I wanted to scream to my mind, "Stop being so rude! I'm eating. Can't I eat a sandwich without worrying about all that. Haven't you made me worry about that all day?!" My mind was acting like a bully. Take a glance at this picture and try to find the letter "j":
mind games

The answer.  
I realized the power of emptying my mind came from the discipline I gained to do it. If I had the discipline to empty my mind, I had the ability to shut out cumbersome thoughts. I, also, had the ability to know, instantly, when my thinking was leading me on a "wild goose chase" as in the case of finding the letter "j" above. After all, if I had given you this...

...you would've easily been able to say there is no letter "j." I learned that the "blankness" gives me a platform to sort through my thoughts without them pouring in one after the other, leaving me scattered and not fully in control. But, which thoughts were useful and which weren't? How could I tell the difference when habit dictated that ALL my thoughts were of some merit? How do I distinguish useful thoughts from judgmental ones? And, what's more, how do I use that to my advantage moving forward....

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Where we are now...

[The 'Where we are now...' posts may deal with concepts I have or haven't discussed in my regular blog feed, but as I do I will work to link the ideas together later.]

Even though I'm a new blogger who is attracted to old ideals and concepts, I know it's always important to link past wisdom with the "going-ons" of the world today. I don't remember what teacher it was that told me something I still hold to today: "Don't matter what you learn in here if you toss it out out there." Hopefully, it wasn't an English teacher...that would, perhaps, explain a few things. But, anyway, moving forward:

Troy Davis

If you live within a vicinity of a television, newspaper, computer, or anything digital you should know that the above man is the condemned (now executed) death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis. I won't go over the history of his journey in detail or dilly-dally on the recantation of the witnesses and other unnecessary specificity. However, I will say that yesterday a man died within a shroud of doubt that left many feeling dejected, angry, and robbed. 

Throughout the countdown to execution day, I did try to stay as unattached and focused as possible. Decisively, I maintained I thought there was too much evidence to warrant him being executed. I meditated on these thoughts. I prayed on these thoughts and tried to call on the concept of vipassana to see clearly that though I had these thoughts there had to be a balance; I couldn't tip the scale and allow these thoughts to become negative and counteractive. But, my spirit is young and, though I might sound a little Yoda-esque here, it seems that youth and fiery issues like these are an undeniable match. Add to that the fact I live a mere 40 mins from the Georgia Diagnostic Prison and it seemed pretty easy to throw myself headfirst into the unfocused, emotional chaos serving no purpose whatsoever.

Don't get me wrong. There is nothing more beautiful than fighting for what you believe in. But, taking a passionate stand on an issue is completely different than allowing emotions to dilute the power of focused thought and reasoning.

Today I awoke to the incessant conversations/arguments: the justice system is evil, Troy Davis was an angel, the murdered cop's mother was an insensitive bitch, the Georgia Board of Parole is evil, the witnesses have blood on their hands, Troy Davis' death was a death of epic proportions.....no, his death was just a death.

It took me all of today to come across that conclusion. I frowned at it, sure that it was far too apathetic (I still will ponder on it more). But even as I looked around I knew it to be true. When his last breath left the world, the fabric of time didn't stop. But, maybe that's too exaggerated. When his last breath left the world, the world didn't change that much. The same arguments continued. The same people believed what they wanted to believe. His death was the sole precious unaltered piece attached to the judgmental mosaic of a turbulent world.

Upon pondering and my meditation session today, I remembered a passage in Tao Te Ching. If you haven't read Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu, I recommend you do. It remains one of the best interpretation of Taoism to date. I've searched the internet and foundTao Te Ching online. It should take much less than a day to read it all, but it's taken centuries to understand.

I'm learning Chinese simplified (dabbling in traditional here) so forgive me for the characters, but I'd like to add some to help the imagination flow back to the way the "Old Master" (Lao-Tzu) must've wrote Tao Te Ching in the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E.: [Oh yea...a note on translation...Tao Te Ching has historically been a difficult work to translate giving rise to many different translations over the years. For simplicity (or added complexity...whatever your take), I will take from linked translations, the characters I've learned, my interpretations, and my own copies for the version that seems fit. I will also provide additional links to different translations online in the Enlightenment Across the Web tab.]

Ok maybe I could've done that better, but none of the character generators I found had the particular un-simplified characters I wanted. But, I'm still learning so hopefully that gets a subliminal A for effort.

  • Ku: reason
  • Yu: have
  • wu: without
  • hsiang: together
  • sheng (my fav character thus far): birth
  • "Ku yu wu hsiang sheng": "Therefore having reason and being without reason together creates the other." - My rough translation and you will find, if you read through the different translations offered, that this line is written in a variety of different ways.
Chapter Two, as presented by the above link:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

This chapter, like all the chapters in Tao Te Ching, can be deconstructed for days, but I'll keep this short because of the lengthiness of the characters tangent. Ok maybe a tangent, but I feel I came closer to understanding Tao by immersing myself in the characters...they brought me closer to this culture so alien to me.

Troy Davis is gone, but placing the title of this and this (specifically good and evil) only serves to sour experiences going forward. Someone told me today that the world was darker now that he's gone. No, the world is as dark as it was before and....ever-changing. Calling and depicting Troy as an angel only paints the Georgia Parole Board as demons. Calling the dead cop's mother good only serves to call the mob of protesters evil. I found there is a balance to these things. Judgmentally bathing objects in all light will, without question, cast something else in total darkness. Its best to deal in the middle and realize that good and evil coincide. There was good and evil in all parties involved, so no one person takes the fault.   

Furthermore, Lao-Tzu ends this chapter with the timeless image of the Sage and I can't help but be reminded of Davis: silenced behind the walls, unable to 'do,' but acting; he was given his circumstances, but didn't own them; he finally acted, but, in his final letter it was obvious, didn't expect the world to turn inside out and for him to be a free man. He said his piece and left in what, I can only assume, he felt was dignity. That is why we'll still talk about him for some time. I'll leave with another chapter that caught my eye and made me wander:
Chapter 74, from one of my printed copies:
If people do not fear death,
How can you threaten them with death?
But if people with a normal fear of death
Are about to do something vicious,
And I could seize and execute them, 
Who would dare?

There is always an official executioner.
Trying to take the executioner's place,
Is like trying to replace a master woodworker--
Few would not slice their own hands.

Mindfulness...the gateway to freedom

What is mindfulness and, better yet, what does it mean to us? As stated before in Beginnings, mindfulness has been given many different definitions over the course of time, but I especially liked this definition:
  • the ability to be fully aware of what one is experiencing, without becoming at the same time, lost in that same experience
But, I would also like to submit two others:
  • the quality of non-attached, non-judgmental observation of experience (courtesy of wildmind.org)
  • an elevated level of awareness
For now, we'll focus on "non-judgmental observation," because I've found it to be the single largest impediment in achieving a more mindful and stress-free life.

Take a moment to glance at these two pictures:
uncopyrighted photo of woman in povertyForeverAngels.org's ChaCha
[On a side note, the second image is courtesy of foreverangels.org. If you have time, read about ChaCha's story here at ForeverAngels. It truly is a wonderful and uplifting story of fighting through dire circumstances.]

In the two photos above we see two women in, seemingly, the same circumstance. From their clothes and the background you can tell they are in poverty and, what's more, are flanked by their children;  an added responsibility. But the pictures aren't the same. The heaviness and hopelessness that haunts the first picture seems absent in the second. But, why? Why does the first mothers' face succumb to depression while the second mother smiles in a shack that has no running water or electricity? Did we miss something here? Does the second mother know something we as outside observers can never know? Aren't both mother's present circumstances the same? Then why, upon looking at these two photos, are we confronted by two different outlooks?

positive outlook
I developed this simple equation some time ago through meditation and thinking back on my problems and how I dealt with them. This equation has also been a source of relief for me as I hope it'll be for you. 

I remember one day I was driving home from a particularly frustrating day at work. Nothing that whole day seemed to go right: I was on edge, my coworkers had been on edge, and it seemed like every embittered, ill-mannered person within a 5 mile radius had decided to be a customer that day. It's safe to say I was relieved when my shift was over and, I suppose, it was these thoughts that passed through my mind as my car began to shake and my back tire blew out. Of course, I pulled over as quickly as possible and pulled out my cellphone only to find I hadn't charged it (like I was supposed to) the day before and it was now dead. So with the frustration of work fresh on my mind, I added the frustration of my own stupidity to the mix. I rashly got out my car (and this is a very important point that comes to play later) and angrily started the walk alongside the highway to the nearest exit.

Not a minute into my journey, a woman (I never learned her name), pulled over and offered to take me to the nearest gas station. Once at the station I offered her money to which she refused and, after a hasty goodbye, made a beeline straight to the nearest payphone. I called for someone to pick me up and, in the meantime, I sat there, my disgust ever-growing as were the thoughts in my head as to all the things I could've been doing if I weren't stuck there. In time, my friend showed up and we drove back to my car where I was given the cherry on top of the proverbial cake; I had left my car unlocked and, worse, an opportunist had stolen my new car radio.

Words....mere words can not describe how pissed I was. And what was worse, I felt like a child locked in a fierce temper tantrum I had no energy for yet still participated in. I thought back, enraged, about all the times I had found an abandoned wallet, credit card, purse, or any valuable and had done the right thing in turning it in. I thought about all the times I could have stolen but didn't and felt, in my anger fueled ignorance, that that somehow had given me some sort of "karma pass" to not have things taken from me. Where was the fairness?

But then, a sliver of reason shined through the chaos. What use was there in being angry? Was my anger going to bring my radio back? In fact when I thought about it, wasn't my anger the reason I got my radio stolen in the first place? Would I had honestly left my car unlocked on the side of the highway had I been in my right mind? The answer was no, but though I couldn't go back in time and change my outlook then, I knew I didn't have to let that same angry outlook blind me in the present.

This was the first time I "walked the talk" and actually used my equation to change my present outlook.
positive outlook

We'll dig into the deeper importance of past experiences later, but I realized upon listing them a simple fact: the past is the past. Suck from it all the wisdom you can and move on. I couldn't go back in time and charge those lost credit cards if I wanted to (nor would I if I could). I couldn't go back and lock my car. I had no power over my tire blowing out and my day at work was over, yet I was still seething about it. From then on I gathered that the 'past experience' part of the equation was something I had no control over. I could not change the past, but rather its level of usefulness. But, more on that later.

In this moment, I felt like I had moved from the passenger's seat into the driver's. I had found control not in trying to control and process everything, but in finding out what I couldn't control and had no business processing in the first place. I didn't have to deal with the past. The past was only an issue as long as I let it affect my present; the only way that could happen was through my thoughts.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One morning...

I woke up and life was hell. We've all experienced this in one form or another. In one unexpected flash you scan over your life and realize that ten years ago this wasn't where you thought you'd be at all. Add to that the rent and mortgage is due, the job hunt continues, and everyone in your life, all at once it seems, wants you to provide the answers you still don't have. Enter the coping mechanism; and since I wasn't one to act I procrastinated, but soon realized that didn't mean problems disappeared or, worse, stopped piling one on top of the other.

That's when it dawned on me. It didn't matter what I "did." In fact, my whole level of existence was wrapped so exclusively around my actions that I didn't stop to realize that there were other forces at work. Imagine for a second that there are two canteen-less soldiers stranded in the desert looking for their base. Extreme, I know, but there's a point. Say that both soldiers come across an abandoned well that has enough water for the both of them to take a few sips. Soldier A takes his sips and notices that the sips weren't enough because his mouth is still dry. He realizes he's still in the desert, the sun is still hot on his back, and as far as his weary eyes can tell, the base is nowhere in sight. He continues to walk pissed off at his circumstances, at the scratchy sand in his boots, and at his own stupidity. Somewhere along the way he collapses, dejected and alone.

Back at the well, Soldier B takes his sips. He is thankful and understands that though he thirsts for more, he got a few more sips of water than he thought he would find in the desert. He looks around and notices all the things Soldier A noticed; that he's still in the desert, he's still hot, and he's still stranded. He continues to march forward knowing that though the water didn't help the dryness in his mouth, that his body put it somewhere of better use to get him out of his present circumstances. So, he continues. Somewhere along the way, he might have passed Soldier A's body. Eventually upon his arrival, he would have laughed darkly at the irony for Soldier A had only to walk 1/2 a mile to come across the base and his salvation.

This is a starkly melodramatic and over-exaggerated story, but it does have its moral. Both Soldier A and B performed an action (took sips of water) to help solve their problems. The only difference was their inability or ability to back up their actions with the strength of their mental focus. A less formal way of saying it would be by using a term we hear all too often: half-assed. What use is there in doing anything if our minds aren't in it as well. In fact, the energy spent downplaying our actions, in many cases, negates the good we intended to do with those actions to begin with (as in the case of Soldier A). Also, I learned, as did Soldier A, that just because I did something did not mean that the world would magically alter and my situation would change instantaneously. Soldier A sipped his water and was pissed to find that, in spite of everything he did, he was still hot and, seemingly, doomed. Enter the power of mindfulness.

What is mindfulness? It has been given many different definitions over the centuries, but the one I liked the most was from thewhiteelephant.org: the ability to be fully aware of what one is experiencing, without becoming at the same time, lost in that same experience. Soldier A understood that he was in a dire situation, but used the power of his mental focus to ward out negative, judgmental thoughts. More on judgmental thoughts later, but the goal is to reach the highest level of existence by not expending extra energies on trains of thought that are destructive and negate our actions. The world I realized is ever-changing and if its not one problem thrown at me, its another. I realized in order for me to reach some sort of stability and normalcy in my life that the stability would have to come from me. I was the one who had to be anchored. I was the one who couldn't change. I was the one, like Soldier B, who had to say yes I have some problems, but that doesn't mean I have to become one of them.