This is a glorious takedown of unquestioned dualism in the sciences that, naturally, has to fall back on the experience of meditation to make its point:
[C]onsider that in certain intense states of absorption – during meditation, dance or highly skilled performances – the subject-object structure can drop away, and we are left with a sense of sheer felt presence. How is such phenomenal presence possible in a physical world? Science is silent on this question. And yet, without such phenomenal presence, science is impossible, for presence is a precondition for any observation or measurement to be possible.
The idea that there’s a world “out there” and a mind “in here”, and we just haven’t figured out how they’re connected yet, is the most irrational religious belief in the secular world. The world actually does not make sense if you believe that, and it does if you let that idea drop away and see for yourself that it isn’t true. Yet Science™ plows ahead assuming it to be the case.
I am pretty interested in this model:
Treeleaf Zendo is an online practice place for Zen practitioners who cannot easily commute to a Zen Center due to health concerns, living in remote areas, or childcare, work and family needs, and seeks to provide Zazen sittings, retreats, discussion, interaction with a teacher, and all other activities of a Soto Zen Buddhist Sangha.
The videos are pretty wonderful.
I’ve never written in to a magazine before, but I couldn’t resist this invitation:
Do you practice Buddhism alongside another religion? If so, how does that work?
Here’s what I sent them:
I was born, raised and educated Jewish, but I first experienced religious feelings when I encountered Buddhist teachings. In college, I reconnected with my Judaism, but I also developed a relationship with a Buddhist teacher and community and began my meditation practice. I’ve maintained that practice, but I’ve also become more enmeshed in Jewish community; in fact, my wife is about to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi, and our family observes the practices and rituals of a Jewish home.
All along, I’ve wondered how to be a Buddhist Jew. I’ve had trouble integrating my Buddhist practices and beliefs into the culture and worldview of Judaism. Recently, though, I’ve realized I might actually be a Jewish Buddhist, not a Buddhist Jew, and that makes a big difference. Jewishness provides my culture, which I share with my family and community, and that culture and its practices point towards spiritual truth in many ways. But if my religion is my core beliefs about the nature of the universe, all beings within it, and the way for all beings to live harmoniously, then I’m a Buddhist, and Jewishness is the cultural source of my mindfulness practices.
We’ll see if it gets printed!
This overview of Nichiren Shu by a head priest impressed me the same way yesterday’s link about Pure Land did. I know even less about this tradition of Buddhism, and I was again struck by its openness, simplicity, and humanity:
The main practices of Nichiren Shu include chanting the mantra Namu Myoho Renge Kyo (translated as “Adoration to Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma”), reciting various chapters from the Lotus Sutra, and reading invocations and prayers. It is a wonderful feeling when we meet at the temple to chant together, but anyone can chant anywhere at any time. Chanting quietly in your mind while riding the bus is okay. Daily morning chanting in front of the home altar is recommended, but not required.
Did you notice that “sitting meditation” is nowhere in that list? It’s so interesting to me that the Buddhist tradition — which was literally created by sitting meditation — has diversified so much that some strains of it no longer emphasize that practice. I was reading some excerpts of early Zen texts last night that were explicitly critical of sitting meditation as a way to realization.
I’m not giving up my sitting practice anytime soon, but I continue to be intrigued by the power and simplicity of these Japanese Buddhist chanting practices. It must be because I was born into a tradition — rabbinic Judaism — that also condensed its spiritual practice into repetitious chanting of texts.
The thing is, in a standard weekday of Jewish prayer, the chanted liturgy is about 22,000 words long (according to my calculations), and that doesn’t even include any Torah readings that might be part of services. There have been times in my life when I’ve found that practice fulfilling, but most of the time it’s just too much to sustain, especially if I’m trying to closely heed and internalize the meaning of the words.
Something calls to me about the idea of chanting the same few words over and over again. It seems less superhuman, more acknowledging of what life is really like. That, as I understand, is similar to the rationale in Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism about why chanting is “enough,” and lay people don’t need to sit for hours of meditation.
I really want to incorporate more mantra chanting into my practice. I’ll be interested to see whether some Hebrew texts emerge for me that might suit this practice, or whether these Japanese ones will start to feel organic to me over time.
This introduction to Pure Land chanting practice by Dharmavidya David Brazier is so gentle and humane.
Pure Land practice is simple. It doesn’t require that the practitioner be learned in Buddhist thought or exceptional in moral virtue, meditation, or spiritual discipline. It is suitable for those with busy lives, and it is as suitable for those who are struggling with self-destructive habits or feelings of despondency, anger, sadness, or confusion as it is for those who are full of joy in living.
I remember learning about this practice in college and chanting “Namo Amida Butsu” for a few minutes once, but I don’t think I got why it was interesting. Now I do, thanks to this article.
One of my most bedeviling obstacles in practice is intrusive and repetitive thoughts early in the morning. They’re usually about work or other stuff I have to get done that day. This morning, they were there while I brushed my teeth, they came back a few times while I sat zazen, and then they came on strong in the shower. So I started chanting, “Namo Amida Bu, Namo Amida Bu, Namo Amida Bu,” and before long, that chant was all I was.
It’s time to get real. I’m wasting too much time every day on pointless stuff online, and I’m not even enjoying it.
This is hardly some novel realization; I’ve been off most social media for over a year now. But I’m still finding ways to waste my life in an endless series of apps I’m “just checking” for some new hit.
Sometime this weekend, I just got fed up. It can’t be that hard to just… stop doing this. Can it?
I mean, I understand that it’s very easy to succumb to digital distraction. I understand that this software is designed to exploit deeply compulsive loops in our brains. But isn’t that a textbook mindfulness problem? This is what I’ve been training for all this time!
The basic task is clear: to slow down my decision-making and mindfully decide whether everything I do during “productive time” is the right thing to do. Rather than go up against diabolical tech empty-handed, though, I have a secret weapon. I’m calling it a “Day Log.”
I’m putting a notebook and pen on my desk right next to my computer, and when my mind reaches for a distraction, I will reach out and grab the notebook instead. I’ll make a log entry about what I was doing, what needs to be done, and how I’m feeling, and I’ll use this to figure out what to do next.
It’s not just about the stopping and thinking; the physical, analog object is part of the solution. It’ll be the anchor in the present and the physical body, like the breath during meditation. If writing longhand is to screwing around online as just breathing is to monkey mind, this should do the trick.
There’s a lot of magical reincarnation stuff in this interview with Tenzin Palmo that strikes me the way it usually does: tantalizing and interesting but not exactly convincing. My tendency is to just leave that stuff be and appreciate the luminous faith behind it. But one question and answer in here stopped me cold with its compelling logic:
How is the dharma’s understanding of merit different from thinking that if I’m a good girl in this life, then I will go to heaven?
But we don’t want to go to heaven. We want to be reborn so that we can keep going and realize the dharma so as to benefit other beings endlessly. It’s a very different thing. We’re not collecting merit scores for ourselves. We’re making merit so that we can be reborn in a situation where we can really live to benefit others, and ourselves, again and again and again, more and more and more every time. We are in a position to deepen our understanding to be of genuine benefit to other beings.
This is what it sounds like to take the Bodhisattva vow seriously. It’s a much better argument than heaven, if your goal is to settle the rational mind and orient it toward being a good person.
Rather than staking everything on Pascal’s wager in one shot, karmic merit in this life is an intermediate step. But earning merit in this life is necessary to be reborn well and keep earning merit. And you have to do that, because there’s an infinite number of beings to help, and an infinite amount of benefit one can bring them. Admitting that one lifetime is not enough enables sanity. Accepting that one still must do one’s best each time keeps one oriented toward the good.
I’ve long had issues reconciling my Jewishly religious feelings and my Buddhist ones. Somehow, they still feel unresolved. I still feel a polarity between them, and I’m still pulled back and forth.
Zoketsu Norman Fisher was one of the first Jewish Buddhist teachers I ever met, learned from, and sat with, and he always makes it seem so natural. I don’t know why that naturalness doesn’t stick with me, but I guess hearing or reading him tell it over and over again is the next best thing:
I do believe in the benevolent protection of God. Not in the sense that good things will always come to good people whom God loves, but in the sense that something always happens, and that what happens is what it is and not something else, and that therefore there is a special virtue in it.
I feel this, too, and I would never deny it. It’s the particulars laid on top of God that give me pause.
Fisher says, and I agree, that part of the problem is that the longstanding design of Jewish religion optimizes for group cohesion and survival, which can come at the expense of personal spiritual experience. No Jew at any point on the religious spectrum would deny this; in fact, I hear this problem preached about most fervently from Orthodox Jews. The reason Fisher teaches Jewish meditation, in addition to Zen, at a dedicated institution is to help compensate for this spiritual lack:
So this is where the meditation comes in: it is easy access to God-encounter, through encountering your own body, breath, mind, and presence.
What he won’t be baited into saying is that this is more important than religious observances for their own sake. This is the kind of thing my desire for Zen urges me to say: Abandon the complexities and cognitive dissonances of formal religion and just do the practice! But Fisher has a deft way of sidestepping that problem by showing that wherever God is, that’s also where the practice is.
Practically all my meditation training has been in disciplines of opening the attention to admit all available phenomena, in order to learn to be present with them. But as someone easily irritated by sensation, it’s incredibly therapeutic to me to close my attention to outside phenomena, especially if I’m trying to concentrate.
Even though it’s the opposite of my meditation instructions, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m still practicing when I’m doing this.
Often I can’t achieve this state of closed concentration without a pair of noise-canceling headphones and a good myNoise setting. But once I’ve got the world well and truly blocked out, deeply interesting things begin to arise.
For one thing, my mind quiets itself. I get a clear sense that the thinking part of my mind is like the surface of a pond, and the world is chucking rocks into it all the time, creating unending turbulence. When I artificially put a force field around the pond, it quickly goes still. Only slight perturbations from below the surface ripple out, and they dissipate without a trace.
An emotion of relief arises, too, and that quickly gives way to compassion. All beings are having rocks tossed into their ponds, and even the best force fields are impermanent. My gratitude for a brief respite is powerful enough to reorient me towards the outside with an attitude of leaving no trace, tossing no rocks, even a desire to protect others from disturbance.
Doesn’t that sound super Buddhist? Yet no Buddhist-trained person has ever told me to block out sensations. Maybe I just haven’t asked the right question yet.
Brad Warner takes a big risk by publicly tunneling under the idea that the only moral way to live is with complete, uninterrupted commitment to obvious acts of service:
[F]rom a very young age I was aware of the idea that a truly moral person must give absolutely everything in order not to fall short of what the virtuous life requires. I felt like a real scumbag for enjoying my job.
I relate to this deeply. I can identify two different societal pressures on how I feel about the morality and virtue of work. On one hand there’s the liberal ideal that one should commit as much time and energy as possible to acts of service. On the other there’s the capitalist ideal that economically productive work is a virtue, and there’s no upper limit to how much of it you Should™ do.
The really tricky part is that these pressures both apply, but they aren’t exactly connected, and they can easily come into conflict. The result is an insatiable societal demand for more sacrifice.
But isn’t it the case that one should give of oneself in service of others? Warner brings a teaching from Dogen to show that this moral demand is much more radical than its conventional interpretation:
“Both receiving the body and giving up the body are free giving,” Dogen says. To Dogen, even being alive and dying are examples of free giving. Even the mere fact that you are alive and someday you will die are ways that the universe gives itself to the universe.
The way to truly serve all beings is to begin from the understanding that you’re always giving. Warner’s first post on the topic stops there, though, which doesn’t quite resolve the question of whether it’s virtuous to do self-satisfying work.
To clarify, he wrote a part 2 that examines the sort of moral Butterfly Effect that seems to inevitably arise from doing good work, even if not necessarily in the sense of direct acts of charity or community service.
To me, the takeaway is not that one should feel good about oneself merely for living one’s life. It’s that an orientation that every act is an act of service is what generates a truly moral attitude, as opposed to an attitude of doing acts of service as a means to some morally satisfying end.
I’m extremely grateful to Karen Maezen Miller for writing this short blog post and matter-of-factly stating this:
These days I carry a tiny notepad to the cushion to record passages that arrive when I am going nowhere and doing nothing.
I have struggled mightily over what to do with good ideas — or even merely important to-dos — that arise while I’m meditating.
My instinct has always told me to stop and write them down, or else the ideas will keep distracting me for the rest of the sit. When I’ve done that, it has worked.
Yet some teacherly voice in my head has always said not to do this.
At times I’ve felt like I should let them pass, because that’s what meditators are Supposed™ to do, and no matter how beautiful or important the thought is, it’s an opportunity to practice non-attachment by letting it disappear, possibly never to return.
My sense of loss over some of those ideas has been great, though. In a few cases, I’ve sensed it would be too great, so I’ve written them down. For example, the idea to create this website came to me in the middle of a retreat. I “broke” the silence of the retreat to sneak off and write it down, and I’m quite glad I did.
But apparently I’ve fretted about this problem needlessly. Karen Maezen Miller has an authoritative source saying it’s okay:
Yasutani Roshi said as much in the seminal Three Pillars of Zen: “There comes a point in your sitting when insights will flash into your mind. If you don’t jot down things that you want to remember, this could bother you and interfere with your concentration. You may want to keep a pencil and notebook next to you.”
Yes. That’s exactly why I think it’s the right call for me. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but I know when a really good one comes to me during meditation, no more meditation will get done until the idea is safely recorded.
If there is a faith claim that motivates the practice of meditation, it’s the claim that it “works.” For meditation to “work,” it could be enough that it alleviates suffering incrementally, or partially. But I admit that sometimes I believe, or want to believe, that it works completely — that the awakening the Buddha taught about is available.
If I’ve seen awakening in other beings with my own eyes, though, I didn’t know it. But I do occasionally hear reports from others that I believe. This description from Sarah Beasley of her teacher, for example:
Having even a brief taste of awakening, or true nature, causes one to fervently wish it for all beings. I remember with devotion the look on Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s face when he would softly say, “It’s so simple, you won’t believe me,” with tears in his eyes.
Oof. I think I would, actually.
I’ve never felt learned enough to decide on or declare adherence to any particular Buddhist tradition, but I’ve always gravitated toward Zen.
I try not to cling to that, because I suspect of myself — and of Western Buddhists writ large, if I’m being honest — that I’m merely experiencing some aesthetic preference rather than a legitimate philosophical one.
I think that skepticism and concern for cultural appropriation is healthy. Still, the closer I get to heart of Zen, the more true it sounds:
Bodhidharma was the first to introduce the specific teachings that defined the Zen school. Much of his renown comes from a famous four-line teaching attributed to him:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not depending on words and letters;
Directly pointing to the mind,
Seeing into one’s true nature and attaining buddhahood.
If those four lines are, as this post by Haleigh Atwood says, “the taproot of Zen,” I get why it calls to me. It’s the counterweight to my Jewish side. I can’t incorporate another tradition that depends utterly on the authority of scholarly texts. But “not depending on words and letters”? I can get into that for sure.
As usual, Pema Chödrön demonstrates the clear, penetrating simplicity of a true master’s teachings:
“There are different kinds of laziness. First, there’s the laziness of comfort orientation, we just try to stay comfortable and cozy. Then there’s the laziness of loss of heart, a kind of deep discouragement, a feeling of giving up on ourselves, of hopelessness. There’s also the laziness of couldn’t care less. That’s when we harden into resignation and bitterness and just close down.”
It would not have occurred to me naturally that laziness is more than one thing. This post shows that it is three distinct things, all of which are familiar to me, and all of which I recognize as laziness.
The more I study Buddhism, the more it seems to be the most scientifically advanced description our species has yet come up with of our own psychology.
Sometimes my desire to meditate is about achieving something. Sometimes I desire a peaceful mental state I know is temporary. Other times I desire a deeper, more permanent peace that I imagine is compounding over my lifetime of meditation.
Sometimes my desire to meditate is about taking care of something. I feel scattered or stressed or upset, and I want to work through those feelings, whether for my own benefit or to protect the people around me.
Sometimes my desire to meditate is about belonging to something. I want to be a meditator, to be one of the people who advocates for meditation in the world… which of course can only be done in good faith by someone who meditates. Lots of problems in this category.
Sometimes, though, my desire to meditate is just a desire to be alone for a while. This is actually the most interesting category to me.
People often say that the hardest part of meditation for them is being alone with their thoughts. It’s also common to generalize this sentiment and say that meditation is uniquely difficult for “Westerners” because of this. I guess “Westerners” are supposed to be outgoing, gregarious extroverts who need constant human interaction. And the flip side of this is supposedly that “Westerners” all have monstrous, domineering egos that cry out in agony under the barest scrutiny of meditation. That’s so alien to me it actually makes me sad.
Why exactly is it that meditation is so ascendant in this “Western” culture that is also constantly pressing everyone ever closer together, with denser cities, a so-called “service economy,” and media that encourage every person on the planet to yell at the top of their lungs about themselves? Could it be because we’re losing our minds in this sea of others?
“The problem is there are no good ways to give instructions on how to do nothing.”
I like this post not so much for its wisdom as for its style. It makes me slightly uncomfortable, but I think that’s because of its undisguised real-person-ness.
A lot of harm comes from believing a teacher is something more than or beyond a real person.
Plus, it seems important to accustom oneself to learning wisdom from real people — that is to say, anyone. Someone who writes and talks like this, rather than like some simulation of a holy guru.
I’ve decided to open up the structure of Grind Well a little bit, to make it possible to post more often without always writing a complete mini-essay and recording it to boot. I’m going to start doing link posts, entering the venerable tradition of blogging by sharing, with a brief comment, rather than always by writing new thoughts.
The titles of link posts will be prefixed with this character: ⤳. The Unicode table calls that a “Wave Arrow Pointing Directly Right.” Isn’t that nice?
Importantly, link posts will not have an audio component! So if you want to receive the link posts, you’ll need to be subscribed by RSS, Facebook, Twitter, or Micro.blog, instead of (or in addition to) your podcast player.
I certainly intend to be doing full posts with audio more frequently than I am right now, but link posts will be a nice way to keep things going in between them. It will also expand the palette of my thinking-out-loud about meditation to include other people’s voices, which seems like a good idea.
Hope you enjoy it,
It’s been six and a half weeks since my daughter was born. This morning, for the first time, I managed to wake myself at 6 a.m. to sit for 30 minutes before she and her mother woke up.
As good as I’ve been about taking this new experience of parenthood one breath at a time, I am starting to feel the fault lines in my mental state. The spaces between perceptions and reactions are narrowing. I’m noticing more often that I’m in the middle of a sentence already. My number of apologies per day has definitely increased in the past week or so.
Some of this can be written off to exhaustion, but that’s still not an excuse. Reactivity and lack of mindfulness with my newly expanded family is not acceptable. It’s my responsibility to remember I have a practice to work on those things. I have to consider the correlation between the decline in my practice and my decline in mindfulness.
This morning’s sit reminded me how much the practice is about making space. This is why it isn’t counterintuitive that we sit doing nothing to practice right action in the world.
Right action requires sensing the open space of the moment, deciding to step into that space, and then doing so freely. Sitting still for many minutes between actions is an expanded, scaled up version of that same free decision, letting us see it in exquisite detail and understand what it takes.
Right action requires a good night’s sleep, too — don’t get me wrong — but this is worth waking up for. Making space before a day of actions is an integral part of making space before each action.
The practice really does work one breath at a time. This is something I doubted before having a baby and getting my meditation routine utterly annihilated. I haven’t sat for more than five minutes straight since she was born over a month ago — and certainly not in any pattern for two days in a row — but my practice feels weirdly intact.
What am I doing right?
Certainly, I’m bringing mindfulness to all my interactions with her, especially when she needs something. I find it pretty much impossible to think about something else while changing a diaper, and that’s great for meditation.
But I’m also taking a minute here, a minute there, just to come back to the breath like every meditation teacher I’ve ever had has suggested. Funnily enough, I think I might skip over that part of the practice when I have a dedicated daily time for sitting. I think I might tell myself I’ve already meditated today, so I don’t need to do it again.
Clearly, that’s the wrong call, even if I’m only making it subconsciously. Now that I’m giving myself that gift of mindful breathing throughout the day (and in the middle of the night), I’m starting to think this might be the most fundamental part of meditation practice.
In seated meditation, we gradually learn that it’s fine for the mind to wander off occasionally. That’s just what minds do. The practice — the part that trains our strength as meditators — is the repeated effort of guiding our attention back. Coming back to the breath in moments of pause has exactly the same effect.
I’m sleep-deprived, I’m disoriented, I’m not taking the best care of my body right now. You know, baby stuff. Yet I’ve never been more sure that meditation is helping me get along.
I’m rocking in a rocking chair facing the window. The sun is streaming in. My wife is propped up on the couch with her laptop, notebook sprawled out beside her, taking a take-home test in her final year of rabbinical school. She’s streaming ambient piano music from the TV speakers, filling the room. The TV is covered with a red and orange tapestry. My feet are bare, and the cold air on them feels refreshing. It’s Sunday morning. I’ve had my coffee, done my reading, and now I’m writing on the tablet on my lap. Between my arms, held fast by a length of stretchy, gray fabric wrapped around my body, my daughter is asleep on my chest.
She’s been here less than three weeks. It’s been so amazing — so unprecedented — that I can’t believe I was able to anticipate anything about it, but I was right about what it meant for my practice. Caring for a newborn baby is not easy, but doing it makes spiritual practice the easiest thing in the world.
My daughter has become the avatar for holiness. She has annihilated any question of priority. The practice in its guise as seated meditation for 30 minutes did not always make clear to me that it was the highest priority in my life. The practice in its guise as caring for my luminous newborn daughter is my only priority. In each moment, I have a choice: Say no and be in hell, or say yes and be in heaven. Saying yes is doing the practice. Doing the practice is changing the diaper, washing the hair, putting on the onesie, giving her a fingertip to comfort herself while her mother is in the bath. I can’t even remember what the unmindful mind is like.
It’s time to put Grind Well on pause again for the moment, and it’s for the best possible reason. My wife and I are expecting our first child any moment now. When she is ready to come out into the world, we’re going to close up our world around her for a while and make our home into a quiet little nest. We’re both blessed with the freedom to do this for a few weeks. In California, paid parental leave is almost up to scratch with the civilized world! I’m putting most projects on hold for that time so I can be fully present in the baby zone.
Just like in the last pause, I’m not sure I won’t publish anything, but it certainly won’t be daily-ish for a short while. Given how profound things are about to get, if any of it can be put into words, I probably will, but maybe not for public consumption. Still, I think our daughter — Wow! Our daughter!! — is going to be the greatest spiritual teacher of our lives, and I look forward eagerly to the new lessons about life and the practice that she’s going to teach me. You’ll hear about it here, as soon as it’s time.
In the meantime, thanks for reading, listening, or both. It’s been a joy to hear from some of you and know you’re finding the site helpful. Feel free to keep getting in touch via any of the means on the About page. I’ll write back while the baby’s sleeping.
Talk to you on the other side,
Sometimes “mindfulness” and “productivity” seem like twin memes. The best illustration of this is that it’s equally natural to pair another meme, “Zen,” with either one. The demands of the high-tech Western world have colonized its spirituality so thoroughly that a desk or an email inbox can produce “Zen” feelings, while sitting and doing nothing can produce terrible suffering.
Much has been made of the way “mindfulness” as a meme, particularly on the West Coast of America, has really arisen as a form of compliant concentration to increase productivity. All the best-selling apps and competitive health-tracking metrics for meditation and yoga certainly contribute to that appearance. All the giant, profit-driven corporations providing mindfulness time for their employees must at least hope it will increase returns for shareholders.
It makes some sense, actually. It could be argued that the fundamental benefit of mindfulness is to integrate into the world as it is. One practices mindfulness because one believes there’s less suffering in facing reality than in struggling pointlessly against it. If your reality is relentless productivity, why not incorporate mindfulness into that reality? In the best case, you can hope for everyone’s gradual awakening to the fact that, hey, we might be more productive in the long run if we chilled out a little bit.
But this productivity mentality goes down to a very personal, moment-by-moment level. I spent most of my sit this morning resisting meditation because it felt spiritually healthier to get up and start planning my work day. The sense of getting things done has become emotionally important to me, and it does feel like part of my mindfulness practice. Honestly, I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. But I do know that any strength built in meditation comes from not giving up, and that strength of will benefits both “mindfulness” and “productivity.” So even though productivity seemed like a good reason to get up, I sat with it anyway.
It’s clear that the objective of meditation is to cultivate a stable state of mindfulness that can be carried out into daily life. But I don’t know of any traditions of meditation instruction that just leave you with, “Okay, kid! Now get out there and be mindful!” There are always at least some practical tips about how to find moments of practice in daily situations. Many traditions go further and teach additional, more lifelike activities as meditation, to introduce aspirants to the contrast in a controlled environment.
The best known example is probably walking meditation, which doubles as a nice relief for the knees during long days of sitting. Walking meditation is not taught in a way that at all resembles normal walking. You go through painstakingly slow, detailed movements of lifting the foot, placing it down, straightening the leg, feeling each part of the stride. It sensitizes you to the vibrant panoply of sensations available during walking, which makes it much easier to transfer that awareness into day-to-day walking. Sitting still and thinking about it doesn’t translate quite as easily.
There’s a rich Zen tradition of assigning practitioners to all kinds of cooking and cleaning duties as part of their retreat or monastic residence, so that mindful toilet-scrubbing is no different from mindful sitting. Judaism has a comprehensive system of blessings said outside of structured prayer times for elevating many mundane activities: eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, washing your hands. For me, writing this blog is certainly another mindfulness practice bridging my meditation and my daily work.
It might not be enough to just use mild mental affirmations while going about your day. It builds mindfulness muscle memory to complement seated meditation with other, more active practices.
Meditation can be a lonely practice. All that really means is that the mind can be a lonely place. It seems to come with a sense of isolation from other minds. Sometimes it feels removed from anything “outside” — like there’s a gap, or a glass barrier, that cannot be crossed.
This is why spiritual teachers insist on practice in community, so at least words, gestures, and facial expressions can be lobbed across the gap or pressed against the glass. If the path feels too lonely, it can be demoralizing to the point of giving up. Or, perhaps worse than that, one can get lost without the friendly guidance of others, wandering aimlessly, in circles, or in the wrong direction.
Most of us can’t take the express train to spiritual community and become monastics. Luckily, the local will still get you there. There are religious and secular meditation groups all over the place. I’ve sat regularly with a few over my years of wandering around looking for home, and they’ve been anchors in times of rest and sails in times of motion.
This kind of community, though, is hard to build while wandering. The work of this practice takes a lifetime, and so does the work of building the companionship required to support it. And these are wandering times. There are millions of people searching desperately for home, and millions more less desperate, but still searching. The prophets of our time point to the internet as the great layer of community that can connect us all, even as we wander. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you believe in that. But even if one can’t build a spiritual home on the shifting grounds of these times, at least one can smile across the gap to the person passing by.
In order to keep meditating with commitment and intensity day after day, it helps to bring to it a sense of novelty. That’s a tall order. It sure looks like meditation practice is just doing the same exact thing over and over again. That’s why it’s critical to learn to refresh the perspective on it.
A sense of repetitiveness and boredom destroys the will, and that’s more than enough to shut down the cycle of regular practice right there. In my experience, grimly hanging in there past that point can actually make things worse. Layering self-judgment and masochism on top of the suffering of boredom can start to do lasting emotional damage. Sure, you could try to work with all those negative feelings in meditation, but it’s probably best to head them off before they start.
The thing is, it’s not a trick; there really is novelty in every situation, even on the cushion. The light in the room is always a little different, the position of your body is always a little different, and your mix of thoughts and feelings is always way different from one moment to the next. I know, it sounds too cute to actually use this, but it’s true, and it works if you let it. Every single moment is different from the last. They’re all novel.
There’s one mental quality that can reliably generate the sense of novelty, and it can be boiled down to one word: curiosity. If you can learn to locate your sense of curiosity and feed it with mental energy, your ability to go, “Huh. What’s this?” will refresh any situation with novelty. It works on the cushion, it works when I don’t know what to write about my time on the cushion, and it works out in the world, too.
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