Last night, I ate my dinner too hungrily, and I burned the roof of my mouth. Now it’s eight in the morning, and it hurts to drink my tea. This is what I get for succumbing to my cravings. It’s nice to get feedback this instantaneous and clear! It’s not always so easy to see the harm in succumbing to animal desires.
That’s because the harm isn’t always so personal. It doesn’t always come right back to us. It flows downstream.
When you cut someone off in traffic, you get a little jolt of feeling, and then you refocus on what’s in front of you: your destination. The person you cut off, though, is staring at the back of your head as it recedes into the distance and wishing they could shoot lasers out of their eyes.
When you make a joke at someone’s expense, some people laugh with you. You all feel the pleasures and joys of scintillating conversation, and you move onto the next topic. But the person who was the butt of the joke might remember that shame for the rest of his or her life.
When you live an affluent Western lifestyle, you experience delights and comforts through goods made by the hard labor of others; you spend leisure time in fantasy realms while others mine the metals needed to make the devices that take you there; you choose what you want to eat from all the world’s delicacies, and they fly in a refrigerated airplane to you, while the atmosphere warms, the ice melts, the seas rise towards the homes of unknown, distant others.
A hundred years from now, what will people think of our generation if we just keep obeying our appetites?
Meditation seems to lead me towards an ever more universal perspective on human life. The more I sit with myself, the more I encounter a radical individuality that actually undermines my sense of distinctiveness.
When I remove the distractions of the details of my life, it reveals this crazy panoply of things that are always going on underneath — way more than what’s happening on the surface. And it frequently occurs to me that everybody has this. This is just what having a human brain is like. What’s going on for us all, at the root of everything, is mostly the same. All that varies is levels of awareness, plus some minor details.
This is what’s frustrating about this era’s political, religious, and otherwise tribal upheavals. There is some threshold of scale at which human beings — from their default perspectives enmeshed in worldly concerns — will consider a problem important enough to fight about, and that scale is not nearly big enough.
In a given day, one could make a long list of contentious issues that have erupted into conflict, halting progress towards solutions while people fight about them. On one end of this list, some issues threaten the entire world. But because of this infernal threshold in the default human mind, people spend whole careers on inconsequential problems at the other end of the list and think they’re doing good.
Human civilization could be wiped out while people — operating at the individual or small group end of the scale — squabble about things that only threaten those small-scale identities. But my point isn’t even that extreme. There’s so much work to do on alleviating underlying suffering and alienation that would benefit individuals and groups vastly more than fighting little territorial battles with one another. It shouldn’t require universal love and understanding to see that. If we could just take better care of ourselves as we really are, that love would arise on its own.
Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, cannabis. Anti-depressants. Painkillers. You can learn a great deal about a society from looking at which drugs it proscribes, which it prescribes, and which it sells at every grocery store and gas station.
I’m obsessed with this amateur sociological analysis of mine. My favorite history book of the past few years was Blitzed by Norman Ohler, which is an assessment of Nazi Germany through this lens — and man, were the Nazis on drugs! Reading this book as an early-21st-century American, I recognized it as different in emphasis… but not that different in degree.
My society discusses drug use as an “epidemic.” It also wages “war” on it, so it’s a mixed metaphor. The point is, our language treats drugs as really bad, but we use them a lot. Doesn’t seem like a hopeful situation.
There’s a philosophical question that motivates my inquiry: What is the nature of the suffering we’re treating with all these drugs? Taken individually, it seems easy to trace: Caffeine? Exhaustion. Nicotine? Too much caffeine. Alcohol? Too much nicotine and caffeine, plus a bit of sadness about what we spent the energy of those drugs on today.
Well, that one is tougher than it seems, isn’t it? Is everyone suffering in the opioid epidemic in pain? Maybe not the way doctors mean, but… arguably!
So what kind of pain is everybody in? When you add up all this drug use, the diagnosis looks much more complex. But some things can still be plainly said about it. On a mass scale, people are in unsatisfactory mental states. The easiest ways out make them dependent on drug pushers.
What if there’s another way out, and it’s always available and never runs out?
I never get up from a meditation session and think to myself, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” Even when I’ve spent the entire sit in a distracted fog of neutral-to-unpleasant thoughts, I still have a sense that I’m better off than if I hadn’t sat at all.
What is the redeeming value of an unpleasant sit? Actually, I think sitting practice retains most of its important qualities even when you’re not into it. It still reinforces the discipline and intentionality it takes to sit down in the first place, instead of weakening it by skipping. It still reminds the body of the posture and its timing in the rhythm of the day.
Personally, I find great mindfulness and clarity in the first few minutes of whatever I do after I meditate, no matter how well the sitting went. Even if I didn’t do much meditating on the cushion, I do some while making tea or writing Grind Well posts.
The quality of the meditation itself is almost beside the point. Deep concentration can convey everything it has to offer in one moment — it doesn’t have to be today. On any given day, the most important element of the practice is keeping it going, reinforcing meditation in the pattern of one’s life.
After all, if meditation were only something we did while nothing was going on in our minds, we wouldn’t be practicing for anything! The skill we’re developing in this practice is to come back to mindfulness in any situation.
Here’s an exercise: When practice is unpleasant, imagine that the mind is trying to help you prepare for life’s realities. Anything can be turned into fuel for the practice.
After working on it for a month and a half, I finally finished writing the full story of my meditation retreat this summer. Writing the story is an important part of my process of integrating an experience like that. It accomplishes three things: it records the memories in a form that will always vividly evoke them for me, it ties this chapter into my ongoing life story, and it helps me identify what I learned.
The learning is the most interesting part to me. I tend to come out of a long adventure like a meditation retreat with some key points. The way I write the story of what happened — and you’ll see, it’s a long story — is by outlining it in terms of those key points and what brought me to them. I don’t write about everything that happened, just the moments, events and experiences that brought me to those discrete realizations, and I state what they are in the story. It’s really the story of what I learned, not the story of what happened.
That has interesting implications for the memories I’m recording and the “life story” I’m stitching together. Memory is weird; it’s not like I can control which experiences I’m going to remember, so surely I’ll remember things that didn’t make it into the story. But I’m still framing my memory of the retreat in terms of learnings that mattered to me at the time. Will those still be the important takeaways in 20 years? And as for the story of my life, that’s clearly something I’m constructing as well. These long essays I write are trying to make me into someone who did this and learned that. Will these still be the stories I tell when I’m looking back?
This weekend in traditional Judaism, there was a lot of talk about animal sacrifices. We read the regular daily offerings, the additional offerings for Shabbat, a Torah portion that gets into the topic, and the services for a new lunar month — it involved a lot of slaughtering. In the lunch line, two vegetarian boys in the Bat Mitzvah’s class raised strenuous objections to the prevalence of animal sacrifice in our tradition. “It’s God,” one of them said. “If He wants animals so bad, why can’t He just kill them Himself?”
There are not enough words ever spoken by humankind for me to express how much I loved this question. What surprised me is that I have an answer now: The core of that practice was not about the killing or the animals — both of which would have been easier to handle in their cultural context than they are for us. What was hard for ancient Israelites about sacrifice was offering up the choicest parts of their livelihoods in service of the Divine.
In our era — even for farmers, I would suggest — there’s something much harder for us to sacrifice now: time. That’s why the rabbis were able to successfully convert the ancient sacrifices into the lengthy prayer services we now do instead. Our spiritual practice asks us to give up a daily portion of our most precious resource in service of things beyond ourselves.
Daily meditation is a time offering. That’s one of the hard parts. But I think that’s also what accounts for the qualitative difference between sitting for 20 minutes and sitting for 30. That extra push beyond what might feel comfortable helps us get used to going beyond the bounds of our own desires. That’s great practice for living life in service to the world.
For mindfulness to have any ethical weight, it must involve looking out at the world. It’s not enough to just sit there and be concerned with oneself. Some teach that the practice won’t even work if that’s all you do. It’s a beautiful teaching: Yes, you can liberate yourself, but the catch is, there is no liberation of self without the liberation of all beings. Justice is a precondition of enlightenment.
But, to my Western-conditioned mind, it’s harder to deal with the outside than the inside. I may struggle mightily with my habits and tendencies, but at least I can generate an illusion of comprehending them. Even if I’m only fooling myself into thinking I can grasp my own problems, that gives me confidence to keep facing them, and that’s all it takes to make a breakthrough.
But the world’s problems? It’s hard to even try to understand those. Right now, California is on fire, my friends’ houses are burning down, and apparently police think one of these fires was deliberately set by a crazy person. How can we sympathize with that?
I guess the point is not to comprehend the actions or motivations, but to identify with the suffering. The desire to “burn it all down” could describe precisely this frustration with the inability to comprehend the world. The thing is, as the Buddha said, everything is already ablaze. Striving to set it on fire is useless. All we can do is avoid getting burned, so we can do the work to put it out.
When practicing mindfulness, enjoyable mental states can be just as challenging as unpleasant ones.
On the basic level, there’s grasping and attachment. Something feels good, and you don’t want it to end — pretty understandable. But this is a practice of deeply understanding and accepting that everything ends. The way to practice that is to let it happen, even if it hurts. After all, in your life off the cushion, it’s going to happen whether you let it or not, so exploring that feeling in meditation is practice in the truest sense.
Sometimes mental states aren’t just pleasurable, they’re productive, and this brings the challenge a level deeper. Letting go of a nice feeling hurts, but another one will come along soon enough. Letting go of a state in which you feel like you’re accomplishing something or getting somewhere can feel downright destructive.
When I get into a creative state of mind, it’s like a magician pulling multicolored handkerchiefs out of his sleeve; each idea pulls out another idea, and another, and another. Sometimes it gets ridiculous. There’s often one or two good ones in there, though. It takes every fiber of my being to let them flutter away while I’m meditating. I live on having good ideas. Letting them go feels like dying!
Occasionally, I simply must write down an idea during meditation, so I can calm down and sit again. I forgive myself for that. But the trouble with ideas is, not all ideas come to life, and being creative requires accepting that. This practice has got to involve letting some creative darlings die. When a good feeling goes away, it takes faith to believe another one will come along. Creativity requires that same faith in good ideas. Practice ideas during productive time. Practice faith during contemplative time.
I had to take my car to the mechanic at 7 AM this morning, which threw off the ol’ routine. I could have just let it go, but I sensed an opportunity to keep my daily exercise and meditation intact in a creative way.
The exercise part was easy: It was still early enough that there would be shade on one side of the street, and I’m always up for a bit of an urban hike. I’ll walk home.
As for meditation, that seemed trickier. I wouldn’t have much time between getting home and starting work. Maybe I’d take half an hour at lunch, or maybe I’d just have to find five- or 10-minute chunks wherever I could.
Meanwhile, there’s an hour left in my walk, and I have no idea what’s been happening for the past 15 minutes of the podcast I put on without a second thought the moment I left the mechanic. I was too distracted by worrying about meditation to pay attention.
This irony sunk in pretty quickly. Clearly, I have not been cultivating my Just Walking practice as much as my Just Sitting. I thought back to the walking periods on my last retreat and remembered how beautiful each step felt. I noticed each bone and muscle and tendon and ligament collaborating to make it happen. Meanwhile, walking in the city, I’m just like a floating ghost of pure information processing while my body runs on autopilot. Time to put the AirPods away and listen to the world!
I wouldn’t say walking from Santa Monica to West LA on Pico Boulevard at 7:30 AM is the most calming meditation I can think of, but it definitely reveals truths about human life.
The first meditation instruction is almost always to bring attention to the breath. Sometimes it’s framed as a way of settling in. You can use the breath to slow down, to lower the heart rate, to relax the body, to open up the posture and get comfortable — after all, you’re going to be there a while.
Once you’re settled in with the breath, the next instruction might redirect you elsewhere, but sometimes there’s one last reminder about the breath: You can always come back to it. The great thing about the breath is, no matter what happens, it’s always there.
I might have undervalued this reminder. It has struck me in the past as a beginner instruction — like, if the practice gets too hard, don’t worry, you can always run away and do baby meditation until you feel better. I’m way too arrogant for that crap. Give me the hard stuff!
Well, that’s an easy attitude to swing around when you aren’t being challenged — that is to say, when you’re an overconfident beginner, as I have been — but this stuff gets pretty hard sometimes, even when the instructions are simple. You don’t get “the hard stuff” from the teacher; you bring that in yourself.
Sometimes, whatever’s coming up is so powerful and all-encompassing, it takes you all the way away. While sitting this morning, I was so swirled up in the challenging emotions of a looping, vivid memory that I forgot where my breath was. I stopped breathing! I was snapped out of the trance by my body’s insistence that I breathe, and I had to consciously remind myself of that fundamental instruction: “The breath is always there.” I only found it once I remembered to look. One mindful in-breath, one mindful out-breath, and there I was again.
On one hand, I want meditation to be a mundane, routine health activity that fits unremarkably into my life, like chores or exercise. This attitude is actually pretty hard to cultivate, since meditation is so weird and intense. But if I treat it accordingly, the practice is freighted with significance that leads me to overthink it and fret about it. It seems more stable and sustainable to get used to meditation in an ordinary, lifelong way, so it’s suffused into everything I do.
On the other hand, I want meditation to be a sacred spiritual practice. I want to treat it with reverence and awe, because I am in awe of what it has produced in my life. The practice always brings up profound gratitude — to the teachers who taught it to me, to the people around me who support me in my practice, and to myself, for giving myself this gift of time each day to be still and listen to the pulse that enlivens this life. I want to recognize how special meditation is, so I can bring its quality of specialness along into everything I do.
This feels like a tension, but the tension doesn’t manifest in my actual sitting practice. The tension is playing out in my behavior surrounding sitting time. Do I wake up, work out, shower, meditate, have breakfast, and go about my day? Or do I frame the sitting practice with ritual washing, donning sacred garments, praying the morning service, and learning words of Torah? Forgive me for uttering the Western Meditator’s Cliché, but there’s only so much time in the morning. How should I spend it?
I’m sure these distinctions between ritual and routine are just category errors in a confused, transitioning world. But how do we make ordinary life sacred again?
This morning, I did something I usually bend over backwards to avoid doing: I looked at my phone before meditation.
I’m ordinarily repulsed by the very idea of seeing my notifications before I have to. I think what got me today is that I didn’t look at it last night after Shabbat was over, so it had been about 40 hours since I got a notification. The horror!
I allowed myself to think picking up the phone on my desk would put me at ease. I’d see a few trivial notifications, feel relieved that I didn’t miss anything, put down the phone and have an absolutely blissful sit. Oh, the stories we tell ourselves in order to give in to our cravings!
You can imagine what happened instead. I was finally able to snap out of it after 10 minutes, put the phone back down, and go sit, but “blissful” is hardly the word I’d use to describe it.
Here’s what I observed: Breaking the notification seal in the morning creates a pinprick-sized stress vortex in the center of my brain that feels identical to the one I get when I drink too much coffee. Maybe it’s adrenaline. There’s some tiny but insistent voice saying, “Go. Move. Run. Get out of there.” I don’t know about you, but I do not want to start my morning that way unless I’m being stalked by a wild animal, which is exactly what this mental alarm system feels like it’s designed for.
In our high-tech society, that ancient stress signal doesn’t correlate with actual danger. Whatever it’s about, it can almost always wait! Waiting to look at the phone should be considered part of the daily meditation practice. The inevitable deluge of information should be contained by the practice, not the other way around.
I have something big coming up in a couple weeks, and it’s bringing up a flood of distracting thoughts. A big disruption to my routine looming two or three weeks out, ticking closer, feels almost radioactive to me. Four weeks out, I start to detect the faintest whisper above the background noise. By three weeks, I can feel it heating up. Next week at this time, if my well learned pattern holds, I’ll be sweating bullets.
What is this heat, or radiation, or whatever dangerous metaphor I choose? Like any emotional state, I don’t think there are precise words for it. Anxiety is one component — runaway thoughts about what it might be like, what I might have to do, what might be difficult or unpleasant about it. Some of it is positive, though! There are things to look forward to. Excitement, anticipation, nervousness — it’s all there. All of that, radiating at me from a fast-approaching point in the near future, is pretty constantly distracting, especially when I’m on the cushion with my eyes closed.
This is a tricky one. I can hear Rav James’s voice telling me to locate the feeling in my body, to be curious and open to what that’s like, to watch the sensation arise and recede and realize the thoughts on which I’ve been fixating are just turbulence riding on transient waves of sensation. That’ll get me as far as it goes before the next wave is totally different. But I think the real insight comes when the long-dreaded experience actually arrives, and it has all the depth and color and richness of reality, instead of the monotony of some repetitive thought. The way out of this cycle is probably to realize you can never anticipate what some future present moment will actually be like.
The last couple days, I’ve been getting sleepy by the end of my morning sit. I don’t know what to do about it other than examine it, so I have been, and I am starting to learn some things about sleepy mind.
When it’s starting to kick in, the thought patterns seem like ordinary, distracted trains of thought about whatever, so if I catch them quickly, I can snap back into concentration. But if the thoughts get a long enough leash, they suddenly become much more vivid and absurd, more like night dreams than daydreams. Those are also more captivating, so it’s hard to get out of the spiral once that happens.
Before I know it, my head nods, or my hands slip from my knees, and I’ve entered a dozing cycle that I might not be able to break without standing up. There’s a common instruction, short of standing up, to open the eyes slightly to let some light in to wake you up, but by the time I’m nodding out, that never works for me; my eyes just close on their own.
On retreats — at least the friendly, Western ones I’ve been on — the teachers often give permission to stand up in front of your cushion if you can’t stay awake sitting down, but that’s an extreme intervention that seems more called for on an intense retreat. At home, I’d rather push through and experience sleepiness, which is, of course, one of the Five Hindrances, and so needs to be fully understood.
Sleepiness is a real obstacle in life, and it seems worthwhile to work with it. Clearly, though, it′s also a sign with plain meaning: Get more sleep!
I find it useful to think about spiritual practices as responses to our animal instincts. Very early in human history, it became necessary to sublimate many of our instinctive, evolutionarily adaptive behaviors, so that we could start living together and cooperating in more complex, constructive ways. This was no mean feat; we needed technologies to support this transformation, and that′s what I believe spiritual practices are.
Today, we’re so far from our instinctual state in every conceivable way, we flatter ourselves that we don’t need to sublimate it anymore. We’ve reached a neo-mythological state of modernity. High-tech consumer life is nicely set up for us to take care of those pesky animal instincts before we even notice them. Powerful appetites and drives — food, sex, violence — all of this can just be bought now in safe little packages. Meanwhile, religious practices that make you work for your sublimation are no longer so popular.
Of course, the consumer approach doesn’t sublimate the instincts at all; it just represses them, which stresses our psyches to the breaking point. That’s why I believe the acceleration of modern life actually makes spiritual practice more important.
These conditions also make establishing a spiritual practice harder, though. The world is so incoherent that it’s hard to accept any faith claims about what does or does not work. After years of back and forth, I’ve realized I actually need two spiritual systems: Judaism to redirect animal instincts through storytelling and ritual, and Buddhist-style meditation to quiet them through atomization, exploration, and non-attachment. Sure, it’s more work than watching mixed martial arts while eating processed meats, but I daresay it’s healthier.
It’s so important to remember how negative emotions provide inspiration for practice. There are so many counterproductive ways one can use negative emotions — dwelling on them, obsessing over them, getting angry or sad about them. Every once in a while, it occurs to me I can transform them into the desire to meditate, and it’s such a relief!
But how is that done? Sitting in a stew of negative emotions and just dealing with it seems rather unpleasant, which is bound to bring up some aversion. Meditation might not alleviate the feeling one is in right now, but it can transform associated feelings — like fear of a difficult or painful thing happening again — and realizing there’s a way forward can lift the spirits.
One of the negative emotions I’m working with right now is embarrassment. This feeling arises when I’ve done something inappropriate to a situation, and I either notice in the moment or reflect on it later. If I had been more mindful — more aware of my thoughts and feelings, more in control of my actions — in the fateful situation, perhaps I could have avoided the embarrassment. Perhaps I’d have a clearer, more objective memory of what happened that would give me some perspective now, so I wouldn’t feel so badly about it.
By tapping back into my practice, I can prepare for the next situation. No matter the cause or the particular difficult emotion, mindfulness offers readiness that can dull the blow or dodge it entirely. When dwelling on negative feelings, the key is to remember impermanence — this negative feeling will end, there will be a next time, I’ll get another chance. Wanting to be more ready next time, so it isn’t so difficult, is a fine motivation for practice.
Airplanes are great places for meditation. It may seem difficult at first, between the noise, the cramped space, and the myriad anxieties travel tends to introduce, but those challenges make for great practice.
That’s just the beginning, though. I think being up in an airplane has unique benefits to meditation practice.
Have you ever noticed how a movie you thought was sappy and boring on the ground can move you to tears on a long-haul flight? It’s not just you; this is a well known phenomenon. Maybe it’s related to the Overview Effect. High altitude puts things on the ground into perspective, generating empathy and compassion for everything and everyone below — and these effects can last a long time after returning to earth.
The transitional aspect of travel is also good for meditation. It’s easy to notice impermanence while traveling — you’re coming from an experience that has ended and going towards one that has not yet begun.
It can be harder to experience impermanence in the “This, too, shall pass” sense when one encounters the inevitable stresses of disrupted travel plans, but, of course, that’s a great practice opportunity. And what better feeling is there for a traveler than finally settling into your assigned seat after crossing hell and high water to make your flight? When I finally make it to that moment, I instinctively close my eyes, take a deep breath and say, “Thank you!”
I’ve heard it said by many teachers that sitting down to meditate should feel like coming home. That is, if you think about it, a simile of travel. And if it’s good practice for meditation to have a sense of travel, how much moreso for travel to have a sense of meditation?
I’ve been on an island for the past five days, and it’s doing something to my mind. The more I relate to the sand and the waves, the birds and the bugs, the fish and the crabs, the wind and the rain, the sun and the clouds, the stars and the full moon and the close approach of Mars, the less I have to say about it all.
No teaching seems more appropriate than the greatest hit from the Shurangama Sutra treasured in Zen Buddhism. To the Buddha of this story, the truth is a finger pointing at the moon. When we’re overthinking it, we look for the truth in the flesh of the pointing finger — more real to us than the luminous and distant moon. Words for what I’m feeling out here on the island seem like tiny fingers pointing pointlessly at the moon. Raising my arm and extending my finger separates me from that heavenly reality.
The teaching is not that the moon is the truth, though; the truth is the relationship between the finger and the moon. The moon has always been up there, as far as we animals are concerned. But every month, we still point that full moon out to one another because it’s awesome to behold. The beholder and the beheld are brought together in the act of beholding. We point out the moon because it is a relief to share an experience with another.
Islands are not alone. They are linked by air, water, light, and life. I don’t need to tell you what happened on this island in words. It’s the difference between pointing at the moon and gazing into your eyes.
Meditating every single day seems really daunting if you imagine it as 30 (or so) minutes of inflexible time. If that seems unmanageable in a given day, there can be an impulse to just throw up one’s hands and not sit at all.
But it’s easy to reframe the practice to get around that impulse. As Rav James said at the end of the retreat I just got back from, “you can always find five minutes.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a day so busy that I couldn’t squeeze any part of it by five minutes. For me, that′s the minimum amount of time it takes for sitting practice to feel like meditating and not merely relaxing, but it’s enough time to feel like I’ve “done it” today.
As someone who has tried to do something as epically long as Jewish daily prayer every day, I’m grateful for the flexibility of meditation practice. I also know from all that experience with ritual that the sense of having “done it” today — or not — is a discrete part of inculcating a spiritual practice, and it works whether I meditate for five minutes or 60 — as long as I kept stoking the fire of my practice today.
I still wonder whether this implicates the quality of my practice, though. Is “doing it” for five minutes as beneficial as “doing it” for 30? I think the only possible answer to that question is, “it doesn’t matter.” It matters whether one practices today or not, but not because of how many cushion-minutes one racks up. It’s not even that one more sit matters — it’s keeping on sitting that matters.
Before sunrise this morning, after maybe two hours of sleep on a red-eye flight, I had the honor of recommitting to my meditation practice in the atrium of the Atlanta airport. All the chairs had been corralled by uncomfortable sleepers, and the “Interfaith Chapel” appeared to be closed for renovations, so I just plopped my bags down on a bench in the center, sat down next to them, closed my eyes, and tried to do my thing.
I considered headphones. I could have used white noise like I did on the flight, or I could have tried guided meditations from buddhify, which I have bought but am yet to try (remind me to write about meditation apps another time). Instead, I opted to just be with the sounds of the airport waking up. It was a poignant experience of what it means to be “passing through.”
I only sat for seven minutes all told, but it surprised me how much this practice felt like the real deal. I couldn’t go as deep as I can in a long, uninterrupted stretch on my cushion, but I realized the good stuff isn’t always that deep down. Airports are sites of real stress and anxiety. I usually spend my time in them huffing and puffing and struggling to get through it. It was surprisingly healing just to sit and be calm in the middle of the airport. It feels like I loosened up about it in a way I’ll remember on my return leg.
I keep getting stuck on the word “mindfulness” this morning. I guess most of the time I can just glide past the word and experience the reality to which it refers. But you know that phenomenon where, if you repeat a perfectly reasonable, commonplace word enough times, it starts to sound like nonsense? Try it: Button. Button. Button. Button. Button. Something like that occasionally happens to me with a word like “mindfulness,” where I gradually realize it’s just a bunch of blah-blah syllables that don’t really convey the meaning of this word.
I’m no pro etymologist — is that even a thing? — but according to the thought loops I was having on my meditation cushion this morning, it′s obvious from the structure of the word that the cultures who produced English didn’t have an indigenous term for this, so it had to be invented.
“Mind-” seems like a reasonable start; it’s a jolly old English word for the place, if you will, where mindfulness takes place, whatever it is. Then we get the suffix “-ful-,” which is kinda like the standalone word “full,” but in a specific sense that indicates self-possession. The best reference for it I can come up with is the word “careful.” I guess to be mindful is to be self-possessed of mind in the same sense in which to be careful is to be self-possessed of care. Doesn’t help much.
Then you tack on that irritatingly New Age suffix “-ness” to make a noun out of it, and now it has the sound of some immutable essence that’s out there to be taken possession of, and that seems all wrong. The English word for this should be a verb! It’s not something you get, it’s something you do.
I have a somewhat fraught relationship with routine.
On one hand, I crave it. I like to know what to expect, I like to know where everything is, I like to know what’s coming up next. I have a limited appetite for surprises. I know lots of creative people like to be constantly bombarded with new inputs for inspiration, but it’s usually the opposite for me: I like a stable ground and a regular cycle that lets me reliably crank stuff out at my peak creative times and iterate every day.
On the other hand, I go from boredom to insanity on a dime. As soon as something in my routine isn’t working anymore, it starts to grind and grate until it feels like the source of all my problems, and pulling it out by the roots seems like the only way to get my groove back.
I have a pretty long cycle for this; a solid routine can last me a year or two. But when I make a change, I tend to do it thunderously. I might declare, “I’m not Jewish, I’m Buddhist now!”, or “I’m not Buddhist, I’m Jewish now!”, you know, for example. Making such sweeping declarations feels good in the moment, but it can be disruptive, especially to anyone around me trying to keep up.
But there has to be a reason why meditation has come back into my routine over and over, no matter what religion I happen to be at the time. I’m finally starting to understand that it threads the needle between my two states of routine and disruption. Like anything healthy and alive, meditation represents the whole system in microcosm — it cultivates stability and embraces change.
One of my favorite paradoxes of meditation is that it’s the only activity I can keep doing after I do it. Sometimes I only start meditating after I meditate.
For example, this morning, I slept in a little bit, so rather than exercising first, as I’ve been doing this summer, I just got up, brushed my teeth, drank some water, and sat. It was a much dreamier, sleepier, more distracted sit than I’ve been having lately. When I wake up, exercise, shower, and then sit, I feel very bright and active, and meditation seems easy! But today, it was a slog. I was repeatedly carried away into thick jungles of emotionally intense daydreaming, and I had to hack my way back to my cushion.
When the timer went off, I unfolded my legs, shook my right one until it woke back up, then went to the counter to heat water for tea. I’ve been trying to replace coffee with matcha, mainly because I want to reduce my caffeine dosage, but there’s a nice side effect that matcha preparation is a lovely, easy mindfulness ritual. Without too much conscious thought, I paid effortless attention to pouring the water and whisking the tea until the froth was spinning clockwise like a green galaxy. Then I carried the cup to the couch, sat, and sipped. And sat. And sipped.
Now I feel perfectly awake and concentrated. Sure, some of that is attributable to the caffeine. On other days, my awakeness is attributable to endorphins from exercise. That’s just the situation. The point is that I spent some time this morning mindfully doing something. That’s the practice.
At times I’ve felt that daily meditation was too passive a practice — that the conditions of the world demand action, and blocking out time for repose is a literal retreat from the world’s battles.
But when my practice is strong, I see the destructive and chaotic potential of uncontrolled action, and I realize that meditative control is an active process that must be strengthened like a muscle, so it can guide that impulse to action.
Control is an uncomfortable word for it, though. When I search for a better verb for what the will is doing in meditation, the source that comes to mind for me is the Torah: “Vayishbot bayom ha’shvi’i mikol melachto asher asah.” It’s the verb lashevet, literally “to sit,” from the biblical source of the practice of Shabbat. Hear the shared root of those words? Much hay has been made by Jewish meditators about the fact that ”Shabbat” basically means “the sit.”
That passage would typically be translated, “And God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done,” but literally it could be rendered, “God sat.” To me, the ambiguity in English comes from a different sensibility about the quality of action in the verb. Think about it: God is all-powerful. God didn’t need a break after creating the universe. God exercised God’s will to limit creative action, to dedicate a fixed amount of time for blessing what is already made. To sit is an action.
That’s what we practice tonight at sundown until tomorrow night when the stars come out. If meditation can be defined as applying the will to sustain a particular consciousness for a period of time, Shabbat — the Sit — is a 25-hour meditation. See you on the other side!
Today I’m grateful for the Burmese posture, and to Rav James for instructing me to finally find my seat in it. For years, I struggled in a sort of 1/3-lotus position (not a real thing), with my left foot up on my right calf — as high as it would go — the ankle rolled dangerously to the inside. This was the only way I could imitate the severe images I had in my mind of The Right Way to Meditate™.
When I came to Rav James for my first interview on this retreat and told him pain in my legs was distracting me constantly, he first tested whether I was just having trouble sitting with discomfort. I had thought of that, and I was “sitting with the pain” as long as I could stand it, but it was becoming overwhelming every sit. He then asked if I had ever tried Burmese posture. I had, I replied, but “I thought it was cheating.”
“Oh, no, I sit that way,” Rav James said.
He had been sitting in a chair this retreat because of an injury. Usually, this great teacher sits in a posture I had just described as “cheating.” We laughed, and then I realized I was free to sit in a posture I had only used as emergency relief before. My next sit was my most stable in years.
The stability and dignity of sitting on the floor with the knees down just feels right to me. But now I know how my body wants to find its seat. Instead of being attached to exotic ideals, I’m letting what is be what is.
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