December 9, 2001
Let’s go on a journey inward today. You know, there is an inward part to all of us — none of us are just what we appear to be, even to ourselves.
And in addition to that, I don’t know about you, but it sure can get awfully noisy up here in my head — and most of that racket is uninvited and useless. Have you ever known real quiet? Even when we shut ourselves in and turn off every sound around, we are usually left with that incessant chattering in our head. We look for the switch for that and there just ain’t one. It’s a drag.
As some of you know, I have been a practicing Buddhist for thirty-three years. Though I’m sometimes on-again, off-again, I’ve been more on than off for the past seventeen years. Given all those years, I’m not nearly as skilled as one might think I ought to be, but being a Buddhist, I don’t bother to make a judgment about that. It’s like much of life: it’s just the way it is, and so it’s just right.
I don’t intend to talk about Buddhism today, though. I thought you might be more interested in one of the key practices of Buddhism, which is meditation. I think you’ll find, as I do, that this introduction to meditation sounds more familiar to you than you might expect.
Those of you who pray at a deep level, well, that’s a form of meditation — it’s the practice of letting go of yourself. For others, it’s like when you do something really intense, and you are so into it — like, say, a sport. You find yourself so in the moment that you can’t quite remember it after it happened — well, that’s meditation, too.
Meditation, as I’m going to do it here, is not about introspection. It is not about looking for anything. It has no goal. As a matter of fact, there is nothing you are trying to do. You aren’t even trying to meditate. You’ll find that trying really gets in the way.
It is about simply being in the moment when you’re doing what you are doing. When you’re sitting, sit; when you’re eating, eat; when you’re driving, drive. It is about being fully present for the moment.
Meditation does not have to be strictly spiritual, either; it’s considered one of the best stress reducers we know of after exercise and experts often say it’s best to do both.
Since we are beginners here, the easiest and most often used position for meditation is sitting.
Breathing is enormously important when meditating. When we meditate, we can really experience our breathing and notice that a lot of the time we seem to be holding our breath. We call that being uptight.
It’s important to remember that meditation is a practice, something that you do, not a belief or a set of ideas or a concept — all of which really get in the way of just being in the present. Ideas and concepts are really just more noise.
One of my favorite quotes is from the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many opportunities; in the expert’s, there are few.”
So try to approach this with a beginner’s mind. Children have beginner’s minds, which is why they grow — then they become expert adults and stop growing. That’s why many of us basically walk around dead for forty to sixty years.
Here are some of the basics of how to meditate.
First, the length of time one chooses to meditate is really not important. This is not an endurance contest. It is something you do for you.
Still, you’ll want to have some sort of clock with an alarm on it. The old cooking timer will work. Then, you need to pick a reasonable amount of time. If you are just starting out, set it for at least ten minutes, but no more than fifteen. This is important — by having an alarm set, your mind won’t be distracted by trying to keep track of time. Otherwise, the whole time that you’re meditating, your mind will get attached to worrying about how long you’ve been meditating, when you stop, etc. Just turn those thoughts over to the timer.
Posture is important. What’s most important is that your back is upright and straight. Everything else is bells and whistles as far as I’m concerned. Don’t worry about being able to do a perfect lotus position — if I stretched my legs for the next twenty years, I still could not sit in a full lotus, so I personally just let go of that idea a long time ago.
I find it helpful to sit on a pillow, anything that raises my butt four to six inches off the ground, and just cross my legs and lean slightly into them. It’s actually pretty comfortable. Then I stretch my back and line my skull up with it, get it all straight and lined up and then relax.
Now sitting cross-legged may not suit you. That’s just fine. Sit in a firm chair, something that you won’t sink into. Place your feet firmly on the floor, about shoulder distance apart, and straighten up your back and head.
Once you’ve found your position, just take three deep breaths and really notice the sensation of breathing. Not the idea of it, but the actual sensation of it. Notice that the feel of the exhale is warmer than the inhale.
The whole time that you’re meditating, uninvited thoughts are going to be romping around your head. We’ll get to them in a moment.
As you breathe, let the tip of your tongue rest gently against your upper palate. Do something with your hands. Gently rest one palm in the other on your lap or lay them palm up or palm down on your knees.
Okay, now it’s time to begin to be fully here in our body where we always are and always forget we are, if you get where I’m coming from.
Next, we do something called a ‘“body scan.” Just relax, keep your eyes closed and begin at the very top of the head, feel the sensations there, whatever is there to be aware of. Then, go down the back of the head, feel your eyes from the inside, your nose, ears, be aware of all of them. Feel all the sensations, down your back and down each arm, slowly feeling each shoulder down through the hands into the fingers. Next, be aware of the feelings in your chest, down to the pelvis, being aware of all of you down through your feet and toes. After the toes, you might just allow all the ever-changing sensations of the body into awareness. Remember, no judgment — nothing is bad or good, it just is.
So while you’re concentrating on your body, you might have some thoughts that intrude. The fact is, our minds have a compulsion to focus on something, anything. To get around this, some people use a mantra — a few repeated words or a phrase that give the mind something to do. You could also just repeatedly count to ten. I was taught to focus on the sensations of breath going into my nostrils and going out of my nostrils and the sensation in between. All are fine techniques.
As you are doing this you may find yourself speculating, worrying, planning or just generally having thoughts that lie somewhere else besides the absolute present. That’s fine, no need to judge. I was taught the practice of labeling. So when you become aware that you are caught up in thinking, just label that process, say to yourself “Oh, thinking” and then go back to the counting, the mantra or the feel of your breath.
During a thirty-minute meditation session, I often go through this labeling process and then back to being in the moment a hundred or more times. It’s okay. Just label it and go back to being in the present.
You might feel an itch or an ache. You don’t have to respond to it. You can let go of that need and simply accept it, that itch is okay, and doesn’t necessarily need to be dealt with.
Keep up the process until your alarm goes off. You may find that you’re able to meditate for longer periods of time the longer you practice.