Sunday, May 25, 2008

Realizing your true nature

Although you recognize the value of improving or making friends with yourself, you may be spurred to meditation by a desire to penetrate the veils that separate you from the true source of all meaning, peace, and love. Nothing less will satisfy you! Perhaps you’re obsessed with one of the great spiritual questions, like “Who am I?” “What is God?” or “What is the meaning of life?” In Zen, they say that such an intense yearning for truth is like a red-hot iron ball lodged in the pit of your stomach — you can’t digest it, and you can’t spit it out; you can only transform it through the power of your meditation. Your quest may be motivated by personal suffering, but you’re unwilling to stop at self-improvement or self-acceptance and feel impelled to reach the summit of the mountain — what the great masters call enlightenment or satori. When you realize who you essentially are, the separate self drops away and reveals your identity with being itself. This realization, in turn, can have wide-reaching ramifications — including, ironically, a happier and more harmonious life and complete self-love and self-acceptance.

Understanding and accepting yourself

At a certain point in your development, you may get tired of trying to fix yourself — or perhaps you’ve done such a good job that it’s time to move on to the next phase. Here you realize that some patterns keep recurring and struggling to change them just makes them more entrenched, and you decide to shift from “fixing” to self-awareness and self-acceptance. As NBA coach Phil Jackson puts it in his book Sacred Hoops, “If we can accept whatever hand we’ve been dealt, no matter how unwelcome, the way to proceed eventually becomes clear.”
I like to compare change to one of those woven Chinese finger puzzles that were popular when I was a kid: The harder you pull, the more stuck you get. But if you move your fingers toward one another — the gesture of self-acceptance —you can free them quite easily. If you’re tormented by self-blame, self-doubt, or self-judgment, you may be drawn to meditation as a way of learning to accept and even love yourself.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I’ve found that mean-spirited self-criticism can wreak havoc in the psyches of otherwise well-balanced people — and the antidote almost inevitably involves self-acceptance, what the Buddhists call “making friends with yourself.” When you practice accepting yourself fully, you soften and open your heart, not only to yourself, but ultimately to others as well.

Improving your life

Imagine for a moment that your life’s a mess and you’re struggling to get it together — so you take up the practice of meditation. You figure meditation will teach you the concentration and self-discipline you need to succeed. Or maybe you have a difficult time in relationships, and you want to calm your mind and even out the emotional rollercoaster so you’re not constantly in conflict with others.
Perhaps you suffer from some chronic illness and hope that the regular practice of meditation will reduce your stress and improve your health in general. Or maybe you just want to enhance your performance at work or in sports, or learn how to take greater enjoyment from your family, friends, and leisure activities.
Whatever the scenario, your primary concern at this level is to fix or improve yourself and your external circumstances — a thoroughly noble intention.

Looking deeply into your own heart

Sit quietly, take a few deep breaths, and set aside some time to inquire into your own heart and mind for responses to these questions:
  • What brings me to practice meditation?
  • What motivates me to meditate?
  • What do I hope to achieve?
  • What do I expect to learn?
Set aside the first thoughts that come to mind, look more deeply, and ask the question, “What is the dissatisfaction or suffering that drives me?”
  • Do I want to reduce stress and calm my mind?
  • Do I want to be happier and more accepting of myself?
  • Do I seek answers to the deeper, existential questions like “Who am I?” or “What is the meaning of life?”
Perhaps you’re even attuned to the suffering of others and aspire to help them before helping yourself. Or maybe you just want to improve your performance at work or be more attentive and loving to your family. Whatever responses you get, just write them down without judgment, refer to them as needed to help keep you motivated, and allow them to change and deepen over time.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Reflecting on your life

The great spiritual teachers and meditation masters have always reminded us of the brevity of life. The medieval Christian mystics kept a skull on their desks to remind them of their own mortality. And Buddhist monks and nuns in some Asian countries still meditate in cemeteries to deepen their awareness of impermanence. Whether tomorrow, next year, or many years from now, you and I will eventually die. Remembering this from time to time can help us to clarify life’s priorities — and remind us of our reasons for meditating.
Of course, if you find it too depressing to think about dying, by all means feel free to skip this exercise. But you may discover that your initial aversion fades as you open your heart to the preciousness of life. Take ten minutes or more to do this guided meditation (which is adapted from the book A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield):
  1. Sit quietly, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths, relaxing a little with each exhalation.
  2. Imagine that you’re at the end of your life and death is quickly approaching. Be aware of the tentativeness of life — you could die at any moment.
  3. Reflect on your life as you watch it replay before your eyes like a video.
  4. As you reflect, choose two things you’ve done that you feel good about now. They may not be important or life-changing; in fact, they may be simple, seemingly insignificant events.
  5. Look deeply at what makes these moments memorable — at the qualities of mind and heart you brought to them.
  6. Notice how these memories affect you —what feelings and other memories they stir up.
  7. In light of these memories, consider how you might live differently if you had your life to live again. What activities would you give more time to than you do now? What qualities of being would you choose to emphasize? Which people would you give more (or less) of your attention to?
  8. As you end this exercise and go about your day, notice whether your attitude toward your life has changed in any way.

What Motivates You to Meditate?

We don’t talk much in our culture about motivation — unless it’s deficient or missing and we need to amp it up and “get motivated.” In your own life, you may be the kind of person who does what comes naturally or does it because it’s fun — or exciting or educational or merely interesting. Or perhaps you’re the responsible sort who fills her life with obligations and spends her time meeting them.
Whatever your motivational style, you may find, on closer investigation, that the motivation or attitude you bring to an activity has a dramatic impact on your experience of the activity. Take sex, for example. If you do it out of lust or boredom or fear, your sexual pleasure will be permeated by the flavor of the feeling that motivated you. But if you have sex as a heartfelt expression of love for your partner, you may move in the same way, touch the same places, use the same techniques — but you’ll have an exponentially different experience. Well, meditation is like sex — what you bring to it is what you get! In fact, the meditative traditions suggest that your motivation determines the outcome of your practice as much as the technique you use or the time you spend. Just as clients in Jungian therapy proverbially have Jungian dreams and Freudian clients have Freudian dreams, Christian meditators tend to experience God or Christ, Buddhist meditators see emptiness — and those who seek healing or peace of mind or peak performance tend to get what they came for.
Spiritual traditions often rank attitudes and motivations as higher or lower, and they generally agree that the motivation to help others before helping oneself is the highest. But you have to begin where you are — and being

Empty your cup

There’s an old Zen story about a scholar who visited a famous Zen master to inquire into the meaning of Zen. The scholar asked question after question but was so full of his own ideas that he rarely gave the master an opportunity to answer.
After about an hour of this one-sided dialogue, the master asked the scholar if he wanted a cup of tea. When the scholar held out his cup, the master filled it but just kept on pouring. “Enough,” the scholar cried out. “The cup is full.
It won’t hold any more.”
“Yes,” replied the master, “and so is your mind.
You can’t learn Zen until you empty your cup.”

Friday, May 2, 2008

Meditation Combats Everyday Stresses

Car repairs, office politics, traffic jams, food shopping and washing up. This is just the beginning of what most of us contend with on a daily basis. Worse still, we seem to have accepted this as normality.

Living for the weekend has become a way of life for us Brits and kudos to anyone who has found a way to switch off from the nine to five stresses. For most of us winding down is an elusive Mecca, a fable passed through so many generations we wonder if there’s any truth in the concept at all.
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If, after an hour long soak and a crisp glass of Chardonnay, you’re itching to check your emails, file your statements or redecorate the kitchen it’s probably time for a re-think.

The method of meditation has been practised for hundreds of years and the health and social benefits are doubtless. Buddhist Monk and meditation teacher, Gen Kelsang Pagpa believes that it is the only way to achieve true well being.

‘Buddha taught that it is possible through meditation that we can eliminate all our mental problems in order to achieve inner peace’ says Pagpa.

Meditation classes are designed to calm the mind and gain clarity and perspective and once you’ve mastered the basics the methods are entirely transferable to everyday life.

‘Anyone can meditate, whether it’s once a week or once a day. The more you meditate the more peace you experience, and problems become easier to overcome.’

Teachers of meditation at the many Buddhist centres across the country are incredibly understanding when it comes to novices and happy to help people from all walks of life, regardless of background or religious beliefs.

‘Meditation doesn’t depend on being a Buddhist, instead it depends on people wanting to solve their daily problems.’ Said Pagpa.

While many myths border meditation, the benefits are vastly real. This ancient technique is said to be a safe and simple way to balance your physical, emotional, and mental state, it’s been scientifically proven to help combat stress and stress related illnesses such as high blood pressure, insomnia and heart disease. As a result, more and more doctors are promoting meditation as an option to combat such problems.

Weight loss, self-confidence, depression, headaches and energy deficiency are just some of the areas that are said to be improved by meditation. Pagpa tells us that the first step is to envision yourself as a peaceful person.

‘What would it feel like to take a complete break, stop let go of mental burdens and stress, to feel peaceful, calm and happy? That’s priceless. Investing a bit of time in accomplishing this goal, is very worthwhile.’

Weight loss, self-confidence, depression, headaches and energy deficiency are just some of the areas that are said to be improved by meditation,

Antonia Charlesworth

Your end is your beginning

It’s one of the great mysteries of meditation that you inevitably end up where you began. You ultimately find that the treasure was hidden under your own hearth all along — and the path you follow only serves to lead you home again. As T. S. Eliot put it in his poem “Four Quartets,” “The end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” To clarify this mystery, the Tibetans make a distinction between the ground, the path, and the fruition. The confused, busy, suffering mind, they say, has within it the peace, love, and happiness you seek — the ground or basis for awakening. But the clouds of negativity (doubt, judgment, fear, anger, attachment) that obscure this ground — which is who you really are in your heart of hearts — have become so thick and impenetrable that you need to embark on the path of meditation to clear away the clouds and bring you closer to the truth.
When you finally recognize your essential being — the moment of fruition — you realize that it has always been right here, where and who you already are, nearer than your own heart, more immediate than your breath. This essential being is identical to what the Zen folks call beginner’s mind.

What's inside the meditation beginner's mind?

Ultimately, the great meditation teachers advise that the best attitude to take toward meditation is an open mind, completely free from all preconceptions and expectations. One of my first meditation teachers, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, calls this beginner’s mind — and he counsels that the goal of meditation is not to accumulate knowledge, learn something new, or achieve some special state of mind, but simply to maintain this fresh, uncluttered perspective. “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything,” he writes in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” As the title of his book suggests, Suzuki teaches that beginner’s mind and Zen mind—the awake, clear, unfettered mind of the enlightened Zen master — are essentially the same. Or, as another teacher puts it, “The seeker is the sought; the looker is what he or she is looking for!”
Needless to say, it’s easier to talk about beginner’s mind than it is to maintain or even recognize it. But that’s precisely the point — the “don’t-know mind” of the beginner can’t conceptualize or identify beginner’s mind, just as the eye can’t see itself, even though it is the source of all seeing. No matter which meditation technique you choose, try to practice it with the innocent, open, “don’t-know” spirit of beginner’s mind. In a sense, beginner’s mind is the nonattitude underlying all attitudes, the non-technique at the heart of all successful techniques.
Here are the characteristics of beginner’s mind:
  • Openness to whatever arises: When you welcome your experience in meditation without trying to change it, you align yourself with being itself, which includes everything — light and dark, good and bad, life and death — without preference.
  • Freedom from expectations: When you practice beginner’s mind, you encounter each moment with fresh eyes and ears. Instead of meditating to achieve some future goal, you sit with the confidence that the open, ready awareness you bring to it ultimately contains all the qualities you seek, such as love, peace, happiness, compassion, wisdom, and equanimity.
  • Spacious and spontaneous mind: Some teachers liken beginner’s mind to the sky — though the clouds may come and go, the boundless expanse of sky is never damaged or reduced in any way. As for spontaneity, Jesus summed it up when he said, “You must become as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Free from expectations and open to whatever arises, you naturally respond to situations in a spontaneous way.
  • Original, primordial awareness: A famous Zen koan (provocative riddle) goes like this: “What was your original face before your parents were born?” This koan points to the ineffable, primordial quality of mind, which predates your personality and even your physical body. Perhaps beginner’s mind should really be called beginningless mind!