Thursday, October 30, 2008

How to let go of your expectations?

When you invest in the stock market or work out at a gym, you expect results — and you keep checking the quotes or the scale to tell you how well you’re doing. If you bring the same attitude to meditation, however, you’re defeating the purpose — which is to let go of your thoughts altogether and just be present in the here and now. One of the great paradoxes of meditation is that you can’t reap the benefits until you drop all your expectations and accept things the way they are. Then the benefits come back to you a thousandfold.
In the beginning, of course, you’re going to keep wondering whether you’re doing it right. But don’t worry, there’s no wrong way to meditate —except perhaps sitting and trying to measure how well you’re doing! One day you may feel like you’re on top of the world — you’re full of energy, your mind is clear, and you can follow your breath with relative ease. “Wow, now I’m getting the hang of it,” you think. The next day you’re so overwhelmed by thoughts or emotions that you sit for 20 minutes without even noticing your breath. Welcome to the practice of meditation! The point is not to do it right, but just to do it — again and again.
One of my Zen teachers used to compare meditation to walking in the fog on a warm summer day: Though you may not pay attention to what’s happening, pretty soon you’re drenched in dew.

Awareness of the Here and Now

This section highlights an approach to meditation known as mindfulness —moment to moment awareness of your experience as it unfolds. Mindfulness combines concentration (highly focused awareness) and a more receptive awareness that simply welcomes whatever arises. Because mindfulness grows like a house on a foundation of concentration, you’ll need to strengthen and stabilize your concentration before you can proceed to the full practice of mindfulness. That’s why the initial meditations provided here emphasize focusing on a particular object of concentration — your breath. Ultimately, the goal of mindfulness meditation is to develop the capacity to be fully present for whatever is occurring right here and now. When you’ve stabilized your concentration by focusing on your breath, you can expand your awareness to include the full range of bodily sensations — and eventually you can just welcome whatever presents itself in your field of experience. Though supremely simple, this advanced technique can take years of patient practice to master, but you may have glimpses of a more expanded awareness after only a few weeks of regular meditation.

The Deep Relaxation Technique

Here’s a meditation you can do any time you have 15 or 20 minutes to spare and want to shed some of the tension you’ve accumulated in your busy life. It’s also a great way to prepare for the other meditations in this book, because it leaves you feeling relaxed, refreshed, and in touch with yourself.
  1. Find a comfortable place to lie down. Take off your shoes, loosen your belt and other tight clothing, and stretch out on your back with your arms resting at your sides, legs slightly apart.
  2. Sense your body as a whole, including the places where it contacts the surface of the bed or floor.
  3. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your feet. Wiggle your toes, flex your feet, and then let go of all tension as much as you can, allowing your feet to melt into the floor.
  4. Shift your awareness to your lower legs, thighs, and hips. Imagine them becoming heavy and relaxed and melting into the floor. If the image of melting doesn’t appeal to you, you might try dissolving, sinking, or disappearing.
  5. Bring your awareness to your lower abdomen. Imagine all tension draining away, your breath deepening, and your belly opening and softening.
  6. Bring your awareness to your upper abdomen, chest, neck, and throat, feeling the areas opening and softening.
  7. Bring your awareness to your shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, and hands. Imagine them becoming heavy and relaxed and melting into the floor.
  8. Bring your awareness to your head and face. Feel the tension melting away from your face across your head and into the floor.
  9. Scan your body from head to toe, searching for any remaining areas of tension or discomfort. If you find any, just imagine them relaxing completely.
  10. Experience your body as one field of relaxation, without parts or edges.
  11. Continue to rest in this way for five or ten minutes more; then very slowly begin to wiggle your fingers and toes, stretch your arms and legs, open your eyes, and gradually come up to a sitting position.
Check in with yourself and notice how you feel. Do you feel more relaxed? Does your body feel lighter or more expanded? Does the world appear different in any way? Now gently get up and go about your day.

Five brief relaxation techniques

  • Shower of relaxation: Imagine taking a warm shower. As the water cascades across your body and down your legs, it carries with it all discomfort and distress, leaving you refreshed and invigorated.
  • Honey treatment: Imagine a mound of warm honey perched on the crown of your head. As it melts, it runs down your face and head and neck, covering your shoulders and chest and arms, and gradually enveloping your whole body down to your toes. Feel the sensuous wave of warm liquid draining away all tension and stress and leaving you thoroughly relaxed and renewed.
  • Peaceful place: Imagine a safe, protected, peaceful place — perhaps a forest, a meadow, or a sandy beach. Experience the place fully with all your senses. Notice how calm and relaxed you feel here; now allow that feeling to permeate every cell of your body.
  • Body scan: Beginning with the crown of your head, scan your body from top to bottom. When you come to an area of tension or discomfort, gently allow it to open and soften; then move on.
  • Relaxation response: Choose a word or brief phrase that has deep spiritual or personal significance for you. Now close your eyes and repeat this sound softly, again and again.

Relaxing Your Body

As the emerging field of mind-body medicine reminds us — and yogis and sages have been telling us for millennia — your body, your mind, and your heart form one seamless and inseparable whole. When your thoughts keep leaping like the proverbial monkey from worry to worry, your body responds by tightening and tensing, especially in certain key places like the throat, the heart, the solar plexus, and the belly. When the discomfort gets intense enough, you register it as an emotion — fear, perhaps, or anger or sadness.

Because it connects you with your direct experience — and ultimately with a realm of pure being beyond the mind — meditation naturally relaxes yourbody while it focuses your mind. As a beginner, though, you may not experience this natural relaxation for days or even weeks. So it can be helpful to practice one of the techniques in the following list before you meditate, especially if you tend to be noticeably tense. (If you’re one of those rare people who are generally so relaxed that you tend to drift off to sleep at the slightest provocation, you may want to skip this exercise.) Of course, relaxing your body has its own wonderful benefits — but your body won’t stay relaxed until you’re able to work with your mind.

If you’ve never deliberately relaxed your body before, start with the meditation in the “Deep relaxation” sidebar. Because the meditation takes at least 15 minutes to complete, you probably won’t do it each time you meditate, but it does show you how to relax your body part by part. When you’ve practiced this exercise a few times, your body will have a memory of what it’s like to be deeply relaxed, and you can then advance to one of the five-minute relaxations listed here. By the way, deep relaxation is a great antidote for insomnia — just practice it in bed and then drift off to sleep!

Related dimensions of turning yourself inward

  • Content to process: Instead of becoming engrossed in the meaning of what you’re sensing, thinking, or feeling, you can shift your interest and attention to how experiencing occurs — or to the mere fact of experience itself. For example, instead of getting lost in thinking or daydreaming, you can notice how your mind flits from thought to thought — or merely observe that you’re thinking. Instead of becoming transfixed by your fear or what you imagine it means or is trying to tell you, you can notice how the waves of tension move through your belly — or simply note that you’re feeling.
  • Outer to inner: Initially, you need to balance your usual tendency to be so outer-directed by paying particular attention to inner experience. Eventually, you’ll be able to bring the same quality of awareness to every experience, whether inner or outer.
  • Secondhand to direct: Even more helpful than inner and outer is the distinction between secondhand experience and direct experience. Secondhand experience has been filtered and distorted by the mind and is often concerned with thoughts about the past or future, whereas direct experience is only found in the present and accessed through the senses. In addition to turning inward, meditation involves turning your attention away from the story your mind spins about your experience and toward the direct experience itself.
  • Doing to being: You spend virtually all your waking hours rushing from one task or project or activity to another. Do you remember what it’s like to just be, the way you did when you were a baby or a little child, whiling away a summer afternoon just playing or lying in the grass? Meditation gives you the opportunity to make this crucial shift from doing to being.

Turning Your Attention Inward

As the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. In the case of meditation, this simple but essential step involves turning your mind away from its usual preoccupation with external events — or, just as often, with the story it tells you about external events — and toward your inner sensate experience.

If you’re like most people, you’re so caught up with what’s happening around you — the look in other people’s eyes, the voices of family and co-workers, the latest news on the radio, the messages appearing on your computer screen — that you forget to pay attention to what’s happening in your own mind, body, and heart. In fact, popular culture has been designed to seduce you into searching outside yourself for happiness and satisfaction. In such a confusing and compelling world, even the most rudimentary gesture of selfawareness can seem like a challenge of monumental proportions. Just take a few minutes right now to turn your mind around and pay attention to what you’re sensing and feeling. Notice how much resistance you have to shifting your awareness from your external focus to your simple sensate experience.

Notice how busily your mind flits from thought to thought and image to image, weaving a story with you as the central character. Because these habitual patterns are so deeply rooted, doing something as seemingly innocuous as returning your attention again and again to a basic internal focus like your breath can take tremendous courage and patience. You may be afraid of what you’ll discover if you venture into essentially unknown terrain — or afraid of what you’ll miss if you turn inward even for a few moments. But this shift from outer to inner is precisely the simple but radical gesture that meditation requires.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Stopping your mind

Many people believe that the point of meditation is to stop the mind. To get a visceral sense of the futility of such efforts, you can attempt to stop your mind and see what happens. Try the following exercise:
  1. Sit quietly and take a few slow, deep breaths.
  2. For the next five minutes, try to stop thinking. That’s right — do whatever you can to keep your mind from generating more thoughts. Try humming to yourself or concentrating on your big toe or recalling a beautiful day in nature. Or just try being as still as you possibly can. Do whatever you think will work for you.
  3. At the end of five minutes, reflect on your experience. How successful were you? Could you actually stop thinking for an extended period of time? Did you find that the struggle to stop thinking just generated more thoughts? This exercise reveals how stubborn and tenacious your thinking mind can be — in case you hadn’t noticed

Freeing yourself from your story

When you’ve caught a glimpse of who you really are, beyond your mind (and even your body), you can keep reconnecting with this deeper level of being in your meditations — and in your everyday life as well. To resurrect the metaphor of the lake, you can dive down to the bottom again and again because you know what it looks like and how to find it. Even though your story may continue to play on the video screen of your brain, you can develop the capacity to disengage from it — or even disidentify from it entirely. As a friend of mine put it, you come to realize that the personality is a case of mistaken identity — and that who you are is the vast expanse of being itself, in which your personal thoughts and feelings arise and pass away. Such a profound realization may take years of meditation to achieve, yet it’s always available to you, no matter how long you’ve meditated — indeed, whether you’ve ever meditated at all! Many people report laughing uproariously when they finally see that their true nature was right there all along, as plain as the proverbial nose on their face.
Contrary to popular belief, people who learn to integrate this realization and live their understanding in a moment-to-moment way don’t become more detached and disengaged from life. Rather, because their story and their sense of separation have lifted like a fog, they actually perceive situations and people with more immediacy and compassion, and they’re able to act more appropriately, according to circumstances.