Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What to do from the waist down

Just as a tree needs to set down deep roots so it won’t fall over as it grows, you need to find a comfortable position for the lower half of your body that you can sustain for 5, 10, or 15 minutes — or even longer, if you want. After several millennia of experimentation, the great meditators have come up with a handful of traditional postures that seem to work especially well. Different though they may appear from the outside, these postures have one thing in common: the pelvis tilts slightly forward, accentuating the natural curvature of the lower back.

The following poses are arranged more or less in order, from the easiest to the hardest to do, though ease all depends on your particular body and degree of flexibility. For example, some people take to the classical lotus position (whose name derives from its resemblance to the flower) like a duck to . . . well, to a lotus pond. Besides, the lotus, though difficult, has some definite advantages, and you can work up to it by stretching your hips using the yoga exercises described in the section “Preparing Your Body for Sitting,” later in this chapter. Above all, don’t worry about which looks the coolest; just experiment until you find the one that works best for you

Dealing with pain and Meditation

If you sit in the same position for an extended period of time, you’re going to experience some physical pain or discomfort, no matter how much stretching you do! An ache in your back here, some knee pain there, a twinge in your shoulder, pins and needles in your foot — the list of complaints is potentially endless. And the longer you sit, the more intense the discomfort may become — and the stronger the temptation to move or fidget to avoid it.
Instead of instantly shifting your position or struggling to ignore your discomfort, practice gently expanding your awareness to include your discomfort, while continuing to attend to your breath or other object of meditation. If the pain is strong, you can explore it directly with the same mindful, compassionate attention you bring to your breath.
Notice also how your mind responds to your discomfort. Does it fabricate some story about your discomfort: “I’m not sitting correctly. There must be something wrong with my back. Maybe I’m ruining my knees”? And does it intensify your discomfort by judging it as bad or undesirable, causing you to tense up around it? By opening your awareness to your pain and how your mind responds to it, you can actually begin to soften and relax in relation to the pain — and you may notice that it diminishes accordingly. Because physical and emotional pain are unavoidable, sitting meditation provides a wonderful laboratory for experimenting with new ways of relating to suffering and discomfort in every area of your life — and ultimately moving beyond them.
By the way, you also have the option of moving (with awareness) when the pain or discomfort becomes too intense. Just play at your own edge between opening and resisting. And remember that certain kinds of pain may merit your immediate attention — especially shooting pain, pain that begins as soon as you start sitting, and sharp (rather than dull) pain in your knees. In such cases, you’re better off trying a different sitting position.

How to Sit Up Straight —and Live to Tell About It

If you examine the meditation poses depicted in the world’s great spiritual traditions, you’ll find that they all have one thing in common — the unshakable stability of a mountain or tree. Look at the kneeling pharaohs in the Egyptian pyramids, for example, or the cross-legged Buddhas in Indian caves or Japanese temples. They sit on a broad base that appears to be deeply rooted in the earth, and they have a grounded presence that says, “I can’t be budged. I’m here to stay” .

When you sit up straight like a mountain or a tree, your body acts as a link between heaven and earth — and, by analogy, connects your physical, embodied existence with the sacred or spiritual dimension of being. Many traditions talk about the importance of bridging the apparent chasm that separates us from God or the Absolute. Jewish and Sufi mystics teach that the soul is a spark of the heavenly fire that yearns to return to its source. Christians depict the soul as a dove ascending, and Indian tantric yogis describe the ecstatic union of Shakti, the feminine energy of spiritual evolution that rises through the spine, with Shiva, the masculine principle of detached transcendence. If you find all this spiritual stuff too esoteric or airy-fairy, you might consider that sitting up straight confers some practical benefits as well.

By aligning the spine and opening the channels that run through the center of the body, upright sitting encourages an unimpeded circulation of energy, which, in turn, contributes to wakefulness on all levels — physical, mental, and spiritual. Besides, it’s a lot easier to sit still for extended periods of time when your vertebrae are stacked like a pile of bricks, one on top of the other. Otherwise, over time, gravity has this irritating habit of pulling your body down toward the ground — and in the process, causing the aches and pains so typical of a body at war with the forces of nature. So the most comfortable way to sit in the long run is straight, which puts you in harmony with nature. Of course, you can always lean against the wall — or so you may think. But your body tends to slouch when it leans, even subtly, in any direction; and the point of doing meditation is to rely on your direct experience, rather than to depend on some outside support to “back you up.” When you sit like a mountain or a tree, you’re making a statement: “I’m deeply rooted in the earth, yet open to the higher powers of the cosmos — independent, yet inextricably connected to all of life.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Sitting still, doing nothing

When I was a young Zen meditator, I worked as an attendant in a nursing home that hosted a range of patients, from a young woman recovering from bone cancer to our local Congressman’s father, who was dying of emphysema. Amidst this busy throng, I was fascinated by one person in particular — an old Italian fisherman who had lost both legs in a fishing accident. When his family members came to visit, he would hold court with great dignity, receiving their respect as the family patriarch. Where other patients might be content to lie in bed all day in their hospital gowns, he would dress and groom himself each day and sit with pride —and upright posture — in his wheelchair, silently observing the drama that unfolded around him. One day, I was running back and forth, unsure of what I was supposed to be doing. Seeing this, he called out to me, with a mischievous gleam in his eye, “Hey! You got nothing to do?” “Yeah,” I said,” obviously flustered, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.” “You got nothing to do,” he said, “then sit down!”

The Subtle Art of Sitting Still

When talking about the practice of sitting still, one of my first meditation teachers, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, used to say that the best way to show a snake its true nature is to put it into a hollow stick of bamboo. Take a moment and give this unusual metaphor some thought. What could he have possibly meant by it?
Well, imagine that you’re a snake in bamboo. What does it feel like? Every time you try to slither, which is after all what snakes like to do, you bump against the walls of your straight-as-an-arrow home. If you pay attention, you start to notice how slippery you actually are.
In the same way, sitting in a certain posture and keeping your body relatively still provides a stick of bamboo that mirrors back to you every impulse and distraction. You get to see how fidgety your body can be — and how hyperactive your mind can be, which is actually the source of your body’s restlessness. “Maybe I should scratch that itch or answer that phone or run that errand.” For every plan or intention, there’s a corresponding impulse in your muscles and skin. But you’ll never notice all this activity unless you sit still. The funny thing is, you can sit in the same position for hours without noticing it when you’re happily engrossed in some favorite activity like watching a movie or surfing the Net or working on a hobby. But try to do something you find boring or unpleasant — especially an activity as strange and unfamiliar as turning your attention back on yourself and following your own breath or paying attention to your own sensations — and suddenly every minute can seem like an hour, every ache can seem like an ailment of life-threatening proportions, and every item on your to-do list can take on irresistible urgency.
When you’re constantly acting and reacting in response to thoughts and outside stimulation, you don’t have a chance to get to know how your mind works. By sitting still like the snake in bamboo, you have a mirror that shows you just how slippery and elusive your mind can be. Keeping still also gives you a tremendous edge when you’re working on developing your concentration. Imagine a heart surgeon or a concert pianist who can’t quiet her body while plying her craft. The fewer physical distractions you have, the easier it becomes to follow your breath, practice your mantra — or whatever your meditation happens to be. A word of caution, however: These sitting instructions aren’t intended to turn your body into a stone, any more than the bamboo is meant to turn the snake into a stick. As long as you’re alive, you’re going to keep moving. The point is to set your intention to sit still and notice what happens. The Buddha liked to use the metaphor of a lute — if the strings are too loose, you can’t play it, and if they’re too tight, they’ll break! If you’re too rigid with yourself, you’ll just end up miserable — but if you keep shifting your body this way and that, you’ll never get your mind concentrated and quiet enough to reap the benefits of meditation.

Coming back to your breath

Set your watch or clock to signal the beginning of every hour. When the alarm sounds, stop whatever you’re doing and follow your breath with full attention for 60 seconds. If you’re doing something that can’t be stopped, like driving a car in traffic or talking to your boss, follow your breath as attentively as you can while engaging in the activity.

Working with your mind at first

Right now, the whole notion of working with your mind may seem totally incomprehensible. After all, thoughts may fill your head like fog, and you can’t see even the faintest trace of blue sky beyond them.
The good news is, you don’t have to pay any attention to your mind, at least initially. Just keep following your breath, and when you become lost in thought, which you will no doubt do again and again, gently come back. The point is not to stop your mind — an impossible task in any case — but to stay focused on your breath no matter what your mind does.
After weeks and months of regular practice, you may begin to notice that your mind settles down more quickly during your meditations and that fewer thoughts disturb your concentration. In any case, the quality of your mind will no doubt vary from day to day and from meditation to meditation.
Here, the point is not to make your mind work differently, but to slowly but surely strengthen and stabilize your concentration. Eventually, you’ll begin to notice that your mind doesn’t have the same power over you that it once did and that you have moments of deep peace and tranquility. Trust me — it will actually happen, even to you!

Just sitting

As an alternative to mindfulness meditation, you may want to experiment with the Zen practice known as just sitting, which usually involves two phases or steps: just breathing and just sitting. When you’re adept at following your breath, you can practice becoming your breath — merging yourself completely with the flow of the inhalation and exhalation, until you, as a separate observer, disappear and only your breath remains. Now you’re no longer breathing; instead, your breath is breathing you. Like welcoming whatever arises, this practice, known as just breathing, is supremely simple but requires a quality of awareness that’s both focused and relaxed.
The next step, just sitting, involves expanding to include the whole realm of sensate experience. But instead of being aware or mindful of your experience, you “disappear,” and only your experience remains — seeing, smelling, hearing, sensing, thinking. As a Zen friend of mine put it, “When you sit, the walls of the meditation hall come down, and the whole world enters.” Ultimately, this practice takes you to the same place as mindfulness; it’s simply the Zen alternative.