Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category

The other day at the gym, I was on the elliptical machine. It’s my favorite machine to work out on as it’s low impact but really efficient at burning calories. When I’m on the elliptical, I try to maintain a heart rate of around 150. For someone my age and weight, it’s a good speed. I spend 25 minutes on the machine when I use it and I find that the time usually goes quickly as long as I have some good music to listen to. Last week, I forgot my headphones. Those were the longest 25 minutes I’ve ever spent in the gym. I never knew how much music really contributed to my activity until I no longer had it. Instead, I had to look around the gym for lack of anything interesting to do.

In order to keep my heart rate at around 150, I usually move at about four miles per hour on the machine. This day, I was really pushing myself and was up to 4.3 mph and had sweat pouring off of me. I felt pretty good about myself, my progress and my ability. That’s when The Gym Guy showed up. TGG is a great person, I’m sure. When he goes home, his kids are probably happy to see him. TGG has a good job and he’s good at what he does, he just happens to also be really good at using elliptical machines. Probably because he’s there a lot. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. The Gym Guy steps up to the machine next to me and proceeds to move at a pace I didn’t know the machines were capable of. Because I had nothing else to do, I looked at the readout on his machine. He was going nearly 12 miles per hour! He was sprinting on the elliptical machine while I plodded along at about a third of his rate. I figured he’d slow down eventually but TGG just kept it up. I think he may have gotten faster as he got warmed up. TGG was master of the elliptical machine and I was getting schooled in what they were capable of. TGG was so good at it that he didn’t need to hold the handles I had to use for stability and to monitor my heart rate. TGG just moved while his arms pumped in much the same way as an Olympic runner’s. It was, to say the least, impressive.

The problem with being next to someone like TGG is the inevitability of the comparisons between yourself and him. Without my music to distract me, I couldn’t help watching the show as it unfolded. I had to wonder if it were even possible for me to get the elliptical machine to move that fast. If I did, could I maintain a speed like that? If I could, for how long? TGG didn’t seem to be letting up any time soon. Then, I realized he’d already traveled much farther on his machine than I had on mine, though I’d been there much longer than him. If we were on a track, he would have given me a half mile head start and then passed me without breaking a sweat. TGG was good and I was bad. I’m not stupid, I learned that lesson fast. I learned it as fast as TGG was running on his machine.

That’s when I remembered something: I’m not The Gym Guy and he’s not me. TGG has been working out on these machines for a long time. TGG is in good physical shape. TGG isn’t trying to overcome a lifetime of obesity. TGG is not celebrating every pound lost. TGG is (probably not) monitoring every calorie and making sure it’s the best possible one to ingest at any given moment. TGG is good but I’m good too. I remember the lessons I learn on the meditation bench: the mind makes good, the mind makes bad. With no mind, there is no good and there is no bad. If I were to finish my exercise without a sense of failure, I had to let go of my thinking. Attachment to thoughts and illusions of “goodness” or “badness” had to be put aside. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply for a moment, watched my heart rate drop though I was still moving at 4 mph and let go of my mind. It was time for elliptical meditation.

TGG was still there when I finished my 25 minutes. He was still going strong and his arms and legs moved with speed and purpose. He was doing what his body needed him to do. I had completed doing what mine needed. The last ten minutes of my exercise passed as quickly as if I had my headphones on. Without the burden of thought and the struggle against my mind, time moved forward with ease. My body moved while my mind was still. I was no longer “bad” and he was no longer “good”. We were both two people using the elliptical machines and we both benefited from the experience. I wiped down my machine and felt good for TGG and hoped he would continue to keep his body in good shape and know the joy of having a mind as fit as his body.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The other day, I was reading an article on Buddhism Now about life as a monk in a Korean Zen monastery. I found this article interesting because I practice in a Korean school of Zen so there was a bit of familiarity with the descriptions that the monk wrote about. One part of the article really struck me as interesting when he mentioned feeling “full of emptiness”. This is a seemingly contradictory ide: how could one be full of something that is, by definition, empty? However, I found myself nodding in agreement and feeling a glimpse of recognition in his words.

In the past month, I moved about 90 minutes away from where I had been. It’s a temporary move but for now I am not able to attend meditation with my normal Zen Center. Instead, I have been practicing with the Portsmouth Buddhist Center and have been sitting with them on Sunday mornings. It is interesting to spend time with a different school of Buddhism and to see how those differences influence the practice of a particular school. In this case, on Sunday mornings, the meditation lasts for close to one hour without any type of break or transition from seated to walking meditation as it does in my school. This has had the effect of allowing me to have some different experiences on the meditation cushion even though my personal practice is the same (they do a mild “guided meditation” there but I do not follow it and instead, just sit).

The other day, I was sitting still, feeling the cool air against my face and allowing my thoughts to arise as they would and keep an otherwise clear mind. Lo and behold, after about thirty minutes of uninterrupted sitting, I began to feel “full of emptiness”. I was aware of my body and the various pulls and tightness of the muscles in my legs and I was conscious of the cushion underneath me. However, my body was no longer felt like the place where I keep my “self”. The border between me and “not me” had begun to blur as a feeling of oneness with the cushion, the floor, the people in the room and the building we were in began to gently take over. My mind was calm and clear and my senses were no longer impeding my perception. I felt full and empty at the same time.

As often happens on the meditation cushion, once the realization that this was happening came into my mind, it collapsed and I was back to feeling the way I did before the experience. For a few minutes though, I believe I was experiencing samadhi. It has happened a few times before and, I’m sure, it will happen again. The trick is to not go in expecting it when I sit because trying to chase after a goal is a sure way to “fail” when you meditate.

After my realization and subsequent collapse of the experience, I was left with the lines from the heart sutra that “Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.” stuck in my head. They seemed much more real to me in that moment than ever before because the distinction between them had so recently been obliterated. I was back in a land of dichotomies and differentiations and saw just how troubling making distinctions between “me” and “not me” can really be. A sense of oneness must be cultivated if one is to have compassion for every sentient being. After the hour was up, I got up from my cushion, stretched my legs and went back to my car to drive home through the snow. Somehow, it didn’t seem to bother me too much since I knew, for at least a short while, that the weather was not some other thing that I was opposed to. There was no “me” to oppose it.

Read Full Post »

I just watched a great TED talk from Andy Puddicombe about the importance of and usefulness of taking 10 minutes every day for meditation. It’s a great intro to mindfulness.

 

Read Full Post »

The other day I was searching through some digital archives looking for a document. It turns out the document I needed wasn’t in the archive but I found some things there that shocked me. I came across some before/after photos that demonstrated how much weight I had lost and how I looked after dropping 60 pounds. I couldn’t help but look down and realize that I look far too much like the “before” pictures than I would like. I also realized when I looked down at the scale I saw a lot of old numbers staring back up at me. Sure, in my “after” photos I was 270 pounds but I looked downright skinny compared to where I started at 330. I remember thinking at the time how I would never be over 300 pounds again. I had done it. I had won! The problem is, if that is winning, I was once again in a position of losing and failing. Needless to say, getting trapped in that kind of thinking is a recipe for disaster (and don’t get me started on recipes).

It’s difficult to stay motivated when you feel like you have failed. Especially when you have a brain that transforms the thought, “I have failed” into “I’m a failure”. That’s what happens to me when depression tries to get the upper hand on my life. I’m sure it manifests itself differently in others but we all suffer in our own way right? I may have allowed those feelings to get the best of me for a few hours and probably made some poor choices in response to them, but, because I’m aware of how my thoughts and responses work, I was able to stop before things spiraled out of control. Disaster avoided so it was time to move on right? No. It was not time to move on. Moving on would be the biggest mistake I could make.

I think it is part of the human condition that we try to avoid lingering on unpleasant thoughts. Call it pain avoidance or whatever other label you want but it is what it is. It makes sense that we should want to avoid painful or troubling thoughts. After all, who wants to intentionally inflict suffering on themselves, especially mental suffering? We believe we are in control of our minds and that we are in charge of them. Maybe we can’t do much about external factors that make us suffer but at least we have this spot in our heads where we have a say. “This is my space. Keep out.” It becomes our mantra against negative thoughts, feelings and emotions. We strive to tend the garden of our mind and pounce on weeds of negativity and suffering and stamp them out before they take root. We try to meditate on and radiate good thoughts and emotions and feelings in order to overcome suffering and to alleviate the suffering of others. We call it metta or mindfulness or whatever-touchy-feely-positive-thing-you-want meditation and focus on good things. In my case, that is pounds lost and a lifestyle that is healthy and free from the pain of obesity. While it’s nice to focus on and think about those things, there is a time and a place for it and it’s not all the time and everywhere.

When we have an experience, we judge it to be good, bad or neutral. We tend to focus on the good, avoid the bad and endure the neutral. We cultivate good and attempt to maximize it. In the end, that leads to more suffering instead of less. In my case, I felt like a failure and I needed to face that feeling. I had to let the feeling of failure do what it had to do and it was time to learn from it. If I tried to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, I would be fighting a losing battle against my mind. I’d sweep things under the rug but the negative thoughts would still be there waiting for another day to surface. When we have negative emotions, it is not our job to negate them with positive ones. We cannot cultivate a life free of suffering by wielding positivity like a sword that cuts down negative thoughts.

So, I sat with feelings of failure. I meditated while my mind tossed and turned and railed against my body. I saw the negative feelings rise and I attended them with loving kindness. My mind is wounded. Feelings of failure are how this wound shows itself. When the negative feelings arose, I didn’t just sit and let them be there, I was mindful of them. In the end, I chose to recognize the feelings of failure and to “give them the floor” to have their say. I won’t go into the specifics but I got a lot of insight into my own feelings of failure and the reasons for them. By confronting and accepting those feelings when they arose I was able to learn more about myself. I gave them the room they needed to have their say and I listened objectively with an open heart. Once they had their say, I was able to examine my situation in a better light. I could face my perceived failure and deal with it without wallowing in it. I didn’t suffer by grasping at positive thoughts while wishing the negative ones would go away. I was realistic about things. I was open to both the good and the bad.

After I listened to and learned from my feelings, I was able to focus on the reality of my situation. Being realistic means embracing both the positive and the negative and that is what I did. The fact is that today, right now, the numbers I see on the scale are smaller than the ones from last week and the week before. Sure, I look like I’m closer to the “before” than the “after” but I’m moving in the right direction again. This is not failure, it is success. I went through a lot of pain and hardship to lose that weight the first time and those lessons have not been forgotten. I am applying them again, this time as experience. I’m not having to write the rules as I go. Once again, clothes are starting to get loose and I’m having to grab things from the back of the closet. Not from the very back where my “skinny” clothes are, but the transitional clothing. I haven’t had to wear it for quite some time but it is fitting me once more. I’ve lost 17+ pounds again and it is visible when I look at myself in the mirror. It’s hard to keep a mental picture of what I looked like at 330 so it’s a good thing that I still have those “before” pictures to act as a gauge that I can measure my progress against. Instead of seeing things from the perspective of weighing 270, I need to look at them from 330. Where I find myself today becomes framed by the perspective I chose and the fact is, I’m not at 270 any more so I can’t own that perspective. I must earn it again and, once I do, only use it to look forward at the 260s, 250s, 240s, etc. Looking backwards is not what those perspectives are for: if I do that, they become fun-house mirrors and distort reality beyond recognition.

And so, by embracing the negative feelings and emotions I was able to work through them and find myself, once again, in a place of positivity. Real, authentic positivity and not forced or coerced feelings with a veneer of the positive. I allowed feelings to do what they will and to rise and fall of their own accord. That is what it means to really meditate and to observe ones mind. Detachment is not denial, nor is it nihilism. Detachment is a state of objectivity that allows one to look at the positive and negative for what they truly are and to see them as equals. Do I have regrets at regaining weight? Sure. Who wouldn’t? Do I have despair over it? No. Not anymore.

Read Full Post »

This is the second part in a multi-part post about why I started following a Buddhist path.

As I said in my last post, I had left my faith behind but I still had a lot of questions about suffering and the nature of suffering. I was still suffering and was dealing with depression, excess weight, a host of family problems and a general pessimism about life that made living seem almost unbearable.

Cover of "Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful ...

Cover of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

Eventually, I reached a point where I broke down. I could no longer go on living the way that I was. I knew that if I didn’t make some serious changes in my lifestyle that my physical and mental health would deteriorate rapidly and I would find myself dying early. As bad as my outlook on life was, a basic desire for self preservation would not allow this to happen. When I broke down, my wife shared a book with me that she had recently picked up. The book was called Savor. It was written by Thich Nhat Hahn and Dr. Lillian Cheung. The book was looking at the problem of obesity from a Buddhist and a medical perspective. As I read through the opening chapters, I began to see just how important the issue of suffering was to Buddhism. Eliminating suffering was the foundation of the entire Buddhist perspective.

I had studied a bit about the basic beliefs of Buddhism in college as part of a World’s Religions class. I had a basic understanding of what Buddhists believed but this was the first time I had ever seen Buddhist principles put into action. It amazed me at how simple and straightforward the application of the Four Noble Truths could be.

The other thing that struck me at that time was the almost single minded focus Buddhism put on the world as it really is. There was no mystical magic being to relate to. Buddhism always brought things back to your self. In the Buddhist perspective, there is no external world that exists outside of the self. The mind is the final arbiter of the world that we perceive. Everything in the world comes to us through our five (six in the Buddhist view) senses. We then add meaning and context to that sensory information and start to relate to it. This is how we build up the world and this is where suffering begins and ends. Finally, I had found a reasonable explanation for what causes suffering and what can be done about it.

I decided that I should give Buddhism a try. The approach was so simple and pure and the practice was designed to integrate into ones daily life. It was a practice with a purpose. It meant I would have to learn how to meditate but I figured that having tried so many different ways to deal with suffering that one more couldn’t hurt. I did some research and found that in the town just north of me there was a Zen Center so I gave them a call and arranged a visit. My experiences with Zen and what I thought about the experience will have to wait for part 3 of this series. However, before I end this, I’d like to share a quote from Brad Warner in his book Zen Dipped in Karma Wrapped in Chocolate about his experience in discovering Buddhism. He’s a great writer and his words capture my feelings better than my words can.

When I say that Buddhism worked, I don’t mean that it was a magic solution to my problems. Nor do I mean that any miracles happened or that I was able to erase all doubt and fear from my mind through some kind of special power. What I mean is that Buddhism…provided the most truly realistic and practical way of dealing with life. It isn’t spirituality, but it isn’t materialism either…Buddhism does what no other philosophy I’ve ever come across is able to do. It bridges the gap between these two forever mutually opposing ways of understanding reality. It negates both spirituality and materialism yet simultaneously embraces them. And it’s more than just a way of thinking about things. There’s a practice involved — zazen. You cannot separate the philosophy from the practice. If you don’t do zazen practice you cannot ever hope even to come close to comprehending the philosophy.

Read Full Post »

I just got back from an early morning 1 mile walk. I love the smell of the air on a crisp winter morning. It’s so fresh and pure up here in Maine and it still amazes me even after being here more than 2 years. Add in the beautiful colors of the sunrise and you have an almost perfect environment for walking. There’s just enough of a bite to the air that you want to keep moving and it’s relatively easy to work up a sweat.

Today as I walked I tried to keep a clear mind and really experience each moment as it happened. The single note of a bird just waking up, the sound of water running through the gully below me, the crispness of the air, the scent of a fireplace from one of the homes that are nearby but invisible because of the woods, the pinks and oranges and reds spreading out over my head in all directions; all of these things became a part of my walk. And I became a part of all of them. I’m not going into a lot of detail about that. Take my word for it. Spend time meditating and studying Buddhism and you’ll see for yourself.

Now, with my body having had its exercise and my mind getting primed and cleared, I’m ready to face what is the busiest day of my week. And now, it’s time for a hot shower and a spicy bowl of oatmeal.

Read Full Post »

There have been numerous scientific studies done on the benefits of meditation. This morning I saw yet another article publicizing new findings. It turns out that “meditators seem to be able switch off areas of the brain associated with daydreaming as well as psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia”. Personally, I find this to be very interesting. I don’t know if I’m an “accomplished meditator” yet but I’ve spent enough time in meditation to no longer know how many hours it has been. I do know that when I am meditating I do notice that my brain does seem easier to understand and I am able to work with my mind in ways that I cannot when I am not in a meditative state.

The most apparent this kind of change meditation can have on the mind came to me in October when I went on a Zen retreat. It was two days of meditation and when I left the retreat, I was amazed with the clarity and control I had over my mind. The experience was incredibly motivating for me to continue in my practice and to continue to meditate as much as is possible.

Personally, I am also using meditation as I deal with depression and the mental fog that comes along with it. I am taking medication to treat it but I have found that when I combine it with meditation, I am much better equipped to handle the twisted reality that depression presents to those who suffer from it. There are times when I am feeling particularly down or feeling miserable about things and I remember to stop and to spend time in meditation.

A place of healing for the mind

As I breathe in, I focus on whatever is causing me pain. I breathe in the pain or anger or sadness or whatever else I’m feeling and breathe out a long, cleansing “Don’t Know” in response to that pain. This “don’t know” meditation is encouraged in the Kwan Um School of Zen in which I am a member. It serves as a focal point to bring my mind back to its original state. I repeat this process four or five times and this brings my mind back to a state where whatever I am struggling with seems much more manageable.

I am personally very interested in finding out more about the meditative influence on disorders like Asperger’s and Autism. As a parent of a child with Asperger’s, I am always on the lookout for things that may allow our child to process the world that they see and to deal with it in a way that allows them to integrate with it. Meditative techniques may be another tool in our arsenal of ways to bring our child out of their shell.

I think the verdict is in that meditation is healthy and beneficial for a well balanced life. Now, the evidence just keeps piling up in new ways to demonstrate just how beneficial it can be. If you do not have a meditation practice, I encourage you to find one. You will be thankful that you did.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »