Monday, September 6, 2010

How to Meditate, Part 1

I remember that "still small voice" nudging me toward a meditation practice way back when I first sought it out more than 12 years ago. I wasn't even sure what meditation was, but I knew it was important for me to find out. The more I explored, the more confusing it became. There were so many forms of meditation and dogmas attached to each. So, I wanted to write a few simple pieces here in my blog on meditation and perhaps a simple how-to process, just to demystify the process. And perhaps to bring me back to my own practice in the process, too.

In my initial search to discover what meditation really is, eventually, a dear friend gave me a book that to this day has continued to be the clearest, simplest and most useful meditation book I've ever come across. It's called A Gradual Awakening by Stephen Levine.

Its language is clear and simple and poetic. "It is what is," as Ram Dass says of the book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. For that matter, everything Stephen and his sometimes co-author wife Ondrea have written, has been so enormously helpful to me, there are not words. The topics range from the process of dying mindfully to relationship and many others.

A few of the best include A Year To Live:


Another is Who Dies?


And finally, while I know this last book recommendation probably isn't news to anyone, Eckhart Tolle's books, particularly The Power Of Now, have been so enormously helpful to me and continue to be and I really feel it can be helpful to anyone ready to grow.

So enough with the book club for now and on with the meditation.

My first exposure to meditation practice was A Gradual Awakening and I remember what an earth-shaking discovery it was to realize I could relate TO the mind rather than FROM the mind. That may not even make sense until you delve into reading the book and/or practicing the meditation. But not long after beginning the practice as outline in the book, all manner of strange things began happening intermittently, just for flickering moments, and then more in more pronounced ways in my life. Light became more vivid. I seemed to understand things more deeply. Ideas and things I had never though of just occurred to me as obvious.

I think one of the many bigger lessons I understood more clearly at this time was this idea of understanding. Levine talks about digging deep and relating to our pain, our anger, our discomfort, our rage, our despair-- all of our so-called 'negative' feelings-- with presence and non-judgment. He says you would never approach a crying baby, scream at the baby and shake it and hit it in order to calm it. And yet this is how we so often relate to the many pieces of ourselves and our behaviors that we find lacking or intolerable. But it doesn't work. What works is this-- you cradle the baby. You whisper to it lovingly. You say, "Hey, I know you're hurting, I'm here. This is going to pass. It's going to be okay. And if it doesn't pass, I'm still going to be here. I love you."

What I began to discover is the ability to do this inwardly with myself, something I still struggle with to this day as it goes against all the masochistic training so much of us are raised with that teaches us there's some kind of honor in knowing how to properly berate ourselves, begins to move outward. When you can be kind to yourself, when you can be understanding with yourself, cradle yourself, you become that much more ready to do that with others.

And part of this is because understanding and a sort of wisdom begins to arise. As I watch my negative reactions rise within me, rather than judge them as negative or bad, I can simply note "Hmm, anger arising." And for whatever reason, this perspective and clarity allows me to then see more clearly "And I learned that when I was kid because I got hurt and now I have this defensive knee-jerk thing and that's where that comes from." And oddly, often, when I see "Oh, there's an actual reason I'm doing this 'negative' thing and it's understandable, somehow the understanding allows me to let go of the judgment.

Whether it's someone cutting you off in traffic and cursing at you or someone close to you betraying you, the way this works with others, is you can see "Hmm, this person probably learned this because they got hurt in one way or another." And it's almost like you slowly begin to be able to jump straight to understanding there's a reason-- or a series of reasons, usually-- for people's behaviors. And somehow, again, that understanding, makes it easier to drop judgment.

Non-judgment, choiceless awareness, is one of the most powerful things meditation can bring into our lives. My highest recommendation is still to grab a Levine book or two and go to town. But in the meantime, here's a quick meditation jumpstart.

1. Find a comfortable place to sit upright. It can be a chair or the floor. Just be comfortable and if possible, keep the spine relatively straight.
2. As you sit quietly, feel your whole body. You might even inwardly "scan" the body from head to toe. Feel the scalp, it might feel itchy or numb or even like bugs. Feel the face, the neck the shoulders, arms and hands. Feel the chest and the lungs and the stomach, the back of the shoulders, the length of the spine, the expanse of the entire back. Feel the buttocks pressed against the floor or the chair, the legs, knees, shins and calves, heels, feet, toes. Really get here, to this moment. Be present right where you are. Don't try to push anything away or make anything happen. Just let whatever's going on be.
3. Now, as you relax in your body, letting go completely, bring your attention to the air moving in and out of the nostrils at the point that the air touches the nostrils. Whatever you are able to feel as the air comes in, focus on that. You may not be able to feel the air until it's inside the nose, you may only feel it on the outside edge, either is fine. Whatever sensation is there, just bring your awareness to it and allow the air to come in and out all by itself. Just observing breath at the nostrils.
4. The mind will inevitably intervene, sometimes immediately. It will remind you that you have chores, unfinished work, that you're hungry, you need to scratch, etc. Don't make yourself nuts-- do what you must. But as much as you can, just stay with the breath. Whenever the mind starts thinking in WHATEVER way it starts thinking, simply note to yourself "Hmm, there's thinking" and return your attention gently to the breath. You may have to do this dozens of times a minute. Don't be dismayed. That's normal. The mind runs amuck. Which is why this process is so valuable. Just to be able to get that mind a little more still allows room for our natural wisdom and compassion and joy and peace and love to arise. Don't get lost in the mind's contents. If it helps to note the specifics of the arising thoughts, note "planning" or "there's hunger" or "there's anger" or "there's boredom" and return gently to the breath.

Continue watching the breath for 15 minutes if you can. The next day (or time), do it for 20, the next for 25. Finally, see if you can get yourself to meditate for 60 minutes without a break.

And if you get to that point and want to go further, I highly recommend a vipassana meditation course at either Spirit Rock:

Spirit Rock is about an hour outside of San Francisco, or one of the many vipassana centers taught in the tradition of S.N. Goenka:

These centers are literally all over the world. They are a bit more rigorous and the first time you go, you are required to do a 10 day course and you take a vow of silence for the 10 days. It's long days of meditation, about 12 hours a day, but it's broken up into very doable blocks. You just need to know what you're signing up for. This is not for the casually interested. This center is run entirely on a donation basis.

I've done courses at both and have been challenged and ultimately grew immensely from courses at both.

If you want to bring the meditation into movement, there's no better way I know of than yoga. I've personally delved deeply into Hatha Yoga as well as Taoist Yoga. I've heard great things about Bikram Yoga, but have never done it personally. But we'll leave yoga for another blog.

Until next time, I hope that this little meditation lesson eases your ascent.

Big love

Monday, February 8, 2010

Just Say Yes

I believe it was the time I heard spiritual teacher Ram Dass speak at a church here in L.A. called Agape years ago, when he invoked the idea: "Say yes to everything." The way he said it was almost flippant and it certainly seemed to be an almost commonplace idea to him that was something of an almost random aside the way it rolled out between more primary thoughts.

I'm going through a break-up right now. A difficult one following a passionate and loving, but also damaging and difficult, two-year relationship. I am devastated. And I know there are bigger problems in the world by far, but to stand where I am standing at this moment, is to stand in more than a bit of fire. However it may compare to any other fire, it hurts like hell. I am deeply in love with this man and I now have to pick apart the psychology of, as my friend Birdie might aptly say, "the part of you that's broken." The part that wants to revisit places and co-created situations that have hurt me-- hurt both of us-- over and over and over no matter how hard we've tried to do it differently. And I do this, probably, so that I can relive some parental trauma that feels like home. Yes. It's a bit of a personal fire I'm currently standing in. Maybe more than a bit. So the flippancy of someone telling me to say "yes" to this is kind of a pisser.

But the truth is that Ram Dass's statement couldn't have been made from a place that was entirely flippant. He was doing some heavy lifting, I'm fairly certain. And the reason I'm fairly certain of this is because this was the same sort of teaching Ram Dass had always offered in one form or another, but now he was offering it as a recent stroke victim who spoke even more meditatively than before. Slower. Exponentially slower. And he described trying to verbalize some of his ideas and looking for the right words as 'looking for the right article of clothing in a large closet and not knowing where you've placed it.' He was standing in his own very personal version of the fire and was seeming to say "Well, true, this is where I'm standing. Yes. What's the big deal?" Which kind of blew my mind. And still does.

To boot, his light-hearted, post-stroke, follow-up to his '60s bestseller classic "Be Here Now" was also entitled with equal levity: "Still Here."

Ram Dass along with Stephen Levine have been two of my most influential teachers as I've continued to re-embrace a more personal spirituality that has increasingly felt more compassionate and truer to my own spirit. This, after having given my childhood's taught notion of a misogynistic, vengeful God the less than proverbial finger after walking away some time prior to me finally fleeing to Los Angeles.

And I don't know why this idea of "saying yes to everything" pricked my ears so, but for whatever reason, it did. And even after years of meditation and yoga practice and generally having worked much harder than the average west-coast migrant to become what many members of my extended Midwestern family less than affectionately refer to as "A California Fruit and Nut," not having understood this idea just bugged me. I really thought I'd earned my stripes at least to some degree. But even that-- no, especially that, is something I'm sure Ram Dass would say is simply more mind fodder to meditatively note and undramatically return to the breath-- that it's more ego stuff, more "Grist for the Mill." And he'd be correct.

In meditation, whatever your particular method, you develop a one-pointed focus. My Western explanation of why this is done is basically: to quell (I learned from my last individual therapist) what the Buddhists call "the monkey brain". And it is also done in order to achieve this proximity to that quieter, one-pointed presence. Some chant mantras, some focus on one point like a flame and some, like I was taught, focus on one specific point where the breath passes in and out. This, in order to touch our truer nature, our divine nature that is interconnected with all that is, seen and unseen.

To this end, I have attended 12-day vipassana ("to see things as they truly are") meditation courses and taken the requisite vows of silence for the duration of those weeks in the woods at the meditation center near Yosemite. I have done serious yoga, often quite feverishly. Which is to say, often in a very un-yoga-like fashion. I have fasted and mantra'd and meditated with the best of them. And I think it frustrates the very-alive and present inner-adolescent that I'm finding that more and more, my childhood devotion to and love of the divine as I understood it in the context of my Born Again upbringing and childhood is really not so different from the healing of opening my heart in Bhakti yoga and song. I would even go as far as to say that even now, after years of anger and hurt toward the various forms bigotry and hypocrisy of almost every Christian I've known (including myself when I professed to be one), I am reconnecting in my own far-less organized and quiet way with that culturally charged word: God. And taking it a step dramatically further, at least in the sense of my own belief of "it may be mythology, but it undeniably moves me:" Jesus.

It frustrates me for the same reason that I didn't understand Ram Dass's statement. We have these scavenger "monkey brains" which are constantly identifying desires and aversions, ideas and constructs that we attach ourselves to, all of it temporary. These monkey gather up all of this temporary stuff and lay it out to look at and admire, all shiny and interesting. And most of the time, we have no idea the monkey is even doing this. It's just happening. The monkey's collection is not collectively things we would say we love or hate, but they are simply the collection of things we're currently clinging to. And it doesn't take much more than a decade before a veritable warehouse is required in order to hold this constantly growing collection. And further, it takes an expert guide just to walk you through the warehouse. That reason, simply labeled, is the ego or the idea or notion of oneself. The notion of "me."

So you get your version of your personal warehouse tour guide to try not to get too lost in the ego warehouse-- you get the therapist, the friend, the teacher, the guru, the mentor, the pastor, whomever-- and it takes seemingly forever to walk through the place as the guide begins, "Over here we have the idea of our intellect-- I'm smart or average, book smart or street smart or maybe I'm stupid and have a hard time learning. Over here, we have our sense of aesthetics-- I like this art and this movie and this sound and this color, I arrange visual, aural and all things sensual in this way and that. I abhor this style, I love this one, etc. Step over to this aisle for personal history-- everything I've done, what my parents did and didn't do, siblings, where I lived and traveled and went to school, who I've loved and fucked and forgotten and been forgotten by, etc. In this wing we have people we're connected to-- family, friends, lovers, enemies, employers, etc. Over here we have all the hurts we've held onto, knowingly or otherwise. And over here we have our triumphs. Over here we have a sense of our physical selves-- I'm beautiful or ugly or average or what have you. Over here we have religious beliefs and very nearby, political beliefs (who can say way they're in such close proximity). And on and on and on. And then with all of this host of fleeting things, all the accompanying beliefs therein, each has its own unique bearing on whether or not that impacts the ability to connect with other people as a lover, friend, family member, student, teacher or whatever aspect of our identity we're invested in creating at this moment, how we connect with others and the world, where we think we fit and how, etc."

And the warehouse goes on forever. But inevitably, no matter how big it is, we gather up that billion-ton monolith of a warehouse and try to carry it around on our backs and insist on calling it... "me." We live our whole lives from this confused place of believing all these fleeting notions that our monkey brain is collecting and clinging to is who we are. Without them, who would we be? It's terrifying to think of putting it down.

And that is the big "trick" I keep trying to learn. I've said before that I keep relearning this, but I think the truth is I'm really trying to get it at all for the first time. And really, it's not a trick at all. And my Grandma might have said something as simple as this to express it: "You just need a little perspective." Other Eastern teachings often talk about "Taking the seat of the observer."

So when Ram Dass casually insinuates that I should "say yes to everything," I think it means something that, to my monkey brain, is not immediately as obvious as it might be for Ram Dass. And that is, just like in meditation, whatever arises, you stay with the one-pointed focus and just stubbornly keep returning to that focus regardless of what is going on. It could be terror that is arising at this particular moment or boredom or planning or lust or giddiness or, really, anything at all that arises in that monkey brain as it scampers to squirrel it away and trick me into identifying with the shiny new object of mind. A big one for me in meditation is actually pretty funny: "Let's eat. Screw this meditation stuff. I'm hungry." The food's usually not more than 30 minutes from happening anyway. I'm not starving. It's just the monkey brain throwing something at me that it knows will give it the run of the kingdom again. Sometimes it's nothing more than an itch that comes up and the desire to scratch it. And sometimes I do just go ahead and scratch rather than choicelessly let the itch arise and pass. And that's fine too.

But I think what Ram Dass might be saying is, whatever crosses our path in life, and whatever our response or particular choice of action may be at any given moment, respond by take the seat of the observer. I don't think in imploring us to "say yes to everything" that he's encouraging us to walk into life's storehouse and make no choices and just look at the stockpiled shelves and "say yes" to eating and grabbing every single thing in the store. I think he's saying wherever you are, be there. Say yes to the moment. You're in a moment of joy, be there, feel it, walk around it, feel the connectedness to who you really are. You're in a moment of panic or fear, be there, feel it, walk around it. And when every cell in my being realizes as I sit in a place of terror "Run away now" and then I choose to run away, be with that too. "Okay, yes, now I'm running away. I'm terrified. Yes. Okay. I'm here with it."

It's not about control. At all. It's about loosening my grip on trying to control everything. And the paradox that whenever I find myself, as I have this week, in the middle of a painful break-up and it hurts so bad that I want to run in five different directions all at the same time as hard as I can, so much so that I just become paralyzed, even in the middle of that I can stop and say "Yes. This too."

It's not "me." It's a moment I'm experiencing. It's the tide I'm happen to be standing in. Moving in and moving back out. And again, as my Grandma might have said, "This too shall pass."

But even beyond that, I begin to feel, bit by bit as many of the great mystics have, from Siddhartha to St. Francis, that "God" imbues everything. Everything. Every rock, every tree, every atom. Everywhere. And to me, that means that God also inhabits all the joy and all the terror. All the heaven and all the hell.

I can't properly define what I mean by "God," but I can certainly feel what I mean.

Because of my incredibly difficult history with Jesus-- and all the people claiming him (right there is more fodder from that warehouse I'm carrying around yet again), I find it hard to admit that I am also still, or maybe once again in a new way (I'm not totally sure), moved by the mythology of Jesus. It's REALLY hard for me to bite down on. BUT I also love the story. And my understanding of the story of Christ's death in particular is very moving to me. The way I understand it is that he goes through this unbelievably horrific experience of physical pain, while also being shamed in the deepest way imaginable. And consistent with what he taught, he offered in response to all of this inflicted hell-- love. He went through as much hell as we could manufacture here on earth and he responded with love. And, again, as I understand it, the story has him finishing this off by declaring "It is accomplished." As if to say "I have now created a new level of what it means to love no matter what. Spit on me, shame me, nail my body to something naked and mock me while you do it and I will stay in that balanced place of the seat of the observer. I live in the seat of the observer. I live in the place where I am never not saying 'Yes, this too.' Just as I am to you now, dear one. Here is what love is. Try to get this." And of course, almost none of us ever do. And it is likely just a story, but I really love that story. And I think if nothing else, the millions of people who have truly loved that story have endowed it with something powerful that can be called upon.

To my mind, and my experience, there is nowhere that God disappears. God/our-higher-self/whatever-you-want-to-call it (I don't think God is concerned either) is not absent even in the presence of a hell. And if that is true, and it does feel that way to me, I can have the requisite faith to at least try to say "Yes" to everything. Yes to what scares me, yes to what exhilarates me and even yes to what hurts. And if I start screaming in terror "No no no no, not fucking this!" as I'm apt to do, eventually, I'll hopefully learn to once again gather up enough of that faith to again stand back up on my weathered legs and say "Yes. This too." Whatever it is that's been placed at my feet, maybe one of these days, I'll learn to skip some of the drama I'm so prone to and just say yes.