Tag Archives: meditation

Can mindfulness and tangible rewards coexist?

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As mindfulness practice becomes more and more “mainstream,” it is being linked more often with various kinds of tangible rewards, like better jobs, higher pay, sexier partners, etc. It excites me that more people are becoming aware of mindfulness practice and meditation, but I worry that the push to popularize them comes at the cost of watering them down or, worse, rendering them impotent. In a recent Huffington Post column, Soren Gordhamer asked the question, “Mindfulness: What’s In It for Me?” and does a far better job than I could in highlighting this trend.

But, of course, I can’t help but chime in. I’m funny that way. In my view, mindfulness itself is the reward of being mindful. It is an awareness of yourself, your surroundings, and the beings around you to whom you are connected that makes you feel more alive. It is a kind of wakefulness that leaves you wondering if you were slogging through life half-asleep until now. Rooted in the present moment, life appears more vibrant and our connection to it more powerful. Does there really need to be some other enticement waiting on the other side of mindfulness to make one want to practice it?

Beneficial things may come to you as a result of being more mindful of the here and now, but those things cannot be the goal. Because the moment you start to think about what may be, you are no longer focused on what is. In other words, you’re no longer mindful, no longer present. That thought suggests that, if you practice mindfulness with the intention of garnering a prize, you cannot possibly achieve mindfulness to any great degree. In other words, the desire to obtain a reward by practicing mindfulness guarantees you will not get that reward. That strikes me a mighty sobering.

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Meditation, Mindfulness, and the Issue of Race

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Jaweed Kaleem writes on the Huffington Post about the growth of racially based meditation groups in and out of the Buddhist community in the U.S. (“Buddhist ‘People Of Color Sanghas,’ Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators”). He describes one such group: “This class of Buddhist meditation was for beginners, tailor-made for minorities. … No whites were allowed.” The participants in the group – and others like them – were led to take this step because they felt excluded from the broader community, especially in areas like Seattle that are not racially diverse.

This is an issue for many religions and practices, not just meditation and Buddhism. It is fraught with contradictions. In my opinion, anything that can help people learn a practice of meditation and mindfulness is welcome, even these racially based groups. However, Kaleem gets to the heart of the controversy when these groups are not just meditation-oriented, but also ostensibly Buddhist: “One of the prime focuses [of Buddhism] is on letting go of any attachment to the individual self. The aim is to be one with the wider spiritual world in the pursuit of harmony, and ideally, that includes going beyond skin color differences.”
I am concerned that there are people of color who feel excluded from the larger community of meditators. In the short run, these race-based groups may be a reasonable solution, which may be why some prominent Buddhist leaders have endorsed them. But I think the answer, in the longer run, is to address what the broader community is doing – intentionally or unintentionally – that makes people of color feel uncomfortable or unwanted. At the same time, we need to ask people of color why they feel excluded because it is difficult for me to accept that practitioners of meditation and mindfulness would actively seek to exclude anyone. It is not that people who live mindfully are necessarily better people, or are completely free of bias – it is just that I don’t know how anyone can practice meditation and mindfulness and continue to view those around them as “different” from themselves. Perhaps I am naive or too wishful.
I believe these tings because I do not think dividing into groups based on “distinctions” such as race is ultimately consistent with meditation and mindfulness practice. I see unity as a natural outgrowth of living mindfully because I believe that mindfulness means seeing things as they really are – and in “reality,” we are all one, indivisible, connected, inseparable.

Are thinking and meditation incompatible?

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“It’s a very deep misconception that meditation is about making your mind blank, that it involves shutting off or pushing away things so that you can achieve some kind of deeper, more desirable state of clarity and calmness. It’s not that those deeper, more desirable states of clarity and calmness do not exist and cannot be cultivated—they can. But it is a kind of learning that in some ways is akin to falling asleep—although meditation is really about ‘falling awake.’ If you try too hard to sleep, chances are you are not going to fall asleep at all. … I like to describe the mind as being like the surface of the ocean—it’s just in the nature of water to wave. And it is part of the nature of our minds to wave as well. The mind waves virtually all the time. If you try to shut off the waves, it’s a bit like trying to put a glass plate over the ocean to stop it from being as it is. It’s not going to work very well.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Power of Meditation and Prayer

I think I know exactly what Dr. Kabat-Zinn is talking about, from my own experience and from what I have heard from others who have experience both failure and success with meditation. Sometimes my meditation can leave me kind of agitated, rather than calm, if I try to fight the thoughts that arise, to stuff them down or block them out. You know, the moment you determine not to think about something, that’s all you can think about. Likewise, the moment you decide not to think at all, thoughts come streaming in from every direction! Only by accepting that thoughts arise and treating them—and myself—with compassion can I fully benefit from my meditation practice.

Pema Chodron suggests that when you notice your mind thinking thoughts, just say quietly, “Thinking,” and let the thought go. Don’t scold yourself for doing what comes naturally to your mind. I do this sometimes, and when I do I always hear the word “Thinking” in Pema’s voice, which never fails to make me smile. And smiling is the perfect medium for letting thoughts slide away easily and without labeling them as something “bad” or antithetical to proper meditation.

If a thought is persistent, then maybe I ought to pay attention to it. If I am routinely feeling a pain in my tooth, shouldn’t I go to the dentist and have it looked at? The pain may be a signal that there is a physical ailment that requires attention. If a thought keeps popping up during meditation—even when I treat it kindly, imagine Pema saying “Thinking,” and let it go—then perhaps it is something that requires attention. Why not let the thought run its course naturally and see where it leads? Following the thought to its resolution may be the only way to keep it from coming back.

As with most things, expectations play a role in meditation. If we expect to achieve an out-of-body experience, we are likely to be disappointed. If we enter meditation, though, with the expectation that thoughts will arise, with acceptance that thoughts arising is totally normal, then we can more fully benefit from our meditation practice. In my opinion, the goal of meditation is not to experience balance and peace during meditation, but rather to experience balance and peace in our lives away from the cushion. Accept that your mind may be noisy sometimes during meditation and you are more likely to reap the benefits of meditation—a life that is more mindful, peaceful and, yes, less noisy.

Pictures and Words

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As you may know, the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook started out as a way to make people aware of this blog if they were interested in reading it. But then it took over and largely supplanted this blog, and as of this writing there are more than 53,000 people who have liked the page. So I’ve turned my attention more and more toward content intended primarily for those people, mostly shorter thoughts, quotations, and shared articles, with only occasional forays into longer blog pieces. The pictures and quotations cover the same topics I have been focusing on here, Twitter, Facebook, and iTunes podcasts: mindfulness, meditation, compassion, peace, love.

I noticed that photographs with quotations are very popular on Facebook, and tend to get shared around quite a bit. I have been trying my hand at making my own, using my photographs and my own thoughts, and they seem to have gone over well. I thought that I would offer a slideshow of some of the initial efforts here in the blog. I would welcome your feedback and suggestions about doing more of these in the future.

Peace and love be yours.

Is there a right way to meditate?

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A few days ago I posted a humorous picture to the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook that generated some surprising comments from the denizens of our virtual community.

The picture contrasted how the friends, parents, and coworkers of the person depicted envision him when he’s meditating—sitting serenely in lotus position, hands upturned and resting gently on his knees, back straight, eyes closed—with how he “really” is when meditating—checking his watch to see how much longer he has to meditate.

Man, I could relate. I commented that that’s the reason I don’t wear a watch while meditating, and why I put my meditation timer somewhere I can hear it, but not see it. Sometimes the temptation to check the time fills my brain and distracts me, disrupting the flow of my meditation. I need a timer because I usually have a finite amount of time to meditate on weekdays before getting ready for work or to go to bed. Setting a timer allows me to let go of any concern about how long my meditation is lasting, which in turn allows me to focus on the things that make my meditation practice work for me.

Quite a few people responded with surprise or soft chiding to the fact that I use a timer while meditating. They made quite a few interesting points about the inherent incompatibility of meditation and timekeeping, not to mention the concept of time itself. As always, I very much appreciated their insights and willingness to share their perspectives.

I did not, however, take their comments as criticism, because I firmly believe there is no “right” way to meditate. Certainly, there is a multitude of books, CDs, and DVDs, not to mention full-blown courses, which offer to teach you how to meditate. But if any of them is asserting that their way is the right way, then they’re full of baloney. I think that the most that any of them can assert is that they contain practices that have proven to be beneficial when meditating and which may or may not be practices that will work for you.

Meditation has been a part of my personal spiritual practice for 25 years, during which time I have read, watched, or listened to countless talks on meditation. Over those years I have developed my own style comprising a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. What ties those bits together into a beneficial meditation practice for me is not that they are the “right” meditation habits, but that they are the right habits for me.

My general advice to people interested in starting to meditate is that they just give it a try, but that they check their expectations about what will happen at the door. Just experience it, observe it, and let it happen. This meditation without expectation can be hard to do because we’ve been raised to believe that “real” meditation or “good” meditation is some kind of ecstatic experience. Sometimes it is, but often it is not. Thus, when we give meditation a try and fail to encounter ecstasy, we feel let down and think that we must be doing something wrong. I’d hazard a guess that the sense that we don’t know what we’re doing is probably responsible for more people giving up on meditation than any other cause.

There are three things that I think are most conducive to a beneficial meditation practice—or which have been helpful to my practice, at least, and may be useful for others to consider. First, it helps when meditation is a priority. If meditation is something you try to squeeze in on the fly, it is hard to make it a healthy habit. Pick a time of the day that is your “meditation time.” If you live with others, let them know that this is your meditation time so that they respect your need for quiet and don’t interrupt you. Try to pick a time when you are wide-awake and can focus on your meditation. My favorite time is after I wake up in the morning, but some people can’t function until that first cup of coffee. What is important is that the time you pick is a good time for you. Setting aside a time of your choosing hallows that moment for you, dedicates it to your meditation.

How long should you meditate for? As long as you want. I firmly believe that even just 5 minutes of meditation a day can make a world of difference for anyone. Maybe just 5 minutes is a good starting point; with time, you may lengthen your meditation period. Whatever works best for you.

Second, it helps to have a special meditation space. I find that I can meditate in many different places, with different levels of ambient noise. But my most satisfying meditation happens in my meditation space, in a small alcove in the loft above my bedroom. It’s kind of like a little shrine room, with a small table holding candles, an incense box, a statue of the Buddha, a picture of the Dalai Lama, and other things that help to make that space feel special to me. Dedicating and decorating a meditation space hallows it for you, just like giving meditation its own time. Sitting on my meditation cushions in that space feels like my home within my home.

Third, it helps to feel comfortable. And only you can decide what is comfortable for you. I have tried numerous meditation styles that come with detailed instructions about your posture, the position of your head, the placement of your hands, the way you cross your legs, and so on. But I sometimes found that I was concentrating more on whether I was in the “right” position, rather than on my breathing and the meditation. That is not meant as a slight to any of those meditation practices—if they work (and clearly they do for many, many people), then more power to them!

Find the position that works best for you through trial and error. Don’t worry about fidgeting (unless you’re meditating with others, in which case it could be disturbing)—feel free to keep shifting around until you find the position that allows you to relax and flow into your meditation. Sitting with legs crossed or hanging from a chair, kneeling, prostrating, standing—they’re all good, if they feel good to you. Same goes for your head and neck (straight up, slightly tilted, hanging down), mouth (open, open slightly, closed), eyes (open, closed), arms (at your sides, hands in your lap, hands resting gently on your knees), and so on. It even extends to what you’re wearing—I find loose-fitting clothes to be most comfortable, but to each his or her own.

That’s it; not exactly earth-shattering, is it? Hallowing a time and space for meditation and making sure you are comfortable when you practice hardly seem like rocket science. Because they’re not; they’re very simple things. Simple things are often quite powerful, though. It has taken me the better part of 25 years of practice to figure that out. Perhaps I’m not the faster learner. Or maybe I couldn’t imagine that meditation could, in fact, be easy. If it has been hard for me, it is because I made it hard. Because I thought that meditation was something mystical or superhuman, it became unattainable. It wasn’t until I learned that meditation is actually commonplace, and very human, that it started to be easy.

I Didn’t Seek It, But I’ll Take It

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About a year ago I began this blog as one way to actively think about the path I was walking. For over 40 years I had walked a spiritually fulfilling path as a Christian, until realizing a couple of years ago that, somewhere along the line, I had stopped being a Christian and had become a Buddhist. Now I was walking an even more spiritually fulfilling path, though one far less familiar to me.

A lot of questions presented themselves to me and it seemed at times like I was feeling my way around in the dark. So I started blogging as part of my attempt to seek answers. It also occurred to me that I was probably not the only person seeking to answer those same questions. There might be a few people out there who would benefit from reading what I’m thinking, and it would be great to connect with those people and walk the path together.

Not long afterwards, I decided to create a page on Facebook with the same name, Dharma Beginner, as an extension of the blog and, primarily, to publicize its availability. My intention had been to post notices when new material was available on the blog, and perhaps the occasional quotation or link to a relevant online article. What happened next was wholly unexpected.

As of today, the Dharma Beginner page has 18,592 likes. That’s roughly 18,500 more likes that I would have predicted. So, an error of just 20109 percent, or slightly better than the accuracy of my NCAA basketball bracket.

This was not what I bargained for. This page has taken on a life of its own. In fact, I have been blogging only about once a month on average, but I am posting just about every day on the Facebook page. The regular visitors to the page seem to enjoy my blog but are obviously returning for other reasons given the infrequency of my blogging.

The regular visitors formed a beautiful little community right under my nose and without me noticing at first. Our virtual sangha, as I like to call it, has the same cast of characters as any in-person community. There are the gurus, as I think of them, the really experienced and knowledgeable people who can always be counted on to offer the perfectly apt quotation or to answer a baffling question. Thank goodness someone at the page knows something, because it’s not me!

There are the wallflowers who keep coming back but lurk in the corners, soaking up the experience while they shyly remain silent except for the occasional peep. Keep coming guys and gals and don’t feel pressured to speak up if you don’t want to. Just be there, because I love knowing that the page feeds you.

There are the hurt, those whose past experiences with organized religion have left them scarred and hypersensitive. My heart breaks for them and my compassion kicks into overdrive. I hope that they find some solace when they visit the page and are helped to recognize that happiness is within their grasp.

There are the debaters, ready to pounce on a point and beat it to a bloody pulp. I don’t know what I’d do without them, because they remind me that mine is not the only point of view and, quite often, their knowledge and passion puts me back in my place.

What there are, more than anything, are myriad people grateful for what they find at the page—which is amazing to me because I feel grateful for their presence. I am enriched by their many different voices and their common search for peace and happiness. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without them.

And this brought me up short recently. It began to dawn on me that I had a responsibility to the visitors to the page. I had been continuing my very low-key, minimally-responsible approach, posting the occasional quotation or article. But what happens when I go away, or simply am too busy to post? It doesn’t go unnoticed. People get worried about me. More importantly, people come looking for inspiration, a good word or two, encouragement, and see nothing new. I have given them a reason to expect such things, and sometimes I don’t deliver. Maybe they go away disappointed and never come back. Gosh, I hope not.

It occurs to me that, even though I can’t see the members of this community, it is a community nonetheless. One that I created and, therefore, am responsible for and to. If taking the Bodhisattva vows means that I have dedicated my life to aiding others in their search for enlightenment (and it does), then this is clearly one of the ways I have chosen to do so. Do I feel like I am upholding my vow in this regard? Not so much.

The issue has to do with much more than providing for new posts while I’m away on business or vacation, though. It has to do with taking risks, putting myself out there, and opening myself up to whatever may come. Just posting quotations and links to articles incurs very little risk. (Though, every time I refer to Chogyam Trungpa or Mother Theresa I set off a maelstrom! Can you say “polarizing individuals”?). My approach has been quite safe from criticism, quite safe from someone disagreeing or saying that I’m flat out wrong, quite safe from steering someone wrong and living with the consequences.

But more and more I find people reaching out for help publicly on the page and directly to me in private. Am I not responsible for helping them find an answer? I believe that, as the creator and maintainer of the page, I am. It is not a responsibility I sought, but I find that I am grateful for it and willing to embrace it.

I once heard one of my personal heroes and mentors, Bishop Walter Dennis, address a group of layreaders—people who read the Bible lessons to the congregation during church services. He emphasized the importance of preparation and taking the task of the layreader seriously by saying, “When you read the lessons, it may be the first time that someone has ever heard the scriptures, or it may be the last time they ever hear them because they will enter heaven before attending church again.” What an awesome responsibility! When it comes to this Facebook page, is it really any different? It could be the first time a visitor has ever read the Dharma or it could be the last time. Do I not owe it to them to provide something worthy of such occasions? I believe I do.

The denizens of Dharma Beginner may have noticed recently that my offering of quotations has come with some additional thoughts attached. That is me putting myself out there, expressing what the quotation says to me. That is me taking a little risk by exposing what I know and—more often—what I don’t know, opening myself up to disagreement, to the possibility that I will offend, to the chance that someone will read what I wrote and “unlike” the page, never to return. That would pain me indescribably, but I believe the potential gain, for the visitors and for me, to be far greater.

For a time now, I have been talking with my therapist about feeling called to do something different with my life, to set aside what I do now professionally in order to pursue a career helping other people spiritually. It’s a scary proposition: I’m very good at what I do now (as a researcher and author on government finance), I’m respected and well-known nationally within my particular industry, and I make a decent living. I have no idea if I’d be any good at being an author and speaker on spiritual matters, or whether I could support myself and my family doing so. So I’ve decided to take a small step in that direction, a toe dipped in the water, and the Dharma Beginner page is the base of operations from which I’m going to start doing that. I’ve been using the Twitter account associated with the page (@dharmabeginner) more often. I’m thinking about writing some things to submit to other web pages and magazines. I hope you’ll stick with me and continue to lend me your thoughts and opinions and support and friendship. Because it means so very much to me, and because I am so very grateful for it. Thank you.

Happy Lent!

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Happy Lent!

Granted, it’s not the happiest of times in the Christian calendar. The Lenten tunes in the Episcopal hymnal are singularly dirge-like. “Forty days and forty nights, thou wast fasting in the wild…” Zzzzzzzzzz…

But growing up, I learned to actually “celebrate” the season, much as I would celebrate Christmas or Easter, though with obviously different undertones. Whereas one might celebrate the latter two seasons joyously, Lent is perhaps more appropriate celebrated quietly, piously. It is a time, nonetheless, for celebrating life and the divine spark that inhabits it. There are different aspects of our spirituality, of our relationship with our higher power, but all are worthy of being celebrated and experienced to their fullest.

I was taught that, when giving something up for Lent, one should choose something that is truly a sacrifice. For instance, I would never have the slightest problem giving up cauliflower. Giving up sweets or television, though, truly felt sacrificial (at least from my admittedly middle-class, suburban perspective). Eating fish on Fridays felt like the cruelest form of torture (especially if the fish were in a form other than sticks!).

I am grateful for the parish priest who challenged us to make our sacrifice permanent—to consider Lent not a temporary exercise, but the beginning of a lifelong habit. Even more importantly, in my mind, I learned to take something on during Lent, in addition to or instead of giving something up. One might institute a new healthy practice, like walking or meditating, incorporating it into their daily life during Lent and then continuing well beyond Easter morning.

Toward the middle of the Easter Vigil, the church service that takes place on the eve of Easter Sunday, it is traditional for worshippers to ring bells during the singing of the Gloria. It is a part of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, signaling that moment in the proceedings as the transition from Lenten sobriety to Easter gaiety. (Hooray, we can sing “alleluia” again!) It is tempting to view the raucousness of the ringing bells and booming organ as a celebration of the end of dreary Lent but, in fact, it is a celebration of Christ’s victory over death and the beginning of new life.

The notion of Lent as a time to improve upon our spirituality is one that we can seek to emulate, regardless of spiritual or religious affiliation. This is a good time for all of us to consider doing something new, or something more, or something differently, with an eye toward making a permanent change for the better in our lives. Ring your bells, toll out the news that you are rejuvenated and ready to pick up the pace as you walk the spiritual path.