Friday, May 28, 2010

What Happens Next?

So what will happen if you establish a meditation practice?

I don't know. And I don't know if "now" or "later" or "never" is the right choice for you.

I can give you an idea of what meditation practice has been for me. But I am not sure that is a good idea. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is not. I will only say that over time, I have become more calm, and more kind, to others and to myself. I am more accepting of whatever is happening in life. And I am more and more open to the idea that I cannot know what will happen next, and that this is, in fact, an essential part of life's beauty.

But that certainly doesn't happen all at once, or smoothly. It happens in fits and starts, and with ups and downs. Perhaps it is a smooth road for some. It has not been for me, but it has been a rewarding one, and I trust that it will continue to be. In many senses, I feel like I am only beginning, after 14 years.

Meditation is the ultimate personal journey. Generally, there will be meditations that you call "good" that are peaceful and relaxing, and those that are "bad" where a painful experience comes up or you can barely sit still. Consider that you may not be best situated to determine whether something is good or bad. Consider that something is happening because on some level, it needs to happen. That it is part of your journey, part of your unfolding. And do your best to honor everything that happens when you sit (and when you are "off the cushion," too).

Wherever we may have been, whatever has happened to us in life, each moment presents new choices. May we honor the choices that we and others make.

Good luck to you. Let me know what happens!


Thursday, May 27, 2010

When and Where?

The best time to meditate is whenever you can.

There are all kinds of theories about what time of day is best, and even which direction you should be facing, but the best time is the time that works for you. The time that you can fit in every day. Because you are trying to establish this as a habit, it is better if you do it at the same time each day if possible. You want to remove choices whenever you can.

You will likely want to do it the same place, too. There are those who think you need some kind of shrine or dedicated personal space for meditation. Again, this is a personal choice. If you think it will make you more likely to meditate, then do it. Be cautious, though--the need to find or design the right space can be a delay tactic.

The most important thing is to start. You can worry about the right space later. And you can always try different times to see what works best.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sticking with It

The hardest part about starting and maintaining a meditation practice is that many people just do not want to sit still.

We are used to moving. We all have things that we need to do in our conditioned lives, and you can be sure that as soon as you sit down to meditate, a hundred other things you could be doing will pop into your head. And every one of them will seem much more important than sitting quietly for a few minutes.

No matter what position you sit in, you will get the urge to move. You might itch, or you will notice tension somewhere and you will want to shift or move. Don't worry about this too much. You aren't a bad person if you scratch or shift your legs.

You will also begin to notice how incredibly busy your mind is. You might think that it is the meditation that is causing this, but it is more likely that given the lack of other stimuli, you are just now noticing this in a way that you haven't before.

There are a few tricks to sticking with meditation. First, start slow. Don't do it so long that you want to run from the room when you're done, or else you will never do it again. Find a length of time where you feel a bit challenged, but also relaxed and refreshed when you're done. Five minutes is great. Ten or fifteen minutes might be more appropriate if you already have a yoga or martial arts practice. Like everything in meditation, it is up to you.

Another useful idea is to use some kind of support in your practice. What I mean by that is giving your mind something to do while you sit. Some might repeat a word or a mantra--"love" or "om." My favorite is counting my breaths, because I feel like I can track my progress.

Breathe in, breathe out, count one. Breathe in, breathe out, count two. Go to ten, then back to one, then back to ten. If you lose count, or if you find yourself at 37 before you notice (yes, this has happened to me), just start over.

Most of all, be kind to yourself. Days 2 through 30 are the hardest. Then it starts to become a habit.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Get with the Beat

Mediation can be difficult, and it can take awhile before you feel like you are making progress. But there are some people that talk about shortcuts, most of which involving things like light machines or CDs that have binaural beats to induce deeper meditative states.

I spent the first five years of my meditative practice frustrated by not being sure what I was doing, or if I was doing it "right." And when I heard about some of these programs, I must admit it piqued my interest enough to try them.

I have now been using some form of binaural beats for nine years, and my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I have worked primarily with the products of two companies. The first is The Monroe Institute, which makes CDs, conducts consciousness research, and has residential retreats. I attended three week-long retreats there, in 2005 and 2006. TMI was really my introduction to serious self inquiry, and I have made great friendships through their programs. I used Hemi-Sync, their technology, for about five years, from 2001 to 2006.

I would say that the Hemi-Sync technology that is offered through TMI is incredibly effective. But the techology that they use at the Faber, VA, retreat center is stronger than what they have been willing to sell for home use. And I found I hit a plateau working with it at home.

Another company is called the Centerpointe Research Institute, out of Portland, Oregon. The founder of Centerpointe is Bill Harris, who says that his Holosync technology can go far deeper than anyone else, including TMI. My experience bears this out. The Centerpointe program has 12 graduated levels, and I am on level 7 right now. As a Hemi-Sync user, I acclimated to the early levels pretty quickly, but it now takes about 8 months to a year to go through a level. I have been using Holosync since 2006.

Bill Harris is a marketing machine, and that approach can turn some folks off. I must say that I'm not all that happy how often I get pitches for other life improvement products from him. But Centerpointe works.

Neither of these programs is cheap, especially compared with some of the knockoffs that are available. But I would recommend either one to someone who is looking for a sense of what meditation feels like, or wants to take their meditation to a deeper level. In essence, these technologies are training wheels, and once the brain "entrains" to them, they are no longer needed.

This has been a departure from the normal format, but it felt important to talk about some of the things that are out there, and that can be helpful in starting, maintaining, and deepening a meditative practice. If you have positive or negative experiences with these or other programs, feel free to post a comment.


Monday, May 24, 2010

More on Meditation

This week's entries are going to be about establishing a meditation practice.

There has been a lot written on meditation, so much that it can be very confusing. There are many methods, and some descriptions make it sound incredibly complicated. But actually it is pretty simple to get started.

I have written about Peter Fenner's recommended practice of just sitting. But that practice, which has virtually no structure to it, can be difficult for some people because of the lack of structure .

At the same time, beginners can worry that one need be able to sit in full lotus position to be able to meditate properly. Of course many beginners and long time meditators sit in chairs or even lie down to meditate. The important thing is that you are comfortable, free of tension, and that you generally stay awake.

Tara Brach, a Buddhist meditation teacher in the Washington, DC, area, has a great primer on meditation on her website. You can reach it here.

I can say without hesitation that beginning a meditation practice has changed my life on all levels. There is nothing that I recommend more.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Stress Relief

We spend much of our waking hours experiencing stress.

Our jobs, our families, our relationships all create obligations and expectations, and often we find that there is too little time to do everything that we think we need to do.

In this environment, it can seem preposterous to ask people to take time from their day to establish a meditative practice. If we are already too busy, where will we find the time?

One way to think about this might be to look at the ways that we spend our time now. Often, we want to escape stress. At the end of the day, we are exhausted. We might sit in front of the television, or eat ice cream, or have a glass of wine, as a way to escape for a moment. But these things all have the effect of delaying our stress rather than reducing it. (And a few glasses of wine might make the next day more stressful, not less.)

In meditation, we simply observe what we are experiencing in each moment. We are not trying to escape anything. We are embracing what is--whether that is blissful feelings of serenity, or frantic thoughts about a meeting we have the next day. In that embrace, we discover that what is actually happening is often not nearly as frightening as what we are thinking about it. We can see each thought and physical sensation as just that, rather than seeing them as defining us.

When we see that thoughts and sensations are creating much of our experience, we also see the beginning of a separation of whatever we see as "me" from those thoughts and sensations. And there is great peace in that. Some have called it the ultimate healing.

Can you find ten minutes a day to start healing? Can you give yourself that gift?


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Give Your Self a Break

I am a coach in Peter Fenner's Radiant Mind course, which means that I get to spend one-on-one time with students as they try to figure the course out. Many of the students have been very successful in school, in their profession, and in following the practices of other traditions. They are often expert in figuring out what to do and where to go.

Peter has designed the Radiant Mind course, though, so that there is nothing to figure out. In fact, that is the point of many of the exercises. Participants discover that there is nowhere you need to go, and nothing you need to do, to be in this thing (that is not a thing!) called unconditioned awareness. "If you think you have it figured out," Peter will say, "that's not it." The course is a paradox. It is billed as "experiential," while at the same time Peter insists that unconditioned awareness is not an experience.

There tends to be a lot of confusion. We don't like to be confused, so we tell ourselves stories about what things mean, or about what is going to happen, so that we can be more comfortable. But it can be helpful, whether you are in a Radiant Mind course or not, to explore what it feels like not to know. 

Our minds are always working. We are always trying to get somewhere (whether that is a physical somewhere or not), and when we don't know where we are trying to go it can be very frustrating. But maybe, just for a minute, or five minutes, we can sit with not knowing. With just being.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Just a Thought

This is difficult . . . is just a thought.

I'm struggling . . . is just a thought.

I don't know what to do . . . is just a thought.

What are you without these thoughts?

Or without any thoughts?


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Attack and Defend

At work, or in life generally, there are times when we are in conflict. Often, it is because our agendas conflict. We may want different things, or to do things at different times. And when this happens, it can lead to one person saying that another is wrong, or that another should do something differently.

What does nondual wisdom say about this? It would be nice to say that it provides clear answers, or a list of things to do in response to being attacked. But nondual wisdom is not a system of self defense--it is a system instead to see how permeable the sense of self actually is.

When someone attacks us, our instinct is to defend ourselves. And we can even revisit this in our minds after the fact. Perhaps we do not feel that we defended ourselves well enough. Maybe we think, "I should have said this," or "Next time, I'll say that."

In the nondual way of thinking, though, we are open to anything that is happening. There is no preference for defending or not defending. We see the attack for what it is. We see our urge to defend for what it is. We notice what happens when we say something back, and we notice what happens when we don't. We even notice whether our actions may have contributed to the attack. And, over time, there is a change in how we act, and react, in these situations.

To start with an end in mind, though, is not the point. Instead, we accept whatever is happening, and we open to the feelings that go along with that. Our openness can begin to create a field in which there are fewer attacks, and there is less to defend, but that is not a goal.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Sleepovers and Suffering

This weekend we hosted a sleepover for six eleven year old boys. And I spent a lot of time wanting things to be different.

Turns out that eleven year old boys are loud and energetic and rough. And it really doesn't matter if there is a baby in the next room trying to sleep or if you would like them to be better behaved. It really doesn't matter if I would rather spend a quiet evening with a book.

Reality wins. And in wanting things to be different, I created a lot of suffering for myself.

Yes, our lives can be chaotic and noisy. Can we accept that instead of fighting it? (That doesn't mean that we let the kids set the rules. It does mean that the rules we set are more realistic for eleven year old boys, though.)

Every time I'm with a large group of children I am offered this as a practice. Like any practice, it feels like it is slow going. But for now, this is what is happening.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Big Bang

When we go to retreats, when we meditate, when we engage in any kind of spiritual practice, we can be looking for a couple things.

For some of us, we simply want to be a better person. Whatever that happens to mean. We just want to find a way in the world that is a little bit easier, a little more kind.

Others are looking for "enlightenment." They are looking for the kind of spectacular experiences that they have read about in books. Or maybe they have seen one of the self-proclaimed enlightened teachers who talk of the "dropping of the self" or "stepping outside of time." They imagine it to be the ultimate experience, a sort of new age gift for the person who has everything.

Some people will have that experience, or something like it. The rest of us won't. There is no way to predict who will and who won't. And, perhaps most importantly, there is no way to predict what will happen after such an experience. A single moment of nirvana is only that. Confusion can easily follow clarity, and often does.

Whether we can find a self or not, whether we seem to be in time or outside of it, there is still only this moment. And all we can do is try to do a little better this moment than the one that came before it.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Something to Do

More on the Radiant Mind retreat with Peter Fenner.

Peter often says that the nine month Radiant Mind program, with its three weekends, and private coaching, exercises, and teleconferences in between, is something to do until you realize there is nothing you need to do.

The mind creates projects. We have projects at work, with our relationships and family, and, perhaps the biggest one of all, the one that Peter calls "the enlightenment project."

But that sense of needing to do, or know, is an obstacle to seeing what is already here.

Each time we create a project, we are thinking about a future result, rather than what is happening in this moment. We are taken into our thought stream, into our own imagined future and recreated past.

Peter's exercises redirect us. They point us to that which is beyond doing and not doing. Which is beyond pleasure and pain. Peter calls this working at the result level--where we reside in this space of not knowing where we are.

There is rest and healing here. Our conceptual maps--the mental structures we have built because we think we need them to live our lives--loosen here. But life mysteriously keeps happening. There is doing without a doer to be found.

We spend a lot of time in this space during the Radiant Mind progam. On the one hand, this is the end of the path that the contemplative traditions all refer to. On the other, though, it is only this moment, and there never was a path.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back to It

When you do a retreat, the question always arises of how you bring it back to the real world. How is it that we can bring that calm centered feeling to our often hectic work and personal lives?

There is no trick to this. No easy answer or short cut. But we can notice, as often as possible, where we are without judging any of it.

Peter identifies several obstacles to unconditioned awareness. Among them are our attachment to suffering, our need to know, our need to be doing things, and our need to create meaning. We can test these. We can begin to notice how these obstacles permeate our lives.

How do we feel when they are present? How do we feel when they are less so?

The other thing we can do is find time to engage in a contemplative practice such as just sitting.  When we sit in contemplation, we begin to become aware of our thought patterns, and how thoughts, feelings and sensations arise and fall away. Over time, those things that we think define us tend to loosen a bit. We find a bit more space in our lives.

When we find the beginnings of a space between what is happening and how we react to it, we are well on the way to bringing a broader perspective into our lives. There may not be a process to do it, but, over time, it does happen. We may still panic, or get frustrated, or angry, but those thoughts and feelings can begin to have less urgency.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What is This?

More on the Radiant Mind retreat with Peter Fenner.

Peter spends a lot of time pointing at unconditioned awareness, because it is a state that most people are not familiar with. Unconditioned awareness has a lot of names. Some of the ones that are most useful to me as pointers are "pure" awareness, "contentless" awareness and "just this."

In our daily lives, we are swimming in conditions and objects of awareness. People, places, thoughts, our concepts about how to live--all of these things are objects within our awareness, or conditions that are placed on the space in which we are living.

Unconditioned awareness is awareness itself. That which is witnessing our lives. That which is looking through our eyes. It has no content. No gender. No biography. No limitations.

In fact, it can't even be said to exist. It is beyond being a thing, or not a thing.

Nevertheless, it can be revealing to try to find it. One of my favorite exercises is one Peter calls "What is This, Where is That?" You can try it yourself--it works best when you are doing it with a partner and you both are in a contempative space. The first person says "What is this?" The second person responds--"It's a room, it is consciousness, it's my projection of the world, etc." And then the first person asks "And where is that?" The second person responds again and the first person asks again "And where is that?" And this continues for a few minutes.

Like many of Peter's exercises, this can lead you to a state of deep unknowing. It is what Peter calls an "unfindability inquiry," which is at the heart of many of the direct Buddhist traditions like Madhyamaka, and vipassana (insight) meditation.

This state is one where we don't know where we are, and where we can't even find an individual. We can't say that things could be better or worse, because these terms don't apply in this space. There is no suffering or even the possibility of suffering. This is unconditioned awareness.

And to Peter, this is what the saints and sages have all pointed at. And it has been right here all along.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Let's Begin at the End

The next few posts will be about the Radiant Mind retreat that I just completed with Peter Fenner.

Peter's events are unconventional. There is inquiry in the spirit of Zen, and there is meditation and silence that spontaneously arises. There are occasional exercises. Mostly, though, there is a lack of structure that can be disconcerting for some people. It is difficult to say what is going to happen next.

When we are in a new place, we want to figure things out. Where are we? What is happening? What am I supposed to do?

These are the same kinds of questions that we can ask when we are on a spiritual path. Peter quickly cuts through the notion that there is a path. "Where would we be if we had already arrived at our destination? Let's start there. Let's start where there is no place left to go."

We think we are doing things to get somewhere, but in the end, we are right here. We really can't be anywhere else.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stepping Back

With the new job, I have been spending a lot of time on the road and have been working more hours than usual, too.

There's an adrenaline rush that comes when we are doing new things, or when we are really busy. It keeps us going when we really need to. But there is a limit to that--if we're not careful, we can hit burnout. Not enough sleep, crummy travel food, too much running. It can all catch up.

That's what the week has been like so far, but today I head to the first weekend of my third year of Radiant Mind training with Peter Fenner. This year, I will be part of a team of coaches that work one on one with people to help identify and enter the state of nondual awareness.

More importantly for me right now, it will be a time of rest. Where nothing needs to be done, except just being.

I'll be back with more about the retreat, and the program, next week.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Making the Commitment

Sometimes we do things just because we have committed to doing them.

There is nothing inherently good or bad about this process. But it does let people know that they can rely on us. That if we give our word, it will get done.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it allows us to trust ourselves. If we have a history of delivering on our commitments, then we know we can do it. We also know not to enter into commitments lightly.

It can be useful to look at our promises and see when we have delivered and when we have not. Do the people we have broken promises to treat us differently than those to whom we have kept our word?

What if we never broke a commitment? What would happen then?


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Judgment Day

Great post in Zen Habits.

Our judgments pretty much define our lives. Lots to think about in this post. Enjoy.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Big Rocks

One of my favorite books of all time is still Steven Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". In that book, he talks a lot about time management, which is struggle for a lot of people, including me.

There are times when it just seems we have too much to do. Some of this relates to the promises that we make, and some of it is just the demands of life, and its inconvenient tendency to bunch things together.

One of the images that I always remember from the book is an image of a jar with a bunch of rocks, stones, pebbles, and sand in it. The most important thing you can do, according to Covey, is figure out what your big rocks are. Which things are most important to you? When you fill your jar, you have to start with the big rocks and fill in around them. If you try to fit the big rocks in later, you'll never get past all the gravel and sand.

Today, on of my big rocks is a presentation to the CEO and exective committee of my new employer. And frankly, everything else pales in comparison. Is it the biggest thing in my life? No, not by a longshot. But it is the biggest thing in my life today. Tonight, when I am home with my wife and family, they will be my focus.

Tomorrow, there might be a different big rock. A family event, or a hobby, or another work challenge.

What are your big rocks? Are you finding a way to fit them in the jar?