Opening words: You think what you’ve thought before, and say what you’ve said before.
You do what you’ve done before and experience what you’ve experienced before.
This is NOT the heroic journey.
“I’ve tried meditation and I just can’t do it because I can’t stop my mind. Oh…and another thing…..I can’t sit with my legs crossed…with no back support.” Well…..if meditation were learning to stop or “shut off” the mind, I’m afraid there wouldn’t be any meditators….at least none that I know of. And sitting in the lotus position is not only unnecessary but for most people not even advisable. Sitting in a chair (or a church pew) in a comfortable position is much more useful. And slowing the mental processes is a reachable goal for anyone, and one with some value. Slowing the mind a bit and breathing slowly and deeply can be relaxing, and that’s important. But meditation (at least mindful meditation) is not primarily about relaxing. All forms of meditation are essentially about focusing the attention. In a sense, each one of us is meditating right now. My attention is focused on this talk and yours is focused on me…..unless it isn’t!
Let’s take a moment right now to explore together the objects of focus in our lives. When our eyes are open, we may be focusing on what we see. We may be focused on what we hear. In different circumstances we may be focused on what we smell, taste or feel as sensation in our body. These five senses are our way of gathering information from the world about us. We’re gathering it all the time, but we are seldom aware of the gathering process. It’s like when we drive to Potsdam and wonder how we got there. That happens because we’re unconscious or unaware of our driving…..we do it unconsciously…by habit. So it is with most of our lives. All the way to Potsdam we “see” things that we weren’t aware of seeing. We “hear” things which we were unaware of hearing. We are also “tasting” and “smelling” things and our bodies are “sensing” things. We are actually AWARE of only a very small percentage of our contact with the outside world. Meditation is the process of INTENTIONALLY focusing our attention ON ONE THING AT A TIME. Right this moment, are you aware of the physical sensation produced by your buttocks contacting the pew? Notice that at my suggestion you became aware. Meditation is like THAT. There is all this information all around and inside of us. We meditate to EXPLORE it and our relation to it. Incidentally, one of the more interesting and useful focuses of meditation is eating. Take a peanut butter sandwich. If you’ll close your eyes for just a moment I’ll illustrate. First, notice that even with your eyes shut you can SEE a jar of peanut butter, a piece of bread and a knife. Then FEEL the knife and bread in your hands, HEAR the top of the jar twist off, SMELL the peanut butter and TASTE the sandwich. There….all five senses, each one attended to in turn.
I was first introduced to meditation (as I suspect were some of you) back in the 60s when someone came to town offering an introduction to Transcendental Meditation or TM. I went, watched my breath, calmed down a bit, and was then offered my own personal, secret MANTRA (for a mere $50.) I declined the offer, but did sometimes sit, breath, and relax. Then in 1975 I picked up a best- selling book entitled “The Relaxation Response” by Herbert Benson. He was a Harvard researcher who was doing interesting work with the effects of TM on blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, and their relationship to stress. The notion of stress and its implications for our well -being was just hitting the main stream and meditation and biofeedback were a couple of the key players in trying to combat it. I remember feeling that there was something missing in the connection between stress and meditation, and here’s why; I noticed that, while I could lower my blood pressure and heart rate with relaxation techniques, as soon as I “got off the cushion” and walked back into my “real” life the situations which produced my stress hadn’t changed and I still found them stressful. So…..go and sit….relax…..go back and get stressed again! It was the best I could do, but I suspected there was a larger story. And there is.
The “larger story” had its beginning about 2500 years ago in northern India with the birth of a prince named Siddhartha. To say that he lived a life of privilege would be an understatement. He was handsome, athletic, healthy and intelligent. His parents were so focused on his happiness that they created a life for him which anticipated and provided every imaginable pleasure. He was also shielded from the suffering of others. Sick or dying or even unhappy people were removed from the palace property. All of his appetites were anticipated and satisfied. At 16 he married a beautiful woman and fathered a beautiful child. Then one fateful day he ventured out of his “compound” and into a nearby village where he encountered sickness, old age and death…..human suffering. He also encountered a holy man of whom he inquired about these phenomena. The holy man told him that these are some of the forms of human suffering and suggested that Siddhartha might wish to explore its nature by sitting quietly in meditation. Sometime later, at the age of 29 he left his home and family in the middle of the night, and set out to find the TRUTH about the human condition. He spent the next six years in the company of a few companions whom he met along the way, seeking and finding many wise teachers. One by one they followed each teacher as disciples, ultimately finding each unsatisfactory. Finally, near despair, he separated from his companions and sat underneath a tree and vowed to not get up until he discovered for himself the nature and possible release of human suffering. After 49 days under a Bodhi tree, at the age of 35, he literally WOKE UP to the truth about the human condition of suffering and about its eradication. He understood that our difficulty (our suffering) is the result of our cravings for things of pleasure and resisting things we find painful. That it comes not from the people and events which seem to bring our craving or resistance, but by our thoughts about them. And then He continued to sit, pondering the question of whether to teach what he had learned. He was concerned that humans were so overpowered by ignorance, greed and hatred that they could never recognize the path, which is subtle, deep and hard to grasp. Ultimately, at the urging of a few companions, he decided to begin teaching. Thus began the 45 year career of Siddhartha of the family of Gautama…..The Buddha…the awakened one. And the path he taught is mindfulness.
The details of this story of the formative years of the Buddha are probably every bit as suspect as is the story of another great teacher born 500 years later in Nazareth….and just as irrelevant. Just as with Jesus, the relevance lies not in the man but in the teachings.
So…..What did he teach, and how is it relevant to our lives today? The body of his teachings fills volumes and is incredibly complex and subtle but the foundations of is can be explained rather simply…and that’s what I’m attempting to do this morning.
Mindful meditation…..mindful…..mindfulness. To begin with, let’s just notice that every one of us has a MIND FULL of stuff. Full of thoughts, ideas, beliefs. In fact, our minds are so full of stuff…let’s just call the stuff THOUGHTS…. that we almost never are NOT THINKING! Does it matter what particular thoughts we have? It turns out that not only does it matter which thoughts we are having at any given moment, but that those thoughts actually determine our experience of life. Our thoughts actually CREATE happiness, sadness, peace, anger, restlessness, joy, equanimity….everything.
The first question involves the taking in of information; how do I come to “know” what I “know?” Or do I really know? (Joni Mitchell’s question) We take in information through our 5 senses, but of course our eyes don’t actually “see” any more than our ears “hear” of our nose “smells.” The eyes for example only transmit light rays which mean nothing until the brain processes them and makes “sense” of them by referring to its memory. If something hasn’t been seen before, it has no “meaning.” There’s something there but we don’t know what it is. The game gets interesting (and perhaps a bit unsettling) when we understand that our memories aren’t actually all that reliable. It’s also important to understand that those memories include our STORY about them. In fact, our memories actually ARE A STORY. For example, you could look at anyone here this morning and unless they’re unfamiliar you have opinions about them. In fact you have a STORY about them. And if they’re new to you soon will have one. You may see them as good looking, short, smart, weird, talented, funny, or any combination of qualities that you can think of. Our problems start when we believe this story to be TRUE…….. IT ISN’T! It’s actually a fabrication we’ve made. In fact what we really experience (happiness, anxiety, calf or angry) is the result not of the actual persons and events in our lives, but the result only of our story about those things. This can be difficult to get. If your child for example is sick or in trouble, doesn’t THIS cause your anxiety, fear…suffering? Well…..the Buddha says no. This may or may nor resonate with you, but it IS his teaching. He also goes on to say that nothing in the universe has any INTRINSIC meaning. It only has the meaning we give it with our mind….our thought. Everything which comes into existence goes out of existence….everything that is created disintegrates and everything that is born dies….everything. Plants, animals and people will die. And…..with few exceptions, I don’t get to say when. Buildings, cars and nuclear waste will disintegrate and disappear. Rivers, lakes and oceans will dry up. Planets, stars and galaxies will vanish….in time. EVERYTHING is impermanent. Get over it! When we resist this truth, we suffer.
First of all, mindful meditation is the process the Buddha taught as the path to awakening…..awakening to the deep understanding of the nature of the human being. In essence he’s asking us to sit still, pay attention and DISCOVER FOR OURSELVES THE TRUTH OF WHAT HE TEACHES. Like all great teachers he asks us not to take his word for it….just try the process and see for yourself. Here are some of what he believes we will find.
We take in information through our 5 senses; we see, hear, taste, smell and feel physical sensations. However….and here’s the rub….our eyes do not see, our ears do not hear. Nor do our tongue or nose produce those experiences. The eyes for example only transmit rays of light to parts of the brain, which then attempts to make sense of them. Our brain makes sense (our brain “sees”) with its capacity to remember. In essence what we SEE is our interpretation of a memory. So it is with the other 4 senses as well. What we really sense is a memory. Let’s try something. Close your eyes for just a moment. Can you now draw up an image of your mother or father? Clearly your eyes didn’t “see” this person. Can you also conjure up the same image with your eyes open? Now, can you “hear” the first 4 notes of Beethoven’s Fifth? How about the smell of a rose? The taste of peanut butter? (or chocolate!) Can you “feel “ a hot shower beating on your back? Are these REAL experiences? What makes them real?
There is NO intrinsic reality “out there.” There is only the “reality” produced by our mind…by our thinking. As a matter of fact, mindfulness is frequently described as “the process of becoming familiar with the nature and process of the mind.” Everything I “know” I know only as a STORY made up in my mind. Every person I think I know, I know ONLY by the STORY told in my mind. Every object (food, cars, houses) and every EVENT is essentially EMPTY of any intrinsic reality. It’s only reality is that ascribed it by my THOUGHT. We create problems (we suffer) when we forget that our thoughts are simply constructions of mind and believe them to be TRUE.
Here are a couple of examples. You’re driving to Potsdam and a car goes speeding by you ON YOUR RIGHT. He continues on, swerving as he passes car after car. What are your thoughts? What is your experience? Now suppose you find out later that he was speeding to the CPH to be with his small son who was in the ER from a bad car accident. Does this change your thought? Your experience? Now suppose you’re walking down the street and a familiar acquaintance across the street catches your eye but doesn’t wave…doesn’t even smile. What’s your thought? What are the (experiential) consequences of this thought?
Finally (for this morning) the very SELF I believe myself to be is not intrinsically real. It, just like everything “out there” is a fabrication of my mind. How did that story (fabrication) get there?
Let’s sidestep for a moment and reflect on some facts about our existence which we frequently overlook. Here is a short and incomplete list of some of what makes you ”YOU.” Your parents, and their parents, their belief systems and religious convictions, the country, political system and society where you were born and grew up, the time in history the you were born, your body (color of hair and eyes, height, body type, face, metabolism, emotional tendencies, immune system) your intelligence, your skills and strength, your teachers, your birth religion, your gender and sexual preference and sex drive, your preference for certain foods and drinks,
Now notice that none of these aspects came as a result of your choice….you didn’t CREATE any of them. So just who is this person you call “me?” What’s your real essence? Is there such a thing? Just who the heck do you think you are??
There’s the crux of it….you ARE just who you think you are….or are you?
Before I invite you to experience this form of meditation, are there any questions about what I’ve said so far?
First a word about posture; the lotus position which we see in pictures of meditators is not necessary…in fact, it’s not recommended unless you are comfortable sitting for some time in that way. The most important feature of your seated position is that you’re comfortable. If you sit for longer than say 20 minutes, you may very well develop some discomfort, and that’s a part of the process. So…please sit with your spine erect, without struggling to keep it so Support your back with the back of your bench if you need to, but not so you slouch. Remember, you’re here to WAKE UP….not fall asleep!
Start by taking you attention to your face and consciously softening your forehead, eyes, cheeks, mouth. Soft like a marshmallow, your face relaxes. Now take 4 or 5 long deep breaths…..don’t work at it, just invite your breath to lengthen. If you soften your belly, perhaps you can feel the breath in the area of your diaphragm…now let your breath take its natural rhythm and just let your attention rest on the incoming and outgoing breaths…..notice the point where inhale stops and exhale begins….feel your breath rising and falling in your body….notice your breath as a metaphor for all phenomena….rising and falling….rising into existence and falling out of existence………..now let your attention expand to include physical sensations….can you feel your buttocks against your seat?…can you feel any of your clothing against your skin?….is there any spot on your face where you feel an itch or something else which calls for a scratch? ….if so, sit quietly and observe that whatever you feel shifts subtly as you sit still and observe it….notice that it also rises and falls….can you “feel” your eyes by taking your attention to them?….How about your mouth?….shoulders?….left knee?…………now expand your attention further….can you identify a mental state?….for example do you feel restless?….calm?….any anger?…..equanimity?…..sit with whatever mental state you feel present…..watch it also rise and fall and shift subtly from moment to moment…..finally, let your attention expand to include your thoughts….what thought are you thinking?….breath and watch your thoughts rise and fall…..another thought arising to take the place of the previous thought……….then take your attention back to your breath for a few more breaths and then return your attention to this room.
A couple of final questions;
Can you make the decision to stop breathing? You might want to try right now…the experiment won’t take too long….but you already know what would happen. In fact, you can’t. you can try, if you’ve got the strength of mind you will eventually pass out. Then….and then….contemplate for just a moment….are YOU doing the breathing, or is something BREATHING you? If there is a something, what is its nature?…no answer, just a question, as you notice that even when not aware of breathing or when you sleep, breathing continues.
Can you make the decision to stop thinking? Well….probably not even as long as you can choose to stop breathing. Can you choose to entertain a certain thought? For how long? Soon enough of course your thought process will take off on its own…much like your breath. So….is it YOU thinking….or is something or someone THINKING you? Again…no answer, just a question.
And…..if there IS a “something” that breathes you and thinks you, could it be the same “something that “breathes the day into the night..And back to the day?….that “breathes” the summer into the winter, and back to the summer?….that “breathes each of us into our life, our aging and our death? Could that kind of “breathing be the mysterious power/process which connects us so closely to the seasons, the days and to one another that the mystics refer to when they say…..”WE’RE ALL ONE?”