Happy New Year and thanks for joining me in reading my blog in 2015. Today I’m going to start a series of posts about meditation. I have a lot to say on this subject and will do so in a number of posts this month and more in the future.
The great blessing of my life is that I’ve been practicing meditation for most of it. I got an early start with meditation, in childhood. Then in my 20s, my path took a major detour for about a decade. Then I got back on track and continue as a life-long meditator.
These days, meditation has gone thoroughly mainstream. Sixty Minutes recently aired a segment with Anderson Cooper learning mindfulness from Jon Kabat Zinn, the professor of medicine who pioneered the teaching of mindfulness-based stress reduction in hospitals and other health centers.
Mindfulness meditation, as a technique stripped of a religious or even spiritual view, is non-threatening to our culture of secular, individual materialism, and thus its popularity has taken off like wild fire in recent years.
I’m all for stress reduction and anything else that quells suffering. I can’t say, though, that I practice meditation for the specific purpose of reducing stress, though it has been shown to have that effect.
Years ago, I met someone who described himself in sentence #1 of his on-line bio as an “accomplished meditator.” I thought this was hilarious and wanted to ask him what exactly he had accomplished. But he had a kind of self-righteous vibe about him and I didn’t want to rile him up, so I didn’t prod.
There’s nothing to “accomplish” with meditation. And ultimately, the punch line is that there’s no separate self there to be doing any accomplishing.
Next week, I’ll trace some of my own history with meditation. But I’m not starting with the auto-biographical here. What’s most important is for each individual to find her and his own way in and through and all around the vastness of what meditation is.
These days, it’s impossible not to be able to find out about meditation. As I’ll write next week, such was not the case in the 1970s, when one had to make a big effort to find resources.
Now, the techniques of meditation are available in countless books and you tube videos, all just waiting for everyone to jump right in. Having real live teachers is optimal, as much about meditation is conveyed silently, as the Zen saying goes, “from one warm hand to another warm hand.”
For cancer patients, or anyone going through a really tough time, it is crucial to find ways to quiet the mind and alleviate anxiety, even a little bit.
Often during such times, people do a crash course in how to meditate. Many of the cancer centers offer training in mindfulness-based stress reduction. It’s simply a major boost to the healing process.
But it may not work for everyone to add something else to their to-do list in the midst of a crisis.
When I was diagnosed and facing the unknowns of treatment, I at least had in my background an established practice in the art of meditation.
In the midst of high anxiety, I could not continue to sit upright each morning to meditate. For me, the best meditation medicine was to practice in the horizontal position, lying down, and using a set of healing sound CDs. (I especially recommend those by Steven Halpern.) Since my mind runs very fast and verbal, I needed to practice in a way that would bring me into deep states of non-verbal rest, and I found that I could do this best by practicing with sound.
This is what I mean by meditation as an art: I had lots of techniques in my tool kit. Intuition and experimentation told me what would be most healing.
Meditation practices are like old friends. I relied, as I still do, on Sufi healing practices I received in the 1970s. I did daily walking meditation, focusing on feeling the soles of my feet on the earth. While walking, I also sang prayers every day as an emotional outlet. I used affirmations and also dwelled in states of absorption with healing colors. I integrated the techniques of mindfulness during various treatments, including even the chemotherapy drip, with the awareness that what was occurring was a purification process. (And, no, I’m not talking about the nonsensical idea that cancer-is-a-gift but, rather, the kind of purification represented by the Hindu Gods Shiva and Kali.)
All the while, I had the sneaking suspicion that what was getting me through the whole f-ing ordeal was not so much a set of dry techniques but rather an openness to divine guidance. Someone once said that prayer is one’s call-out to God and meditation is then listening for God’s response. That’s how it was and is.
Practice is not for a goal of getting a particular result or experience, but – just because.
My current daily practice is quite placid. I get up naturally most days between 4:30 and 5, boil water for my mug of lemon juice and another mug to dissolve my Chinese herbal medicine. I take the two mugs back to the bedroom, wrap myself in a shawl, fold my legs and set my butt down on a well-worn cushion.
No agenda, no goal. I return each time to awareness of the breath. In and out. The breath is my baseline meditation object. It is like a bridge between the unconscious and conscious mind. It is like an anchor into awareness of the stability of the body, and at the same time, it is like an angel’s wing that can take one’s consciousness into a lighter realm. From breath as base line, a meditation may move into a prayer of gratefulness or an asking for guidance, or absorption in a state of shimmering bliss, or, alternately, a deep felt sense of a disturbing emotion. Or, sometimes, the mind just rattles on.
If one were to visit the same spot on the shoreline each day, the waves would one day appear choppy or surging and, another day, barely moving. It’s like that.
All of these words are just efforts to express some of what transpires in the silent, inner worlds.
The art of meditation is available for each and every person, to immerse themselves in, soak in, to the point of becoming utterly drenched. And loving every drop.