Mindfulness, Meditation


Back in August when Persephone started school my morning routine changed severely. Instead of being responsible for bundling a toddler off to daycare, suddenly I was seeing wife and daughter on their way. I waved goodbye and then they were gone.

And there I was, with the house to myself, and at least an hour before I needed to leave for work.

What to do?

After a couple weeks I’d exhausted the more obvious possibilities. I realized this would be the perfect opportunity to establish a regular contemplative practice, to fit meditation into my daily routine. This was something I’d been wanting to do for at least a year, since reading Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry and attending the Contemplative Academy.

OK, great idea, but again: What to do? There are many types of meditation. Hmm, well, how about mindfulness meditation? That’s something I’ve heard about repeatedly. Sounds interesting. Maybe I could try it.

I found a short article in Psychology Today, titled “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation” by Karen Kissel Wegela. She made it sound so damned easy.

So I decided to start, just five minutes a day.

I didn’t really know what I was doing. It must have felt good or something because I kept on doing it. In those first few weeks I got some of my most dramatic results. They are hard to describe. The practice seemed to induce an altered state of consciousness, a subtle euphoria, a feeling of mystery. I might say that it evoked a sense of the numinous. After my brief sessions, I tended to want to listen to ambient music rather than my regular eclectic mix, because that seemed to keep the mood better. I also noticed a slight increase in impulse control, and a corresponding negative correlation with alcohol consumption. When I meditated in the morning, as a rule, I seemed to drink less in the evening.

However, as I kept at it, these effects seemed to wear off a bit. The shock of the new practice was over, and my mind was reverting to form. After a time I realized I didn’t even know what “mindfulness” meant. I decided if I wanted to deepen and strengthen my practice I would need to learn more.

I cast about the net looking for resources. They are plentiful, but the diversity of perspectives was a bit confusing. For example, one guy says mindfulness meditation should be limited to five minutes, whereas others talked of sessions lasting for hours.

I needed something deeper than short web articles. I found Mindfulness in Plain English by the Venerable H. Gunaratana Mahathera. It’s a full-length book, available in print but also floating around on the web in various forms.

I read my way through this book slowly over several months. I’d never read anything quite like it — a practical meditation manual. It’s written from a Theravadin Buddhist perspective. I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I gather the Theravada branch claims to be closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. Despite this, or because of it, there was little religious baggage. There was some, however. I’m not sure I buy the talk of enlightenment and liberation and Nibbana. There were also some passages, such as a brief allusion to sign-objects, that I found mystifying. But for the most part the writing is admirably clear, and I found the practical advice very helpful.

My favorite passage:

We are learning here to escape into reality, rather than from it.

According to this author, the ecstasy I sometimes experience is not really the point of the practice. It’s a pleasant side effect, but just like the unpleasant side effects, one should not get distracted. Getting attached to any experience, however pleasurable, is a distraction. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a hedonist like me. But I do see the point.

Let me recount one particular experience I had somewhere along the way. This was several months ago. Like all such experiences it is hard if not impossible to describe. I’m foolish to try, probably. I will have to resort to metaphor because that’s all that I have.

So I’m sitting there, and I seem to become aware of a wind blowing through me, through the house, through the earth, through the entire cosmos. It’s blowing through all of us right now, and has been for our entire lives, through all time, only we don’t ordinarily perceive it. It not only pervades all but gives shape and motion to all.

I guess that’s a classic mystical experience. I find those kind of experiences compelling, but I also understand the need for detachment. If you sit down with a desire for some particular kind of experience, or any particular expectations, you won’t be fully alert and aware to what is actually going on.

There’s a paradox there, of course. We may be drawn to meditation because we perceive we’ll gain some benefit. And there are benefits. But the practice is worth doing for itself with no end in mind, and I suspect it’s more beneficial when it’s approached without anticipation or expectation.

But what do I know?

A truly wonderful thing about my job is that I’m able to explore so many divergent interests. And so it was that I found myself headed to Bryn Mawr College for the Fifth Annual Mindfulness in Education conference. It was a pleasant trip and an interesting experience. (I took some photos.) The conference concluded with a day of silent meditation. I’ve never done anything like that before. On the way home, I wasn’t sure what I’d really gotten out of the conference, but after a few days I realized I’d learned plenty. Sometimes it takes a while.

I’m now able to offer a definition of mindfulness off the cuff. Several definitions, in fact. Mindfulness is paying attention to your attention. Mindfulness is awareness of the present, moment to moment, without judging. Mindfulness can be practiced at any time; formal meditation is just one way to promote it.

I think virtually every human being values and practices mindfulness to some extent. It’s a basic part of being alive. But we also do plenty of things that run counter to mindfulness, sabotaging ourselves and our own best efforts without even realizing it. Formal practice can help us figure stuff like this out, and allows us to cultivate mindfulness in our whole lives.

Footnote: The license attached to Mindfulness in Plain English indicates it may be “freely copied and redistributed.” So I’m taking my first venture into e-book publishing. You can download a copy of the book, reformatted with minor corrections by yours truly, in EPUB format. I’ve not done this before, so if you run into trouble please let me know.

Step into the Light

Equinox Truck

Now we enter that half of the year where the days are longer than the nights.

The equinox came this morning at fourteen minutes past midnight. I have to make an effort not to fixate on that single moment. I was asleep anyhow. Better to extend the celebration. The equilux was last Thursday here in New Orleans. Why not start there?

I got a second equilux this year, as I flew up to Philadelphia. The equilux, that day when sunrise and sunset are most nearly twelve hours apart, varies by latitude. It comes a day later there.

I went to Bryn Mawr College for the fifth Mindfulness in Education conference, which culminated in a full day of (mostly) silent meditation. I’ve never done anything quite like that before.

In retrospect, it was a great way to celebrate the equinox. Mindfulness surely cultivates balance. But I missed my family.

Then I came back home, and kept Persephone home from school Monday, so we could celebrate the equinox together. In addition to baking our weekly bread, we dyed eggs to decorate an “egg tree,” prepared a vernal-themed feast for dinner, and ran to the doctor for the girl’s four-year checkup and vaccinations. The meal was delicious: spring greens with sprouts, quiche, and charoset for desert. I also made black and white cookies, but didn’t get them done until later that night. By the time I finally hit the sack I was quite exhausted. I bit off a little more than I could chew. Not very balanced.

In the spirit of purification, I haven’t had anything to drink since Mardi Gras. (Well, actually since the weekend after Mardi Gras, but really, who’s counting? We had a visit from Ed the Meat Poet and I popped a cork.) I’ve been tapering off the coffee too, down to just a few swallows this morning. I hope to start on some dandelion-chicory root tea later this week. The idea of a seasonal detox session is appealing to me. In the same spirit I’ve even looked into fasting, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that quite yet. I am eating less, but that’s a topic for another post.

And if the spirit of the season can be maintained why not continue until Hellacious Saturday? Or Easter? Or Passover? Or forever?

Six months ago, at the autumnal equinox, I dedicated myself to a full year of discovering or uncovering my religion. This is the halfway mark, the inversion of that time across the mirror of the year. The dark half of the year is behind us for now, the light half ahead. The past six months have been fruitful, but my spirits have often flagged. I haven’t written about that much. The idea was to post less often and to write more thoughtfully, but to remain continually engaged in that process. Instead I’ve lapsed into periods of complete disengagement. Perhaps I need that reflective exercise to maintain a proper perspective.

It’s always a good time to begin again. Looking forward, I feel a buoyancy.

Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry

I recently finished Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry by Arthur Zajonc. Here are a few brief notes.

It’s rare for me to finish a book and immediately think I need to start over at the beginning and read it again. Yet that’s the case here. I found this book engaging and compelling yet increasingly challenging. I’m convinced there is real value here, but I am equally convinced that I have not assimilated it wholly.

Zajonc begins with some persuasive arguments in favor of contemplation, urging us to take (or make) the time for daily practice. He then gives an overview of the path as he sees it. This is given in simple terms so that even people unfamiliar with meditation can follow it. (By way of reference, perhaps I should mention that I have practiced only the simplest sort of breathing meditation, very erratically, for many years.) That accounts for the introduction and the first chapter. The remainder of the book is devoted to examining steps along the path in greater detail. Perhaps it is unavoidable that each chapter is more esoteric than the one before it. It is a credit to Zajonc’s lucid writing style that this never lapses into incomprehensibility, despite the increasing subtlety of the subject matter.

One of the most praiseworthy aspects of this book is the care the author takes to distinguish the essential nature of his subject from various religious traditions. This is a delicate balancing act. Zajonc connects various aspects of meditation to explicitly spiritual perspectives from around the world, including the “usual suspects” such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, but also Native American spirituality and anthroposophism — without ever committing to one of them. Zajonc also notes that religion “has become an obstacle to many.” It is left to the reader to locate his or her practice within a religious context — and a thoroughly secular reading is also possible.

I also appreciated the many connections drawn between contemplation and social justice. King, Mandela and Gandhi are cited repeatedly. Zajonc is a physicist, and we get some Einstein quotations as well. These were amongst my favorites.

I feel compelled to offer some sort of criticism so this review doesn’t seem overly gushing. All I can say is that, from my personal standpoint, Zajonc seems to articulate a very “solar” perspective. I feel that I need something somewhat more “lunar,” if that makes any sense. I’m sorry I can’t express it better than that. I don’t really know what I mean, as it’s just something I intuitively feel. But perhaps that’s just a matter of locating my practice in my proper religious context — once I figure out what that is.

Perhaps most importantly, this book is convincing. I am both persuaded and inspired to incorporate some form of contemplative practice into my daily life. I look forward to reading this book again.