I’d like to start this new blog in this New Year by asking you to visualize something. Imagine that you’re entering a meditation hall in a beautiful retreat center in the type of place in nature you love: by the ocean, in the mountains, or the forest; even on the moon, with a breathtaking view of the Earth through enormous windows. It’s our first time together after we’ve all passed through a difficult period, where we’ve been alone more than we wanted and had to struggle with painful feelings and thoughts. But now we’re seeing each other’s faces again, and we see the same thought in everyone’s eyes: we’re all beautiful, and we’re home at last.
Pretty much all of us have had to live virtual lives for the better part of this past year, where sightings of each other have been on a screen or at a safe distance behind a mask, and where touch has been absent or scarce—which, weirdly, means we all hold a powerful experience in common where we may not have had one before.
So welcome back! Welcome to this space, which can be a shared space in which we touch on things we have in common, whether we know it or not. It’s a place where we can touch things that are painful and beautiful, because that’s what meditation and spirituality are all about, and that’s what this space is for. So take your seat, cushion, bench or chair; take a good strong posture with your spine straight but not rigid, relax your shoulders, balance your head, and lower your eyes enough that you can move your attention inside to the virtual space of your heart and mind. Exhale a natural, unforced deep breath and imagine, feel, your cares and troubles leaving you for a while on that breath. Now, let your whole body draw in a natural, full breath, and feel the energy of it flow through every part of you, to your chest and abdomen, to your head and feet. Feel into it and allow yourself to take in the pleasure of it; the simple pleasure of breathing and being alive.
I wanted to ask you to join in this opening meditation exercise so we can all reorient ourselves a little before we start thinking about anything else. And because, if there’s anything the experience of sheltering in place this past year has taught me, it’s “don’t wait.” Go for the good stuff right up front. And the point of this blog is meditation, and the point of meditation is the sheer joy and wonder of being alive, taken in and deeply felt, and the healing that can bring—not details of posture or process or concepts. So let’s start there. Let’s always start there.
I wanted you to find your seat first because “finding your seat” is what I want to talk about in this one. And the first thing I want to say about that is good news: it isn’t hard, and it doesn’t have to take a long time. If you did this exercise just now, maybe you already got a taste of that; or already knew it.
I’d like to lay out a brief, simple roadmap for how you can make that a regular part of your life if that’s something you’re interested in. And I’ll tell you “the secret” right up front: you’re already doing it. Meditation isn’t something you go somewhere else to find or create, like something’s missing: it’s a basic quality present in the body-mind itself. It’s always there. We just need to recognize what it is, then do a few simple things to let it expand and become a larger, more satisfying part of our experience.
There’s a lovely saying in Zen: “Sitting like a mountain.” See that for a moment. See the mountain, sitting there, unmoving, solid, present, undisturbed. Its roots go deep in the earth, out of sight. Its strong foundation, its base, makes it steady and unshakeable. Its sloping sides allow rain and snow and anything else that comes and goes that might trouble it slide off harmlessly. And its majestic crown is high in the clouds, providing a breathtaking view of the world around it from the heights, so you can see everything in perspective.
This is our body, the human body. Our body, which is the same no matter what we look like on the outside, is the mountain when we take our seat in meditation. Our legs folded beneath us are the base. Our trunk balanced on our base rises above; that’s the rest of the mountain, rising to the crown, which is our head.
When you sit in meditation, feel the steadiness and solidity of the mountain. Start there. Inhabit your own body fully—we might say “occupy the body” these days. This is your strong foundation.
This is one of those paradoxes that you find in spiritual matters: the body—the mountain—is the whole thing. Yet, it’s also one part of a whole that’s made up of three things. In meditation, as in all of life, we’re dealing with three main centers: body, heart and mind. Or we could say, physical, emotional, and mental; or moving, feeling, and thinking. It’s all the same, just slightly different ways of looking at it or emphasizing different parts. But the “parts” aren’t separate at all, and our experience in meditation can be that all three are folded into one.
I like to start by talking about the body, though, because so often meditation gets pictured as a mental thing. But our body is the base, the starting point; there’s no meditation without it. It’s also our anchor, the part that grounds our minds and establishes the right foundation for meditation. Without it, the mind tends to fly off to places that are abstract or unreal, and sometimes unhelpful.
So taking a good seat, good posture, isn’t complicated, doesn’t take a lot of time, and it helps us relax, center, focus, and find our breath, which is the link or lifeline between body and mind. The breath is sort of an intranet of the whole human being. Think of the breath as a connecting rope or fiber-optic cable that has the body and physical sensations at one end, and emotions and thoughts at the other, and lets both ends communicate with each other.
The breath is keenly connected to the second major center of the being, which we call the heart, the center of our feelings. When our feelings are upset, our breathing changes and becomes upset as well. And when we feel good, happy or peaceful, our breathing becomes smooth and even. Noticing what our breath is doing is a great way of tuning in to where we’re at in our emotions. And feeling with our attention into the very core of the breath and tracing it down into the belly and beyond is a great way to inhabit our whole body more fully.
Doing this is really valuable, because without it we can get stuck at the surface of our feelings, our reactions to what happen to us and outside us, rather than where our feelings are their deepest and most peaceful. It also smooths out our minds and thoughts and sets the stage for inspiration, problem-solving and creativity to develop.
From a spiritual point of view, our constant feeling reactions to things aren’t entirely ours: irritation, anger, sadness, superficial excitement and the like are just part of the static of the world that happen to us all the time, speed bumps that come and go. If we cling to them too tightly and identify with them too much, we can get stuck in them and they become painful. Paradoxically, one of the ways of dealing with this is by diving further into them rather than avoiding or trying to “fix” them, and discovering the deep pool of finer, more peaceful and powerful feelings beneath them—pure feeling itself, which doesn’t change depending on which way the wind blows.
A lot of the time, we keep our awareness out of our natural, intuitive mind, because we’ve learned to fear its contents, and to fear the unknown: anything that doesn’t fit with what we’ve been taught to believe, or that we think threatens us and who we think we are. So we’ve picked up a habit of avoiding the deeper aspects of ourselves through one or more of three ways: either making ourselves constantly busy with activity; getting caught up in the highs and lows of personal, emotional melodrama; or being absorbed by the constant stream of thinking, analyzing, commenting, and judging everything. All of this is pretty much the opposite of what’s meant by the term ‘Skillful Means’ in Buddhism. And each of these ‘styles of distraction’ relates directly to one of the three main centers of the being—the body, heart, or mind—although each also involves all three, because we are one being, one system.
This brings us to the third and final part of that system, the mind. I put it last partly because so many of us have learned to put it first—to identify ourselves as our thoughts, our self-image and our view of the world. Meditation involves undoing that and learning a new way of checking in with each of the centers, and how to get them to work together more skillfully to our benefit. In fact, a useful tool that meditation can help us develop is recognizing when we’re stuck in one center and need to turn to one of the others to get unstuck. For example, if you’re caught in the hamster wheel of negative or addictive thoughts, gently and deliberately taking attention out of them and tuning in to your feelings or into the body and breath is often effective and teaches us to keep our whole system in balance.
Meditation and mindfulness can help us develop an “early warning system” so we can catch ourselves when our thinking is just starting to go off the rails. We can train ourselves to notice, to feel, the subtle shifts in our bodies, our guts, our breathing, and our perception of the world when our thoughts begin to move toward distortions, addictive patterns and closed loops that don’t serve our wellbeing, happiness or growth. Life itself will show us what we need in the moment—whether to lead with thought, emotion, or action, or some combination—if we’re not afraid to listen carefully to our whole being with balanced attention.
But there is one more essential piece to this picture, and that is the ground in which all three centers exist and from which they emerge. Another way of looking at this is to say it’s our total field of awareness, experienced as a whole all at once, without preference, judgment, analysis, or labeling. In meditation, thinking tends to stop without our intention to “make it” do so; the body gets very still and the breath quiet and peaceful. The sense of time is suspended. All three centers of being align and merge into a single whole, the experience of our ground.
This isn’t something that can be forced. It happens on its own when conditions are right. But in my experience, there are a few things that help to bring about these conditions. These are:
- Setting clear intentions
- Loving yourself and everything within you
- Embracing your body as the ground of meditation
That is, know what you want and affirm it fearlessly (mind); touch everything within you with tenderness, kindness, and compassionate feeling (heart); and root all of it in an open embrace of your body as its natural home, where you sit like a mountain in time and space.
Setting clear intentions all the time, about everything, not just meditation, helps as stay on track in alignment with what we truly want; it’s especially powerful, though, in meditation, because of the extra degree of focus and energy the practice brings to it. And lovingkindness is at the core of every healthy spiritual or psychological practice there is. Our bodies are the vehicles for expression our intentions and our love in the world. In point of literal, scientific fact, our bodies are the world, gotten up from the ground and walking and talking and doing things.
Beginning on February 15th, Soberocity will be hosting a three-part series on meditation that I will be facilitating, which will go in greater depth into these ideas and practices and more. The first session will preview the series and focus on the role of the body in starting to build your meditation practice, including sitting and moving meditation, with some tips for shaking out stuck energy and waking up the system using basic Qigong techniques.
On Monday, February 15th, I will be hosting my first meditation series that provides an overview on the basics of meditation. Part 1 of the series is on February 15th at 7pm EST, Part 2 is on March 1st at 7pm EST, and Part 3 is on March 15th at 7pm EST. I hope to see you there, so we can take our ongoing conversation on meditation to the next level. Peace to you all as we move into this interesting New Year.
TO ALL OF YOU WHO HAVE READ AND ENJOYED MY BLOG:
Thank you so much for all of the kind, thoughtful comments before we were all interrupted by the pandemic. I missed writing it and hearing from you, and I’m glad to be back.
I’m also excited to be able to tell you that I am in the process of launching a whole-life counseling practice of my own, which will pick up on many of the themes I’ve written about here, including my approach to meditation training, but also move beyond that to address peoples’ whole lives within a spiritual context. We will focus on identifying the life-path that is right for you, and your own natural spiritual orientation, by looking carefully at the many clues that your life experience provides. I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks to come, so watch this space!
General Admission is $10
Seniors, Students, and Veterans is $5
The sessions will include the following:
Session 1: Introduction to “Mindfulness and More”; “The Body and Its Ground” (Posture and “taking your seat”; Body-scan meditation; walking meditation; free movement, including lessons from Tai Chi, such as “rooting,” kidney point/”Bubbling Well” and the idea that “the whole body has mind” and what that means).
Monday, Feb. 15, 2021: 7-8PM
Register for Session 1
Session 2: “Pure Feeling: The Heart and Meditation” (the difference between pure feeling and ordinary emotions; how to find pure feeling; “triggers” for more positive and energetic feeling states; the relationship between feeling, body, and mind).
Monday, March 1, 2021: 7-8PM
Register for Session 2
Session 3: “Mind, Presence and Thinking” (Resting in awareness before thoughts; noting thoughts without getting attached; observing the connections between thinking and emotions; moving skillfully between physical sensations, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts; mindful attention and insight).
Monday, March 15, 2021: 7-8PM
Register for Session 3
Each session will relate the aspects of meditation discussed to the context of Recovery and sober living, and talk about the practical benefits of meditation for health, relationships, work, and more.
The series begins on Monday, Feb. 15th and will run from 7-8 p.m. EST. The following sessions will be on 3/1 and 3/15 at the same times. You will need to register for each session if you want to attend all 3.