Unorthodox Meditations

I remember mine. I had found an unlikely paperback at my local drugstore, a book called You Forever by someone named T. Lobsang Rampa. I was only about 13 or 14 years old, and had never run across a Tibetan name before, so it looked unusual to me. But when I opened the book, I was immediately hooked. Read More


Do you remember your first time?

The first time you tried to meditate, I mean. What did you think?

I remember mine. I had found an unlikely paperback at my local drugstore, a book called You Forever by someone named T. Lobsang Rampa. I was only about 13 or 14 years old, and had never run across a Tibetan name before, so it looked unusual to me. But when I opened the book, I was immediately hooked.

The author claimed to be a Tibetan Buddhist who had reincarnated in Great Britain. I didn’t know much back then about Buddhism or reincarnation, so I had no judgments about whether this was likely or not; the thing that grabbed me was that he offered experiments you could actually try!

Okay, I was unsuccessful in my efforts to free my astral body from my physical form, although I got some great relaxation, sometimes leading to power naps. And I was never sure when I squinted the way he said while looking at my hands if I could see the etheric field around them, or was just fuzzing up my vision the way tests at the optician’s sometimes did. But the meditation exercises were something else.

The very first one I tried suggested repeating the word “peace” while mindfully focusing on the in-breath and out-breath. I think I tried it for about 10 minutes that first time, and the effect was startling. When I came out of it, I felt like I had never felt before, as if I had just been somewhere “else,” far, far away. I felt cleansed and refreshed. My mind was clear and focused, with a sense of quiet exhilaration. I didn’t know if he was really from Tibet or not, but I knew right then that meditation was something I had to check out.

reading a bookSeveral years later, when I went away to college, I received my first formal meditation training, in the Zen system of zazen. But those earliest experiences probably account for my lifelong interest in an experimental, unorthodox, do-it-yourself approach to meditation.

So when I started teaching meditation to small groups, first for the clients of a psychotherapist, then later to students in a local spiritual study center, one of my goals was to give people tools they could learn and adapt to suit themselves, and to stress that what I was teaching them was just guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Gradually, I also came to realize that different techniques worked better for some people than for others, depending on temperament, background, and one’s natural approach to learning.

I also realized that I had naturally practiced ways of meditating even before I had found that book in the Marble Pharmacy, though I didn’t know that was what I was doing. A couple of these even turned out to be actual practices in systems half a world away—in Tibet, in fact. I’ve talked about a few of them in this blog before, and I want to present some more now, because I believe they have a particular value for those in recovery.

The fact that these meditations arise naturally in people—I’ve run into or read about many others who tried similar experiments when they were children or teenagers—means that the artificial division between “ordinary life” and “meditation” or “spiritual practice” doesn’t apply. So they can be easier to learn than more formal methods, because they don’t make us as self-conscious, require as much sitting without moving for extended periods of time, or involve remembering anything very complicated. For some who are coming out of addiction and working a recovery program, getting off whatever substance they were using can result in a lot of rattling, uneven emotional energy kicking around in their bodies and minds. A process they can use right away in an easy, natural way, in many cases wherever they happen to be at any given time, involves less tension or struggle and brings more immediate results.

When we sit in meditation, whatever the style, we’re hoping, whether we think about it or not, that something good will carry over into our daily lives. This can happen more easily if what we’re doing is natural and easy to start with.

As far as I can remember, the first time I discovered one of these approaches on my own was with my friend Marty in late elementary school. We would go out into the fields behind his house to where the ground got a little hilly, and lie down in the coarse grass gazing up into the sky, letting every thought pass out of our heads and just watch the changes in the clouds.

That’s it! That’s the whole thing. You put your attention on the clouds (nice, white, puffy cumulus clouds work best) and watch the changes, staying relaxed throughout. Let your body really sink and spread out on the ground, too. It helps deepen relaxation and lets you focus better.

The variation on this is to gaze upward into an empty sky, without clouds, either during the day or night. At night you may see stars, depending on where you live and how much artificial light is nearby; but the idea here is to let your mind and emotions empty out into the vastness of the sky, into the pure blue or black of it.

Only many years later did I find out that both of these “practices,” which we did just for the fun of it, were time-honored Tibetan meditative practices. Who knew?

The beauty of this is that the principle involved can be applied to all kinds of situations and sensory stimuli. If you live somewhere where finding a safe, clean spot in nature to lie down isn’t easy, you can use running water instead. I used to do this with the East River when I lived in midtown Manhattan, although I started it with the outflow from a frog pond behind the barn where I grew up. Water, fire and the movement of air as it reveals itself in things like clouds or leaves are all great objects for meditation. As with the cloud meditation, you just rest your attention gently on the flowing surface of the water and let go of thoughts as they come up. Once you get the hang of it, you can let the knots in your being loosen by letting them flow away with the shifting patterns in the water. (At the ocean, watching the rhythmic movement of the waves and dissolving foam accomplishes the same thing.)

Or you can shift over to playing with sounds, instead, listening to running water instead of watching it. In this case, you close your eyes first, then focus on the sounds of the water. One of the advantages of this one is you can do it at home, just by turning on the tap in the kitchen or bathroom, and letting the water run gently. You don’t even need to leave the house or apartment to find a natural water source, although I find natural water more enjoyable.

This method can be applied to watching or listening to flames dance in a fireplace or bonfire; the movement of fish in a tank; rain falling on the ground or roof or running down your window; or by following the swift, darting movements of a flock of birds or a pile of leaves blown by the wind in the fall. Be inventive and creative: find new ways to bring moments of meditation into your life, and trade stress for peace.

subwayAnother way to cross the bridge between “practice” and “daily life,” one not always talked about, is the use of simple methods that can be engaged in the course of everyday activity, wherever we happen to be. In the mid-2000s I had the good fortune to meet and study briefly with a master of Tantric and Buddhist meditation from France, Daniel Odier. One of the things Daniel teaches is what he calls “micropractices,” starting with awareness of the breath. In his book Desire he writes,

It is much more important to become conscious of the breath many times a day than to attempt to practice for too long at a time. All the “micropractices” of Tantric yoga are done for five, ten, or thirty seconds followed by a conscious return to the habitual manner of living or doing things. This pulling back or withdrawing of attention is crucial, because it allows us not to get lost in automatic activity while believing we are doing our practice.

Daniel suggests trying this exercise between ten and twenty times a day, at random moments whenever you think of it, and gradually increase the number of times—each time only focusing on the breath for short periods. He then says something important than I believe is often overlooked by teachers and students alike:

Little by little, to the degree that this awareness brings me pleasure, I let the number of times I become aware of the breath increase to a hundred times a day and more. Pleasure is an essential element of Tantric practice, because once we find pleasure in presence, we have a natural tendency to return to it. It is thus no longer a practice but a way in which to savor life…. (Italics mine)

This is so important because many of us have unfortunately been taught to think of religious or spiritual practice as a “duty” or something unpleasant that we need to do to “fix” ourselves, to correct whatever is supposedly wrong with us. This is not the orientation in the deeper, more mature teachings of any of the great traditions, but Tantra is especially clear about rejecting the notion that there is something wrong with pleasure, or that pleasure is not an important part of spiritual practice and meditation. If we approach meditation with a spirit of fun and playfulness, experimenting to see what gives us the most pleasure and joy, the whole mindset from religion and physical exercise alike of “no pain, no gain” goes out the window and we receive value right away, as well as seeing it accrue over time. Delayed gratification is a great thing and an important life-skill, but so is the ability to take in deep pleasure this very moment. And there’s no conflict between them.

When I happened to meet Paul McCartney some years back, to my great pleasure we talked about meditation. And he told me a story about having recently reconnected with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who taught him and the other Beatles Transcendental Meditation in India in the late sixties. Paul related how when he had first met the Maharishi, he would always end a group meeting or a conversation by saying, “Enjoy!” It was his keyword, his theme.

Then Paul said that as he and his daughter Stella were saying goodbye to the Maharishi all those years later, just as they were leaving, the Maharishi stopped them, raised a finger, and said, “Enjoy!” Paul passed that on me, and I pass it on now to you. The Maharishi had it right. That’s the essence of meditation.