Meditation: What do we actually do?

Meditation: What do we actually do?

Discussion date: Thu, Jan 15, 2015 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening after our meditation we will have the opportunity to share about sitting meditation:

  • What we actually do,
  • Our questions and challenges,
  • What we have learned,
  • How it has helped us.

For me, learning sitting meditation is very much like studying an art, such as painting, or a physical discipline, such as tai chi. Each of these practices calls on us to be fully present, with our minds, bodies, and spirits. In each of these practices, too, although there are many people willing to give us advice, ultimately we have to puzzle it out for ourselves. We have to make sense of how the words of advice relate to our own lived experience.

In my own practice, I have been guided by an explanation I heard from Thich Nhat Hanh fifteen years ago. He counseled that there are basically three ways to meditate and compared them to attending to the mail we receive each day.

Most of the time, sitting is like looking through today’s delivery. In Japanese Soto Zen this form of sitting is known as Shikantaza, “Just sitting.” I am aware of what is present for me right now. Whatever arises, I become aware of it, and let it pass. I use my conscious breathing as an anchor, so as not to get caught in the train of thought that can easily arise once an experience is recognized. We open our awareness to our bodily sensations, feelings, emotions, heart-mind states, mental formations, and objects of mind. The practice of recognizing the in-coming mail especially develops calmness and stability.

A second way of sitting is similar to selecting a letter, opening it, reading it, and reflecting on it. Basically, this is what we are doing during a guided meditation, or during Metta (loving-kindness) meditation. Instead of focusing on whatever might come up, we purposefully direct our attention to specific physical or mental objects.

When I sit by myself and want to look more directly into something, I begin by establishing calm and stability in my body and in my mind. When I have settled myself, I bring up the meditation object (the letter) and hold it in my mind. The object of meditation might be a part of the body that is causing pain (a tension headache), a problematic state of mind (I seem to be a little depressed and I’m not sure why), an issue in my life (a difficulty in a relationship), a memory (the loneliness I experienced as a five-year-old), or a concept (impermanence). I become aware of it and sit with it for a time, aware of my sensations and reactions. I use conscious breathing to steady my mind, and when it drifts, I gently bring it back to the meditation object I have chosen. This practice of maintaining and reflecting on an object especially develops insight into our individual lives and the world we live in.

The third way of sitting occurs on days when regardless of how I intend to meditate that day, there is a strong meditation object pushing its way in. It is as if the doorbell is loudly ringing and there is a letter carrier at the door with an express-mail envelope. Once I realize this is occurring, I figuratively get up, go to the door, get the letter, and open it. Perhaps it is a strong emotion all by itself, such as sadness or fear (or maybe unconstrained joy), or it could be a problem in my life about which I am feeling very upset or preoccupied. In any case, it needs attention and understanding. Rather than trying to ignore it or being angry at it, I embrace it. I sit with it. I calm it. I might gently ask why it has come and what it can tell me.

How is sitting meditation for you?

You are invited to share your experiences with the community this Thursday evening.

You are also invited to attend the special Still Water classes, days of practice, and retreats listed below. Additionally, Dharma Teachers Anh-Houng and Thu Nguyen of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia, will be offering a Mindfulness Workshop on Saturday, January 17th, at the Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Laurel, Maryland.

An excerpt on Meditation’s Three Sources of Energy by Thich Nhat Hanh is below.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

Meditation’s Three Sources of Energy

by Thich Nhat Hanh, from The Energy of Prayer

Meditation produces three sources of energy: mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness is a source of energy that helps us to be aware of what is happening in the present moment—in our body, in our mind, and in our environment. The full term is Right Mindfulness (samyak smrti). What is happening in the present moment in the field of our body, our mind, and our environment is diverse and vast. We cannot possibly recognize all of it in one moment. But we are able to recognize what stands out in relief and that which we need to recognize most of all. When we give our attention to our breathing, and we recognize an in-breath as an in-breath or an out-breath as an out-breath, this is called the practice of mindfulness of breathing. If we give our attention to our steps and can recognize each step that we place on the floor of our house or on the earth, this is called mindfulness of making steps.

If we are angry and we are aware that we are angry, that is called mindfulness of anger. When we are practicing mindfulness of anger, there are two kinds of energy manifesting in us. The first energy is that of anger. The second energy is that of right mindfulness, produced by our mindful meditation. The second energy recognizes and embraces the first energy. If we can practice for five or seven minutes, then the energy of right mindfulness will penetrate the energy of anger and some of the energy of anger will be transformed.

The energy of mindfulness carries with it the energy of concentration. Concentration gives rise to the energy of insight, and insight is able to transform anger into understanding, acceptance, compassion, and reconciliation. In our daily life, our mind has the tendency to think about the past or worry about the future. Our body is present, but our mind is not present. Right mindfulness is the energy that helps us bring our mind back to our body, so that we can be authentically present here and now. If we are present in that way, we can be in touch with what is wonderful in life inside us and around us.

In the spirit of meditation, life is only really present in the here and the now. The Buddha taught, "The past is already gone. The future has not yet come. Life can only be touched in the present moment." When we can be in touch with what is wonderful in the present moment, we are nourished and healed. When our energy of right mindfulness has become solid, we can use it to recognize and embrace our suffering and pain, our anger and hatred, our greed, violence, jealousy, and despair. Then we can transform these things bit by bit. Dwelling peacefully in the present moment can bring about wonderful healing, and we can take ourselves out of the clutches of regret about and attachment to the past, and of our worries and fear about the future.

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jan 15, 2015


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Silver Spring Morning Meditation

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