Monday, October 26, 2015

Saved by the cushion

As a kid, my mother had taught me yogic meditation with a candle, as she understood it. And we did a lot of yoga, back in the late 70s and early 80s. Then she learned some kind of South Asian meditation practice, and had us repeating “Nam niyoho renge kyo” for a while. That stayed with me as a soothing thing to say when I was stressed (nearly all the time...)

When I went to Japan, I was studying many of the arts associated with the zen and shinto culture: tea ceremony, kyudo, calligraphy, kendo. I became obsessed with an English translation of koans – that brand of thinking felt like home to my atypical brain, much in the way of the works of Lewis Carroll.


Real efforts at meditation started out after college, with Vipassana, following the recorded talks of S. N. Goenka. I was 22 and in England, and my American friend, Clare, wanted to go to do a meditation retreat in Wales. Luckily, for once my lack of self determinism was useful!

For those who don't know it, Vipassana is hard core. 11 days of sitting 11 hours a day, silent retreat... 

But finally I had great food every day, and at that time on the fair isles, it was Vipassana or the Krishnas for edible food...

That much sitting was not fun, and it was the season when the lambs are separated from their mothers, so those Welsh lambs cried. However, the green landscape was heavenly to me, even in March, and I have retained a desire to live there.

Sitting hurt. We started at 4 in the morning, and went to bed at 9? 10? Enough sleep for some, but not for me.

I appreciated the brutal sit or die so much that I did it again five years later, nearish Fresno California.

It was like going to an eye exam, click click click progressively clear lenses applied to my life and my motivations. That first time was really a massive revelation. I tried to sit two hours a day after that, but after each retreat I only managed to keep it up for a few months. The sitting always made me feel more relaxed in social situations afterward, which was huge.

For a decade or so after that second Vipassana retreat, I used to practice Tibetan Buddhist meditation, in the Shambhala lineage

I currently practice Japanese Zen as taught by Sokuzan Robert Brown, student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Kobun Chino Roshi

I sit down on a cushion or a chair, far enough from the wall, which I'm facing, to touch it with an outstretched arm. I sit with my hands just above my knee, in line with the leg. I look at the wall with soft, but not unfocused, eyes, like one has while riding a horse: I know where I'm going, but it would be unnecessary to hone in like a hawk on one point. 

Observe, all of the six (yes, six) senses: hearing, tasting, seeing, smelling, feeling, and thinking, but be careful not to give over to the primacy of the thinking sense. In other words, make sure that the more sensual senses are given more attention, without closing any of the six down. I want to enlarge my awareness of mind, not reduce it. Sit for an hour every day, and for a four hour block once a week – well, okay, that's an aspiration...

My experience in that hour often feels like this: first fifteen minutes – where the hell am I? What am I doing? Next thirty minutes – thinking stuff thinking stuff thinking stuff oh, smell, sound, sight, etc, thinking stuff thinking stuff thinking stuff. Next ten minutes – awareness. This feels good, bucolic, calm, ahh how nice now I've got it. Next fifteen minutes – glower grumble distraction oh yeah other senses I should know what I'm doing now oh well it's over.

* * *

Before I started to meditate I felt like a colossal cracked pinball machine, each ball more the size of a cannon ball. Wham, crash, soorrreeeee! (That last is meant to be the banshee sound of a screamed apology without stopping to check. ) It is possible to be careless of others, a bully even, and still be destroyed knowing that I was the cause of any pain. 

I was haunted, even up to recently, by “bury myself, hit myself, blow myself away” verbal/mental perseverations. I tried to seek comfort, to replace those words with the memorized poems, “Jabberwocky”, “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock”, to go and look at beautiful places, to eat good food and follow around the few people I felt more sense of belonging with.

I couldn't see myself, except as a hateful caricature. The only inner eye I had was a cruel one, and dishonest.

Sound bleak? I had some fun, in my blunt and blind way, but yes, miserable is the right general adjective.

I am so grateful to Clare for dragging me along to Wales, and to all my teachers along the way. You have made this a life.


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