Last week at our local sangha, affectionately named Be Here Now (BHN), we offered a beginner’s guide to the practice, as part of our regular evening’s format.
Here’s what our format was and what we covered:
- Start: 7:30pm
- Introduction to sitting meditation, 5-10 min (Nicole)
- Guided sitting meditation, 10 min (Amy)
- Intro to walking meditation, 2-3 min (Amy)
- Walking meditation, 10 min
- History of BHN & Introduction to our practice tradition, 5 min (Nicole)
- Secular vs. spiritual practice, 5 min (Nicole)
- Introduce and explain the usage of the Five and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, 5-10 min (Linds)
- Intro to sharing circle (Nicole)
- Open sharing circle
- Closing circle
- End: 8:45pm
My prep notes:
Introduction to Sitting Meditation:
Here in a few minutes, Amy is going to lead us in a guided seated meditation session and offer us some instruction during our sit tonight – but before we do that, I’d like to offer a little bit of instruction on posture for sitting meditation. Here at BHN we like to emphasize physical comfort when we sit and we like to encourage folks to simply sit in any way they feel works for them. And while that is still the case, I’d like to offer some additional guidance for those of us who may be looking to delve more into the development of a sitting meditation practice. If we resonate with the practice of sitting meditation and really want to enfold it into our daily/weekly routine, posture is an important component to address. When we sit in meditation, it’s encouraged that we sit upright and solid but not “at attention.” So we’re looking to find that balance where we can be both upright and relaxed; not stiff or rigid or locked in place. To sit upright, we want to have three points of contact. If we’re sitting on a cushion, that means our sit bones on the zafu (round cushion) and both knees on the zabutan (square mat) – and if our knees don’t touch the mat, then we want to support them with other small pillows or blankets, as we don’t want our knees to hover. If we’re sitting in a chair, that means our sit bones on the chair and both feet flat on the floor – and we want to have our backs not leaning against the chairback. So in both cases, we want to sit on the front 1/3 of our cushion or chair, if we’re physically able. And of course if you need back support then please use it. It’s also important to mention that our cushions and chairs are sans inferiority/superiority complex, so they happily reside together in the sangha. There is no better or less better seating apparatus when it comes to cushions and chairs, they are on the same sitting field. So please don’t get caught in the false view that sitting on a cushion will usher you someplace that a chair cannot.
Our eyes can be open or closed and our hands can be relaxed in our lap or on our knees. If our eyes are closed, we want to try to relax all the muscles around each eye and in our face. If our eyes are open, we can keep our gaze pointing downward, about 2-3 feet in front of us. We want to try to keep our shoulders relaxed and not scrunched up and tight.
Developing proper posture when sitting in meditation supports us in a couple of key ways. When we sit upright, with both solidity and relaxation, it allows our belly to have the space it needs to fully expand and contract, which is necessary in order for us to breathe deeply from our diaphragm. This sort of posturing also helps us to start training the mind to quiet and settle down. It’s much easier to still the body than it is to still the mind. And in order to start working on stilling the mind, we need to cultivate some discipline and support in our physical body. If our body is too loose and too relaxed, our mind will have a much harder time in becoming settled and concentrated. If our posture is lazy, our mind will be lazy too. So we start in our body, developing good posture for meditation, and over time – slowly slowly – our mental chatter will start to settle down.
When we first start sitting in meditation, it’s very common to feel as though our mental chatter actually picks up when we sit down on the cushion. But really what’s happening is that we are creating enough stillness to put on conscious display how active our minds really are. So it’s not that our minds are becoming more active necessarily, it’s simply a matter of noticing it in a way that we’re not used to.
Our root teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (often referred to as Thay, which means teacher in Vietnamese) says that we must learn the correct spirit of sitting. In an interview with what was formally called Shambhala Sun magazine, Thay offered that sitting should be pleasant and that we must learn how to sit without fighting (January 2012). So when we sit, we practice to simply sit and enjoy our sitting 100%. To be gentle and kind with our self in body and mind. If we sit in such a way where it feels like hard, taxing labor, Thay goes so far as to say that we are wasting our time in meditation. He said: the problem isn’t whether to sit or not to sit, but how to sit.
So how do we sit? What are we doing when we’re in meditation? Well, to start, what we are NOT doing is trying to wrestle our mental chattering into submission. And if we have the goal of sitting without the presence of any mental chatter – if we think having zero thoughts is a thing – we’re in trouble, because that’s impossible. We’re human and mental chattering is part of the deal. What we’re looking to do instead during sitting meditation is to redirect our focus and attention onto something else other than the spinnings of our thoughts. So our practice is simple but not at all easy: it’s to notice when our mind is trailing off into the past or future and to gently, with kindness, invite it to reconnect with the sensations of our breathing or the sensations of our body and sensory experience. And when it wanders off again, which it will, we practice to notice and return again. Notice and return, notice and return. This is the practice of sitting meditation. It’s a mental training ground. And it takes practice. It takes ongoing, diligent, continual practice. Our mind is a muscle and the practice of sitting meditation is rather akin to going to the gym to strengthen our physical muscles.
So, now we will segway into practicing all of this together as a sangha (which means spiritual community in Buddhism), and Amy will offer us some guidance along the way.
Introduction to Walking Meditation:
In our tradition, we have a practice called Walking Meditation. And here at BHN, we often describe it as the practice we take off our cushion and into our daily life. Walking meditation involves the same components of sitting meditation but applies them to a movement based activity. So we’re practicing to stay connected with our breathing, to be intentional with how and where we direct our attention, and to walk with ease and joy, without fighting and without really trying to do anything in particular or arrive anywhere in particular. We’re walking simply to practice enjoying our steps right here and now in the present moment. So when we walk, we want to walk with the right spirit – not with heaviness or somberness, but with ease and joy and lightness. And this too is simple but not easy. It takes practice. So, let us now practice together.
History of BHN & Introduction to our Practice Tradition:
For a little bit of background and context, our group here, Be Here Now, AKA the Be Here Now Sangha (again, sangha meaning spiritual community in Buddhism), was started in the fall of 2002 and originally we met at the Missoula Public Library in their free meeting rooms they have there. But we quickly realized that was not a good fit and soon moved in here to the Open Way Mindfulness Center. So, we’ve been meeting every Monday night for over 16 years now. We also have sister sanghas that we are in close connection with. Open Way Sangha meets here every Tuesday night and then we have a sister group called Flowing Mountains in Helena and Open Sky in Kalispell. And we are all rooted in the mindfulness tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh in what is known as the Plum Village tradition, although many people call it the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition. And the Plum Village tradition is an offshoot of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, which arose from the start of the Order of Interbeing in the late 1960’s. So our particular tradition is a new one and relatively speaking quite young. Our tradition is very much focused and centered around cultivating and strengthening sangha, in the spirit of Brotherhood and Sisterhood. Order of Interbeing members (known as OI members), receive a clerical ordination and it’s for those of us who feel called into spiritual leadership and have a deep commitment to the practice, such as myself, and our job as OI members is to build/support/nourish sangha, which is the main job description that Thay has given us. And Linds is soon to become what we call an OI aspirant, meaning that she is on the path of becoming an OI member and receiving ordination. And here in a couple of minutes I’ll turn things over to her to talk a little about the Five Mindfulness Trainings and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and what those are.
Secular vs. Spiritual Practice:
But before I do that, I want to offer a bit more about what mindfulness is, as there can be a wealth of confusion and misunderstanding about it. And I’ll start with what it isn’t. Mindfulness is not about being happy all the time. Mindfulness and happiness are not synonymous terms. Mindfulness is the energy involved in paying attention, on purpose, to something in regards to our present moment experience, without judgement.
This particular tradition that we are rooted in appeals to an array of people. And the two main kinds are those who are interested in mindfulness from a secular perspective and those who are interested in it as a spiritual path. And we have both groups represented here at BHN and we encourage and support both approaches to this practice. While we do enfold many of the traditional aspects of the Plum Village tradition into our format, we also what I refer to as un-Buddhatize our group, so that a wider range of folks feel welcome and comfortable to sit with us, especially those who are more interested in secular mindfulness. So how I view BHN is that we are a mindfulness group based in Buddhism, vs the other way around. And the main practice elements that we choose to leave out involve bowing to the alter, reading from the sutras, and incorporating the chants. And again we do that intentionally in order to make the practice accessible for a wider demographic of people. Personally, I very much enjoy these elements of the practice because for me this is my spiritual home and I resonate with enfolding them into my own practice – and if you are interested in becoming more familiar with these elements, our sister group on Tuesday nights, Open Way, does include these in their format and everyone, as always, is welcome to sit with either/both groups, so please know this is always an option.
(Linds talks about the 5 and the 14 Mindfulness Trainings)
Sharing Circle Introduction (though we ran out of time and didn’t have the chance to cover this section)
With our remaining time left we will open up for our sharing circle, as we usually do here on Monday nights as part of our regular format. And before we do that, I want to talk briefly about what this involves, in relation to our practice tradition. What we call our sharing circle is often referred to as dharma discussion in the Plum Village tradition, and this is an opportunity for us to practice active deep listening and conscious speech. It is a very different way of engaging with people than we are accustomed to. The guidelines involve no cross talking – which means we’re not dialoging or responding to any one person in the circle (which is why we choose not to call it dharma discussion, because the word “discussion” is not an accurate way to describe the intent of this time). So this is not a back and forth sharing, this is a time where we are invited to share from the heart of our experience in a safe and open atmosphere of those committed to practicing deep listening. So when someone is sharing, the rest of us have an opportunity to practice active listening. And if while someone is sharing, we are feeling called to jump in and offer something based on that person’s sharing when they’re finished, we are invited instead to sit with that reactionary impulse and investigate it before we share. When we’re sharing, we’re doing so with the whole sangha – and we’re also sharing from our own experience, practicing to use “I” statements vs. “we” or “you” statements. In order to keep this circle a safe place to share, we also ask that information shared here stays here and that if you wish to approach someone later on about something they shared about that you ask for permission before launching into a dialog, because not everyone wants to share more about what they offered during the circle and we want to be respectful of that.
Bowing is a common practice in our tradition that we enfold into our sharing circle, and here at BHN we also invite other ways to indicate you’d like to share, for those who are not comfortable bowing (such as picking up the talking stick, waving, or jazz handing :). The art of bowing is a big element in the PV tradition and you may have noticed that some of us will bow when we enter and exit the zendo space here and the bell master will bow after inviting the bell to sound and this is an act of intentional acknowledgment and reverence. Developing the art of bowing is not a superficial act or one that we should do simply because others are doing it. We encourage you to pick up this practice if it feels fitting and alive for you to do so, as a way to help support your connection to your self, the present moment, and our personal intention to practice well. So it is in the spirit of invitation, like all aspects of our practice.
For those who might be part of a sangha in the Plum Village tradition, I hope this was helpful :)