This is the 3rd of an 8-part series of my offering of short mindfulness related practice talks once a week, in order to help support and offer inspiration to fellow mindfulness practitioners.
Note: If when sitting on a cushion your knees do not touch the floor, simply place a small pillow or rolled up blanket underneath the knee(s) for support.
Inspired by a recent talk I watched online from Buddhist teacher and author Susan Piver, I’ve been thinking about how one of the great fruits of cultivating a meditation practice is developing the art of staying.
“Meditation teaches you how to stay with discomfort. What could be more valuable than that? Because basically everything is uncomfortable.”
– Susan Piver
Having a daily sitting meditation practice enables me to hone the art of staying, which enriches my daily life in a multitude of ways. But, staying with what? Ultimately, it comes down to an ability of staying grounded within myself in the present moment. But here are some specific instances that come to mind where the art of staying offers tangible, and practical, benefit:
I nanny part-time for two little boys. Yesterday we were all playing with some sticker boards, each depicting different landscapes with associating reusable stickers to place around them. There were boards and stickers to create an ocean, jungle, safari, farm and a prehistoric themed scene. We were looking at the under water ocean board, filled with a large host of sea life stickers, when I pointed to a small bat and said, light-heartedly, “Hey! What’s that bat doing in the ocean?!” Without missing a beat the oldest one, Finn, who’s soon to turn 3, said, very matter-of-factly, “That’s an ocean bat.” When I inquired further, about this fabled creature I had never heard about, he added that he had seen one in person the day before, in New Jersey. As the stickers were all cartoonish in nature the bat in question had purple ears. Finn then went on to say how bats that were pink lived out of the water but purple ones were most assuredly known as “purple ocean bats.” Not wanting to dissuade his lively imagination I simply smiled and nodded along, enjoying the creative story he had made up on the spot.
I offer this jovial account to help depict one of the fruits that develops as a result of the practice of sitting meditation: learning how to go with the flow. Of course, I’m not suggesting we come up with tall tales in order to make sense of things – in fact, I’d strongly warn against that – but we can learn how to creatively adapt to ever changing circumstances as they unfold, weaving a new story to help us move forward. The practice of sitting meditation can greatly aide us in these efforts.
When boiled down, sitting meditation can be described as a good way to become an observer of life. When we practice meditation we’re learning how to be with ourselves, just as we are, and to observe the nature of our thoughts that drift in and out. That’s why it’s often very challenging to do it. Most of us haven’t learned how to keep good company with our own person. Most of us live in a constant stream of self-judgement and condemnation, especially towards what arises in our mental landscape. When we’re able to develop our powers of observation we gain much needed perspective, which allows us to move through life with more ease.
Perhaps you wonder: Is sitting meditation really that important of a practice to develop? I mean, really, you may be thinking, all I’m doing is, like, sitting there, doing nothing. Well, yes. And no. Classic Zen answer right?
On one hand sitting meditation is a matter of doing nothing in the sense that we’re not involved in something externally active. But on another hand we’re actively engaged with our inner environment and let’s face it, there’s a whole lot going on in there. With such a vibrant, tumbling, churning, cycling, ongoing inner landscape it seems a poorly inadequate sentiment to think that sitting meditation is a matter of doing nothing.
The editor’s summary of a study published in Science magazine in July of 2014 states:
Don’t leave me alone with my thoughts
Nowadays, we enjoy any number of inexpensive and readily accessible stimuli, be they books, videos, or social media. We need never be alone, with no one to talk to and nothing to do. Wilson et al. explored the state of being alone with one’s thoughts and found that it appears to be an unpleasant experience. In fact, many of the people studied, particularly the men, chose to give themselves a mild electric shock rather than be deprived of external sensory stimuli.
The abstract states:
In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.
For more info click here.
A pic I found on a local news outlet website and added Be Here Now to (pic credit on photo).
Starting next week I’ll be teaching a 6-week class series entitled Being Here Now through the adult learning center here in town. I’ve taught a few other similar class series’ through them as well but its been a couple of years since my last session. The description I provided for the class is as follows :
When we learn the art of mindfulness through the cultivation of meditation, relaxation, and joy our lives have the opportunity to become more spacious and at ease. This class will be focusing on the practice of sitting meditation, watering seeds of joy within ourselves, and learning how to rest our bodies and minds through the process of guided relaxation. No experience necessary, great for beginners. This is a non-faith based approach to living more happily and mindfully in the present moment, all are welcome. A variety of cushions, benches, and chairs will be provided.
Since it turns out that in the span of 5 days I’ll be giving a talk for Unity Church’s interfaith day of prayer service, performing in a poetry slam (this Friday! Gulp!), starting my class series, and giving a teaching talk at my local sangha I’m especially finding the need to write out my preparations for these speaking engagements in order to keep them all organized. So, once again in line with two of my most recent posts, this one is to help me sort through what to cover in my first class.
At our weekly Be Here Now Sangha we’ve been reading a book by Ethan Nichtern entitled One City, A Declaration of Interdependence. Last week we read a section where he posed a question, in his hip satirical-esque fashion, many meditation students and practitioners ask: How does sitting on my ass help the world?
As I’ve found that answering mindfulness related questions is a great tool to help me hone in my teaching (and writing) muscles and find my own voice I tucked away the question in a small mental pocket to address later. How does sitting meditation change the world? Is that the “point”? Why do I sit?
Sitting meditation is one of the most important things I do with my time. It enables me to develop and strengthen my foundation of stillness, solidity, balance, attention, and concentration so that I am better equipped to move through the world with joy, ease, and resilience. Sitting meditation can help us cultivate spaciousness, learn how to slow down, and receive training in the wisdom of adaptation – it’s a practice of learning how to be in and of this world, one impermanent moment at a time.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is often referred to as Thay (pronounced Tie) by his students. Thay means teacher in Vietnamese. Searching for a magazine earlier in the week to bring with me to read on my lunch break at work I came across an old edition of Shambhala Sun from January of 2012 featuring Thay on the cover. It in there’s an interview with Thay and a personal account from the magazine’s deputy editor on having attended one of Thay’s large retreats. As I re-read the interview I was reminded once again of how much I appreciate Thay and his teachings and how grateful I am to be one of his students.
A word for word transcription from the magazine interview with Thay by Andrea Miller of Shambhala Sun follows here: